“Kilian Jornet! Les chaussures de Kilian!” One of the other guests at the hotel excitedly pointed at the red and white S-lab shoes I was wearing. I smiled as I struggled to carry my new shoes and clothes across the bar area. Not to judge a book by its cover, but the man admiring my shoes didn’t exactly look like an avid trail runner – and yet, he was able to immediately identify my shoes as the iconic pair worn by Salomon’s greatest athlete, Spanish mountain runner and adventurer, Kilian Jornet.
My Salomon obsession started about five or six years ago. I had flirted with other brands, but they were mainly flings. Once I got my first pair of Salomons, I was in love. I now have a closet full of no less than 12 pairs of Salomon shoes, 5 Salomon packs, 18 Salomon soft flasks, and scores of tights, skorts, tops, socks and bras. I cheated on Salomon during the last 200km of Tor des Geants and I felt awful about it…. (But those Hokas felt gooood after 130km on mountain rock! Ok I admit it!)
So, needless to say, when I was invited to join the Salomon Ultrarunning Academy in Europe, I was IN. The camp was scheduled to run from Tuesday, May 23 to Friday, May 26, followed by the Maxi Race in Annecy on Saturday (110km with 7000m of climbing). The chance to run and learn from some of the best athletes in the world was like a dream come true…but I was also curious to see what the company was actually like behind the scenes. Yeah, they sponsored some of the best athletes in the world and made (in my humble opinion) some of the best technical trail running gear out there. But what were they really like?
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“Woop! Woop!” Greg Vollet, Salomon’s Global Sport and Community Marketing Manager, let out some excited cheers as we danced along the trails above Annecy. Upon hearing the call from the lead animal of our pack, a number of us responded with a few hyper-infused cheers of our own, quickening our steps with each breath.
Amongst the group were Salomon athletes Ida Nilsson, who just broke the female course record at Transvulcania, and Max King, who doesn’t really need an introduction. And 15 other runners from across Europe chosen by Salomon for the academy. Dubbed as “ultraplayers” (something may have been lost in translation, ahem), we varied in terms of running experience, specialty and background, but we all shared a fierce passion for running. There was Eugeni from Spain, an adorable puppy of an athlete who has the speed of a young Kilian and the looks of a young Ryan Sandes. Okay, I feel a little like a pedophile even saying that, but it’s true. He’s just adorable. He decided after university to forgo formal employment to pursue his dream of becoming a professional athlete. Go get ’em. Then there was Georgia, my roommate from Scotland, who was almost a good ten years younger than me (are you getting the theme here?). Surprisingly no no-nonsense and pragmatic for someone in their 20s, she ran up the trails with ease, unphased by just about anything. Mike and Rob, from the UK and Scotland, respectively, were admittedly two of my favs from the week. Their blossoming bromance, which cultivated in a hand-in-hand finish at the end of the 110km Maxi Race, was just too heart-warming to ignore, especially when juxtaposed with their ridiculously crass humour. Maartje, the peppy scientist from the Netherlands who manages to make the mundane look interesting on social media; Katie, the sustainability consultant from the Lake District whose fell running experience makes her a beast on the downhill; and Johannes from Germany, whose affection for tiny shorts is justified by his incredible speed.
With the exception of a couple of other simply delightful runners, I was definitely in the ‘older’ crowd of the group. My knee was giving me quite a bit of grief from my fall in Transvulcania, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. On our first trail running workshop, we clocked over 15km of running and 1000m of climb, which was definitely taking a toll. I was loving the scenery, the company and the guidance, but I was in a constant state of mild panic that I wasn’t measuring up. The young pups – the real “ultraplayers” – were jumping and bouncing around like popping bubbles off the top of a freshly poured glass of coke. I was playing the part and truly was loving the camaraderie, but the image in my head of being an old washed up hack was looming in my brain.
There was no time for self-doubt, however. “WHAT TIME IS IT?” Greg shouted at us as we perched on a rock overlooking the lake, clad in fluorescent gear like happy skittles and glistening with sweat. “It’s TIME TO PLAY!” we responded dutifully, yelling out Salomon’s famous hashtag as Martina captured it on film. Was it cheesy and scripted? You bet it was. Did we care? No. It really was time to play. We jumped off the rocks and skipped into the woods, muscles twitching and faces stretched with grins, unabashedly showing off our skills.
