Sunshine and a cool breeze gave us ideal conditions to explore the French and Swiss Alps. Our team of seven took in the best of Chamonix before hopping a train over to Champéry, Switzerland, where several of us ran the historic Trail des Dent-du-Midi trail race, the oldest race in the Alps.
Our trip started with the Chamonix valley– a trail running Mecca. With miles of trails, it’s hard to choose sometimes! We started with the classics; the Grand Balcon Sud and the Grand Balcon Nord – the big “balconies” on the south and the north sides of the Chamonix valley. Both days offered a quick morning uphill challenge, followed up by speedy downhill at day’s close. In between, we had fantastic trail running on undulating traverses– technical in places– but always with mind-blowing views!
Who came along on this Run the Alps adventure? We had Julie, Mary and Niles, three running buddies from Colorado. Julie and Mary were experienced long distance trail runners, though the “vert” and the technicality of the alpine trails would be a new challenge. Niles was pretty new to trail running and keen to find out what the Alps had to offer. Keith and Tiffany were from California and both very fit, competing in Ironman triathlons. Alpine trails would be new for them, too. Andy hailed from Tennessee and was along on his second Run the Alps trip. Although he had experience running in the Swiss Alps, the flatlands of the Southern US didn’t offer many opportunities for time in big mountains!
The first day, during which we ran the Balcon Sud, won by a nose when it came to the views. We spent all day looking across at the Mont Blanc massif with its jagged peaks, tumbling glaciers and “Le Sommet” itself, presiding over all. The group was mesmerized, and we had many photo stops.
Our biggest challenge? Being torn between gazing at the views or watching your foot placements on the more technical sections. This may have been Niles’ undoing as he took a spill and ended the day winning the “Best Wipe Out” award. We finished with great single-track, the pine needles underfoot making for welcome cushioning as we passed through a beautiful evergreen forest.
The second day on the Balcon Nord wins my vote when it comes to all-around enjoyment. A challenging climb up through the forest led to Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille. The refuge is second to none when it comes to homemade tarts – the best selection I’ve seen in the Alps. The slices are generous, as were the views from our table on the terrace. After our pit-stop, we enjoyed a flowing trail across the mountainside where Keith let loose and effortlessly cruised the wide but rocky alpine trail. An hour later, we arrived at the La Signal lookout above the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice. The biggest glacier of the Mont Blanc massif, our 360-degree view provided a welcome excuse to sit and soak it all in, before tackling the forest trail back to town.
The next morning, we travelled by train from France over to the beautiful village of Champéry, Switzerland. We checked into the charming and quintessentially alpine Art.Boutique.Hotel Beau-Séjour, before donning our running gear and heading off to explore the high pastures just above the village. We took Champéry’s cable car up to access a traversing trail, followed by a gentle descent. Tiffany showed her strength and revelled in the smoother trails we found on the Swiss side of the border.
Some rest followed, as our group anticipated the rigors of race day. Keith had opted for the full 57km Dents-du-Midi trail race, while Mary, Julie and Andy would participate in the two-part relay of the same route – Andy teaming up with Run the Alps founder, Doug, who came into town the next day. Tiffany and Niles, meanwhile, chose the important roles of support crew!
Day four saw us heading out on a short, easy route, with a big day looming. We set out on a reconnaissance of the first section of the race course, which Keith, Julie and Andy would be tackling in pre-dawn darkness. We also saw the last section that Mary and Keith would be running during the home stretch. It was a misty day and the low clouds clinging to the mountainside made for an atmospheric journey. One highlight was crossing the suspension bridge below the huge cliffs of the Dents-du-Midi range near the section called Pas d’Encel, and then discovering more great tarts and coffee at the Cabane de Bonavau. Julie and Keith were quietly confident about the upcoming race, while Andy and Mary casually expressed concern about the amount of vertical, plus a brief technical, exposed passage that included sections of chain bolted to the rock to assist hikers and runners.
That evening the Art.Boutique.Hotel.Beau-Séjour treated us to a carb-loaded pre-race feast, in keeping with the rest of the meals on our trip, which was exceptionally good. Niles seemed to be the team’s food warrior, braving escargots in France and then taking up the challenge of “man versus fondue” in Switzerland – a meat fondue on the first night was surpassed only by a cheese fondue on the last evening! Breakfasts were also a multi-course affair of delicious breads, fruits, cereals and pastries. Our only culinary concern was not eating too much before hitting the trails!
Race day arrived with an early start for Keith, Julie and Andy. Having seen them off at 6am, the rest of our “equipe” enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast, before heading by vehicle to the relay midway point.
The Dents-du-Midi race is the oldest in the Alps. The 2018 edition was the 47th edition and sold out quickly, with over 700 competitors across four events. The atmosphere was lively and convivial in Verossaz as the 57km runners came through and relay members tagged each other. Keith was first in and looked strong. Julie was next to handover, and shortly after Andy came in, handing over to Doug. Andy had taken a tumble on the trail but was pleased with his time and jubilant to have successfully completed his part of the challenge.
After travelling back round to Champéry, the guys cleaned up and headed for a well-earned lunch, while I set out to head around the back of the massif. I wanted to cheer Keith through and also link up with Mary in time to give her moral support through the technical section of the Pas d’Encel. Keith came past looking like he now understood what 3,700 meters of climbing adds to an alpine trail! He finished with Tiffany at his side in a very respectable time. I met up with Mary not long after and although the climbs had been tough, she had a sociable race, chatting with other runners and cheering on those who passed her! She cruised the dreaded rocky section with fixed ropes and chains, then flew down the last 5km to the finish on Champéry’s Rue Village.
Celebratory beers among the crowd at the finish line segued into a celebratory dinner at the hotel. It all topped off a great day and what had been a fabulous week. Over dinner we shared moments of the race and discussed the inevitable highs and the lows. It had been a challenging event, made a bit harder thanks to warm temperatures. All agreed that trail races in the Alps were a breed apart from the ones they’d done back in the U.S.
It was a pleasure for me to be part of this team and to get to know such great folks. I’d like to offer big congrats to Tiffany, who no longer deserved the nickname “Bambi” for her wobbly, tentative descents – she made great progression through the week! Congrats to Keith on his first big trail race. What an event to pick as your first race! I have great respect for Julie, a solid dependable runner, and to Mary and Andy for taking a step into the unknown with the race – and coming out on top! I hope to cross paths with you all in the Alps again soon.