After Contamines, the next aid station was up the hill at La Balme at around 40km. The organisers were enforcing rigorously the cut offs, and La Balme had to be left before 0030hrs, but I was well before that at around 10pm. I just splashed and dashed - refilled my backpack's bladder, grabbed a coke and shot through. Mrs R texted me some encouragement, and that I was 1227th, and the ankle strap was working well; as a result my spirits were high. I left slowly munching a Go Bar.
We continued the climb, and at 44.7km was the time check at the top of Col Bonhomme. I was 1252nd. Again I breezed through - it was pretty cold at 2500m and I was wearing every single item of clothes I had bar the waterproof trousers, and there was snow on the ground - old, brown snow though, not the kind you could eat. I headed downhill on the rutted farm track in the dark as quickly as was safe. The route was kind as opposed to technical, and I was able to make good time down to Chapieux. As the sky was so clear, I could hear the party going on at Chapieux long before I could see it - loud thumping music, whoops and hollers and cowbells.
There was a bag check as we entered. There were random checks of kit through the race to make sure every competitor was carrying the gear required by the organisers, mostly for safety and self sufficiency. I'd had a kit check at the start and had 3 or 4 during the race at various aid stations, so the compulsory kit was being well monitored. The only piece I didn't use - for the 2nd year running, were the waterproof overtrousers. A needless ballast, but it was a good job I had them otherwise each time I had been found to have contravened the rules I would have been docked some time or disqualified.
After the bag check were two young ladies offering a 'headlamp service', and they were dancing. I joined in, but no sooner had I started than I had to stop as my legs were buckling from the unfamiliar movement, and let's face it, I wasn't exactly John Travolta to start with. I got my batteries changed and soaked up the party atmosphere. I had a brief stop as the warm tent was packed with runners stopping and eating, packed in like sardines, and it was a bit claustrophobic, although warm. I just refilled my water supply, and had a bit of the minestrone soup, to make a change and hopefully warm me up a little.
The next section was an 11k climb at night from about 1550m to 2500m, and as I left the aid station I could see a long snake of headlamps zig zagging across the side of the mountain. The ascents were nice, as they warmed me up, but were tiring and taken too quick could be a race finisher. I was careful to pace myself, letting puffing panting people past as required. I also tried to chat to a few people as I knew it would help to pass the time. I encountered a Spanish chap learning English, but clearly nearer the start of his course than the finish, and my Spanish is non existent, so it was a pretty short conversation. I let him pull ahead, and I tucked in behind a Dutch chap and Glaswegian - an interesting pairing and an interesting pair. We chatted about the weather, various races we had taken part in and I tried not to look at how high the headlamps went, just concentrating on heading at my own pace and enjoying seeing as many if not more headlamps behind me snaking up the hill. I took a couple of photos, but the night crept up on me, and I had one of my, to be honest, fair few 'moments'. I sat on a large boulder and had a few small handfuls of trail mix, took in the scenery with the clear sky and shimmering stars, and the moon appeared from behind a mountain peak. The crescent was almost too bright to look at, and it lit up the side of the Alp we were sitting on. It was enough to get me going again, and all thoughts of abandoning were put behind me.
Of course, putting one foot in front of the other eventually gets you to the top, and I was greeted by a hearty bear of a man in a high visibility orange jacket. He spoke a variety of languages and was generally amusing and in a good mood. God knows why as it was lord knows what time of the morning and he was freezing his derriere off for the sake of a load of nutters doing something that should take 3 weeks in less than 2 days. He confirmed that we had crossed into Italy - with not even a border passport check!!! I was 1201st.
The next descent followed by the inevitable ascent were pretty unmemorable - just the early hours of the morning, when every sensible person was tucked up under a duvet. The Spaniards stood out - they were very well represented, and great descenders. When you can hear someone heavily breathing behind you on the trails, Ultra Etiquette is to let that person through. The Spaniards tended to travel in packs, however, and whenever I would stop and let one through, a whole pack would file past me at great speed. Occasionally as many as five or 6 would troop past, all jabbering away 19 to the dozen. I was pretty jealous as it must have been great to have company, advice and moral support on some of the really morale sapping points in the course.
Inevtiably, the sun came up and afforded me a great photo opportunity as it lit up Italy, after I had crested Mont Favre, and started the descent into Courmayeur.
