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  • Writer's pictureDion Finocchiaro

Chamonix: The Beginning

Golden Trail World Series 2021

Shakeout the day before Marathon Du Mont Blanc with the brilliant athlete/photographer/all around human Martina Valmassoi (Photo by Martina) The beginning of my trip, as with any big venture in life, was an absolute chaos of emotion. I was anxious about what was to come in the next three months of navigating life/travel on my own; I was excited for all the new things I would experience and lessons I would learn; and I was so grateful to be at the beginning of what I knew was going to be a huge chapter in my life. The flight itself was rather strange, with planes almost empty and in some cases having more staff than passengers. This made the plane trip a breeze because I could lie down wherever I wanted the entire way. Me being me though, the mishaps did begin fairly early, with me leaving my cloth shoulder bag on my second flight. It contained my favourite hoodie, my memory foam pillow I use to keep my neck happy when travelling, and one of my bags of medications. Cue teary sleep-deprived meltdown in Zurich airport as I was told I wasn’t going to be able to get them back, and I was off to a ripper start. It did of course improve though, and I knew everything in there was replaceable so it wasn’t long before I was laughing at my mistake and moving on. I flew into Geneva and 4 hours later made my way to Chamonix by bus, amazed at the ease of crossing the border into France. Then my breath was quite literally taken away and tears filled my eyes as Mont Blanc and the French Alps started to materialise around me. Not just because of the sight, but because it finally dawned on me that I was really here, among paces I have dreamed about and stared at pictures of for hours. The first few days in Chamonix then flew by in a whirlwind of new places, sights I will never forget seeing for the first time, and trying to take in my surroundings. I had a comfy little studio apartment right near the main bus station in Chamonix, and loved the little town with it’s charming buildings and river running straight through the middle. I got into a groove of training, easy to start with and then back into the usual swing of sessions and recovery days - learning the hard way that for someone that has lived their whole life at sea level, even adjusting to 1000m takes more time than you would think. The terrain was new and beautifully daunting, the altitude when not in the valley was breath-taking in both views and physiology, and I was pleasantly surprised to find multiple stores in town that could keep me well stocked with gluten free and vegan food.

