This was my third attempt at TDS, with one success and one failure under my belt.
Having had a crap couple of years with no running success to speak of, this one turned into a big deal. Last chance saloon, the final countdown, whatever melodramatic way I described it in my head it was going to be the determinant of whether I was still fit and able to take on grand challenges or whether I was to be consigned to the running has-been pile.
Due to injuries I had to be really focussed in what training I could do, prioritising climbing and specificity over big miles.
The race itself was hard. Really hard. Foul, freezing weather, muddy trails and two broken running poles conspired to make it even harder.
I toughed it out, solved each problem thrown at me and finished well with time to spare in a race in which 600 people dropped out.
It was probably the smartest, most disciplined race I have ever run and I feel quite pleased with myself for making the most of what I had on that particular day.
The reward was a spectacular return to Chamonix being treated like a rock star on the way to the finish line by fellow runners and supporters who really understood what we had been through.
I was no longer an old has-been, I was a runner again. Old and foolish perhaps, but a runner who finished hard stuff.
For posterity and the blow by blow account read on…..
Sur les Traces des Ducs du Savoie, or TDS for short, is 153Km long with more than 9300 metres of ascent and descent.
The TDS is known for being gnarly and visiting some of the more remote areas in the region. This time around, just in case it wasn’t hard enough the weather decided to add in some snow, rain, sleet, wind and freezing temperatures.
Just getting to the start had been hard enough. The last couple of years had been a dispiriting mix of injuries, DNF’s, missed races and inconsistent training. I was seriously wondering if my body was just too old for the hard stuff but despite this still had the feeling that I had a “big one” still in me.
The weather over the few days before the race start was wet and cold. At one point I half expected the race to be cancelled. However the forecast was improving so the race was good to go, albeit with some slightly ominous messages from the Organisation
The race starts in Courmayeur in Italy, and was scheduled to start at 23:50. However the buses from Chamonix had been delayed due to ongoing road works in the Mont Blanc Tunnel so that start was repeatedly pushed back before eventually starting at 00:50.
Standing in the start corral for an hour, trying to stave off the cold, I really had the fear. I knew it was going to be a big undertaking and I knew that I wasn’t in the sort of shape I would have wanted to be in.
My preparation had been problematic.
Unable to maintain any consistency in my training through the first half of the year I had regularly broken down with minor injuries. Finally I had given in and gone to see a physio who have me a programme of exercises which got me to the start line. I had done no long runs to speak of. My training consisted of regular 6am runs into the Ochils, trying to mimic the types of climbs I would encounter on the race. The one long run I did do, a backyard ultra in Orkney, resulted in the reoccurance of a very painful heel injury. With only 3 weeks until the race this meant a last gasp course of shock wave treatment.
Despite the curved balls, here I was standing in Courmayeur ready to go. My race plan was to try to maximise what I had and that meant being smart, being very patient and aiming for nothing more than a finish.
Courmayeur to Bourg St Maurice
Eventually, with the usual fanfare we were off. There was a cavalry charge through Courmayeur and the way I was struggling to keep up didn’t do much to lessen my fear. The upside of the delayed start was that there was one less hour of darkness to endure, but in the spirit of conserving energy I kept my headtorch off and climbed the first hill in the light of other peoples torches all the while listening to the click clack of poles on the ski road and the sound of heavy breathing.
Despite the forecast, the start itself had been dry. The higher we climbed, the colder and wetter it became. Maybe it is just being Scottish, but the weather was almost reassuring. The reassurance didn’t last too long though. I had the first of many leap frogs with Neil MacRitchie, fellow Scot and a friendly face, and it was great to bump into Neil a few times on the course.
Just as we hit the snow line, one of my poles broke. An initial sense of panic followed quickly by the realsiation that I now had a problem and had to find a solution quickly. It became obvious that no amount of DIY was going to fix the pole so the only other solution was to put it in my bag and make do with one pole.
Barely a couple of hours into the race with many thousands of metres to go up and down and reduced to one pole, it seemed the mountain gods were determined to test my determination with this one.