The descent was at times technical, dusty, steep with some loose rocks and the path littered with exposed tree roots. Some competitors were more reckless than others, so I let them through. However, the scenery was great, I was unexpectedly quick in terms of expected times, and still feeling in great shape, it was looking like an amazing day to come, and I had an ace up my sleeve. I arrived down in Courmayeur, shedding layers as I descended, and found the aid station finally in the gymnasium. A (typically Italian) complicated drop bag system meant finding the right area, then I was directed upstairs (after 77km on the trail, the stairs were not much fun for tired legs and smashed quads, and I almost tripped over flat onto my face) to the feed zone, and I walked into a scene from MASH. People were asleep - everywhere. Those that weren't were taking showers, eating fantastic pasta meals, and one chap was shaving. I couldn't quite believe it - this was a 1 stage non stop ultra marathon. Why were people sleeping? I did my admin utilising the kit in my drop bag - vaseline; sun lotion; I used the facilities after a substantial queue; refilled my backpack with fresh powders and trail mix as well as refilling with liquids, and subsequently grabbed a couple of Cokes, and left. Mrs R immediately texted me saying what a great job I was doing, as she had just woken up and was not expecting me into Courmayeur, but also because I had just been ranked 987th overall, breaking into the top 1000. 140 people abandoned in Courmayeur, and I firmly believe that if they had kept on moving rather than sleeping and so on, they could have possibly finished.
I left Courmayeur and the climb was super steep, technical and hard. 4.7km of distance to the next checkpoint, but with 816m of altitude gain. When I reached the top my body was alive again, ready to go, and I rewarded it with some amazing views of Mont Blanc from the Italian side.
I had no option but to grind it out - fatigue began to play a part when I lost my balance and fell over, but I just sat down for a minute, had a couple of bites of my snacks, and carried on. One chap was asleep by the trail. It occurred to me to wake him up because what would happen if he didn't wake up by cut off, but I guessed that was his look out - I had enough on my plate. I took a photo where I tried to capture the steepness of the slope - people emerging as if from nowhere. I'm not sure it worked, but I also emailed Mad Dog Mike who told me to just carry on in response to my 'I'm tired' email! Sound advice. Mrs R normally adds a 'you're doing/looking/sounding really good' and even though I know she's lying it helped - it really did.
The hill ended at the top - after a couple of false tops, and then we dropped down a sort of sheep track into Switzerland. It was bloody cold at the top - exposed and windy, despite the sunshine, but I had learnt my lesson not to faff with clothes and just keep moving. Within 10 minutes the temperature was that 'just right' level again. We descended and descended to La Fouly - almost 1000m of descent in 10k. I enjoyed myself and I tried to chivvy along other runners at the same time. Mrs R and the kids had said they'd meet me at Champex, the Checkpoint after La Fouly, and my spirits were lifted immeasurably at the thought of some friendly faces. My brother in law, a keen Chamonix hiker, suggested Champix was a lovely section from La Fouly. Cheered further by thoughts of soft dirt tracks - gently undulating, and soft for my sore feet. Every muscle in my body hurt - I had travelled over 100km on foot, gone up 6500m and gone without a nights sleep, with another one to come. My second dusk was just around the corner, and it was time to steel myself to get ready for the inevitable lows that would accompany it.
Into La Fouly, and after a couple of false bottoms, it eventually arrived. I did my usual - refilled my bladder and had a couple of Cokes, maybe a handful of trail mix or some nice chocolate flapjacks when I could get them. Whilst the aid stations were becoming significantly less busy, people still sat down to eat, rest and occasionally sleep. I had a laugh with the volunteers, thanked them profusely and with a spring in my step at the thought of an easy transition and seeing my family again, I left. I was in 978th place, having regained everything I had lost running into Arnuva, and a little more.
I descended from La Fouly across a little technical stuff, but a few paved roads and some fields. The scenery was gorgeous - a picturesque valley village here and a picture postcard meadow full of cows over there. We wended our way through a few little villages with people cheering and drinking sundowners. At the bottom of the hill, I asked the Glaswegian who'd popped up again if this was Champex and he said he thought that the next checkpoint was much higher. Cue 560m of altitude gain in a very short space of time. I have no idea of the steepness, but I wasr not expecting it, coming up to dusk (which my body rebels at, not to mention it being a second sleepless night ahead), nursing a couple of impressive blisters on my right heel and palm of my foot, and then I twisted my knee. Not badly, but enough to send red hot pokers behind the knee cap on any even minor descent.
I gritted my teeth, as I knew I couldn't let my family down, and climbed up to Champex. The kids met me just outside the village and I was in pieces. I thought I'd held it together really well, but Mrs R took a photo - I hadn't.