Many many hours before I had been nervously standing in the dark on the start line, accompanied by my brother in law and eldest daughter. We had woken before 4am to catch the bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur, and the start of the Trace Des Ducs De Savoie. I had chosen this race because I was intrigued. I had fulfilled my ambition of completing the fabled and famous UTMB in 2013, and I wanted to repeat the experience, challenge myself afresh and combine the whole lot with a holiday. The TDS was listed on the UTMB website as more difficult than the UTMB, despite being shorter, because of the " Unclearly marked paths ; very long ascents and descents ; exposed passages secured with a rope ; use of hands necessary to balance oneself ; remote itinerary ; altitude 2700m ; few refreshment points". Another attraction was that it finished on a Thursday morning and I could enjoy the rest of the week and weekend having a real holiday!
Of course, since securing a place, events had overtaken me and I had something to prove. A week on the cardio ward followed by a cardio version to reboot the ticker at the end of May hadn't set me up at all well for my early summer challenges. I had just about managed to stagger round the Nice Ironman course, and then of course DNF'd in my home event the Cro Trail. I had underestimated the need to relearn mental strength, but also new skills (no caffeine, stable and low heart rate - at altitude). All summer I focussed on the TDS as redemption. I didn't think I could live with another DNF.
I started right at the back, against my routine but better to speak with my support crew, and did not really register the music that was playing at the off, although Number 1 assures me it was Ride of the Valkyries, a UTMB speciality. An easy jog through Courmayeur and before long we were power hiking up the first of many steep climbs.
We had been briefed for a very hot day, and my pack had the 2 litre bladder plus a 330ml bottle strapped to the front. My plan was to get water at every aid station, starting from the first, discipline being the key to not getting dehydrated later in the race - another lesson from the Cro. I was already 1 pee down by the first aid station, and had not used much of my water but who knew what the future held, so I topped up my bladder at the Arete de Mont Favre, before shooting onwards and upwards.
The next section was quite frustrating - very processional single track, albeit with beautiful views on the Italian side of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianci. The lycra clad queue kept stopping as further up the track someone stopped to take photos, so I ducked up the inside to overttake, arousing much consternation from other runners as I did so. Finally the track widened, and I loped along the flatish track before heading up the very steep switchbacks up to Col Chavannes. From the bottom it reminded me of an executive toy - the reds, greens and blues t shirts moving visibly to the left, whilst the line above went right, the line above that went left, a seething mass of ultra trailers.
The views were breathtaking, grass carpeted valleys in every direction. From the Col, a joggable 10km cinder track descent to Alpetta before a gradually increasing gradient up to the Col du Petit St Bernard. I was expecting to see #1 and Gavin there, and was looking out for them as I passed an achingly beautiful lake before climbing the seemingly impossible last 100m or so, using hands as well as feet for purchase. Cresting the top #1 intercepted me and we jogged together to the aid station, greeted not only by Gavin but the whole crew - sister in law, two nephews, all 3 kids and Mrs R! What a morale booster. A quick in and out for water and a handful of trail mix and I was on the long and steep 15km descent to Bourg St Maurice, the first checkpoint where assistance was allowed. I was already feeling the brutal terrain in my legs, with the downhills giving others ample opportunity to pass me. But this was my race, and my plan was to try and keep the Ups to about 15mins per km, and about 10mins per km or quicker on the downs. I knew that if I could keep that up I would be well ahead of the cut off times, and able to just enjoy the race.
I put a foot wrong on the descent, and I swear I heard something snap in my right leg, that which had given me so much grief since the Cro and all summer. The pain was intense, so I took an emergency Doliprane and focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. I had come to expect set backs in ultras, I just had to put this new development down as a set back and keep moving. Pain is temporary...
Onwards and upwards. 1149m of "up" in 5.3km to the Fort de la Platte. The climb had been brutal in the heat. There were bodies everywhere, under any shade available on the way up. That run to Cannes in 40 plus degrees a few weeks before had probably done me more good than I could have ever hoped. I hung my pack on the milking machine in the farm yard, filled up both my pack and bottle from the tap, and said a thankyou to the running gods. Both pack and bottle were completely empty, despite filling my bottle from a standpipe on the ascent.
The sun was starting to wane not lessening the staggering beauty of the whole run. I had gleaned from the blogosphere that the descent from Passeur Pralognan was very technical with ropes and mountain guides helping runners. I kept moving, finally finding a fellow English speaker to share the trail with for a while. I chatted with Rachel, a transplanted Aussie living in London until she paused to take a photo and the descent became more technical. I enjoyed the descent and hands and feet ascent (don't look down!) to the Col. Then the rope assisted descent, not as bad as advertised although you wouldn't want to lose your footing. Still in daylight I jogged the flattish cinder trail to the drop bag station at Cormet de Roselend, joining some more Brits before they jogged off ahead of me on their own timetable.
Geoffroy was already in the aid station when I arrived. I just put on some more layers and a headlamp, filled my pack, and after a few minutes said goodbye to Geoffroy leaving him in the aid station. I may not have been the fastest mover on the trail but I was very disciplined about keeping aid station time to a minimum which helped immensely. I was 3hr 45 mins ahead of the cut off as I left, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
My good humour was sorely tested by the mud as I slipped and fell several times crossing creeks in the half light, and before long it was time to light the Petzl and enjoy the stars. Occasionally I'd look up and be unable to distinguish between the a bright star and a runner's headlamp far into the distance. La Gitte was where I encountered the unfortunate Japanese runner. I have no idea whether she finished or not, but it didn't look good when I left.
