Despite growing up in the flatlands of France, Sebastien Chaigneau felt the magnetic pull of the Alps from an early age, first through family ski holidays, followed by a stint in the Alpine forces of the French Army, and to his eventual realisation that it was trail ultras that were his true calling. He is now recognised as one of the most talented and accomplished mountain runners in Europe, especially excelling at long, steep, technical races like UTMB, where he finished second in 2009 and third in 2011, UTMF, where he came third this year, and Transgrancanaria, the early-season 120k ultra in the Canary Islands that Seb has won the last two years. The 41-year-old is, as the cliche goes, aging like a vintage Bordeaux and could be a potential starter at this year’s Hardrock 100, a race that could well suit his style. I caught up with Seb to talk about his long and interesting journey into ultras.
iRunFar: So, Seb, you grew up in France. Can you tell us a little of where you grew up and how your early childhood was?
Seb Chaigneau: Yes, of course. I was born in a flat region where there was only one ascent with a rise of 20 meters! I was into athletics when I was younger but really I started to run at the age of 30 years to keep fit and this is where it has taken me.
iRF: Cool, so your early passion was for cycling, right? How were those cycling years? Was it just for fun and social activity or did you compete, too?
Chaigneau: It’s all a very long time ago. I started cycling when I was six years old and on up to when I was 10 years. I think I liked it because it was when I discovered competition. At the beginning, I was just doing classic training courses to learn how to use the bike and after that I got into the competition.
iRF: What was it about competing that you liked?
Chaigneau: I took some pleasure being competitive because it allowed me to become passionate about sport, to share our experience. On top of that, I felt it was the reward for of all training. The feeling of the stress and nervous energy just before the start is special, and competing allowed me to let off steam, too. It is also very important for me, in the big races, to share the experience with the public and people during the last few meters. They are the moments that I’m looking for.
iRF: Okay, great. And did your parents instill a respect and passion for the outdoors in you? Did they take you to the Alps as a kid?
Chaigneau: Yes they did, even if they didn’t have so much time to travel. Actually it’s pretty funny because I first arrived by accident to a running race when I followed my sister and then my parents. My dad was preparing to run his second 2:50 marathon! We also spent our holidays in the mountains and we did a lot of skiing and various other sports as well.
iRF: Cool. And did you love the mountains back then? Was it an instant passion for you?
Chaigneau: Yeah, since the beginning, I fell in love with the mountains. I rarely went to the sea with my parents and my sister. Very regularly we would spend days in the mountains in both the winter and the summer and, over time, I began to feel my place in the mountains. That’s why I wanted to do my military service in the mountains because I thought it could be a good experience for me to learn to live in the mountains.
iRF: So then your passion for cycling started to fade and you became involved in athletics, right, running track? What was it that attracted you to running, originally?
Chaigneau: It actually happened after I replaced a friend who had become sick for a cross-country class at school. After that, I had a club that came to see me at home to tell me that I could come and try out for their athletics team. I then retired the bike because it had started to annoy me a bit and I started school athletics. I discovered a different kind of discipline when I started running track. Then I got into the specialty running, but it was much later.
iRF: Wow, so it was kind of a coincidence? What did you learn in the years of running track and cross country that you hold dear even today while running?
Chaigneau: My different experiences and type of training in cross country are, again, important in ultrarunning. Despite the fact that an ultra is a long race, we still need to have good running speed. It’s why I use different exercises like short-distance training with an athletics approach. Now we can’t forget that in ultra trail or trail running, we are ‘running’ trails. In this definition, we find the word ‘run’ and I think too many people do not progress through or concentrate on this base activity, running. So, I think athletics allowed me to learn how to actually run and allows me to keep a good running pace during races.
iRF: It’s an interesting point. And how did your running develop over those early years? Were you only running shorter distances back then?
Chaigneau: When I started, I ran only very short distances in training. I ran seven or eight kilometres, two or three times a week. Then I gradually lengthened the distance and I started with a 15k mountain race. After that, I gradually extended distances and did my first trail 25k, which I finished in second place. I had taken it pretty easy so as not to burn out too fast.
iRF: I also read that you stopped competing in running to attend university. Is that correct? Also, what did you study, was it sports-based?
Chaigneau: I had, in fact, stopped running to finish my studies and it’s something I don’t regret because I learned to do something other than running, although now running is my life! What I studied was ‘biotechnology training.’ I studied biochemistry and physiology for six years with two years of work sequencing DNA and other genetic manipulation. It’s kind of boring that I don’t work directly in the field now but, despite that, every day it allows me to better understand how the body reacts and works.
iRF: Cool. How do you think this knowledge has allowed you to continue to improve as a runner, even now that you are 40 years old and still cursing it? Have you any tips?
