Two years ago, I ran an interview with amateur ultrarunner and ski mountaineering enthusiast Francesca Eyre, owner of Morzine’s in-demand Chilly Powder hotel in the French Alps. Francesca shared the story behind her journey to ultrarunner and how running helped her in the aftermath of grief and loss. It led her to run the Himalayas’ multi-day Manaslu trail race and, following that, live a life packed full of endurance sports adventures – from cycling the Etape du Tour to competing in the revered skimo race, Patrouille des Glaciers.
However, last year, Francesca suffered a devastating head injury during a 300km cycling event in the UK, where she was unconscious for an estimated 20 minutes. The fall-out from severe concussion has been traumatic and life-changing. I caught up over the phone with Francesca to chat about life following her accident and how, with the help of her family’s new property in Provence, she got through a tumultuous 13 months.
So, your accident – you’d entered a race in the UK last May as part of your training for Lands End to John O’Groats, is that right?
Yes, it was the Duluxe London ride which was 300km over two days. I wasn’t racing it – we still had snow on the ground in Morzine, so I hadn’t done much cycling apart from indoor cycling, and I’d done some randonnee, but my endurance fitness is really good anyway. So I came into the race feeling really strong, absolutely fine.
Can you talk through what you remember happening?
I rode the first day absolutely fine, I ate properly that night, slept well. The following day I got up, had breakfast and did about 75km. I stopped at a feeding station, ate properly, completely rehydrated, got back on my bike and spoke to some friends on the way out. And then, from having seen photographs – because I have absolutely no memory at all – it was quite a dark country lane with overhanging trees, and I was found on the side of the road, unconscious, by an ambulance driver and a nurse. One of my teammates went past me, caught up with the others and said to them, ‘I think that was Francesca back there’, so he turned around and came back. He reckons it took him 20 minutes [from passing me] and I was just coming round when he came back to me, so he thinks I was unconscious for at least 20 minutes.
Do you know how you crashed?
I’ve got no memory at all. When the police came to the scene, I couldn’t speak so they asked me to squeeze their hand to answer questions. They asked me if I’d been hit by a car and I squeezed to answer yes, but I’ve got no memory of it at all. I was then in hospital for five days but I have no memory of the hospital. I’ve got 15 days where I can’t remember anything. Then I’ve got 9 months where my brain is coming in and out a bit – there are things I still can’t remember from over the last 9 months.
Did you need any surgeries?
No, I was very, very lucky that I didn’t need to have any surgeries – it was only fractures. I fractured my cheekbone and my spine. They didn’t pick up my fractured spine in hospital, which was quite scary. For two-and-a-half weeks afterwards, I kept saying I needed a chiropractor or someone to click me into place, but we had a scan back in Morzine and my spine was fractured.
One specialist told me I was going to have to wear a brace for the next nine months. But another specialist said because I was so fit and the fracture was already healing slightly, as long as I was very, very careful, I could get away with not wearing a corset. It was also fractured on the inside of the bone, rather than the outside, so in that way, it was protected a little bit more.
So then I was told that I needed to keep walking [to stay active], but because of my brain injury, I wasn’t allowed to walk by myself in case I fell or anything happened. So – thank god – friends took it in turns to take me for a walk every day!
Mentally, how did you feel at the time?
I thought I was going mad and that they hadn’t told me that I’d actually really damaged my brain – I thought that they just were trying to be kind and not tell me the truth. I had to get the doctor and Paul (Francesca’s husband) to really promise me that on the scan there was no blood on the brain, there were no lesions or anything like that, and that it was just a very, very nasty concussion and that I would get better. Because in the beginning, I did not think that I would get better at all.
Mentally it’s really hard to explain. I lost all confidence in myself. I couldn’t cope with groups of people; it really frightened me. I felt as though what I was saying wasn’t making any sense, even though people said it was. I felt as though my words were coming out of the back of my head rather than my mouth. I’m saying this to people because I think it’s really important that people are aware [of the effects of concussion], but I was suicidal twice. And that’s not me at all, it’s not my character at all, which is so frightening. It was just very short waves of those thoughts, so thank god it wasn’t a permanent wave. Thank god Paul was there each time so he was just able to hold me and say, come on, we’re going to go for a walk.
At the same time, you’d just bought another Chilly Powder property in Provence?
It’s been such an amazing thing getting Provence because that’s given me a project. That got me through everything. I wasn’t allowed to drive – I had my driving licence taken off me by the doctors – so I stayed at home because I was too frightened to go into the hotel and see people, and I basically worked on the interiors of Provence, buying things online because I couldn’t go shopping.
