This article is part of the Run the Alps Back to Our Roots series, in which we highlight some of the many lesser-known, village-based trail races around the Alps– the ones that don’t get the lavish international media spotlight. Run the Alps staff, guides, ambassadors, and friends all enjoy taking part in these authentic, local events, and we wanted to shine a bit of light on how special they can be! Enjoy.
Another person overtakes me on the searing tarmac snaking through the outskirts of the town. The smattering of spectators are seemingly now clapping out of pity, witnesses to the descent of a man. I’ve been running for just shy of twenty-five minutes and have barely covered five kilometers. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but for me that is not quick. (Editor’s note: George is not being arrogant. Among other accolades, he won the internationally competitive 84 km Transgrancanaria race this year.)
My sweat is sweating.
The next five kilometers pass by in prolonged agony. It is hot… really hot. The course has begun to climb now in earnest, though not yet to the dizzying heights nor the steepness that will come. This knowledge is not a morale boost.
I’m over halfway and have managed to solidify my position… somewhat. I have been passed a couple of times by lizards, or more likely, runners who have paced their efforts better than I have. We have definitely left any semblance of urbanity behind and have been climbing steadily through alpine woodland beside tantalizing streams for a good few kilometers now. The mountains loom behind the cloak of branches. And we are headed to them like moths to a flame.
There is a hell, and this, Georgey-boy, is it.
The false flat as I left a particularly savage gradient has all but ended my resistance. I feel like a polar bear on a rapidly thinning, melting sheet of ice. I don’t want to leave this flat haven, yet if I don’t then this torture may never end.
If I blink rapidly (roughly at a rate of ten blinks a millisecond, since you ask) then I can clear enough sweat out of my retinas to see a shining beacon of hope on the skyline. This is worrying for two reasons, firstly, that beacon of hope looks a lot further away than the “1 km” to go sign that I have just passed, and secondly, there are no other runners that I can see on the very, very faint trail snaking its way along the ridgeline to it. Have I gone the wrong way?
False alarm. That shiny box of hope was in fact the closed-for-the-season-due-to-heavy-scary-sketchy-rockfall Gouter Hut. The hut that I seek is there. Just there. Two hundred meters in front of me and closing… slowly.
The Montée du Nid d’Aigle, a near 20 km uphill-only lung-buster of a trail race, rises 2000m into the sky where the sun melts you and the oxygen in the air deserts you faster than that New Year’s gym-going resolution. It is, as I found, a brute of a race. A glance at the course profile suggests an “easy” opening 10km. A second glance, and some hasty math, would expose the folly of your initial thoughts and lay bare the full agony that will await. That first 10km is easier insomuch as it is relatively flatter. ‘Flatter’ in a race means faster and so you only arrive at the real climbing, the remaining 1400 meters of up, that much sooner.
There is one, single flattish haven, an oasis of the broadly horizontal, just shy of 4 km from the end, but this is the slowly melting iceberg, the dinghy in a vast Pacific, which you must leave in order to find salvation. Salvation being the rather grandiose word I have chosen to describe the Nid d’Aigle refuge, the race’s finish, and the subsequent train journey down to the thicker air of Saint Gervais, where the race started.
Nid d’Aigle is a race on the frontline of the existential battle now raging between commercialism in our sport and the old-school traditionalism of a threatened era. I don’t want this story to become a treatise, or diatribe, favoring one or the other. Suffice to say, however, that we are at or are fast approaching a turning point where the balance will flick between the two and we will have made an irreversible choice. It is happening the world over, from the fell races in England to the mountain runs in the Alps.
The rise of brand interest in off-road running, and the corresponding decline in popularity of classic mountain races, is juxtaposed against the inexorable pull of Chamonix to the detriment, commercially and economically possibly, of “fringe” towns and villages such as Passy or Vallorcine.
This at first “doom and gloom” assessment can be seen as a unique opportunity to reclaim the ascendency and hit trails and trail races that will now be quieter and freer than their fish-bowl neighbors. There is marginal prize money in these races, but to focus on the material earnings of these events is to miss the point, the same as going to Chamonix and running on the track in the center of town.
Picture your perfect European trail running destination. You’ve probably got endless miles of sun-drenched single-track, high mountain huts and cabins, a cheeky tarte au myrtille, and views that rival Ben Hur or Citizen Kane for length and breadth.
If you were to think of your perfect running destination and were then asked to sum it up in a few words, then you’d have words like “solitude,” just you and the towering alps all around, “freedom,” the choice to go wherever you want for as long as you want, or “quiet,” your own personal and private nirvana. All of these are distinctly un-Chamonix. Chamonix in peak season, at any rate.
Want to know a secret? These are all, in varying amounts, accessible just a short hop up or down the valley from that hub, the center of trail running’s universe. Cast off from the jetty in the good ship Variety and get back to one of the “why’s” of trail running: that sense of adventure and exploration. Chamonix won’t be going anywhere, but that solitude, that freedom, that quiet soon will.
This particular summer in the Alps, at least when I was there, was exceedingly hot. I may have alluded to that already, but it’s worth repeating. To borrow and bend the immortal truism, I was the Englishman in the midday heat that not even a mad-dog would follow. Yet, to wring every last drop of adequacy from this canine metaphor, I felt like a dog with six noses, sniffing at the network of sensational trail options leading this way, that way, up, down and across. I was in the Chamonix area, yes, but not in the Chamonix “bubble.” These gorgeous, flowing trails of which I speak are found beyond the gates of “the valley” as locals call it, in and around the lower slopes of Servoz and Passy, in the foothills and then ridgelines of Le Fiz. They were in the secluded valleys dotted around Vallorcine and on to the French-Swiss borderlands.
This is where races like Montée du Nid d’Aigle, and others to be found within the vaults of the excellent Run the Alps Race Finder, still exist. Not only are they fantastic races in their own right, with the real community and real heart that some fizzy drink company or car tire manufacturer wants to sell you that “their” event has, but they become that reason you didn’t realize you needed to leave the nest and discover your own trail Nirvana. They may be just round the corner from where you’ve always been and what you know, but they allow you to look upon an increasingly squeezed landscape with eyes afresh.
There is a slight wildness to them, an unkemptness that, while rough around the edges, has charm and character that is slowly being eroded elsewhere. These races, and the trails that they are on, are the pride of the local community. They are nurtured through generations where the mountain culture and respect of these outdoor spaces are strong and robust. They need and deserve our love and support.
So the next time you are planning a trip to the Alps, maybe pick a race in an area that you have never been to before. Invest your time and energy into a community that will welcome you with open arms. Volunteer at their event. Reap the rewards of your choice on the quiet, excellent trails far from the overcrowded and over-subscribed races in the showcase towns.
Take that gamble. I guarantee you it will pay off.
George Foster is a fell and mountain runner from the north of England with a penchant for a croissant aux amandes. He works as a firefighter and tries to spend all of his free time in the mountains as much as possible, which luckily this career lends itself to well. He’s had the good fortune to run all over the Alps and the US, and plans to do so for as long as his body lets him!
Run the Alps Goes Back to Our Roots
Trail du Vélan: The Friendliest Race in the Alps
Argentrail: A Little Big Race in the Chamonix Valley
Swiss Alps 100 Trail Race: A Proper Ultra Experience
Tags: Trail racing