Race Report: UTMB Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) 2018

For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to acquiring enough points to enter the UTMB lottery. Last year I completed the 101km CCC, a hundred miler in the UK this summer, and the final piece of the puzzle was the 121km TDS – another of the UTMB events.

Naively, I assumed that at only 121km the Trail des Ducs de Savoie would be a nice intermediate step – a kind of apprenticeship to the UTMB. The race was introduced in 2009 and traces the Grande Randonée paths through the Aosta valley in Italy, and then the Beaufort, Tarentaise and finally Mont-Blanc valley in France. 

Chamonix heaving with the annual influx of trail runners, supporters and crews.

Amy and I drove up to Chamonix the afternoon before and checked into our apartment – it wasn’t the best facility but was at least only 5 minutes walk from the centre of town and the start/finish line. Registration and kit check passed without a hitch, although the queues were long so the whole thing took a good hour or so. 

Long lines at kit check – make sure you don’t forget anything.

Despite the clear blue skies, blazing sun and warm temperatures, the race organisers were warning of poor weather the next few days and the mandatory equipment check was quite heavily geared towards ensuring we all had waterproof clothing and working mobiles. Back in the apartment, I got an automated text from the organisers that due to bad weather the race route would be modified and would start two hours later – at least I would get longer in bed; so with that in mind I did one final kit check and set my alarm for 5am.

The next morning, the apocalyptic weather hadn’t materialised, and after the shuttle buses had deposited us on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Courmayeur and the sun came up, the warnings seemed even more overblown as we were treated to the start of a glorious day. However the last announcement before the start said that as soon as we hit the Col de Petit Saint Bernard and crossed into France, the weather would become decidedly less pleasant.

The start line in Courmayeur

The start was just like last year’s CCC – and the delayed start meant that more spectators were out to cheer us through the streets. The first trails we hit were quite wide and this meant that the usual bottlenecks you experience in mass start ultras weren’t really a problem. Over the course of 10km or so we climbed over 1000m before dropping down to Lac Combal. The terrain here was stunning – surrounded by glaciers and sweeping views I started to get an idea of why this course is well known for being more rugged and remote than its UTMB siblings.

The early running in Italy was in perfect conditions.
Running through the Italian Alps, surrounded by glaciers and alpine streams.

After leaving Lac Combal the hot sun and clear skies meant that I exhausted my water supplies quickly on the hard climb up to Col Chavannes, but dropping off the other side we descended a long 4×4 track which allowed me to effortlessly knock off 7-8km at 5:30min/km. I was a bit worried this was going too fast and I would pay for it later but it was great to get some distance under my belt.

The race reflected in the calm waters of Lac Combal, as we approached the first checkpoint in the distance.
The descent after Lac Combal was fast.

Finally the rain came. On the climb up to the Col du Petit Saint Bernard the clouds became more ominous and then suddenly, around 30 minutes from the next checkpoint the heavens opened and we were soaked by ferocious, driving rain. That mandatory kit came in handy as despite the waterproof jacket, gloves and hat, I was shivering by the time I got to the aid station which thankfully was serving hot pasta soup.

Afterwards the descent into Bourg Saint-Maurice was a tough one – made all that much harder that we could see the town in the distance from a long way off so it seemed to take ages to arrive, but at least it was drying out and warming up. The checkpoint was heaving with people as it was the first point where outside assistance was allowed. I’d asked Amy not to come to the CPs because they were pretty remote, and I could rely on the drop bag at Cormet de Roselend instead. 

A very welcome water stop at Séez, after the long, hot descent towards Bourg Saint-Maurice.

Every race report and review of the TDS I have read seems to have one thing in common – the climb out of Bourg Saint-Maurice and up to the Cormet de Roselend is steep and relentless. The almost 2000m of vertical in the late afternoon sun (for most of us) and with limited water opportunities this was something that loomed large on the profile map after relatively easy running of the first 50km. Our weather-affected route meant that the climb wasn’t constant, but instead it kept dropping back down, losing height and adding distance before eventually reaching the Cormet de Roselend after what seemed like an eternity. Cracks of forked lightning pointed the way we were headed as well as signalling the meteorological conditions that would be in store for us as night fell.

