When Francesca Eyre started running she found the trails helped her briefly escape the sadness of losing two of her siblings to cystic fibrosis and her mother to cancer. After entering her first ultra, Francesca, who runs the successful Chilly Powder ski chalets in Morzine, signed up to run the 220km multi-day Manaslu trail race in Nepal in 2014, in memory of her mother and to raise money for cystic fibrosis charities.
Francesca has since completed a host of endurance events including the difficult and technically demanding 110km ski-mountaineering race, Patrouille de Glaciers, and the 169km road bike race, the Etape du Tour. I’d urge you to watch the moving Searching for Pearls video below, which shares Francesca’s story more beautifully than I could try to.
I watched Searching for Pearls and found it so moving. It seemed that running was a way for you to cope with the loss in your life – is that accurate?
Running was a way to get the endorphin ‘highs’ I needed when I was feeling so desperately sad. Trail running meant I had to concentrate on where I was going so I didn’t fall flat on my face or get lost, which meant that my mind could not delve into my dark thoughts.
At what point did you start running?
I had never done any real exercise until after my third child, Jamie, was born in 2004. I needed some ‘time out’ from children and the hotel. Running gave me an hour of peace, an hour of endorphins and an hour of getting rid of the baby fat. Also my brother and business partner were getting sicker and sicker so it gave me time to free my mind.
Was it difficult fitting running in alongside your children and the Chilly Powder chalets?
I can make up a million excuses each day why I can’t go out for a run – not enough time, the weather, the hunters are hunting, the hotel guests need looking after, the kids need me, I have a few niggles and aches and pains, I’m tired.. The list goes on and on, so to motivate me originally, I entered into a 10km trail race so I had to get my backside out into the hills to train. As I’m a competitive and very determined person, I wasn’t going to come last!
You went on to complete the 220km Manaslu race in Nepal for charity – how did you find it?
It’s like giving birth, you completely forget the pain! I have nothing but the most incredible memories of Manaslu and I look back at the race with a huge smile on my face. I was super-chuffed and stunned with my results as I was the 4th woman to finish. But I was totally shocked this week when I stumbled across the notes that I’d written during a stage on the race saying the complete opposite, notes saying it was the hardest thing I had ever done and my legs and lungs were in agony. It’s amazing how quickly our mind becomes distorted.
The highs of the experience were getting to Base Camp at Manaslu at over 5000m, watching the Nepalese village kids run in a race our organisers had put together, wearing flip flops, over-sized wellie boots, and bare feet, flying across the fields and through the village to receive their prize of an English book at the end. Seeing the monks dance around a fire in a trance having buried the bones of a colleague in a monastery that could only be reached by foot. The lows were the pain in my lungs running at altitude and the fear of failing.
Did completing a 220km running race make you realise what you’re capable of?
I still completely doubt myself but if you put your mind to it, you can do almost anything.
Have you gone on to do more ultra-distance running events since then?
After the winter season, having not run a kilometre for over five months, I did a 60km trail event for Cystic Fibrosis – a huge, massive mistake. Despite being very fit from ski-touring and racing all winter, I hadn’t thought about the ligaments and lack of muscles in my feet. I managed to give myself plantar fasciitis (a condition resulting in severe heel pain) and have been really suffering since then. Every time I run more than 10kms, it totally flares up again. Instead I have concentrated on other sports and did the Patrouille de Glaciers mountaineering race last April and the Etape du Tour cycling race this July.
Today is going to be a new start as I’ve bought myself a completely different type of running shoes, and I’m praying that a miracle will occur and the heel will behave – here’s hoping!
Do you have to make a conscious effort to fit running in?
It is really, really hard and unless I have an event, kids and the hotel can take over. I have my eldest based in Montpellier and he is a professional ice hockey player. My daughter is based in Brighton and she pays for Brighton & Hove Albion DS women’s football squad, and my youngest plays ice hockey for the South East of France. I try and support them all as much as possible and therefore sometimes training goes to the bottom of the list. I haven’t been able to do much since July and I’m now really struggling with the mental fear of that first run… The million excuses come flooding back but hopefully these miracle shoes will be the answer!
