Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“The same mountains. The same hut system. We both grew up in New England. We both went to Middlebury College.
And now we’re both living in Europe.” Katie Schide, a native of Gardiner, Maine, is sitting at a rooftop café in Zurich, Switzerland, ticking her way through a list of the things she has in common with her trail-running pal, Hillary Gerardi.
At 26, she has the lean, borderline lanky look of a swift road runner. Her blonde hair is tied quickly at the back, giving the impression of someone who has better things to do with her time than spend it at a mirror. A scientist by training, she has the reserved style of someone who is an astute observer. In conversation, she reflects before answering, and chooses words cautiously.
In both personality and stature, she and Gerardi are notably dissimilar. Gerardi thinks and speaks quickly, nimbly bouncing between pent-up topics of discussion. At 5’ 1”, she’s less speedy when running through flatter terrain. “She’s pretty open about not liking running,” says Schide. But get her on a technical climb or descent, and she’s fast and nimble.
Halfway around the world from their native New England, she and Gerardi, 31, have more in common than many siblings. Back in New England, their circles overlapped so much as to be nearly identical, but the five years between them meant that they never quite intersected.
“And now this. It’s crazy.”
This is big news in European trail-running circles. In race after race for the last year, the two have been scoring top finishes across Europe in some of the most competitive events on the continent.
The first half of 2018 got off to a head-spinning start for the two New Englanders—and foreshadowed stronger results to come. In April, Schide trekked to Madeira Island, winning the 85-km Madeira Island Ultra by nearly 13 minutes. A month later, she won Annecy, France’s Maxi-Race, also 85-kilometers long. In June, Gerardi took fourth behind three of the strongest female mountain runners in the world at the Ultra Skymarathon, also on Madeira. A few weeks later, she won a wildly technical team race up Switzerland’s Monte Rosa. At the end of June, she took first in a short, steep vertical kilometer race in Chamonix, France. In July, Gerardi and Schide teamed up and crushed the competition at the three-day Pierra-Menta stage race, a course with a cumulative 23,000 feet of climbing over 70 kilometers. “What’s most impressive, is that they are doing well in the most technical courses in Europe,” says Carbondale, Colorado’s Megan Kimmel, who has been trail racing in Europe for 10 seasons. “That’s not something for which American trail runners are normally known.”
Still, Schide and Gerardi are clearly making names for themselves. And, somewhat improbably, they started not in Boulder, Flagstaff or one of the other towns across the United States that incubates many of the country’s top trail runners—but in largely off-the-radar New Hampshire. How did two hikers from the Granite State’s rugged White Mountains come to stand atop podiums at some of the world’s biggest trail races?
Neither Gerardi nor Schide took a track that would have suggested today’s outcome. Gerardi, now married to an American climbing guide, works as development director for CREA Mont-Blanc, an environmental-research and educational nonprofit based in Chamonix, France. But her early days were spent in the sleepy Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Her father worked as a fisheries biologist, her mother as a tax preparer.
“We weren’t super sporty,” admits Gerardi. “We spent lots of time outside, but not doing sports.” Running never crossed her mind.
“I partied in college. I had dreadlocks and lived in a notorious party house. I smoked a lot of weed and played ultimate frisbee,” she says. “Every now and then I’d think about turning over a new leaf. I’d run a few times and that would be it.”
When a summer job leading hikes fell through, Gerardi found herself driving home to Vermont, from North Conway, New Hampshire. She passed a roadside lodge for the non-profit Appalachian Mountain Club. “They probably like hiking!” she thought. She pulled in—and was hired on the spot. She spent the summer there, answering hikers’ questions.
For her part, Schide took a less serendipitous route to the White Mountains. High-school summer vacations were spent backpacking sections of Vermont’s 272-mile-long Long Trail, with trips interspersed to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. On an overnight to a hut, Schide was captivated by the work of the AMC college-aged crews.
“They were having so much fun working together,” she says. The fitness of the team impressed her, too. “I remember seeing a woman carrying a guy on a wooden pack board during a crew dinner skit. I thought, ‘I want to be that strong!’” She applied and was hired.
Like Gerardi, however, running was mostly an afterthought. “Running was training for field hockey, nothing more. I once ran a half-marathon. I wasn’t the least bit competitive.”