A few KMs of the adjusted route to Cormet de Roselend were on tarmac, which just seemed to make the climb feel like it went on for even longer.
The last few minutes of daylight on the climb to the Cormet de Roseland – you can see what little sun that  broke through the clouds shining on the mountain on the right.

Cormet de Roselend was the first opportunity to access my drop bag, and I got changed into new layers and socks which gave more of a psychological boost than much else. I took on some soup and hot, sweet tea and had a ten minute doze on my backpack before heading back out into the night.

More climbing – this time as the rain started to come down harder and the trails got higher and more technical, the pace slowed as we picked our way through the trails in the dark. However going up was far better than the following descent down to La Gittaz. Rivers of mud, reminiscent of last year’s CCC meant we were slipping and sliding constantly. As we edged through a gorge we passed a blazing bonfire in the night, surrounded by a team of emergency service responders and it pretty soon became clear why they were stationed there as a precaution, as just further on we tentatively edged our way over wet, slippery rocks with a steep drop to a raging torrent on our right. 

Thankfully this was successfully navigated and we passed through the time check at La Gittaz where I followed the line of headlamps snaking up into the darkness towards Les 2 Nants.

More slipping and sliding on the descent (can you spot a theme here?) towards the refuge at Col du Joly where the sound of Foreigner, wanting to know what love is, was blaring from the speakers to guide us in. Lack of sleep, fatigue, darkness and a thriving bar pumping out music up in the middle of nowhere contributed to the surrealism of the experience. 

The trails were becoming ridiculously slippery now and on the exit from the Col du Joly aid station I ended up sliding down the hill like I was Frank Spencer (if you’re not British from a certain era you will need to Google it) on roller skates – my trekking poles looped over my wrists didn’t help and I slid down on my back. Thankfully no major harm was done and soon the trail turned to more hard packed 4×4 track I was able to reach Les Contamines by around 5am.

All Downhill From Here?

From here on I was sure I had this nailed. There was ‘just’ the Col de Tricot to pass and then it was more or less all downhill to Chamonix; in total no more than another 25km but encompassing another 1300m or so of climbing. The climb up to Tricot however was incredibly steep – although this had been the theme for the whole race, coming after 100km it was tough and people were dropping like flies, allowing me to make up nearly 50 places on this climb alone. More than once I was treated to a rendition of somebody vomiting into the undergrowth as I stood surveying the natural beauty around me.

Half way up the brutal climb to Col de Tricot looking back down into the valley.

After passing the Col the technical trails on the other side were fairly runnable as things were drying up and despite the heavy clouds it was shaping up to be a nice day in Chamonix. Passing the Nid de l’Aigle tramway I arrived in Les Houches where I really didn’t stay long – I’d been told it was 8km flat run into Chamonix and I was keen to get this done with.
We had to cross the motorway via  bridge to get onto the back forest track that led into Chamonix and after so long on remote trails it was amazing to be cheered and applauded by so many people on the streets. Nearly every car that went past would honk it’s horn which just helped add to the renewed enthusiasm.

The back run into Chamonix was more ‘undulating’ than flat meaning a couple of sections were power-hiked but I managed to keep running  for the most part and many others were finding the same second-wind. In fact between Les Contamines and the finish line I improved my ranking by over 100 places, I think helped by the cool night with it’s slow pace – I was able to avoid a lot of eating to let my stomach recover.

The sun was coming out and the heat starting to build, but by 11am I was heading into the outskirts of Chamonix. More and more cheers and clapping from people on the trail encouraging me home, and the closer I got to the finish the more intense this became. I managed to speed up from a slow trot to a relative sprint by the time I reached the last 200m, responding to the cheers of the crowd, high-fiving and banging on the crowd barriers. 

It was a struggle to climb onto the podium but worth it for the shot.
Tired but very, very happy.

I crossed the finish line in 27hrs 13m 17s, coming under my target time of 28hrs, and nearly 6 hours ahead of the cutoff. 