Chaigneau: This knowledge has helped me a lot, especially in the area of nutrition. I learned how different foods are made and what they contain. So I can tell you that having a ‘pasta party’ the last evening before a race is not good! It would be a lot more beneficial eating rice. Now I think I learn, little by little, various significant factors for ultra trail running by the knowledge that I have. I think I’m still making a little progress. My advice would be to be mentally strong, a person’s mind must preserve the urge to run as long as possible. Try and hold the feeling of pleasure and good vibrations intact through the interaction with the public, supporters, other runners, and nature.
iRF: Even though you stopped competing for your studies, were you still running for fun in those years, too? Were there trails near your school?
Chaigneau: Yes, of course! I consider the sport and more particularly trail running as a fun activity. Performance and results arrive with the pleasure you get from running. I began to put a professional aspect to my preparation and my way of running when I became pro. But the aim is always the same: to have fun. At the beginning, I took sport like a game and not a ‘job.’ But then I realised that this could be my life and I accepted my mission and my challenge to develop and promote trail and ultra trail to people in France. It’s quite a challenge as every day you have to work hard and train in order to compete but I get to live and feel the good vibrations from the public who are following us.
iRF: I want to got back what you said earlier about you joining the Army’s special Alpine forces after university. You obviously had a passion for the mountains, even at that point?
Chaigneau: The army, at that time, was mandatory in France and I didn’t want to spend time staying in the barracks doing normal exercises. So I asked to be in the mountain troops to train and learn how to live in the mountains and survive. It was a very good time because I did a lot of altitude, a lot of skiing, and received many exams and diplomas. It was during this time that I also realised that I was going to live and work in the mountains. That was when I decided that the mountains were, for me, the most suitable place to live.
iRF: Can you tell me more about those years in the Alpine Army, what you learned, memorable experiences, and how it changed you as a person?
Chaigneau: During this time, we were in the Alps and I learned to survive really desperate conditions and also how to get out of bad situations like lightning or storms. I also learned what to do and how to act in hostile places. Then I passed exams to accompany the military over peaks at high altitudes. This is how I now approach the mountains. I’ve experienced many good and bad conditions. I feel that this is what allows me now to train quite easily on ascents at altitude and all these experiences, either studies or military exams, now serve me almost every day. All things do not happen by chance.
iRF: Have you had many sketchy moments in the mountains, Seb?
Chaigneau: Yes, because, in fact, this is what makes memories and makes you feel alive. It’s also important to keep your thoughts very clear, weigh everything up, and listen to your inner voice. I think there are too many people taking very significant risks and dying. I think of my family, my wife and children, when I have to make a choice and I prefer not to risk it too much.
iRF: After the army you concentrated on climbing. Was this a compliment to running, too?
Chaigneau: Yes, indeed. When I reached a good level of climbing, 7b+/8a, to get the the rock I had to run from the village where I lived, which was a small village that had no paved or flat roads. So, this way, I started to run in the mountains.
iRF: Cool, so do you still climb now? What do you think of the Alpinist-style of running and climbing that Kilian and others are practising?
Chaigneau: I think that’s part of the family of trail and ultra trail. In fact, I think it is an activity that is similar to the difference of, say, the vertical kilometre compared to ultra trail races. It’s still a point of connection with the mountains and nature. It’s similar to hiking. There is hiking on marked trails and then there is also off-trail hiking. In terms of my climbing experience, I no longer have the time to do it properly so I preferred to stop. I think I will climb again when I’m older.
iRF: Let’s talk trail and mountain running, Seb. Tell me how you started to really get into it? It’s safe to say that it has changed your life in the last 10 years, right?
Chaigneau: It all began during the Army when I saw that I was in good shape compared to others in my section. I had run in the mountains before the Army and I actually have always been skiing before and started out on the running track. So when we were running in heavy boots in the mountains, I found I was still ahead. I thought then that I could have some qualities and the ability to run well in the mountains.
iRF: Your first ultra, Mont Férion in 2001, can you tell me about that?
Chaigneau: Yes it’s very simple. At that time there was no race like this. For me, as soon as I saw the announcement of the race, I immediately said I wanted to try it. It was a very big mistake as I had only really begun trail running. In fact, I started having cramps after 19 kilometres but I wanted to finish. It was very hard to run 50k when I’m struggling after 10 or 12 kilometres. So I managed to finish in six hours and was in eighth place. I immediately thought about doing it again and I ordered my shoes more than six months before the next race! I wanted to do it again but this time after taking the time to prepare properly. After that, I tried to progress and learn and have fun. I had found something that I was passionate about, combining the mountains and running.
iRF: How did you become involved with The North Face? How has your relationship with them evolved?
