At dinner this weekend (at a hip salad joint), my friend (a machine-learning expert) talked about a conceptual framework for thinking about decisions: exploration versus exploitation. Just add the term “synergy,” and that would be the most California sentence ever written. But the principle is important to think about, because it could help you shift your training paradigm to disrupt the running space.
First, some definitions. “Machine learning” is how computers can understand tasks without being explicitly programmed for them (think recommendation algorithms on Netflix that seem to know you a bit too well). “Reinforcement learning” is a subset of machine learning inspired by behavioral psychology that addresses how actions maximize cumulative rewards. “Exploration” is trying new things, branching out into uncharted territory. “Exploitation” relies on current knowledge to do the same thing that gives some incremental gain. For the full California experience, a “hip salad joint” is where you pay $13 for a bowl of greens, nuts and dried fruit.
What on earth am I talking about? Example time! Imagine an artificial intelligence human program that is trying to learn to walk from scratch. It first finds that by falling on its back, it can do a crab-slide across the virtual room. Score one for the crabman. The crabman could exploit its knowledge—crab-walking around the room like a boss. Or, it could move into uncharted territory in a quest for a more efficient approach. Eventually, it might use exploration to find bipedal locomotion, running circles around the exploiting crab. However, the exploit approach may have accumulated more rewards at first, so its still on its back, wondering why its getting passed now.
Okay, that probably butchered the machine-learning principles. If that’s the case, please forgive me, because I may have a kombucha hangover (brewed with synergy and deep, loving sighs). But all-too-often in running training, it’s easier to be the crab shuffling on the floor than to explore new approaches that could lead to breakthroughs. So if you have stagnated with running, consider exploring these four training ideas to maximize your cumulative running rewards.
Set up a framework for long-term consistency
The total number of runs an athlete does over time is among the most important variables for predicting performance. Consistency is essential because it reinforces neuromuscular, biomechanical and aerobic adaptations that make running easier by reducing the amount of energy it takes to go a given pace (thus, improving running economy). Sometimes, runners focus so much on volume or long runs that they lose sight of frequency, and that could be leaving some big gains on the table.
Work up to running four to six days a week prior to worrying too much about overall volume and intensity. Four or five days works well for runners that are in their first couple years of training, injury prone or over 50. Six days works well for most others. A run doesn’t have to be long, either. Even 20 minutes is plenty, and everyone can spare 20 minutes. You can even say you are going to the “bathroom” and run around the office block during your extra-productive “bathroom” break (just say you went to Chipotle earlier in the day and no one will ask questions).
Consistency requires health, so never run through injuries. But you may find that running more often counter-intuitively makes you less injury prone, letting you explore what your body can do. The body adapts to consistent stimuli, so give it the prod it needs.
Learn to run fast
Imagine a kid playing tag on the playground. What do you see? Probably an effortless, natural form, flowing at a fast pace.
Now imagine a 35-year old runner doing intervals. What do you see? Probably not the same smooth stride, but a herky-jerky, forced effort.
The difference between the fast kid and the forced adult may have to do with running economy. The adult began smooth and effortless, exploring speed, but over time got farther away from running smoothly, with relaxed form, making fast look easy. Essentially, they exploited what they had, rather than developing it further. Bad habits compound so that a few decades later, what was once play is now a chore.
That is why I recommend doing short, relaxed strides (on hills or flats) one to three times a week during runs. Usually, that means 15 to 30 seconds of faster running with one to two minutes of easy running recovery, focused on going the quickest they can without straining. For most, the pace ends up being what they could race for a mile or so—a bit farther for very fit athletes, a bit shorter for less experienced athletes. Those little strides can make a big difference, improving neuromuscular and biomechanical variables essential for running faster for longer. And, at the very least, exploring faster running gives adults some much-needed recess time.
Learn to run slow
As you develop as a runner, it’s easy to fall into lots of same-pace running. But training needs to be polarized to let your body adapt.
The key is to make sure your easy pace is truly easy for your body. At the simplest, you can use the talk test. Can you rap like André 3000 (or Lafayette’s verses from Hamilton) while running easy? Then you got it right. In lieu of Hamilton rap-alongs, you can use a heart rate monitor to calibrate easy pace. Or, you can approximate “easy” using the general guideline of capping it at a good bit slower than marathon effort.
Keeping easy truly easy will let you run more consistently and gradually increase volume (through the “Trial of Miles” approach), which will enhance aerobic adaptations. Plus, you’ll be able to make fast running more efficient, improving running economy and letting your human machine learn to run faster. Finally, you’ll be prepared for 18th century rap battles that could happen at any moment.
Do smart workouts
The goal is not to run hard, it’s to run fast (or to put out more power if on hills). To make fast feel easier, you need to make sure your workouts aren’t so difficult that your form collapses and each interval ends up being a mini-race.
A good general rule is that you should never “go to the well” in a workout without a really good reason. What that means in practice is that each interval should feel sustainable and smooth, like you could keep going at that effort for a bit longer.
For most athletes, it’s helpful to start from the ground up, doing strides before incorporating short intervals, then doing longer tempos. No matter how you do it, the main key is to set yourself up for success by doing workouts that you know you can execute efficiently to build on next time, rather than emphasizing the hard aspect and tearing yourself down.
Michele Dillon is an apt example of all these training (and machine learning) principles put into practice. In October 2017, she was a strong runner, but was leaving some gains on the table by focusing primarily on single-effort trail runs, exploiting the fitness she had. So she shifted to exploring new approaches. She emphasized consistency, running more often, with some runs way shorter than before. She did her first strides and short intervals, breaking out of the emphasis on long hill grinds in the mountains around her home in Boulder, Colorado. Finally, she increased her overall volume after building her body from the ground up. By February 2018, she had set PRs at every distance from the mile to the half marathon in the context of these training runs.
This season, you can make yourself a better machine. Take it to the next level by exploring what you could become, rather than exploiting what you already are.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service,Some Work, All Play.
Winter is still upon us and here at Trail Runner, we’re eyeing the new Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra to get on the snowy trails this weekend. This is our First Look at this burly winter-running accessory.
Trail Crampon Ultra
Made of ultra high-strength stainless steel for durability and weight reduction, the new Trail Crampon Ultra brings the Trail Crampon’s legacy of superb traction performance to those needing to travel faster and lighter. 18 spikes offer aggressive traction on any icy surface and distribute pressure to withstand wear. Welded chains easily endure repeated torque, foot strikes and abuse on ice and snow. Double-sided chains keep a tight grip on shoes to prevent any shifting of the traction device. A larger heel plate gives secure traction and ultra stability for descents and trail-running. Finally, the Trail Crampon Ultra has a Velcro strap that fastens over the top of the foot increasing the stability of the traction system and offering an insanely secure fit.
Through mud, sweat and possible concussions, four Americans ran (or slid) onto the podium at this year’s Tarawera 102K Ultra on New Zealand’s North Island.
The Tarawera 102K Ultra was the second race in the Ultra-Trail World Tour, making it New Zealand’s most prestigious race and attracting elite athletes internationally. In past editions, the course has been lauded as runnable and scenic, but this year brought new challenges on all fronts.
Organizers expanded and changed the event, adding a 100 Mile Endurance Run, and— for the first time since the race’s creation in 2009— reversing the direction of the 102K course. This move, according to returning competitor and 2015 men’s champion Dylan Bowman, significantly ramped up the difficulty from past years by placing the more hilly and technical terrain in the latter half of the race while also increasing the amount of climbing by 246 meters.