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The week wasn’t all about running though – far from it. One of my favourite parts of the week was getting to meet the people who design the shoes, bags and clothes for Salomon. I knew that the design team was pretty stellar (just take a look at the wicked lightweight stuff they made for Kilian and his ascent up Everest!), but I was keen to find out more about their process.
The design team questioned each one of us on what we liked, what we didn’t like, what we loved about other brands, and what we hoped to see in the future. They took photos of the defects and modifications we’d made on our gear (replaced zippers, holes, accessories etc.). They nodded when I commended them for not succumbing to an overabundance of pink in their women’s line (yay for black and red!). They showed us prototypes of shoes they’d made for their top athletes according to their needs (not allowed to show photos, but they looked super cool, let me tell you). And they reflected on things they’ve changed in recent past based on feedback.
I talked on and on about not just the technical aspects of the shoes, but also the emotional aspects as well. I have an attachment to my running shoes the way that some women might feel towards their Jimmy Choos. Whenever I had to pack up for a new mission – Afghanistan, South Sudan, or Gaza – it was heart-wrenching to choose which shoes to bring and which to leave behind. Each one had their own personality and carried their own memories. Sophie’s Choice!! Who gets to come and who do I abandon?? I remember one day my Dad sent me an email asking if he could throw out any of the dozens of pairs of shoes I had left behind in one of their closets back home in Canada. Horrified, I immediately said no. When he questioned whether I could even remember what remained, I proceeded to rattle off the colour and brand of each shoe, and the trails that I had covered in each pair…
Instead of laughing me out of the room, the product and marketing designers carefully listened, took notes and asked insightful questions. I was clearly amongst friends.
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Two weeks before coming to the academy, I had received a text and an email asking me to submit blood work within 96 hours, and informing me that this request was in connection with my participation in the Maxi Race. Whoa. This was the first time I had heard of this happening and wondered what it was all about.
During the Ultrarunning Academy, we had the chance to attend an anti-doping conference held by ITRA (International Trail Running Association) and Athletes for Transparency to understand a bit more of the context. As trail and ultrarunning is becoming more popular and prize money is starting to creep in to some races, that unfortunately brings with it the risk that some athletes will dope to get an edge up on the others. To me, it seems completely ridiculous and contrary to the entire ethos of ultrarunning, but unfortunately we’ve seen evidence of this already. Last year Gonzalo Calisto was stripped of his 5th place in UTMB from 2015 due to doping, and there will be others in the future. I’m sad to see the sport go in this direction – we shouldn’t NEED an anti-doping progamme!!! – but if the risk is there, I’m pleased to see someone doing something about it.
On March 22, Salomon announced its Athlete Transparency Program and race series sponsorship of five major trail races that will be related to the clean sport initiative. They created it as a way for athletes to prove their integrity in the sport. Sixteen elite athletes, not just Salomon athletes, will be subject to the most rigorous health and anti-doping tests year-round. The programme is designed not only to detect performance enhancing drugs, but also to help identify any potential issues and assist the athletes in managing their overall health. In addition, at five chosen trail races, including the Maxi race, the top ten women and men as identified by ITRA score (again, not just Salomon athletes) will be subject to tests before and after the race…. which is why I was included. After I submitted my first blood test and I was called in for a second sample the day before the race. I was happy to provide it!
