It is a Thursday in August, I am in my new house above Trento, isolated from everything and everyone. The cat and I, a cup of coffee, lots of trails, and a guitar with worn strings. The week before, Denis had asked me to go up to Sestriere to write an article about Francesco and Henri and their training camp in the mountains. The fee would have benefited me, but I had too much to do and so I had been forced to give up. I read old articles by Anton Krupicka about his workouts in the summers of 2006 and 2007: miles grinded alone, above the timberline, where the air is thin and the legs burn. Athletes today write less and less about their training, and in general about their process, this is mainly because no one has a blog anymore, which was the main means of growth in the sport. And in magazines, articles like this are becoming increasingly rare, although, I am convinced, they count as much as a week of training. I think about these things, and shortly afterwards I get a message from Francesco asking me to read his piece before sending it to the magazine. That was what I needed. Now I’ll go out for a run. – Philip Caon
After almost an hour of uphill, just a few meters from the summit of Bric Ghinivert, in the upper Val Troncea, I feel myself running out of energy. The icy wind of 3,000 meters altitude cuts my breath, my head is spinning, and my legs weigh like boulders. I gasp, trying to inhale as much oxygen as I can, and climb with my hands among the granite boulders, following a rough trail. I look up and Aymo nods and shouts something at me, looking out from one of the arms of the summit cross. A couple of minutes later, past an exposed ledge on the south face, I caught up with him and huddled in a crack out of the wind. A pair of lammergeyers rises by exploiting an updraft, soaring without a single wing beat. I take off my vest, snap a few photos, pull out a couple of waffles and a flask with water to refresh us.
“Good one today eh, Aymo? What a speed up, before the pass. I was a little tired, you must have given me two minutes in the last 15′ of the climb.”. – “Yes Fra, I was fine today, we ran hard. The other day I still hadn’t recovered from the race and the trip. Then you know, when you have many things on your mind.” – “Yes, I know.” I spontaneously reach out to him and wrap an arm around his neck. We remain silent for a couple of minutes. “Come on, let’s go down. But quietly, I’m tired.”
Around early July, just enough time to recover from the Lavaredo 50km, I called Henri “Aymo” Aymonod and threw him the idea of spending three weeks training at altitude. Even more than the positive physiological adaptations of the altitude, the hemoglobin, the red blood cells, we were perhaps in search of solitude, of a slower, more human passage of time, almost an escape from the routine of our lives at lower altitudes, a search for stimulation and answers that only by sharing the intensity of a physical exertion like running could we find. Between Sankt Moritz, Livigno and Sestriere, the classic locations chosen by athletes for altitude training, we opted for the last one, the one we feel is most akin, at the same time probably the most forgotten, rugged and training. At 2035 meters of the pass there is calm, trails, thin air and the little equipment we need. There is another reason – sentimental perhaps – why we chose to come to Sestriere: we met here about ten years ago, when we were still young and oblivious, running for our lives. So we filled Aymo’s van with carbohydrates, loaded the bikes and finally climbed into this extreme patch of Piedmont.
Sestriere is a surreal place, transfigured by the building abuses of the economic boom first, and the 2006 Turin Olympics later. The monoculture of alpine skiing has turned so many places like Sestriere into carousels in winter, and ghostly places in summer, with bulldozers, stopped ski lifts, and empty condos. To make mountains attractive, it is not necessary to litter them with expensive and impactful infrastructure: nature has already equipped them with everything they need. Something that many Alpine localities still do not seem to have realized. These are issues I discuss with Aymo, who experiences these dynamics on a daily basis at home in the Aosta Valley. Leaving aside the village, the environment around Sestriere is lovely and perfect for training in our style, which could be summed up in three words, which I used as the title for my podcast: any surface available. At 2400 meters of Col Basset you can run on 40km of dirt road of the Assietta road, where Bordin built his Seoul 1988 and Boston 1990 successes: it is the Magnolia Road of the Alps. A little further down, the Bordin Trail echoes of the miles run and worn by world-class marathoners and middle distance runners. On the Albergian you can do 1,500 meters of elevation gain in just over 5km of climbing. The Argentera Valley offers perfect singletrack, dizzying peaks and Yosemite Valley views.
