A new book, Grand Trail: A Magnificent Journey into the Heart of Ultrarunning and Racing, shares the stunning beauty and raw emotions of ultrarunning, paying tribute to the passion and splendor of the sport and lifestyle. Filled with powerful photographs and intimate stories, Grand Trail portrays ultramarathon champions and their extraordinary world.
Grand Trail features the icons of ultrarunning—people, places, and races—in spectacular color and black-and-white photography by Alexis Berg. Exploring iconic courses like Western States, Hardrock, Marathon des Sables alongside personal portraits of heroes like Kilian Jornet, Emelie Forsberg, and Scott Jurek, Grand Trail is as inspiring as it is beautiful.
Enjoy this chapter used with permission of VeloPress from Grand Trail.
Running is an individual sport, but as you get into the megadistances and you run farther and longer, the other runner is no longer an opponent but a friend—sometimes a lifelong friend.
The caress of the nearby ocean, the sound of drums rising up into the starry sky. It was the middle of a warm, heady night on December 7, 2014. Hand in hand, Joan Roch, a French Canadian trailer, and Widy Grego, trail running’s rasta icon from Guadeloupe, crossed the finish line of the Transmartinique, an ultratrail across the French Caribbean island of Martinique, following its relief carved out by centuries of unpredictable volcanic activity. The two runners tied for 10th in this highly selective race on the Island of Flowers.
But there is more to the story.
When they bumped into each other at an aid station, they decided to set off again together. Joan recalls, “Widy said to me, ‘If you’ll just let me finish eating, I’ll run a few strides with you.’ We ran together for eight hours.” The men did not have much spare energy to talk, but they came together. “I felt a very powerful vibe from him, an indefinable inner strength. In a silent pact we decided to support each other. On several occasions his presence gave me the strength to keep going, and stay awake,” adds Joan. A few months later he invited Widy to take part in a race in Quebec. After 75 miles, they again finished together. “We were made to meet up like that at an aid station, on an ultra.”
This encounter sounds like many others.
The trail scene is full of these wonderful tales that show how the sport builds up a fraternity that really transcends the competitive spirit. “There is huge respect among the runners, and I’m not just saying that. We all want to win, that’s for sure, but beyond that there is a real sharing,” stresses Thomas Lorblanchet, one of the pioneers of ultrarunning in Europe, who has loads of stories to illustrate his point: “When I won the Leadville 100 in 2012, Scott Jurek, the ultradistance legend who was acting as Anton Krupicka’s pacer, came to congratulate me. He showed respect for me, and I found that enormously touching.”
François Gonon, an orienteering world champion with the French team in 2011, and who won medals galore in that discipline between 1992 and 2014, discovered trail running through a friend in 2014. “I was afraid of being a bit of an outsider, of not being accepted by these runners I looked up to as stars. Just the opposite—I discovered a very friendly, very simple bunch of people with a superb mentality. The first time I got to meet Kílian Jornet, I was quite intimidated, but he was great and didn’t look down on me at all.”
Kílian, the ultra giant, also enjoys meeting people—although he sometimes suffers from all the pressure from the media and the fans—notably in Chamonix, where he lives. In October 2010, just after his brilliant win on the trails of the Diagonale des Fous on Réunion, he heard that a 70-year-old man was having trouble completing the course and was going through sheer hell on the final downhill section. Throwing protocol to the wind, the young Catalan set off to meet the man and help him run his final half mile. The man, Claude Rudeau, was finishing his seventh Diagonale des Fous. “I saw myself die. I even stopped for a moment. From up there, He was watching me, He wasn’t having me. My strength returned. A man ran alongside me over the last 30 km [19 miles], and then on the last descent I saw Kílian Jornet arriving. I could have taken him for an apparition.” The story is now part of the Diagonale des Fous folklore. A hand in hand finish, carried along by spectators moved to tears.
“Since then I have been getting a Christmas letter every year from Chamonix. It’s from Kílian sending his best wishes and telling me he is thinking of me,” says Claude Rudeau, who cannot count the number of friends he has made on the trails. “This sport has saved my life and brought me eternal friends.”
In 2015, the Western States in California saw similar emotional scenes when the winner, Rob Krar, went to fetch 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson and run the last half mile with her. Gunhild made it home inside the 30-hour cutoff with just 6 seconds to spare. Never before had a 70-year-old finished the race. All the spectators were in tears, much more moved by this feat and the champion’s gesture than by his victory the day before.
Scott Jurek, a seven-time winner of the Western States, laid down at the finish line to greet each competitor. He tells the story in his book Eat & Run: “Camping out at a finish line gave me a chance to cheer on my buddies and to make new friends. More important, it gave me a chance to acknowledge what every single person who completed the race had endured.”1
Setting off alone and finishing as a twosome or even a threesome—there is no end to these tales of striking up midrace friendships. The French ultratrailer Cécile Vanier doesn’t know where to start. “At the Grand Raid 73 in 2015, there were three of us in the lead from start to finish. The two other girls were stronger going uphill, I was stronger going downhill. We would let each other pass us, giving encouragement in a real spirit of fair play. Ever since, whenever we meet, there is this tie, respect, friendship. Something brought us together during that race. It was magical.”
René Bachelard, president of the Mont Blanc trailers club, was one of the founders of the UTMB. In 2009, at age 77, he ran the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) and remembers how it finished: “I had comforted a runner who had collapsed on the way up the Grand Col Ferret. He was finally able to continue, and near the finish he insisted on finishing with me rather than overtaking me. Such a spirit is worth a thousand wins.”
Many trailers run, or train, in twos. Anton Krupicka shares a lot of his training and his daily life with the Franco-American Joe Grant. Florent Bouguin, the trailer born on Réunion, reckons he owes part of his success to his friend Jeff Gosselin: “He’s not just a racing partner, he’s a brother. His advice, the sometimes silent dialog that draws us together, in my opinion, is irreplaceable.” More than once the two men have breasted the winner’s tape together in ultraraces.
Above and beyond friendships between runners and the fraternization that goes on in the dust of the trails, we often find other tangible evidence of the emotional side of trail running. In what other sport do the organizers stand for hours waiting for each finisher, to congratulate them, as they do at the Marathon des Sables, where every participant gets a big hug from Patrick Bauer? Whether in the big races or the smaller ones, the finishes are almost invariably spectacular. You need to experience an arrival at 3 a.m. at La Redoute Stadium, the end point of the Diagonale des Fous that never sleeps, or finish an ultra in the United States, to get a feel for these unique moments.
Emotion gatecrashes not only the finish, but the entire race as well. “The treasures of kindness of the volunteers, the warmth of the aid stations,” confides Agnès Fragale, a French ultratrailer who has shone both on mountain trails and on the flatland trails of her native Charente. However, the fraternity expressed on these extreme runs highlights a paradox: If ultratrailers for the most part come for a taste of these emotions, they also become separated from their nearest and dearest to live out their passion, training and racing on the other side of the globe. So the ultra involves a hidden form of selfishness.
Agnès Fragale sums up in a few words what most trailers will admit: “This world is all my own; in a sense, I am imposing it on my family.” Éric Laurent, another French trailer running almost full time, adds, “My wife and kids are the patient witnesses to my passion, being tied down by the constraints of a selfish activity. I hope, however, that the encounter with myself made possible through ultraracing has made me a better man, father, and husband.”
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