My Biggest Little Trail RunBy Emma Pearson
September 22, 2023
Photos my own, taken today
8th September 2023
Fellow Griefling, poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, whose daily poems keep me both grounded with the earth and connected to the stars through her exquisite words, sometimes introduces her poems with a line like, “short big poem” or “very short poem” or even, “very very short poem”. I feel a bit like that about what is upcoming, tomorrow, for me. Hence my blog post heading, “biggest little trail run”.
Tomorrow, 9th September, I will be participating in my first mountain trail run in over 6 years. I believe it might be my shortest trail run ever, though I recall now one I did in May 2017, literally weeks after Mike died, in my backyard, the Jura. I think I registered the morning of – on a whim. Something to take my mind off things. That one was a similar distance to tomorrow’s, though not as steep. Quite how I completed that event, I have no clue. Nor do I have much recollection of it, other than it being chilly and misty. The highest point, le Colomby de Gex, was shrouded in mist – no opportunity to take in the views. I remember the feeling of release, freedom, combined with physical effort. Alone in my world, but in company of sorts. An apt metaphor for living with loss.
Fast forward to today. I am “back” to trail running. If only for a day. If only for this event. Or so I tell myself.
For I have missed trail running these past years. I have never been “good”. I have never been “fast”. But perhaps because it brings back something of Orienteering and mountain walking in my adolescence and early 20s in the Lake District, and is a hell of a lot more interesting than road running, it was something I fell in love with.
Trail running – and specifically preparing for biggies in the mountains – was something I did with Mike. The events, some of them tremendously long – 86 km our longest, but also multiple shorter ones ranging from 32-55 kms, all with thousands of metres climb in them – were common projects, common goals. I’d typically associate them with a sponsoring project, weaving the volunteer work we did as a family in Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Ghana or Laos, with fundraising through my physical efforts. I pestered people to sponsor my run and donate the money to a trip and charity we’d work with the following summer. Thanks to monies raised through myriad runs and, more recently, swims, a number of houses and latrines exist where they otherwise might not. I am proud of that.
But Medjool doesn’t run. Probably because he’s wise. And definitely because when he does, he has pain in his knees. I don’t. Not yet, anyway. And so, I want to keep going. But trail runs require prep. Prep takes time – weekend time – which is my time for Medjooling. So inevitably, trail running has faded into being “something I used to do, once upon a time”.
And then, in early 2023, as I semi-consciously set some intentions for the year, the idea of a “swan song” trail run came and lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t leave. And so I scouted around for an event I might enter.
Lizzy Hawker’s Ultra Tour du Monte Rosa “family” of trail runs seemed to fit the bill. Along with the extraordinarily long events (170 km, 100 km and 60 km), none of which I could – nor would want to – do now, is her “baby sister” event – the Berglauf – meaning Mountain run. “Only” 23 km, and “only” 1320m vertical climb. Any Swiss person worth their salt will tell you about “Mountain kilometres”, whereby you add the vertical climb to the official kilometre distance, to the tune of 1 km per 100 m vertical climb, to get the “real” total. A bit like combining actual temperature and wind chill. So my 23 kms + 1320 means I will, in effect, complete a 36.2 km race. Not such a little thing then. Close to a road marathon. And rocky, uneven terrain.
So, on the opening day of registration, I registered. I wonder if I might have been the first entrant. At any rate, I got a personalised “thanks” from Lizzy Hawker, and let her know that there were inconsistencies in the dates of the event on her website – something she clearly needed to clarify and fix!
My intention? To do a “swan song trail run”. To say, “Farewell, and Thank You for all the joys, all the memories, all the sweat and all the tears” (there was never any blood!) to my shortish love affair with trail running. I tried to enlist some chica friends but didn’t get any commitment at the time.
