Katie Schide on life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.
“We have a restaurant. It’s open from 7 to 9 pm Thursday through Sunday, during the tourist season. There’s a mayor’s office, but I’m not sure when it’s open. There are no numbers on the houses. The mailman has to know where everyone lives.”
Katie Schide, winner of the 2022 UTMB Mont-Blanc, is trying to convey just how small the French village is in which she and her partner Germain Grangier live.
“People don’t understand how quiet it is here,” says Schide. “We’re really far from everything. It’s an hour and a half to get groceries.” Or about 10 hours from the trail-running hub of Chamonix, if the high mountain passes are closed. Which was the case when I visited in early spring.
The village in question is Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage in France’s Mercantour National Park, about two hours north of Nice. Population of about 60 in winter, two of whom just so happen to be among the fastest mountain runners in the world today.
How Schide landed in one of the most remote villages in Europe starts off reasonably enough and then goes, well, a bit sideways and serendipitous.
She had been living in Zurich, a transplant from Maine who moved to Switzerland to gain a PhD in Geology. There, she started running up the local 870-meter high Uetliberg, sometimes four times in one day. In September 2016, she joined fellow White Mountains transplant Hillary Gerardi at Limone, Italy’s Extreme Skyrace.
It was at a post-race dance party that she met Germain Grangier, whose laid back style and sense of humor immediately caught Schide’s eye. A few months later, she visited Grainger at the Isola 2000 ski area, not far from St Dalmas, in a tiny studio apartment. “I remember driving up the valley from Nice and thinking, ‘What is this place?’” says Schide. “There was a huge cliff along one side of the road, and a river on the other. It was pretty insane.”
For Grangier, Schide brought a fresh, American perspective to his world. “Americans, they seem more open,” he says. “There’s more freedom. We have a magnet on our fridge that says, ‘Live Free or Die.’ I really like that! (The slogan is New Hampshire’s state motto.) There is a go-for-it attitude in the U.S. And plus, they have more respect for professional athletes.”
The two are, from all appearances, a great team. Grangier, who also trained as a geologist, is brainy, though perhaps less self-professed science nerd. And if Schide likes to slip in a joke sideways, Grangier is laugh-out-loud entertaining, hands down the funniest guy in European trail running. If his mountain engine ever slowed down, he could easily cash in as a stand-up. In a recent Instagram post, Grangier imagined the conversation among the local fauna, who were apparently casting a suspicious eye on him. “Sprinting back and forth endlessly. What a &$*#( loser.”
In 2018, the couple moved out of Grainger’s cramped studio and bought a historic stone “maison du village” together.
Professionally Grangier and Schide work as a tight team they have nicknamed The Marmots. A growing resume of strong results have helped their venture. Schide has podiumed at tough mountain ultras around Europe. And last August, she landed one of trail running’s gems: a win at UTMB Mont-Blanc.
“Winning UTMB makes it a lot easier to advocate for yourself,” Schide says. “You can just list one result and people get it.” Grangier is right there with her. He has won numerous ultras outright, most recently UTMB’s 160 km Val D’Aran.
Schide and Germain are true professional athletes. They don’t coach, they don’t work side jobs. They train, and they work with their sponsoring partners: The North Face, Garmin, Oakley, France’s Maritime Alps Department, and Never Second Nutrition, among others. “People think we’re employed by the brands,” says Grangier. “But it’s really like working without a net. We’re freelancers. I like this philosophy, but it’s not like we’re putting money aside for retirement.”
If combining passion, business, and daily life can add stress to the relationship, it can also build a deeper partnership. But what is obvious from seeing their interactions—and their finishing of each other’s sentences—is that they are in it together. And they bring the same discipline to their more sedentary work as their training. “We’re obsessed,” says Schide, “but we have a good time.”
Living in Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage is not without its downsides for a small business. The village only recently got reliable cell service. When the internet would blink off, work calls sometimes took place in a corner of the house, where a bar or two of cell reception would make a call possible. And then there’s the distance. Even many of the French don’t quite get it. “I had a running shoe store in Paris that wanted me for an event,” says Schide, ”but it’s a nine hour trip for me to get there.”
If the cell signal isn’t quite up to snuff, and the internet sometimes goes dark, life in a little village at 1,500 meters has its training advantages. “You can do everything here,” says Schide. “There’s technical ridge scrambles, easy trails, and the weather is always good. In winter, I can run on the roads and do ski mountaineering.”
