Training for Trail Running: Special Guest Hillary Gerardi | Uphill Athlete

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Part of our newest educational series: Training for Trail Running

Uphill Athlete has long coached and supported trail runners, but we are dedicating even more time and attention to this ever growing sport. Along with this podcast, we have also launched a Trail Running Training Group in June 2023 led by coaches Alexa Hasman, Brian Passenti and Alyssa Clark. We are revamping our training plans and have many experienced trail running coaches available for 1:1 coaching.

In this episode, Steve is joined by the Chamonix Fit master himself, Neil Maclain-Martin, to interview the legendary mountain athlete, Hillary Gerardi. Among her accomplishments as a sky running series champion and Mont Blanc 90km winner, Hillary most recently set a new Fastest Known Time summiting Mont Blanc in 7 hours, 25 minutes and 28 seconds. Steve, Neil and Hillary discuss Hillary’s introduction to mountain running and how she has combined her elite running with ski touring and alpinism. Hillary and her husband Brad share a deep passion for conservation and climate activism which factors greatly into her mountain pursuits. The three continue with a discussion on Hillary’s route choice for her FKT and the impact these decisions have on setting safe examples in the mountains. Hillary also brings up the relationship she has with her coach and the deep trust and collaboration the two have to help Hillary be her best. This is an inspiring and thought provoking episode sure to get you excited to head to the mountains.

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Hillary Gerardi on the summit of Mont Blanc.

Welcome to the Uphill Athlete Podcast our mission is to elevate and inspire all mountain athletes through education and celebration. My name is Steve House and I will be your host Today. We’re coming to you from the iconic town. The heart of the mountains, Chamonix, France alongside me. We are thrilled to welcome our king of Chamonix mountain fit, Neil MaClain-Martin onto the podcast today to help me interview an incredible guest. Legendary Hillary Gerardi. Hillary hardly needs an introduction but she among many other accomplishments is a skyrunning champion, mont blanc ninety kilometer winner the first woman to set an fk t on the Haute Route and most recently an fkt record holder on Mont Blanc which is in a way the occasion for our talk today Hillary and Neil thank you for joining me.

Thanks so much for having me on. It’s a pleasure. It’s great to have you.
Thanks Steve, nice to be back. Neil I feel like maybe you should introduce Hillary for us since you two have a working relationship as physiotherapist and athletes that goes back some time and she has kind of a frequent flier pass here at the Clinic.

Oh wow, that’ll be an absolute pleasure to talk about Hillary. Yes, she’s been in the door a few times but so many other athletes kind of go behind it and we’ve been full time. She’s been a recent thing for you. You’ve moved from being very much the passionate runner discovering a runner and transitioning into making this your actual profession and you’ve made it more than just running and that’s what’s so called I think everyone knows you, and not just being a runner you you started off with the the research for the environment and lots of other things you’ve got. So many strings to your boat and that’s what’s really cool and that’s why we could probably fill three four hours of podcast today. But we’re going to talk about a few great specific things. You’ve been working on some of your projects and seeing how that evolved, we’ve got a nice organic chat to happen and I’m excited to get into it. So welcome.

Well thank you, you know I was actually going to say that it’s funny Neil and I have been working together for several years and I like to think of him not just as yeah. I think for a lot of his days probably the role is also partially psychological as well. So I remember having a lot of conversations when making that decision whether or not I was going to go sort of pro athlete and Neil was right there. And right there in the discussion like every good coach is like part psychologist. So what brought you to Chamonix Hillary? Well so I’ve been living in Chamonix for 7 years now and before that I was six years down in Grenoble France and I moved over here from Vermont with my then- boyfriend, now husband Brad Carlson. It definitely was his passion to come. You know his project to come and live in the alps and I sort of tagged along and in the you know in the years since then. Definitely, turned my full attention to building my own projects here. So he’s a mountain guide. I did a lot of sort of the run up to his guiding program with him in the mountains and then discovered trail running about I guess eleven years ago now and just totally fell in love with it and we moved up to Chamonix from Grenoble to work for a nonprofit research center called the research center for alpine ecosystems here in Chamonix. I worked there for five and a half years. He worked there for six and a half and just wrapped up his stint there and had just so many things to do here that like just you intend to come for six months and then thirteen years later you’re still here. What, tell me I’m curious and I’m sure others are curious. You just mention it in passing but what happens at the alpine environmental research center did I get right?
Well the name you can’t really get it wrong in english because the name is in french originally. So at the research center for alpine ecosystems where we worked. They basically study the impacts of climate change on Mountain Biodiversity so sort of both at a species level and at a landscape level. Looking at how the environment is changing over time. They run a lot of citizen science programs. And are kind of trying to just understand how different species are being impacted so you get a lot of glaciologists and geomorphologists who were working here what we were looking at and I was mostly doing some program coordination and fundraising where Brad does research. Um, but we were really looking at the plants and animals where the area around where I live in Austria were close to the highest mountains of Austria, the hoi tower mountains. And there’s a huge impact right now that’s very very visible of the effects of climate change in the spruce beetles, the bark beetles that have killed a lot of trees that have occupied a certain niche in the ecosystem there and they’ve all died in like a couple of years yeah I mean creating big big problems for it’s probably not the reason why people are listening to this podcast but the the european bark beetle is a huge problem and we see particularly that as climate change means that like the summer season. The warm months are longer.

So they can make more generations of beetles whereas before you know, maybe it was 2 or 3 generations some years they can do like 5 or 6. So it can be pretty detrimental to the forests. Yeah, that’s the area around us is like I’d say between thirty and forty percent of the forest is spruce and it’s all dead below two thousand meters so yeah very interesting. So let’s go back to to trail running. You know you kind of at least in for me.

