Ultra Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc

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The North Face Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc

25th – 27th August 2006

Our journey to Mont Blanc began in Winter 2005 when a group of us met one night to discuss competing in an endurance-type event the following year. When Mont Blanc was suggested we all loved the idea of the Alps and the debate was settled. The race was to be held at the end of August and would consist of 158km run continuously over 45 hours with the total elevation being over 8500 metres; about the same as Everest! Scary as it seemed we all were really looking forward to it. We discussed the type of training that we might need and it was decided that in order to try something at altitude we would travel to the Pyrenees in January 2006 to do the Trail Blanch or as we called it ‘The Snow Race’. For most of us it was the first experience of any kind of altitude. It was very tough mostly because the terrain consisted mainly of waist deep snow.

The rest of our training included various Ultra distance events such as the Connemara Ultra and the Scottish National 50k. But my personal favourite was the night-time runs. In order to get used to running in the dark and also while tired, we did various runs over the Wicklow Hills starting at 10 or 11 at night and lasting for 6 or 7 hours. They were brilliant! We would start at Glendalough and sometimes in the first mile or so we would be met with some very odd looks from tourists and locals around Laragh as a group of mad runners with head torches and backpacks ran past! For the rest of the run it was just us and the night and the hills. It was so peaceful and quiet and beautiful. We sometimes met deer and the odd camper but otherwise it was just us. Coming back into Glendalough at sunrise with the fog rising over the lakes was spectacular and I’ll never forget it.

Before heading to France we found it difficult to get information on the race as our French was very poor and there was very few English reports on the event. We debated (quite extensively!) what gear to wear, what food to carry etc. but the big debate focused on the use of POLES!!!! To use or not to use! I think initially we all felt that poles (the hill walking variety as opposed to the dancing!) were for walkers and resisted the idea. But every single race report, without exception, was expounding the merits and saying they were an absolutely essential piece of kit and not to be done without. So after getting used to the idea I settled on a pair of kids walking poles as they were super light and I imagined I would be spending more time carrying them than using them but little did I know then!

And so at the end of August early one Wednesday morning, with the training done, we headed to Geneva. We had hired a bus to get us to our apartment, as there were about 15 of us heading to the town at the start of the race; Chamonix, France. It’s a great town with lots of outdoor gear shops!! It was buzzing with all sorts of enthusiasts, hill walkers, hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and of course competitors for the Ultra Trail.

Registration was the following morning and involved having all your gear checked to ensure you had all the compulsory items. The rain jacket I had was very light but it wasn’t questioned by the officials but some people were told they’re gear was too light but was OK. You had to carry some food, water, head torches, first aid items and of course an emergency blanket. All of which would come to be used by myself anyway!

With numbers collected the only thing that had to be done the afternoon before race start was to drop off 2 bags which would be placed at two stages along the course for us: Cormayeur in Italy and Champex Lac in Switzerland. Into these bags we put things like a change of clothes and rain jackets, replacement bars and gels etc.

The race itself was to start at 7pm on the Friday evening. We made our way to the tiny town square at about 6:15. It was already packed full of competitors, their husbands, wives, girlfriends, dogs, buggies, bicycles, it was a bit mad! We all felt the square should have been kept to competitors only as there was so little room and we were all nervous enough already! It was so tense as we waited on things to get going. There was a lively energetic atmosphere though and as the time approached we all wished each other well and waited for the church clock to signal the start. As it chimed we could see those at the head of the crowd surge off with a burst of speed and waited for the crowd in front of us to move. It took some time before we got under the start banner and we were walking through the town for a while before we began to run. Crowds were lining the narrow streets all the way out of Chamonix. After a while on the roads we started onto some forest tracks.

In the early stages we ran through towns like Les Houches and Les Contamines that had food and water stations. The early stations were congested and I chose to run straight through many of them in order to try and get away from the crowds. This didn’t really work though as the crowds were quite congested for about the first 50k. At one stage we all came to a complete stop on a narrow trail for about 20 minutes apparently because someone was injured. As night approached we found the cheering crowds at each of these towns did not dissipate at all. They were out clapping, shouting and ringing cowbells right throughout the night. A few of us would meet up at some of these early stations and discuss what was coming next (a climb or a descent!) and how we were doing and so on.

As the bigger climbs began the terrain would become more and more remote. We were finding that the climbs were lasting hours and were extremely steep. Often all you could see were the trail of lights from runners’ headtorches meandering up or down the hills! This first night was a series of steep, steep climbs and descents with two of the climbs at a height of 1500 metres higher than where we had started (about 2500 above sea level). I remember so little about the first night I must have been on autopilot!