By the time we crossed the first hight point of Arrete de Mont Favre it was properly cold. I was sticking to my strategy of taking it easy and without too much fuss made it to Lac Combal aid station. 3 hours done, 4 am, 15 Km and 1350 metres climbed. Lac Combal was bitterly cold, so I had the first of many mugs of hot soup, then put on my waterproof trousers and another warm top before heading back out.
From Lac Combal you follow a rising traverse up to Col Chavannes. At around 2500 meters this is one of the highest points on the course. The weather was foul, there was snow on the ground, and the persistent sleet and hail ensured you stayed well huddled inside your waterproofs. The path up Chavannes is very narrow and there is a long steep drop to one side. As an Irishman who was experiencing his first trip to the Alps said to me later in the race “whoever thought that 15 inches is wide enough for a path must be off their head”. There are a couple of nasty steps when I really wished I had two poles for stability but with lots of concentration and and a bit of care I made it with some relief to the top.
Once over the top of the Col, there is a long farm track which takes you back to the valley. I stopped briefily to take a picture and had to help a runner from Taiwan get his gloves on. He had pulled them off, the fingers had turned inside out and his hands were so cold he couldn’t get them back on again. It was probably a slightly comedic couple of minutes as we tried to match up his fingers with the holes in his gloves until eventually we had five fingers safely back in the right five holes.
Looking behind me, it was slightly Orwellian, this line of hooded, faceless figures with headlamps shining, descending in single file from the darknes of the snow line to trudge down the valley. It was still cold, but as the elevation dropped, the daylight came in and with the daylight the world became a better place. The terrain even looked properly Scottish
From the bottom of the valley there are many ups and downs before arriving at the Petit St Bernard pass. On the plus side this was the first time I had made it here without throwing up. On the down side, the weather was horrrible. The approach the the Petit St Bernard runs along the side of a pretty lake. This morning there were great waves on the lake. There was a biting cold wind, hail and sleet as we climbed up the unfeasibly steep mud slope which takes you to the pass and the checkpoint. We were only 20miles in but already there were people throwing in the towel.
The Petit St Bernard pass marks the border between Italy and France. The aid station there was a heaving mass of wet bodies, clutching steaming bowls of hot liquid as they squelched through the mud.. It was 8:30 in the morning, we had been up all night and still only covered 20 miles. I knew that there was a long runnable descent from here to Bourg St Maurice and the first life base. I also began to realise that this was about the furthest I had run for a year. My legs were not happy, but the weather was just grim. I was conscious that I needed to get out of there as quickly as I could and get lower, beneath the weather. I forced my legs to jog then walk then jog and slowly life returned as the elevation came down and the weather improved.
I fell in step with a Finnish runner and while chatting we convinced ourselves that we were going to be quite tight for the cut off in Bourg. Fuelled with panic and adrenaline we ploughed on, shedding layers as we heated up and the temperature rose while we descended. It wasn’t until we arrived in Seez 3 miles before Bourg that we realised that we were fine for time, and anyway all the cut offs had been put back an hour because of the late start.
We trundled into Bourg St Maurice to much applause and fanfare, but looking very much the worse for wear. 10 hours to cover a mere 50K.
As is always the way in the randomness of UTMB aid stations I was sat next to a French runner whose parents lived just 7 miles along the road from me in Scotland. Small world indeed.
There was a mandatory kit check on the way out of Bourg. It wasn’t hard to find my mandatory kit as I was still wearing most of it from the night before!
The next section was on the bad weather route to Cormet de Roseland. I had done most of this route before a previous year. It was just the same. A long slog with lots of steep ups and just the slightest feeling that they had thrown in hills just to make up for the missed elevation.
On this section I was struggling with just the one pole so I experimented with various bits of tree I collected from the side of the trail. I probably looked very odd with one pole and one makeshift staff, but it helped and I repeated this several times after the stick either broke or became too heavy.
This section also plays with your head as you start to climb up towards Cormet de Roselend on the road, where you pass the km markers from the Tour de France, but just as you get to within a few Km of your target, the trail diverts you off again for a long detour through Les Chapieux, past the large empty aid station set up for UTMB later in the week, before yet another monster climb which spits you back onto the road you recently left, before a final uphill slog on road to the Cormet checkpoint.
