Chris Balestrini of London, Ont. has spent most of his running career clocking fast times on the track and roads, but after moving to Canmore, Alta. in March 2021, the 30-year-old Canadian 50K record holder fell in love with the trail running community. Now, he is gearing up to race one of the world’s toughest trail races, Sierre-Zinal, on Aug. 13–a 31 km trail race in Switzerland with over 2,200m of elevation gain.
We chatted with Balestrini about his transition from the track to the trail and his preparation ahead of his first Golden Trail World Series race.
What sparked your interest in trail running?
I think I’ve always been interested in trail running, but the Canadian scene– at least when I was growing up–was more geared toward track and road running. I would always seek out trails and hilly dirt roads for training. But what drove my interest in trail running was when I moved to Canmore, Alberta in March 2021. I’ve never felt more at home than I do in the mountains.
The track and the roads are fun because you can push the limits of your legs, but the mountains are where you can push the limits of your soul. If that sounds corny, that’s because it is, but it’s really how I feel.
How has your previous experience in the marathon and on the track prepared you for the trail scene?
I think one of the more overlooked areas in trail running is having structure. It’s so easy to get excited about running a new route or linking long days that some people forget to have the typical dichotomy of hard and easy days. Coming from the track/road background, where structured workouts are the backbone of the week, I think I’m more willing to slot in those days to work in the intensity sessions on both trail and road.
One piece of advice from a well-rounded Canadian mountaineer and friend, Adam Campbell, was to maintain the leg speed with shorter road intervals. It’s a big strength for me; there aren’t many people racing that have run sub-29:30 for 10K or a 2:17 marathon, but there are a lot of people with far superior technical ability than me.
Why did you move to France for the summer?
The move to Chamonix for the summer was a slightly spur-of-the-moment decision. After finishing my second year of medicine at Western University in London, I had one final ‘summer of freedom’ before moving into the two-year clerkship portion of the program. Being a runner, and obsessed with rock climbing, I set out on a search for the best places to do both. Chamonix is the hub for trail running, rock climbing and alpinism in Europe, so it was high up on the list. Plus, I’m trying to learn French, so it was an easy choice!
How have you found the trail running scene in France?
The trail running culture here is insane. I don’t think I’ve actually met a road runner. I think when you grow up near the Alps, it just makes sense to explore the trails. There’s not much in the way of road running here, other than a short bike path and some dodgy, narrow streets, so it’s not only safer in the trails, it’s much more accessible and fun. Everywhere you walk in town, you’ll see people from all over the world that have come here to run and/or climb. At night, you’ll overhear someone telling an incredible story of their daily adventure, or reliving adventures past. The people here, living and visiting, are so immersed in the outdoor lifestyle. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been.
Are you planning to run UTMB [Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc]?
I plan on running UTMB at some point, but it’s a few years away for me. My school schedule doesn’t allow it currently, but I consider Chamonix my European home at this point, so I’ll be back. I also think I need more time to develop as a trail runner before I can give UTMB all that I can.
What are your goals/objectives for this summer and fall?
My major goal this summer is Sierre-Zinal on Aug. 13. It’s a 31 km trail race in Switzerland with 2200m gain and 1,100m descent. It’s commonly heralded as a battleground for trail and road runners. Sierre-Zinal is one of the most competitive trail races in the world; it’s been won seven times by Kilian Jornet, who is planning to race it again in 2022.
I’m not quite done on the roads yet. I’ll likely race a fall marathon in hopes of running more to my potential. When I set the Canadian 50K record in May 2021, I was in much better shape than when I ran 2:17 for the marathon. I’m confident I can take a few minutes off my marathon time if I can get in that shape or better this fall.
You’ve done a lot of mileage for your marathon builds in the past, but have you switched up the way you train since your transition to the trails?
Absolutely–I’ve completed changed the way I track my training. I’ve switched from measuring distance and started measuring based on a combination of mileage, vertical, and time. In my marathon build-up for Rotterdam this year, I had a few weeks over 200 km, with my highest volume being 241 km in a week. In the trails, I’m lucky to see 120 to 140 km per week, with 5,000 to 6,000m vertical, yet, I’m actually putting in more time on my feet than when I was training on the roads. I have been averaging 35 to 38 hours of training per week out here.
In the past five weeks, my training has been focused specifically on Sierre-Zinal. A lot of the race is over 2,000m in elevation, so in these next few weeks, I’ll spend some time getting in interval work done at altitude. I’m also planning on testing myself with a full-gas effort up the infamous Chamonix Vertical Kilometre in the coming weeks. I’m just grateful that I was able to take this opportunity and be healthy to enjoy the culture, alpinism, running and most importantly, French bakeries!