"What's the landscape like?"
"It's like running on the moon. Grey/white rocks everywhere. Undulating. Difficult to get a purchase."
"It's not too bad. It's a clear night. Anyway, sorry for waking you up. I'm losing reception. Get some sleep and I'll see you in Contamines."
I had a brief, signal testing conversation with Mrs R at midnight, happy to be moving in the fresh air, well above the tree line as I had been for most of the day. I was then passed by 2 runners in full body lycra, and I fell into step behind them for a while, chatting. They were locals, from LES Contamines (emphasis on Les - NOT Contamines!). Eventually they pulled away and I was on my own again, snatches of music audible on the wind from some far off party. The trail wound it's way through the moonscaped plain, before ascending some unmarked Col and then descending, very technically - think hands and knees and steep drop offs, to La Joly aid station. A girl cheered runners into the tent with a microphone and a bit of chat - "Good evening Benjamin. How are you feeling?"
"Nickel!" I yelled in return, before filling my pack and overtaking the dozing and eating participants as I exited almost immediately.
Down to LES Contamines, the second of the assisted aid stations. Despite the almost 1km of descent between La Joly and Contamines, I was boosted by the thought that Mrs R would be there to see me, and administer, but was still struggling. Almost 2 hrs of descent passed in a blur before a long slog along the river to the village. I was past running, just shuffling as quickly as I could into town to be greeted by an effervescing Jack, a tired looking #1,2 & 3 and nephew. I was shabby, but so were they and I had been on my feet for 21 plus hours. Mrs R was a vision of cheerfulness in the aid tent, and dutifully rubbed Voltarol into my aching and bruised quads - particularly the right one, replenished my Doliprane, vaseline, nuts, powders and water. She pushed me out the aid station with a morale boosting "Only 2 more climbs - you're doing amazingly well, overtaking loads on the uphills! You're in something like 700th place now."
I was stunned. I knew I had been right at the back of the pack at the beginning, perhaps 1200th or so, but to have gained 500 places was amazing. Nothing for it but to dig in and get moving, with no further aid stations until I had traversed all the way to Les Houches. The first part of the climb was hard. But nothing like the second. Headlamps were visible snaking an almost impossible trajectory up the near vertical hillside to Col de Tricot. 1163m of Up in 7.0km. I had to stop and sit a couple of times to regain my composure but was pleased to put a gap between me and the other headlamps on the hillside. The switchbacks were scarily steep, taking the worst possible route up the hill. At times I thought it was nigh on impossible, but replayed Pain Is Temporary, Keep On Moving and other three word mantras to keep me going. Eventually the summit was breached. I yelled "Mon Dieu" to the marshals at the top scanning everyone's chip, breathed deeply, overtook a few other exhausted bodies and started down the hill, avoiding bushes, rocks, deep trenches cut into the path from the earlier rain, and a few jersey cows. I slipped a few times on cow shit, ending up face first in a bush on one occasion which thankfully broke the fall.
As the sun rose I managed to team up with another Brit, Mark, and he was happy for me to lead the descent. It felt fast and fluid despite the slippery mud and drop offs from the rocks, but eventually I bonked and had to stop to sit and dig into my pack for half a Go Bar, leaving Mark to tackle the rest of the descent on his own. A few minutes later and I'd caught him as we queued for the rickety footbridge to cross the raging torrent below. I had heard of this bridge - maximum 2 at a time to cross. The planks were 2 x 2, held by ropes hanging from ropes strung across the gorge. When my time I ran across full pelt trying to ignore the frothing milky water a few metres below me and the swinging from side to side of the bridge itself, not to mention making sure my feet struck directly in the middle of the planks. The race was nothing if not an adventure - I liked it! Petzl off as the sun was providing enough light to see by, and onwards!
Despite the fact I had climbed the last visible climb on the course profile, I was still climbing and descending almost constantly. One descent had some more ropes with a queue of exhausted runners slowly making their way down. There was a tiny path, about 6 inches wide, along the rocky cliff face but too low for the rope users to be on. I decided to risk it and shot down the path overtaking the peloton as I did so. I didn't look down and was thankful the mud held.
I had to have another seat and munch just after Bellevue losing Mark for the last time, before descending the Chavants into Les Houches. A very quick scan and top up of my back pack before shuffling the last 8km of undulations alongside the river into Chamonix. As I emerged onto the road a spectator was holding tea. What I wouldn't have given for a hot cup of sweet tea. "It's cold if it makes you feel any better! Well done! Keep going, nearly there!" I hadn't realised I was speaking out loud, but thankful for the boost she gave me with her words.
I was being regularly overtaken but hadn't seen another runner for 10 or 15 minutes when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and saw a couple out for a jog. They saw my British flag on my dossard and spoke to me in halting English. "Keep moving, just walk for now. In 300m you'll be in Chamonix. The crowds will line the street and help you to run."
I thanked him weakly and continued my hobble into town. He had been right. A dribble of spectators gave way to a stream, then a river, then a flood, and eventually I met #1, the advance guard of my support crew. "Keep going Papa you've done amazing. Nearly there!" She was joined by Mrs R, #2 and & #3, and the 2 dogs, and I was flanked by them as I ran the last 100m to the finish, Jack nipping at my heels the whole way.
Job done. 478th out of 1813 starters and 1200 finishers. 27hrs 03 minutes. Painful and exhausting but exhilarating all the same. "Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing" I saw once on Emilie Forsberg's blog. I couldn't have put it better myself.