Friday, 25 January 2013

Big, Mean, Moody Alps


I started writing this a long time ago in August 2012, but along the way couldn't find the time or motivation to complete this. Lots has happened since then to distract me. In running I've completed the Hardmoors 60 and the Round Rotherham 50, both of which I'll write briefly about soon I hope. I'm very happ to have completed both of these and have proved something to myself and think I can say at hardmoors especially I'm a better long distance runner than I've ever been. Outside of running I've moved out of my house and in with Clare, rented out my house and helped tidy and decorate Clares in anticipation of the arrival of my first son, Isaac. I've been busy since his arrival too, we both have, anybody who says it easy must be lieing (although I know nobody who says this).

Then today I felt the need to revisit this blog to write about new plans, but with this report half-written I had to complete it. I hope the gap hasn't ruined the reading, but I feel with much time passed since then I can reflect more factually without raw emotion infulencing the story. Though many of those who read this will know the outcome, I hope you find the detail interesting.

A long time ago in a valley quite far away

After my very satisfactory round at Lakeland 50 the main big challenge of my year was a month later in the TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie). The link provides much detail about what makes this event such a challenge - around 70 miles, but each mile providing enough ascent and descent to average about 330 feet-per-miles up and down. This stat alone and the prospect of climbs well to over 8000 feet above sea-level and the longest ascent and descent being over 5000 feet near continuous each is a big sell for those wanting a real challenge. But, the video of last years event is what really sold it, from the lunar-esque look of the top of the steep initial climb of the route, Col de la Youlaz, to the pathway cut into the side of seemingly a sheer cliff face sometime later on - filmed by helicopter on a hot alpine day.

In between I had tackled the, always challenging, Long Tour of Bradwell. Which often features in my calender, its collection of climbs in the first half being something like nectar to my climbing legs and to keep going over undulating trails for the whole distance thereafter is never easy (or hasn't been so far). LTOB's first half difficulty bias and the warm temperatures of the day made the second half tough going, but despite struggling to run much of the undulating last third I finished with a satisfactory descent and a run the length iof Bradwell to the line - in a good PB (course) time.

As per my 2011 UTMB (the 100 mile "headline" event in the same series as the TDS) attempt my stop in the Chamonix valley was once again to be a holiday around the trail run. This time, Clare and I, would be stopping at a Hotel in Argentiere - a village near Chamonix. Partly as the lovely little "Mazot" I stayed at with Mark and his family last year had been booked by time I cam to look for this years event, but mainly as a hotel seemed a better option for the time I wouldn't be there with Clare being 22 weeks pregnant.

TDS - 2 days

We arrived the Tuesday, two days before event day in the early evening at the Hotel Les Grande Montets, a very cosy and comfortable skiiers hotel near the piste area it took its name from. A comfortable room with a Mont Blanc view lived up to expectations and some good food the first night ended a longs days travel.

I had a minor panic the next day - only after making the trip to Chamonix to get kit checked did I realise I'd forgotten to put my 2 x empty 500ml bottles and my buff in the pack (to meet the minimum 1L water reservoir requirement and cap/bandana requirement of the kit list). I queueud up, half expecting to fail and have to bus back to the hotel and back here again later. But after some conversation in a language I barely know (French - btw) I convinced them I did have water bottles, just not here... the cap/bandana was overlooked. Relieved and the formalities of kit check, registration, number collection done - Clare and I enjoyed a healthy sandwich and salad in a street cafe in a warming sun and then looked around Chamonix for awhile.

On the night we headed out into quiet Argentiere for a meal and found a bar owned by an ex-pat. I filled up on carbs and just the one cheeky beer and we had a nice relaxed evening.

TDS starting day - sometime before 3am

I think it was this time anyway, those memories are gone or locked away in a dark corner of my mind. Anyway I was up with the usual 'too early in the morning sore eyes' and popped down to see what was on in the special early breakfast the hotel had put on (v.impressed they did this for such an early start time). Pretty good - juice, milk cereals, bread, nearly everything the normal breakfast offered. Although I took my own weetabix down to be double-sure I got the breakfast I'm comfortable with before a long run.

I was then back uup to Clare to pick up my bag, final checks and say goodbye to Clare - I hated to be leaving her, more than usual, but would no doubt never forgive myself for not starting now I was this close. Then I was into my taxi and away to Chamonix.

