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Running Up Mount Saleve

Posted Feb 10 2013 8:37am

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I conquered my fears and doubts while running the Saleve with my colleague, friend and host for the weekend, Renaud.

As you can tell from this picture, Renaud is quite the athlete and therefore running with him was a bit intimidating. This 6’9 Belgium guy runs the challenging cliffs and hills of Saleve multiple times a week as training for other races including triathlons, ultras, and sky running. He knows the trail like the back of his hand as he often navigates it during snow storms, early morning darkness, or late evening dusk.

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It took Renaud quite a while to convince me that it would be a fun adventure together and that he wouldn’t let me die. I wanted to ensure he realized that while I consider myself active and in good shape, I’m used to running at zero altitude and on primarily flat inclines. One thing is for sure, after yesterday’s run I am so thankful that I’ve been pushing myself this past month at Barry’s Bootcamp twice a week. My quads and core were integral for success yesterday as he said we’d have to be very agile and have to find our balance in order to not slip on the icy patches and on the uneven terrain.

Before our adventure, we had breakfast yesterday morning at Le Pain Quotidien with Sara, Renaud’s lovely girlfriend of 10 years. I find it so funny that so many Europoean restaurants and stores are now in New York City. They were surprised when I said that their neighborhood favorite breakfast spot was also a neighborhood favorite of mine in New York! As we were deciding what to order Renaud looked at me and said, “Make sure you eat enough because we’re about to burn over 3,000 calories!”  While I doubted I would burn that much, I agreed and happily enjoyed a delicious breakfast including bircher muesli, cappuccino, fruit, and bread with jam.

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When we returned to their flat, we quickly changed into running clothes so we could head for the mountain before noon. Renaud told me to bring “winter running gear” along with running shoes and a wind jacket. In exchange, he would provide a light backpack and any extra gear I needed. I packed quite the options since I had no clue how his version of winter running gear would translate to mine but I figured that with multiple options something would work.

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In the end, I wore the following for the run: Sugoi Sub Zero running tights , Lululemon tank, Under Armour long sleeved cold weather gear top, Sugoi winter running 1/4 zip jacket, ING NYC Marathon wind breaker, Nike fleece gloves, mismatched socks, Mizuno Wave Rider 17, and a Lululemon ear warmer. I carried a change of socks, Lululemon technical long sleeve shirt, and an extra pair of gloves in my backpack along with shot blocks and water.

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After changing we took the bus and light rail to the base of Saleve, about 20 minutes away. From the bus stop the trail entrance was a short mile run through an adorable, small Swiss town that was very picturesque. In addition, we ran over the main highway where Renaud pointed out that this single highway can connect Geneva to many different cities such as Milan! It’s such a weird thing to think how connected Europe is, similar to living in the Northeast where you can cross over to another country so easily.

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As soon as we turned on the trail I realized what I’d signed myself up for by agreeing to run with Renaud. The trail sign said it was 4 hours and 10 minutes to La Crouisette, the top of Saleve, our destination.

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I saw a very steep path ahead that consisted of at least a mile of switchbacks. Renaud explained that the journey to the top of Saleve was easiest when broken into 4 separate parts, each having unique terrain that would challenge me in a new way. The first part was the most important because if I went to fast in the beginning my “heart would explode” and I would never make it to the top. He promised that the top was the most enjoyable and therefore I had to have energy left by the time we made it to the top. I told him that I was going to think of this as a marathon and therefore focus on constant movement but ensure that my pace was slower than the 9:30 we’d kept our first mile. Renaud, a true gentleman, said that he’d stay a few steps ahead of me but would ensure that he turned around every few minutes to make sure I was still progressing. I hated to hold him back but was very appreciative of the support. He also said that we’d stop for photos on the way up making the elevation and altitude adjustment more bearable.

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This is an example of the views we had from the path along the first section. We were literally running along the side of the mountain. Also, I will let you know that during this first portion, it definitely took me almost a good 30 minutes to find my pace and breath. I started out running at about a 12 minute pace and then needed to change to “speed hiking” as my body wasn’t having it. My lungs were panting and my heart was beating way too fast. Renaud suggested I do a run hike mix to acclimate my body to the terrain and intensity.

