I have been running for getting close to eight years now and I have been aware of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc for a long time. It has always really appealed to me for obvious reasons such as it is in the Alps, it is long and it is hard. Each year that passed a new reason would materialise for me not doing it. Then last year during my post Trans-Europe running drought, I entered my new target race, the mighty Tor des Geants. I also entered UTMB which would be two weeks before TDG. The chances of getting places in both (both are ballot races now) are minimal. If it happened then I would choose TDG, or maybe try them both. Anyway, I think I have spoke about this before. The bottom line is that I didn’t get a place in the TDG (in fact they even neglected to put my name on the waiting list due to their error) but thankfully did get my UTMB place.
Initially I was frustrated with not getting a TDG place, but then I moved out here and the realisation that I had a place in what was now my ‘home’ event became suddenly more appealing. The TDG will still be there next year. I was hoping to spend three days recceing the entire UTMB route, but had not set any dates. Then I had a comment on my blog from Paul Bennett asking if I fancied joining him for a three day recce. I knew Paul briefly from mine and James Elsons run on the South Down Way when Paul ran with us for the final 18 or so miles.
I know nothing really about the trails outside of the valley whereas Paul has a fair amount of experience. He booked up the Refuges Elisabetta and Champex for our two nights stay. Paul arrived at mine on the Thursday evening. We ate a decent meal and sorted our kit for a fairly early start next morning. I was taking my OMM bag that has a 25 litre capacity as we needed three days worth of running kit, wash kit, and something to wear in the evening. I didn’t use any where near the full capacity, but thought that my Salomon 12 would be just too tight. Paul on the other hand had managed to squeeze all he needed into his Salomon 5! I have much work to do when it comes to kit minimalisation!
We were dropped off in town by Lou and made our way to the church to the proper start area. I started my Suunto Ambit up to find satellites. Then we were off. We were travelling fast through town. I was fine with it, we were fresh and excited. This was no race so we could rest whenever we wanted. No stressing about getting the pacing bang on schedule. I was here to experience the route and take strength away with me, but overall I wanted to have a really good weekend running in these magnificent mountains with Paul. I believe I have mentioned this before, but I love the Ultra community. Paul and I barely knew each other, but I just knew that we would get on great. Spending three solid days working really hard together can be a really full on experience normally, but for some reason, ultra runners just seem to get on together so well. Maybe it’s the mutual respect, the passion we have in common, either way it just works.
The trail to Les Houches follows the river and is fairly flat. I could only imagine the speed that the front runners would pass along here at the start of the race. It was heating up quickly with not a cloud in the sky. The forecast was good for the weekend so keeping on top of hydration for three days on the trot was going to be challenging, but the great news was that we were going to have great visibility on the way round. In Les Houches we missed our turn off but soon found it and then were straight into a good stiff ascent.
Paul had bought his poles. Before coming to France, I had not seen any value in sticks so didn’t own any, but during the first two races since arriving here, I had been a little envious of those using them. They certainly looked to be advantageous for long and steep climbs, as they utilised your upper body more and added a rhythmic drum beat as you hit the tungsten carbide tips on the ground. Paul’s sticks were out now as we worked our way up the first climb of Col de Voza. We arrived at a crossroads where we quickly checked my map which I had marked the whole route on for clarity. We passed La Charme and so began the first of the descents It was steep enough to be quite a jarring experience. It was largely on grass too which was bone dry. Add a little moisture and this would be like ice. I really need to work on my descending. My climbing is a much stronger asset at the moment as much time seems to be lost on the steeper and more technical sections. I need to train at downhills.
As we worked our way down the hill, St-Gervais-les-Bains appeared below us. This would provide our first stop. Once we had entered the town we hunted out a shop and got some snacks and cold drinks. We sat on a bench and drank and ate. By now it was very hot and I was sweating a great deal and the sun was beating down on us. I was getting some chafing on my nipples and decided to change tops. After about five minutes we picked up all our wrappers and empty bottles and binned them and started walking down the road. Soon we were running again. The trail here got a bit windy as it followed the river for a little bit before crossing it and heading up the other side of the valley. Paul was cautious here as he had gone quite wrong here last year adding around 10km extra to the already tough day. Basically, we went a little wrong too, but it wasn’t anything too bad, and probably only cost us around 30 mins. No real problem.