Okay then – a project for myself, to do alone. No Medjool. I chose not to have his company for this. Just me, myself and my memories. Me and my life with Mike, memories of when we would eke out space and time to go on a mountain run, sometimes lasting up to 10 or 12 hours, my parents or an au pair looking after the then very young kids. Me and my intact family, three children alive, memories of which feel so fragile, so tenuous, so risky, that I feel I need to be in a big open space to hang out with them. Out there in the elements, in the efforting, heavy, laboured breathing, perhaps with sobbing and tears, trusting that the space can hold all that was and all that is.
And why this event? Because it’s close-ish to home. Because it’s NOT the UTMB in Chamonix, which now feels too elitist, commercial, out of my world, and not the ambiance I want. (That I’d never qualify now is a factor too!) And because it’s Lizzy Hawker’s event – a woman I have never met, but whose name I came across in 2005 as she took the mountain trail running world – as it was then – by storm. 2005 was the year Mike and I completed our own longest race (just half of the event Lizzy won). Julia was just one, Megan four, and Ben six. I am aware the feeling won’t be mutual, but I have since felt a sense of connection with her. Her at the top end of the elite game, running fastest, longest, hardest. And me at the other end of the spectrum, but still, relative to myself and my capabilities and experiences, also doing my fastest and longest – though I didn’t know what “hard” was back then. I’ve only gone slow and shorter since.
I am not ready for tomorrow physically. I figured I’d do some running while in Shetland and Orkney, but didn’t. Lots of walks, but no runs. I have done two 8km gentle jogs in my local woods with my increasingly slow dog, Black, since coming back from holiday, but that’s it.
No worry. I will treat it like a quick-ish mountain walk, where I get to jog along a bit where I feel like I can. If I don’t get injured or cramp, then I should be able to finish within the time allowed – 6 hours. I could realistically be last. I have never been last. Nowhere close. But perhaps this time. Seriously. Someone, after all, needs to be last, and no-one enters these kinds of events thinking they will give up. You can’t really give up because by the time you contemplate the idea, you are going to be too far from the finish line, and in getting back to the Finish to give up, which you must do, you might as well carry on.
I am not ready for tomorrow psychologically either. I feel unsettled. My capacity to be with the “before” phase is not so good anymore. I want Mike here with me. We’d go for a walk. Perhaps a swim. We’d get some good food. We’d just hang out. All of that is still harder to do on my own. And the “after”, I know, won’t be, can’t be, the same.
And yet, in the end, I am not unaccompanied. Wholly last minute, as in a week ago, one of my chica friends told me should could, after all, be here for the event. I suspect that if I were the first entrant, she might have been the last. Julie, who, ironically, I first met on a train to the Davos SwissAlpine trail event in summer 2012. We swapped details and stayed in touch. She created my first website, and will do my next (she promises!) She and her husband Simon do beautiful work in the mountain/trail running space with their magazine “Like The Wind”, and for a gazillion reasons of her own, this “baby event” is also massive for Julie. I feel honoured, soothed, accompanied and extremely grateful to have her here with me.
Quite rightly, she has challenged me on why this needs to be my swan song trail run. I notice the excitement that that challenge evokes in me. Why indeed? Why not just baby trail runs. “Little sister events” as they are commonly called. I like the idea.
Let’s enjoy tomorrow. Let’s be with the mountain, the trails, the fresh(er) air, the views. Yes – I imagine along with the sweat there will be tears, but I am familiar with sobbing while running. It’s something I did even when Mike was still breathing. Even when I had three living kids. Sobbing and running is familiar territory – intact life or not.
I can do this.
With joy and gratitude, Game on.
Below, some links –
Info about the UTMR and my “baby sister” event, the Grächen Berglauf. Then a bit about Lizzy Hawker, and finally a link to Julie & Simon’s magazine site.
Find out more about the UTMR races and the baby Berglauf event
Find out more about Lizzy Hawker
Find out more about Like the Wind
Looking forward to actually, legitimately, going under that Finish banner! What a backdrop!