The course reversal was nominal in comparison to the havoc wreaked by a tropical storm that saturated the course with mud and continued to waterlog the runners throughout much of the race. Trail conditions slowed competitors through the already technical second half of the course as they were forced to negotiate slippery, exposed roots and slick mud.
“At the beginning when it was cold and wet and raining. I thought, ‘well, at least it’s not snow,’” said Kelly Wolf, 23, of Telluride, Colorado, on iRunFar.com. “Then, about the middle of the race as I was tromping through mud and slipping and sliding all over the place, I thought, ‘I wish I was back in Telluride and just running in snow.’”
Despite the conditions, the women’s race went well for both Wolf and second-place finisher Amanda Basham, 28, of Logan, Utah. Wolf quickly took the lead with two-time Tarawera champion Ruby Muir, 27, from Napier, New Zealand, and maintained her place unchallenged after Muir dropped back before the 41K aid station. Wolf crossed the finish line at 10 hours 8 minutes, and Basham reeled in second place nine minutes later.
In the men’s race, 2015 Tarawera champion Dylan Bowman, 31, of Mill Valley, California, took off fast with Cody Reed, 26, of Flagstaff, Arizona, New Zealander Sam McCutcheon, 29, and Australian Vlad Shatrov, 39. The pack blasted through the initial flat section together until around the 26K mark, where Bowman, Reed and Shatrov shook McCutcheon by about a minute. The trio stayed together for an additional 25K, where unrelenting trail conditions on the already challenging hill climb after Okataina aid station (58K) finally caused the pack to break up as Shatrov fell behind and Bowman took the lead. “The first half of the race was pretty tame,” says Bowman, “but the second half was pretty extreme.”
Bowman’s strength lies in hill climbing at the end of his races, which played to his advantage on this particular course. “The big climb came after 35 miles of running, and for me that’s where I excel,” says Bowman. “I knew that was going to be my opportunity to get some separation.” He was right, but the conditions took a toll on all of the runners. “I fell probably five times,” he admits. “I’m sure everybody took a couple of face plants.”
Other runners did, in fact, end up eating some mud. During that section, Reed was grinding up the slick trail, head down, when “a tree leaned over the trail, reached out, and slammed into my head,” Reed says.
He went down, “face flat, on my belly, lying in the mud, slightly dazed and thinking, ‘Maybe if I have a concussion, I can drop out and make the pain of running this race go away.’” Taking a moment on the ground, he discovered a chipped tooth, but no injury serious enough to justify a DNF.
“I got up, said to myself, ‘must get to aid station,’ and started running again. It had woken me up a bit as well, which was great,” Reed says, “but I recommend caffeine or cold water to the face rather than bashing your head into a tree.” Recovered, he maintained his place, only losing a few minutes on Bowman.
After changing into fresh shoes at the Blue Lake aid station (81K), Reed caught a second wind and was able to close the gap to nine minutes behind Bowman, finishing strong at 8 hours 36 minutes.
In the outdoors world, Denver-based author and blogger Brendan Leonard, 39, of Denver, Colorado, has forged a unique and laugh-out-loud-funny path. His most recent book, 60 Meters to Anywhere, is Leonard’s poignant recounting of a tumultuous transition to adulthood. Recently Leonard, creator of the popular twice-weekly “Semi-Rad” blog, has been delving into film-making as well, with his cultural and outdoor-themed films, Ace and the Desert Dog, Chocolate Spokes and The Time Travelers.
His new film, How to Run 100 Miles, follows Leonard and a friend as they agree to race the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler, a 102.9-mile race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Leonard and his friend wanted a tough race for their first 100-miler, and wanted to run together. The Run Rabbit Run, a relatively young 100-miler with 20,000 feet of elevation gain throughout the course, looked challenging enough.
Leonard and his companion train hard for the race and then … well, you’ll just have to watch The film was released Tuesday, and is available to view here.
We assigned Run Amok columnist Doug Mayer to interview Brendan Leonard about the film. Here’s what went down.
Why this idea for a film?
My friend Jayson (Simes, 38, also of Denver) and I worked our way into ultrarunning over the past two and a half years. We signed up for our first 100-mile race in January, a year ago. I’ve always wanted to tell Jayson’s story because he’s fought through so much adversity in life (dyslexia, broken home, poverty, homelessness, bullying) with relentless positivity. I thought a 100-mile race would be the perfect narrative thread since it’s such a great illustration of his life philosophy, which is basically: persist until you succeed.
Let’s get psychoanalytical. Why do you like challenges?
I don’t know any other way to stay fit besides signing up for something I’m terrified of, so I have to train for it. Or, maybe I feel like if you’re not consistently challenging yourself, you’re not growing and evolving.
Jayson’s high-school guidance counselor told him that, “College isn’t really for people like you.” After Run Rabbit Run, is ultra-racing for people like you?
I’m not fast at these things, but after the Run Rabbit Run, my friend Brody Leven pointed out that I had zero injuries aside from one blister on my pinky toe, and that might be a sign that I’m “made for these things” (his words, not mine). I’m not competitive at all, but I would like to improve on this tendency to get exhausted after about 80 percent of any race and then basically phone it in from there. I’d like to push myself more during those final sections.
You said you don’t even like running. Is that really true?
I prefer sitting down and eating pizza, but running is more fulfilling and better for you. I definitely don’t like it, but I like having done it. I think if I were to be honest, I like running about 10 percent of the time I’m doing it. And I’m happier on the days I do run, but not usually while running.
You must really hate running now.
It’s complicated. But, yes, in the past two years, I have hated running more frequently than any other time in my life, because I have run more miles than any other time in my life.
You logged 1,200 miles training for Run Rabbit Run. What surprised you in that process?
I guess that nothing broke down. I had so much pain and inflammation during training that I thought for sure I’d injure myself before the race started, but nothing serious happened.
What about the filmmaking? That’s a huge project, too—its own ultra, in a way. What surprises did you have in the making of How to Run 100 Miles?
Making the film ended up being more emotionally exhausting than the race. I started shooting footage of us training, and interviews with Jayson, in February 2017, and didn’t finish until January 2018. We had something like 40 hours of footage total, and chopping that down and organizing it into a 28-minute film is a maddening process, especially when it’s your friend’s story and you want to get it absolutely right. Also, I’m on screen a lot, and watching yourself on film is like that thing where you hear your voice recorded and you hate the sound of it, but it’s way worse when it’s your face.
What would you like to say to Fred Abramowitz, the race director Run Rabbit Run? Remember, Trail Runner is a family web site.
The race organizers were awesome. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand the work that goes into putting on an event that a third of the entrants don’t finish. There’s a scene at the finish line in the film where Jayson completely breaks down after gritting it out with a painful injury for 29+ miles that I’ve watched at least 30 times by now, and every time, I watch Fred Abramowitz’s face because it really captures the soul of the event in so many ways.
You interview Meghan Hicks, one of the really thoughtful voices in trail running these days. She says, “Commit to seeing those grievances through.” You saw them through. And there were some serious ones along the way. But which grievance would you most like to punch in the face?
I’m just going to say that I need to figure out a way to prevent chafing of one male body part next time, and you can probably guess what it is. It’s just, you know, at Mile 90, I’m going, “Really? That too?” It seemed a bit much.
Spoiler alert: During the race, you develop the concept of a potato-chip-flavored electrolyte drink. I assume you’ve come to your senses.
I absolutely still love the idea. If anyone from Kettle Chips is reading this, I’d love to chat about a sponsorship. I eat the shit out of those things during long runs.
You point out that Jayson’s whole life has been based on not quitting. Neither of you guys quit. And it looked ugly out there at times. Congratulations.
Thanks. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s making things ugly.
Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, and manages Run the Alps. He hopes one day to do the French voiceover for Brendan Leonard in How to Run 100 Miles.
My friend and I were nearly three hours into a Saturday-morning run through the redwoods in the Oakland hills. We’re both in our 40s, both have two kids and both have spouses who woke up alone sometime after we left our houses in the pre-dawn hours to run.
My friend also happens to be a guy and attractive. We share a mutual admiration for one another as runners, and I didn’t want our feelings toward each other to escalate. I’m conscious of maintaining boundaries with friends because, a decade earlier, I became inappropriately entangled with another married runner, and I vowed never to repeat a mistake that nearly cost me my marriage.
Alone in the wilderness over miles of singletrack, he and I talked enthusiastically about training and the nuances of ultramarathon preparation. Gossip about so-and-so’s Strava data gave way to debating the contents of drop bags and the elevation profiles of different race courses—topics that would have made our spouses’ eyes glaze over.
“Why is it,” I asked him, “that the races I’m dying to do are out of state in late August and early September? I can’t get away when the kids are transitioning back to school.”
“I know,” he commiserated, “it sucks!”
Suddenly he stopped abruptly, looked at his watch and dropped an F-bomb. He had to turn back and get home to his wife, he said, because “if I don’t, she’ll bitch me out again.”
His voice had an edge of hostility that alarmed and saddened me. How would his wife feel, I wondered, knowing her husband spoke about her critically while he was running with someone else’s wife?
Their marriage is in trouble, I thought to myself. Then, with a twinge of guilt, I realized that I was testing the limits of my husband’s patience and trust once again. Is mine, too?
I considered asking my friend about what was going on between him and his wife, but I’ve learned the hard way how that kind of talk between running partners can lead to a bonding that some psychologists call an “emotional affair”—a connection in which you want to share details with the other runner that you don’t want to share with your partner.
So instead, I encouraged my friend to go back. “We ran a good amount,” I said. “I want to get home to Morgan, anyway. We have fun stuff planned this afternoon.”
Then we went our separate ways.
My friend and I are hardly alone in struggling to balance a passion for trail running, and for running-related friendships, with a commitment to our loved ones. Often, conflict arises when one partner’s casual interest in trail running develops into a much greater commitment, and the other partner doesn’t participate much in the sport and only grudgingly tolerates it.
“When somebody marries an Olympic athlete, they kind of know what to expect,” says Heidi Berrin Shonkoff, a couples therapist in Berkeley, California. When one partner’s participation escalates, though, “the sport can grow into something that the other partner didn’t necessarily sign on for. They both have to work together to make the relationship work.”
Accept the Relationship Challenge
I married Morgan, my high-school boyfriend, in 1990, and we have a teenage daughter and son. As we approach our 25th anniversary, our relationship feels rock solid and more loving than ever. We’re even having fun planning trips to a couple of trail races where he wants to volunteer and explore the area.
But my running has been a chronic sore spot between us over the years. My time and energy spent on the trails and away from him periodically leads to resentment and a loss of intimacy.
“I loved it when you only ran 20 or 25 miles a week and trained for one marathon a year,” Morgan told me once. “I wish you could go back to that level.”
“I wish you could appreciate how hard I train and how important it is to me,” I replied.
Joshua Landvatter, a 30-year-old trail runner from Salt Lake City, Utah, articulated the painful tradeoff facing many dedicated trail runners when he posted the following question to the Trail And Ultra Running (TAUR) page on Facebook: “Anyone have to choose between a relationship and running too much? It is a very uncomfortable place to be put in.”
His query elicited dozens of comments in just two days. Many in the discussion thread expressed that running should be the priority: “Never compromise on your passion,” said one.
Added another, “I am now happily single and spend most of my free time running; he was always jealous of all the time I would spend on the trails. He just didn’t get it.”
Others encouraged balance—“There is such a thing as running too much”; “Relationships are give-and-take. There are plenty of times I don’t get my run in because my family needs me.”
If you love both your partner and your running, it behooves you to spot running-related red flags in your relationship and work with your partner to mediate the conflict (see sidebar on third page). Otherwise, you could be running toward a breakup or stuck in the rut of an unsatisfying relationship.
Interviews with runners, their significant others and therapists reveal four main areas that couples need to address when running becomes a source of conflict or symptomatic of other problems in the relationship: time, sex, social relationships, and imbalances.
1. Make Time
Landvatter said he posted the query on Facebook because “my girlfriend had just given me the ultimatum of choosing either her or running. She was furious that I was not spending my time with her and that I would rather run for hours. … What she originally admired about me”—being a runner—“now had the opposite effect.”
He explained that his girlfriend is a runner, too, who occasionally races half-marathons. As a full-time worker and mother of a young child, however, she didn’t have as much time to run as he did.
“She felt as if she wasn’t a priority in my life … but I wasn’t willing to put my running aspirations on hold in order to meet someone else’s emotional needs,” says Landvatter. Using the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone else when an airplane loses cabin pressure, he adds, “Running is the oxygen mask in my life that allows me to be healthy and happy.”
A few weeks later, however, he says he realized, “I needed to learn how to flexibly manage both my recreational and personal life. Just like a rewarding view at the top of a mountain, a relationship takes work and effort.”
Now he’s waking up extra early to fit in running and also running on his work breaks, so he and his girlfriend have more time together. He’s also making more effort to include her in his races, so she feels like a part of his support team.
“I feel both worlds are becoming more balanced, and I’m reaping the happiness of them both for now,” he says.
Carefully negotiating and scheduling time together and time for running is key. Therapist Jim Bowen works with many couples in Denver and Boulder who entered therapy because one partner’s commitment to an endurance sport led to estrangement and conflict between them. During sessions, he says, “I’ve had to literally ask the athlete to pull out his training schedule to see if he’d modify it” to schedule more time together as a couple.
The next step, Bowen adds, is to be fully present with your partner when you are together. That means that couples should turn off their devices, get off Facebook and tune into one another, nurturing good conversation about something other than running. “Don’t make everything about you and your sport,” he says.
Rusty Speidel, 54, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his ultrarunning wife, Sophie, says his wife’s focus on running even when she was with him was in some ways harder to take than her time away on the trails.
“She’d run all day, then pick up Ultrarunning or Trail Runner and read until she fell asleep,” says Rusty Speidel. “The first year, when she was training for MMT [Massanutten Mountain Trail 100], there were 18 straight weekends like that. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. When I asked for some balance, I got serious pushback. … We finally agreed that when she was home, she had to be present and put the running away. It only partially worked.”
Sophie, 52, doesn’t disagree. In hindsight, she realizes, “I ran long in the mountains almost every weekend, because I thought that was how I needed to train appropriately for a 100. I now see that I totally overtrained.”
What changed? They both met each other halfway and rekindled an emotional connection. “We had some necessary and hard conversations in those early years, and I had to adjust my training and expectations,” says Sophie. “Also, I made a pact with myself that if my kids’ sports or school schedules conflicted with a race or run, I would bail on the run. Now I only race if everyone involved is good with it. Interestingly, as a result of this more relaxed approach, I’ve managed to run PRs in the past three years.”
Rusty changed, too. He took time to get involved at one of her races and consequently became more supportive when he witnessed Sophie’s effort.
“When we went to Western States together, I finally saw the sport for the awesome adventure it is,” says Rusty. “By mile 90 I was hooked. When she finished that race, I was a truly proud hubby and have remained so. But the early training was rough. As the non-running spouse, I would say that the runner must make time to be present—emotionally as well as physically—or there’s going to be trouble.”
2. Have Sex
Several trail runners have told me privately that they find it difficult to spend a half hour with their partner in bed, finding pleasure with each other, even though they have no problem running for four or more hours on a Saturday morning. Why?
