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Meet Chamonix’s Trail Running Dog

Meet Enzo Molinari, Chamonix France’s four-legged herder of trail runners

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Here’s a lesser-known fact about Chamonix, France, one of the world’s renowned trail running towns: it might just have the planet’s highest density of tough mountain dogs. Here, there are dogs living at high mountain huts, guarding livestock, rescuing avalanche victims and even climbing ladders bolted to cliff sides. Dogs saunter along the pedestrian center of Chamonix, often unaccompanied, and wander into cafes and restaurants as if they own the places. And, in a sense, they do.

Into this mix, and reigning over the high northeast end of this 20-kilometer-long valley is the fluffy-but-tough Enzo Molinari Spasenoski Kotka, longtime trail-running partner to one of the world’s strongest ultrarunners, Sweden’s Mimmi Kotka.

Kotka, 39, though she lives a low-profile life with her husband Toni Spasenoski, is well known in the valley. Sponsored by La Sportiva, she has a litany of top finishes in the world’s most competitive ultras. In Chamonix alone, she has won three races: the 90K in the Mont Blanc Marathon series, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 101K CCC and the 119K UTMB TDS, during which she set a course record. Modest and easy-going, you will never hear Kotka brag about her successes. Well, almost never. Once, a few days after winning TDS, Kotka was stopped on a trail and got to deliver a line many dream of uttering. “Did you run one of the UTMB races?” a passerby asked. Kotka admitted that, why yes, in fact, she had. The questioning continued. “So, how did you do?” Kotka chuckled and beamed. “I won!”

Kotka, who has a Masters of Science in Molecular Nutrition and is a partner in Moonvalley, an organic sports food company, lives in the village of Le Tour, just below the Swiss border, with her husband Spasenoski, who  works remotely as a high-tech project manager. And, rounding out the family, there is Enzo.

Spend more than a day or two on the quiet, rugged trails in this part of the valley and your paths will cross with Mimmi and Enzo. They are so often together, it’s more common to hear Mimmiandenzo than the former without the latter.

Enzo, now 4, it must be said, is beautiful and highly photogenic. His thick, mottled coat of blue-gray, brown, black and white fur is perfectly suited for a life herding sheep high in Italy’s Gran Paradiso region from where he came.

Kotka’s trail-running partner seems to know just how gorgeous he is. “He’s kind of a Diva,” Kotka says. “He just wants attention. He’ll lie down in front of onlookers, expecting to be admired and cuddled. We spoiled him, and we got the dog we deserve.”

These days, Enzo is getting plenty of time in the limelight. Kotka’s Instagram feed is filled with striking photos, taken by Spasenoski, of the two out in the mountains in all seasons. Spasenoski joins the two for runs, taking photos and struggling to maintain the pace. Enzo knows the drill, often climbing up to view points, puffing his chest like the Lion King surveying his kingdom. “He thinks he’s a mountain guide, but really he’s an influencer,” Kotka laughs.

With or without the lens eye, however, Mimmiandendzo have a tight bond on the trail. Together, they have run to glaciers halfway up Mont Blanc and high-mountain huts like the Refuge Albert Premier perched on the jagged skyline high above their Le Tour home.

“Sometimes, when I’m running with him, I feel one energy.” Kotka pauses, trying to explain the sensation. “I feel very connected to him.” When she stumbles, she says, Enzo immediately runs back to her to make sure she’s okay.

There are the inevitable bumps, of course. Herding is part of Enzo’s DNA, and there’s no off switch, either. Running high above their village, Enzo once spotted a sheep away from its flock.

“He went completely nuts,” says Kotka. “He was barking like mad and not listening to me. At the time, I didn’t understand the instincts of a shepherd dog.” At other times, Enzo’s been known to herd escaped sheep back to the right side of their fenced-in pastures.

For better or worse, those herding instincts apply when the animal has two legs, too—that can make for awkward moments when Kotka is running with friends and the group spreads out. “I feel sorry for the runner in the back,” explains Kotka. “Enzo literally nibbles at their butt.”

Like every mountain runner, Enzo has had his accident or two. Descending from the Possettes, a dramatic ridgeline that is part of the course of the Mont Blanc Marathon, he took a tumble over a cliff band. The two heard Enzo barking, far below. Early spring, he fortunately landed on a snowfield but had taken a long slide.

“He was OK, but frazzled,” says Spasenoski. “I’ve done the same thing!” And a few winters ago, out with Kotka while she was ski mountaineering, Enzo injured his eye in a freak accident when he hit a metal object buried in the snowpack. An infection and cataracts ensued. To protect his eyes after the incident, their Italian adoptee received dog goggles for Christmas. They did not go over well. 

“He wouldn’t move. He was like a statue,” says Spasnoski. “He was like, ‘What the hell am I wearing?’” These days, Enzo takes a timeout during the rugged Alps winter season.

Along the thousands of kilometers of mountain trails they’ve shared together, Enzo has been a teacher as well. “I’ve learned a lot from Enzo,” says Kotka. “I wasn’t expecting that.” [TK–any specific lessons?]

What other life lessons has their social media star imparted to the family? “Some days can be pretty crummy,” says Spasnoski, “But then you see this guy,” he says, gesturing downward. “And everything is OK.”

“Enzo makes us a family,” Kotka adds. “We have someone to care about. He’s been good for our relationship. Besides, she adds, “He’s such a character, and makes us laugh. And he has a good heart. Right, Enzo?”

The tail thumps once on the floor. Definitely.

Enzo by the Numbers

Name: Named after Enzo Molinari, a character from Kotka and Spasenoski’s favorite film, The Big Blue, about the world’s greatest free diver. Before discovering trail running, Kotka had a brief obsession with free diving. All that remains are, she notes, a lifelong addiction to the film and a bad diver tattoo on her back. Molinari had a big personality and a kind heart.

Birthplace: Enzo was born at an organic honey farm in Valsavarenche, Italy, next to northern Italy’s wild Gran Paradiso National Park. One of six pups, his mom is Australian Shepherd. His father has been narrowed down to one of three likely suspects, but has not come forward.

Age: Four, or 32 in dog years. Enzo turns 5 on June 12th.

Weight: 30 kilos, about 65 pounds.

Favorite animals: A very large, fat cat used to be part of the family, and to this day Enzo loves cats. (As a rule, they do not love him back.)

Running Routine: 10 to 20 kilometers a day. “Around here, that’s a lot,” says Kotka, alluding to the challenging nature of the terrain around Chamonix. Enzo avoids runs of more than a few hours, and during the warm summer months prefers to run in the early morning or later in the day .“He could easily go for 10 hours,” says Kotka, who is cautious about the miles logged on Enzo’s pads. “He loves riding lifts,” she adds.

Longest Trail Run: The pair did a two-day reconnaissance of parts of  UTMB’s technical TDS course. “We went slowly,” says Kotka, “and made plenty of stops.”

Favorite food: Homemade cheese pizza. “Eating some of a pizza I made was the only time he didn’t greet Mimmi,” says Spasenoski. “He’s Italian. What do you expect?”

When he’s not trail running: Napping on cool surfaces and sniffing human butts.

House rules: Enzo’s not allowed in the bed. “It’s too hot for him, anyway,” says Kotka. Instead, he sleeps near the drafty balcony door. After breakfast, he’ll often sleep outside in the cool mountain air that blows off the nearby Le Tour glacier.

Doug Mayer lives down the street from Enzo. His 10-month-old Labradoodle, Izzy, is one of Enzo’s biggest admirers. You can see more photos of Mimmi and Enzo on Instagram at @mimmikotka.