I've done a few long races now but this is in a different league to anything I’d attempted before. Driving from Geneva Airport up to Chamonix on Friday afternoon had me gazing up at the surrounding peaks in disbelief and I started to question how my training in the UK was going to stack up in this environment. The relatively painless registration process out the way I headed to the start where I said goodbye to my incredible one man support team Simmy. This was it. Goodbye training, hello race.
The atmosphere at the start was terrific with around 2,300 runners at the ready and the streets lined with supports. I got in close to the front and I could see some of the big names completing their final media commitments. It was good to finally get moving at 18.30 and settled into a steady jog for an hour until I hit the first significant climb. Nice and steady before descending into St Gervais just as the light vanished. The noise from hundreds of supporters in St Gervais was incredible and really felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I ran through the town and to the first checkpoint. Found Simmy and had a short chat before getting the head torch out and cracking on. Great surprise a little further on when James (friend from work who was on holiday nearby) and his wife Claire appeared at Les Contamines as I started the long climb up Col du Bonhomme. Their enthusiasm really spurred me on. The general support was less intense now but every so often you would round a corner halfway up a mountain and there would be a group of locals cheering wildly from the comfort of a fire and Edith Piath belting out of a stereo – all very French.
Race start in the centre of Chamonix
Low cloud smothered the high ground and visibility was down to a few metres so I tried to stay in touch of someone ahead so I wasn’t always scanning for the path (easy to lose in places) which was mentally very tiring. Down the other side I saw Simmy again before heading up Col de la Seigne and another short ascent before the very steep descent into Courmayeur where I was planting my poles ski style to get round the twisting hairpins.
Took on a fair bit of food in Courmayeur and chatted with Simmy while I put on some fresh socks and stocked up on gels. It was a big relief that daylight had arrived and strode out from Courmayeur with purpose, feeling confident as I was almost halfway and still going strong. Tried out a few ‘bonjorno’s’ on the early-rising locals, they loved it. After another steep ascent there followed a relatively (in an alpine sense) flat section which I made the most of and got a lot of satisfaction from passing a number of other runners and it was here that I broke into the top 100 for the first time. The scenery on this part of the course was also some of the best, or maybe it was just the last time I had the aptitude to appreciate it. I saw Simmy at Arnuva (60 miles) and I was in really high spirits. Quite a few people around me were starting to look a bit spent and I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I joined them, but I decided that while I had some gears I might as well continue to use them.
Looking quite perky at Courmayeur
Next came the ascent to the highest point on the course – Grand Col Ferret at 2,537m. It was a steady climb though and it never really phased me, though it was lucky that the clouds that were looking threatening never gave way to rain. Off the peak I was still attacking the descents and felt great to be picking more people off all the way down to La Fouly (70 miles) where I arrived in 80th position. Simmy was there giving me lots of encouragement but my legs were now starting to stiffen after 18 hours on the trail. I started out from La Fouly a little sluggishly but managed to pick up the pace thereafter. There were three big ascents left but the first one really took it out of me as although not that high it was very steep and technical. It was a massive relief to get to the top, and it was here that I reached my highest placing of 71st. But unfortunately my earlier descending powers had left me as my quads were completely shot and my left knee was now hurting with every step. I also started feeling extremely tired and at times was struggling to keep my eyes open.
Less perky as going gets tough
Still, I stumbled to the bottom and it was a big lift to see Simmy who brightened my mood with some observational humour. The penultimate ascent didn’t turn out too bad, much more even underfoot and with the Ibuprofen kicking in I managed to regain some speed on the descent to Vallorcine where I passed several runners to arrive in 88th place. I was feeling much more alert now and with only 13 miles to go I was keen to keep the stay at the checkpoint to a minimum. Simmy encouraged me to eat more as this would be the last time I would see him until the finish and rather alarmingly I had completely run out of gels. I felt pretty invincible though with the finish so close. This feeling of invincibility proved to be a very flakey indeed.
One more climb, one more descent – easy. Except the ascent proved to be another very steep technical climb, it was now pitch black and my legs started feeling like lead again. It was a real slog and as I got higher the wind picked up and I started to feel cold. I put my jacket on but decided the best option was to keep moving rather than stop to put additional clothes on. Unfortunately things didn’t get much easier at the top where the path was made up of loose boulders that were very tricky to navigate in the dark. I finally reached a mini checkpoint though there was no food and it was very exposed so I stumbled on a further 3 miles across the same wretched terrain to the last checkpoint.
By the time I arrived my body temperature had really plummeted and I was shivering. One of the volunteers sat me down and wrapped me in a space blanket and I forced down some hot soup and some sweet tea. I could feel myself warming up but my appetite to get back outside was pathetic. I eventually put on all the spare clothes I had and pushed on. It was 5 miles to the finish, all downhill, but I had lost my bottle and couldn’t get into any rhythm on the ground that was still very rough and my knee was again very painful. Runners past me like I was tied to a rock and I felt the lowest I’d been despite being so close to the finish. I could see the bright lights of Chamonix below me but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I rang Simmy to tell him I’d had a bit of a wobble and was getting there slowly. After what felt like an eternity I came to the end of the rough trail and onto the tarmac leading to the town centre. I forced myself into a run and wound through the town which was sadly fairly empty given that it was 1am, though at the time I didn’t really care. What should have been the crowning emotional moment of the race was actually just sheer relief at crossing the line in 30 hours 56 minutes (95th position). I felt particularly bad that I wasn’t able to be more upbeat at the finish for Simmy who had given me such great support. Finally got to bed after being awake for 45 hours.
The disappointing end (it took me 4.5 hours to cover the last 13 miles) took the gloss off things a bit, but reflecting on the race as a whole it was a great experience and so many things had gone well. It also put things into perspective returning to Chamonix the next afternoon and competitors were still finishing (46 hours is the time limit), incredible they were still going after two full nights in the mountains and I got a lot of pleasure out of watching them cross the finish the line with huge grins on their faces (in the end 1,383 of the 2,300 starters finished the race). Not sure I’ll ever do the race again, perhaps like childbirth some of the memories are still a bit painful, but what an incredible journey…
The views weren't bad