We hear more and more about trail running (also called hill running) and for good reason; trail running is in fashion because it combines sport, nature and freedom. But what exactly is it ? What do you need to take part ? Can anybody try it ? And can you do it anywhere ? Marie Dohin talked to us about her passion for trail running and explains all about the sport…
Interview with Marie DOHIN
PLEASE EXPLAIN TO US WHAT TRAIL RUNNING IS ?
We use the term trail running when we talk about running in a natural environment. If you are running through natural surroundings, you are trail running. It covers a variety of types of running on different terrains.
There is no particular distance involved. Just because you only run 5 kilometres doesn’t mean that you’re not trail running! We hear a lot about ultra-trail in the media, involving ever-greater distances, but trail running is any run through natural surroundings which allows us to switch off and discover new landscapes and it is accessible to everybody, over any distance.
It allows you to express yourself fully according to the environment you find yourself in, as timing is not key. It’s more about the type of course, its steepness and the condition of the ground etc. These are never the same, even if the mileage and vertical climb are identical. So there is not the same pressure against the clock, it relates more to the challenges of climbing, descending, discovering new view points and new places.
Running in a natural environment invariably entails some up and downhill. Though of course, the vertical distances won’t be the same in a city as here in a Savoyard ski resort, so now there is another movement, urban trails. In this, runners tackle hills in the city with small sections through parks so they too can claim to be part of the trail running movement.
For example, there is a great trail run in Paris called the Eco-trail. Most of it takes part in the surrounding forests and it finishes with an ascent of the Eiffel Tower. Although it may appear relatively flat, there is still quite a vertical climb !
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO GET STARTED ?
First you need a good pair of shoes with good foot support in order to cover long distances in safety. This type of shoe is slightly different from road running shoes with extra tread to give grip on natural surfaces and it is better suited to tracks. All footwear brands and specialists now make this type of shoe.
The choice of clothing is a question of your individual preferences and style but it's much the same as classic running gear. On the other hand, trail is unique in that you may run for several hours or be on an adventurous course, so it is recommended to carry a windbreaker and a change of clothing. Especially as we never know how weather conditions may change.
is also essential. There are belts which carry water bottles that are very good for short distances, or you can carry a special hydration backpack.
Poles are not obligatory, although they can be useful in the mountains. They can be as much a hindrance as a help if you don’t know how to use them. A beginner doesn’t necessarily have to have them, unless he has already done a lot of hiking in which case he can use the same type of poles and become accustomed to running with them.
A mobile phone can also be useful. First of all, to take pictures along the route, and also to call for help something should happen. But it can also useful to to find your way and locate Méribel’s itineraries, using apps such as the resort app or Trace Trail.
As you may be on your own in a natural environment, you could carry a venom extractor to be prepared any eventuality.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TRAIL RUNNING ?
I started young with athletics and road running, and I began trail running ten years ago. It was the natural progression of my sporting activities and was also due to the geography of where I was. When you live in Méribel, running naturally becomes trail running.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT THE SPORT ?
All the possibilities offered by “trail/hiking” (ie walking the uphill parts and running on the flat and downhill parts). By trail running in this way for 3-4 hours, it’s possible to discover lots of different areas and views and mountains etc. I do a lot of this when I travel and it gives me a much better view of an area, simply by using my legs.
What appeals also is that, unlike road running, you never know exactly how many miles are left to run. When we follow a route, we divide it up in terms of the climbs and descents and changes of valley.
The varied training allows you the excuse of saying ‘I’m going for a training run’ in order to spend great weekends in mountainous areas.
WHAT IS YOUR TRAINING SCHEDULE ?
I train 6 times per week throughout the year, summer and winter. In Méribel, we can vary our sports so as not to get bored or overstrain our bodies. In summer, we can road cycle or mountain bike and in winter, cross-country ski or ski tour.
In addition, I work on muscle strengthening. This is important to avoid injury, aid recovery, and work the upper body so you can use poles. I also do yoga-type stretching/core work as that adds suppleness to your muscles. Supple muscles are less likely to get injured and perform better on uneven terrain.
I train between midday and two because I work during the week. It takes some organising but it offers me a real chance to decompress. Running, as well as making the most of the environment we live in, is also a chance to switch off from work, or think about problems and sometimes even find solutions to them! I make the most of weekends by going a bit further and running for longer. It’s a balance that I’ve made my own and which keeps me busy and I love it! I’ve made it part of my everyday life.
HOW LONG DO YOU HAVE TO RUN FOR? ARE THE DISTANCES ALWAYS VERY LONG ?