Plastic Is Not Fantastic

This year the UTMB organisers have announced that they’ve removed single use plastic cups, plates and utensils from the course which I think is a fantastic idea. This meant that we all had to bring our own utensils – the only downside was that at aid stations I needed to keep getting up and down again (eg. after finishing soup, get up to get a Coke, then get a bowl of pasta) rather than be able to take everything I wanted over to the table. Next time I’ll probably bring a couple of cups/bowls rather than just the one.

The Race in Stats

My pace throughout the event – you can definitely see it dropping off through the muddy night section.
My ranking throughout the race – fairly consistent after Bourg Saint-Maurice.


Runner’s Page: https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/runner/7481

Race Report: Jurassic Coast 100 Miler

The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.

I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.

Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.

The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.

2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.

Relive ‘JC100 mile’

Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.

Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.

Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset

The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.

Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Specatators along the route

On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.

 

Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.

The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion. 

The view from the trail

The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.

The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.

I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.

Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.

As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.

Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.

Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.

No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.

Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.

After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime. 

As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.

The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.

Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.

More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.

After 100 miles, 60 of which we’d pushed through together, we’d made it onto Exmouth seafront.

Somebody taking a breather with a view.

Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.

The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.

After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.

Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy

I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.

Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces

Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.

As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.

A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.

Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.

Jurassic Coast 100 Mile Results

Race Report: UTMB: CCC 2017

UTMB. Probably the one event that even non-trail runners stand a chance of having heard of. However recently it had been well-known for many of the wrong reason including a controversial open letter from the organisers of Hardrock 100 lamenting the fact that they were asked to pay for inclusion in UTMB’s qualification process.

Cue lots of negative discussions on social media. UTMB/ITRA is a racket. It’s not real ultra-running and is more like a giant traffic-jam/human centipede. Ignore the circus and concentrate on more authentic events. I’m not getting into that though, you can read the other side of the story in ITRA’s response to the accusations.

It’s not that simple though. Regardless of which side of the argument you sit, if you’ve ever been in Chamonix at the end of August you will be left in no doubt that the atmosphere is second-to none. I had been there two years ago and watched a friend complete the UTMB event and was swept up in the carnival atmosphere that took hold of the town. I decided there and then that I wanted in on that action and that being stabbed by the odd trekking pole might be a small price to pay.

The UTMB-proper (171km with 10,000m of elevation) is currently beyond my reach, not least because I haven’t run enough qualifying races but I’ve also never run further than 86km. I did however find that getting enough points to enter the CCC was definitely much more attainable so last December I entered the race lottery and to my surprise, managed to snag a place.

Although the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, Chamonix) is the ‘little sister’ event of UTMB, it is fair to say that it’s a serious ultra marathon in its own right. For the most part it covers the last two thirds of the UTMB with a few deviations and at over 100km and 6,000m of elevation it’s certainly not an easy cop out.

So this was my ‘A’ race for 2017, and after a recent DNF in the brutally steep 80km du Mont Blanc earlier in the year I was determined to be well organised, fully on form and run a smart race this time.

The weather would definitely help this time – after two straight years of blazing blue skies and high temperatures, I arrived to pick up my race bib in a grey and wet Chamonix being drenched by a light but consistent rain. The amazing mountain backdrop was hidden behind battleship-grey clouds.

The start line in Courmayeur

On the Friday morning I took the organised bus from outside my rented apartment in Argentiere, through the Mont-Blanc tunnel and into Courmayeur on the other side and was greeted by cool temperatures, sunny skies and thankfully no rain – perfect ultra-running weather.

However we knew it wouldn’t last as the forecast for the later stages of the race was for very cold temperatures up high and more rain, possibly snow. A last minute text from the organisers arrived as I was waiting at the start line, explaining that the final section between Col des Montets and La Flégère had been rerouted to avoid Tête aux Ventes – I was unsure whether this was a good or a bad thing.

The course profile of the CCC

2,150 lined up on the start line and I had previously heard lots of horror stories about huge queues as the race hits the first narrow trails so I was keen to get reasonable to the front. The race was divided into three pens which would leave at 9am, 9:15 and 9:30 respectively and I was in the second pen.

