Over the past year, I have written an article each month showcasing some of my favorite trails in the United States. From Arizona to Virginia and from California to Georgia, these monthly Trail Love Letters have sought to pay homage to some of my favorite places to run in this country. For the last edition of the Trail Love Letter series, we thought it would be fun to hear from some of the readers of iRunFar and learn a little bit more about their favorite trails.
Trail Love Letter: Ultra-Trail du Haut-Giffre
[Author’s Note: Our first submission is from Craig Murphy who has written a vivid description of one of his favorite races in France, the Ultra-Trail du Haut-Giffre.]
When one thinks about trail running in Europe, the obvious festival is the UTMB, with some of the biggest and most prestigious races in the sport. However, there are dozens of lesser-known mountain races in the Alps, also offering spectacular scenery, technical trails with lots of elevation change, and a smaller, local community vibe.
A perfect example of this is the Ultra-Trail du Haut-Giffre (UTHG), a 60-mile (96-kilometer) race with 22,000 feet (6,800 meters) of climbing, which traverses the stunning Haut-Giffre mountain range, located one valley north of Chamonix. It starts and finishes in the French town of Samoëns, surrounded by towering peaks and ski lifts that operate from the center of town, next to wine bars, local cheese shops, and cafés.
The UTHG starts just before midnight, and the lead runners make the loop in around 13 hours. The rest of the 200 or so runners trickle in for the next 16 hours until the 28-hour cutoff. The course involves climbing and descending six mountains, each summit at an elevation of 6,500 to 7,500 feet, with approximately 3,000 feet of climbing to reach each summit.
The race director seemed to revel in stating during the September 2021 pre-race briefing, “There is no flat running in this race.” It truly is up and down for most of the 60 miles — with only a mile of flat at the beginning and end, which was a treat after battling vert all night and day!
Three hours into the race, at 3:00 a.m., I found myself ascending dizzying switchbacks of wet rock and slippery mud on a knife-edge ridge to Pointe d’Angolon in the foggy darkness. We greeted similar terrain on the descent down the other side to the second aid station at the 14-mile mark.
Later, around 7:00 a.m., I arrived at the next high point of Col de Bostan and the horizon began to glow. The darkness dissipated into an orange line that lit up the peaks and valleys for our first views of the Haut-Giffre range. Clouds filled valleys thousands of feet below and masqueraded as white water trapped between the steep mountains. Above, stars faded to purple and then a vibrant blue sky. We descended to the village of Crêt to get our drop bags at mile 27.
After refueling in Crêt, the UTHG continues for a four-mile climb to the next high point of Combe aux Puaires, which takes you deep into the remote Haut-Giffre range. Even on this gorgeous Saturday, the only people I saw on this section were fellow runners in the race. There was a sense of isolation and seclusion, which is rare in the Alps, given the well-developed trails, ease of access, and accommodation in mountain chalets.
I was lulled into a meditative state as the tips of my poles rhythmically tapped on the white rock faces, swirled and carved by glaciers and time, as I summited Combe aux Puaires. I greeted the race’s medical personnel at the summit, did a quick 360-degree scan of the view, and started the almost nine-mile descent, descending 4,400 feet into the next aid station.
In terms of scenery, this section is one of the most sublime. The trail passes through Fond de la Combe, where near-vertical cliff faces rise for thousands of feet. Deciduous trees and shrubs somehow have taken root on tiny ledges and create verdant bands of forest perched precariously on the valley walls.
Between the trees, snowmelt funnels into chutes, plummeting into waterfalls that crash into the Le Giffre river. The Ultra-Trail du Haut-Giffre then traces the valley and follows the river. The mystical mountain scenery battled with the pain cave of late-race negativity is what amounts to the paradigm of the ultrarunning experience. It was a powerful juxtaposition of inner sensations with the external wonderland.
After arriving in the town of Pelly late in the afternoon at mile 41, I struggled with the notion that there were two more mountains and 19 more miles to run. My goal of finishing before sunset was out of reach, but barring any mishap, I realized I could probably finish the race.
I started charging my headlamp to prepare for a second night of running. A combination of stubborn determination and an intense desire to see the rest of the trail kept me trudging up and back down those last two mountains. I could still climb steadily, but my downhill was reduced to a hobble during the last six miles of technical descending in darkness back to the town of Samoëns.
Finally, I heard the finish line announcer and a rock band playing. I saw the city lights below me. I shuffled around Lacs Aux Dames, a small lake, and crossed the finish line in 21 hours and 28 minutes. The Ultra-Trail du Haut-Giffre has all the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful elements that make ultrarunning an irresistible pursuit.
Trail Love Letter: You Make Me Keep Going
[Author’s Note: For our second submission, Portuguese trail runner Carlos Ferreira da Silva took a slightly different approach to describing his love of running trails.]
I never cared much about running. Nevertheless, I had to try to not be completely terrible at it so I could keep up with my adventure racing friends and team. I never really succeeded in that, though. What I really enjoyed was mountain biking — long rides, uphills, traveling, off-road. On the bike, I could feel the ability to manage my effort and just keep going. My friends said the same about running, but I never felt that. For me, it was just hard and exhausting.
That was a long time ago. A lifetime ago. More recently, as COVID-19 came and disrupted everyone’s lives, I was lucky to be able to spend more time out of the city. We moved to near Magoito, a beach in Portugal, and the same short runs where I would drag myself through the city now felt … different.
I run mostly at night, after the kids are asleep. I find the shortest path to get off the tarmac, and can hardly wait to hear my feet crunch the dirt. Shortly after, away from the streetlights, the night reveals itself.
Dark. Really dark, unless the moon is up — then everything is silver. So many stars in the sky. Lazy frogs in the path. The smell of the sea breeze. The sound of waves crashing. Fog rolling up the cliffs and dozing through the valleys.
I never cared much about running, but this is different. The trail heads to the ocean and reaches the edge of the cliff. I want to stop and absorb everything around me, but I surprisingly felt the need and had the will to keep on running!
The trail twists and turns along the cliff. The roots and the rocks dance with me, setting my cadence, while the sand welcomes my feet. And I feel like I’m gliding, and have a serene smile. This is how even I can just keep going — until the next steep climb, of course.
As I walk up the shoulder of the cliff, I see flashlights near the ocean. Fishermen take quite a risk descending these cliffs, but the reward is worth it. I think they feel they can just keep at it all night long.
Two months ago, I rolled my ankle and ruptured several ligaments. I was happy, training for two 50k events, and had to completely stop. No more sound of feet crunching the dirt roads. No more starry nights with frogs in my path, fishing boats in the distance, or the sea breeze on my skin.
My recovery has been slow, but I know it will happen. Now I am able to walk more comfortably, although not for a long time, and with some movement limitations. Just well enough to make me want to walk the trail.
Finally, I go. I am anxious to go. I can hardly wait to get out of the tarmac … and hear it, smell it, fill my sight with the wide blue ocean and carefully walk along these cliffs. To slowly dance with the rocks and the roots along the twists and turns of the footpaths. It’s so immensely satisfying to be again in these trails that I can’t take the serene smile off my face while I just keep going.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from New Trail Brewing Company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Sticky Imperial Milk Porter is an absolutely succulent porter from this fantastic brewery. Creamy and smooth, Sticky is the perfect antidote to a cold, dark Pennsylvania night. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one, you will not be disappointed.
Call for Comments
It has been a pleasure for us to produce this monthly series throughout 2021 and we eagerly look forward to 2022. Any readers out there have any ideas for a good monthly series we can tackle in the year ahead? Please let us know in the comments!