Torture Boards and Technical Terrain
Altogether, the two spent a combined nine seasons in the hut system of the Appalachian Mountain Club, or AMC. The organization’s eight alpine huts, scattered throughout the region’s 48 craggy 4,000-foot peaks, are a popular draw for New England residents seeking something akin to full-service European mountain cabins. The college-aged crews on which Schide and Gerardi worked welcomed overnight guests, cooked meals and provided a steady stream of backcountry information.
“Working on the crew is a transformational experience,” says
Megan Farrell, 27, who was a contemporary of Schide’s and now lives in San Francisco. “It teaches you the essence of meaningful, hard work. It’s a true and honest experience.”
For both Schide and Gerardi, working at the huts was physically transformative, as well. Crew members took turns packing garbage down to the valley, and then massive loads of fresh food and supplies back up. At Madison Hut, where Schide was hutmaster in 2013, that meant twice-weekly pack trips of 3.8 miles down to the valley trailhead, then packing supplies up 3,550 feet.
Because they were hauling boxes, the crews used specially designed tall, wooden pack boards with leather straps, nicknamed “torture boards.” Sixty pounds was a typical load. Gerardi, who weighs 110 pounds, once carried 90. In the face of tipping over sideways or backwards, agility is key.
“You can’t afford to ration or reduce the load, and you have to be at the hut in time to shower and serve 50 guests. It might be 90 degrees outside with 100-percent humidity,” says Farrell. “It would seem easy to quit. But you don’t, because in the huts you learn that the hardest things are possible and you can’t let your crew down. Packing breaks you and makes you really strong.”
“Sometimes you’re carrying 12 dozen eggs. You can’t flip over. If something goes wrong, you learn to recover,” says Gerardi. “A seasoned crew member can move quickly with a large load over difficult terrain.”
Packing, it seems, was ideal training for technical trail running.
The White Mountains proved to be an ideal training ground in other ways, too. At 5 p.m. each evening, crews gathered to prepare meals for as many as 100 guests.
“Everyone needed to be in the kitchen with their apron on for ‘Go Time.’ You didn’t want to let the team down,” says Schide. Crew members who were packing, or on their days off, or visiting friends at distant huts would time their departures down to the wire.
“I always used to calculate,” says Gerardi, “When is the last possible time I can leave?”
“We’d have an eye on our watches, pushing hard, wondering, ‘Am I going to make it?’” says Schide. The routine is known around the huts as the “Late-for-Go-Time Hike.”
“You’d have your head down, moving as fast as possible over gnarly terrain,” says Gerardi. Looking back on those days, Gerardi sees those experiences as laying the groundwork for her success at the short, steep, often technically-challenging vertical kilometer or “VK” races at which she has excelled in the last year. “What is a VK after all? It’s a Late-for-Go-Time Hike.”
The fast, hard hikes continued during midday breaks, which were often spent moving quickly through the mountains to visit friends working at neighboring huts. During her summer at Greenleaf Hut, on the side of the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness, Schide would hike a roundtrip of 15 miles and 6,900 feet of vertical to visit friends at Galehead Hut.
“It’s a long day. It’s all rocks. It takes guests over eight hours one way,” she says. “You’d get there, eat lunch really fast, hug your friends and run back for work.”
“We learned to move fast,” says Gerardi. “You’d meet friends in the valley or go swimming somewhere, and then realize, ‘Oh, crap, I just have an hour and a half to get back to the hut and it normally takes me two hours!’”
It wasn’t just making time that Gerardi and Schide learned. “The White Mountains are such a different style than just pure running,” says Kimmel. “Those trails are some of the most technical and slow in the country. They teach you how to focus on your footing and to be light on your feet, how to position your body and react.”
For season after season, the two moved quickly through the mountains. To Mount Washington for lunch. Across Franconia Ridge to see a friend. Over the iconic Presidential Range for dinner. Down the precipitous Falling Waters trail, and back up the Old Bridal Path—an 8.5-mile loop with nearly 4,000 feet of descending and then climbing. In time, the two had ticked off almost all the big routes in the White Mountains. Except one.