As a coach and not a trail runner on ah in any kind of competitive form that is an observer you know you kind of came into my awareness through the sky running world series a few years ago and you know. Just happens right? Like if maybe and I’d never know is am I just not paying attention or where did this woman come from like she all sudden is like out there just crushing and seems to have come from nowhere right? Like give me a little bit of backstory about the world series and how you came into that. But attracted to to our area. Yeah, it’s certainly true that in some ways you know I did come out of nowhere. We are starting to see something that’s really exciting in trail running and sky running which are sort of these crossover athletes that are coming from say nordic skiing and you know total powerhouses already. But that was not necessarily the case for me. I started trail running after I moved to Europe, but I had worked in huts in the white mountains for 5 seasons before moving over here and do one trail race the great adirondack trail race which is run by the mountaineer I don’t know if you know, shout out to Nick the manager exactly yeah and and so I did get my start really in the northeastern US. Um, more from an adventuring perspective just like can I go from here to there. Whatever you know, I can sneak over to green leaf hut and steal all their spoons tonight and still get back in time for breakfast but I would say that the crossover in terms of you know why in some ways I wasn’t coming out of nowhere after moving here is because the trails of the northeast are so technical. If you know your listeners have not been there. It is rocks and roots and you know. I’d never seen a switchback before I thought of it and so I came to the alps with a lot of baggage in terms of moving efficiently through technical terrain and then after I moved here. Actually there’s a bit of a longer story but I actually back in 2012 had a ski accident here in Chamonix and I realized that I really needed to change my approach to the mountains a little bit. I was in over my head I would say you know repelling into fifty degree cool water. And then having a year malfunction left me in a pretty vulnerable position. So in any case after that I really kind of needed to refocus and think about how I want to move through the mountains, what was going to be my relationship and at that point my husband said you know hey remember that time you did trail running back in the adirondacks. That’s like it seemed like it went. Well do you want to try out again and that’s how I started and it happened relatively immediately. You know, it went pretty well. I got specifically into sky running. Again, sort of by accident and went to a race at the suggestion of a friend and there was just like this great ambiance. Wonderful party afterward and the trail was like wow you know this reminds me of the trails from home. You know there’s like roots. There’s rocks to kind of scramble over and that really made me go like wow I really like this kind of subdiscipline of trail running and that was back in sixteen I guess seventeen was the first year I did the world series with the goal of getting a ranking.

I was just like I would love to be ranked and that year I finished fourth. So it you know went on from there but I definitely found the niche. Yeah you found it stronger so Neil have you observed this over your years of interacting.

Well, you know it’s horses for courses. We know about where you came from the white mountain, anything else but going back I also know that you were a gymnast before all this so we share that in common. I don’t share the same running ability in common. However I still love running downhill and you know that ability to be light on your feet is responsive fun in the mountains. That’s what it comes down to. You’re really responsive and that pays out in how you how it could be where your niche was and that’s where you take and what you’ve taken to other projects as well. It’s about just being super agile on the mountain and being adaptive to the mountain. I think also to rebound on that like something that is really cool that comes from a gymnastics background is an understanding of where your body is in space. And so whether it’s on the balance beam or on the uneven bars. You know you’re going at some point you’re going to be jumping or flipping and you’ve got to have your body needs to know where it’s going in order to land back on your not just back on your feet but on the piece of the on the mark. Yeah, and so I think that’s definitely something I know several other trail runners and skyrunners in particular with that big itch.

And this can only be a good thing. It’s just protective. You’ve spent years actually developing strength and a lot of the basics for movement that if you’ve been a very sort of unilateral sports person. You’ve always run through college you’ve run through school you run that you maybe haven’t had that diversity and movement patterning and like could get very geeky and I love this whole thing about talking about movement vocabulary your ability to move adapt and respond to terrain in and what situations you get thrown how things move under your feet when you put your foot on it all these things but now it’s a wonderful intro into the whole world of trail running those disciplines and those reflexes do stay with me because there’s a great little clip of film. From the glen coast skyline sky runs in Scotland and 18 where I did not know there was a drone flying above you at one point on a trip and did a full summersault. And then just carried on running and I thought it was just like a secret between me and the mountain but it got caught on to us and took a rule.

Well I want to stay on that a minute because I think it’s super interesting and super relevant to our audience because this has come up on other episodes. Where we’ve had athletes who are excelling in mountain sports but did not come from mountain sports but came from something like maybe lacrosse which you know I’m thinking of Alyssa Clark she’s a very good mountain runner but didn’t come from running actually like came from lacrosse which is and did a ton of strength training in her youth and you know hasn’t been and actually doesn’t really get injured too often these days you know and I think that there’s something about like having a big strength base and gymnastics is obviously like. You know people think of it, I don’t know what they think of it. But I think of it as very powerful, those movements and that and what a gymnast can do is just incredible. I was, you know, a bit neurotic as a kid when I was in track and field. I ran the three thousand meter as on the 4 by 100 meter and so like I did all totally different things just because they were fun right? But I think that’s kind of translatable later in life to being able to do a lot of different things in the mountains. Sounds like you have a very similar kind of backstory there and Gymnastics also tends to me. I don’t know what your rock climbing is like but my experience with teaching gymnasts and dancers how to rock climb usually is pretty good at it. Yeah I think it’s fun to speak to the Midpacker as well I think the representation of multisport. Whether it’s coming from a football rugby background, lots of these different ways of lacrosse I think a lot of successful mid packers. Do come from that multisport background and yeah, it does have that bit of strength when it comes to going along. You know it is protection in me and it’s something you’ve heard me say before I will keep saying it strength is protection.

And you know that’s why it can be harder to transition. For being a road run a successful marathon runner on trail is to go from someone who’s seen as a little bit of a four-by-four vehicle kind of a bit of a family runaround but actually performs better when it comes to taking the hooks. Yeah that’s so true Neil I am gonna go off script a little bit but I think that you should ask a few questions because a script is like you know I mean let’s lean into your relationship with what you two know one another for sure. Um, well maybe I can start off a nice, a nice one. That’s always a good one to start with. What would you say has been your toughest challenge so far whether it’s been a race, whether it’s been an fkt what has what has sort of left you really looking deep inside.

That’s a super interesting question I think in some ways. I kind of have a memory of a goldfish in that, like you know, usually what I’m thinking about is like the most recent thing I did. So I mean I think that one of the things that you know and I’m going to go straight to the mont blanc project. That was very recent and that was probably the first time that I had to make a very clear decision about whether or not it was time to go. On my own when you’re racing it’s like well the race is on this date or when we did the haute route with my friend valentine. Who’s also an uphill athlete coach now. So Valentine and I did that and it was like we were deciding that together right? You know? Okay, well how are the conditions? It’s time to go and in fact, at that time we had an external factor which was that they imposed a curfew for covid that was starting on Saturday so it was like oh well we gotta get out of the country.

