Colin Russell’s TDS Account – 28th August 2013

Goal Setting

If you look up Cormet De Roselend on a map you’ll find it’s a high mountain pass in the French Alps. Without any evidence of even a single building there though, it must only be a place people travel through – because what would you stop for? It’s enough to make you wonder why it has a name at all. In the days and weeks leading up to the TDS race however, its name had gained a level of importance to me way beyond what Google Maps revealed. The reason for this was the importance I had placed on reaching this milestone during the race. At 66km and 4400m of climb into the 119km/7250m route it was not only beyond the psychologically-important half-way point, but also the only place where I could collect a personal drop-bag and so have access to my own supplies such as food or clothes. In putting together a semblance of a race strategy I knew I had to divide the route up into more manageable chunks and that led to me focusing on this location more than any other. Even the race finish in Chamonix was of secondary importance until I actually reached the Cormet. In placing so much emphasis on reaching it I would have hoped to have been able to experience a sense of satisfaction, if not exactly euphoria, at passing through the check point. Little was I to know in my planning stages that it instead marked by far the toughest point in the race as I struggled with knee-pain and vomiting either side of it. During that hour-long low my only thought was – would I continue to feel this bad for the remainder, and if so would I actually get to the finish?


TDS Route (© ultratrailmb.com)

False Logic

How I actually came to be running the TDS (or the Sur Le Traces des Ducs de Savoie to give it its proper name) at all is a little hazy, but it definitely required a few leaps of faith on my part as there were some perfectly logical reasons why I perhaps shouldn’t have been even considering it. The first elephant in the room was that my only previous foray into ‘proper’ long distances, a Bob Graham round from 2012, was a fairly miserable experience on the whole. It was unpleasant to the extent that the level of pain and general discomfort my write-up of it chronicles has been described by more than one person as a dissuasion from attempting it.

The second, and bigger, elephant was that when I entered the TDS in early January I had only been back running for two weeks after a long 7-month lay-off due to an injury picked up during Bob Graham itself. At that stage, how was I to know I was actually over the injury, would be able to get fit enough or it wouldn’t cause a similar one again? Entering the TDS just didn’t look a sensible decision in the cold light of the day but, as I said, I was obviously optimistic about something when I did. Linda, a fellow Cosmic, had also entered the race, though I don’t think I am able to hold her responsible for coercing me into doing that – if anything it’s the other way round.

The TDS is one of four races that form the week-long Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) event, which takes place annually in Chamonix during the last week in August. Not knowing the area or much about the courses I knew the flagship race, called the UTMB (168km/9600m), was getting increasingly harder to get into due to its popularity – despite accommodating 2,500 runners. There had to be something special that was drawing so many runners from around the world to this one event, and that allure was definitely a contributory factor in putting in an entry. I didn’t have enough points to enter the UTMB-ballot itself, but was more than happy to enter the TDS – which was not only described as having the remotest course and roughest terrain of the three solo races, but also didn’t require luck in a draw to get in.

No Excuses

Fast-forward eight months and I’m standing on the start-line in Courmayer at 7am with Linda and 1500 other people, ready for a long adventure through some classic alpine terrain. The three previous years had seen the week’s races blighted by bad weather, resulting in shortened, lower-level routes being used in some cases. This year the whole week was blessed with stunning weather, allowing everyone to enjoy the courses in the best possible conditions. I was conscious of this as we waited to start in summer clothing, knowing that in a different year I could have been wearing all my waterproof clothing and struggling to keep warm.

TDS Route Profile (© ultratrailmb.com)

Just being at the start was a relief as it meant all the planning and preparation was over – and I’m not talking about training. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there were 101 different things to do to get ready for it, and literally the whole day before was devoted to doing just that. Some of the activities were due to the inevitable (but necessary) bureaucracy that results from such a large-scale event, but most were just to make sure I had the right kit at the right time – from clothes to food to medical supplies.