The Huts, End to End, in a Day
The litmus test for seasonal workers in the White Mountains is covering all eight mountain huts in a 24-hour period. First accomplished in 1932, the exact route of the huts traverse has varied over the years. Typical stats include 52 miles and 19,000 feet of vertical, amid much of the roughest, rockiest terrain the White Mountains have to offer.
Both Schide and Gerardi were drawn to the traverse.
“It’s a mythical challenge that proves you’re a badass,” says Gerardi, “and I wanted to be a badass.”
During Schide’s first summer in the huts, she watched a lot of people attempt the traverse. “I’ve always wanted to take on challenges I’m not sure I can complete,” she says. “I was enthralled.”
Schide ticked off the traverse on three separate occasions, first in 2011 at age 19 in just under the 24-hour goal. In 2012, she lowered her time by four hours. Two years later, she was 10 minutes faster. “I really like the idea of traversing from one place to another. When you finish, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
“I remember going into Madison Hut at about 5 in the morning,” says Gerardi, of her first traverse in 2008. “Everyone was asleep. I grabbed some leftover cookies. An hour or so later I watched sunrise from the Northern Presidentials. In the afternoon, I reached my crew at Greenleaf Hut. They had hot soup waiting and cheered me on saying, ‘You’re going to make it!’”
She did—in 22 hours. But, she says, “It was the hardest thing I had ever done. My legs hurt so much I couldn’t sleep.”
Not everyone is as successful. Gerardi once found two trail workers sleeping on a remote peak, about 40 miles in. The duo was wearing leather hiking boots and heavy, green synthetic work pants. “They had blown up,” Gerardi says, matter-of-factly.
A few years apart, both Gerardi and Schide had ticked off impressively fast times on one of the hardest mountain-running challenges in the East. Though they didn’t imagine it, they were perfectly set up for the European mountain-running scene that would soon be in each of their futures.
To this day, though, the traverse remains on their minds. Three years ago, as an English teacher at the American School in Grenoble, France, Gerardi gave it a go during a visit back to Vermont.
“I wanted to better my time,” she says.
She did that—and much more. Her nascent Alps trail-running career was already showing dividends. Seven miles from the finish, her running partner told her she was within striking distance of the record.
“We started tearing down our last mountain,” she says. With just 1.8 miles left, Gerardi thought, “‘Holy shit, I can do this in under 16 hours.’”
Her time of 15:59:13 bested a record held by Farrell by over 45 minutes.
Landing in Europe: “We Should Have Been Intimidated”
It was in Grenoble, France, an ocean away from the White Mountains, where Gerardi and Schide finally got to know each other.
In an online network of past hut employees, Gerardi had posted a note in the spring of 2016, “Coming this way? Let me be your coordinator for fun in the French Alps,” Gerardi wrote. Schide reached out to Gerardi, a few years her senior and someone who had been an impressive figure to her as an AMC worker. Freshly arrived in Zurich to work on a PhD in Geology, Schide had yet to find anyone who could play hard in the mountains.
“By that point,” she says, “I had met everyone in my office who said they liked to go hiking.” She paused and starting giggling. “I like to go hiking too … but in another way.”
“Katie, you should run up Uetliberg!” her roommate once suggested, referring to the 1,500-foot peak adjacent to downtown Zurich. Schide had already done it— sometimes six times in a day, totaling 30 kilometers and over 6,400 feet of climbing.
Within weeks, Gerardi had them both signed up for the Verticale du Grand-Serre near her hometown of Grenoble. At 1.8 kilometers, it was the shortest race either had ever done. But in that distance, the path rose fully 1,000 meters. If they were nostalgic for home terrain, Grand-Serre had it.
“Katie took one look at the course, and said, ‘Oh, I know how to do this,’” Gerardi says.
“It was a Late-for-Go-Time Hike,” explains Schide.
That was the end of September 2016. Two weeks later, Schide and Gerardi both raced Limone, Italy’s Extreme Skyrace, the International Skyrunning Federation’s last race of the season. Their reasons had little to do with the competition.
“Hillary told me the race was known for having a really fun dance party,” says Schide, “And it was her 30th birthday.”
Schide did, however, garner at least one valuable bit of Euro-racing knowledge at Limone.
