Earlier this week, I hopped on an airplane and flew to Europe. It’s my second trip across the pond this year. The first was for a gathering with The North Face and a race in Andorra. This time it is to run the UTMB, a 100-mile foot race that starts and finishes in Chamonix, France.
Although it is my sixth time here, it has been three years since I last set foot in Chamonix. The first time I came here I was filled with giddy excitement. Now I come and it feels a bit commonplace.
That sounds harsh, for the place is anything but common. In fact, it’s one of a kind. The valley in which Chamonix sits can’t be much more than half a mile across, if that. On either side of this narrow valley are mountains that stretch upward about as aggressively as big city skyscrapers. It’s an incredible place, and though it may be void of its new car smell for me, I’m grateful to be here.
But it’s not just this place that I’m grateful for. My time as an ultrarunner has taken me to all sorts of awesome places. France, Italy, Brazil, Portugal … the list goes on. Some places I go to only to race, others to train as well. Even when I am at home in the United States, I often find myself bouncing around from place to place to train.
This year I kicked my training off with a bunch of skiing and splitboarding, some running, and a bit of cycling in Oregon. From there I took things south to California and Nevada, and then east to New Mexico, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Next, I spent about a month training in France and Andorra, followed by more time in Oregon, a brief period in Pennsylvania/Virginia, and two weeks back in Colorado. My thought was to train in Colorado for an additional two weeks, and then fly to UTMB, but instead, I found myself back in Pennsylvania with my family.
Although I love my home state of Pennsylvania, I was a bit unsure about using it as a training base for my final big weeks of preparation for UTMB. Don’t get me wrong, Pennsylvania is a great place, but I’m a sucker for the big mountains and thin air of the American West, especially when preparing for a big mountain ultramarathon. Nonetheless, I packed my bags and gave it a go.
My first day back, I ran for two hours in the hot, thick, sticky air that is so common to Pennsylvania this time of year. Sixteen miles later I returned, drenched in sweat, and just in time for dinner. Two-ish hours, 16 miles, tons of sweat — I concluded that it was efficient training.
The next morning, I woke up and logged another 16 as I ran hill repeats with some local high-school kids. That evening, after dinner, I hit the nearby rail trail for an interval workout and logged yet another 16, this time refueling with a gas station slushie. Every run left me drenched in sweat, and most every day brought another round of heat and humidity.
By the third day, I was on the hunt for vert, so I headed across the river to the Mason Dixon Trail where I spent a little more than three hours running up and down the High Point climb. Four laps later, I had logged just over 4,000 feet of climbing, an amount of vertical that I could have gotten in a single climb in Colorado.
The trend continued as the days passed: find something steep, run up and down it a bunch of times. The Dugan Climb in the Hellam Hills, the Pinnacle Climb on the Conestoga Trail, the Thousand Steps on the Standing Stone Trail, and the Knauber Climb just off of the Appalachian Trail became my playgrounds.
None of these climbs are as long as what you’ll find out west. The longest one is probably Knauber, which ascends 1,077 feet in 1.12 miles. The steepest is likely the Thousand Steps, which climbs 807 feet in 0.43 miles. Sure, they are good climbs, but you can easily find more impressive ones.
Nonetheless, I loved training on them. With each repetition, my vert and miles climbed, and at the end of each week, I was pleased to find that I was able to amass virtually the same amount of vertical feet climbed as I had in Colorado. Sure, I didn’t do it at altitude, but I did get to do it in a sauna!
Ironically, as I spend time in Chamonix this week and think back upon my training, it’s those long hours logged in hot, sticky air on short, steep climbs that I feel most proud of. Were those sessions more or less effective than sessions I did in Colorado, Andorra, or Oregon? That I can’t tell you, but what I can tell you is that maybe sometimes the best training environment is an imperfect one. Allow me to explain.
As runners, we have a habit of longing for the perfect training grounds. Trails out the back door, endless mountains to explore, and easy access to a mix of terrains all sound like a dream, and they are, but sometimes they might just be a bit too good.
How can a good thing be too good? Well, this happens when the too good becomes too distracting. Place yourself in too fun of an environment and you might find that you go on plenty of adventures, but don’t do enough workouts. Or you may find yourself doing plenty of big days, but not enough easy days. When the training playground is that good, there are lots of ways you can stray from good training habits. But, put yourself in a less ideal scenario and I think training can become very focused and, in turn, very good.
As I told some friends the other night, I think sometimes the best training environment is a boring one. Years ago, when I was just getting into ultrarunning, I used to work and train on board a cruise ship. I would estimate that back in those days, 50 to 70% of my training was done on the ship. I just ran up and down stairwells and hammered away on the treadmill.
On an excitement level from one to 10, it was a negative two. But what it lacked in excitement, it made up for in effectiveness. By the time I jumped off that ship for good, I was arguably in some of the best shape of my life.
Fast forward to this year’s UTMB training, and I feel similarly. Training in Pennsylvania for the final two weeks was a good change of pace. It encouraged me to be intentional about how I trained and to seek out the specific types of trails and terrains that I felt would help me prepare for the task ahead. Sure, these are things that I do in other places as well, but something about the need to be so intentional about it made things feel even more focused.
I say all this to point out that you don’t need to have a perfect training environment to train well. If you happen to have such a luxury, that’s great! Enjoy it and take advantage of what it has to offer. But, don’t count yourself out if your environment is less than dreamy.
Instead, embrace what you have at your disposal, and make the most of it. Be focused and intentional. Rest when you should. Train hard when necessary. Be creative. And last but not least, work with what you’ve got. After all, nothing beats homemade, am I right?
- What do you think? Do you find exploring beautiful places helps you to train?
- Or do you think you can focus better on training somewhere familiar and bland?