It’s a combination of factors that, of course, varies with each couple: You’re tired. You worked up a sweat and got your endorphins from running. You have a dozen things on your to-do list and kids who need attention when you get home. What’s more, your partner may feel annoyed toward you, because you’ve been gone for hours on a run. And, perhaps you’re not feeling much attraction because you compare your partner’s softer, rounder body to your fitter runner friends. You both begin to view each other critically.
Sex, if it happens, devolves into an obligatory and infrequent quickie. Couples slip into a platonic dry spell, where they live together but rarely connect physically or emotionally, except when feelings erupt during fights.
Melissa Johnson*, 34, races several ultras annually and runs 50 to 125 miles weekly. She and her husband of eight years used to argue about her running, and she says he would give her “the silent treatment.” Their different bedtimes—she goes to bed a couple of hours earlier than he to wake up early and run—exacerbated their estrangement.
“We would be stuck in a ‘I’m-not-speaking-to-you’ day or week,” she says. “When we were intimate, it was great, which would lead to a good week, but inevitably something would come up and we would slip back into no sex for weeks again. Rather than saying, ‘Hey, I really missed you all week, can we just have a night alone?’ he would get angry and put down my interests and friends,” she says.
“Because I feel so passionate about running and volunteering at races, it really stung at my core when he put down these things,” adds Johnson. “I would be so hurt I wouldn’t want to spend time with him.”
Therapists say the best way out of this anger and alienation is to make a date—and a commitment—to literally touch one another, reconnecting physically and empathetically, even if neither of you feels like it.
To do this, it may help to think of sex as analogous to your training. Just as you get out and run even when you don’t feel like it—and almost always are glad you did—you can think of sex as something you should do even when you’re not excited for it, having faith that it will feel good once you’re warmed up.
Bowen counsels his clients who are endurance athletes to think of sex as cross training and bring their physicality and desire to exhaust themselves into the bedroom. He teaches them to use breathing exercises and other methods to become fully attuned to one another and more passionate in bed.
Similar to the adage “never judge a run by the first mile,” never judge sex by those first minutes. Give yourself time to warm up with talking and massaging.
Often, sex with a longtime partner and co-parent is a decision, not necessarily a drive, says Shonkoff. You make the decision to get in bed with your partner because it’s important for the relationship. If you wait for the drive—the anticipatory feeling you had in your 20s or in the first year of your relationship—then sex will be infrequent. But once you cross over the threshold, sex can be as arousing as ever.
Besides enjoying sex and reaping a more satisfying relationship, becoming intimate again has the added benefit of making your partner more supportive of your time spent running. “If a non-running partner feels their partner is engaged emotionally and sexually, they will be way more tolerant of all the things involved with running,” says Shonkoff.
3. Manage Friendships
Johnson used to feel uncomfortable hanging out with her husband’s non-runner friends, because she felt they negatively judged her for abstaining from alcohol when she had a long training run the next morning. “Often his friends don’t even meet before 9 p.m., which is my bedtime,” she says.
Then she joined a running group and began going out with her runner friends for social gatherings. “Finding a group of others who liked to talk about races, running and nutrition finally made me feel like I belonged,” she says. “But this of course made my husband feel left out.”
Their relationship deteriorated as they grew more distant from one another, and her husband became increasingly jealous of the time she spent running and with her friends.
“Looking back on that year and a half, I regret all that time we lost not communicating better,” she says. “Therapy helped me realize that what felt like perfectly acceptable behavior with friends—early morning runs, Facebook chatting at night—felt like traitorous acts to him. He also had to remember that I’m a good and trustworthy person, and that I’m out there because I love running and want to feel safety in numbers.”
When one partner begins to feel excluded or resentful because of the other partner’s involvement with running, the problem is not long-distance running per se, says Shonkoff. Rather, it’s the challenge of introducing third players in general. These “thirds” can be any person or task, such as a co-worker, a computer or smart phone, a work project or a sport—or even one’s children and friends.
A healthy, full life includes people and activities outside the primary partnership, she says, but “the problem arises when a partner has an overly intense or exclusive relationship with one of those people or things, and the other partner becomes marginalized. Both partners have to be absolutely committed to each other’s well being. If they’re regularly putting running, television, work, other relationships or anything else before their primary partnership, the relationship will be threatened.”
Transparency—that is, being open and honest with your partner about your plans and interactions with friends—is key to maintain trust and nurture support. If you find yourself hiding the fact that you registered for another trail race, for example, or you made plans with runner friends and sent them texts or emails that you don’t want your partner to know about, then you could be on a slippery slope toward poor communication, dishonesty and infidelity in your relationship.
Ironically, Shonkoff adds, when the commitment is securely in place, then both partners actually feel more freedom to pursue important interests and spend time with other people.
Melissa Murphy Thompson of Chicago, a dedicated runner and clinical social worker who counsels couples, is married to a musician, and they have three sons. Her running and his music no longer cause problems between them because they make time together and reconnect.
Thompson says it’s important that both people in a partnership have something they’re individually passionate about. “We are different and should enjoy our differences,” she says.
Says her husband, Jeffrey, “The wonderful thing that has happened is that I can understand how important training and racing are to her, because she is just as interested in how a new song or a new venue went for me.”
4. Find Balance
Someone who makes little time to be with a spouse or significant other, but spends as much free time as possible running, “most likely is running away from something,” says Thompson. “We need to look at what running may be providing that’s missing in the relationship.”
If your trail running tends to feel escapist or begins to play an outsized role in your life, it’s time to ask yourself what you might be avoiding and to seek more satisfaction in other realms of your life, say therapists like Bowen.
“People get so identified with their athletics, but they’re so much more than their performance or heart rate or the length of their run,” says Bowen. He encourages the athletes he counsels to broaden their scope of interests and deepen their connections with family and friends so they can find additional ways to experience pleasure and relief, “instead of believing you are totally dependent on exercise to calm and feel good about yourself.”
Says Sophie Speidel, “I definitely see my early years in ultras as an escape from the grind of work, parenting and marriage. … I got a lot of affirmation about myself as an athlete, and this felt really good to my ego.”
She still runs 50-milers and 100Ks, and she loves her time on the trail with her mountain-running group, “but I no longer feel that running ultras defines me, nor do I escape to the trail to deal with life’s struggles. I turn to Rusty instead of turning away.”
Rusty, who’s pursuing his own hobbies of music and cycling, went from struggling to understand his wife’s ultrarunning to being her biggest fan. “We’ve learned to make the most of the time we have to pursue these hobbies, and then to bring the experiences home to enrich our days,” he says, “and we’ve learned to be more present when we are together.”
Red Flags In Your Relationship
If any of these situations sound familiar, you and your partner should talk openly and empathetically about the issue. Consider seeking counseling if you can’t resolve the conflict.
1. Your partner thinks you run too much.
2. Your partner feels you care more about running than about being together.
3. Physical contact with your partner is becoming less frequent, and you’d rather run or sleep more than have sex.
4. You share details about your life with your runner friends that you feel you can’t or don’t want to share with your partner.
5. When you make plans for long training runs or you register for races, you downplay or hide those plans from your partner rather than express your enthusiasm about them.
6. Running is the main thing in life that you find satisfying.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a Bay Area runner and contributing editor at Trail Runner who blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com. This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.
The holy grail of running isn’t to run the fastest or farthest. It’s not a particular race distance or coveted title. It’s the ability to run consistently. Consistency is a challenge for any runner, regardless of experience or commitment level. There will always be things that interfere with your running routine: fluctuating stress, endless to-do lists, a need for more sleep, the family’s needs. But you can run consistently despite these obstacles, because it shouldn’t be about choosing to run at the expense of something else. Rather, running is what happens in support of everything else in your life, from your health to your mental state to your ability to show up for the important people in your life.