The route followed the river all the way down to Les Contamines. It was just before here that we started passing marker tape and paint that surely meant there was a race here at some point over the weekend. We stopped again in Les Contamines and stocked up again, drinking loads of fluid. I had an Orangina which was too gassy for me as I never really drink fizzy drinks. we stood in a little bit of shade and Paul popped into a sports shop to get some cheap sunglasses. Time to move on. It was really nice not being in a rush all the time and having decent rests whenever we felt like it. This is not to say that when we were on the move we were slacking, but to think that this was going to be an easy weekend would be foolish.
After we followed the trail beside the river for a little further, we then began to climb. This was the decent climb of Col du Bonhomme. The further we got up the climb the more frequent and larger the patches of snow became until finally we were totally surrounded by snow. It was still very warm but now the sun was bouncing off the snow too! I found a rhythm and stuck too it. Paul trailed behind a little but only a matter of seconds. We had a little pause on the Col before continuing on for the extra 15-20 mins to arrive at the refuge. On the way we bumped into another runner. Paul speaks very good French so chatted and discovered that this chap is 67 years old and is running the Tors des Geants for the fourth time this year. That is every edition! What a legend! We parted ways feeling inspired as seems to happen so much in ultra running.
At the refuge we topped up our water and sat out in the sun on a rock and had a fine lunch of a baguette, ham and by now sweaty cheese we had purchased earlier. We pushed on again feeling a little tired but revitalised after our lunch stop. The descent from here was long and fun with one short slate covered area with sharp bits dangerously sticking up out of the dusty ground. We both slowed a little as we negotiated it but Paul slipped and landed on his hand cutting himself on the palm. he washed it off and put a plaster on it but was concerned about infection, but there was not a great deal that could be done till we got too the refuge.
At the base of the descent was the Refuge de la Nova. We topped up our ever emptying bladders again and then left walking up a section of road that cut its way up the valley. It was very hot still but we were now on the final climb of the day. Soon we can rest. My feet were getting very sore and it felt as though I was getting the dreaded hotspots that could mean that I would soon be facing blisters. Not great on a big day, but the first of three days could mean a whole load of pain over the next two days! I now became very cautious on my feet trying to minimise the rub. The climb left the road and started getting more aggressive as we slowly paced up towards the Col de la Seigne. We were both feeling the days running and the heat now and the climb was taking it’s toll. My mind started thinking about the days ahead. The morning ahead. But first a shower, sit down and plenty of food away from the sun.
Paul felt a little dehydrated at the top but thankfully all that remained was the long descent to our stop for the night, refuge Elisabetta Soldini. I arrived five minutes ahead of Paul and stood looking out at the incredible vista that was presented. We had covered over 70km in 12 hours and it had been a tough but truly stunning day. This is why I moved here. To experience days like this is priceless to me.
We had a cold shower here that was far from pleasant but once we had warmed up life was good. We had a large dinner and tried to get as much of our kit dry again for the morning. The dormitory was very busy as there was a Italian cycling club that had somehow got their mountain bikes up here. They all had a few too many drinks with dinner and were really noisy when the lights went out and even woke at 0500 and had a 10 minute non-whispered chat. It was a little annoying but made me laugh also. After a poor breakfast, Paul and I creakily took off being the first to leave the refuge.
The day was certainly looking to be another scorching one with pristine blue skies and temperatures already beginning to feel pretty warm. After the initial stiffness we loosened up and running was good. The next stop would be Courmayeur in a few hours. I was really enjoying seeing the Mont Blanc massif from the Italian side for a change rather than the already familiar though far from boring Chamonix side. It is such an incredible mountain group being so dramatic and beautiful. I was in heaven. By the time we were descending into Courmayeur the days heat had arrived and I was again baking, but I didn’t want to complain as the perfect views we were getting because of the weather far outweighed the energy sapping heat.