Chaigneau: I began with The North Face in 2006 at the end of my contract with Eagle. At first I represented France and then my results in various races resulted in them proposing a move to the world team. That was in June, 2009. It started when I was going to do a photo shoot with the US runners two days before UTMB. During the photo shoot, I tried a new pair of prototype shoes. I asked if I could run with them in the race and I finished two days later in the second spot! TNF then used a photo from the photo shoot which they used all around the world, on the New York subway, buses in Hong Kong. Then I had to take my opportunity to work because they asked me to spend time in many countries. That’s how it all began.
iRF: And now you are one of the integral members of TNF. How much do you help with the design and development of new products?
Chaigneau: Yes, it’s a great opportunity that I have. I work on future products and my training allows me to develop the new material. Now it’s something that I will continue with and develop for a future business. It allows me to progress the sport and to make it known, and re-known, by all. It is not always easy but for me it’s a great motivation to practice with my own products and test them so others can benefit from those experiences.
iRF: Since your first ultra experience, can you give me an insight into how you have developed as a trail runner?
Chaigneau: Yeah, we must allow time for the body to adapt, not only muscular evolutions but also hormonal changes and then, finally, mental preparation and physiological improvements. These are characteristics that need developing as a mountain runner. Very often athletes think we should just start running and the rest will come along naturally. But I don’t believe this is how things work. With trail running, it’s important for me to use all my knowledge and studies. It allows me to recognise the reactions of my body and the body in general. This, especially, allows me to improve and to understand.
iRF: So, with your knowledge, where do you think younger runners make mistakes, physically and mentally, regarding mountain running?
Chaigneau: It’s normal to make mistakes. I made mistakes in the past and I have the benefit of years of experiences now. The problem and danger is to want to progress very quickly, too quickly.
iRF: Okay, Seb, so we’ve talked a lot about racing and physiology. But what, for you, is the essence of trail running?
Chaigneau: I think it is sharing, nature, meetings with traditions, people, encounters with animals, and it’s also ‘the missing link’ connecting road racing and hiking. It’s also a return to our origin where they say that man is made to run and that this was their means and their hunting technique for a long time before we could understand how to make weapons to hunt and eat. It’s clear that the hunting technique evolved but this is the origin of man, running for life. It’s too bad that cars, easy pace, and a change in diet has transformed us… and not necessarily in a good way.
iRF: Can you be seen running around the Alps after ibex from time to time?
Chaigneau: It is a vision. In fact, I run after the pretty pictures and if I could take the time to talk about the meetings with the ibex, the chamois, foxes, badgers, vultures, and also wolves. These are stories and pictures that will remain forever engraved in my memory.
iRF: Cool. You are associated closely with UTMB. Tell me about your experience there? Which has been your favourite race?
Chaigneau: I am close to this race because it is a place near my house and the Mont Blanc is an amazing area. But I don’t have a favourite race because every race has had its own characteristic and I keep in my mind a lot of memories that made the ordeal more or less exceptional. The brain has the ability to erase the bad times of an ordeal and conserve only the good things and good times. But, going back to the UTMB, the 2009 race was a revelation to me because I started well and I had a really amazing day [2nd place]. What I will remember, all the same, is the race in 2011 [Seb finished 3rd] which was longer and harder. I think that day I took such great pleasure in racing Iker [Karrera], Miguel [Heras], and Kilian, and that is all that remains in my memory. That day the face of the trail world changed, I feel, and people realised that to be in the game we had to be able to run the race from 140 to 160k at an average speed of 10 kilometres an hour. This is where I also realised that, even at 40 years old, I could still grow and be more successful in the coming years.
iRF: You have also had some great races on Gran Canaria at the TNF Transgrancanaria. Tell me about your experiences there?
Chaigneau: It’s a bit of sun during my winter training and I have learned a lot of things out there. The Canary Islands is a region that is incredible, hard and steep islands that can be so welcoming but also so hard when nature gets angry. The race and course is a beautiful day. I experienced it again this year despite poor conditions because I was prepared after a difficult, tough winter.
iRF: So what’s next for you, Seb, in 2013 and further into the future? What would you like to achieve?
Chaigneau: I want to run Hardrock 100 but I’m on the waiting list and I have to make a choice. Then I think I will run UTMB if I manage to prepare without any injury. After that there are so many races and things to do around the world that I will choose a race at the end of the season.