Yesterday I headed out into the mountains to explore some trails around Chamonix that I hadn’t been on before – hard to believe they would even exist after a decade of running here. I had always wanted to explore the Aiguilles Rouges on the other side of the mountain range from Chamonix, but I couldn’t see a logical route that avoided the dreaded out-and-back along very familiar trails. After spending a bit of time with the maps, I found an ambitious but doable (or so I thought) loop route. It would take me most of the day, but I was excited to see it.
I loaded up with plenty of water, a can of coke, some sour cherry gummies, a GPX track, full stomach and four new podcasts downloaded – ready to roll. The first few hours, all went according to plan. Sun was shining, legs felt good, and the density of tourists finally started to peter out the further I ran away from the town. I ascended the vertical kilometer, stopped for a quick orangina at the snack bar by the planpraz chair lift, and continued on up and over the Col du Brevent. As I descended down the other side, I really started enjoying the new terrain and the views across to the Passy national natural reserve.
Just before reaching the bottom of the valley, the GPX track veered off to the right, seemingly straight into a group of bushes. Huh? I checked the track again and ran back and forth a bit to make sure I had the right spot – yup. When I looked closely, I noticed the faint remnants of an old trail through the vegetation, so I assumed it was just a bit overgrown.
After about an hour of bushwhacking Barkley style, I found myself in a valley with imposing mountains ahead. The GPX track took me up steep banks of a river, but the high grasses hid vegetation potholes from view, making the footing extremely tricky (unless I wanted to have a twisted ankle or knee). It was easier most of the time to just hop from slippery rock to slippery rock in the river itself. The terrain really sucked the energy out of me and soon I was half stumbling, half scrambling as I clambered my way up the hillside. What kind of trail was this??
At some point, I looked at the mountain ahead, the GPX track and my watch, which read 5pm. I really wasn’t confident that where this trail-not-actually-a-trail was headed was passable without climbing gear and if I kept going, it would be too late in the day to turn around and go back. I was loathe to retrace my steps (and the previous hours of bushwhacking), but I knew it was the right decision – something in my gut said I needed to turn around. So I did. By the time I made it back to Chamonix, it was 9pm and just about too dark to keep running. I was covered in dirt, starving, but home safe. Sure, it wasn’t the epic route I had planned, but it was the right one. That trail can wait for another day (when I have a trusted climbing buddy who can guide me over the sketchy bits with lots of daylight ahead!).
I couldn’t help but draw an analogy in my head from my aborted trail run to the current racing scene during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have seen races go forward, particularly in the US, and even some new races pop up. And it just isn’t sitting right with me. Sure, masks and distancing protocols are in place for the start, race bib pickup procedures have changed as well as checkpoint protocols, and the number of participants have been reduced. One part of me applauds the creativity and persistence of the race directors to forge ahead in a way that minimizes risks to runners and volunteers… but the overwhelming part of me just thinks this is not the time. We really don’t have a path to follow right now and it isn’t clear what lays ahead.
For me, races are about the camaraderie, the interaction with fellow runners and volunteers, and all of the messiness that comes with ultras. I want to be able to hold someone else’s hand as we wait squished like sardines on the start line, listening to the countdown to go. I want to be able to stop and give another runner help on the trail if they need it, even if it is just a sweaty pat on the back. I want to be able to throw up at a checkpoint and hang my head between my knees without worrying if I’m infecting others. Is it even a race if you don’t exchange some kind of bodily fluids with another human being? (Okay, that came out wrong – you know what I mean). I want human connection in races, or I don’t want the races at all.
Before you jump down my throat, I know that race directors and everyone else that relies on races for income need support during this time. I would (and have) happily support these individuals in other ways – paying for virtual races (that I may or may not even do), buying their photographs, or just donating money. I just don’t want to do it through races.
I know there are many runners and friends who are very eager to get back to the race scene, and those who have already participated in races during COVID-19 times and have loved them. It’s a personal feeling, but I wrote off any races this year months ago. It just doesn’t feel right. Do I miss them? SURE! I had planned out my whole year around six races spanning from Hong Kong to Bhutan to Italy to Madeira. I was meant to have three months of unpaid leave from work in Afghanistan just so that I could train like a beast and give the races my all. But this year just isn’t the year. It isn’t the right time. Months ago, I made the decision to pivot. To head back down the trail and leave the summit for another day (another year).
Instead, I’ve focused all of my efforts on just enjoying the mountains, without an agenda, a plan or a goal. The sacrifices we need to make to even think about putting on a “safe” (er, safer) race at this time just aren’t worth it to me, neither are the risks. My gut says no.
Races may be cancelled (and others perhaps should be), but that doesn’t mean running is off! To the contrary – this year we have an incredible opportunity to enjoy the outdoors according to our own calendars and our own agendas, without being plagued by constant FOMO of race entries, podiums and general race hoopla. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy about a year without racing, but I am really loving it.
The approach to COVID-19 in every region and country is different, as are people’s personal views, so undoubtedly there will many runners who disagree with me. I’m not telling anyone what to do. All I’m saying is that for me, pivoting away from races feels like the right – and safe – choice, even if they are starting to come back on the scene.
Happy trails everyone! And wear a fucking mask 🙂