Sun-Chasing in Chamonix

The Asics Beat The Sun international relay event not only brings a select group of runners from all over the world to run in the magical French Alps, but is also followed by thousands upon thousands more runners around the world via social media. Modern Athlete Editor Sean Falconer was fortunate to be along for the run this year, and says he has left part of his heart in the Alps.
It’s a magical place to be in the French Alps on the 21st of June, specifically in the little town of Chamonix, nestling right under Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 4810m, in a stunningly picturesque corner of France bordering on Switzerland and Italy. You see, this date marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, when the sun rises before 6am and only sets around after 9pm, presenting a glorious day of nearly 16 hours to go playing in the mountains. So, no surprise then that somebody dreamt up the idea to try run 150-odd kilometres round the mountain between sunrise and sunset in an effort to beat the sun!
I can just image that brainstorming session over a couple of local brews one balmy summer’s evening in the Alps… “Wait, let’s make it a relay so more people can be part of it… we can call it ‘Nature’s Toughest Relay’… and invite international teams to bring runners from all around the world to Beat The Sun, like an inter-continental competition… and we can mix professional and amateur runners in each team, to spice things up, and run competitions to find the amateurs for each team… and we can dress them up in cool colour-coded gear from Asics, so each team has its own identity… and we can go crazy on social media around this whole thing… #beatthesun… and then we can really go have some fun in the mountains!”
Even if that isn’t exactly how it went down, in 2014 the first event was run with four teams taking part, growing to six teams in 2015, including an African team for the first time, which finished fourth. A year later, I found myself at the third Asics Beat The Sun event, courtesy of an all-expenses paid media invite from Asics South Africa, because Modern Athlete had been brought on board as a media partner and we had run a competition in the mag to help find a winner for the slot in the team reserved for an SA amateur runner. And in return, I got to spend a few days chasing Team Africa around the Alps. Tough job, but somebody has to do it!
Bit of Local Flavour
Team Africa was one of the eight teams this year, alongside three teams from Europe (North, Central and South), two from the Americas, as well as East Asia and Oceania Pacific. The African team actually had a distinctly South African feel to it, with the team captained by pro triathlete and adventure racer Carla van Huysteen, and also featuring amateurs Tumi Matlou of Johannesburg and Corli Leonard of Stellenbosch, both of whom won their spots on the team through the Modern Athlete competition. The rest of Team Africa consisted of talented pro runners, Givemore Mudzinganyama of Zimbabwe, who lives and races in SA, and Duncan Kiptanui, a French-based Kenyan runner with a 1:04 half marathon PB returning for a second stab at Beat The Sun. The final amateur slot went to Hadi Selmouni of Algeria.
Tumi is a PR specialist, speaks five languages and has an infectious extroverted personality, while Corli is an industrial engineer with a slightly more introverted but equally inviting personality, and the two had actually competed for the same spot on the team. They were two of the three finalists chosen from all the entries and then had to mobilise their friends to vote for them in an online campaign, but when plans fell through to include an amateur runner from north Africa, it made sense to send both the SA girls, as they had both embraced the competition wholeheartedly and gotten over 20,000 votes each in an enthralling online ‘race.’ Best of all, they became instant friends soon as they met, as well as both being hugely popular with the other international teams.
The Mountains are Calling
A trip like this presents an incredible opportunity to see a part of the world one might not otherwise get to, and I always make the most of the time available to explore, especially if that means heading out for a run. Fortunately, the good folk at Asics had laid on plenty of great new shoes and gear for us to try out, and some planned runs in the mountains, so logistics were taken care of. All I had to do was catch the bus in my running kit. While the relay runners were taken up the mountain in a blizzard the day before most of the media arrived, and shown how to use crampons and ice picks – just in case – the first media run was a much more sedate trundle in good weather around the snow field at 2000m above sea level at the top of the Planpraz Cableway overlooking Chamonix 1000m below. Absolutely stunning, and the view of Mont Blanc was mindblowing.
The following day was race day, and after watching the start at 5:44am, and seeing the teams off, the media contingent was bussed to the first handover point to watch the early action. Next we drove through the incredible Tunnel du Mont Blanc, emerging on the other side of the mountain in Italy and heading to the town of Courmayeur to continue supporting the runners – after taking a ride up the Courmayeur Skyway cableway to experience some more rarified mountain air.
We were also invited to go for a run on part of the eighth leg of the relay, so we could see what the runners were experiencing. As luck would have it, when we got to our starting point it was raining and the wind was icy – the weather in the mountains is always unpredictable – but our Asics gear conquered the conditions admirably, even if the same could not be said for my legs. Apparently my calves don’t function nearly as well at 1700m, while running up a glacier, as they do at sea level. Go figure!
Excitement Building
Meanwhile, Team Africa was holding its own in the main event. The three European teams were dominating – I suspect they could just handle the cold better than the other teams – but the Africans were always round about fourth or fifth position. Until the third-last leg, when most of the teams were told by the organisers that for safety, they would have to be short-cutted to the finish, so as to make sure no runners were still out in the mountains when it became dark.
And so, after watching Team Europe North come home first and beat the sun comfortably, followed a short while later by Europe Central, we then watched as Europe South came home just after official sunset at 9:25pm, even though it was still quite light in Chamonix. At the finish line, none of us knew about the drama out on the route, with the second-last leg runner of most of the other teams, including Corli, not being able to run due to the falling light, and thus the final leg runners were told to head for the finish. That saw Duncan the flying Kenyan come blitzing in the finish to claim an unofficial fourth place for Team Africa. Cue team pics at the finish, hugs all-round, and then the party started, with some of the athletes and media keeping the dance floor rocking till well after 3am. (Good news is that now my legs were functioning without complaint again, so the dancing went much better than the glacier running!)
Huge thanks to Asics South Africa, especially Team Africa’s ‘Team Dad’ Dawid Visser, for taking Modern Athlete along for the run in Chamonix. Rumour has it that the next Asics Beat The Sun event will be in Japan, and Sean says he is more than happy to start brushing up on his Japanese. Konnichiwa!