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How Euro Trail Runners Cope with Strict COVID-19 Lock-Downs

Confined to their houses or brief forays outside, these five elite trail runners in France, Spain and Italy reveal how they are training through the European coronavirus lock down.

It’s a warm, sunny spring day in Servoz, France. Mont Blanc pokes its head over shingled rooftops. Professional trail runner Hillary Gerardi gazes at the snow-capped massif, while riding a bike trainer set up on her deck. 

While running with a face mask on crowded trails may feel upside down in America, running has essentially shut down in Europe. France limits residents to an hour of outdoor exercise a day and they must remain within one kilometer of their homes. Spain and Italy have enacted even stricter measures, more or less banning outdoor exercise entirely. Of course, the regulations are intended to keep residents safe, but they may come with adverse side effects. Science indisputably shows that going outside improves physical and psychological health. Meta-analyses indicate that spending time in nature significantly reduces blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and depression, among numerous other benefits. 

These European quarantine implementations prove confining (and potentially harmful) for every runner, but professional mountain and trail runners face an additional obstacle. Their lives—and livelihoods—are hinged upon training and racing through the landscape around their homes and the world. What do they do when their “office” is taken away? We caught up with five professional European trail runners in France, Spain and Italy to find out. As it turns out, their resilience in the mountains translates to successfully weathering the couch.

France: Hillary Gerardi & Katie Schide

Photo: Martina Valmassoi

American trail runners Gerardi and Katie Schide both moved to France after graduating from Middlebury College just five years apart. Gerardi and her husband, Brad, settled in a small village outside of Chamonix, where they both work at Crea Mont-Blanc research centre for alpine ecosystems. Schide and her partner, Germaine, live just on the edge of Mercantour National Park, a remote region of the French Alps along the Italian border.

Gerardi excels over steep, technical terrain. She won three of Sky Running’s most grueling and prestigious races in 2018: Tromso Skyrace (Norway), Trofeo Kima (Italy) and Glencoe Skyline (Scotland) to establish herself as one of the best “skyrunners” in the world. Schide, on the other hand, has asserted her dominance in longer ultra marathon trail races. She placed sixth at the 171 km Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc in 2019, and took second at it’s prestigious sister race CCC® 100 km trail race in 2018. Though only about 40 people reside in Schide’s village, police diligently enforce quarantine restrictions by stopping cars and flying helicopters overhead. 

“The overwhelming police presence with patrol cars and helicopters makes the general vibe a bit more tense and negative than feels necessary in such a tough time,” Schide says.

This spring, Schide and her partner had intended on racing the Pierra Menta ski mountaineering race in south-eastern France before turning their attention to their own trail running event: ONE&1, a two-day running race in the French Riviera. The pandemic wiped those races off the calendar. Despite derailed plans, Schide’s biggest concern goes beyond her schedule. 

“The hardest part of the pandemic is looking at the data each morning and remembering all of the numbers representing actual people and real lives,” she says. “Tens of thousands of people have already lost their lives to this pandemic and every day those numbers increase.”

But Schide, who also works on her Ph.D. in geology from home, welcomes a reprieve from the professional trail running circuit. She fully unpacked her travel bags for one of the first times in the past few years.

“The best part of the confinement is having an excuse not to travel,” Schide says. “It feels nice to be completely grounded in a single place.”

Similarly,  Gerardi  views the shutdown as a blessing in disguise.

“The last couple of years have been too focused on racing,” Gerardi says. “I was feeling a bit oppressed by the race schedule. Hopefully this summer I can finally focus on some personal running and climbing objectives in the mountains.”

Photo: Extreme©AlexisBerg_1371

In lieu of spending time in the mountains, Gerardi and her husband “armchair mountaineer.” Planning and dreaming give her motivation to ride the trainer while gazing at the Mont Blanc massif peering through the clouds. No time in the mountains also means more time to focus on neglected aspects of training.

“I’ve wondered how good I could be if I truly rested like a professional athlete rather than ‘resting’ while working at my desk,” Gerardi says.

Capitalizing on this opportunity, she relaxes on the couch in the afternoons without her phone. And to counterbalance losing balance and tendon strength from time away from the trails,  she grew diligent about strength work and physical therapy. 

Both Gerardi and Schide maintain larger volume training days. Instead of long days in the mountains by foot, skis, or climbing rocks, Gerardi strings together an hour of biking on her trainer set up outside, then an hour of running in “flower petal shaped” loops on the five roads around her house before hopping back on the trainer for another hour.

Schide also turned to the bike trainer to sustain volume, along with the treadmill. But she acknowledges that indoor training takes a mental toll. 

“A long ski or bike day isn’t really possible for me to replace mentally on the trainer, so we just try to do what we can with different combinations of treadmill, indoor cycling, and running in our permitted one kilometer,” Schide says. “I think it’s also important not to spend too much time doing things that feel boring or forced so that when it is time to be outside again I won’t be burned out mentally.”

Schide fends off that burnout by finding ways to stay engaged and motivated. Netflix and Youtube have proven key.

“I can still put in enough training to maintain most of my fitness, it’s just not trail running specific or particularly photogenic,” she jokes.

