Stopping on the rocky path, I wondered again what I had been thinking when I entered this race. The man in front finally moved clear and it was my turn to mount the knee high step onto the rock and then continue the slow march up the mountainside, following the procession of weary walkers. I’ve experienced a slow death march at the end of a race before, but never at the half way point. However this wasn’t a death march. This was just the effect of heat, gravity and lower oxygen levels.
I’d started the race with big ambitions: a top 100 finish was my ‘A’ target, but i’d be happy with any sub 24hr finish (my B goal). However things were not going to plan, and I wasn’t having fun. At the Sports Centre in Courmayeur, before the race start, i’d spent the best part of an hour queuing outside the toilets, so had been slow getting to the start line. There must have been a thousand people between me and the front, but i managed to force a way through to get a little nearer the front, although no where near where I wanted to be.
It was still dark, but no one was bothering with a head torch, so I listened to ‘The Conquest of Paradise’ in the darkness with the other 1800 runners, all checking pockets were zipped shut, poles secured etc. before the countdown started and we were on our way. We ran all of 10 meters before stopping, and shuffling forwards again, all looking for space to run. The first mile was all elbows and hopping on and off the pavement as I tried to make up some ground through the streets of Courmayeur before we hit the trails and would be forced into single file. The first climb, up though Col Checrouit (where I paused for a cup of water) and on to Arrete du Mont-Favre was an easy introduction being steep in places but not too extreme. We then had a beautiful run into Lac Combal and the second aid station. Here I paused long enough to have my race number scanned, but then headed straight up the climb to Col Chavanne. I’d estimated this would take an hour, and I still had a full soft flask.
However when I arrived at the checkpoint i realised i’d made a stupid mistake. The checkpoint was a timing station, but not an aid station so had no water. I now had a further 16km to run with less than 250ml of water. It was only just after 9 in the morning, but the sun was shining and it was getting warm very quickly. Fortunately the next 10km were all downhill on nice runnable trails, so i made good time, but when I reached the stream crossing at the bottom of the valley i had finished my water, and still had 6km and a 300m climb to Col du Petit St Bernard. This leg was a real struggle and I lost a lot of time here as I was forced to slow down and walk. The final climb to the aid station was a hands and knees scramble up a very steep slope through low shrubs, and despite the fantastic support from the locals who had turned out in large numbers, it as a real struggle. At the checkpoint I had to stop and rest. I topped up all three 500ml flasks, and waited a few minutes while i drank in as much as I could. I still had aspirations of a good time, so set off for the next 15km leg to Bourg St Maurice. Most of this was downhill, and generally on good trails. However I had now been running for over 5 1/2 hours and because I had little water, I’d also stopped eating. I’d decided it would be preferable to run with low energy from not eating that suffer stomach issues from eating when my gut would have too little fluid to digest anything.
Running in to Bourg St Maurice at 13:30 (7:30 of running) I was overwhelmed by the heat. Fortunately the aid station had a huge water trough so I could soak my head, cap and buff in freezing water, as well as sit, eat and drink. Dehydration can ruin your race but you can recover, and I was working really hard to ensure I was drinking and eating more. The race team record your entry and exit time at this aid station, so I know I spent a full 30 minutes here. In addition to drinking I was also trying to mentally prepare for the toughest challenge on the route: the climb to Passeur de Pralognan and the subsequent technical descent.
The climb starts in the town, and a number of locals had set up impromptu aid stations offering extra drinks, or a freezing hose down to cool off. I appreciated every one of these, and the support really added to the atmosphere of the race. The first few kilometers are through the woods, so although it was now getting very warm, i still felt I was making good progress. However soon enough I was above the tree line and in full sun. Despite the altitude there was almost no breeze, and before long the trail was lined with bodies. People were stopping to sit or lie down anywhere for a few minutes before getting up to rejoin the slow line of plodders struggling ever upwards. The path was steep and there were regular switchbacks. Once again I was out of water, having drunk the 1500ml I was carrying. As i stopped on the rocky path I wondered again what i had been thinking when i entered this race. The man in front finally moved clear and it was my turn to mount the knee high step onto the rock and then continue the slow march up the mountainside, following the procession of weary walkers. I think of myself as a decent runner but it seemed like I’d hadn’t run for a couple of hours now. Why had I entered this ‘race’?
After a climb of 1160m I staggered into the Fort de la Platte checkpoint. The course notes say this is just a timing check point, not an aid station, and there is still another 600m to climb to the summit. Thankfully there was a small cafe here, and they had run a couple of hoses out to a water trough. A dozen weary bodies were lying in the few patches of shade, or soaking under the hoses. I’d decided to carry some cash with me (to buy a pre-race coffee in Courmayeur), so I sat at a table in the cafe and drank the finest Orangina in the world. All hope of a sub-24 hr finish was now long gone.