The terrain for a lot of the Mont Blanc trail is similar to the Wicklow Way. It’s obviously much steeper but similar muddy and rocky areas with most of it being really high up and often running across narrow mountain ridges. It was extremely well marked with luminous markers that lit up at night under the glare of your headtorch. The poles turned out to be absolutely essential as they took a lot of the impact from you legs on the descents. Another piece of kit I found brilliant was the Berghaus bag that the IMRA gave out this year for completing the Leinster League (I didn’t qualify for one I just stole Tony’s). It was the perfect size, had all the right compartmentation and most importantly of all my gear remained dry throughout which was critical!!

I didn’t find the first night too cold. A long sleeved top and a rain jacket was just about enough as long as I kept moving. Once I stopped I felt cold so I just kept going through most of the feed stations. As the next day dawned it was about 7am when I arrived in Refuge Elisabeth. I was using the table of times that the organisers had given to all competitors to work out the distance between what they called ‘Refuges’. It became apparent that it was no good trying to use the charts by distance as often it would take hours to travel a couple of kilometres. I knew from this that it would be about 10:30am before I reached the town of Cormayeur which was to be the first of the 2 big stops. So after a quick sip of coffee at Refuge Elisabeth I headed to the next refuge which was the first of the Italian stops. Here I filled up a bottle with some of my high 5 mixture and ploughed on as the day became warmer. After that it was a really tough descent, extremely dry and dusty route down to Cormayeur. Mentally this section was draining as it seemed to take forever to travel even short distances and this became a feature of the whole event.

It was such a relief to reach this milestone and still be feeling ok. I decided since I had time (there were cut off times at critical points along the course) to get a quick massage here and a shower. I got changed quickly and applied some sunblock but was still unable to eat anything and as I made my way through the crowds in the large sports centre I spotted Tony and some of the other Irish. I was thrilled to se them. I was feeling a bit low and it was good to see familiar faces. Some of the team were suffering though at this stage and I felt gutted for those that were feeling like they couldn’t go on. Tony was looking strong and although I felt like company Tony was urging me to go on and so I did. The climb out of Cormayeur was cruel and punishing as it was hot and sunny and inside a dry forest. I reached the next refuge and had trouble with my water carrier leaking all over me! This was nothing compared to the trouble I was about to encounter.

As I headed along a fairly flat stretch (none of the course was flat, it was always either a steep ascent or descent) I felt a sharp and intense pain in the right side of my knee. I tried to stop and flex it out but nothing worked. I don’t remember thinking at this stage I might have to pull out of the event but I remember feeling it was going to be very tough to complete another 80k or so in this much pain. I kept moving to the next refuge at the top of a hill where they gave me ice for it.

Then, as I rested for a couple of minutes, up the hill towards me came a few more Irish and I was so thrilled to see them! It was such a mental boost to be able to just say hi and have a few words with other people after such a long time alone and in pain! This wasn’t the kind of event where the competitors talk to each other, it’s just too tough to try and focus and talk at the same time and somehow small talk seems inappropriate! We were all finding it very tough at this stage but at least the sun had gone in. Next of all out of the blue came Tony and I was just delighted to see him! I decided then that I would stick with Tony as just seeing him was enough to make me feel better and I knew I’d be fine as long as we were together and that I could handle anything!

We descended for a while to the next refuge where we downed a quick cup of coffee before embarking on one of the toughest climbs of the whole thing called the Grand Col Ferret. At this stage it was approaching about 6pm and the rain had begun and the mountain was just a thick muddy path. It was a 700m climb over a couple of kilometres through slippery dense mud often difficult to know where to even put your foot. I found this section quite scary as I thought there was a serious chance I might just slide off the mountain!! This was one of the steepest sections made much worse by the mud so it made moving very slow. Reaching the top of the hill we were met by yet another North Face tent where we were again scanned as we passed through. This was to be one of the highest points on the course and unfortunately for us, the coldest. Little did we know that because conditions had turned so bad competitors beginning the climb behind us were being advised not to continue.

At this stage I was soaking wet and becoming colder and colder. I got quite worried as we moved along because although we were travelling downhill I was getting colder and finding the wet clothes intolerable. Tony then had the genius idea of wrapping me in the emergency blanket, which was to prove very fortunate as I eventually began to feel dryer and warmer. On reflection it would have been wise to carry warmer heavier rain jackets just as the French and Italians had. They seemed to be much better kitted out for the cold and wet weather conditions we were experiencing.

On reaching the next refuge we decided it would be wise to dry ourselves for five minutes by the fire and try and get some warm soup into us. Moving on it was a case of keeping our eyes on the clocks at each of the refuges as we now only had about 40 minutes of a buffer zone outside of the cut off points and after getting that far it would be dreadful to not make the cut off times and be put off the course!