Opening Salvo

Not knowing any of the course I was worried that if it narrowed very early then I could get frustrated going at the pace of the potentially many hundreds of people in front me. That was the reason Linda and I placed ourselves towards the front half of the field about 15 minutes before the start once we’d dropped off our two drop bags – one was to be taken to Cormet De Roselend and one to the finish. After some French or Italian words were said to the assembled runners and the helicopter that would film it came into view, we were finally on our way.

During the first couple of kilometres through the streets of Courmayer, which were straightforward, I made a concerted effort to work my way through the field as I was still thinking about potential congestion later on. My focus on position meant I didn’t really take-in the fantastic support we got from the locals that lined the streets and cheered us on, even though it was only 7am. This amazing level of support was repeated throughout the course and remains one of the most powerful memories of the event.

 

The Start (© petzl.com)

More to digest for interest after the race than to actually use during the day, I had my heart rate and GPS monitor with me to record the event. I knew it was important not to push too hard too early, but exactly how hard I could, or should, push I didn’t know. Just as we started the first proper climb towards Arete du Mont Favre, which rose 1300m over 9km, I noticed my heart rate was up at 160 beats per minute (bpm). This rate may be sustainable for a 2-3 hour event but would have been suicidal here, so I slowed to a (power) walk as it now felt like the event had now begun properly with the first of many big climbs. The first half of this climb was up a wide gravel path, part of a ski resort in winter, and as we climbed I could see long lines of people snaking along the path both above and below me. It was wide enough to allow passing so my initial pace had been slightly unnecessary perhaps, but the width meant I was able to relax into my own rhythm early on. Despite walking I still had a heart rate around 150bpm all the way up the climb, which was higher than I’d probably have planned but I felt relaxed and in control so I decided to stick with it – hoping I wouldn’t pay the price later on.

I knew that to save some mental energy for the tougher times that were undoubtedly to come it wasn’t sensible to focus on ‘racing’ the whole event. So as I climbed I took the time to enjoy the stunning vista of the Mont Blanc massif, wondering which one of the peaks was the main summit as I hadn’t seen it from this side before. I also started the task of looking after myself, taking on food and fluids, knowing it was important to begin this process early. I passed through the first control point – also the first drinks stop – around half-way up the climb, in 180th position and had gained some more places by the top. I didn’t know my position at the time but if I had I likely would have thought I was going too fast. Although I was going to race this event and complete it as quickly as possible, I was conscious that my position in the first quarter or half counted for very little and being in the top 200 would have seemed too near the front to be a sensible effort.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Passing through Arete du Mont Favre marked the end of the first major climb and the change in rhythm as I broke into an easy downhill run was welcome. Although I was deliberately taking it easy to protect my legs for later on, I easily passed a number of runners on the more technical parts to be 140th at the next check point. This one also served as the first of seven food and refreshment points that would be important for refuelling. I quickly gained a liking for the noodle soup that could be slurped down quickly straight from the bowl and from then on had some at every opportunity. It’s easy to spend too long at these stops since there’s no one telling you to hurry up and over the course of the day you could easily waste an hour or more in total just standing still. With this in mind I deliberately hurried through them where possible, only filling up my bottles, wolfing down the noodle soup and getting some banana pieces and maybe a bar to eat on the move. I was planning to have a more significant stop at the bag drop but elsewhere I didn’t want to dawdle.

First Climb

From that point another climb took us to the high point of the day, Col Chavanne, at 2584m, which was one of many points at or above 2000m. I had been concerned that I would suffer from the effects of altitude during the race, not having ever really been above 1500m before or arriving in Chamonix early enough to acclimatise properly. To my surprise I didn’t notice any ill-effects at all from this during the event – at least I didn’t suffer any more than my fellow competitors.