The region is not the muscle-powered mountain community of a place like Chamonix. The two have just a small circle of six or seven outdoors friends. “I like to say,” says Schide, “‘We have nothing, but we have everything.’”
And when the snow melts for good? Grangier and Schide can run through the national park, roaming the high, wild terrain—at least until the guardian dogs arrive. Known as “Patou,” the not-at-all-domesticated dogs pass the cold months in the Var valley with the flocks of livestock they are bred to protect. During the summer, however, the Patou and their charges head high in the mountains. “They are often unsupervised,” says Schide, “and they have no reservations about biting someone if they feel the flock is threatened.”
Schide considers her French mountains more wild and rugged than the Alps most people are accustomed to. “It’s closer to what I’m used to at home, and the weather is roughly similar,” she says. “There are usually just a few warm weeks during the summer.” Schide, it seems, has found her equilibrium.
If the topography feels familiar, the two ultrarunners moving fast uphill are still a bit alien in this landscape. “The locals have absolutely no understanding of what we do,” says Schide. “They watch from afar. Most think we don’t have jobs.” Invited over for tea, the two will sometimes skip out for a work call, leaving neighbors perplexed. “Even working remotely is an interesting concept to most people here.” Most of the locals avoid talking to Schide, assuming she knows little or no French. For Schide, though, that’s just fine. “I get a bit more privacy.” Not entirely, though—a few locals follow trail racing, and were following Schide at UTMB. “They were pretty psyched,” she says.
Underneath, there’s a natural tension. “The problem is, I love being alone, but I also get lonely,” she says. “When Germain is gone, I go from ‘Oh, cool, I get the whole place to myself.’ And by day three, I feel lonely.” Schide has the self-awareness that comes with experience, however. “I’ve gotten better at identifying those times, and then I’ll text friends for a bike ride or a run.”
This Saturday at 5:00 am, Katie Schide will trade Alps vert for Western U.S. heat and (relatively speaking) flat, as she races the Western States 100 Endurance Run. Her U.S. race resume to date is, well, a little sparse: two 50 km ultras nearly a decade ago, and a Cirque Series race in 2019.
“I’ve seen pictures of the course,” she told me a few months ago. “I know you cross a river and there’s a track at the end!”
But in the intervening weeks, much has changed, because Schide is nothing if not focused and disciplined. Since early April, she has been living at Jim Walmsley and Jess Brazeau’s home in Flagstaff, Arizona. (The couple are currently living in Arêches, France, where they trail run in the summer and skimo race in the winter.)
The time in Flagstaff allowed Schide to accomplish her main goal: living somewhere where the topography allowed her the best possible training for Western States. In May, she got out on the course, with her father providing shuttles and support.
As her Flagstaff days come to a close, Schide has discovered a few things about herself. On one hand, there was the relief of living somewhere that had English as its native language. And something greater came to the fore, too. “Overall, it solidified my thinking that Saint-Dalmas is the right place for me,” she says. “I feel more committed to it now. Flagstaff is a cool place to visit, but I don’t see myself living in the desert.”
This Friday, Grangier will be at the 90 km start line in Chamonix, racing the toughest course of a series of distances that make up the Mont Blanc Marathon. The next day, Schide races Western States. She’s looking forward to it. “At this point in my racing, the level of competition is what draws me in. I’m excited to be on a start line with such a deep field of fast, strong, experienced females.” Schide has so much more experience now, than those first few ultras in the US. There is a reflectiveness and philosophical acceptance of any outcome, as well. “I really have no idea how the race will play out and that is exactly why we’re all addicted to this sport, right? I put myself in the best possible position to give my full potential on race day and that’s all I can control.”
Whatever the outcome between Olympic Valley and Auburn, there will be more races and mountain adventures to come. Schide is signed up for UTMB’s 55 km OCC race, and Grangier is once again signed up for UTMB Mont Blanc.
“This is an interesting year, with my main running goal at the start of summer,” says Schide. “And I’m trying not to think too much about what comes after.”
One thing will certainly be on the calendar, however: a return to Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage, where locals hunt chamois, deer, wild boar, and wild sheep known as mouflon. They forage for mushrooms, pick wild berries and have small gardens from which they share produce with those two, oddball sportifs. “When it’s salad season, we get a lot of extra from the people in the village,” says Schide. “We trade food. Germain won a wheel of Beaufort cheese recently, and we gave some to a neighbor, Claude. He gave us creme de chataigne, a chestnut jam.”