After queueing for a short time in the dark with lots of unfamiliar language around me I felt very nervous and was glad when I could get on the bus and try and enjoy the journey through the Mt-Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur.

All the busses droppped somewhere in Courmayeur, but with the start not visiblt I just followed the majority of the crowds to soon find the starting area being setup and what I can only guess was a sports centre where I found a bit of bench to get changed on. Despite having over an hour to the 7am start, after the loo queue, getting out of warm gear and bagging, checking running kit and bag I wasn't particularly happy when I was picked out for a random kit-check and had to mostly unpack my bag again!!??

Notwithstanding this, I got out to the starting area, forced out a final pee (not in the starting area) and dumped my return to Chamonix bag of warm gear all in plenty of time to have nearly ten minutes of standing around nervously amongst a restless crowd - cho mping down a double decker. If the crowds of runners hadn't woken unfortunate locals the man on the tannoy made sure until the Vangelis music kicked in and a helicopter appeared hovering above the field - capturing what I reckon might turn out to be some of the only helicopter-filmed footage of the 2012 event.

If your wondering why I made the footage comment it's probably best I fill you in that it had rained quite a bit overnight and the forecast was for more and generally cold conditions - which are very likely to be exascerbated in the mountains in my experiance.

I got a tad emotional at the off, not sure why, often seems to happen at the really long events, maybe I didn't know quite how to feel about what I was about to do now I was here having put so much time into training and other preperation. But once the tannoy countdown came to 0 it was about business and I started a slow jog, walk, as nearly 1500 competitors moved off as one along the narrow streets of Courmayeur.

Considering the time of day and how residents might react to being woken up by all the noise of the event, the support on a loop in the town was fantastic! Really special and it wouldn't be the last time today I thought this about a place on route. As we approached the end of town hundreds stopped to removed jackets on the first uphill as the humidity combined with gear-carrying generated heat warmed everybodty up quickly as we started climbing - from 4000ft above sea-level - out of town.

Out of town and the snake of competitors formed heading up a switchback, hard-packed earth path which passed cablecar/chairlift paraphernalia as we made our way up the now constant ascent to CP1. I weaved in and out of the 95% of competitors utilising "sticks", which is far more common on the continent than in long uk events. I'm sure they help to preserve some energy and maybe reduce some impact damage whilst, descending, but with so many people together at this point they just seemed to be restrictive of movement at this stage and a bit of a pain to those without to work around.

At CP1 I grabbed some honey on toast (yum) and pushed on wanting to try and work through to thinner crowds nearer the front of the fields as much as possible. It was onwards and upwards from here and onto single-track path for large sections. We also hit the cloud line and near everyone stopped to don waterproof jackets as rain kicked in combined with more of a cold wind. The climb flattened out a bit nearing 1m to the CP, but I knew the Col de la Youlaz was still way above and was just waiting for the turn off to the steep other-worldly looking climb.

When the climb came it was pretty frustrating too, the path was single track and quickly steepend so that there was no option but to follow those in front. The reality here was somewaht different to my expectation and served up the first taste of my major disappointment with the event. The line of climbers was pretty much at standstill and extremely slow moving until nearly the top, those who tried to go off-piste quicky found the climb off path too loose, slippery and steep. Even the path was slightly disconcerting and it looked like the weat weather + hundreds of runners was turning it to mush. The guy in front of me was a slightly larger build than myself and I often noticed his footfalls moving the earth beneath! I think it was the mountain trail equivalent of motorway gridlock (at over 8000ft).

It was probably no bad thing to be steadied a bit early on as my tendency is to start hilly ultra's too fast, never quite confident I'll maintain a good pace so taking advantage early (which always kills me in the aforementioned LTOB). And I reached the top at 8730ft feeling ready for a nice stretch out downhill. After a muddy, slippery start on grassy tracks the path levelled a bit and I passed a few people and started to take time back on the bank. I seemed to be having less trouble slipping on the greasy surface than most around and then we hit switchbacks of stone and then tarmac road descent allowing me to get down to near La Thuile feeling much happier with my pace to this point.

The descent leveled as we hit a single track path snaking along a hillside which brough us into town. Even though back down at ~4700ft the rain and cloud still shrowded the town on this grey day. We'd only had the briefest glimpses of stunning mountainside views on the descent and I really hoped for more later.