I might add that I work off half a thyroid and anyone with thyroid problems will relate to the fact that all my joints hurt most of the time, so yes, another excuse as to why I keep putting off that run! But once it is done and the endorphins kick in, I will feel a million dollars!
Did you find that running gives you headspace?
I am a much, much nicer person if I can get out and exercise! I realise that I am incredibly lucky to be free in the mountains.
You’ve completed the Patrouille de Glaciers, a 110km ski-mountaineering event renowned for its steep mountain gorges, glaciers and tough conditions. How did you find it?
I raced with two incredible guys and we all had our lows and our highs during the race. It was really hard, technical, exhausting but stunningly beautiful and I would do it again in a flash if I could.
Looking back up the mountain in the middle of the night once we had skied off the glacier, we stopped for a couple of minutes to witness hundreds of tiny head torches zigzagging down the mountain under a full sky of stars.
Seeing one of my race partners, who is one of the fittest people I know, crying at the end of the race with relief, joy, memories of those who are no longer with us in the world and lots of other private thoughts, was a very humbling experience
What gets you through tough times in an event? Would you say you’re quite mentally resilient?
I am really mentally strong. What gets me through? My mother – she died of cancer aged 47 and she didn’t deserve to die, so I try and live the life that she wasn’t allowed to, for her. She’d kill me if I just gave up!
You completed the 2018 Etape du Tour – cycling 170km including 4 categorized climbs – what was that like and did you train specifically for it?
I wasn’t at my fittest – after the Patrouille de Glaciers I developed deep vein thrombosis in my calf on two separate occasions, so training wasn’t how I would have liked. The whole way round the 170km, I endured the most awful cramp – in my toes, calf, inner thigh – but luckily I had the most amazing friend supporting me and she waited at the top of every col. Supposedly, 3000 people didn’t finish the race, two died on the course and grown men sat on the side of the roads, heads in hands, sobbing. We were in the top third, so for two old birds, I’m pretty impressed!
It was stunningly beautiful and to ride with 15,000 cyclists on closed roads was thrilling.
Morzine seems like the perfect playground for outdoor activities – has living there has helped your running and cycling journey?
1 million per cent – I would be a round chunky monkey if I lived in the UK. The fact that everyone who has chosen to live in Morzine loves outside adventures makes it very hard to sit around and to do nothing. There’s not a lot of culture here, so the mountains are your playground!
Do you have a training schedule or like to go out for a certain number of runs each week?
Ideally, I like to do something at least four times a week. I would love to have the time to follow a training schedule but it is completely unrealistic and would put me under too much pressure. If I had a training schedule, I’m sure that I would perform much better and have less injuries.
How does your training change in winter – do you switch to ski-touring or is Morzine still runnable?
We’re in between seasons, so Morzine is still runnable but it’s very chilly and icy in the morning. You can put yak tracks on the bottom of your running shoes to run on the ice and in the snow. As soon as we can safely ski down, I will be putting the skis on immediately – I have the Swiss Ski Marathon Kandersteg [ski mountaineering] race to train for in March!
Would you say that running has changed your life?
It has mentally helped me work my way through the death of my sister, mother, brother and business partner. We were never offered any counselling as kids and I think if I hadn’t been able to run and see the amazing things I have seen, then I would be in a very different place.
Do you have any favourite items of kit for running or ski-touring?
Let’s hope my new Hokas are my new favourite item! My skies are the best and they are light and easy to go up in, and ski down like a dream. Well, touring skis are never a dream! Then there’s my Garmin watch and the dog – our flat coated retriever Lola.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Ha-ha, no – I’m 49 years old this year, a mother of three, I run a hotel, and have 24 members of staff to mother. My main sponsor is my husband for never saying no to any of the crazy challenges I do!
What are your plans for the winter season and for next year?
This winter, I need to get back on track and get the fitness levels up again – I have a girls’ team entered into a race at the end of the season in Kandersteg, Switzerland. I am doing the Highland 500 (516 mile cycle around the far north of Scotland) on a bike with friends in June and in September I am cycling Lands End to John O’Groats.
If the running goes well, I would love to do another trail race, but let’s see…
For more information about Francesca’s Chilly Powder ski chalets in Morzine visit www.chillypowder.com.