The excitement and anticipation was building – large crowds had turned out and were very enthusiastic. Most ultras I run start at 4am so local support is usually less lively. Media helicopters buzzing overhead and an energetic PA announcer building up the enthusiasm of the crowd in three languages all contributed to a feeling of being part of something big – and then the starting gun went off, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise playing as we ran through the town of Courmayeur to cheering crowds and ringing cowbells.

Leaving Courmayeur and heading to the first forest trails

A route through the town meant that we got to soak up the atmosphere for a couple of KMs, and also had the benefit of thinning out the crowds before we hit the narrower trails.

The traffic jams never really materialised – the first climb was almost a vertical mile up to the Tête de la Tronche in the first 10km or so, ensuring most mid-pack runners would take it easy so we soon set into a steady pace. Maybe I was feeling fresh and enthusiastic but the first climb really felt good, and didn’t seem anywhere near as steep as it looks on paper.

Pretty soon we were over the top and running down into the first aid station at Refuge Bertone. There was no need to hang around so I quickly filled up with water, grabbed some chocolate and dried apricots and headed out onto the lovely runnable section of 7km to the next aid station.

Leaving Refuge Bertone

This next section was wonderful – rolling hills of single track with sweeping views of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc. The weather continued to be cooperative and stayed cool and sunny – pretty soon I arrived at the next aid station at Refuge Bonatti, 22km into the race.

Great running between the Bertone and Bonatti refuges

 

Still enjoying great weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc

Fantastic trails for running

 

 

 

 

I knew that the climb to Grand Col Ferret was going to be tough, so I sat down and had a bit of a rest, powered by some of the delicious pasta soup handed out at all the large aid stations. It was only when I looked at the map that I realised there was still another 5km of running to Arnouvaz before the climb started.

Climbing towards the Grand Col Ferret – the wind increased and the temperature dropped meaning the layers started to go on.

As the race approached the Col Ferret it was obvious that the great weather wouldn’t last – forbidding clouds in the distance towards Switzerland suggested I’d soon be adding layers and waterproofs.

Zero visibility and freezing wind at the Grand Col Ferret

The climb itself only took just over an hour but the difference between the top and bottom was pretty stark. I’d added a waterproof layer to keep out the wind, and gloves but arrived at the summit with my hands so frozen I couldn’t collapse my trekking poles to stow away for the descent – thankfully one of the medics at the top was happy to help.

What followed was 1,500m of continuous descending into the Swiss side of the race, with a brief stop at La Fouly for more water and food. The amount of supporters at La Fouly was impressive, and it gave a great boost – I remember leaving the food tent and running through a tunnel of kids high-fiving on the way out.

I was planning to meet Amy at Champex-Lac, the first aid station that allowed help from crews and about the only one where I would visit at a sensible time (the others were Trient and Vallorcine). She was tracking me on the official app and I seemed to be on track for getting there a little before 8pm, which meant I was pretty close to the 22 hour pace I was aiming for. However leaving La Fouly and heading down into the valley we were soon on asphalt roads, which I thought would just link some trails, but we ended up running around 10km like that. It meant that, helped by some friendly encouragement from a fellow Brit I was running with, we were soon running 5.30min/km pace which meant getting to Champex-Lac early.

It turned out that the route had been diverted because of landslides caused by the recent bad weather. It was a welcome repreive from the technical trails but meant that I had to phone Amy to get her to start the one-hour drive to Champex early.

On the approach to Champex-Lac the rain really started to come down strong and the deeply rutted, muddy forest trails were quite depressing to negotiate in the falling darkness, perhaps because I knew that I was so close to a change of dry clothes and some moral support.

The curse of being a mid-pack ultra runner meant that the aid station tent was absolutely packed with runners and their associated crews. This made it difficult to lay out kit on the long bench tables but Amy managed make sure I went through all the right checks, helped me get into dry and warm clothes and also brought me a steaming hot flask of freshly made pasta and potato soup.

Freshly fortified with pasta and potato soup, in dry clothes and waterproofs ready to tackle the night section after Champex-Lac at 56km

Leaving the aid station I was shocked how cold my muscles had got, and running out of Champex-Lac was more of a hobble, despite the best efforts of the supporters who were yelling encouragement. It was almost a relief when the pavement gave way to steep forest traila and I was able to focus on climbing rather than running at any particular pace.