The support was great through the town, as per the Tour de France I'd been watching on TV a month earlier the French locals really got out there and made a big effort and noise supporting everyone - quite humbling really as it feels somewhat undeserved being cheered on and celebrated for doing something quite selfish really.

Into the CP and another experiance of "overcrowding", I figured it was just a matter of time before the field thinned out a bit so I spent minimal time here. Just topping up my liquids, grabbing a bit of cheese, biscuits and such-like and getting back on the run. Even though the CP had been inside I certainly felt the cool as I got back out and got running again to warm-up as soon as possible.

The next section was a meandering longer climb, which dipped up and down and flattened out, but overall up and sometimes hand on knee's so. I made good progress, running wherever I could and passing good numbers. But the weather seemed to cool and the rain and wind strengthened again and by time I arrived at a marquee at Col Petit St-Bernard (7178ft) I was really quite cold and the legs were starting to feel the effort of of over 7620ft ascent, 4450ft descent over just 20 miles.

On leaving the CP refuelled (nice, salty, noodle soup) I made haste to descend and try and find a land beneath the clouds and rain, assuming it wasn't like this everwhere in the region. Maybe the leaving of Italy into France would herald better weather? The next major CP would be the lowest altitude on route (2667ft) so this was going to be a big descent and as I kept on running down, trying to maintain the right pace to balance the gravitational advantage against the impact damages to my body, I was reminded once again that its the descents that really hurt the long distance runner.

Near the bottom of the descent I was in a bit of a lull as I started to get passed by more than I was passing and though the air was clear of cloud the first major landmark we ran past as things levelled out was a large electricty sub-station! Through a flat parkland section approaching Bourg St-Maurice I gave in to the urge to walk a flat section for the first time.

Running through the town offered the usual crowd boost and in the CP I took more time than at previous stops to refuel and eat a bit more. I was struggling a bit though, I was getting on well enough with my energy drinks and the local fare of cheeses and cured meats is a welcome feature of this race series (and other continental ultra-trails I believe). But otherwise I was struggling to find a carb source that agreed with me, the cereal/chocolate or protein-type bars varied from ok to pretty awful so I probably wasn't eating as many carbs as I should have been.

As is often the case though, the downs are balanced out by ups if you can see them out. And as I walked slowly out of town I was able to enjoy running in just a t-shirt for only the second time since the short stint out of Courmayeur. The rain had stopped near the bottom of the last descent and it was the warmest it had been all day in the mid-afternoon.

The effort of the climb warmed me up a treat too, the steep climb from town went on seemingly forever negotiating switchbacks on a stoney track. After a while I found some energy and rythme and went from not quite holding my own to passing more than my fair share on the way up to Fort de la Platte. I wondered what Fort de la Platte would be on the way up, some grand barons castle overseeing the town maybe? A fort it may have been, but it also now seemed to be a farm, with goats gathered up behind a string fence against a wall and a french farmer lady chatting about god knows what to runners filling up the bottles from the water tap above the trough. Anyway, "google it" for some better views then we got on our return to cloud level.

For a few minutes it seemed a return to cloud and rain was on the card, but we soon seemed to pass through this. First the visibility around improved and then the cloud above cleared to reveal what had been a somewhat reticent sun. Things were going our way and I even took the chance to remove my wet waterproof smock from my bag to han it loosely around my neck cape-like to dry it on the run.

The next section was typical of the undulations that became common in sections from here on, often quite rocky and filling the gaps between big hills with smaller ascents and descents, just to keep us on the ball. All was well again, but then came the climb of Passeur Pralognan. turns out that it has a "sunny side" and I can only describe the other side as the damn awful side. The rain actually started again and the absent wind reappeared as we approached the top (8420ft). On being scanned at the CP on top (no food here, just very cold, hardy people) it was into the breach. The wind and rain bashing into a steep, rocky, slippery climb down, cooling me within minutes even with the benefit of my smock on. Part of me just wanted to get down quickly to better ground where I could run to warm-up and get into the next indoor CP.

But a quick escape wasn't to be and I didn't want to stop to put more gear on during a descent where it was pretty much single-file so I'd be inconveniencving others. As the footing got better and the descent levelled out I burst passed a few people and got running. In my haste I even overcooked a turn on a muddy path and fell off the path, wasting precious energy grabbing foliage to stop from rolling down a small bank and of course now carting around excess mud on my gear!