Before six thirty PM on Saturday but anyway having other people making decisions for me and that also goes I mean my approach as well like is that I very much thrive on working with a coach and working with physios and having input from other people and for the project on Mont Blanc it was entirely up to me to decide is it time to go and then activate sort of this network of people around me who but you know had been willing to help me out with it and that was something that was extremely hard for me to make that decision I lost a bit of sleep. You know, look for as many kinds of help in making the decision as I could whether it was Eve Mattie Mae who’s a local meteorologist who was talking to me about like you know wait where is the zero degree isothermal you know is there going to be a good refreeze. The hot caretakers who were giving me info about you know the snow conditions on the condition of the track or local guides who’d been out but in the end kind of just sitting there at my house. Is it time you know, no, one’s going to give me the answer to this one and so it’s not a physical challenge. It is a real mental challenge for me. Um, so I guess that’s yeah, I think it’s easy to underestimate. I mean you know this wasn’t just the spur of the moment project. This has been the making for how many years so I’ve been thinking about this, since 2020.

I’d gone. 2020 was actually a really neat year for me. A lot of runners had a lot of struggles with 2020 because all the races were canceled. It was covid and you know people didn’t lose their objectives. But I had kind of you know, 2018-2019 I’d done full sky running seasons and it was really neat to do that. But in the end training for a race that is really you know going to be under 4 hours long to prepare for that. You’re doing a lot of short and punchy training and so I wasn’t getting a lot of mountain time because at the end of the day if you want to perform really well in a 25k doing a ten day, ten hour or 15 hour day in the mountains is actually kind of detrimental to your training. So I’ve been kind of you know and following my accident I’ve kind of left the high mountains and so 2020 was really neat for me because I was reconnecting. I had time and space to do that and to start combining this skill set between endurance and mountain stuff because all of the lifts were closed in Chamonix so you know all of it if you wanted to go climb. You had to sort of necessarily go up fifteen hundred meters on foot with a heavy pack and so it was very neat for me to be able to start combining that and.

And that year I was up with a good friend. Mimmi Kotka who’s an incredible trail runner and I brought her up Mont Blanc and she said you know Hillary have you ever thought about mont blanc FKT and it was kind of like planting this seed which she then watered over time you know, just like reminding me about it. And so starting in 2021 it was like okay well would this could this be this year could I go for it and 2021 and 2022 we just did not get enough snow in the winter it was. We had drought years. Precipitation was falling more as rain than snow up high. And there’s this critical passage. Which is the junction and it’s really a labyrinth of crevasses and it always has been when you look at you know historic photos of it. It’s always been quite a labyrinth but there’s this window of time in the spring when you know it’s kind of filled in enough that you can safely quickly get across it except in 2021 and 2022 we just didn’t get the conditions we needed. Yeah, and so that’s kind of like the project was building. And this year I thought it was going to be the same. We had a huge drought in January, February and then in March it started to rain and snow and I was like okay I think it’s time I think maybe I’m going to be able to do it. So then I blocked out.

Essentially two months mid may to mid july saying I’m not agreeing to anything I could barely make an appointment here at the week because I was like what if it’s the day I don’t want to miss it? Um, so it’s yeah, it was a big project for me. Yeah, so take us through it a little bit like just for those that aren’t aware, like what it gives us I guess maybe first of all, just a little history of the FKT of Mont Blanc. I actually am going to like you know, prove myself as woefully ignorant of the early FKT of all mont blanc. I was invited to the full history. But yeah I mean people have been trying to go up mont blanc for centuries and then trying to go up mont blanc quickly for you know at least you know since the 80s I think is when it was really starting to get some record tense and then in 2013 was the year that Kilian Jornet and Matto Sha went for a big run. They got up to the top together and on the way down Matteo stuck his leg through a snow bridge and sent Killian off on his own and that’s when Killian’s record was established and then in 2018 Killian’s partner Emily Forsburg. The first women’s record and she was roped with Killian on the upper section of the mountain. Um, and then that record sat for the last five years again you know what is the record like where does it start. Yeah, so the tradition as is the case for so many of these things in the alps is church to church. You start at the church in the center of the town and you go to the top of the mountain. You know the original format of sky running as well. You know you take Marino Geo Comeeti who is you know, kind of sort of starting that. Um you know with like Monte Rosa Sky Marathon in the early years and it’s like you start outside the church and you go up as high as you can. You come back now. Incidentally I don’t know if you knew this but back and I’m not gonna get the year right? But I think it was one of the videos that had a race that only guides could do in Chamonix going from the church. The Chamonix Church in Chamonix up brevent and back down we’re talking like late eighteen hundreds I think.

That sounds like a good time. There’s been some tradition with it within guys, a lot of competition at that time. Yeah I didn’t realize it was actually something for but there’s a lot of local guides who will refer to what their time. Their best time was at night. Course definitely some studios. The chamonix record the Mont Blanc record chamonix starts in at the church and then you make your way through town head up basically past the tunnel. Um, and then up towards the old. Aiguille du midi cable car stations where so you go past one and then there’s another one higher and at that point you actually have a decision to make because there’s kind of a cut a faint trail that’s been made over the years that cuts you up to the bosson glacier a bit faster or a bit more directly I would say. And then from the bosson glacier you traverse the junction past the grand boulet hut um, and then again, you’ve got a choice to make and I’d love to get into that where either you’re gonna take the petit plateau or grand plateau which is the route that Emily, Matteo and and Killian all took. Or you can take the North Ridge joining up at the col du dome. I hope everybody’s following along with a map right now. Actually I was wrong visually. Now I’m looking out the window and I can see all of this at the cloud level. It is such a fun to be talked about the right way through this from the other window. This is great. Yeah, and then you get to the col du dome.

Just below the top of the dom de gute pass the hut onto the arette bus. So that’s the regular route and you go over the bus. The bumps up to the summit and then back down. Um, and so yeah I mean I had to both day of and beforehand make some route decisions.

Yeah right? So what factored into the route decisions.

