One Dirty Magazine

A Look Inside the Restrictive French Coronavirus Lockdown Should Make U.S. Trail Runners Grateful

While stay-at-home orders crimp our style, we have easy compared to residents of the trail-epicenter Chamonix, France.

Michael Benge March 27th, 2020

A Look Inside the Restrictive French Coronavirus Lockdown Should Make U.S. Trail Runners Grateful Doug Mayer (right) and friend Giles Ruck running the Alps last summer. Photo courtesy Mark Brightwell

If you’re a Trail Runner reader, then you’ve likely read the lively, entertaining and humorous prose of our Contributing Editor Doug Mayer. Originally of Randolph, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains, Mayer, 56, moved to Chamonix, France, a few years ago, he says, “for the chocolate croissants under the guise of running a trail-running business.” His company, Run the Alps, takes trail runners on multi-day, hut-to-hut tours through the high jagged peaks.

A past producer of the NPR show Car Talk and author of several books, including an oral history, Mountain Voices, and co-author of Run the Alps Switzerland, Mayer has finger on the pulse of the trail-running community in the Chamonix area. Of course, a keen runner himself, Mayer has amassed a lengthy resume of tough races, from California’s Quad Dipsea to Italy’s brutal Tor des Geants, which he wrote about in our recent annual edition DIRT.

Just two days before the coronavirus lockdown in France began, Mayer broke his shoulder skiing. His doctor set up a follow-up appointment in 10 days, which would have been yesterday—a visit he opted to skip out on, as the hospital in nearby Sallanches is now overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Emanating from the devastating toll of coronavirus in Italy, the lockdown in France and across Europe has been highly restrictive relative to the stay-at-home orders we are experiencing in the United States. Mayer’s answers to our questions below paint a bleak picture of the current situation in Chamonix and the surrounding areas, but trail runners, being the resilient group we are, have been adapting in interesting, heartening and productive ways.

 

What’s the vibe in Chamonix right now?

Chamonix is a hyper-social, tight-knit community. A lot of that spirit has moved online. My inbox and social media are filled with friends checking in, offering favors to each other and keeping each other updated. That’s been wonderful.

Under the surface, I think we’re all struggling. Most of our livelihoods are based on the adventure-sports economy. Will that recover this summer? That’s a big unknown.

Chamonix is usually such a bustling, energetic place, but now the pedestrian downtown is nearly devoid of life. It feels wrong.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know if there’s a theme to the vibe, since we’re so isolated. It’s easy to present a game face on social media. One friend said she flips between being chilled out reading books and feeling restless and annoyed. I think that sums it up.

Chamonix is usually such a bustling, energetic place, but now the pedestrian downtown is nearly devoid of life. It feels wrong.

 

What are your current restrictions?

We can go out for required items like food and medicine, and we’re allowed up to an hour outside for exercise. But, we need to stay within one kilometer of our address, and can go no higher than 100 meters, if you happen to be next to the mountains.

France is famous for its paperwork, and the lockdown is no exception. There’s a form, called an Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, we need to print out and bring, along with ID. The form needs to be dated with the time noted.

 

How long have you been on lockdown, and what has been the progression of restrictions? 

It started on March 17.

The first day of the lockdown, I hiked on the low, easy paths just above town—the Petit Balcon Sud—for two hours. I thought, “I can handle a month of this.” The next day, we were notified that trails above town were off limits.

A few days later, they set a time limit of an hour for exercise and required that we start adding the time to our forms.

On March 25, the regional government made it against the law to go more than 100 meters above your home address. That was called the interdiction de frequentation et d’activitiés en montagne.

I think all of us get it. We need to flatten the curve. We can’t have anyone getting injured. That deprives someone else of urgent medical care.

It is hard, but when you think of the sacrifices being made by the medical community, it’s nothing. So far, in France alone, five healthcare workers here have lost their lives to the virus.

French President Emmanuel Macron gave a clear, forceful speech when he announced the lockdown, that it was the equivalent of a call to war, a guerre sanitaire. The hashtag here is #restezchezvous, stay at home. It is hard, but when you think of the sacrifices being made by the medical community, it’s nothing. So far, in France alone, five healthcare workers here have lost their lives to the virus.

