For the first time in weeks, I feel as if I have cast aside the shackles of the ‘iron episode’ and returned to some semblance of a former self. Here, on the side of this mountain, retracing old steps and forging a new adventure. Thin air, steep trails, knee deep snow fields. Familiar ground. Unfamiliar ground. A contradiction sparking excitement and no small amount of caution.
Last year I raced through this place. Inconceivable in scale and beauty, a place presenting impossible challenges from the safety of the valley floor. But runnable challenges nonetheless. The steep hike up to Champex-Lac, the gruelling ascent of Bovine, the unforgiving climb over to Catogne. The memories of that day are not of pain, but of the rare euphoria of being present in the moment. It is almost intangible. A feeling. A knowledge that I was getting the job done and that it was a totally natural state. That despite the odds being fairly stacked against success that day I was completely at peace. Surrounded on all sides by the improbable beauty of the Swiss and French Alps and there, right there. Present.
It is nine months later.
The climb begins straight away, hopping on to the route of the Mont Blanc Marathon through Vallorcine and up that famous grassy bank. At the top I turn for Northeast and head in to the forest belt of the mountain. The trail steepens immediately and the terrain switches up a few gears. ‘Technical’ does not really do it justice. Rocks protrude from all angles, tree roots snake out of the ground to snag feet. I smile and remember as I glance at my watch, noting that progress in terms of tracking this by GPS has suddenly been set to slow motion. I’m back.
I alternate between running the climb and fast hiking. Every now and again a flash, a memory, a signal that I am heading in the right direction. The plan today is to run the OCC route in reverse and head from our French base in Vallorcine over the border and in the direction of the Swiss village of Trient, which means climbing up to the race checkpoint of Catogne. Which in turn means climbing around three thousand feet in the first three miles.
The sudden hit and disorientation that usually strikes when climbing at this altitude has not happened yet. I am charting a path up and up through thick alpine forest and despite common sense suggesting otherwise I am relying on nothing more than memory. Hampered by my usual foolhardiness, doubt creeps in the longer I climb with no apparent resolution. Familiar. Unfamiliar. And then out of nowhere I see the sign, and I relax. I’ve got this.
I skip along the path, and underneath a cable car station. Marmots shriek in alarm and dive for the nearest safe place. I know where I am. The forest begins to recede. My confidence soars as I begin the contour around the mountain and the view opens up around me.
I love this contour. It is exposed but not dangerous, and the range of mountains it offers is spectacular. I am still climbing but as I begin to dissolve into the landscape the sense of effort recedes and I find myself inhabiting a space somewhere between motion and wonder. Peace is every step.
A fast river runs down a steep ravine in front of me, slowing me to a walk as I pick through the icy water. A welcome sensation floods around my toes and feet and up my calves. The climb still continues the other side, but now the trail is punctuated with something else, patches of snow that slow progress a little. I stop to refuel and consider my options, then push on, intent on reaching Catogne in short order.
The trail changes to sharp switchbacks, and the snow becomes more frequent. Yet the sun is stronger than ever and I can feel it burning my neck and shoulders. A place of stark contrasts and infinite beauty. Eventually I reach the Col. Deserted huts are scattered about the saddle and I pick my way around them to run towards Trient. In front of me and either side of the trail, seemingly arbitrary posts are sunk into the ground. Nine months ago there was a checkpoint here, a large dark marquee tent straddling the trail and manned by friendly volunteers eagerly scanning numbers and offering out supplies. Catogne. I had hobbled in on a wrecked ankle that day, wracked with pain but intent on continuing forward. It was a key moment. Today, there is nothing but the mountain.
The silence is embraced on all sides by towering, beautiful, terrifying shapes. Inescapable wonder. A sense of peace and freedom, the reward of effort. Once again I feel present in the moment. Overwhelmed with what I suspect is true gratitude and humility, my thoughts turn to my wife. Purpose and meaning clarified in movement. And so, after taking some time to memorise this landscape, I begin the descent.
The best piece of running wisdom I have ever heard or read, is actually nothing to do with running. But it is why I run all the same, and a powerful mantra. And running here, in this place, always brings me very close to it.
“Peace is every step. The shining red sun is my heart. Each flower smiles with me. How green, how fresh all that grows. How cool the wind blows. Peace is every step. It turns the endless path to joy.” -Thich Nhat Hanh