Enjoying a cold drink
The alps are beautiful (my photos don’t come close to capturing them), so after giving myself a bit of a slap I decided to make the best of the day, try and enjoy the beauty around me and get back to Chamonix in time for breakfast. I don’t remember much of the final climb – it was very much head down, one foot in front of the other. However I’ll never forget the descent. It was so steep that the race organisers had attached ropes for runners to grasp in case they slipped!
A steep scramble from Passeur de Pralognan
Watching people struggle down the slope it became apparent who had mountain running experience: the local French runners skipped down, the rest of us bum-shuffled from rock to rock, while gripping the ropes in fear. Eventually the slope began to level out, get less rocky and the pace picked up. Finally after about 4 hours I was running on a trail through the mountains and beginning to enjoy myself again. The next checkpoint, Cormet de Roseland, had my drop bag, and was serving hot food. Once again I sat down and forced my self to eat (pasta, soup and cheese) and drink. Although it was still daylight i knew it would be dark soon, so I put on my head torch, a gilet to keep me warm, and set off. There was now only 30 miles to the finish!
The first couple of miles were uphill, so I was happy to walk as I had eaten well, but soon the path changed to some muddier sections and some downhill running. There were a lot of cows grazing in the pastures and the cheerful cow bells kept me amused as i ran along the narrow trails following a small group of runners. One by one we turned on our head torches, and picked our way down the valley. I heard the roar of rushing water before I saw the marshalls. They were urging us to stick to the left as we ran down the trail into the gorge, and I soon realised there was a significant drop on the right down the river. I’d seen video of this section [ http://dai.ly/xt61ji
], and it had looked terrifying, so I was almost glad not to be able to see it in the darkness.
I was well behind my race schedule, so at the next checkpoint (La Gitte) I phoned Sarah to reassure her that I was fine, and still trying to finish. I had hoped to finish early in the morning, but was now targetting a more sociable 7 – 8am finish. The children wished me a cheery ‘good night’, and I promised to call again from Les Houches to give them early warning of my finish. Then I set off on the next leg to Col du Joly.
I was finally working with a steady rhythm: hike up, run down; eat and drink regularly; even stopping to pee. My trail mix of almonds, dried mulberries and chocolate coated coffee beans was going down well, and I could enjoy the moonlit mountains. The string of head torches leading the way up the various climbs helped add perspective whenever I looked up from the small section of trail under my feet. There were a number of now familiar faces around me. Two or three people who would power past me on the steep climbs, but I would then catch and pass on the easier runs. At Col du Joly, i stopped and enjoyed a cup of tea. The sweet warm drink was a real pick up and felt better than I had at any point in the race. I heard a couple of english voices on the trail. Two guys were running together and one clearly knew the route well. He warned me there were still three climbs after Les Contamines – “a complete killer and two cheeky little numbers”.
There was some confusion near Les Contamines. I followed the excellent trail markers, but suddenly saw a couple of dozen head torches running towards me. Someone explained we were on the wrong trail, and now on the UTMB route. In fact this was wrong. One of the French runners placed a quick call to race direction and confirmed we were in the right place. The organisers had used some blue ‘Columbia’ tape in addition to the red and white markers, and that had caused the confusion. So we carried on, now in a large pack of 20 or so runners. This was perfect for me as the battery on my head torch was fading fast and I could simply follow along before changing the battery in the comfortable and well lit aid station. After another tea i was on my way again.
The first climb seemed to pass quickly, but sadly this was not the “killer” just the first ‘cheeky’ climb. The ascent to Col de Tricot looks innocuous enough on the route map, but was hard work, and it was with relief that i reached the top and ran down towards Bellevue. The sky was slowly brightening, and I could see the lights of Les Houches in the distance as i wound my way down through the woods. The tree roots made this tough on tired legs, but the red glow to the clouds and thought that I was now near the end made this section almost pleasant. I walked through the village, as I took my phone out and called Sarah to tell her I’d be finished in just under and hour. She would wake the children and bring them to the finish line.
I’d run the section from Les Houches earlier in the week, so knew the trail, but every little incline seemed like a mountain now. However I was determined to run as much as possible now, and was rewarded by huge smiles and cheers from every person I saw out for their early morning run. A few looked like they were UTMB runners out for a final run before their big day in the mountains. Although it was only a little after 7am as I ran into Chamonix, there were plenty of people about and every one waved, applauded and encouraged me. The whole town embraces the race in an amazing way and it makes for a fantastic atmosphere. Race marshalls stopped the traffic for me as I ran over the roundabout and onto the pedestrian only Rue du Dr Paccard. As I got to the Post Office I saw Sarah, and then suddenly the children ran out to join me and and run with me up the Place de l’Eglise to the finish arch.
As a runner I had a bad race. Poor planning before the race and decisions early on led to dehydration, and i seriously considered dropping at one point. However with no broken limbs as an excuse i carried on. Eventually i resolved to forget about the ‘race’ and enjoy the experience, and I can now reflect on one of the most amazing days (and nights) I have ever had.
To summarise my TDS experience: A poor race but a great day in the mountains.