Cormet de Roselend to Beaufort
This was probably the hardest section of the course. It was very cold and wet at the Cormet and the route headed out once more over the Col de la Sauce and down the famous Chemin de Cure – a path cut into the cliff overlooking the most magnificent deep gorge. One of those places it is nice to be on and nicer to be off.
Next came a long muddy descent to the aid station at La Gittaz. By muddy, I don’t just mean a little muddy, I mean 6 inch deep gooey soft mud churned up by all of the feet which had passed before me. Surprisingly, I managed it much better than I expected. The fact I was near the back of the pack meant I didnt have lots of people round me which gave me the space to tackle it in my own way, and I discovered that if you kept a straight line there was a decent amount of grip at the very bottom of the mud. My lack of poles meant I had to just commit to the descent and trust my legs.
In passing I must give a shout out to my trusty La Sportiva Mutants. They were bombproof as always and gripped to everything the race threw at us. I felt quite guilty when I deposited them in the bin at the finish line, but they were beyond redemption. There was no way the mud and cow shit was ever going to come out of them.
At La Gittaz, I had my first wobble. It was approaching evening, I was tired and the sign at the exit said Beaufort was 18K away with 1000m up and 2000m down. For some reason that 2000 meter descent was filling me with dread. I paced backwards and forwards, then coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t find any good reason why I should stop, strapped on my headtorch and headed out and up.
As expected the climb from La Gittaz started with a “yet another bastard of a climb” grade trauchle up the face of a hill, but to my surprise and relief it hit a track, and then followed that track all the way to the top of the hill.
Of course at the top of every hill is another hill and we were soon in deep snow again.
By now were were in darkness again. As the torches came on, the cloud came down and we found ourselves in a tricky situation. Visbility was poor, the path was sketchy and not obvious as we negotiated a rocky descent and it became difficult to spot the next marker in the murk. By luck I was in a small train of fairly experienced people and we all took turns at leading and finding the route. In time we dropped from the summit and via an intermediate stop manned by the mountain rescue headed down to Beaufort.
It is a feature of the alpine valleys that it always takes so much longer to hit the valley floor than you expect. After what felt like hours of zig zags in the forest we hit a jeep track and Beaufort was in sight.
It was here that I caught up with Neil again. He was looking a bit unsteady on his feet so I stopped to keep him company. He was struggling with lack of sleep and I was glad of the company so we jogged and walked together through more ups and downs until we finally arrived in the large aid station at Beaufort.
Beaufort to Les Contamines
The aid station at Beaufort was in a large hall. There was food of every kind. There were tables and benches filled with runners and a large area equipped with mats busy with sleeping runners.
I collected my drop bag and set about changing my socks and putting on a fresh shirt. The pasta was to die for, served up by chefs from a local restaurant. It was definitely the culinary highlight of all the aid stations. All the while the tannoy announced the time of the next bus departing for Chamonix.
I wasn’t tempted. I had got this far, it wasn’t long until daylight and the weather was improving. I wasn’t going to stop now. Helen was waiting for me at the finish, my little grandson Euan was watching the webcams at home. I wasn’t going to let them down.
I took my time to get organised and then set off in good spirits, 100Km done and more than half a day left to do the remaining 50K.
My optimism wasn’t even dented when my one remaining pole broke!
As always, there were ups and downs, followed by more ups, but after a long climb, we reached the Col de Joly as dawn broke and after turning my torch off knowing it was the last tme I stopped for a snap of Mont Blanc in the distance.
I covered the ground over Col du Joly quite comfotably and was happy enough in my head that I would soon get off the high point and head down to Notre dame de la Gorge. However as I left the aid station I had the horrible realisation that an extra climb had been introduced this year and I immediately switched from feeling comfortable to outright panic that I wouldn’t have enough time to fit all the remaining climbs in. I set off like a mad warthog haring down the descent towards the climb back up to the Signal. This trail was just a mess. It went through farms and fields which had been full of cows and it was a shin deep quagmire of mud and manure. Some runners were trying to navigate round it. I went into full Scotsman mode and just ploughed straight through every puddle and every bog.