“I moved to the back of the start corral when I saw everyone dressed in all the newest gear,” she says. “I regretted it immediately. When the race started, I realized that in Europe, nice gear does not equal speed. I was stuck behind an infinite line of slow moving, well-dressed Italians.”
Limone was the duo’s first foray into big-time European trail racing. “We should have been intimidated, but we didn’t know enough,” says Gerardi, laughing. “I had no idea that Limone was one of the top races in the mountain-running world.”
In the two ensuing trail-running seasons, Gerardi and Schide have since had top finishes in dozens of races. The list is a Who’s Who of tough, often highly competitive mountain races.
For Schide: France’s Maxi-Race, Templiers, Pierra Menta, Portugal’s Madeira Island Ultra Trail, Italy’s Gran Paradiso.
For Gerardi: Spain’s Zegama, Italy’s Livigno, France’s Mont Blanc Marathon Vertical Kilometer, Pierra Menta, Scotland’s Glen Coe Skyline, Madeira’s Ultra Skymarathon—and a trip overseas to China thrown in.
Both have dabbled in the U.S. scene on trips home, with Gerardi taking third in Montana’s The Rut Skyrace and Schide winning the Transrockies Run with her partner and coach, Germain Grangier.
“Katie Schide and Hillary Gerardi are definite up-and-comers on the trail-running scene, each having successfully mixed it up with the women who are at the top of the sport and have been there for a while,” says Megan Hicks, irunfar.com’s Managing Editor.
“Both have a mountain focus with their trail running, and it appears that their competitive ability goes up when the trails get steep and technical.”
A Complementary Friendship
With so much shared history and a passion for the Euro trail-running scene, Schide and Gerardi became close friends, despite the day’s drive through the Alps that separate Zurich and Chamonix.
“We’re always trading notes. Who’s going to which races, what’s going on behind the scenes. We chat with Messenger open,” Schide confesses, “so it looks like we’re working.”
“I found being in a foreign country can be isolating,” says Schide. “The time difference makes it difficult to chat with friends and family. Having someone to text at 8 a.m. on the way to work made me feel less separated from my world.”
Schide finally had someone to talk to about the European trail-running scene. “Nobody else around me understood. It was nice having someone who was involved and invested in something I cared about.”
A shared history and love for mountain running doesn’t mean Schide and Gerardi aren’t without their differences.
“They are very different people,” says Grangier. Gerardi dives headlong into a group when she makes an entrance. Schide prefers a lower profile.
“She’s extroverted and I’m not,” says Schide. “I can sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. That’s fine by me. I don’t like being the center of attention. When I’m in a group with Hillary, I’m happy to let her take over.”
With so much else in common, though, their markedly different styles don’t matter much to either. “Acknowledging the difference is not something we spend much time on,” says Gerardi. “We both have partners who are opposite to us. So maybe opposites do attract?”
Gerardi and Schide’s differences are on display physically and mentally during races, too. While Schide is quietly determined, Gerardi races fiercely. “She doesn’t care who or what is in her way. She’s a spitfire,” says Schide of Gerardi.
“At the starting line,” says Grangier, “Hillary is really motivated to beat the other runners. She’s going to go for it! Katie is competitive with herself, not others. She races against herself.”
“For Hillary, it’s a battle against others,” says Schide. “I’m a lot more concerned with having my best day ever.”
Grangier pauses for a moment, searching carefully for the words. “It’s two different paths but the same result.”
Similarly, Farrell says of Schide, “She has a mental fortitude that is incredible to see in action. Katie comes at a challenge with an attitude that’s not bravado or ego. She can look at a problem, and she’ll just know how to tackle it. And she’s so strong.”
When it comes to racing, their paths have recently begun to diverge. Gerardi was spotted by trail-running photojournalist Ian Corless, who brought her to the attention of the International Skyrunning Federation. Now part of their worldwide race series, she’s focusing on the highly technical, vertiginous races she loves best. Those events often have a slower overall pace.
“It’s a mix of mountaineering and running, which is what she does with Brad,” says Grangier, referring to Gerardi’s mountain-guide husband. “They find a way to enjoy the mountains together.”
Gerardi agrees. “Katie can actually run. She’s a fantastic downhill runner. We’re different runners and in that sense sort of complementary.”