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We finished the first portion of the trail after about 2.5 miles and then went off the main path for the next portion. This path was far less traveled and literally had me doing high knee running through the snow. There were certain portions of the trail where I had to literally crawl up holding on to trees and boulders.

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The path was absolutely gorgeous and by this time we were so far above the town and highway that the only noise was the crunching of the snow, our deep breathing and nearby birds.  We conquered 50 steps at one point that were covered in snow as we moved up the mountain.

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As we got higher the path started to flatten a bit so I was able to do more running versus hiking. I kept yelling to Renaud that this was an amazing experience and beyond beautiful. Check out some of these awesome shots that he captured!  By the time we reached the third leg, he said the hardest of the incline was done but this part would be primarily snow running. Running through a foot of snow is most similar to running on dry sand. My calves were burning within moments!

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The fourth part of our journey was across the top of Saleve across a snowy field. Exactly as Renaud had described, there were families playing with their children and dogs, couples taking in the views, and people cross country skiing. This area is accessible via cars so many people come up for the day to enjoy the fresh snow.  The panoramic view left me speechless as did the vast white snow that went on for as far as the eye could see. Though this was the most beautiful portion of the four parts it was also quite difficult at times as we were navigating around people and much of the snow was untouched so the drifts were deeper.

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We reached the top in about 2 hours, including our stops for photographs. At this point we each took some water and a small amount of fuel. I was surprisingly not very hungry but was assured by Renaud that while going down may seem like it would be easiest, it would be quite a challenge and I needed energy. I took 3 shot blocks before we proceeded across the field to the other side where we’d eventually head down. I imagined that we’d head down a trail similar to the one we’d ascended but quickly realized, as I saw Renaud dash over the side of the mountain, that there was no trail to be seen!  He shouted to me that it was fun and just use my shoes as if they were skis, ensuring that I never pointed directly down the mountain and instead ran/hopped side to side. I took a big gulp and went full force down the mountain because I knew a second later my fear would catch up with me.

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This was definitely one of the scariest but coolest things I’ve ever done. In this bottom picture you can see the tree line we ran towards. This tree line also had a large barbed wire fence in front of it. As soon as I saw it I had fears of going tumbling into the fence so much to Renaud’s amusement, I started swerving further left and right to slow myself down. By the time I reached the entrance to the trees where the trail began again my shoes and tights were filled with snow. We took a minute to brush ourselves off but Renaud insisted that emptying our shoes was worthless since we were about to hit more snow. I was amazed at this point that I wasn’t freezing as I am normally very sensitive to cold temperatures as I have Renaud’s Syndrome. I guess all the hard exercise was keeping me warm?

The final part of our journey down the mountain was through snowy trails that included lots of icy patches, loose rocks, and areas where we had to hold on to ropes and anchored cords to not loose our footing. In between running we were hopping boulders and climbing through small cave areas. Luckily, by this point in the run I’d improved my snow trail running form and was leaning forward instead of backwards, running with my legs spread wider than hips distance apart, using my arms to propel forward, and keeping a tight core to help my balance.

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At exactly three hours we exited the trail for our final mile of the run, back down to another bus stop. There are still no words to describe the adrenaline rush I was feeling at this point. Not only had I conquered something that I had thought almost impossible but I had finished without falling and enjoying every minute of the adventure. As we crossed the border, back into Switzerland I screamed thank you to Renaud. His coaching and support had allowed me to experience something totally new and enjoy it all while running from Switzerland to France and back again!

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There are things that we do throughout life that define us. Until yesterday, running a marathon was the most difficult thing I’ve experienced physically. But, yesterday’s challenge pushed me to overcome fears of the unknown and trust my body’s ability. There were moments when I doubted that my lungs, quads, calves, or heart could handle another step. But, then, I’d look ahead to Renaud who was excitedly waiting and knew that I didn’t want to disappoint him or more importantly myself.

It’s funny how life works out. I was supposed to be skiing this weekend but in the end I think that I ended up with the better opportunity!

UPDATED TO NOTE: Renaud took most of the pictures you see in this post with his Sony Cyber Shot DSC-RX100 camera. He carries it in his backpack running. In addition, many of these were edited by him using Photo Shop Elements 4. 

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