We found a shop and got some supplies and sat and drank and ate plenty. We were both feeling ok as we left the busy Courmayeur and headed directly up a steep road. We stopped for five minutes as Paul had a hot spot on his foot he wanted to tend to before it turned into something more unmanageable. He had problems sticking the blister patch to his sweaty foot, but eventually it stuck. We continued up the hill and were soon thankfully off the tarmac and back on the dusty trail. We were on the climb that would take us to refuge Bertone and this was a climb with many switchbacks and would certainly be one to remember for the event. If I have learnt anything out here, it is the value of walking, or more specifically, knowing exactly when you should stop trying to run. A good walk on a long steep climb during a long run is far more efficient than hammering away trying to run it all.
I was happy to just stroll up the hill and take on plenty of water as as we did so. Paul had his sticks out and was tapping away, beating a consistent rhythm out as he went. I now had reached a point where my curiosity had reached a boiling point. I needed to get some sticks and try them out. Back in England there is a bit of a joke about Europeans and their love of sticks, and I was certainly one of the people who would joke about it, but now I was willing to admit that I could possibly see a benefit to them. Alpine races are not like races back home. They are hard. I of course don’t think that UK races are easy, far from it, but the sheer scale of climbing and descending in these races has to be tried to be believed. There are the famous races that most of us will have heard of, but the races that are just local affairs still have epic stats such as 56km and at least 4000m of ascent which if you have never experienced, take my word for it, is bloody hard! No-one runs the whole of these things.
After a long very hot walk up to the refuge, we stopped at the water trough and topped up. Paul wanted crisps for the salt but they didn’t sell them. It was a beautiful morning and this meant that there were many people out walking which was nice. Some looked like they were just out for a little stroll whereas some looked like they were out for a number of days, possibly to trek the entire Tour Mont Blanc. Off we went again knowing that the next 10km or so was decent trail running parallel to the massif with no massive ups or downs. The next stop would be refuge Walter Bonatti. The views all along here were staggeringly beautiful. I wished I could paint or photograph it well. I could just stare at it forever. All a little distracting when you’re trying to run and not fall, but I certainly wasn’t complaining!
Once we arrived at the refuge, we sat at a bench and stayed there for 20-30 minutes. The sun was blisteringly hot. I removed my shoes and socks and dried them out as they were soaked with sweat which wasn’t doing any favours for my hot spots which for some reason were not forming into blisters thankfully. It felt oh so good to to be airing my feet out and my socks were drying out fast in the heat. Once everything was dry and my feet were even starting to look a little less like a dried prunes we reluctantly donned our smelly socks and trainers and were off again.
I was tiring a little and it took a little while to get back into the swing of things but overall we were both good. My feet were still very sore due to the heat and being constantly wet with sweat. After a nice steep and technical downhill to Arnuva, we now faced the climb to the Grand Col Ferret, the highest point of the entire route at 2537 metres. Paul had built this climb up a bit over the previous few days and I found that I was quite excited to be here. I soon was walking and focused on being as fast and economical as possible. Some French chap came past me quite fast and I let him. I passed him soon and stuck to a solid steady pace. He soon passed out of my sight and before I knew it I was crossing the snow near the top where it was flat enough to run. I was at the col soon enough admiring the magnificent views either side. Paul was not to far behind and was also happy with how smoothly the climb had gone. He had never seen it so snowy up here.
We saw a group of Germans pushing their mountain bikes up the other side from here. The descent for them would be difficult to say the least but good luck to them and respect for dragging/sliding their bikes this far up. The descent for us was very snowy and slippy but plenty of fun. Once the snow had ended, we were back on super trail that was slowly descending around the side of the mountain. There was a refuge/cafe near the bottom called La Peule. We stopped briefly as I rinsed my face of all the layers of salt that had built up over the long day using icy fresh water. It felt so good!
We now had a fairly long drag down to La Fouly. The temperature had been high all day and there was no sign of it dropping yet and we had no shade all day. Even though I don’t think I am great in the heat, I thought I was coping relatively well this weekend. Maybe I will adapt to it a little?
Once at La Fouly, we found the shop and bought some cold drinks and drunk them rapidly. They were very cold and froze my poor cooked head. It felt good. We now had the final push of the day to our second and final overnight accommodation of this fantastic trip at Champex. This was around 18km. The trail was fun and we were soon blessed to finally have the sun lower behind the mountain. The temperature dropped to a manageable level straightaway, though it remained very humid.