The downhill that followed was 10km long and mostly on a wide farm track that gradually wound its way down yet another stunning looking valley. I got passed by a number of people on this easy section but I was unfazed as I attended to my needs on the run – including food, water, painkillers and vaseline to ease some chafing. All the places I’d lost I quickly made up again on a short section at the bottom that followed some muddy cow-tracks through a field – definitely my kind of terrain. A largely gentle climb up to Col du Petit St Barnard followed, which I reached after nearly 5 hours on the go. It was during this climb I came across a herd of cows, which were helping create an authentic alpine atmosphere due to the cow bells round their necks. I’m slightly embarrassed to confess that I was surprised to see the bells on actual cows – who’d have known they weren’t just used to cheer on skiers?! There was a short sharp climb just before we reached the Col and we were cheered on by a crowd at the top – it was obviously seen as a good spot to watch the entertainment. For much of the day I wasn’t actually sure where the race crossed into France and so was uncertain whether to use ‘grazie’ or ’merci’ at the aid stations and when thanking the many supporters, but it was apparently at this Col. Having to remember which foreign language to be polite in during a race is a new one on me and I hadn’t done my homework properly!

After a brief stop at the Col I began the long 16km downhill to Bourg St-Maurice that took a full 90 minutes – everything about this race was on a different scale to what I’m used to! It was now in to the hottest part of the day and as I wound my way down to Bourg St-Maurice, which at 813m above sea level was the low point of the whole route, I started to feel the heat for the first time. Despite this I was again gradually passing runners, particularly on the steeper sections towards the bottom. In the small village of Seez, just before the route flattened out into the valley, I doused my head under a running tap, which refreshed me enough for the final 10 minutes to Bourg.

Approaching Col du Petit St Bernard

 

 

At the Bourg aid station I had my longest stop of the day so far, but still only around 5 minutes, taking on quite a bit of fluids and food. I didn’t sit down though, which was important in keeping the stop short I think. It was at this point that I first heard of my approximate position in the field, with one marshall suggesting the racers around me were ‘in the 60s’. I was certainly pleased to hear that, although it turns out he was being quite optimistic as I was actually 94th coming into the station. Nonetheless, the information certainly increased my resolve to keep working hard as I was closer to the front than I’d anticipated.

Onwards and Upwards

I stopped for brief compulsory kit check and then I was off again, running through the narrow streets of Bourg with the support of all the people enjoying a leisurely alfresco lunch. The next climb was one all the runners would have known of as it was by some margin the biggest in the race and it was going to take a healthy amount of mental fortitude to get up it in good time. It climbed 1900m in 11.5km, with just one 200m descent near the top to break it up. As I’d arrived in, and then left, Bourg, the field was notably starting to spread out more and I started to feel like I was running a smaller, more exclusive event. Due to the zig-zagging of the path up the steep start to this ascent however there was an amazing concertina effect on the field and suddenly you could see a dozen or more people above and below. Of course, although they seemed close it took an age to reach the spot you’d just seen them in – it was really better not to look up very often.

Descent to Bourg St-Maurice

Now, given the key conditions of this climb, namely starting at altitude (800m), climbing 1900m almost continuously (~1.4 times the Ben Nevis ascent) and in the heat of warm summers day (~23°C at the start) – would you place your money on a strong showing from the sea-level based, pasty-faced Scot? I certainly wouldn’t have, but I somehow managed to gain places on this ascent, despite it being massively out of my comfort zone. Having looked at the results I actually gained over 40 places on this climb, I can still scarcely believe it myself as all I did was just keep on moving, but that was perhaps part of the key as I did pass a number of people who’d stopped for a rest.

It’s interesting to look back at my heart rate during this climb as it marked a turning point in the race. Up to to Bourg I’d averaged about 145-150bpm and I maintained something close to this up to the check-point about 60% of the way up the climb, which I reached 8 hours in. At this point the path was almost flat for a short section and in that time my heart rate dropped to around 130-135bpm as I’d clearly taken the opportunity to ease off slightly. What’s interesting is that my heart rate never regained its higher value when the path steepened again – and in fact barely got above 130bpm during the rest of the race. Had I been monitoring my heart rate closely at this time I might have been concerned, but I was still passing people at this point and so wasn’t even aware of it. I always knew my high early heart rate was unsustainable but the point at which it noticeably began to reduce seems at least partially linked to mentally switching-off upon reaching the easier terrain.