So the first big one for me was a question of um. So going up the choice of the petit plateau versus the North Ridge yeah know and initially and I would say the last two years I wasn’t asking myself the question well which route am I going to take I just figured I was going to take the you know the standard record route That’s what everybody else has done. You know so that’s what I’m going to do and then this year in spring I guess it was in April I was ski touring up there checking out you know which passage through the junction because there is also a decision to be made there because there’s multiple different places that you can cross the junction and based on conditions you’ll choose one or another and so I was up there with my friend idise palse. Um, who’s another phenomenal mountain athlete and we were just skiing up to go day to check things out and we cross paths several times with a bunch of skiers who were going up to ski mont Blanc and particularly one german couple that we we saw several times and then I actually had an appointment with Neil I think and I ski back down and didn’t didn’t think anything of it until the next day when I saw in the news that 2 skiers had been killed in serac fall going up the petit plateau in the morning in the wee hours of the night and you know the news kind of came through and it turned out it was the couple that we had crossed paths with several times. And I remember just you know reading the news articles being, you know, pretty shaken up by that and looking at the local rescue organizations and safety organizations were saying they were saying please do not go up the petite plateau route. There is an alternative route. It’s the arrete nord. No and you don’t pass below these giant seracs there and and my husband Brad who’s a guide and always has my safety in mind and is also very practical said you know why don’t you take the nord route and I was kind of like oh really hesitated about it because it’s steeper. It’s more technical whereas the plateau when it was able to be done. You know you can really run most of it. You can do it in microspikes. Emily um, based on the photos I’ve seen I don’t even think she had an ice ax with her or at least I haven’t seen them I don’t want.

You know I don’t want to say that for sure. But so okay, well I’m going to need steel crampons I’m going to definitely need an ice ax you know there’s like it’s in boots that can take a Crampon. There’s repercussions to that choice. Buta s I thought about it and as I saw photos of the rescue teams doing the body recoveries up there where they were stuck on that glacier below the serac for the whole time that it took you know I just started to feel like I don’t think that I can you know with a good conscience take that route whether or not I could probably get through there safely because I’d be going so fast. You know maybe but on the ascent anyway, you’re under there for a lot of time and so for me for my entourage for potential rescuers and then the other thing I was thinking about was what is the impact that imagining if I do manage to set a record what impact does that have on everybody else who says oh that’s really neat I’d like to do the same thing at the end of the day. An alpinist can only make a decision for themselves. You have to make the choice based on the route. And conditions and your fitness and your gear of what you’re going to do but I do think that as somebody with a bit of a platform I have a responsibility to you know, communicate about the decision making that I’m going to do and encourage people to at least give it some thought and so that’s sort of how I approached it.

And I thought there’s no way I’m going to beat Emily’s record. She made it up and down in 7 hours and 53 minutes and I’m thinking you know? Okay, it’s a little bit longer. It’s got different, much heavier gear and I was like no way I’m going to make it but I was still ready to essentially make an argument in the world of like here’s why this should be the reference itinerary for this route I know that when I thought about an fkt I didn’t think about the route. I thought about well what’s the existing itinerary you know and I think it’s interesting that you say this in one of the things that I’ve always done in my own alpinism as I I always said that I’m not climbing roots under seracs like I never did and there’s my point which sounds very similar to yours my thinking was like hey there are a lot of great routes to do that are not under seracs if that’s really the only idea you have for a route. Maybe you should look around when you lack your creativity. Yeah I mean and you know there are I mean I remember a friend of mine dying right up here. You know one of those old ice routes like losing him like you know part of what I’m really passionate about at the stage of my life as an alpinist and is I think really connected to what you’re saying is creating this community and this narrative around in our community that the most important thing is longevity and being around for our friends and family through our whole lifespan. You know some of these risks are inevitable of course. But you know you can make a lot of choices and I know like all of us in this room have lost a lot of friends in these mountains and so yeah, we’ve missed them every day right? And so I think that it’s time to really lean into this narrative of like hey we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves for our communities. Our friends and our families. And if that means taking a longer route because it’s safer then that’s what we should do. That’s the right thing to do, like it’s not necessary to take unnecessary risks. But I think this is a great illustration of when you look at what this sort of challenge actually involves. Because you come from a running background and you think okay runners a lot of people are quite capable of running that kind of distance. But then you put into fact that well actually you’ve also got to be a technical alpinist as well and you’ve got to be.. It’s fit enough to do altitude. You’ve also got to be able to make good decisions and actually and ah like when you were talking about the difference between a lot of people are running races and actually when you got to the moment where it’s actually this is on you I think it’s very hard for the average person to kind of actually go okay we’ll strip away all the race organization, strip away all those sort of support structures are in place. And actually get to the point where you say well I’m going to take all of this on I’m going to try and make the decision have I got all my skill sets up to the necessary standards for this and that responsibility of people not just doing things off because they’ve seen something on Instagram or they think oh that would be amazing to do and we do. Here it’s so pertinent what we say because I mean we always joke about with the guys who work up at the arete du midi they say oh yeah caught another couple of guys walking down the arete in trainers thinking they were going up to Mont Blanc and it’s so easy to be flippant about it but people genuinely see these things and believe it is just a day’s excursion or they think yeah we walking do that someone’s managed that in that many hours. It can’t be that hard so then ah it is great to have people who are leading them correctly and I think that’s also something we maybe talk about but I think it resonated with more in the town here. When you look at how things can be done. You can do things very fast, very light. But also you can do things in the correct way and discussions that we’ve had with local guys with people from the town you know people are interested in this whole thing and actually it’s just that respectful nod that you’ve done it the right way and I think that’s a very very cool thing and I think that will have links beyond even just the time. It’s hats off just saying look very cool. Keep doing things like this, leading the way like that. I mean I will say that one of the most meaningful things for me has been the positive response from people in our own community about the style in which I chose to do it. Um, and for me, it was kind of evident. You know that’s how I wanted to do it.I will say that I do think there are a few days a year right that like you could get up mont blanc in trainers but the reality is that in order to do that, you have to be there at the exact day in time and you have to really know what you’re doing. You have to have done it a bunch of times before and so I think that is where we’ve come a long way and even a lot of other people who’ve been doing speed ascents in the mountains have progressed a lot. No, I didn’t just go up there like that. The first time I came with a whole bunch of baggage, a whole bunch of other experience behind that. But I think sort of generally to ruminate on what you were saying Neil that one of the things that I have found myself explaining to people who are interested in really strong runners who are interested in going into the high mountains or in really strong endurance athletes that you know when you’re doing a run on a trail. There are a lot of things you focus on the things that you can control right it’s like your physical fitness. Um you can control what gear you have to a certain extent. You know you can pick your day when you’re doing it. But when you’re going into the mountains you have to be ready and willing to essentially concede control over a bunch of other things. So like you know the weather and the conditions. What other people are doing. Even if you have all of the technical background and all of that and you’re extremely fast and you’ve managed all of that part that you can control that still doesn’t mean that you can do it right? Like you above all know Steve that like you know sometimes the mountain is just like not going to let you do what you want to do for sure.

