The Volvic Volcanic Experience
This year's event is on May 30th. For more information on the event weekend, visit the Volvic Volcanic Experience website.
Our trip began with an unwelcome 4am alarm to catch the red-eye flight to Paris, followed by a train to Clermont-Ferrand. There we met two of the VVX team who drove us to Saint-Pierre-le-Chastel. After a long day's travel, we were grateful to arrive at the Volcalodges, our home for the next couple of days. Although not directly connected to VVX, the lodges have close ties to the organisers, and a similar mentality. The owner, Lionel, took us to our cabins, and explained how they had come across the old abandoned farm and fallen in love with it. They renovated it with local recyclable materials and workers. My lodge was an old bakery, and the huge baker's oven and chimney was still evident. I also had a fabulous jacuzzi (which Lionel did admit was the one thing made in China!). Stu's lodge was smaller but had the bonus of an outdoor hot-tub! We jumped in as the evening light faded - it was quite something to look at the amazing view, with snowflakes falling around us, cosy and warm in the bubbling tub!
Refreshed, we headed up to the main building to meet the VVX team for the kick-off session. We watched a couple of videos, and followed this up with a discussion about the concept. Founder Jean Michel spoke about how we often get caught up in running performance, and forget about the beauty and heritage of where we are running. He said "do we connect with the trails, or do we use them?" I'm terrible at remembering what I've run past, never mind thinking about the area and its history.
The VVX is not just a race. It's a whole weekend experience, kicking off with a concert and meal in the town of Volvic. There's a day of racing at various distances from kids races up to a 220km race. Then on the final day runners, friends and families return to the places they visited en route, to experience the culture and heritage.
Our experience would be similar - running parts of the route, and visiting some of the local highlights. Given my knee injury, this was good news for me!
We also met Professor Gregory Doucende of Clermont Ferrand University, and his student Thomas. They offered fascinating insights into trail running technique, and improving performance both running up and downhill. They spoke about the ability to have confidence while running downhill - something I know I lack, even without a dodgy knee!
Having met everyone, we headed to the restaurant for some beautiful local cuisine, with copious amounts of fresh cut crusty French bread. We were very intrigued (and a little nervous!) to hear that our pudding would be beetroot based. It wasn't something I would ever have chosen from a menu, but when it arrived it was delicious. I don't think you'll ever see me downing a pre-race beetroot shot, but if I could have it in cake form I might be persuaded!
It was gone 10pm and we were exhausted, so we headed to bed, still not sure what the following day would bring. I felt like a naughty kid on a school trip as Stu sneaked up to my lodge for the night! The lodge was warm despite the cold temperatures outside and the bed was large and comfortable, so we fell pretty quickly into a deep sleep.
- At the base of the Puy de Dome
The next morning we headed to the Puy de Dome, one of the highlights of the VVX experience. My knee meant I had to avoid steep ups and particularly downs, but we'd heard there was a train at the top. I was hoping to be able to run/walk up, then ride back down. Unfortunately, the train was not running due to bad weather and heavy snowfall the previous night before. I didn't want to take any risks, so I stayed at the visitor centre while the others headed up. Although gutted to miss out, I got my own fascinating lesson on the area and history from the guide, Collette.
Stu says... The trip to the start of the route took us about 30 mins, getting gradually higher and colder. At the carpark we were greeted with knee deep snow and a large group of trainee pompier - Naomi was not impressed she missed this. After a brief talk (in French so I can't say what it involved) we were off. We were soon stretched out as the mountain runners shot off like the 17% gradient average was nothing. Thankfully we regrouped every so often so nobody was left behind. The route wound through a series of switchbacks, culminating at the visitors centre almost 500m above the starting point. It was difficult to tell how the underfoot would be in May and June, but I can say the route is well maintained and signposted. The cloud cover was much lower than the peak of the volcano, so unfortunately the views from the top were not much to talk about! As we recovered we were told a little about the surrounding volcanic area and how the water filtrates through the volcanic rock into the region around Volvic. It's clear how much the organisers care about the region. VVX is less about having the longestor toughest, and more about an exploration and experience of the region. The descent took less than half the time! The pompier were finishing off just as we were, which resulted in much good-natured ribbing from both sides!
When the others returned from their run to the top, Colette shared some of her wisdom with the group, and we were given a lovely book about the Puy de Dome. It was time to head for lunch - another beautiful meal. If you ever visit this area, make sure that you're not on a diet, as the food is out of this world!
Warmed up and fed, we headed to Vulcania - a volcano-themed park which is normally shut over winter but opened specially for us. The centre-piece is a "metaphorical volcano", clad in dark stone and lined on the inside with gold metal. Our guide explained that VVX runners generally arrive here at night-time, and it can be quite scary. There are some impressive structures with strange lights and, as the park is in the crater of a volcano, it can make sound strange loud echoes. I think it would be phenomenal to arrive there to be honest!
- The metaphorical volcano
Having seen Vulcania, including the huge greenhouse with tropical plants (sadly still not very warm as we were pretty cold by this point!) and the huge cinema screen, we headed on to meet local sculptor Thierry Courtadon. His works, made from volcanic stone range from a few feet high to over ten metres high! His sculptures can be found locally, and as far away as Japan and even Buckingham Palace. Our feet were like blocks of ice by this point, but it was fascinating to learn about sculpting processes, as well as his history. He comes from a line of sculptors, and although he has a huge waiting list of customers, he doesn't want to take on more staff because it's a "special type of person" he wants working with him in his small team.
