If you’re a skyrunning fan you’ll know that this week the world’s best mountain athletes are hitting Scotland for the Skyrunning World Championships. Amongst them is Hillary Gerardi, the 31-year-old American skyrunner who has taken wins on some of the calendar’s most technical races this year. I’m talking the Tromsø Skyrace, Trofeo Kima and the Monte Rose SkyMarathon, to name a few!
Hillary is on the blog today, where in our Q&A the formidable skyrunner talks about her training week, conquering crazy elevation and her love of technical terrain.
Rewinding a bit, have you always been active and interested in the mountains?
I grew up in a rural area in Vermont in the northeastern US, and I always spent a lot of time outdoors—not necessarily hiking or doing mountain sports, but just being and playing outside. I was a gymnast for 13 years and did organized sports through high school. I got my first real taste of the mountains through my high school’s ‘Wilderness Club’ and did winter hiking and even a tramping trip in New Zealand. Once I started university, I started rock climbing and spending my summers working in the Appalachian Club’s ‘High Mountain Huts’ in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I’d say that that is where I started to get interested in moving quickly through mountains. For example, I did a challenge called the White Mountain Hut Traverse—where you try to hike from the easternmost to the westernmost hut in the range, stopping at each one in less than 24 hours. It’s around 52 miles and probably has around 7,000m of vertical gain.
At what point did you start running?
I never liked running—I thought it was boring and it really seemed like a chore to me, but I think that’s because I thought that ‘running’ meant running on flat roads. In 2010, after 5 years hiking and working in the mountains, my boyfriend (now husband, Brad) convinced me to sign up for a trail race in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. I prepared for it mostly by hiking, and it went really well, but that summer I was really focused on rock climbing and setting different hiking objectives and I didn’t really run again until 2012.
We moved to France in the fall of that year as well and I was mainly focused on climbing, alpinism and skiing. Early in 2012, I had a ski mountaineering accident and decided that I ought to try something a little less dangerous than rappelling into steep couloirs to ski, and again, with the support of Brad, I signed up for a race (it was a relay, and I did 50km and he did 35). In the lead up to the big race, I signed up for a small village race on a whim and ended up winning a 6kg leg of prosciutto and that was when I was like, “Wow! This is awesome! I really should do this more often!”
How did your move into skyrunning come about?
Over the next two years, I did a few more races, and ramped up the distance to 120km. Finally, in 2016, I was planning to do another long race, but fell off my bike and broke three ribs in the spring, and couldn’t do the volume of training necessary for the 140km race I had planned. A friend of mine, Florian Mairy, who is both a runner and a coach, proposed helping me modify my objectives and made some training plans for me to get into shape faster. He helped me get ready for my other objective: the Pierra Menta Été (a 3-day, very technical partner stage race based on the winter ski mountaineering race), and signed me up for the SkyRhune (Skyrunning France) in September of that year.
I had so much fun at my first Skyrace that we decided I should go to Limone Extreme (part of the Skyrunning World Series) in October. There, I fell in love with the sport because it made running fun—pushing hard up steep slopes, breathtaking views, rock hopping and technical sections… I also thought the ambiance was so great. Since each of those races were the last of the season, there were big parties after the race and I loved the festival atmosphere.
For 2017, I decided I wanted to sign-up for the Skyrunner World Series with the objective of just trying to get a ranking on the circuit… and the rest is history!
You live at the foot of Mont Blanc which must make a pretty awesome skyrunning training ground. Can you tell me a bit about your favourite local running trail/spot?
I moved to the Chamonix valley about a year and a half ago and it is quite a playground! I actually live in the village of Servoz, about 15 minutes from Chamonix, and I’m a big fan of training there because there are fewer people on the trails. If I’m out for a long run, I don’t mind seeing lots of hikers, but when I have to do qualitative workouts (like hill reps or tempos), its much better to be out of the heavily trafficked zones.
It’s hard to choose a particular trail or spot that is my favorite because there are so many and I’m completely spoiled. But I do love a workout that I can do leaving directly from my house, so I’d have to say the trails that lead out of Servoz and up to the Lac de Pormenaz because there’s a bit of everything – steep climb, fast single track, technical bits with a ladder, a lake to jump in, plenty of blueberries – and it’s at the foot of the impressive cliffs of the Fiz and has an awesome view of the Mont Blanc massif.