Yeah, most of the time exactly most I mean you know. I think I’m sometimes people are surprised like I’ll tell people like I went to the himalaya 5 times a row without standing on any summit and that’s kind of my success rate over there on those mountains was probably somewhere around 20%.

Like 80% of the time you’re going on these huge expeditions and investing a year of your life and you’re not quote unquote successful but you know that’s the process and the learning that you come back with and the partnerships and the friendships that are formed and the memories and all of those things are what you know are really what make it. So I think that this is just that same thing and I want to go back to something you said that I thought was really wise. It was evident to you that you will. Yeah I think you said you wanted to do it that way and I think that’s really worth kind of dwelling on because I wanted to say that’s what real leadership is like you saw that and you were like this is the way to do it and then you actually did it. Like yeah conjecture and talk is just conjecture and talk but actually like working through the whole problem and executing the solution in the way you know that was aligned with your values and your risk tolerances and you know what you saw as the way. I mean you might not have thought about it that much at the time that you were going to sort of redefine the fkt route on mont blanc time will tell right? We’ll have this conversation in ten or twenty years and see what happened but I have a feeling like it’s going to be pretty hard for somebody to go and take the shorter but obviously in many important ways disadvantaged or less safe or less prudent. I don’t want to impose my judgment on future fkts but I think that’s what leadership is. Putting all that together executing it seeing it through the end and then you know you’re probably already on mentally to the next thing everyone else is just sort of like including me is just sort of still digesting what that means I don’t I assure you I’m still digesting I actually have very because I think probably this will be like the sum of my career. Ah, but I’m trying to milk it out as long as I can but I mean I do think it is interesting and I am super thankful and proud that I was in the end able to go 28 minutes under Emily’s time with all these sort of self-imposed constraints like that was something. It’s so that people can’t make the argument like oh well, it’s faster that way like you can’t make that argument at least at this point in time right? Um I do think. That we also happen to be. You know, living and operating at this time where we have super light safety gear in the mountains and like so many people who want to do things in the mountains. Yes I’m like you know doing my little tinkering and seeing where I can shave off grams and stuff like that. But the gear that you buy off the shelf is already super light and I was looking at my crampons even from ten years ago or my ice ax from ten years ago and we’ve come leaps and bounds technologically and so I think that to a certain extent. It’s harder and harder to make excuses like oh I didn’t take my safety gear because it weighs me down so much. Even when you look at the ropes we have like you can get these five point five millimeter static ropes for glaciers that are just like you almost can’t say oh no I can put that in my backpack we were talking last night Steve, Rome we were talking about people making choices is to take between 2 people taking one helmet and you give that to the Belay and would you take a harness on them. Just crazy decisions that you just think how can you do that. But you’re right? It’s because now there’s essentially no excuse. Yeah, that was specifically like vota curtica and Alex Mcintyre on the west face of Makalu so very very high very difficult objectives. Which is they still have the high point 1981 whether or not they tied in with a bowlen to the end of the rope because yeah harness was super heavy at 1981 and yeah helmet was probably weighed 3 or 4 pounds compared so extreme what now and yeah, and then and there’s like who do we give it to. We give it just the belayer not the leader because if the leader falls like they’re screwed anyway. But at least the belayer might not get hit and might have a way down like just the whole logic has shifted right like and it’s fascinating to think about that I mean even microspikes didn’t exist. Not very long ago.

Yeah, well, it’s funny because I was actually thinking about that. Not enough particularly for the mont blanc thing but like you know this winter kind of like running and hiking in the sort of in-between season and I was like what did I do before my first pair? It’s like my god these things are so handy and I ended up using them as well. I’m off you know for the steeper and icier section steel well hybrid crampons because that’s another you know innovation to have steel front points and aluminum and behind but then on the flatter stuff with microspikes because you know they’re easy. They’re light and effective. Um, yeah I would say like we like to improvise that stuff back in the day like we used to put aluminum heels on our steel crampons like for hard high altitudes, especially objective and and it was a real compromise like it was real like the aluminum heels were really bad. Like those points were not like you could not face out and climb down you know to send something on your french technique that had any pitch to it you were forced to turn in and frontpoint a lot more so there was these massive tradeoffs and like yours significantly better that is true.

But what is also better that I actually want to draw a really clear distinction because we do often get focused on the year but the real engine that drives all of this is your engine right? Like it’s from these years of training and racing and working on your fitness to be a better uphill athlete for whatever that meant for you and that’s evolved over time but a 7 and change hour event is like a massive endurance event like with I don’t know what the stats are and the distance and the vert and all of that. Um. Excuse me if I don’t tend to geek out on numbers. But you know that is the interesting part I think and that is also the part that we have the most control over like it’s easy to just throw money and buy a lighter ice ax but it’s another thing to really engage in a multi-year project of you were talking earlier Neil about like the skills and the judgment you’re talking about that being the most difficult part when to pull the trigger but to actually go like those those things are and and I think right knowing when to pull the trigger also like I had to make that decision and I informed myself as much as possible because we do have incredible ways to get information from other people. But then like I knew for example, what I needed in a refreeze because I’d spent a lot of time in the mountains I knew I needed a cycle of several days of refreeze and that it wasn’t just superficial so there was sort of that experience. I also spent a lot of time this spring going up to the mardi glass and just like running up and down in crampons and you know working on building my anchors in my crevasse rescue skills. So like I had years of accumulating that and then when we’re getting closer to the objective saying like okay what do I what do I need to know I need to know the route inside out and I need to hone a skill set that I kind of already have but like I want it to be reflexes.