From now on, things got tough for me. I was tired. After passing through the tiny village of Issert, we left the road we had been following for a while and took off up and to the left for our final climb of the day. Whether this was because we were tired and feeling the past two days in the sun and in our legs I don’t know but it seemed to go on for a long time. It was beautifully peaceful though and the promise of a shower and good meal very soon certainly helped us get up there.
We made our way through the town of Champex and found our refuge at the other end of town and I at last removed my feet from the shoes which were smelling pretty ripe by now. We were in time for dinner, but we didn’t have the time to shower first so we had to sit through dinner in our kit we had worn all day. I don’t think we cared at that point though even if the other diners did!
We had a room to ourselves tonight which was nice. The beds were comfortable and the showers were warm. What luxury! The next and final day was the shortest at 45km and Pauls transfer to the airport was at 1730 which gave us a lot of time but we had a chat about whether we would be cutting things a bit fine. We both obviously wanted to finish at the church at Chamonix and Paul was willing to finish and get picked up straight away without going back to mine without showering. Dedicated!
We had a decent breakfast in the morning and were off before the heat was beating down. We were almost immediately into the monster climb that is Bovine. I felt ok and was enjoying working my way steadily up here. I was still feeling quite strong and the views down over Matigny that eventually presented themselves where inspiring. I stopped a couple of times and took pictures. I wish I could convey effectively the stunning and touching views I experience when out running, wherever I am in the world, but whether it is through words or pictures it doesn’t come close. Maybe a part of the experience though is the pain and hard work that builds up to these views.
The climb up Bovine was beautiful but I kept imagining the climb the previous night to Champex being tagged on to the beginning during the race. I’ll try to remember that for the race. This is roughly three quarters of the way through so I will be really tired by this stage.
We descended around the mountain to the road Col de la Forclaz, which was our first stop of the day. I had a Swiss apple juice which was really refreshing. We didn’t hang around long though as we were off. I had been up this road just a few weeks previously on my bike. I was looking forward to seeing the Chamonix valley again… home. Already things were familiar.
As we passed through Trient at the bottom, two French runners caught us up. Paul chatted with them a bit. They were running the CCC route over three days. We started the next big climb of the day which was to Catogne. It was very hot and dusty. I went ahead with one of the French guys and Paul was behind with the other. The climb was certainly no easy one and would really be a big test on the day. Once at the top I found a bit of tree cover and say on the cool grass to cool down while I waited for Paul. The descent down was long and fun. After a long while we were right down in the valley at Vallorcine. This would be our final stop for the day. The French lads had said that they’d be stopping for lunch here but we saw them run straight through. We wondered into town and found a boulangerie so we could stock up before the final push.
I knew that the next bit of trail the led to the Col des Montets was very unchallenging so would be a good place to prepare for the final big climb. When we arrived at the top, I used the loo and topped up with cold water then we were off. We saw the French lads sat in the shade at the bottom having their lunch. One of them had the drunken slurred look of someone who had overcooked it and was possibly dehydrated. We wished eachother luck and continued. I pushed quite hard up here, but energy levels were certainly diminished a little. I reached the top in good spirits but feeling quite weary.
The final stretch was on known trail to La Flegere along some incredible and technical trail and from there it was all down hill to the glorious finish in Chamonix. It felt like we had been away for ages and the adventure had been one I will remember for the rest of my life. I think I will be running this again sometime, and I don’t mean the race. Maybe solo and bivvying out?
So was this valuable as a recce seeing as the route will be really well marked during the event and navigation not an issue? The answer is a resounding yes. I was not surprised at the difficulty, the technicality and the massive climbs and descents, but to just experience the climbs in the right order on tired legs will certainly stick in my mind for when the event comes around.
I seemed to recover well over the coming week which was just as well as the next weekend was final test of this busy month, the Ice Trail Tarentaise. This will be my second Skyrunning race which is so called because of it’s high altitude, reaching a max of 3600 metres and not dropping below 2000. There will be plenty of snow!
Anyway. I will say goodbye for now, as this one has been particularly lengthy, even for me!