Trail Running Without Knowing It
Balancing teetering loads as they moved up thousands of feet through technically demanding terrain to supply huts. Speed hiking against the clock over rocky summits to visit friends. Pushing hard uphill on the “Late-for-Go-Time Hike.” Both Gerardi and Schide credit their time in the White Mountains for their European success.
“We didn’t think of it as running, even though we were wearing trail-running shoes,” Schide explains. “For us, running was something you did on a road. But when I look back, we were trail running. We used exactly the sort of pace as a lot of the longer races we’re both doing now.”
“I didn’t know that trails in the White Mountains were special until moving somewhere else,” says Gerardi. “To me, that was just what a trail was.”
But they are radically different than most trails in the U.S. White Mountain trail builders avoided switchbacks and headed straight up the fall line. Paths are strewn with boulders and flatter sections—where they exist—can be muddy. Bog bridges are often treacherously slippery. Roots abound. Anywhere you can put your foot could be a trap. European trail runners agree. Grangier visited the White Mountains with Schide last summer.
“I was really surprised. I understood U.S. running to be mostly on fast, smooth trails. But the Whites are very technical. That was perfect training for Katie and Hillary. They don’t lose energy running on technical sections. They are comfortable making crazy steps from one rock to another. For them, it’s natural.”
Those days, being late for “Go Time” set up Gerardi and Schide arguably better than coaching ever could have.
“Hiking in the Whites gives you a larger sense of what is hard, technical and rugged,” says Farrell. “That sort of familiarity helps make Hillary and Katie feel confident whenever they come face to face with a trail that terrifies others. They can think, ‘I know this.’ It’s a huge advantage in mental fortitude.”
Today, both Gerardi and Schide have sponsors—Gerardi with Compressport and Scarpa, Schide with the Swiss brand On. Gerardi continues her work with CREA Mont-Blanc, while Schide moves into her third year of PhD research.
Gerardi now participates in what’s called the Sky Extra race series, that includes races of over 50 kilometers. Both now rigorously follow training plans developed by their coaches—French trail-running coach Antonio Gallego in Gerardi’s case.
In August, Gerardi’s spotlight moment arrived. She won one of the world’s most technically challenging trail races—Norway’s Tromsø. The race was launched in 2014 by trail-running legends Kilian Jornet and his partner, Emelie Forsberg. Today, Jornet handles the role of Race Director. Gerardi topped the prior course record by seven minutes.
“There was a long section that felt just like a boulderfield in the Northern Presidentials. That’s where I made up a lot of time,” says Gerardi. “I felt right at home.”
It was no fluke. Less than a month later, she won Italy’s Trofeo Kima Skyrace, another technical, challenging race in which 300 vetted trail runners race 52 kilometers, over seven mountain passes, climbing and descending nearly 14,000 feet.
Then, on the last day of August, Schide ran one of the world’s most competitive trail races—CCC, the 100-kilometer-long, point-to-point race from Courmayeur, Italy to Chamonix, France. She came in second. Hicks called it, “a huge step up in performance, finishing ahead of the likes of top ladies Ida Nilsson and Anne-Lise Rousset.”
Like Gerardi at Tromsø, Schide thought back to her days in the White Mountains as she raced.
“There was a moment when I had a distinctive flashback to hiking across the ridge from Madison Hut to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, early in the morning, passing hikers in full Gore-Tex, while I was in a T-shirt and gloves. When you spend four summers running around in cold fog, it doesn’t really faze you anymore.”
Even at one of the world’s marquee races, Schide also kept a playful spirit reminiscent of her time in the White Mountains.
“The most important thing to me is enjoying long days in the mountains, so I made it a goal to appreciate how cool that is.”
Postscript: As the trail-running season started to wind down across Europe, Gerardi won Scotland’s Glen Coe Skyline, a 32-kilometer race with 9,185 feet of vertical, beating the UK’s Jasmin Paris by seven seconds in a race that featured a full-on sprint during the final kilometer.
Doug Mayer is a Contributing Editor to Trail Runner. He lives in Chamonix, France, where he manages Run the Alps.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Trail Runner. To receive excellent content like this straight to your door, click here.