You run a mix of distances and events from ultra-trail and skyrunning to VK (vertical kilometer™) – do you have a favourite race distance and event?
Because I’m really still new to the sport, I’m still testing out different race formats and types, so I don’t think I can name a single favourite yet. Nonetheless, as I’m sure is clear, I like to pick technical races that draw upon my mountain skills, so Tromsø became an instant favorite and technical partner races like the Pierra Menta and Monte Rosa SkyMarathon are high on the list as well.
Do you have a preferred terrain or do you enjoy it all?
Hands down, my favourite kind of trails are steep, rocky and technical. I tend to choose my races based on the courses that look the most fun, which has led me do a wide variety of different formats (VK, skyrace, ultra and stage races). Because of my mountain and climbing experience, that’s also the kind of terrain that I can sometimes get an edge on other runners—honestly, I’m still not really fussed about actual running. I’m not that good of a runner, and tend to avoid the races that are really fast and runnable both because I don’t think they’re as fun, and because I’m not that good at them!
What kind of running do you do in training and what’s your typical weekly distance/ascent?
After 2 years with my friend Florian as a coach, who really helped me launch my career, I started working with Antonio Gallego, another French coach who had been working with my good friends who are runners that I really admire (Célia Chiron and Adrien Michaud). I knew that Antonio wouldn’t hesitate to be really frank with me about my strengths and weaknesses and would push me to target them in training.
So, because speed and running is my weakness, this winter/spring, we were focused on doing speed work on the flat—which worked out alright because in the Chamonix area, the mountains are snow-covered and un-runnable in winter. Based on my objectives for this year, Antonio sets up my training plan in three-week themed training blocks, followed by a recovery week, so the focus, including distance and vertical gain, depends a bit on the block we’re doing.
What does a typical week of training look like at the moment?
During the race season, it’s hard to define a ‘typical’ week, because when I’ve only got 2 or 3 weeks between races, I’ll have a recovery week, a training week and a rest/prep week.
A typical non-racing week might look like:
Monday – Rest + core strength and ankle stability
Tuesday – Speed work on flat
Wednesday – 1hr moderate pace + core OR rest
Thursday – Speed work on hills
Friday – 1hr/1:30 running
Saturday – Longer outing 3-4 hours
Sunday – Longer outing 2-3 hours
Skyrunning and VK events feature insane elevation. Do you take a particular approach to steep climbs?
I love steep climbs and in a long race often almost think of them as the ‘rest’ because I can turn off my brain, push hard and get into a rhythm. Personally, I’m a big proponent of walking/power hiking up hills and if the terrain is not too rocky, I’ll often use poles. For me, switching from running to power-hiking is a way to save energy and I can do it at about the same pace that many people run. My stride will be longer than if I were running, but I still try to avoid huge steps up because they tire you out. One key to not getting left behind is knowing how to switch quickly and frequently from a walk to a run. Even if it’s just a few steps of flat between steep bits, I’ll push myself to run those couple of steps not to lose time.
If a steep climb is rocky enough to need hands or it would be difficult to plant poles, I’ll be pushing on my quads like everyone else. In the case of VKs, if poles are allowed, I always use them. I think the key with poles is to get experience using them beforehand. If you’re not comfortable with them, they won’t help you and will probably get in your way. I find that poles slow me down on the flats and descents, so I fold them up and attach them if I’ve got a long downhill.
How/when do you fit your running in alongside your day job?
I’m lucky that my work schedule is somewhat flexible, and I’ve made the choice to only work 4 days a week. That makes things a challenge for me financially, but allows me to get higher quality training in and also to travel for races. In the off-season, I also do freelance translation work, which helps me make ends meet.
What I will say about working, training and racing is that it demands a high level of organisation and unfortunately, not a whole lot of spontaneity. I need to get an idea of what my week will look like before it begins and then stick to the plan.
Many skyrunners and VK athletes switch to skimo in winter. Is this something you’ve tried?
I’ve given a lot of thought to this and definitely ski tour for fun and do some of my winter training on skis. Nonetheless, I haven’t started doing competitions yet because there is a pretty high price of admission in terms of gear, and while Scarpa does provide me with ski boots, I haven’t invested in the rest of the kit.