Yeah, so can we go back to just one really important thing here. Can we give a shout out to your coach because you guys have been working together for how many years now. Yeah so my coach Antonio Galego and I have been working together since 2018, my first real skyrunning season and it’s funny. I would think I was so glad that you got to meet him and say when I arrived down at the church but he’s so funny because he is not an alpinist. He is not a skier, he is mountain running in the narrow sense of the word which is the world mountain running association like thirteen kilometer fast race that’s what he did when he was an athlete himself and that’s kind of what he specializes in he works with the french mountain running team for a world championships and he just said you know, I don’t really know what this takes? But I’m willing to experiment with you if you want to take on that process together. And certainly over the years. It’s been fun with him because we’re both kind of like just testing it out and he knows so much about training for his specific thing and is looking for all these lines. How do I draw across and see how we can apply it in different ways and then I would say that and Neil knows this as well. But that’s the way that I operate. And I don’t think I’d be interested. How many athletes do you know that are like this but if somebody’s going to take the time to make me a training plan, I’m going to do it and in the first 2 years we work together I missed one session and I thought that was normal. It was like well you know like you give me a plan like obviously I’m going to do it. So I think that we’ve had this really collaborative approach with a lot or if you’re the exception. You’re definitely right, I don’t know, I ask. As far as people doing all the Physio Rehab exercises I would say that would be exceptional as well. You’re very diligent with those and not everyone is but it but it’s you know, coming back. Some of the principles of coaching consistency. You know that’s where these things are all from. That’s very cool.

Cool sort of thing just to first to really underline. You know you just keep plugging away in the sessions really hammering on that all the time like people sometimes ask me aren’t you tired of answering the same questions. I’m like now because it’s just one auto record now. Here you are saying like yeah, that’s consistency. But it’s also interesting. Antonio I mean I think that is the spirit of a great coach athlete relationship because it’s a collaboration and he knows stuff and you know stuff and you’re kind of like there’s a push and pull there and that’s really important. That’s really fruitful.
I want to add something else to that which is that also in our relationship I remember going into doing the the haute route traverse which was so that’s a ski traverse going from Chamonix to Zermatt about 110k and 8200 meters of about and no women had ever done it before and as I said my coach he doesn’t ski. He doesn’t really know the difference between a carbon boot and a 4 buckle you know, alpine boot and so we had to have a lot of conversations about this and I had a moment as I was like setting that goal being like oh man I don’t know do I trust him, you know to be preparing me for this because I don’t know if he knows enough about what I’m doing and then I really sat down with that.

And I thought about it and I said this is never going to work if I don’t trust him and I don’t trust the process and I think that if you spend your time questioning whether your coach can prepare you well and your online you know some people can you know, really thrive on looking at plans online and comparing a lot of different things. I’m not one of those people and I think that if you’re working with a coach trusting in that relationship and trusting in the process because your coach has given it a lot of thought and comes with a lot of background and a lot of stuff you don’t know. So I think essentially from the moment I said to myself like I’m going to trust him to prepare me for this and if it doesn’t work. Okay, next year we’ll try it again. You know we’ll go for something else. But I need to trust it and it was like this mental weight that came off of me that then allowed me to focus on my training and all the things that were in my control. That was so crucial for me.
That is I mean it’s just music to my ears because you know one of the things that I often and questions I’m fielding often. Someone comes in and wants a coach from uphill athlete and you know sometimes we get like an adventure racer earlier this year and she was like you have any coaches do adventure racing like yeah I think so but I’m not sure let me check and I talked to one coach and she coached a bunch of sport around that but not actually adventure racing I’m like yeah.

You know Zoe Nance she hasn’t coached adventure racing per se but she’s coached like all of these components like cycling and so on that are involved in this and she ultimately trusted her but it’s really like I’m thinking to myself. What I hate to tell you. But, it actually doesn’t matter if your coach has ever done the thing like if they’re a good coach. They’ll know how to do it, they’ll know how to structure the training and they’ll know it’s because it always comes to first principles like with a lot of you know knowledge-based things and they’re all just these mental models that we have for how training and human adaptation to training stresses work that generally are pretty reproducible and we as coaches and as athletes have all seen it a million times right? But that is just for those athletes out there listening wondering whether or not to trust their coach. I think hopefully you can lift that weight for them. Yeah I would also love to add one other thing that my coach has taught me over the years and part of it is then through doing this together. But so in 18 that was the first year we started working together and he had me working on my weaknesses which was like speed that was like one of the big things and it really allowed me to kind of like you know evolve a lot in my running because I had been very good in the technical stuff but like you know I was getting beaten on the speed.

But I had fully decided on, when we started working together and I already set out my calendar and I think in 2018 I did 17 races and you know we’re not talking about ultras but still that’s a lot. It’s a lot.
2019 I had a bit of a you know lower point because I think I really used my you know these reserves of energy and and I one of the things that he’s been really clear with me about is let us set the objectives for the year let’s do it together and let’s not set too many yeah you know and it’s like I see one of the challenges in trail running. Especially right now because there are so many events and so many different things you could be doing and we get because of these fast news cycles. Whether it’s in the mountains or in in running is that like we’re like you know a race happened in the next week we’ve forgotten about the results because we’re onto the next one and so people feel like they need to be doing another one and doing another one and doing another one and it can work for a certain amount of time like I saw on 2018 but then it doesn’t and so I have come a long way myself in terms of reducing the number of objectives I have and really working to prepare for a couple in the course of a year.