The latter half of the race comprised of three big climbs – none of them quite as large as the first two, but significant, in the dark and in the pouring rain on tired legs. I mentally broke it down to just powering on through to the next big aid station and actually found the climbing to be straightforward – my legs were still feeling good.

Taking refuge at La Giète

On the long climb up to La Giète it became evident that this was going to be a long night. The heavy rain was turning the already saturated ground, trodden by the shoes of hundreds of other runners in the last few hours into a boggy quagmire. In parts the trails were rocky, and we could use these for some traction, but the clay-like, light-brown mud was oozing down the mountain between the rocks like gravy. We finally made it to La Giète, where a small barn on top of the mountain, lit up and playing techno music offered some shelter and hot soup.

It was a case of rinse and repeat for the next few hours as we descended to Trient, restocked, climbed more monstrous, muddy mountains and slipped and slided our way back down into Vallorcine.

The descents were getting treacherous and despite using trekking poles and took at least a couple of falls but thankfully they didn’t cause any problems.

Refuelled at La Giète and ready to go back outside to face the elements

By Trient, certain body parts had begun to chafe and I ammused the staff at the medic tent by asking if they had any cream, although I couldn’t remember the name in French so had describe it. I’m sure not for the first time that evening, the medic handed me a tube of anti-frottissement cream and pointed towards the bathroom; I soon anti-frottisée’d parts that will remain nameless and was able to resume the glamour of an ultra marathon at one in the morning.

At Vallorcine, the last major aid station it felt like I was almost home but there were still 19 more kilometeres to run, and the temporary notices on the walls made it clear that the new route, bypassing the Tête aux Vents was not necessarily going to make things easier. Leaving the aid station the next few KMs seemed much gentler than the profile on the course map suggested and I made pretty good pace, setting into a rhythm on good, relatively dry roads.

Refuelling with hot soup at one of the aid stations

After a while though the paths got ridiculously technical, with huge knotted tree roots and large rocks strewn across the path which made mincemeat of our tired legs and frazzled, sleep-deprived brains. The real sting in the tail came two-hours on from Vallorcine, with a 250m descent on the same horrible paths, only to be faced with over an hour of yet more climbing up to the ski station of La Flégère. The elevation amount wasn’t particularly huge, but the trail just seemed to go on forever and was a real destroyer of morale.

While sitting in the aid station at the top of the climb I chatted to a couple of other runners who were all cursing the organisers and expressing disbelief in the last section. However the good news was just 8 more KMs and aroun 1000m of descent to the finish.

The descent had its technical sections but generally got better the further I descended and this last section only took around an hour. It had the added bonus that it was starting to get light, and I got to view Chamonix down in the valley below, framed with the always-amazing sight of the Mont Blanc massif, freshly dusted with snow from the previous night poking out from amongst the clouds.

Chamonix and Mont-Blanc on the final descent down from La Flégère

I was dreading a long run-in through Chamonix but the trail joined the town just near a hotel I’d stayed in before so I knew it wasn’t long to the finish line. What’s more, my legs actually felt (relatively) great despite almost 22 hours of running. In fact I was minutes away from beating my (admittedly arbitrary target) so I picked up the pace, passing a few people hobbling into town).

On the way in I was surprised to see Amy a few hundred metres from the finish, and she actually had to yell at me to slow down while she ran round to the finish line to take a picture – I still managed to finish in a time 21:58:32, 854th place overall and 267th in the veteran male category V1H.

A bit dazed and confused at the end

 

I’m really happy with my result – since the first goal was to run a good race and finish under the cutoff time of 26:30. Looking at my placing throughout the race, I started off quickly (due to not wanting to be caught in traffic jams), stayed ranked around the mid 900s in the middle of the race and managed to claw back another 100 or so places. I didn’t set the world on fire but it was my first 100km distance, and considering how poor the terrain was in the latter half of the race I can’t complain. On the other hand, the cool conditions probably helped since I have a tendency to suffer from the heat in ultras.

A moment of reflected glory on the podium.

The race organisation was superb, with well stocked aid stations at regular intervals but what really stood out for me was the support of the crowds. In all three countries there were so many enthusiastic supporters in the towns and villages, at all hours of the day and night, and even up on the sides of remote trails in atrocious conditions.