What do you eat for breakfast on the morning of a skyrunning race and how do you fuel your events?
I actually very intentionally try not to get too tied to a specific pre-race regime. Because I’m travelling so much to races, I don’t ever want to feel like I need to have a particular thing—I’ve seen other athletes get anxious because they don’t have that one thing they always eat before a race. Being open allows me not to add food-related anxiety into any regular pre-race stress. Still, if I’m going to the grocery store I’ll be picking up things like muesli, soy or almond milk, bananas and peanut butter.
During races, my fuel depends a lot on the format and intensity of the race. If it’s short (VK or shorter Skyrace), I’ll usually be depending only on gels and electrolyte drink because I’m breathing so hard that I can’t take time to chew! If it’s a longer race, then I switch to the endurance version of my gels and electrolytes (for me, it’s GU Roctane), and add things like Clif Shots or even a Clif Bar. Especially for long efforts, I’m also trying out using electrolyte and BCAA tabs from GU.
You’ve run some of the toughest races on the skyrunning calendar. Which have you found to be the most challenging?
You know, that’s another hard question to answer because I find different races challenging for different reasons. I don’t ascribe to the idea that longer races are always harder: I think that it is just as challenging to run a 20km race really well as it is to run a longer, slower, 75km. A VK can be so hard because of the intensity—even if it’s over relatively quickly, you’re essentially going at 100 percent for the entirety of the race.
While most people will find technical races to be the most challenging, I actually feel the most at home in technical terrain, so for me, the hardest races are ones where you really have to run a lot. Last year, Zegama completely kicked my butt because I thought it would be steeper and more technical, but in the end there is a lot of fast running and I wasn’t ready for that.
When it gets really tough in a race what mental strategies help you push through?
When things are tough, I often have a dialogue going on in my head where there is part of me saying “This is too hard, I want to stop” and the other part of me saying “No, you can do this! Keep it up!” I try to get myself to listen to the positive voice. And positive thinking is really one of the most important things for me – whether it is trying to cut off a negative thought by replacing it with a positive one, or just reminding myself that my body is capable of incredible things.
Sometimes people remark that I’m often times smiling in race photos and that’s because, even when it gets tough, I remind myself that I am doing this because I want to, that no one is forcing me to do it and that I’m here because I like it. I also read somewhere about the effect of smiling on your mental state and I really believe that if I smile and tell myself that I am having fun, it becomes easier and actually becomes fun. As soon as racing stops being fun for me, I’ll stop.
What are your goals for the rest of 2018 – are you looking towards any big races in particular?
If I had written this a few weeks ago, I would have said that Tromsø Skyrace was a big objective for the summer, but now that has passed and it fulfilled all of my wildest dreams… I could retire from racing now and I’d be satisfied! But I’m also really looking forward to Trofeo Kima (Editor’s note: Hillary went on to win Trofeo Kima!) and Glen Coe Skyline —two big, tough, high-level races that will push and challenge me a lot.
If all goes well, I’ll be able to stop doing longer races after Glen Coe and finish off the season with a few fun VKs.
How are you feeling about the Skyrunning World Championship in Scotland?
I’m actually only going to be doing the Vertical Kilometer* for the World Championships because I’ve been itching to do Glen Coe Skyline ever since I heard about it. I’m really excited to represent the US, though, and to try out such a tough, high-level VK. Plus, running in Scotland is so fun, that I just can’t wait to be there!
[*Hillary will compete in the Vertical Kilometer at the World Champs this Thursday, 13th]
What are your must-have items of kit for skyrunning training and racing?
My race kit is usually composed of the required gear list and not much else: windbreaker, survival blanket, food, water… For longer training sessions, I do a similar set-up and I’d be running with a UD running vest and a kit pretty similar to what I race with, plus extra food, layers and my phone. For shorter sessions, I really like the Compressport Freebelt because you can tuck your phone and a flask in without even really feeling its there.
Do you have any sponsors at the moment?
I am sponsored by Compressport and by Scarpa France, and receive support from Ultimate Direction. I also partner with some local Alps-based businesses–Run the Alps (running tour company), Tingerlaat Skincare (long-lasting sunscreen), Looking for Wild (clothing), and finally Native Energy (a Vermont-based company who helps me calculate and offset my carbon footprint).