Buzzing urban jungle or soaring mountain trail – where is your favorite place to run? And how often do you have the chance to swap one for the other? Some runners think that running is running, no matter where they are. But that’s oversimplifying matters – right? The urban street and the mountain trail are completely different. Anyone can see that, surely?
Well, only by experiencing both can we hope to answer these questions. So what can we do? Take a group of runners from the city (concrete, street art, culture, bustle) to the mountains (trails, fresh air, solitude, views) in one trip and find out. France offers a great chance to go on a running road-trip from the neighborhood to the trail on an adventure for the mind, body, and soul.
For as long as there have been cities, runners have “pounded the pavements.” For those of us living in cities, that’s where we run. Sometimes city runners are blessed with parks and riversides, but even in the most cramped urban environments, runners lace up their shoes and put one foot in front of the other. And wherever people run, they come together and form groups or clubs and (more recently) crews. Living in such close proximity to one another does have some advantages – it is easy to get together for a run.
For ’Hood to Trail, a group of runners from RunDemCrew in London, Wolfpack in Copenhagen and Patta Running Crew in Rotterdam, none of whom had ever experienced running on Alpine trails, gathered in Lyon, France. From there, they started a three-day journey that took them from familiar concrete to the unknown heights of the mountain trails.
Lyon is a fascinating city. It sits at the point that the River Saône flows into the Rhône. Houses clamber up the steep valley sides like ivy clinging to the front of an old French chateau. Lyon has a reputation as a cultural hub, second only to Paris. It is certainly a city of contradictions--a place for art, but also a great industrial hub. A UNESCO World Heritage site that also boasts a hugely vibrant street art scene. A city that did much to outlaw raves in the 1990s but is now considered one of the most exciting places in France to go clubbing.
And the topography adds interest for runners. It’s possible to run for miles and miles along the river, which is flat and pretty straight. But on either side, the valley sides climb up steeply.
On the run through the city, the heat is intense. Crossing the river on a footbridge offers momentary relief as a cool breeze rises up from the water flowing below. The runners carry on along the river, past some stunning street art and a group of skaters taking turns riding a rail beneath the trees.
Turning away from the river and up the valley sides means climbing hundreds of lung-busting, leg-thrashing ancient stone steps that seem to go on forever. Everyone is doubled-over by the time they reach the top, although a few of the faster runners recover and head back down to accompany those bringing up the back of the pack to the summit. The views from the top are stunning.
Lyon has given the urban runners a chance to experience a new city. But a city nonetheless. After dinner, sipping a beer, the runners talk about what might be coming up the next day. Mads from Wolfpack perhaps puts it best: “I know we’re going to be pushed a bit.”
The road to Chamonix is called the Route Blanche. It snakes alongside the River Arve, from its confluence with the Rhône near Geneva, to the base of the Mont Blanc range. Here, the road climbs up through a series of tight, narrow gaps, under the massive peaks of the Aiguille Rouges and Aiguille du Midi. It feels as though the road punches through a protective wall at the foot of the mountains.
As soon as the runners arrive in Chamonix, they are whisked up the side of the valley to watch the finish of a mountain marathon. Standing among the peaks, the scale of the landscape suddenly becomes apparent.
Hesdy from Patta has been talking about some the best trail runners and wondering whether they would be as competitive in a flat, urban environment. Watching Kilian Jornet win the mountain marathon, he’s impressed. “Incredible. And he looked so fresh. He was just giving an interview and talking like he went out for a coffee!” Kemi from RunDemCrew is blown away by what she has seen: “I’ve actually got goosebumps watching this,” she says.
The next day is the first on the trails for the city runners. From the valley floor, it is hard to fathom the scale of the mountains. Instead of thinking in terms of landmarks and subway stations, the runners have to study maps and point up to mountain peaks.
The runners move through the mountains for most of the day. They learn that climbs can go on for hours and that walking is not a sign of weakness, but often the fastest way uphill. They discover what it is like to run fast over rocky ground. They practise eating on the move. All of which hammer home the point that these runners are in a very alien landscape now.
At the rustic and remote mountain hut where the runners will sleep above the treeline, there is time to reflect on the day’s running while a formidable mountain storm is brewing in the distance. Fred, from RunDemCrew, feels that the scenery was “breathtaking and overwhelming” and adds: “I didn’t want the run today to end."
Over and over again the urban runners talk about how totally different running in the mountains is from running in their cities.
Anne, also from London, says: “I am really proud of myself. I really had to push myself today. That was really tough.” Over and over again the urban runners talk about how totally different running in the mountains is from running in their cities.
The following day, the group is heading back to Chamonix, where they started, via another 20km of twisted trails – and one twisted ankle. Somehow everyone gets their tired legs moving for another testing day above the treeline.
Back in Chamonix and resting on the steps in front of the church, the runners are all in agreement – the mountains are a very special place – but not necessarily for the same reason. For Ashanti from RunDemCrew, the experience was “stunning” but for London-based Elliot, it was “just painful”.
“This has been a totally life-changing experience. I will definitely be back.”
Troels from Wolfpack says that running in the mountains was “a totally different time” from running in Copenhagen. For Said, from Patta Rotterdam, the two days were “spiritual on some level. Like reconnecting with yourself and what you’re capable of doing.”
The runners all agree that they have experienced something totally different in the Alps. Of course, they all live in cities, but now most of them have a love and appreciation of the mountains. Perhaps RunDemCrew’s Fred Butler puts it best: “This has been a totally life-changing experience. I will definitely be back.”
Words by Simon Freeman at Like the Wind Magazine.