Onto a flat trail road section and the rain kept coming, with energy levels lulling I ran / marched to the next CP and the hope of welcome warmth an the opportunity to gear-up. After a few km where I barely managed to warm-up at all despite good pace, as I was now so wet and tired I finally got to the CP marquee at Cormet de Roselend. The rain was really coming down now and did so heavily- if anything worsening - for the next 30mins. The drilling of the rain against marquee canvas was ominous and a slightly insidious torture!

The same could be said of CP conditions inside. 497 people retired or were timed out by cut-off here. Admittedly they weren't all here waiting for the bus down in the marquee now (we were at nearly 2000m still - but there is a road up to here and coaches parked outside taking people back to calmer conditions lower down), some will have already been removed and no doubt many were still out getting a soaking on the course. But the marquee was overly full, which made for a very frustrating experiance for me. CP staff and hundreds of tired people inside, myself included, I pushed and weaved through the throngs to get some warming soup and a few snack bars. Now came the difficult part, trying to find an area to set down, unpack bag, undress wet gear, dress in warm gear. Standing room only would have been nice, with soup in hand I couldn't find a place to put down and nowhere to unload bag quickly - all the while being bashed into by others trying to find setting down space. Beacause of this delay changing I'm still shivering and even when I do finally grab a corner of a bench and change the shivers don't stop, not good!

The waterproof top and soaked t-shirt comes off and on goes two upper-base layers, ronhill leggings, the waterpoof back on over the top, gloves and hat at the ready. I know walk around and get some more food and soup to try and warm-up, if I don't soon I'll be retiring. Outside it is now dark and feels cold although the rain has reduced. I'm now much better layered to handle the conditions, but still cold inside, which is a bad sign after having been inside the marquee for nearly 40minutes already. I push back through the marquee to the other side and ask about retiring as I'm still shivering. I go back inside and when I'm just about to pull-the-plug the shivers stop. Despite the temptation of getting out of this crazy place and back to my warm hotel as soon as possible I've done so much to get here I just can't quit yet. I get the headtorch on and head on out into the blackness.

I make slow progress onto saturated ground, which plateaus then rises, steadily at first, before heading onto steep switchbacks up over 1000ft to the the top of Col de la Sauce. My progress up here set the pattern for climbs in the miles leading to the next indoor CP, I think I burned a lot of energy getting rewarmed at Cormet and whilst trying to do other things ddn't take down enough or the right type of calories. And progress on any climbs was now increasingly stop-start and on the ascents I was being overtaken at a discouraging rate. Reaching the top wasn't memorable but the long dsecent to the next food CP my mood lifted somewhat as gravity assisted me a bit. Though I was still clumsy and struglling on the twisty, often narrow, mud strewn-with-rock paths to be efficient.

This section did have a few highlights though, I picked up a few places and headed into a wet valley and was all of a sudden running across snow. I look around and realise I'm crossing what appears to be the bottom of a glacier. Though tired I appreciated this was not an every day occurance and mentally-noted the highlight. The spectacular keeps coming as I head onto a rocky path cut into the side of a cliff known as Passage du Cure. I remember seeing this on the DVD of the 2011 event and on UTMB website front-page, couldn't wait to be running it and seeing the views. Unfortunately, no views its dark and the air is thick. The rockiness of the path also jarrs my frame, but its good progress downhill. Then into a foliage packed, twisty descent on mud, its hard to move fast here in the combo of dark, poor visibilty as the moisture in the air compromises the effectiveness of my headtorch and mud on contouring ground that barely lets you stand. Glad to get that last section over I breakout onto muddy plateau as the rains starts before I reach the La Gitte CP.

It's only a minor CP here so I grab what food I can and head into a barn to get out of the rain and add another layer, waterproof bottoms, as my leggings are starting to saturate. It's a big climb again now and I have no particular memory of it other than being in "grind it out mode" to climb the 2100+ ft in 4km of the next climb. Lots of stop for breath breaks and I recall even when on the flats on top I'm strugling to run on the muddy, rocky paths. Although after the CP on top its quite a long way downhill to the next indoor CP, its a seemingly neverending 7km still and there is a climb along the way adding up to about another 800ft (a drop in the ocean and an easy stage in TDS terms, but a real killer this far in). I'm losing places like a holey bucket loses water on thesr climbs. I can barely go 100ft uphill without being completly out of breath, I'm pretty shot and the thought has been reoccuring for awhile that I'm probably going to call it a night at the next CP.