“Aerobic training is to endurance what mindfulness is to consistent running,” says Marty Kibiloski, marathoner and leader of running and mindfulness retreats at Colorado’s Shambhala Mountain Center. “It is the foundation upon which you can achieve greatness. Without them you are vulnerable to setbacks and distractions.”
Here’s how to use this concept to run more consistently in the face of three common obstacles.
I Don’t Have Time
Often, what feels like a lack of time is actually a lack of attention. To focus your attention on one task at a time, pause throughout the day to ask yourself whether the choice you’re making right then aligns with your goals.
For example, when you allot three hours to complete a project, the scope of the work will expand to fill all three hours. What if you gave yourself just 2.5 hours to complete the same task? You’ll probably find the focus to get it done, buying yourself a free half hour.
When there really is no time for your usual long run, go for a short one instead. It may not be the full workout you’d hoped for, but even 20 minutes of easy running maintains consistency, supports your aerobic fitness base and keeps your body primed and fresh for your next long run.
I Don’t Have the Motivation
Low motivation is a type of mental fatigue that may arise from a physical state called “stress overload,” a precursor to overtraining syndrome. It often accompanies physical fatigue that arises because the body is unable to build fitness.
“The workout is applying a stimulus, but if you don’t rest, you don’t benefit from that stimulus,” says Brad Stulberg, co-author of the newly released book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. “For a lot of people, ‘rest’ tends to be harder than ‘stress,’ so it helps to think of rest not as something completely passive but something actively beneficial.”
Learn to discern when you are in your personal training “sweet spot,” or that zone in which your body is able to build or maintain fitness and you feel energized and motivated to run. Stay there, supporting your recovery with more sleep, better nutrition choices, relaxing play time or other restorative activities.
I’m Always Injured
Being sidelined by injury takes a mental toll on any runner. Whether it forces you off the trail for four days or four months, the loss of control over your ability to run is stressful, especially if it happens over and over.
An injury usually occurs at the weakest point in the kinetic chain, for example, the foot, knee, hip or back. Rather than thinking of that point as a weakness, consider it as an aspect of your body’s natural biofeedback mechanism conveying useful information about what it can withstand and what it needs to meet your training demands.
Address your particular point of mechanical vulnerability and end the injury cycle by investing more attention in your rest and healing through whatever treatment is necessary.
Elinor Fish is creator of the Mindful Running Training System and leads women’s mindful-running retreats around the world through her Colorado-based company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness. www.RunWildRetreats.com
We all have those moments. Careening down a twisty singletrack trail, simultaneously in your body and outside of it, euphorically buzzed with a trail high that’s probably only legal for recreational use in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Or maybe it was on top of a mountain, with the world spread out beneath you, arms out like Rose on the bow of the Titanic.
Or just maybe … and this is the important one … it happened today. It was a mundane weekday run through a drab office park. All the brain chemicals mixed just right to deliver the perfect memory. It’s your little secret—no one will understand. Well, no one will understand but fellow runners.
Training consistently, with long-term focus on self-improvement, is not just about getting faster or improving in races. In fact, it doesn’t have to be about that at all. For some runners, the best way to conceptualize the process of running training is as a pursuit of the unpredictable daily moments that let you make memories and find joy along the way.
Here are three reasons that it might help some runners to train consistently for experiences, not events.
Every day is a chance to make memories
In life, there is only one finish line. The process of a life is what matters, and that process is stored in countless memories, big and small, that integrate it all together.
Adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin may improve memory storage (depending on the nature of the stimulus). Running can produce all three—that’s why you get nervous excitement before a workout or race and a Colorado-approved high after some runs. So good days can make lasting memories.
Even bad days are a chance to make memories that form your complete identity. Evolutionarily, we are programmed to remember negative events more clearly to avoid repeating them in the future. A lion attack when you go to that watering hole? Stay away. A 12-bathroom-break run after eating an extra-large burrito? Again, stay away. Because bad memories from running are usually low-stakes in the big scheme of things, those learning experiences can be cherished too.
Add up all those little memories and you construct your individual perception of reality. As a runner, races are a part of that, but unless you’re racing every weekend a la “superman” Mike Wardian, they’re probably a small part. By embracing all the little, good memories and laughing at the negative ones, over time you can support an identity that is positively augmented by running.
Neuroscientists have a saying: neurons that fire together, wire together (you know it’s true because it rhymes). The daily run is a chance to ingrain memories that add meaning to your life and it can even influence how your brain works. Every brain works differently, though, so be open to approaches that work for your unique psychology (including those involving therapy and other types of professional/medical assistance).
You never know when you’ll have the perfect day
Flow state is the Holy Grail of athletic endeavors. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the foremost positive psychologist and author of Finding Flow, defines it as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It goes deeper than that. Flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Find flow, and you find running nirvana.
Flow is a lot like buried treasure guarded by ancient spirits. You can try to find it, but you have to do a lot of work to get there.
There are 10 main factors Csíkszentmihályi discusses, with the most important being a deep sense of meaning, loss of self-consciousness and doubt, and a high level of skill developed over time. That last one is the element to focus on. How do you develop a high level of skill over time?
The answer, of course: you work your butt off. Consistent, purposeful practice is a pre-requisite to finding flow. What does that mean for runners? It’s all about the daily run.
In running, the aerobic, neuromuscular and biomechanical adaptations it takes to reduce exertion over time all require lots of consistency and smart training. It’s not an overnight thing, or even an over-month thing. It usually takes years to gain the proficiency to find flow on the run, just like it does at the piano or the pitcher’s mound.
On top of that, you can never fully predict when you will find flow. Ideally a race is when flow grabs you by the haunches and launches you up the trail, but the deep meaning and peace can come any day. Consistency and an openness to daily beauty can help create magic in the mundane.
Putting races up on a psychological pedestal can lead to a let down
All of this isn’t to say you shouldn’t race. You should (probably). Races provide opportunities to immerse yourself in the community, put yourself out there and magnify all the good (and bad) that running can bring. But over-emphasizing races risks imposing a narrative that your value as a runner is defined by finish lines. And it’s not (or at least it doesn’t have to be). Races can just be checkpoints in the process, providing structure and opportunities for reflection; they can be celebrations rather than evaluations.
It’s all about finding a framework that supports unconditional self-acceptance. Many runners can deeply care about race results and still check that box. For some, though, there’s a risk of self-judgment (and even self-loathing) if races are the be-all, end-all of the running journey.
So, if that describes you, try to view races as just another experience, no more or less valuable than all the others along the way. It takes practice and it’s not for everyone. But when your worth as a runner is fully independent from results (or any external evaluation), it may make you more open to all the beautiful little moments along the way.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service,Some Work, All Play.
I lean over the La Téna bridge, just a few miles up the road from the village of Les Contamines, France, and rest my arms on the moss-covered stone arch. A hundred feet below, in a narrow chasm, the Bon Nant river rushes past. In this brief moment of stillness, the history here floods over me.
Thousands of years ago, Celtic traders traveled this path. Later came Roman soldiers headed for their conquest of ancient Gaul. Throughout the centuries smugglers, foragers and hunters passed where I am standing. Soldiers from two world wars walked over this bridge, too. More recently, farmers, their carts laden with milk and cheese for market.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s line, deep-sixed since college, resurfaces. There is so much history here it is almost jarring.
I need to get moving. My group is speeding away. And that, in fact, is kind of the point.