I genuinely enjoyed the event and this has only made me think that the the full UTMB should be on my tick list one day.

 

Race Report: Trail des Cimes du Buëch 2016 – 42km

May 22nd, 2016
La Faurie, France

The Trail des Cimes du Buëch is now in its third year, and I had ran the 2014 and 2015 versions which comprised of a quick 17km circuit with some amazing views. This year the 17km version was included in the Challenge Trails 05 competition, but on top of this was added a 42km mara’trail event with nearly 3000m of climbing.

The race profile - getting hard as it goes on

The race profile – getting hard as it goes on – the last climb at 36km was exceptionally steep

I entered the event at the last minute because I’ve been recovering from a torn calf muscle which stopped my training for around a month, so I was keen to take this one easy and use it as a test to see how much fitness I still had left.

The first third of the race takes in most of the original 17km, and I know from experience that its a hard climb, although rewarded with some amazing panoramic scenery. The latter stages of the race are also pretty hilly though so I was careful not to go out too fast.

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

Only 38 runners lined up at the chilly start, but there was a good atmosphere and pretty soon we were off. The tough climb at the beginning was everything I expected, followed a by a rocky, technical descent.

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The weather was warm and sunny, but as the race went on the wind really caught up. The photo above shows a climb about two-thirds of the way in and an enormous wind blowing from the south was actually blowing me off my feat as I climbed up onto the ridge. My cap had to be lashed to my trekking poles otherwise it would be half way to Lyon by now.

19a

After 35km I was starting to flag, but the last climb although not the biggest definitely felt the toughest. After a hot and tiring climb the descent off the other side was technical and very tough on the legs.

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

 

Race Report: Trail Gapen’cimes 2015 – 55km

I almost didn’t get to run this race. As you may or may not know, the French insist on seeing a signed medical certificate from your doctor before allowing you to race. Every year I go to my GP, she checks my pulse and blood pressure and then signs my note. It lasts for a year and I can supply photocopies to race organisers with no problem – in fact I’ve run 8 races in France this year with the same form.

GAPENCIMES 2015 from AIR libre on Vimeo.

The Gapen’Cimes series of races took place over the weekend of 3rd/4th October, with the 55km/3000m Edelweiss race being on the Sunday. Since the race would start at 6.30am, and the start was at least an hour from my home I decided to pick up my race bib on the Saturday, since we had to be in the city of Gap, where the start/finish was, anyway.

The course profile - pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

The course profile – pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

When I went to collect my race number I was told that the regulations had changed, and my medical certificate had to explicitly state that not only was I am fit to run a race, but that I was fit to run ‘in competition’. Sadly, my certificate didn’t say that. It was only after the race staff tracked down my doctor, and had her email them an attestation that I would be OK, that they would let me enter.

Bib collection on Saturday - like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn't straightforward

Bib collection on Saturday – like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn’t straightforward

If I’d left this to 6am on Sunday morning I wouldn’t have had chance to do this, so I’m very glad I decided to try to save myself some time.

On Saturday afternoon the south of France was being deluged by huge storms, some of which sadly claimed the lives of several people down on the Mediterranean coast as tunnels and underground carparks were swamped and people were washed away by flash floods.

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather - here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather – here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

Up in the Alps things weren’t quite so bad, but the rain was torrential and violent lightning storms flashed and rumbled long into the night. It was announced that although the weather would be fair on Sunday, the route would altered as many of the trails had washed away and for the safety of runners and marshals, some of it would have to be rerouted. The race start was also postponed to 7am.

I woke up on Sunday morning thankful to not hear the rain pounding on the windows. Driving towards Gap, there were still lightning flashes in the distance but thankfully it stayed dry.

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

300 runners assembled in the Parc de la Pépinièrein the centre of Gap. The pre-race briefing explained that the new route wouldn’t add any significant distance to the expected 55km, but to groans from the crowd of runners it was announced we would have an extra 300m of vertical to climb on top of the usual 3000m.