But even getting to the next CP is work. I don't really appreciate what is probably a fantastic path on fresh legs, which climbs and skirts around a ridge and then drops steadily downwards on what is a very narrow and probably exciting path to run on in light, between rock face on one side and long drop on the other. I get going again a bit downhill, but I'm starting to fall asleep on the move - not good - which adds to my bodily tiredness difficulties, especially when I fall again and start to worry about the possibility of falling somewhere really bad in my exhausted state.

I wasn't able to fully appreciate the Col Du Joly CP, but it "had bags of" what  makes the UTMB events special. Even before the last mini-ascent to drop down to the CP, in fact from km away you can see lights and hear loud music from the marquee. Is that a CP or some adhoc rave going on? But when I arrived I decided I'd try and sleep off some of the tiredness before deciding whether to keep on. I set down for 30mins in my gear and somebody covers me up with a few sheets. I manage disturbed sleep, but wake up not feeling any better about going on, tired and with very cold feet. With the benefit of hindsight I probably should have stripped down my outer layers and taken my shoes off to get snug and I might have slept better.

I then make the descion to call it a day, satisfied to have done enough and to have survived the attrition of (I learn later nearly a third of the field at) Cormet de Roselend and made it this bit further. But at the time I didn't feel safe or have the energy and desire to go on. The next section was nearly 800m of descent and hardly any descent, I could just coast down? But no, at that moment I couldn't go on, I'd given as much as I could for now and didn't want to go into a danger zone.

As it happened I ended up at the next major CP at Les Contamines anyway. After an hour or so of snacking from the supplies in the Col Du Joly marquee and being wrapped in a blanket much of the time, I and a few others, were picked up by a 'saintly' guy from Mountain Dropoffs who were assisting with transportation during this event, who dropped us off at the lower level CP. On the road down (which was less a road and more a rough track for the first few hundred metres) not one, but two badgers ran out into the road and the 4wd chased them downhill as they stayed on the road 30 seconds before returning to the wilds. I'm not even sure I've seen one Badger before, so this seemed notable :)

At Les Contamines I snacked further as I watched infrequent runners pass through as I waited for a bus back to Chamonix. It oocured to me that even with all this waiting around at CP for transport i probably wouldn't have made it to this CP even by the time I left it on the bus back to Chamonix.

Over the next few days I slept quite a lot, but still got out with Clare to enjoy the sights, good eating and shops of the area. also seeing the UTMB off and back. Due to the weather the UTMB route was changed to stick to the Chamonix valley, below 2000m and reduced to about 100k so we got to see competitors run within earshot of our Argentiere hotel on the return to the finish.

I hated that I hadn't completed the TDS, but learning about the near 1/3 of the field dropping out or missing the cut-off time at Cormet de Roselend and that only 47% of starters finishing I didn't feel so bad and had learned some valuable lessons about how I could kit myself out better for future bad weather during events. I often thought over the following weeks and months that I should have perisisted on to Les Contamines at least. As with that descent done I may have regrouped for the one remaning big ascent and descent, bouyed on by daylight! But at the time I felt in such a way that I couldn't do this, so have to remind myself that I may be forgetting exactly how I felt at the time - much like the "never again" statement of a 1st time marathoner, who often goes on to do more...

And with 50m of the roughly 70m of this monster event covered this time, I'd like to come back for another go in the future. Despite the UTMB being the headline event, with its three figure distance and another event I've tried and failed at, I actually would like more to come back and tame the lesser known, lower key and more "roughly shod" TDS more. Not in 2013 though, young Isaac will keep me too busy, but in 2014, 2015, or 2016 never say never, I don't like to be beaten by anything.


  1. Dan

    I was wondering where this write up was, and now I see you've been a bit busy on the family front - always the perfect excuse to get in the way of of running!! Congratulations on young Issac first and foremost, but also on your 2012 running adventures. I hope you acheive all you set out to do for 2013.

    After 2 years out with serious knee injury I finally completed my first full month of full running; so I'm hoping to have a few adventures myself. Plus, baby no. 4 due in July!! Running V family balance just got harder!


    1. No. 4! So I've got no excuses then really. Good luck with your adventures in 2013, looking forward to hearing about. Have a few plans myself, maybe not quite so excessive on the mileage or mountains, but some good challenges in the pipeline.