There is a lot to love about Chamonix and its surrounds - from the 300m track with epic mountain views to the ease of access to high altitude mountain trails, it is a great place for training among some incredible scenery. Most things initially went pretty much as I expected in the planning. What I didn’t expect though, was that almost right away I missed home in a way I have never experienced before. I have travelled quite a lot solo, spending a month by myself in Kenya at age 21, and tagging my own solo travel onto the end of each of my World Championships outings for up to 1.5 months. Navigating the logistics, feeding myself as a vegan/coeliac, figuring out foreign transport, making myself comfortable in foreign surroundings - that all came back to me easily. But on all my previous trips, I was in a very different place mentally. Travelling then felt like an escape from a home life where I was comfortable, but still struggling in a big way. Travel and being away from home gave me peace of mind, more space, and I always found when I was away I was overcome by a sense of freedom and felt much more ‘me’. This time was completely different, and it shook me. I have done a lot of intense psychological work and different types of PTSD treatment during the last 18 months of Covid. What that has meant is that I have relied upon my now very strong and reliable support system at home in huge ways, and I have built an environment at home where I am not just comfortable, but happy and starting to thrive. I have a new relationship I never thought I would be capable of after everything I have been through with men that has enabled me to experience so many things I had just resigned to just ‘not being for me’. I have not just a man I love but friends and family that I have let in a little more so they can actually help me face my past head on, rather than run away from it. All of this meant that once I arrived in Chamonix and was on my own for the first time after going through this process, I didn’t find the same sense of peace but instead a longing for the safety and comfort of the support system I have built, and a rather overwhelming sense of fear that I wasn’t ready for this yet. That is the thing about PTSD, exposure therapy and facing up to things you have been tucking away in the recesses of your mind; things get worse before they get better. I thought I was through the worst and really was in the best place I have ever been mentally and physically leaving for this trip. What I didn’t realise though was that because that is all so new to me still, I was more reliant on having people around to help me deal with life than I thought. This threw me for six, but determined ol’ me quickly tried to turn that reality around to be a good thing, and tell myself this trip was even more needed then so I could take everything I have worked on for the last two years and teach myself to get through it on my own. I saw an opportunity for even more growth than I realised, and a way to gain even more trust in myself. That wasn’t easy though. So I spent 3.5 weeks in Chamonix before Marathon Du Mont Blanc (which I will cover in the next post), and I could tell you about all the amazing places I visited, the trails I ran, the people I met - which I will of course summarise briefly below - but the underlying current of all of this was a continuation of my mental health journey I didn’t expect. Essentially, what the shock to the system led to was a major PTSD trigger about 1.5 weeks into the trip (the smell of a particular widely used cologne paired with a look alike to one of my abusers) that caused nightmares. Initially, I pushed back in a huge way. I tried to deny the fact they were happening and I didn’t telling anyone back home because I didn’t want to complain or seem ungrateful for the trip. Most of all, I was so frustrated and somewhat ashamed that this was still a problem. I wasn’t going to let it take everything good away from me and I still got out during the days to explore, I got all my training done, and I really did have some incredibly special times. Everything I shared at the time on social media etc was a true reflection of how I was feeling in moments of time, but I didn’t share what was going on in the background because I honestly didn’t know how to deal with it, and didn’t want to have to deal with it. The nightmares stuck around, probably because I didn’t tell anyone or do anything about them - yes I know better but in the moment, damn its hard to see straight. So I was getting 2-4 hours of interrupted sleep a night, except for the one blessed night I spent in a van with a new-found friend Iris Pessey. Initially that only affected the nights and days were fine, but as time went on my days also started to suffer as my thinking was getting fuzzy and fatigue was setting in. This was all happening in the two weeks leading up to Marathon Du Mont Blanc, which was a crazy time in itself because of the mounting anxiety about the race, meeting so many new people, navigating a totally new type of race environment, and trying to finish off my race preparations. In short this period was a time of information and emotion overload while in a sleep deprived and internally fragile state. The positives to come out of this now though, are that upon reflection I know where I went wrong - not telling anyone until after the race because I felt I should be able to handle it on my own is NOT a good way to deal with things, and goes against every piece of advice I have ever given anyone else. But I can also take strength from the fact that I did make it through okay, that I am still able to count it as a good experience, and that I learned so much about my raw, fragile, determined self in the process. So it was not the perfect start to the trip of my dreams; where training, travel and my own company felt brilliant, and free, and powerful. But it was perhaps the start to the trip I needed because I got a chance to fall, to pick myself back up again, and to push on in a stressful and brand new environment around no one that knew me, my history, or what was going on. Truth be told, I am in tears writing this and remembering just how hard and lonely that was at times. Words can’t really summarize either the highs or the lows. But the strength I have gained can never be taken away from me and I know it takes the roughest of times to build that type of strength and resilience. For that I am incredibly thankful.

Day Time = Play Time, no matter the weather or surface Now for the fun stuff - because there was still a lot of fun stuff! Here is a quick fire of my favourite places I visited and my favourite trails. Favourite Places:

  • Aiguille Du Midi - It’s not the cheapest place to get to, but the cable car ride itself is spectacular and for an Aussie that lives by the beach, the whole experience and views were INSANE

  • Gorges De La Diosaz - Near Servoz, just a short train trip from Chamonix, this is a 1.6km walkway into the depths of a gorge that was one of the most peaceful, inspiring, and soul giving places I visited on my entire trip.

  • Lac d’Emosson - A dam just inside the border of Switzerland that is a fun mission in itself to get to full of Funiculars and mini-trains, it sits at 2000m above sea level with views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains that are spectacular I got to visit and run here twice, once by myself, and then this is where Iris and myself slept in her van.

View of Mont Blanc from Aiguille du Midi; Lac d’Emosson at sunset; Gorges de La Diosaz Favourite Trails:

  • Lac Blanc/Lacs de Cheserys - Words cannot describe how much I loved both my runs to Lac Blanc and Lacs de Cheserys. Hard climb, beautiful surrounds, magical views from the lakes and really fun descents. Everything you could want in a mountain adventure. My run map Here

  • Aiguillette des Posettes - I have a love/hate relationship with this place now after rolling my ankle here during the race, but the rideline, the summit views, and the switchback climbing make for a rewarding day out. My run map Here.

  • Servoz to Les Houches - This was my commute home for Gorges de La Diosaz through a magical and very steep forest, then getting to run above all the valley towns through pastures and beside streams. My run map Here.

  • Petit Balcon Sud - A beautiful runnable trail not far from town centre that has some incredible views. My go to for easy runs with a view. Run map Here.

The famous view from Lacs de Cheserys; The forest between Servoz and Les Houches; Me running on Petit Balcon Sud

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