So this is great. You know that I love just talking through and you can hear how things are where we build our principles from but you can see that you sit down saying we’re looking at the year we’re not saying okay four months from now I want to do this, you’re saying okay, at the end of this year I want to be able to have done this and this and then we’re already looking to next year and it’s this ongoing coach relationship. And that develops over time and it takes time whether it’s coach an athlete whether it’s physio and athlete. You can’t just jump in there straight away and it just speaks volumes for working with people for an extended period of time and actually really fostering that relationship and you share those experiences together and they’re richer because of it.
Yeah, totally totally achieving more because of it rather than sort of stopping starting right? I think that speaks more to the mid packer as well. Um, again, it’s coming back to trusting that process and once you find your coach. You know they’ve got you back. They really will do and yeah, they’ll see that through for you?
Yeah and I could you know you’re absolutely right that I look at usually a year but I also am looking at multiple years you spoke before Steve to longevity in the mountains. You know my dream is to be a yay moten ya like an old mountain woman that I really really want that for myself and I think I’ll keep running and racing as long as I’m loving it as long as I’m enjoying it and then I’ll stop. But I want to have a body that works not just this year that doesn’t just get me results this year but that it’s going to keep doing what I ask of it over the long term so that’s that’s my life goal.
Yeah that’s a great goal and I also want to just shout out to the mid packers. You’ve mentioned that term a couple of times but like without that cadre group whether it’s mountaineering or trail running or whatever like there’s not much of a sport left. I try to fly the flag for my people. Yes, and yeah, good for you. You know I just wanted to do a little bit of a shout out to this sport of trail running that I think one of the really really cool things about the sport is that the mid packers and the elite athletes all line up the same day on the same start line and do the same thing and how many other sports do we have competitive sports where you’re rubbing shoulders with you know the top of the sport. We just had it happen to the many ten fifteen thousand people who do one of the legs of the tour de France and like that’s cool they get to do it they get to do it when the tour de France. Racers or dreams absolutely not like could you set foot on the court at Wimbledon like never in your life. So that’s something that I think is so cool in Trail running is that we’re doing the same thing we’re doing together and we talked about the before by making it round but say.

I just find it so brilliant that you find every size and shape managing to do these incredible events. It’s not like rowing where you’ve got to be six foot 4 you’ve got to have this or for some of these sports where you’re so constrained by the specificity of the sport. Running every shape, every size, every age you know, people can just get out there and do it and I think that’s where it has its just all the mountain sports have such longevity. It’s not like the olympic sports where you’re lucky if you can manage the time and so you can get 3 Olympics maybe 17 years out of your career and you can just cross over but then it’s so hard. You can’t go for the same sports recreation. It’s really hard. Yeah I’m not doing a whole lot of pickup gymnastics.
Yeah, you see it’s yeah I’ve been a while since I’ve pole vaulted. Yeah, love for any discus in the near future. But I mean I guess you know then to just go back to your guys is expertise right? Is that like we do have this possibility to be doing this stuff for decades and decades and decades in our lives. But if you want to. You’ve got to prepare your body for it and match. Yeah yeah, think about how do you get to that longevity part of it’s making good choices about where you’re going and when you’re going and part of it is preparing your body to be able to stand up to it. Yeah I want to come back a little bit to you to know a couple things. We’ve talked about like the lightweight year, the development of the athlete over time becoming an alpinist being a responsible alpinist. There’s a bunch of little threads here and it sort of feels to me like you know I said this to Neil the other day. I sometimes feel a little guilty that I may have contributed in my own career to this sort of like extremification of alpinism because there is of course always an answer which you know I can just not bring a rope I can just not bring a nice screw. I can just yeah, there’s nothing lighter than not having it right? And there’s you know now you and people around you I think really leading on this idea of. You know what I would call responsible alpinism for lack of maybe we’re going to coin a term here today but you know and I’m really in admiration of you and you know I think that that’s just so also not the first time and I’m sure not the last time that. In the mountains that leadership comes from a woman. You know this is also one of the things that I really like about trail running and about mountaineering is there’s not really any gender segregation like Mont Blanc is Mont Blanc the church is the church. You know? Yeah sure we have like a time for Killian and the time for you.

But like the course as you said it’s the same. The mountain is the same like and you know philosophically you’ve taken the leadership position on this and I think that that’s something that everybody should kind of let sink in a little bit including you yeah, well as you’re saying it I’m like you know. Letting it sink in and into you know perhaps Steve House he admires me, it’s like a pretty exciting thing. This is a podcast. They won’t see my face. Um, but um, well I mean thank you for that. I think that I couldn’t explain to you why it is, but definitely, my approach to it was natural for me. Um, and I feel like I think that there are a lot of people who are out in the mountains who don’t necessarily take the approach that I do which is like not just in my style but like what impact does that have on other people as well and I think that that is something that I think about a lot not just with say like the style of climb or run. But also you know well I’ll say it like my relationship to my body and my food. Um and my relationship to the environment more generally and I think that I certainly think about the using you know what small position I have a small platform I have to try to impact you know the next generation of people doing that and I think about how lucky I was when I started trail running as well to have you know? Well when I first started I had no idea who was who so I didn’t even know who I was looking at. But then once I started getting more serious about it, I had the Anna Frost, Emily Forsberg’s who had this really healthy approach and I feel really lucky to have had that because it really impacted how I was thinking about approaching the sport myself and it’s with love and respect for myself and for the sport and for the mountains and so you know I like to try to imagine anyway that in my approach and in particular communicating about my approach then that will the next generation can you know enter that into their computations and say oh well like that’s an option I could do it that way. Um, and I don’t know if that’s a distinctly female approach or well so I think that I don’t want to get into generalizations too much but I will say like the men are and myself included are more likely to just try to like kind of let’s say bowl over the the obstacle without giving it a whole lot of let’s say thought and one of the things that words that came into my mind just hearing you now is that I think is under underpinning all of this is humility and I think that one of the things that I’ve really appreciated in my life in the mountains as I’ve met all my heroes through the course of my mountaineering career and this general life is. They’re all just so humble and you know that’s actually what the mountains generally teach right? Like how many people do we know that have been super successful in the mountains that are actually arrogant and come and sort of come across in that sort of archetypal boss person like it’s completely the opposite because you learn to you know you’re not up there on your terms entirely. You’re out there on some mountain terms and you know that’s anybody who spent any time up. They have learned that I mean I think that’s probably you know one reason why so many of us love to go to the mountains is because it makes you feel so infinitesimally small. I love going out into the mountains and just feeling like a speck of dust. You know and I think that that’s one of the incredible things and so whether the mountains attract people who naturally have that disposition or if it creates that disposition in people I’m not sure, but it’s definitely something that I think so many of us share you know I have to share I had like ah almost.

