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Locked Down in Cham Town

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At the end of the footpath, where my run joined the village road, blue lights flashed on top of a vehicle.

“Vos documents et carte d’identité, s’il vous plaît,” the awaiting Chamonix police officer said.

“Where are you going?” 

“I’m out for my run.” 

“You have 25 minutes left.”

With that, I went back to my entraînement, aggravated but appreciative of the strict lockdown. The new French regulations seemed to be lowering the rate of infection.

“Le Confinement” in Chamonix during Covid hit resident trail runners where it hurt. With 200 miles of mountain trails, two of the world’s top trail-racing events and a trail-running club with over 300 members, the alpine town at the base of Mont Blanc has a trail-running addiction so severe that the local vertical kilometer course jams up during lunch hour. Even the mayor ticks off legit 100-kilometer mountain races.

The rules for our two-month lockdown made the U.S. edition look like a cozy garden party. Once a day, for an hour, we were each allowed out for exercise, and only after completing a form and bringing a national ID card. You could run no farther than one kilometer from home, and no higher than 100 meters in elevation gain.

The rules for our two-month lockdown made the U.S. edition look like a cozy garden party. Once a day, for an hour, we were each allowed out for exercise, and only after completing a form and bringing a national ID card. You could run no farther than one kilometer from home, and no higher than 100 meters in elevation gain.

A battalion of zealous trail runners were locked into their mountain barracks. After the initial shock, feelings of loss, confusion and uncertainty took hold. Over time, runners started blowing fuses. 

“In a very real way,” says Dr. Kaz Williams, a Chamonix ultrarunner and coach, “they were losing their identities.”

Every runner in the valley agreed with the lockdown. But Chamonix, many pointed out, is not Paris. Social distancing is easy to accomplish. What arose was a form of gentle civil disobedience that strongly supported social distancing, masks—and just a little more room to move. 

On the trails, the police were perceived as parents, giving unruly children hefty fines and sending them—literally—to their rooms. Many of the kids, of course, were well-behaved, and some even argued with their ill-mannered brethren. Those who tested the limits used certain wiles. They might take unmarked trails. They went out in bad weather, hoping for reduced patrols. One person brought a vest and changed clothes mid-run. Someone else used two forms, one marked an hour forward. He put it in a different pocket, and inconspicuously disposed of form #1 after an hour.  

Not everyone was low-key. Hillary Gerardi, a valley resident, was spinning away on her stationary bike when Strava started buzzing. Another trail runner had beaten her “King of the Mountain” record on a local course. The route climbed five times higher than the federally allotted vert. Face palm!

In time, PGHM, France’s mountain-rescue police, stepped up their game. They used drones and a helicopter to patrol the skies, radioing locations of trail runners to ground teams using ATVs. When stopping runners, they started asking to see stopwatches.

In time, PGHM, France’s mountain-rescue police, stepped up their game. They used drones and a helicopter to patrol the skies, radioing locations of trail runners to ground teams using ATVs. When stopping runners, they started asking to see stopwatches.

Then, seven weeks after the lockdown began, it was over. The morning of May 11 dawned gray, cool and rainy, which deterred no one. During my three-hour foray, I crossed paths with a dozen beaming runners. At first I didn’t even run. I slow hiked, blissfully taking it all in. At treeline, I surprised a herd of ibex. I wondered if after two months, they had written us humans off.

Gerardi was out the door, too, ready to get those Strava segments back. She found herself panic patting her pocket to check for her form and identification, before realizing she needed neither.  

Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix. He is the founder of the trail running tour company Run the Alps.