Book review: The Grand Trail, by Alexis and Frederic Berg

Review written by Laura Clark, a trail runner and snowshoe racer who lives in Saratoga Springs NY and is a Children’s Librarian at the Saratoga Springs (New York) Public Library.  The Grand Trail publisher Velopress is an ATRA corporate member. 

It is a universal urge to proclaim to the world who we are, what makes us tick, where our passions lie. Witness that 50 Mile bumper sticker, that ultra medal casually draped over a cubicle divider, that proud finisher photo. But now, thanks to Alexis Berg, the official photographer of the 2015 Ultra-Trail World Tour and his ultrarunner brother and fellow journalist Frederic, we have motivation to clear the clutter from our coffee table and proudly display proper documentation of our infatuation.

More than a brief statement, this hefty 12” X 9.5” 320-page volume with its stunning visuals and well-chosen descriptions, will enable your family and guests to murmur at long last, “I get it.” Unlike other coffee table volumes, however, this one is worthy of more respect than a simple flip through the pages. Focusing on 13 classic trail races in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa, the write-ups go beyond mere course descriptions to generate a real feel for the uniqueness of each adventure. While many of the events like Western States and Marathon des Sables are familiar; others like the Hong Kong 100 and Tarawera in New Zealand are perhaps not as much.

While perusing this book I was reminded of the lift-the-flap books so popular with the preschool set. Spot is looking for his ball, but for each flap he lifts he is met by an unexpected surprise. It was the same for me. I returned again and again to each race photo, always discovering a new intriguing detail. And despite the fact that I know I will never witness many of these events, I still felt an immediate kinship with the raw emotion and revealing postures exposed through the peep hole of Alexis’ camera lens. A different place, a faster pace, but these runners could have been me.

Adding to the international flavor is the fact that the double page spread features both English and French descriptions. I felt part of a world community of runners. Accompanying the events were 14 athlete portraits. Again, some were familiar trail runner or ultrarunning subjects like Scott Jurek, Kilian Jornet or Stephanie Howe, but others like Iker Karrera and Dawa Sherpa were a revelation.

The portraits went beyond a mere bio and focused on each runner’s personality, hopes and aspirations. A common theme, especially among the pioneers, was the fear that in growing big we become more vulnerable to losing our greatest appeal: the fact that running is the only sport where everyone approaches the starting line equally and enmasse. This has already happened in big city road marathons where corrals and not courtesy dictate the lineup. Hopefully, Alexis’ stunning photography will remind us that the nature we explore is bigger than all of us.

Adding substance to the narrative are the 13 trail running reflections interspersed among the race narrative and athletes profiles. What I found most interesting was the stark contrast in attitude between European and American trailers. According to the irreverent Jenn Shelton of Born to Run fame, “Trail running in the States is associated with something a bit rebellious.” In America, the starting line is sometimes a suggestion and races, like the postal motto, are seldom called on account of bad weather, even lightning strikes. I have even participated lower-key series events, where athletes are permitted to cover the course on a different day provided they bring a buddy and provide documentation! Paradoxically, this independent spirit does not extend to pace. In France you hike for eighty percent of the time, while ultras in the States are more race-oriented with strict cutoff times. Before reading this book I had no idea.

Overriding all is the element of community. As race time stretches beyond “normal” limits, the goal is focused more on adventure, where distance, weather and terrain are the true adversaries. Witness Rob Krar running the final half mile with Gunhild Swanson, bringing her in 6 seconds under the cutoff and cinching her crown as the oldest woman to complete the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Or Scott Jurek camping out at the finish line, greeting each athlete to cross.

Jenn Shelton sums it up neatly in her Afterword, “It’s the first book that brought me to understand running less by the end of it than when I started. Which is to say, the first book on running that expresses what it feels like to actually put one foot ahead of the other, and run.”