Sort of out of body experience in that regard on Nanga Parbat when Vince and I were really high on the mountain and it was in the evening after or after we’d summited. We’re coming back down and we had to descend the rupaul face and the summit area is relatively flat. You know, just gentle slopes and then there’s like. And edge and I remember like we were there for a while like fidgeting trying to figure out how to get down and belay each other and the sun was setting and there you’re really like Nanga Parbat really sits kind of alone and it’s kind of unique, you know compared to other really high mountains I’ve been on. There’s usually like you could be on everest but lot he’s right there Makalu and barun say and Lo and everest right there or you know cho you and but ga chi ka which is just a few meters less than eight thousand meters is right next door like but Nanga parbat like you know it goes away and there’s just like. The planes of the Punjab and I almost had this sense where I felt like I zoomed way out and just saw myself as this speck of dust on this massive mountain that was in this massive landscape that was much bigger than you know, geopolitical borders or anything. It was just okay like this. It’s really stuck with me like I don’t know how long it took I was probably just hallucinating but it stuck with me like for life where that was like almost twenty years ago now.

I love that you have that precise moment. Yeah, it is a very precise experience of that where I kind of came back in. I was like what we see in movies right? Yeah that’s how it felt just like a script by Steve Gilberts.
Yeah, that humility aspect is key. I think just to kind of wrap that up I would like to just hear about how you mentioned something that in the middle of this conversation I think as an aside. But I want to kind of drill in on it a little bit. You said something about how you thought this might be the apex of your career or something like that and I think that’s really interesting because I know that in my career as an alpinist I definitely had those moments too where I’m like. Wow like you know after doing something it meant a lot to me right? I’m really kind of hanging my hat on that feels really good to accomplish this thing I really wanted to do but it’s also a little terrifying. But if that’s all I do kind of a thing that was how I experience that how are you experiencing that right now. Yeah well I can hear like Neil kind of chuckling over I’ll probably come up with something else. But you know there’s part of me.

That it does find it scary right? You know and it’s interesting too like there’s something that’s inherently so satisfying about it because I think like so many athletes and so many female athletes. Kind of gone with this imposter syndrome for years and years like oh well surely that was just like a one off you know I won’t be able to accomplish anything again and I finally actually do like feel like with this accomplishment I’m so happy and proud that I’m like I am not a one hit wonder and yet there’s also like this ok well what if that is like the last you know or that the highest peak I reach if you will and at least where I’m at right now is like I’m so psyched about having accomplished that like I feel satisfaction that allows me to say that in jest but also like that would be okay like I feel really good about it. So I think that’s a great question. Um, but I’m at least like I know I don’t feel panicky about it. I don’t feel like I’ve got to pick the next thing really fast. I think if that was the last or like the biggest thing I feel satisfied with that. That’s what people know me for.

So okay, yeah, that’s quite actually more than okay, it’s great. Yeah, right? and I think that this is one of the things that in our cultural conversation so often gets lost is this whole idea of it’s not about the accomplishment itself like that is not what success is with success is not the the fkt on such and such a day when all the things came together or the Rupaul face or whatever it is like the the success is you know the longevity, the engaging, the being a part of your community, the learning, the teaching but all these other things that we can do and be and become throughout our careers and so you know I would say or hazard to say perhaps that you know this let’s say fkt on Mont Blanc yeah okay that’s a nice like bullet point or something on your resume but actually it’s just more of an indicator of who you became like that’s it. I think the same thing is true and like running a small business Neil and I have talked about this as the whole small business and entrepreneurial kind of guys and it’s like it’s damn hard and you really grind and you work a lot and you do this thing and at the end of the day. It’s actually not about the money I mean of course you need money to survive and to accomplish the thing but it’s actually about like you know the process of figuring it out learning how to run a business learning how to create awesome videos that teach people how to do strength training movements like meals done or learning how to coach people in new ways of learning how to communicate in in new ways and and that’s actually the fun part right? Like I think that this is something that in our culture like in this sort of Instagram reels version of reality is just sort of highlight reels. Hillary did this like somersault land on our feet I mean I must have millions of views but nothing about like you know, well actually like how could she do that. Like oh she did that because she did gymnastics for I don’t know like a decade and a half probably or whatever right? Like it’s the same thing I used to say about climbing on Nanga Parbat like yeah, how long did that take you on be like yeah more less 24 years like but how many days like 24 years times roughly one hundred and eighty days a year in the mountains like that’s what it took. That’s what it actually took. That’s not the answer people want they want oh it took whatever 7 hours and 28 minutes but it actually took like all of your lifetime and all of your experience and all these inputs from all of these mentors and coaches and…

Neal psychology is going out of scope for practice here. Yeah need you cliche to like wrap the podcast up with it’s about the journey not the destination my success and what. Yeah, yeah, it might be cliche but it’s like there’s a little bit of truth behind every cliche. Yeah a cliche for a reason. No, I think that’s really great and I really look forward to hopefully getting to know you more in the future and following along with the rest of your career and all the way as old.
She has 1 more thing to give us. You shouldn’t just finish on this one little trick. We need something else from you, one more and more great athlete. You know, allowed to be done otherwise please take for my forthcoming book. That’s all I am, no I think that you know that’s where the goodness is now Neil any final questions or.

Now you’ve committed now to let me know you do all, you’re so rigorous with all your exercise and everything else I’ll be checking up and catching on next week and so we’ll be looking forward to the next installment of that next slide. But it’s been great getting to chat to you again. The role of the physio is to look after people in lots of different ways. We do the physical but also that’s in the bigger picture and we have to make what we’re trying to do fit what we know is maybe clinically the right thing to do but that’s not always going to be transferable to someone’s actual real life. So actually chatting through the session but chatting here is actually really nice as well. Hearing it from a slightly different perspective as well. We can change the mindset with just a little bit of a different view on everything that we’re talking about in the bigger pictures. It’s great. So it’s been nice to spend a bit of time with you again. It’s been a real pleasure. Thanks so much. It’s not just one but a community. Together, we are uphill athlete. Thanks for listening.



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