A quick gear check, countdown, and we were off. Running the through Sunday morning streets of Gap (a small town of perhaps 30,000 people, but one of the largest towns in the area) to the occasional applause and encouragement. The local police were holding the (admittedly light) traffic to allow us to run unhindered to the outskirts, and after a few KMs we were on trails heading up to the mountains of the Haute-Alpes.

For this race, and for the first time ever I was using a pair of trekking poles (or cheating sticks as they’re rather sneeringly referred to in the UK). I’ve never really used them before, but for the next couple of years my aim is to bag a few more ultra distance events with a view to getting to a 100 miler. I’m not sure if the use of poles made a positive difference but they certainly weren’t a hinderance.

The early stages of the race

The early stages of the race

I’d say that at least 70% of runners were using poles, and since we’d had so much rain the many streams that we had to cross had been transformed into raging torrents, they were a big help when crossing. The first couple of streams, we were able to gingerly pick our way over the rocks, but our feet still got soaked so myself and many others decided it was better off to just run through, get the feet wet and hope they dried out in the sun.

One of the early stream crossings - the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken - after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

One of the early stream crossings – the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken – after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

The first checkpoint at Rabou came at about the quarter-way stage – there weren’t many food stops, but they had the standard French trail running fare – cheese, salami, ginerbread cake, chocolate, apricots, crisps, bread flat and fizzy water and Coca-Cola. I availed myself of the food, cleared some grit out of my wet shoes and got moving.

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

As we left Rabou, we climbed higher into the mountains and sun came out – the surrounding countryside was awash with autumn colours and to the northeast we could see the high mountains of the Ecrins national park, and the recent dusting of snow that must have fallen in last night’s storm on some of the lower peaks.

Looking over to the Ecrins

Looking over to the Ecrins

To be honest, most of the race was fairly standard. I deliberately kept myself to a sensible rhythm, aiming to dose out my energy over the course of the race and not blow up. It was hard not to run some of the descents too fast though, as there were some great tracks, including a fairly kamikaze dash through a field of scree which was a lot of fun.

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

IMG_4927

By the time we made it up the final climb to a spectacular view, I was pretty knackered and little bit dejected at the final checkpoint when I asked a marshal how many had come though and he said “most, maybe three-quarters”. I was sure that I was still in the top half of the race even though things had definitely thinned out. Nobody was passing me in fact I had gained a place every couple of KMs.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

That final checkpoint was just 11km from the finish, and all of it was downhill on fairly easily runnable terrain. However it was the hardest point of the race, and running into the streets of Gap, despite the cheers and applause of random onlookers, and even encouragement from the police holding up the traffic, the run into the finish seemed to take forever.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

IMG_4938

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

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I made it over the finish line in 8h41’37”, placing me 138th out of 297 starters, so in the end was quite happy with a top half finish.
finish

Race Report: Marlborough Downs Challenge

Where: Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK
When: Sunday 10th April, 2015

We’re on holiday in the UK at the moment, down in Oxfordshire so I looked around for a race nearby and found one – the 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge.

The Race

The Marlborough Downs Challenge started in 2003, and comprises of a 33 mile ‘ultra’ route and a shorter 20 miler course – they both take on much of the same terrain, which is in and around the Marlborough Downs of Wiltshire, rolling, undulating hills of chalky clay, iron age relics, white horses etched into hillsides and old Roman roads.

The MDC is now part of the Runfurther Ultra Championship series so attracted a fairly large field of runners. As a ‘short’ ultra-marathon it’s a perfect introduction for people who haven’t ran more than 26 miles before, and although it was hilly there was nothing in the profile to worry anyone since I would call it ‘punchy’ rather than steep.

The course profile - or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

The course profile – or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

 

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

With an emphasis on self-navigation, the race organisers only lightly signposted the route, in just a few places near the beginning and couple of other areas. However runners were supplied with turn by turn route directions and downloadable GPX track and were expected to find their own way over the course.

It didn’t help then, that after having spent ages plotting the route online over an OS map, printing out and laminating a roadbook, I then proceeded to leave all of this at home! I still had the route directions however and decided that there would be safety in numbers on enough of the route to be able to find my way around the course.