We’re running the Tour du Mont-Blanc, or “TMB”—setting a quick walking pace on the rugged climbs and running lesser grades, using trail-running and ultralight-hiking gear as we pass through some of the world’s most beautiful alpine terrain. We’ll take four days, halving the usual time to cover the 105-mile route that encircles 15,781-foot-high Mont Blanc. The international footpath starts in the alpine mecca of Chamonix, France, then passes through Italy and a wild corner of Switzerland before descending back into “Cham.”
On this early fall trip are outdoor-sports photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci, Swiss mountain-tourism expert Bruno Schaub and expedition logistician Mara Larson, who splits her time between Chamonix and Kathmandu. I’m along after a busy summer organizing trail-running trips in the Alps.
With our light kits, we’re cruising past heavily laden hikers as we head toward our first foray into the alpine zone at 7,676-foot Col Bonhomme. It’s one of the major alpine passes along the route. With 4,200 feet of steady climbing over the course of eight miles, the approach is well-known to everyone on the route. Two-thousand-three-hundred runners pass through the col as part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc trail race, during what for most will be the first of two nights out. The weather here is often infamously dicey. In 2012, a foot of fresh snow and whiteout conditions at the col forced organizers to replace it with a lowland route.
First hiked recreationally in 1767, the TMB is dotted with full-service huts and mountain inns that make for easy rest and resupply. In a week, you can sample the cultures of three countries. It’s hard to know what Horace de Saussure, the Swiss alpinist and scientist who pioneered the Tour du Mont-Blanc, would make of our neon trail-running shoes and technical layers—much less, say, the mocha-flavored, caffeine-infused energy gels shoved into the pockets of our shorts.
The light gear pays dividends, though. A moment later we roll past hikers that look only slightly updated from de Saussure’s era. Packs loaded, mitochondria screaming for oxygen, they groan under the weight. Backs only lightly burdened, we’ve got O2 to burn, and we make the best possible use of it—laughing uncontrollably as we tag team Bruno with an American slang primer on the difference between a dude, a bro and a poser.
“Can a bro become a dude? Absolutely! It can happen. I’ve seen it.” Dan’s emphatic—training from a childhood spent in a garrulous, borderline-combative Italian-American family.
Douche concludes the lesson as we near the pass. Bruno’s bewildered. How can a word that means “shower” in French mean “abject loser” in English? Janine, ever Dan’s steady counterbalance, calmly parses connotations and denotations, even as the rest of us steer the conversation into the gutter.
Light packs, twisted humor. This, I think, is going to be a good trip.
The beauty of our approach—we’ll call it “hutpacking” as opposed to fastpacking, where you carry and employ your camping gear too—is that it’s accessible to all fitness levels. We’re moving at a pace that’s not too far off many of the runners of the UTMB, with its 46:30-hour time limit. But, after eight hours, we’re calling it a day, and warming our hands over bowls of café au lait and hot chocolate at huts and inns en route.
And we take breaks—lots of them. Our first comes just a few hours in from our start in the village of Les Contamines. Not far from the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, we’ve already covered those long eight miles and 4,000-feet-plus of climbing.The refuge is a modern reincarnation of the original 1924 accommodation. That first hut was built by the French Touring Club, a social organization devoted to travel. Today, Bonhomme is run by a trio of bakers. Georges, Charles and Coco are renowned for their welcoming atmosphere and substantial meals.
Not wanting to let go of the wide-ranging view of the French Alps, we find a grassy patch on a nearby ridge and snack on chocolate and local cheese. I keep one eye out for the wild Ibex that often graze here. Nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, they are now protected. Their return has been an Alps success story. Other species, such as chamois, are easier to spot, if you know when to look.
After the break, we drop four miles from the col into a collection of a dozen houses that together comprise Les Chapieux, where, 72 years ago, a battle between Axis and Allied forces took place. It’s hard to reconcile, on the peaceful September day we pass through. We down cappuccinos in the shade outside Les Chambres du Soleil, a five-bedroom hotel that’s been in business for over 150 years. Outside, local seniors banter over plates of omelettes du fromage whose pungent scent I had picked up 100 yards outside of town.
Les Chapieux takes quaint and doubles down. It’s hard to pass without a few photos, and we grab a round café table and nudge it into a shaft of sunlight. Dan photographs Bruno and Mara, encouraging them to shift their chairs couple-close. The Swiss are famously reserved, but in Bruno’s case the cultural gene expresses itself as endearing shyness.
“So … you want me closer?” he asks.
Nothing phases Mara. Every social situation is easily dispatched, once you’ve been an Everest basecamp manager. She laughs often and easily.
“I am so glad we left the kids at home!” she says, playing along with Dan’s couple ruse.
Moments later, we’re on our way out of the hamlet. I stop at a battle memorial. I look up and spot the earth-and-rock machine-gun nest in the hillside. It’s another reminder of the TMB’s rich past. Like all human history, some of it is dark and unsettling.
We spend the night at Les Mottets, one of the more memorable stops on the TMB. A collection of farm houses
at the head of a valley, Les Mottets has been converted to welcome travelers without losing any of its rustic vibe. Retired farm implements hang from the walls, while sheep and cows graze outside. Well-fed and rested the next morning, we climb Col de la Seigne to the Italian border. The Veny valley, with its flowy singletrack, then leads us to the largest town on the Italian side of the TMB, Courmayeur.
Before descending, though, we poke are heads into Refuge Maison Vielle, a favorite stop for coffee and cake, and are followed in by an inquisitive horse. Even for farm animals, life here can be a bit too quiet, it seems. An hour later, we’re in town, wandering the twisting, narrow cobblestone streets of Dolonne, a Courmayeur hamlet, in search of a hotel for the evening.
With light packs, uphills can be social. The next morning, climbing out of the medieval village of Courmayeur, Italy, toward Refuge Bertoni—the first of three huts we’ll pass by today—it’s a chance to chat. For Bruno, this trip falls during a career shift. His tourism job in a renowned ski village was a mismatch for his lively personality. Despite a veneer of cosmopolitan trendiness, Alp mountain culture can be rigid and confining.
“They were very … Swiss,” says Bruno, his politeness obscuring
Patitucci bluntness comes to the rescue. “Mountain towns here can be small-minded,” Dan observes. “You’ve got too much energy and too many new ideas, Bruno.”
Bruno’s eyes light up as he explains that he’s joining a mountain-guiding business in Switzerland’s capital, Bern.
Dan, Janine and I idly wonder if Mara and Bruno might indeed be a match. “It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened,” Dan says, shaking his head and laughing. He and Janine have been on enough multi-day remote alpine photo shoots to see lives get … entangled.
“You learn a lot,” Dan says, “when you can’t get to sleep in a hut. There was one time…” Janine knows where he’s going, and interjects.“That guy was married!” She says, continuing the awkward flashback.
“And not to her, either!” Dan clarifies, snickering as his eyes bulge cartoonishly.
Late in the day, having covered 14 miles and 4,000 vertical feet, we arrive at 8,170-foot-high Col Grand Ferret, the TMB’s high point. It is on the border between Italy and Switzerland and sees snow throughout the year. Today, though, we experience the col’s gentler nature: alpine grasses rustling in gentle breezes and cool-enough temperatures to call for an extra layer.
The views here encompass a wide swath of the Alps. In the far distance, up the Ferret and Veny valleys through which we’ve just run, we catch a hint of Peuterey Ridge. With over 14,000 feet of climbing, it’s one of the longest technical climbs in Europe. Tucked away next to it is the Innominata, a knife-edge ridge of mixed snow and ice.