Schide is using this extended time at home to take a step back, consider her long-term goals, and practice gratitude. 

“The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this time so far is how happy I am to be here,” she says. “Even just in our one kilometer radius we see ibex, chamois, deer, and fox on a regular basis and can catch some really incredible sunsets over our backyard peaks. The fact that we are getting through this pandemic with limited running as our only complaint is a good reminder of how lucky we are!” 

Spain: Sheila Avilés Castaño

Photo Courtesy of Sheila Avilés Castaño

Spain took even more restrictive measures than France, only permitting residents to leave their homes for basic needs, such as going to the grocery store or to the pharmacy. That means no outdoor exercise at all. It also means professional trail runner and personal trainer Sheila Avilés Castaño cannot work or distract herself in her favorite playground: the Montserrat mountain range outside her home in Catalonia.

The 2017 Skyrunning European Championships bronze medalist rides out the lockdown at her parents’ home in Santa Margarida de Montbui, a village about a 45 minutes drive from Barcelona. Like Gerardi, Avilés Castaño competes in Sky Running events around the world. Instead of traveling to Japan for the Mt. Awa Sky Race this month, she trains on the treadmill, elliptical and bike trainer.

But Avilés Castaño remains positive. 

“We must try to see the positive sides of problems,” Avilés Castaño says in Spanish. “I think it will help us grow stronger mentally and to value freedom and love for all our friends and family.”

Avilés Castaño staves off feelings of helplessness and claustrophobia by maintaining the same routine that she would when traveling. After eating a good breakfast, she conducts her first aerobic training session around 10 a.m. That’s followed by lunch and siesta before a second session in the afternoon.

“Life feels pretty similar to usual,” Avilés Castaño says. “Only I can not go to the mountains or socialize with anyone.”

In lieu of a gym, she uses things around the house like milk cartons for makeshift weight training. While she focuses on the day-to-day, Avilés Castano’s goals already lie in the future.

“I am strong and positive,” Avilés Castaño says. “I think we will emerge stronger after this. I’m motivated, but my mind is already working towards racing well in 2021.”

Avilés Castaño’s positive perspective extends to the world around her. In addition to saving lives, the lockdown gives the local trails a chance to rejuvenate.

“I believe that all things happen for a reason,” she says. “Perhaps society needed this lockdown to realize many things, including the value of nature. I hope people use this time to realize that we must care for the world and we must care for those around us.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the stress of the day-to-day that we forget to take a step back and recognize the bigger picture.”

Italy: Jonathan Wyatt and Martina Valmassoi

Conditions look similar across the border in Italy. The Italian government recently loosened restrictions to permit going outside twice a day for 15 minutes. But residents must stay within 200 meters of their home. Infractions incur a 380 euro fine. 

These regulations make little sense to New Zealander and Italian resident Jonathan Wyatt. He cites how when Italy initially closed schools in response to outbreaks in northern cities, residents flocked to the Dolomites to ski, turning tiny mountain towns like his into COVID-19 hot spots. Wyatt lives in Ziano di Fiemme, a small mountain village in the heart of the Italian Dolomites. The two-time Olympian and six-time world mountain running champion works in product development for La Sportiva. Testing clothing and shoes in the mountains serves as an integral part of his job — and also his way of life. But now it’s all on hold. 

“Not being able to do my job is very frustrating,” Wyatt says. “I enjoy running in the mountains and that is something I miss a lot.  But I know I am also lucky to live in a small town in the mountains where at least we can go outside on the deck and in the garden when we want to.”

While Wyatt can’t run outside, he’s gotten creative with ways to take care of his body at home. He uses his foam roller as his “physio,” and a swiss ball and wobble board for a gym. He maintains an aerobic base on the bike trainer. 

Not too far away in another village in the Dolomites, ski mountaineer and trail runner Martina Valmassoi also gazes at the now off-limits mountains from her garden. She planned on competing in a few longer races on skis this spring, including the Tour Du Rutor, Adamello and Patrouille Des Glaciers, before switching gears to trail running with the iconic Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June and TDS in August. 

Photo: Philipp Reiter

Though her racing schedule has been wiped clean, Valmassoi stays busy. She manages social media for Salomon, tends to her big garden, reads, studies and takes care of the house.

“I’m trying to be crafty,” she says. “I’m trying to not lose total focus on the things I love. Right now I can’t adventure much? Okay. It means that I’ll study more.”

Valmassoi misses her daily adventures in the mountains. But, a native Italian, she is a bit more accepting of the restrictions than Wyatt.

“We have to stay close to the house and so even though we have amazing weather, we haven’t been able to take advantage of it,” she says. “It’s forbidden and as hard as it is to understand, especially in villages like mine where you can go out and don’t see a soul for days, we have to accept it because here the police are really hunting you [down] in the forest.” 

Legal enforcement to stay off the trails may actually be exactly what Valmassoi needs. She currently battles Achilles tendonitis, a notoriously pesky injury that often requires rest. 

“I can finally take the time to heal,” she admits. “Or at least I can try harder with more rest, rehab, strength training and yoga.”

Even quarantined from their mountains, sliding into boredom-induced ruts remains off limits for these champions.