I’ve done a few ultras over the past few years both successful (The Wall, NDW 50, Race to the Stones) and otherwise (Copper Canyons Ultra Marathon, dropped after 30 miles when water ran out in aid station in 35C) but running in the Alps always held a certain attraction.
I entered for the 2014 event more to guarantee one way or another (with the 3 tries with increasing odds) I would get to run it before my 60th birthday. Hence I was a little surprised when I got in first time, as did Wayne a fellow “Mas Loco” I met in Urique at CCUM.
Now I always run in Luna Sandals (and have done for the past 4 years) which has resulted in pretty strong feet, so I wasn’t too worried about the mountain trails, but I was taking a pair of Injinji socks in case it got a bit chilly at night. I decided to wear to the Luna Oso trail sandal as I knew a few friends who’d completed Western States & Leadville in them so I knew they were good for gnarly terrain.
However I was also taking an old pair of Vivobarefoot Breatho Trails (fixed up with ShoeGoo) in case the trails got really muddy if it rains) and carry them in my pack so I could switch over if needed (it turned out later to be a wise decision).
Now, I live in West London (Twickenham) and most of my training tends to be in Bushy & Richmond Park and along the River Thames, so in summary its pretty flat, aside from a couple of hills in Richmond Park. So to try and get some climbing in I spent lunchtimes hiking up and running down the office 20 floors of the fire exit stairs in the tallest building in Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Water. Not ideal (as I later discovered) but it was about as much as I could do.
The Adventure begins
I got an early flight from Heathrow on Wednesday morning and with Mountain Dropoffs at Geneva I got to Chamonix pretty painlessly for midday where I picked up the keys to my apartment.
Later I met up with Wayne by the wooden huts selling all the ultra gear and spent an hour looking at all the gear I could spend large amounts of cash on!
I had nothing planned but after a chat with a bearded Scottish fell running pal (also a Mas Loco) I decided to get the Aiguille du Midi cable car and spend the day breathing thin air and seeing spectacular views.
I managed to stay at the top for 2 hours (after which I did feel a bit light headed) and marveled at the views and the “head for heights” exhibited by some of the climbers who were just starting out on an incredible experience on what looked like the top of the world.
I then descended to Plan De L’Aiguille where I spent the rest of the day hiking some of the paths and chilling out in the slightly less thin air
Wayne and I met up and got the coach to Courmayeur and after queuing 30 minutes for the loo eventually got to the start line in the 4th group and started at 9:20 (in hindsight we should have started in an earlier group).
Tete de la Tronche
I was coming into the first checkpoint and heading to a food table when the Woman in charge pointed at my sandals and told me I couldn’t continue in them. This caught me completely by surprise as I had just was just scanning the tables for something salty! I said that nowhere in the rules did it say no trail sandals but she insisted that, in Italy, they are not allowed (rather ironic considering an Italian firm, Vibram, pretty much invented . minimalist running, and seem to be a major sponsor of the event with VFFs all over their stalls). I quickly pointed out I had alternate footwear and she agreed if I left my Luna’s with her I could continue in the race. Whilst I was changing footwear she got on the radio to France HQ to check. I had changed 1 foot when she said it’s ok having spoken to the France Race HQ so I put my sandal back on, stuffed the Vivo’s back in my pack, grabbed a gulp of coke and headed out, having lost 15 minutes and not had time to get any food or refill my Camelbak.
I had just the Checkpoint when I saw Wayne sat on a rock. He was feeling sick and waving me to continue I thought I’d see him again as he is a stronger runner than me.
Now as I was approaching the next checkpoint I was preparing myself to have to go through the whole “no sandals” bit again. Instead I was greeted by an English woman who smiled, said that Bertone had phoned ahead and they were expecting “a guy in sandals” who was fine to continue. Alas I was chasing time cutoffs so aside from a gulp of coke I couldn’t stop.
It seemed to take forever before I could see this checkpoint down below and then descending switchback after switchback with me and a couple of Japanese guys taking turns to go in front to keep the pace going. Eventually I got to the checkpoint and was in the tent scanning what was left of the food (I knew I was probably in the last few runners as the cutoff was about 5-10 minutes away).