No, as we said earlier, trail running doesn’t necessarily mean long distances. It’s true there’s a certain amount of one-upmanship when it comes to ultra-trails, and I have to admit I’ve succumbed to that.
In terms of the media, it’s the longest distances that attract the most attention, but actually running a 40km race intensely is more difficult than an extra-long category run. But for an extra-long run, there is a notion of surpassing oneself, pushing one's limits as far as possible, which challenges many runners. Another perspective is that of experiencing an adventure, both on your own and with people around you, encouraging you throughout the race.
IS THE TRAINING DIFFERENT FROM ROAD RUNNING ?
Yes, but just because you don’t live in the mountains doesn’t mean you can’t train for trail running. If you live in an urban environment, in addition to a regular running training in that environment, you need to come from time to time to do some "shock" week-ends in the mountains. This consists of integrating some hill work in your preparation, and longer hours of training to prepare your muscles for the downhill. For that, Méribel is an ideal place because it has so many varied routes.
TELL US ABOUT THE TRAIL COMMUNITY
On a road race, the goal is to achieve the best time so everybody is obsessed with their times! On a trail run, when someone is going through a hard time or there is a great view, everyone looks up and has a word with the person in front and behind. The values of trail running go beyond just surpassing your limits; they include the values of discovery, sharing and everything related to the environment.
The organisers also try to promote their area and its small producers, as does the Méribel Trail Run, for example. We show off our area by choosing a course through the places with the most beautiful views of the valley. At the end of the race, we join the local volunteers who have encouraged us on and share a local beer and some good local produce with them. One very enjoyable aspect is this openness to new discoveries, including everything an area has to offer such as its food traditions.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST TRAIL?
The Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, which is one of the Mont-Blanc Ultra-Trail races (an event encompassing 7 trail runs including 4 ultra-trails crossing 3 countries, 3 regions and 18 communes). I did it twice and it involved 100 km distance with 6,000m vertical climb. I like these long efforts, it’s a real experience. Even though I ran on my own, I was never really alone. Both beforehand during the training and during the race, my partner and members of the Méribel Sport Montagne Club were there to care for me at every refreshment point. It’s lucky they were there because the weather was not great last summer and it was raining so hard I had to change my clothing 3 times. They helped me by drying my things in the car so I could wear them again. They experienced the race with me; another example of trail running being about sharing!
IS MERIBEL A GOOD LOCATION FOR TRAIL RUNNING? FOR EXPERTS AND BEGINNERS TOO ?
For me, Méribel is a sensational place to prepare for my trail running competitions because it is in the heart of les 3 Vallées. Being at the heart of several valleys means you can move easily from one valley to another! It is gratifying to say, for example, that I ran from Méribel to Pralognan or that I ran all the way to the Belleville Valley to meet friends.
There are steep paths, like Col de la Loze, where the descent is a bit challenging for someone who is inexperienced and it requires a lot of concentration. But there are all types of terrain, including much easier and more accessible paths like at Lac de Tuéda or the Refuge du Saut. This area is fabulous because it allows you to do a good trail running session on relatively flat terrain or some of Méribel’s famous summits.
In fact, an extreme runner can have fun doing 50-60 km in one day, while a beginner runner can do 10-15km quite easily on flat or undulating paths and gradually tackle the mountains. If you want to, of course, you can run on tarmac roads up the hairpin bends, but for me that’s missing out on something.
WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE ITINERARY ?
I have two! First, the tour of the Aiguille de Fruit because, for me, it’s one of our most beautiful mountains. This route allows you to go through the beautiful La Plagne plateau in the Vanoise National Park and then switch to Courchevel before returning to Méribel, going through remarkable places such as the Merlet Lakes.
I also love to climb up along the Tougnète ridges and then switch back into Mottaret. This itinerary has a mixture of very interesting paths offering wonderful and varied views, single tracks and fun footpaths etc. And, as a bonus, you can completely switch off while enjoying a good challenge as well!
I also enjoy comparing the trails in the summer with the ski slopes. There are places that feel steep when we go there in winter but feel flat when we’re running, and vice versa!
DO YOU EVER SEE ANIMALS ?
The animals we see and hear most are marmots! There are lots of them, especially in the Vanoise National Park. Sometimes we are even luckier and see deer, stags or chamois (my secret spot: l’Aiguille du Fruit!) They are all part of the chance encounters that we love and the experiences we hope for when we trail run.
WHAT EVENT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST THIS SUMMER ?
The Méribel Trail because it’s part of the French Championships and Méribel Sport Montagne will be in action. It's a great way to promote trail running to lots of French and foreign people.