World trail running champion Caroline Chaverot, in Hong Kong for first time, talks about what drives her
Mother of three who took up trail racing just four years ago, and who’s part of an elite field in Sunday’s MSIG Lantau 50, says she’s not the fastest runner but has ‘a very strong will’ and never gives up
Closing in on the final gate of the kayak slalom competition, Caroline Chaverot was confident she had her Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games qualification spot for the Swiss team in the bag. A split second later, her dreams were dashed when she somehow narrowly missed the final checkpoint. Devastated, Chaverot, then 20, swore never to take part in competitive sport again.
Fast forward 20 years and Chaverot is winning some of the world’s most prestigious trail running ultramarathons. In the past 18 months she has dominated the women’s competition, claiming victories in numerous big races including July’s Skyrunning World Championships (105km) in Spain, the 168km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) – considered the World Cup of ultrarunning – in September, and the 2016 IAU Trail World Championships (85km) in Portugal in October, days after her 40th birthday.
In Hong Kong for the first time this week, in-form Chaverot is undoubtedly the favourite for Sunday’s MSIG Lantau 50, a 54km trail race around Lantau Island that doubles as the International Skyrunning Federation’s Asian Skyrunning Championships.
Chaverot spearheads a star-studded field that includes France’s Ludovic Pommeret, men’s champion of the 2016 UTMB, Spain’s Cristofer Clemente (2016 Skyrunner Ultra Series champion), Frenchman Nicolas Martin (men’s runner-up at the IAU World Trail Championships) and Julien Chorier (2012 Ultra Trail Mount Fuji champion) and Nepal’s Samir Tamang, the defending Asian Skyrunning champion.
In spite of her extensive trophy cabinet, Chaverot’s competitive trail running career has actually been relatively brief – she only did her first trail race in 2012, the 42km Trail du Saleve in her birthplace of Geneva, six months after delivering her third child.
“When I was pregnant with him I was forced to stay in bed for three months, and I got very frustrated,” says Chaverot, a former Swiss national junior kayak champion. “So after I gave birth I decided to start running to get back in shape. But I never guessed I would have such good results; it was a surprise for me.”
Her breakthrough came at the 2013 CCC, a prestigious 101km race seen as the “little sister” of the UTMB, which she won while still nursing her son five times a night. The victory made her realise her potential in the sport.
Other recent feathers in her cap include the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (119km) in Italy, the Eiger Ultra Trail (101km) in Switzerland, Spain’s Transgrancanaria (125km), and the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (115km) in Portugal.
Chaverot lives in the tiny French village of Mandallaz, about 30km south of Geneva, with husband Luc and children Eve, eight, Tom, six, and Noah, five. It’s in the big forest at her doorstep where she trains most of the time, between 10 to 15 hours a week on average. Working full-time as a high school geography and history teacher, that is all the time she can afford – relatively little compared to the 20 to 30 hours a week typical of top trail runners.
But what she lacks in training time Chaverot makes up for with her mental strength. “My greatest strength I think is my mind. I have a very strong will and I never give up. I can push myself very hard for a very long time,” she says. “Physically, I’m not exceptional. I’m not particularly fast on the uphills, downhills or flats, but I have a good combination of the three.”
Her goals for next year include doing new races such as the Transvulcania (74km) in the Canary Islands, the Hardrock Hundred Mile in the United States, and more extreme races like the Glen Coe Skyline in Scotland (55km) and Tromso Skyrace (50km) in Sweden. She would also like to win the UTMB again. “I want to be able to finish it without cramps,” she says, “I had a lot of difficulty this year.”
Despite being late to the game, Chaverot, who is also a keen rock climber, road cyclist and alpine skier, believes she can be competitive for years. “Nathalie Mauclair was trail running world champion at 45 - she’s a good example for me,” says Chaverot.
What motivates her to run? “It’s a need I think,” she says. “I need to be outside, I need to do physical activity. I’m always very sad when I have to rest.”
On Thursday morning I had the privilege of taking Chaverot, Chorier and a few other elite racers for a run up Sunset Peak on Lantau Island to reconnoitre part of the race route . At many points we would stop running to regroup, but Chaverot would never stand still, preferring to run back and forth on the trail instead of wasting time waiting at one spot.
Her “need” to run was apparent, but, with a big smile on her face while bounding lightly over rocks, even more obvious was Chaverot’s genuine love for the mountains.
The MSIG Lantau 50 flags off at 6.30am from Man Tung Road park, Tung Chung, on Sunday. There are two other races, of 27km and 16km. More information at actionasiaevents.com