Four years ago, Kilian Jornet left Courmayeur, Italy, climbed the Innominata, and arrived on the other side in Chamonix, France, in under nine hours. The usual time for the route? Several days. It’s a feat so impressive it’s hard to comprehend. Closer to us lies the Grand Jorasses with its great north face. Together with the Matterhorn and Eiger, it forms the “trilogy”—three of the most famous technical climbs in the world.
My eyes are drawn to a seemingly equally massive object in my immediate foreground. It’s a backpack, and it’s, well, humongous. The bearer is a solo Israeli hiker. She’s setting up camp for the night. After a few days of moving fast and light, a conventional load makes me recoil.
We carry 20-liter packs—the largest size for comfortable trail running. There’s room for necessities, with space left over for in-town niceties so maître-ds don’t scowl. Our loads are 10 pounds, not including a few tools of the trade. For Dan, that means a Sony a6300 camera. For me, an 11-inch Mac Book Air. Some work assignments are better than others.
Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink asks where she can find water to prepare dinner. Dan’s got food on his mind, too, it seems.
“Dinner in La Fouly?” he proposes to our group. Six miles of coasting down 3,000 feet and we’ll be at the end-of-the-line Swiss village of La Fouly. Encircled by some of Europe’s highest peaks, La Fouly with its 66 residents has a frontier-outpost feel.
His suggestion snaps me out of a traumatic flashback to Coleman stoves, eight-pound tents and external-frame packs.
“Croute au fromage!” I holler. “Let’s get the f*ck out of here!” When I’m really hungry in Switzerland, there’s no editing happening in my brain. One of the fastest descents on the TMB is the only thing that stands between me and baked cheese with a thick slab of bread.
In the few minutes we’ve lingered here, the sun has moved behind the range, and there’s a sense of calm that comes with the end of the day in remote mountain settings. It would be easy to stay, but my stomach always wins. It’s time to move.
Five minutes later, rounding a corner at full speed, I barrel into a herd of sheep. A shepherd and border collie are above me on the hillside, just a few yards away, overseeing the flock. She’s decidedly low tech in her clothing, with faded work jeans, a wool sweater and vest. One hand rests on her dog’s head, the other holds a four-foot wooden staff. I wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Swiss Tourism ad.
I nod, smile and move at a polite pace through the wooly obstacle course. This path, with all of its thousands of travelers each season, still holds moments that are largely unchanged from centuries ago.
Flock parted, I am practically free-falling to food. I’m calling on a number of trail-running skills now: a fast cadence, attention to detail as my feet dance down the flowy singletrack, arms adjusting for balance.
We stop at the first inn we find, in lonely Ferret, Switzerland. A dozen buildings a mile up the road from La Fouly, Ferret must be one of the smallest suburbs on the planet. Our day ends with piping-hot local dishes in a family restaurant. We dispatch with plates overflowing with polenta and cheese, my croute au fromage and grated, baked potatoes with, yes, more cheese.
Not quite dairied-out, I order a Rivella—the Swiss soda made from milk. Forget glacier-covered peaks. Switzerland’s motto should be, “It’s the cholesterol, baby!”
Tartiflette. Pain chocolat. Peach tartes. Breakfast on our last morning is at Boulangerie Patisserie Gentiana, a bakery and cafe in Champex, Switzerland, owned by Leon Lovey, one of the UTMB race organizers, and the namesake for the Petite Trot à Leon, at 330 kilometers, the longest of the UTMB series of five races. PTL is a notoriously brutal epic that covers untrailed passes and other less-traveled terrain.
Leon’s energetic, jovial wife, Claudine, plies us with more pastries, but it’s time for us to move. One of the benefits of the TMB are variants that weave in and out of the standard route, and one’s on the agenda today—the steep col called Fênetre d’Arpette. Outside town, we turn left off the TMB, and minutes later we’ve climbed into one of the wilder corner of the Alps, in a high valley on faint singletrack, moving quickly past remote farms.
The mountains close in and we tilt our heads up to take in the col. The ascent is short and steep, as we switchback on an improbable route on the headwall to a tight passage just a few yards wide. Fênetre is “window” in French, and Arpette is aptly named.We pass through and an up-close view of the Trient glacier tumbling off theAiguille du Tour is waiting for us.
Descending through loose scree, there’s no running to be had. The conversation turns to Dan and Janine’s early years. Graduated from Brooks photography school in 1999, they were climbing bums roaming the west coast with their cameras. A summer long-line fishing in Alaska hauled in cash to start a business.
“We’d look at a catch and say, ‘Well, there’s our new camera.’ The break came with a single photo. A climbing company offered us $75,” Dan says, “They knew we were flat broke. With some advice from other photographers, we countered with $750.” The company said yes, and PatitucciPhoto was officially in business.
Later, we find ourselves in the last of our alpine terrain, rock hopping with low bushes at our feet. When we dare look up, we catch our last views of Switzerland’s Alps.While Dan and Janine seize the moment for more photos, I greedily pick the last of the season’s alpine blueberries. The hillsides here have turned various hues of red.
There’s a peacefulness here that comes with the approach of winter in high places. The Dés Alpes celebrations, when cows are marched down from high pastures, has come and gone. There are fewer travelers, and we welcome their company rather than avoid it. We settle into a steady uphill running pace on the last climb of the trip—quiet alpine singletrack, angled gently uphill as it slabs toward Col Balme.
We arrive 20 minutes later. It’s a grassy, wide plateau.A century of weather has taken its toll on the stone hut here, shuttered for the season. Together with the fall foliage and cool temperatures, there’s no shortage of reminders time is running out on this year’s trail-running season. Within a week, snow will make its first appearance here.
A few more steps, and suddenly we are surveying the length of the Chamonix valley. The commune of Chamonix-Mont Blanc is really a string of villages, and we take in the rich alpine heritage:At our feet near the Swiss border, Le Tour. Then Argentière, Les Praz, Chamonix village, and down the Arve river to Les Houches and Servoz. Showers, beers, dinner at a sidewalk table all await, so we short-circuit the long run downhill, and avail ourselves of the Autannes lift, spinning on its final day of the season, a few minutes run away.
The last riders of the summer, we hop on. In four days, we’ve passed through three countries, taking in their distinct cultures. And, like the best moments of trail running, our packs were afterthoughts, even as we moved up steep cols. We were free to let our bodies move with ease through these mountains. I’m tired, but nothing hurts. I think of my 70-liter dinosaur, hanging in the basement at home. I wonder if it’s time to ditch it. Hutpacking will do that to you.
•Local snacks for the day. (Ours included the following irresistible local selections: Ovomaltine malt-chocolate bar, Kambly cookies, Biberli almond cookies, Gruyere cheese.)
Plan Your Own Alps Adventure
110 total miles
32,000 feet of climbing
20 to 30 average daily miles
When to Go
Refuges and inns along the Tour du Mont-Blanc open mid-June. High cols at that time might require use of traction devices if snowfields linger from a cool spring. Trail-running poles can be helpful. With students back in school and most of Europe back at work, September is an ideal time to be on the TMB. Fair weather often prevails, and temperatures are cooler. At the close of the month, accommodations are closing their doors and preparing for the long winter ahead.
Plan for five or six days to hutpack the TMB without rushing. Recommended counter-clockwise sections:
1. Chamonix to Les Contamines
2. Les Contamines to Les Mottets
3. Les Mottets to Courmayeur
4. Courmayeur to Champex
5. Champex to Chamonix (or take an
extra day in Trient).
Time Tip: Use lifts, busses and taxis to skip less interesting sections.