We headed to the town of Volvic, which also houses the start and finish of the VVX, and the many other activities available through the weekend, such as zip-lining and kids races. At the Volvic visitor centre we watched a video about the history and production of Volvic water, before attending a conference on running performance in the evening with Professor Doucende and Thomas. Though I had managed to tune my rusty French into reasonable shape for conversation, I struggled a bit with the presentation of the scientific paper and trials. We understood enough to tell it was really interesting stuff, and I will definitely look up a translation of the paper when it's published. It went down well with the audience, and it's great to see VVX promoting performance as well as the other side of the races. After a buffest supper and a well-appreciated glass of wine, it was time to head back to our hotel for a restorative jacuzzi!
The next day dawned just as cold but still beautifully dry and clear, and promised to be another stunner. We packed up and said goodbye to our beautiful lodge (worth staying if you ever have cause to be in the area even outside of VVX - there is plenty of cause, with many things to see and do and multiple outdoor activities!).
We headed towards the Puy des Jumes, another volcano and another part of the longer race routes. We set off and straight away it was incredibly difficult. Trying to run through two feet of snow, even without a dodgy knee, is incredibly hard and I marvelled at the guys ahead bounding seemingly effortlessly through the snow. I resorted to walking mostly as we headed up and up. After a mile or so we reached the centre, where we met up with the local keeper. He told us about the multiple wildlife, including unusual birds, that frequent the area, as well as some of the challenges he faces, such as trespassers and flytipping. Further along the trail we climbed up a steep slope and were rewarded with some spectacular views of the surrounding areas.
On the way back down, quite a few of the group chose to run (some more gracefully than others) down an almost vertical slope. I would have been afraid to even slide down on my bum, but the two guys from the university flew down fearlessly. I took the much gentler slope down, and even then I was grateful of the snow for cushioning my journey. We headed back up another steep slope, towards the peak of the Puy des Jumes. My knee was tiring - although we had only covered a couple of miles the effort was incredible!
We came across a lost dog, shivering after having been out for what must have been many hours. This is a remote area, and it was lucky that we had passed - one of the guys carried it back down to reunite him with his owner, so there was a happy ending! I was grateful for the rest during all the commotion! Beginning again, I could see the group heading up a steep slope. While I thought I might be able to get up ok (albeit with a possible heart attack) I was concerned about my knee making it back down, so I sent Stu while one of the organisers, Damien, took me back down. Unfortunately going back down first meant going up a super steep slope, so my heart attack nearly materialised after all. Reaching the top, gasping for breath, Damien reminded me to look back - it was like Narnia! The race in summer will look very different, but beautiful nonetheless.
Stu says... Leaving Naomi at the foot of Puy de Jumes wasn't fun but I knew she was in good hands. The snow was nearly knee deep, so it was easier to hike this 600m section up a 20% gradient. Regrouping at the top we encountered an overgrown section. Rangers aim to keep paths clear in a way which encourages good growth of trees and branches. They carry small hacksaws and the discarded branches are left to encourage decomposition and further growth of the area. I channeled my inner axe murder and chopped a few branches down (most of which fell on me). Descending again included a lot of sliding and it was amazing how quick the temperature climbed. After a short off-piste section to get back to the main track, it turned into a bit of a race to get back first and despite the snow I ended running the final half mile in about 3 minutes!
Whilst we waited for the others, we checked out a local castle (TourNoel) and also visited Jean Michel's wife in their lovely old converted farm house. We perched at the edge of a hill top and peered out into the impressive impluvium, a 38km2 nature reserve. It's the birthplace of Volvic mineral water, and another key part of the event. The views were stunning but my poor wet feet were like blocks of ice by this point, and I was glad when we headed back to Volvic HQ for a hot shower - I never wanted to get out of that shower!
Our VVX experience was drawing to an end. It's been a huge eye-opener as to how much more it has to offer over "just" running through some beautiful trails. It offers a unique opportunity to really connect with the area that you are running through, rather than just "using" it mindlessly. With a weekend of activities including family events, it's ideal for runners who want their friends and families to get involved in the experience too. Our trip was rounded off with a delicious lunch in a small restaurant in Volvic, opposite the tourist information building which is adorned with VVX banners. The food in this area is spectacular! The event which appeals to me is the "Rando Gastro", a hike of around 13km that takes in the Auvergne food scene, where you discover the local ovens. As you walk from oven to oven you sample a menu made from local produce and cooked with passion, including local cheese and wine. Pretty much my idea of heaven!
It's been hard to do justice to this amazing experience with the written word, but I hope that we have managed to convey to you some of what we learned and enjoyed. Jean Michel and his team of volunteers are incredibly passionate, and this came across in every discussion and activity. Undoubtedly the event offers challenging running that the best of runners can enjoy throughout the VVX (particularly the new 220km route), but it's about so much more. If anything we've said here appeals to you, we would thoroughly recommend considering taking part in the VVX, and spending some time in the surrounding area. We could have happily spent a week or two taking in the local activities, culture and food!
Find Out MoreThis year, the VVX weekend will be held from 30th May to 1st June.
For more information, please visit the VVX website.
Useful LinksExplore the VVX experience and the places that Naomi and Stuart visited. The UNESCO site features some pictures of the volcanic area in warmer weather.
The Puy de Dome
The Puy de Dome is one of a range, around 40km long, comprising around 80 volcanoes which form the Chaine des Puys (chain of volcanoes). After the war one of the volcanoes was targeted for stone to help rebuild, and workers discovered that what appeared to be one volcano was in fact two, hidden under the surface. Because the other volcanoes are now protected, we will never know for sure if others hide more secrets. These volcanoes are relatively "young", dead, and monogenetic; that is, they had one single eruption, lasting hours, days or weeks, and then did not erupt again. The The Puy de Dome is the highest point and sits in the middle of the range. At the top it has a restaurant and observatory, and the remains of a Roman temple. The team there are particularly proud that the Chaine des Puys was awarded official UNESCO status in 2018, in part due to its unique illustration of continental break-up.