Our style is also to introduce variability and unpredictability in training, and with Aymo it can only be so: he is talent and madness, I am more method and hard work. We are related and at the same time complementary. When you are out on an easy run with him, it can happen at any moment that he does an open, a stretch, just because he is inspired by the line of the traverse we are running on, or to imitate a sprint of his idol Mathieu Van Der Poel. At the same time, I would probably pay more attention to conserving energy for the next day’s work, or catching up on the previous day’s miles. Aymo goes very hard uphill; he is not an explosive athlete but he has a terrifying progression, proceeding almost in leaps and bounds, at a low cadence, using all the stiffness of his long levers. I, on the other hand, have a much more economical gesture; I don’t really feel strong at anything, but I can make my running skills count on the plains and on those terrains that escape the elevation profiles of the trails. Aymo is a TNF athlete, born and raised in the shadow of the Grivola, between Villeneuve and the Val di Rhemes, at ease on mountaineering skis, able to climb Mont Blanc, complete several Mezzalamas; he is an agricultural student at the Institut Agricole Regional and has a degree in exercise science from Turin. I am a Nike athlete, steeped in track and field culture from Prefontaine onward, I come from the mid-mountain environment of the Larian foothills of the Alps, I am perhaps more comfortable on the streets of the New York City Marathon than on a technical skyrace, I have never climbed a 4000, I think with the mind of a physicist.
In twenty days at altitude there is time to share many things besides running. With Aymo we end up talking about the housing market as much as we do about training theory, the differences between Sram, Campagnolo and Shimano groupsets, forestry, photography, psychology, the outdoors and electronic music. The moments that from my point of view make the difference are mostly the silences, the pauses, the nanoseconds in which nothing happens but that have meaning in themselves, and if you are never embarrassed, if you don’t feel the need to fill them with words or gestures of circumstance, you understand that you are in the right place and with the right person. “Fra, I’m feeling like crap today.” – “Aymo, training is this thing here. Eighty percent of the time you don’t have good feelings, you feel sluggish, your legs feel empty. You have to get used to mileage, running when tired, saving when you need to and pushing when it counts.” – “Yes, but I think I’ll rest this afternoon.” From my 12 weekly trainings, I wish sometimes I had his ability to listen and know how to say no.
The program of our training camp is ambitious. After the initial adaptation to altitude, the plan is to have two weeks of at least 180km and several very challenging sequential jobs. My next competitive events are Sierre-Zinal and OCC, between mid- and late August, but because of the way I am and the way I play the sport, they are not the only reason I am here. I don’t need motivational leverage given by a goal, I like to run and train for the sake of it, I don’t necessarily see finality in that. It certainly takes a good deal of courage, or perhaps self-harm, to end up on the altar of the useless. Aymo is not used to these volumes while I have far more experience, both in terms of training and competitions. I look at him and see a curious, intelligent and ambitious boy, still immature in some respects, but aware of his own means and very confident. Torn between two fires: being somewhat tied to his securities and the desire to discover and have new experiences. The overflowing talent that I somehow envy him, the need to mold him and give him solidity and continuity. His eyes still glowing with enthusiasm for things, passion for people. His competitiveness contrasted with his desire to experience the more adventurous and free side of the trail, over longer distances, FKT and personal projects. Running together, planning and sharing a training block, is a way to raise the bar and, if you are good enough, to absorb by osmosis many little things that could make you a better athlete. It is a horizontal learning process that happens unintentionally, especially during the gaps I was trying to describe earlier.
Let’s finish talking about US; Aymo has just returned from Broken Arrow, on Lake Tahoe, where he ran the vertical and skyrace with good results, although-he tells me-he had his mind pretty much elsewhere. We discuss National Parks, roads, deserts, alpine skiing, environmental impacts. Let us reflect on the fact that Europe lacks structured training groups, teams like the Oregon Track Club or NAZ Élite, but also simply athletes who live, train together and act as a team, as the Coconino Cowboys might have been until a few years ago, or as happens in communities like Flagstaff, Boulder or Mammoth Lakes. It happens on a smaller scale in Chamonix, the epicenter of the trail scene worldwide, but not yet in terms I would call a community. There are many differences between the European and American trail, and one of them is the way athletes perceive themselves within the sport they play. It has a lot to do with the opportunities that exist, are created and given to them, but I have a feeling that in the U.S., so many times, a race is more just an excuse for everyone to get together and run through a forest, and that the trail, more than a sport, is an expression of a way of being and ultimately, of being in the world.
I find a lot of that in the person who is Henri, a guy who can fill a lot of the things he does with meaning and convey enthusiasm. I would like to have opportunities like this happen more often, maybe even to the point of forming a training group, of people with the same desire as us to go all the way in this passion. I don’t know if Sestriere might be the place to do it, but I do know for sure that what we shared this summer, in the thin air, in the dust, on the trails, ridges, and alpine pastures on the border between Val Chisone and Susa Valley, will be important to both of us.