At the anti-doping conference, the guys from ITRA and Athletes for Transparency also talked about regular painkillers and other substances that aren’t banned by WADA (the world anti-doping agency), but that they feel shouldn’t be used in the sport. In their view, if you’re injured and you can’t run without pills, you shouldn’t run at all. Hmmm, they had a good point. I am generally against taking any painkillers during a race, but I’ll admit, I popped a few during the last 50km of Tor des Geants last year and haven’t been opposed to them late in the game in other races. It made me start to rethink my strategy for the Maxi Race…
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After three full days of yoga, running, workshops and conferences, it was #timetorace. I lined up on the start line of the Maxi Race on Saturday morning with the other #ultraplayers. Maartje, Georgia, Rob, Mike, Siebrig and I were all attempting the 110km beast and the others were trying their hand (legs) at the 83km race a few hours later. Despite the nerves about my knee, I felt pretty giddy to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Max King, Francois D’Haene and Caroline Chaverot, right up at the front of the pack. Caroline turned around and asked me about the tape on my collarbone, which I explained was to help reduce chafing. After we chatted very briefly about the woes of chafing, she turned back around and I giggled with ridiculous fandom. I just talked about chafing with Caroline Chaverot! I whispered to Max King. And then I immediately thought, I just talked to Max King about talking to Caroline Chaverot! It was a never-ending cycle. (For those of you who don’t know, Caroline is currently ranked as the top female athlete according to ITRA and went on to finish 1st female and 5th overall in the Maxi Race! She’s a machine!)
When the clock started at 1:30am, I was ready to go. My knee was throbbing, but I was happy to just see how far I could go… without painkillers. At least I would put it off as long as I could…
I’ll save the play by play of the race for another time. What I can say is that it was a battle. The knee was screaming at 40km and I told another Salomon #ultraplayer that I was going to drop out at 70km where I knew supercrew Belinda would be waiting with a car. Knowing that I was going to bow out of the race, I popped a panadol (an over the counter painkiller) and carried on. Over the next 5 km, the pain subsided. By the time I got to 70km, I found out I was in fifth place and I was okay to go on. Was it the painkiller or was it my body just going through its natural pain wave cycle? Probably a bit of both? I dunno. My physio had told me before the race that I’d be okay to compete, although it would hurt, so I didn’t feel justified dropping out. I decided to just carry on and grin and bear whatever came my way.
Turns out, it was nausea that was coming my way! The bright side was that knee was no longer a concern 🙂 It wasn’t pretty, but I finished. And y’know what? My knee was less swollen after the race than it was before. Go figure. Sometimes the messiest races are the ones we learn the most from. After the week with Salomon, I’ll definitely be doing a lot more thinking about my health and nutrition before, during and after a race. I’ve of course always followed WADA rules, but the conference made me question whether perhaps we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard. There’s a lot of interesting debates going on in the ultra/trail running community right now about what is fair and what isn’t, from caffeine to marijuana to painkillers to sleeping in altitude tents for acclimatization. I’m looking forward to seeing where these conversations take us and the sport…
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I ended the week exhausted, but blissfully happy. I was pleased with my race performance, but it didn’t really matter. I had shown up, I had laughed, I had tried my best, and I had learned. And I got to peek behind the curtain and understand Salomon a bit better. Is the company as passionate about trail running, mountains and the outdoors as their marketing makes us believe? Are the athletes as nice and talented as they seem on social media? Um, yeah. Hate to disappoint, but I don’t have a juicy expose for you. They are simply awesome. We lost Max King a couple of times on the trail because he was simply having too much fun crashing around in the woods, literally off the beaten path. Mira Rai, who is currently focusing on rehab for her knee post-surgery, was hysterical, making us laugh at every turn with her one-liners and giggling ‘namastes’. Dakota Jones, while he wasn’t racing, got up at the butt crack of dawn just to drive
us to the start line and then follow the lead runners around with Phillip Reiter, who was capturing them on film. Ida Nilsson led us in a yoga session every morning at 7am with a smile. While she would nonchalantly demonstrate some kind of ninja move on the grass, I was shaking and struggling to hold myself up in an inferior move by my chicken wing arms. Once the camp ended and the race was over, we all went home… and the Salomon guys just kept playing, running and jumping around the mountains with reckless abandon.
For them, it is always #timetoplay. Where do I sign up?
Huge thanks to Salomon for the opportunity to participate in the Academy (and no, they did not ask me to write this….)
And huge congrats to Katie and Aurelien, who got 3rd place female and male respectively in the 83km race, and who will go on to compete in the Mont Blanc marathon in a few weeks when I’ll be in California for Western States!