Three vastly different runners discover the true joy of running on this three-day, three-country sufferfest
“Did we go the wrong way?” Shivering atop a snowy mountain pass in Italy, I seize the unplanned stop for an opportunity to throw on my rain jacket and wind pants over a soggy baselayer and shorts. The snowflakes rapidly increase in size and frequency, dusting the tips of my eyelids. Meanwhile, my mind races to bigger questions: Why am I even here? Just four months earlier, I raced 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) around the track among the best U.S. distance runners in ideal conditions. Now, on Day 3 of a trail run around Mt. Blanc with my friend Jenn Shelton (a world-class mountain runner) and photographer Andrew Burr (a climber whose longest ever run was 6 miles before this) I did my best to decipher how the hell my past running experiences and race tactics would help me now.
Considered a classic long-distance hiking route, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) features 170+ kilometers (105 miles) of alpine terrain, 30,000+ feet of climbing, crosses three international borders (France, Italy, and Switzerland), and offers refugios to house trekkers along the route. Jenn planned to use our expedition as a course tour for someday racing the UTMB, the most competitive and challenging 100-mile race in the world, which requires athletes to qualify at other races to prove that they are worthy of one of the 7,500 entries available. (Due to several high alpine variants and wrong turns we took, we didn't actually end up running the UTMB course. And, she said, "I don't have the foggiest idea of how far we actually ran or how much vert we climbed.")
Regardless of distance or route, our goal was to circumnavigate Mt. Blanc, run to three countries, and have fun along the way. Despite the massive swing in distance from track racing, I jumped at the opportunity to run the TMB because of my ravenous appetite for adventure and natural desire to challenge myself. Plus, there was the added bonus of hydrating with vino along the way. What could go wrong?
On Day 1, we carried bottles of rosé in our packs, cooled off with beers in sunny French villages, and covered 15 miles of mostly flat terrain. We stopped to watch kids practice ski jumps, and with a leisurely pace, arrived at our hut six hours later. I wondered if this TMB thing was going to be too easy.
However, September is a finicky weather window in the region and by Day 2, our surroundings looked nothing like the sweeping valleys and glacial peaks shown in the guidebook. In fact, we spent the remainder of the trip permanently soaked, running on washed-out trails in constant storms. With visibility limited to the few feet of space between each other’s footsteps, we often cheered when anything at all came into sight: cows wearing bells, bombed-out barns, and TMB trekkers who looked at us in horror for running (and wearing shorts) in such horrendous weather.
Completely soaked and shivering in the snowstorm, with no hut in sight, it was obvious we chose the high route—or worse, were lost.
Nothing on our route, expect the square green TMB signs, was small. Rain came down in slashing waves. Mountain passes stood in 5,000+ foot walls. Pie-sized cow shits artfully blended into ankle-deep mud. Enormous white and blue glaciers peeked out of the mashed-potato fog until they became the long thin ribbons of water falling down the steep green valleys. Trails became rushing rapids and our shoes sang squish, splish, squish with each treacherous slippery step. Largest of all, 15,000-foot Mt. Blanc loomed above us as we ran along the narrow, rocky trails. We soaked in our surroundings (literally) while dreaming of the next stop at a warm refugio to devour a mountain of pasta marinara and drink an endless river of rosé before sleeping away our soreness in cramped but warm bunk houses.
Nobody knows where we missed it. The precariously small TMB sign that marked the crux between a direct route to the Bonnatti hut (our Day 3 midway point) or a longer high alpine variant. Completely soaked and shivering in the snowstorm, with no hut in sight, it was obvious we chose the high route—or worse, were lost. For the first time on the TMB, our group disagreed about protocol and made the poor decision to split up. Jenn ran down the trail to seek out the hut, sign, or someone with a dry map.
Meanwhile, Andrew and I sought shelter outside an abandoned barn to change into dry-ish clothes and refuel with sandwiches. I honed competitive instincts, developed in race scenarios to push away discomfort and narrow my focus on the task at hand. A surge of adrenaline put my head back in the game, and I was ready to tackle each wave of shivering and layer of impossibly hard-to-change clothing. (Thanks, numb hands.) Bring it on!
We celebrated with a mountain top dance party, shaking muddy runner bums.
Thankfully there were no losers in this race—Jenn found the Bonnati hut a few miles ahead and ordered a massive bowl of pasta for everyone. Thirty minutes later, Andrew and I arrived, warmer and still hungry enough to devour the mid-run meal. We washed it all down with espressos and devised a game plan to stick together no matter what. Our goal: arrive in Switzerland before dark. Leaving the warm hut felt torturous, but as we descended into a lush green valley, the sun finally peaked out of the clouds and heated my back. I focused on that delicious warmth and pushed away thoughts of the storm clouds ahead. No one spoke during the last climb as we leaned into the steep pass to grit out one more round of suffering. The soles of my feet throbbed with blisters. My back ached from the constant stress of my pack. The grade was so steep that at times we could reach out and touch the ground in front of us. Any attempt to run humbly became a power hike.
Two hours later, with daylight to spare and bodies (mostly) cooperating, we reached the Col Gran Ferret on the border of Italy and Switzerland. I gave Jenn a big hug and we burst into laughter. We celebrated with a mountain top dance party, shaking muddy runner bums in our best impression of hip hop backup dancers, to the soundtrack of the miraculously silent and windless pass.
Running down into the Swiss valley became our victory lap as we splashed in puddles, played with herds of sheep, and rejoiced in our last big day as a team. Andrew and I opted out of the fourth day to respect the painful cries from our lower extremities. Both of his ankles were swollen like elephant feet from the constant pounding and my feet were painfully wrinkled like prunes caused by trench foot. Meanwhile, Jenn ran for 10 more hours before surrendering to the weather and catching a bus back to Chamonix, France. “The conditions were so brutal they tested my eternal optimism,” she said.
We didn’t finish the TMB, but that was never the point. Somehow, despite our widely different running backgrounds and abilities, we pushed through a massive trail sufferfest without killing each other. In fact, we laughed our way through the trip and left Chamonix liking each other more than when we started. Most importantly, we got to test our limits and run wild in the mountains.