Yet another lung busting climb up the edge of a hill, this time taken at indecent haste, before topping out on an interminable ski road which led to the aid station at the Signal. A very quick pit stop here and now I was on the run down to Notre Dame.
Still steep but runnable, I trundled downhill before arriving at the Notre Dame car park and the run along the river to Les Contamines.
As I ran along the pretty riverside path it dawned on me that I was going to finish and I found myself welling up. Choked up, I heard myself say out loud “you’ve only fucking done it!”.That’s just between us, if you tell anyone you heard me getting emotional I will of course deny it!
Into Les Contamines, the sun was shining and I gorged on water melon, topped up my bottles and headed home.
Les Contamines to Col de Tricot
Col de Tricot is the last big climb of the race. It is steep and it is massive.
It also encapsulates everything about the TDS because when you leave Les Contamines you are happy, smiling, knowing you will finish. Your brain is telling you job done and then the race bites back. Before you even get to Tricot there is a never ending hike up a ridiculously steep road followed by a steep descent down dusty rocky trail. And then when you do eventually reach the top you have some tricky technical descents, a bouncy bridge across a ravine and then an unexpectedly big climb back up to the ski station at Bellevue.
However, eventually Bellevue arrived. The next challenge after Bellevue is the mind numbing, leg sapping, soul destroying, never ending run down to Les Houches. The longest 4K ever. All you can do is keep trying to run, but you feel you are never getting there and when you do eventually get to see the town the trail spits you out for a long twisty downhill on the hardest tarmac your legs have ever felt.
The only thing which kept me distracted this time around was the hallucinations. I knew I was struggling with lack of sleep, but equally the autopilot part of my brain was doing fine, so as I ran down through the woods I saw the brake lights come on of a white van being reverse parked high in a tree branch. There were little vases of napkins and truffles by the side of the trail, there were a couple of laughing dogs with dreadlocks and the best of all as I ran across a field was a young man walking towards me with two glasses of red wine on a tray. I thought this was slightly unusual but a nice innovation to welcome you down into the town. As I passed him it turned out he was just holding his mobile phone in front of his face.
Patience is a virtue in this race because if you keep going you will get there eventually. I even managed to look as if I was running when I arrived at the checkpoint and was doubly pleased to get a shout and high five from Carrie Craig who was out supporting.
Les Houches to Chamonix
The last stretch from Les Houches is about 5 miles long. It is a bit of a drag with lots of little ups that you should be able to run but can’t. You know the work is done and that finish is nailed on. The trail is quite busy and everyone you meet offers you applause and cheers.
One of the great things about a finish in Chamonix is that the supporters are knowledgable. They don’t just cheer out of politeness. They know which race you have done, just how hard it is and appreciate what you have done to get there.
I made a half decent attempt and moving as quickly as I could and before too long was within sight of town.
I have been lucky enough to finish races in Chamonix before, and it is always noisy, but I have never had a reception like the one I had this time. From the moment I hit the start of the main street, people were cheering, running out of bars, forming tunnels, high fiving. One or two friends appeared out of nowhere taking pictures and I ran that whole kilometer with the biggest grin on my face.
There was that real sense that everyone knew what we had been through with the weather and wanted you the runner to know it.
As a runner there is a very special moment in Chamonix when you turn the last corner and you can see the finish arch with the church of St Michel behind it. I spotted Helen, ran over to her for a sweaty hug, took the flag from her and then walked the rest of the way to the line, just soaking up the cheers and making the most of the moment.
As I said to someone later, that was a Post Graduate race and I had nailed it. I had made it to the start, survived the weather, managed my pole failures and made the very best of the limited fitness I had. I didn’t know what time of day it was and didn’t care.
Next morning, I woke suddenly in the darkness, dazed and with no idea where I was.
The first thing I noticed was that my legs hurt. Really hurt.
Why did they hurt?
Oh yes, the race.
I ran a race.