5 Lessons I Learned Running the 160K Tour de Mont Blanc

“It‘s incredible what you can accomplish … in the company of amazing people.”

I have been reticent to even sit down at my desk and put this experience into words. Normally this is the first thing I want to do when anything happens. Not this time however. This time I have wanted to take my time, soaking the experience and the lessons into my bones before I attempted to share it.

I just spent a week in the Alps, running around Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland with 16 beloved friends.

I thought this would be a great trip, a chance to speak French again, and a physical push to run around the base of a mountain. I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the effort or the experience when I agreed to go, or when I got on the plane, or even when I put my pack on and set off.

Everyone jumping
As it turns out, we weren’t really taking a leisurely lap around the base of a mountain. Instead, we were running up and down peaks surrounding the highest peak in Europe: Mont Blanc. It was over 160 kilometres of climbing, descending, crossing streams and suspension bridges, using cables and even ladders. Training in Austin, Texas, did not prepare me at all for the altitude, the climbing, the descents, or the terrain.

And yet, it’s incredible what you can accomplish with good attitude and gratitude in the company of amazing people.

We ran for six days, ranging in mileage from 20 to over 30 kilometres per day. But this does not really equate to the time that the terrain warranted, some days we ran and hiked for over 9 hours. Each day two or three people were designated leaders, so we had reconnaissance meetings after dinner each night and the crew in charge of the next day would explain routes, predicted elevation and metres of climbing, availability of water and nutrition, and expected weather. We stayed in simple hotels and little mountain huts called rifugios, rinsing our clothing out at night and hoping it was dry enough in the morning.

Instead of reminiscing over our adventure with a day-by-day account, I’m going to stick more to my nature and create a list of lessons learned instead.

I Am Stronger Than I Ever Imagined

This was my biggest takeaway and I imagine my fellow ultrarunners would say the same about themselves and each other.

I will never forget trudging straight uphill (and I mean straight uphill) for hours with my trekking poles – step, poke, step, poke – and listening to the sound of my wheezing breath, stopping to wipe my sweat or runny nose on the Buff wrapped around my wrist. Suddenly someone would come out with a joke, a most-embarrassing story, or belt out an old high school fight song (“I’m a beaver, you’re a beaver, we are beavers ALL….”) and we would all crack up and time would pass and effort would evaporate.

The collective energy of a group is incredibly powerful. On a particularly steep climb, Jamie, Katie and I distracted ourselves by playing a little alphabet word game. Taking turns shouting out words to describe us. Ready, Go: A is for Awesome. B is for Badass. C is for courageous…

We Have to Break to Build
Kristin at mile 100

We created a whole rating system for our accommodations, spending copious time discussing the humorous aspects of our previous night’s stay. One particular night bonded us for life. We refer to it as “what broke us”.

I won’t name the place because one Italian girl who worked there was very nice. So it’s the end of a long ass day. I mean long: nine and a half hours of running. We are getting close to our rifugio when the storm starts coming. Temperatures are plummeting as fast as our moods, the wind is whipping across the mountain, and it’s starting to rain. We still have at least 800 metres straight uphill to get there. All I could think about was a hot shower, food and a glass of wine.

We got there and it was jam packed with weary hikers from all over the world, humming with different languages and odd smells – especially in the reeking “shoe room”.

I got in line for the shower, and pieced together enough conversations of the people in front of me to finally understand that there was no hot water. So we took a glacier-cold shower (I stood in the water for two seconds, screaming obscenities just to survive) and dried off with our tiny chamois travel hand towels and pulled on our hut clothes over ice cold damp skin, shivering. We slept 13 people in a bed, in sleep sacks with a thin mattress over wooden planks.

Our rained on, sweaty clothes would never dry if we washed them so we hung them up like stinky sachets on the clothesline across our bunk. Across the room were 15 more strangers sleeping together, snoring and farting. Jamie was so tired she used a dirty sock as an eye mask. We got the giggles so bad no one could sleep.


The thing is. We did have fun. Later we determined this was the place that broke us, and we had to break down in order to build back up. We will never take a hot bath, a large fluffy towel, a clean pillow, or a good night sleep for granted again. Little luxuries.

We Need Less Than We Think
kristin planking

We each had one 15L pack for six days of stuff, with all of our items squished into compression sacks in order to fit it all in: long sleeve shirt, hiking poles, cozy thermal hut clothes, flip flops, underwear, extra sports bras, socks, sunscreen, toothbrush, toothpaste, phone, charger with adaptor, rain jacket, gloves, beanie, passport, money, food, two soft water bottles and lip balm.

I felt odd at first, with all my necessities on my back – like I was forgetting something. After about a day I felt liberated. My pack started to chafe my pokey collarbone. Jamie had the brilliant idea to use a Lulu bra pad as a shoulder pad, so we channeled our 1980s fashion mojo and rocked that pack.

In the photo above you can see us showing off, doing forearm planks wearing our packs.

F Is for Facing Fear
Okay so day 6 I met my demons. They came in the form of ladders.

Let’s be clear – I do not like heights. I do not even like to use a ladder to change a ceiling bulb or put the star on the Christmas tree in my own house. I especially do not like iron ladders drilled into rock cliffs that I have to scale using wobbly legs and pole-weary palms, with a pack on my back to throw off my balance ever further. I was praying and shaking and looking only at the rung in front of me. Thankfully I did not have a panic attack. I almost cried with relief when I got to the top.

The lesson for me: When an obstacle or situation comes up that flares my fear, there is no turning back and no other way. Breathe. Focus. Do the next thing. Then the next thing after that. Courage, like sweat, is made in the moment you get to work.

Sharing an Experience Makes It Real
everyone again

Having people to sweat with, laugh with, tell stories, take photos, commiserate, and triumph with makes it a real experience. The sharing of it authenticates it for me.

Like designated drivers, we all took a turn carrying each other safely to the next destination. This may come in the form of sharing food, salt pills, ibuprofen, sunscreen, or water. This may mean having a smile when someone else is cracking. This may mean another set of eyes on the map, helping to navigate. This may mean helping get poles out of your pack, or stopping with you while you pee or put on a rain jacket. Or helping you up when you fall. Or enduring a sleepless night in a shared bed. Or buying you laxatives in a foreign pharmacy after you have eaten your weight in cheese.

Ultimately, surrounding yourself with incredibly strong people makes you stronger. Having the right people to share the journey, especially the beer and French fries at the end of a long day, is absolutely everything. It’s a rare gift to find a group of friends who agrees on the concept of earned pleasure, whether it’s a view, a meal, a well-deserved rest, or a cold glass of rosé.

Thank you to my 16 fellow ultrarunners for sharing these sacred days on the mountain with me. Thank you, Terra and Chris for all your planning, advice and encouragement. Hopefully we all picked up some essential lessons and beautiful memories – and left behind some things out there that we no longer need to carry around. I miss you, beavers all, already. Until next time.


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