Being tight for time was probably a good thing for us as it meant we never stopped for too long at any of the towns or North face tents or refuges. The stops known as refuges were usually high up in the remote parts of the mountains and are normally used by people trekking through the Alps to rest. At other stages these stops were made up of North Face tents and you could usually get food or drinks or refill your water carrier. You were always scanned for your chip and so your progress could be monitored by the officials and friends trying to keep track of you at the finish line. The stops in the towns were also always manned by eager volunteers and they did all they could to greet you warmly and sort you out with water and anything else we needed. It was always a huge mental boost to reach any of these controls and we came to look upon them as real lifelines but never managing to be able to stop for too long!

Anyway we kept moving with a sense of urgency and this probably kept our adrenalin levels high. Later in the night, as we approached the bottom of another steep climb, we could see some orange lights high up on a hill and assumed it to be Champex Lac. After a number of hours climbing we looked down to see the same orange lights below us only to realise we still hadn’t reached it! The rain was still falling lightly at this stage and at about 2am we reached our 2nd stop. We only had time for a quick change of gear and threw some extra layers into our bags in case the night got cold. At this stage we were travelling about 31 hours and Tony was reasoning that there was only one major climb before daybreak so with that in mind we hurried on to begin our ascent up Bovine.

Bovine was a rocky climb, like scaling a waterfall. The rain got much heavier and dense fog made it impossible to see where your next step should be so it was a case of; one step upwards, look around for the markers, another step up, look around for the next marker and so on. Visibility was only as far as each next step and the climbing became slow as we crossed fast moving rivers and waterfalls in these conditions.

As the next day dawned and we descended into Trent we had a sense that if we could stay within the time zone at the next stop we had a great chance of getting back to the finish on time. Trent was one of the towns that you had to be scanned in and also out. It was about 7:45am when we passed through and the cut off was about 8:15. This didn’t seem like an awful lot considering I was carrying a knee that wouldn’t bend and was in a lot of pain. But we reasoned that the next climb out of Trent was to be the last major climb of the whole event and if we could hang on to our time we would be ok. In order to keep the knee pain at bay I resorted to a couple of things; (1) Tylenol, which I would take before a big descent as the downhills were killing me (2) freezing cold water from the mountain streams splashed onto my leggings to numb the pain! It worked for short periods of time and that was enough!

We tried to savour the climb out of Trent. It felt like a real milestone and although it was about a 680m climb over a short distance it wasn’t long before we heard the most beautiful of sounds on those mountains; the North Face generators. Scanning through this control we rounded another mountain shoulder till we started descending a muddy and treacherous downhill. We slipped and slided our way for miles and miles. When we finally met a road we were only on it for a couple of steps and we were back onto mountain again! This felt like one of the longest descents as we could hear a town below us but seemed to be taking hours to get there. Eventually we reached the town of Vallorcine.

Reaching Vallorcine our spirits were hugely lifted. For the first time in the whole event we felt like we were actually heading on the final stretch for home, reckoning we had about 3 to 4 hours to go with all the major ascending/ descending behind us. I felt really elated and you could sense for the first time that other competitors felt the same. We began to talk to other people for the first time about their experience, with most of them finding it “tres dur”. Many of those we spoke to were running it for the second time after having to pull out the year before. People were now taking time to take photos and as we headed off on a gentle uphill trail we decided we would phone family and friends at the finish to let them know we were doing ok. It was a nice call to be making as we finally felt confident enough to say we were going to finish on time!

With one more major stop at the town of Argentiere we were on our final 9k. It just couldn’t go fast enough! As we approached the finish town of Chamonix the organisers dealt the final cruel blow of bringing you almost right into the town and then bringing you right back out again up another huge climb! While getting through this punishing test out of the blue we saw the familiar face of Adrian Tucker just up ahead of us waiting for us to come along. He had competed the night before in the 86k Mont Blanc race and had come up the last few kilometres to meet us. It provided us with such a lift to see a familiar face and he was able to tell us exactly how far we had to go. We were finally getting closer to the end. As we approached the town we could hear the crowds which lined the streets to the finish line and could see family and friends waiting on us with a tri-colour! The two of us finally crossed the line together running through the noisy crowds after 43 and half hours and 158 kilometres later. It was a hugely emotional moment.

The event had been much tougher than any of us expected. No matter how much any of us trained for this we could never have been prepared for the resolve required mentally to just keep going. The toughest part for me had been on the second day when the thought of spending a second night out on the mountains alone became unbearable. Although we never at any stage had to encourage each other to go on, it was an advantage to have each other there. It meant we each had one less thing to worry about i.e. each other!

After the event we walked back to our apartment and contrary to what we might have expected we only slept for about 2 hours! I think the pain in my legs woke me up! It’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry, not least because I’m still having nightmares about it! It’s definitely a unique experience, the scenery alone is spectacular and often hair raising in its severity (some of the narrow passes are so dangerous there are chains to one side of the path and nothing but air to the other!) There is nothing easy about it and the organisers have it billed as the toughest foot race in Europe.

The only question now is where next?

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