When you say you were scared of people, do you mean you felt overwhelmed?
Panicked. It’s really bizarre because I’ve spent my whole life with people – I’m a hotelier! – so people do not frighten me, yet I was just really, really frightened. I don’t know why. Just panicked. I would say to myself, ‘OK, Francesca, you can go in and do this’, but it was almost slightly overwhelming, almost in a way like a panic attack and I just couldn’t cope with it. Which is not me, at all. That, obviously, has got better with time and is absolutely fine now, but in the beginning, I couldn’t even go to friends’ dinner parties – I couldn’t cope with it. After a few months, I did go to a dinner party where everyone knew not to overpower me or get intense, so that was fine. So it was just basically just building up my confidence again.
Do you think the after-effects of concussion are discussed enough?
Concussion is so not talked about and I do think that if more people talk about it, it might help others because it is the most horrific feeling. So by sharing my experience, hopefully, it will help other people.
Endurance sport was a huge passion of yours – has that changed?
With my back injury, I couldn’t run or anything like that, but after nine months, I started doing a little bit more. This winter, I was able to randonnee up the mountain but I wasn’t allowed to ski back down again in case anyone hit me.
This morning, I’ve just been up the mountain behind the house in Provence with my daughter Eloise and we ran back down again, but I am so slow! I’m clumsier now than I used to be. I’m not as confident – before, when I was running down the mountain, I’d hop off things and jump off things and float more, whereas now I feel very heavy and very unelegant. I’ve definitely lost my confidence.
Have you been back on your bike since your accident?
I didn’t get back on a bike until about 10 days ago [13 months after the accident]. I got back on the bike for the first time, put cleats in for the first time. The person I went out with wouldn’t have known it, but I was really, really frightened before I got on the bike – which is ridiculous because, again, it’s not me. A bike to me was like another limb; it never worried me beforehand. But by the end of the ride, I was fine, and I loved it.
I certainly wouldn’t race and my bike fitness is appalling [laughs], but it was good to get back on it. I’m definitely not as confident as I used to be, just because the accident was so frightening; I never want to be put in that position again.
Tell me more about your property in Provence, which you’re opening up as a B&B?
It’s a beautiful, 200-year-old property – all arched ceilings and stone walls and tile floors, very old but beautiful. It’s just slightly outside Provence’s touristy golden triangle and it sleeps 8-10 people. Part of it was a stable, so that has been converted. We’re in a tiny, tiny little village which has one little bar and one tiny shop, almost a prefab shop, with a little butchers in it. Everything you need is in there. It’s perfect.
Ansouis, the village next door to us, is one of the most beautiful villages in France. We’ve also got Luberon 7-10km away from us which, again, is designated one of the most beautiful villages in France, and that’s got a castle and they do nighttime concerts.
The house was going to be self-catered, but I really miss looking after guests, cooking and making my homemade jams, baking cakes and really getting to know guests, so we’re going to set it up as a bed and breakfast. I will run Provence and Paul and the rest of the team will run Chilly Powder up in the mountains, and we will go back and forth between the two.
When can people book a stay with you?
We’re planning to open on July 11th! (Find out more here)
In Provence you’re perfectly situated for great cycling, running and hiking by the sound of it?
It’s a huge cycling area. At the top of the mountain behind us, you can see Mont Ventoux in the distance. There’s masses of trekking and walking – we’re on the edge of the Luberon National park with the GR97 [350km hiking route] right behind our back door. There’s a lake 2km away and yesterday we walked to the lake through vineyards and tracks. It’s just absolutely beautiful. So there’s lots and lots of stuff to do. There’s all the wine tasting, the Provençal food markets, sports, mountain biking. Morzine obviously has all the lifts, but here you actually have to take your bike up to the top of the mountain and cycle down, so it’s harder!
It’s heavenly here. I keep saying to Paul how lucky we are to have it.
Now you’ve been back on your bike, do you think you’ll do more cycling in the future?
Because it was booked in and cancelled last year, I was going to do Lands End to John O’Groats this year in September, but I definitely don’t have the bike fitness. Unless I’m suddenly biking all summer and really get my confidence back up again, I don’t think I’ll do it. Never say never though… I’ll say never the day before – not now [laughs].
You can follow Francesca via www.instagram.com/Chilly_powder_provence, and by following Chilly Powder’s other social channels: www.instagram.com/chillypowderholidays and www.facebook.com/chillypowdermorzine.
For more information about Chilly Powder properties in Morzine and Provence visit www.chillypowder.com.