I then heard a commotion, saw a few gestures in my direction and saw a race organiser headed my way, I took a deep breath and waited. I was approached by an Italian guy in his late 50’s who was pointing at my sandals and shouting (he had wild hair which did remind me of Doc Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future”, but this was looking too serious to smile). I called for someone to translate what he was going on about and someone said I was going to be disqualified for wearing sandals and cannot continue! I quickly grabbed my Vivo’s and waving them at the official said I’d change into them and put away my sandals. There was some discussions after which he agreed and said once I got over the top at Grand Col Ferret I was in Switzerland and could wear what I like!
I changed footwear which was a challenge as I was cramping every time I tried to reach my feet to tie my laces, and left the checkpoint (later finding out only a couple of people made it through after me before the cutoff)
Grand Col Ferret
This climb seemed to take forever, I was getting slower and could see down in the valley behind me a couple of runners that looked like the sweepers meaning I was very close to running out of time. I pushed on, forcing myself to eat a gu though the sweetness made me gag but I knew I needed it.
The rained started and the trail started to get muddier which made me appreciate my change of footwear, although I would have changed by now anyway, even without some stroppy F’ ing official!
The sweepers caught up with me and asking if I was ok were really encouraging and keeping me moving till I could finally see the checkpoint at Grand Col Ferret just ahead of me.
Now I had run out of water hours ago (with all the drama at the previous Checkpoint I hadn’t refilled my Camelbak so my intial 2 litres was long gone) so I asked at the Checkpoint if they had any water and received the expected answer, no.
I had purification tablets so I knew that worst case I’d just drop my Camelbak in a stream to fill it up and throw a few tablets in, so it was not life threatening, just uncomfortable.
I now had a long downhill run with a few ups to get to the next Checkpoint at La Foully which if I could get some speed up I may be able to make the cutoff, but I knew it would be close. I started off and quickly discovered that the limiter on my speed (aside from being completed knackered, hungry and thirsty) was the mud on the narrow trails with the big drop to the right. Actually speed is really the wrong word, I was just trying to get as close as I could to maintaining a 15 min/mile pace which (under normal circumstances) hardly counts as speed in anyone’s book!
I had started my descent when I got a SMS from Wayne, he had had to drop from the race as he heard a snap when running downhill and, to cut a long story short had detached part of his quadriceps muscle from his thigh bone! Arrrgghhhh, so no running for a few months for poor Wayne.
The sweepers again caught up with me and were encouraging me and a couple of other “back of the packers” to pick up the pace and keep going. I managed to pull away with this encouragement and headed off down the trails close to La Foully, though it was taking a long time and I couldn’t stop to look at the map as I didn’t know if I’d be able to start again.
So after 11hrs, 41k, 9,186 ft of ascent, 7,874 ft of descent I finally made it to La Foully in the dark and missed cutoff by 5 min! I was sad but knew realistically even if I had made it I would have missed the next cutoff after that.
Whilst waiting for the bus Sitting down and drinking loads of flat coke was rather nice.
It’s pretty depressing sitting on a quiet bus full of people who’s dreams of running into Chamonix have been shattered (for that year anyway) but a least for me being the oldest person on the bus (confirmed after a quick scan) held some small comfort.
Back in Chamonix I picked up my drop bag, grabbed some food and went back to the apartment.
After a shower I climbed into bed looking forward to dropping off pretty quick only to spend the next 30 minutes getting cramp in either my foot, calf or thigh. I tried getting to sleep in any position I could but I still got cramp.
Eventually I bit the bullet, emptied a couple of spoons of salt into a glass of water, held my nose and necked it, trying not to throw up! It worked a treat and I fell asleep shortly after, lovely.
I spent Saturday watching the CCC and then the UTMB finishers being cheered across the line and decided I have to come back to experience a finish at Chamonix.
Watched more finishers from a bar 100m from the finish and just enjoyed the atmosphere and beer.
I had a surprise visitor to the bar that made coming to Chamonix, even with a DNF, almost worthwhile, Rory Bosio winner of UTMB!
Sad to leave after an incredible experience, the race didn’t go as I hoped but Chamonix is the most beautiful place and CCC, in fact that whole week of UTMB races, makes you want to come back.
To quote an ex-Governor of California “I’ll be back!”