How are runners in Chamonix coping?

The valley has one of the most active trail-running clubs in the world, CMBM. They have year-round professional coaching and three-times-a-week training sessions. The coaches have developed at-home training plans and are available for advice during confinement. They’re even developing virtual joint-training sessions.

Chamonix is home to so many strong mountain runners, there’s a lot of pent-up energy. Hillary Gerardi, a top all-around trail runner and Black Diamond athlete who lives in the valley, has resorted to some interesting tactics.

And, if you have a TV with an Internet connection, you can do what this guy did, and virtually run the Mont Blanc Marathon.  The view is of the Posettes, maybe the most scenic part of the course. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh when I see that clip.

 

And other runners?

Necessity is the mother of invention, right? People’s creativity is directly related to the degree of confinement.

My friend Dan Patitucci, in Interlaken, Switzerland, can still run in the mountains. So, he gets out every day, but keeps the demands lower, so his immune system is strong. He’s taking the free time to focus on stretching and bodywork. He’s a climber, so he’s adding lots of hangboard workouts.

My friend Mike Ambrose works for Salomon in Annecy. They’re all working from home until at least mid-April. He and his wife, Steph, have a new treadmill. The other day, he ran a vertical kilometer on it. He runs and catches up on old TV shows. Friends with exercise gear at home are the lucky ones.

Italy’s farther ahead on the virus, so they’ve had more developments. There are home-workout Facebook groups, virtual races and fitness challenges. People with yards get to run in that private space. An acquaintance Alyssa Clark says that as restrictions grow, so do the positivity and support. She’s had one of the best ideas I’ve seen yet—last weekend, she ran a treadmill marathon, streaming parts of it on Facebook and asking others to join in with 26 … whatever they want … sit-ups, kilometers of running, you name it. That kind of thing is very heartening.

 

Have you been in touch with other trail runners across Europe?

Constantly, and particularly throughout the Alps. It’s always been one of the real perks of my job, and now it’s giving me a sense of the big picture. The Alps are big mountains, but very compact. You can run from Chamonix to Italy or Switzerland. So, it feels like a tight community.

Messages pop up from race directors, writers and filmmakers, elite runners … we are all wondering and worrying about each other. We’re watching announcements about major events, anxious about the summer. Will there be a UTMB, a Sierre-Zinal, a Mont Blanc Marathon?

 

What does the future hold? 

It is becoming evident that the lockdown, initially due to expire next Tuesday, will continue for weeks, possibly another month or more. That’s a long time.

I think come summer, there will be a sense of normalcy. But there’s a lot of distance to travel between now and then. Like the rest of the world, here in the Alps, we’re taking it a day at a time.

Mike [Ambrose] captured it well in a discussion we had. Ours is a small sacrifice. The mountains and races will be there. This is far bigger than that. It’s the biggest challenge our generation has faced.

Any readers who have run a long trail race will get it—this is an ultramarathon. The distance between here and the finish line seems incomprehensible, so we just keep our heads down and aim for the next aid station. I think come summer, there will be a sense of normalcy. But there’s a lot of distance to travel between now and then. Like the rest of the world, here in the Alps, we’re taking it a day at a time.

 

 

               
   
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Sam
Sam
5 months ago

The content of this article is excellent, so relevant to our trail running community and an important perspective on what is happening globally. Did someone else write the title of this piece? “…Should Make U.S. Trail Runners Grateful”?? No US trail runner should be grateful that we aren’t doing more to shut this down here. The longer we do a subpar quarantine, the longer this will go on and the greater the repercussions will be. Mt Baker National Forest in WA has already announced it will be closed until September. If we had shut things down when the first case arrived in WA in January, we may have been able to get back to the trails by summer time. I don’t think I need to say more because it is already beautifully said in the article, “Ours is a small sacrifice. The mountains and races will be there. This is far bigger than that. It’s the biggest challenge our generation has faced.”

 
 

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