The race started off fairly gently – all my races this year have been 10-20km, and so are usually off at lightning pace with lots of shoulder barging, but this was much more serene bearing in mind even the winner would be on their feet for the next 4 hours. After 3 or 4kms I found myself dropping back from the lead group of about 6, into a smaller group with two other runners – we were 200m behind the leaders and maybe the same ahead of middle pack behind.

After 5km we entered West Woods, which this time of year was full of bluebells and was looking pretty scenic – I even managed to grab a few pictures as the terrain was good (if boggy in places) and I was really getting into a good rhythm. Suddenly we exited the woods and one of my companions looked into the distance down the valley where we expected to see the lead pack to see nobody. Looking at our maps and directions we realised we had overshot a turning and ran almost a mile in the wrong direction. Once we had finally backtracked to the correct (unmarked) turn, we rejoined main group at the back of the field.

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells - I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn't taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells – I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn’t taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

By this point the trail narrowed and overtaking was difficult in the boggy ground as we ran through glades of pungent wild garlic. I started to pick my way through the field but resigned myself to the reality that I wouldn’t be placing highly, even with over a marathon of distance still to run I’d lost at least 20 minutes on the lead group.

The trail opened up from forest to rolling downs which made overtaking easier, and also navigation because it was possible to see a couple of miles ahead and see the rest of the race snaking their way across the countryside.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The weather continued to be overcast and windy, and a light drizzle blew in across the hills but it never rained, meaning it was pretty ideal for running and getting dehydrated was not going to be a problem.

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

9 or 10 miles into the route, the course split off to the north for the 20 mile runners, where the rest of us continued west. We would rejoin the 20 mile course in another 17 miles or so.

 

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

After descending off the downs, we ran into the small town of Bishops Canning where we had a few other navigational changes, and I teamed up with a runner who had done the course a few times to negotiate the changed route for this year. We eventually found our way onto the canal towpath, where a long stretch flat track continued into the market town of Devizes where I counted bridges until reaching the next checkpoint.

Some company while running along the canal towpath

Some company while running along the canal towpath into Devizes

 

After leaving Devizes, the route climbed some fairly steep hills, climbing up towards distant radio antennae that seemed to take forever to reach. More undualting terrain and we then arrived at the Cherhill White Horse, and Lansdowne Obelisk.

White horse and monument

Cherhill White horse on the left, and the Lansdowne Obelisk on the right

By this point though, I’d already run a marathon distance so wasn’t really interested in admiring the scenery (besides, there are loads of white horses in the hillsides in this part of the world, and this one was only cut in 1780, as opposed to the bronze age carving at Uffington White Horse that I’m much more familiar with) and so continued to press on to the Beckhampton checkpoint where the 20 mile route rejoined our route.

Running through Avebury, I caught a glimpse of the stone circle. There was lots of support with people cheering and clapping in the town (a nice pub on the road and lack of rain probably helped) despite a little girl asking me why everyone was clapping.

The final run in to Marlborough was fairly uneventful, and I clocked my finish time at 5 hours 51 minutes, so considering the extra mileage (36 miles in total – 58km) I was pleased to get under 6 hours.

All finishers were awarded with a hand made mug from the local pottery.

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

Overall I enjoyed the day – it was good to get out and do fairly long run on terrain that wasn’t too technical so wouldn’t wipe me out for days to come. The checkpoints and food stops where well run, and the marshall generally fairly encouraging. There were shower facilities at the finish (in the local leisure centre) and a meal for all finishers although I headed home quickly.

My only criticism, and one of a lot of people on the course was the lack of course markings. I realise that it was made clear in advance, and in fairness the directions where pretty accurate. However I think it detracts from the enjoyment to have your head stuck in a route book, following it each few hundred yards like an in-car sat nav – I much prefer to be able to take in the scenery, chat with other runners and generally enjoy the event without worrying too much about taking a wrong turn.

However, that said, I knew what I was getting myself into as did everybody else – and getting lost was my fault, and finding my way back was my responsibility. I would recommend the event to anyone who hasn’t yet done an ultra but wants to step up from marathon distance – its good intermediate step before plunging into 50 milers.

Strava Data

Offical Results

Full results of 33 mile race

Full results of 20 mile race