Taxi services are available that will move your bags, so you can travel light during the day, and luxuriate with a novel and clean clothes at night if you want. Contact Taxi Besson. taxi-montblanc.com/en.html.For hut, hotel and related information, see autourdumontblanc.com/en/. Hate planning? A variety of vendors offer self-guided options on the Tour du Mont-Blanc, and can tailor your trip for hutpacking.
Two years ago, hunkered down in the tundra of a Minneapolis winter, I decided to try what so many of my friends and training partners already did: strap some extremely skinny sticks, pick up some ungainly long poles and take a stab at skate skiing.
I had never cross-country skied, despite an extensive background in alpine. But, I reasoned that I was fit enough to pick it up fairly quickly.
That couldn’t have felt farther from the truth. My first time out, I was doubled over every 10 minutes in oxygen debt; my hips, glutes and adductors quickly went from on-fire to wobbly to completely numb. Against the odds, it seemed, I had found something that was harder than trail running.
According to Scott Johnston, a coach with Uphill Athlete, all these things were making me a far better athlete and, in turn, a better runner. Johnson knows his stuff; he works with professional ultrarunners and ski mountaineers, coached four cross-country skiers who made the 2014 Olympics and has two going this year. We chatted with him to get the basics on cross-country skiing, how it benefits runners and why it just might be the best form of winter cross training out there.
Build a Better Runner
Cross training isn’t just a welcome break for your legs from the pounding of running; the right kind can actually help you address weaknesses and improve your performance as a runner when spring rolls back around.
Because skiing uses poles and requires the use of all four limbs, your body’s oxygen uptake is significantly higher than when running. This means even the most fit runner could see an improvement in his or her aerobic capacity, says Johnston.
“It’s true when they say cross-country skiers have the highest VO max because, very simply, you’re using your entire body,” he says. “As a runner, there’s no disadvantage to cardiovascular gains.”
Additionally, the balance component required for both classic and skate skiing can strengthen key core muscles and make you more injury resistant as a runner.
“Your [gluteus medius—the muscles high on the outside of your gluteus complex] gets a lot more work in the single-legged stance, so they get a lot more work skiing than running,” says Johnston. “But when you’re running, you still need them to be strong and help track your knee over the outside of your toes. Many injuries in running come from a lack of this stabilization of the femur.”
Lastly, Johnston notes, the strength, agility and balance that come from cross-country skiing are an aid to running in the mountains and on the trails, where terrain is variable and more muscles and athletic skills might be called upon than when you’re running on the road.
Build a Better Athlete
To that end, Johnson says, the benefits of cross-country skiing extend beyond helping your running; they can make you a better all-around athlete.
It turns out, for all their fitness, runners are pretty lousy athletes.
“Let me put it this way,” Johnston says. “You and I would never be able to train ourselves to be an NFL running back, or to play in the NBA. But nearly anyone off the couch, with enough years of work, can become a pretty decent runner or cyclist.”
Skiing requires a far greater range of motion than running, and the barrier for entry is significant. “You have to ski a lot to get good at it,” Johnston says.
But if you do, you’ll find yourself with better balance, coordination and proprioception, a stronger core and improved explosiveness, all of which will improve your running. You might even develop some elusive upper-body strength. But, rest assured, Johnson says, you’ll dispose of any excess muscle mass fairly soon after returning to running.
Compare Cross-Country Skiing to Other Forms of Winter Cross Training
One huge benefit of cross-country skiing is it allows you to very nearly mimic running fitness with little to no impact, allowing you to build a huge volume of work and possibly extend your running career, Johnston says.
Since we’ve written about other forms of winter cross training before, how does cross-country skiing compare?
Snowshoe running more exactly mimics running—albeit with a slightly altered stride to accommodate the equipment—but doesn’t cut down on impact. Fat-tire biking can take away impact, but good cycling form doesn’t transfer much to running, and the limited range of cycling can actually decrease your overall athleticism. (Johnston says cyclists are even worse athletes, on the whole, than runners.)
And neither snowshoe running nor fat-tire biking will have the elevated cardiovascular effect of cross-country skiing.
“Skiing is weight-bearing, looks a lot like running and cuts down on impact,” he continues. “Also, most skiers run in their off-season, and most of them are pretty good at it.”
Johnston says classic Nordic skiing (think of a NordicTrack, where the skis remain parallel) is a motion that better transfers to running, with opposite arm and leg movements. But, he adds, it can take a long time to master. Skate skiing (where the skis push off at an angle) “is easier to learn and get to an intermediate level so you can go out and enjoy yourself,” he says. “Skating is better if you’re going infrequently.”
Transition Back into Running
Even if you are skiing a lot, Johnston recommends running at least two days a week through the winter to decrease the transition time once the snow melts.
“You have to build back the soft tissue elasticity and lower-leg strength needed for running,” he says. “One problem we see is that at the end of the season, skiers are very fit, but they don’t have the structural integrity to run as much as their cardiovascular system says they can. So they take all this fitness and jump into regular mileage and pull up with an Achilles or shin injury a month later.
“You need to build up a very specific strength for running that’s needed for almost nothing else, where you land on your foot with the force of several times your own body weight,” he continues. “Doing a little maintenance running [during ski season] shortens that transition period dramatically.”
We get it: winter running can be a challenge,with its icy trails and cold temperatures. But there’s a growing cadre of runners taking advantage of the chilly months as an opportunity to get serious about a particularly underrated winter pastime: snowshoeing. Snowshoe running—and racing—may translate to better, stronger running.
Snowshoeing enables you to continue enjoying your favorite trails even when they are covered in snow, and opens the door to exploring off-trail. It beats staring at the screen of the treadmill. Plus: snowshoeing has less impact on joints, because of the softer surface.
Nick Scalfone, 32, of Bend, Oregon, began his career as “your average cross-country and road runner” in high school and college. He went on his first snowshoe run in 2010 and it quickly became his favorite sport. He was third at the 2017 U.S. Snowshoe National Championship back in March.
“I look forward to it the whole year,” Scalfone says. “It’s the best of everything for training in the winter.”
Snowshoe Running Basics
Alter your form.
Prepare for soreness in muscles you didn’t even know you had. Scalfone calls it the hardest workout there is, because it uses “whole-body mechanics.”
You’ll probably run with a slightly different form to compensate for the added weight of the shoes: higher knees and a wider arm swing. Your core will also be more engaged, to compensate for the instability of snowy terrain.
“The first time I do a snowshoe run each season, it’s not just my legs that are sore,” Scalfone says. “It’s my abs, back and arms. Because it requires more strength to combat the extra resistance, your heart rate is a lot higher and your body does a lot more work.”
Adjust your mileage.
Because of the added resistance and cold, you won’t need to put in as much mileage. Scalfone does weekly tempos of around 10K, and long runs that range from 90 minutes to two hours. Even power hiking on snowshoes out in the backcountry makes for an excellent workout.
Speedgoat 50K champ and member of the 2016 U.S. snowshoe team, Anna Mae Flynn (cover image), 30, of Marble, Colorado, bases her snowshoe training on time rather than speed.
“I tend to accumulate many dark hours lit by moonlight and headlamp,” she says. “It’s peaceful, and it’s darn hard.” She saves the speed for track sessions and the occasional tempo.
Do your homework.
It’s important to choose the right pair of snowshoes. Some are meant for general hiking, some for powder and others for running and racing. Joe Gray, a nine-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running team and winner of this year’s World Snowshoe Invitational, recommends trying a few snowshoes based on what your goals are.
Snowshoe races are regionally based, depending on where the snow is best.
“The field is typically faster than you’d expect,” says Flynn. “There’s strategy involved just like any cross-country race, and most events involve groomed trail, singletrack and a non-groomed section.”