When Alex Nichols ran into Chamonix, France, on Friday afternoon, he received a hero’s welcome—and deservedly so.
As he ventured through the busy pedestrian mall of this quaint village in the French Alps en route to breaking the finish line tape of the Mount Blanc 80K trail race, he was cheered on by people from at least a half dozen different nationalities. Many were runners in town for one of the other four races throughout the weekend, others were a mix of local residents and tourists who recognized the enormity of his accomplishment.
Winning any race in the trail running mecca of Chamonix is a big deal, but winning an 80K event (roughly 50 miles) amid its rugged mountains and the steep competition it draws is an outstanding feat.
“The people and the sport here are amazing,” said Nichols, a 30-year-old resident of Colorado Springs, Colo., who crossed the finish line in 10 hours and 31 minutes. “People are out there cheering you on all over the course and at the finish line cheering you in. It’s a big-time sport here and it’s really fun to be a part of it.”
The Mont Blanc Marathon weekend of races is one of the world’s premier trail running events. Each of the five races—a Vertical Kilometer (VK) uphill race and 10K, 23K, 42K and 80K events—sends runners over dastardly steep mountains. This year’s trail runnning festival drew more than 6,000 runners, including renown stalwarts like Spain’s Kilian Jornet (VK), American Max King (VK, 42K), Switzerland’s Marc Launenstein (42K) and France’s Seb Chaigneau (80K).
The 80K race, which many runners believed was closer to 90K (or 56 miles), included about 20,000 feet of vertical gain and descent. Nichols smartly ran conservatively over the first half of the course to save his legs and his strategy—and his considerable training at the base of Pikes Peak—paid off.
The turning point in the race came at about the 48K mark on the race’s second to last big climb—a section with about 3,300 feet of vertical gain in just over 4 miles—when he was finally able to put some space between himself and Italian Franco Colle and Brit Andrew Symonds. Once in the lead, he hammered the downhill to increase the gap and then worked hard on the final climb—3,600 feet over 6 miles—and abrupt descent to the finish line.
“It was still a struggle on the final climb when I had the lead, but my legs actually felt pretty good,” he said. “Overall though, it was probably the most difficult race I have ever done. Chamonix is an amazing place. The mountains are very different than the ones in Colorado in that they’re more drastic. They rise in elevation so quickly.”
A handful of other Americans fared quite well in Chamonix, too, including top-10 finishes from Hillary Allen (Colorado, third in the women’s 80K), Max King (Oregon, third in the 42K), Megan Kimmel (Colorado, sixth in the women’s VK) and Kristina Pattison (Montana, sixth in the women’s 80K).
For Nichols, the win also reflected his continued rise among the ranks of the world’s best mountain runners. Just a month ago, he finished sixth in the IAU Trail World Championships at the 85K Tecnica MaXi-Race in Annecy, France, and last year he finished eighth in the International Skyrunning Federation final rankings.
It’s a far cry from where he was just three years ago when he ran his first race in Europe. Although he had been running the trails in Colorado Springs for several years by then—and even had several top-five finishes in the Pikes Peak Ascent to his credit—he admits he didn’t know a thing about what he was doing on the grueling Skyrunning circuit when he was invited to the 2012 Ribagorza Sky Marathon in northern Spain.
At that race in the Pyrenees Mountains, he encountered a brutally hard course with ridiculously steep uphills and downhills. Although he managed a respectable eighth-place finish, he was 30 minutes behind the leader and never really in the race from the start. Plus, his legs were like overcooked noodles by the the time he reached the finish line.
“I got destroyed by it,” he says with a chuckle, recalling that first race. “It really opened my eyes to what running could be. What I thought I was doing was good, but it really wasn’t. I’m a competitive person, so I wanted to get better at it. At the time, I only wanted to run uphill—although I wasn’t as efficient at it—and I hated running downhill.”
Specifically, he worked hard to develop skills for efficiently power hiking the steepest sections of the mountain race courses, as well as learning how to run fast downhill without blowing up his quads. Combined with putting in more miles, maintaining the speed that made him an NCAA Division III All-American in cross country at Colorado College and also paying more attention to recovery days, he’s made huge strides as a mountain runner in the past three years.
By 2013 he earned a spot on the U.S. Mountain Running Team—a goal he’d had since graduating from CC in 2008—and finished a respectable 27th place at the World Mountain Running Championships in Poland to help the U.S. to a fourth-place team finish.
He continued to up his game stateside, too, finishing as the runner up at the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2012 and 2013 and also winning the 12.6-mile Barr Trail Mountain Race in 2013.
Nichols grew up in Minnesota and was a good, but not great high school runner. He ran 9:45 in the 2-mile back then, a time that got him to the state championship meet his senior year, but still 45 to 60 seconds slower than his peers at the elite high school level. Somehow, he heard the siren call of the mountains and headed west for school. As a freshman in college, one his coaches, Paul Koch, was an accomplished mountain runner, while one of his senior teammates was Anton Krupicka, who would eventually go on to win the Leadville 100 in 2006 and 2007 and become a trail running icon. That, combined with living at the base of Pikes Peak, helped Nichols catch the bug for running in the mountains.
While he used to scoff at the notion of hiking during races, now he embraces it when necessary. He’s also come to appreciate running on the steepest trails he can find in the Colorado Springs area. For the race in Chamonix, he specifically trained by running up and down Cameron’s Cone—3.8 miles each way with a whopping 4,235 feet of elevation change—and occasionally on the Manitou Incline—an infamously steep hiking trail with 2,000 feet of climbing in less than a mile.
“Doing races like this make me appreciate how difficult it can be to get through the mountains,” he said. “You just have to do whatever you can to be efficient at it and sometimes efficient means going slow and hiking and sometimes it means running very fast on the downhills. It’s all been a great learning process.”