Wheels Falling Off

After taking 3 hours to do the climb we had a short, very steep and rough descent down towards the Shangri-La that was going to be Cormet De Roselend. I was going to make it there - what a landmark! I never really got a chance to enjoy reaching it though because as soon as we hit the final 2km of flat running towards it my left knee began to hurt quite a bit, enough to force me to a walk. I’d felt it on the climb up but it wasn’t till the flat that it became a problem. The pain was reminiscent (that’s being kind, it was actually almost identical) to that which had blighted my Bob Graham attempt – and the seven months that followed it – so it was not difficult to imagine the gradually increasing discomfort, and drop in speed, that lay ahead. As I started walking I got chatting to an American runner (who as the sole Inov8 distributor in France had been ‘tracking’ my Inov8 footprints for some time), which helped deflect my attention away from the pain. He was talking about quitting though and bizarrely it felt like he was trying to convince me to do the same – not sure if he just didn’t want to ride the bus back by himself. Thankfully though we were soon at the station and I was able to concentrate fully on my things before I actually started to listen to him. Incidentally, the leg from the top of the big climb to the Cormet was the first leg I actually went backwards in the field – losing one place due to the walking at the end.

The sights of Cormet De Roselend According to Wikipedia

Although I’ve mentioned the amazing support we got a few times already, it is worth repeating just to emphasise how good it was. If you recall, there’s nothing actually in Cormet De Roselend, so the hundred or more people who were cheering us runners into that station had travelled up just for that purpose, and wow, what a reception we got.

On arrival at the station my drop-bag had been already collected for me and I went and took a seat without hesitation – I had earned it hadn’t I? Now, I had planned to take 15 minutes or more here, but ended up taking 25, and where that time went I do not know. I certainly didn’t relax but I did spend long enough that I had to change my top as the sweaty one I came in with quickly made me cold – which wasn’t an issue except I overcompensated by putting on a long sleeve top and a windproof. The time I spent changing my socks, rubbing ibuprofen gel into my knee, rubbing vaseline into my delicate areas and taking painkillers was worthwhile. So was replacing all the bars in my bag with gels and other fruity things (reflecting a lack of appetite for dry food). The time I spent eating however was definitely overkill. I’d packed a lot of food into my drop bag and from it consumed a Complan drink, a protein shake, some custard and some chocolate. That’s not to forget the food I ate from the station itself, including noodle soup, some fruit and some other things I can’t recall. Perhaps you’ve already seen my mistake, but eating all that food was not a good idea and there would be consequences. I’m not actually sure if my mistake was the quantity of food or the variety, but I suspect that mixing various creamy shakes with custard and other food has only one outcome when you’re fatigued and dehydrated.

Just before I left the station I saw a sign saying 19km and 1200m of climb to the next aid station at Col Joly and that was my first realisation that I still had an awful long way to go in this race – that part would take me 3 hours alone I reckoned. Route-wise this was also a step into the unknown as I hadn’t put nearly as much effort into ‘learning’ the second half of the course as I had the first.

Wheels Fallen Off

The one good thing about the stop was I’d forgotten about my sore knee and the painkillers I’d taken actually seemed to have an effect for quite a few hours after that, allowing me to almost forget about it till near the end. The knee would be the least of my worries for the next 40 minutes though as I paid for my excess indulgence at the stop. I left the Cormet to a much more muted reception than the one I’d arrived to and broke into a run on the flat road. Within 50m I started to feel queasy though and slowed to a walk as I turned onto the path. The queasiness quickly turned to downright pain in my stomach and I fought off the urge to be sick, trying to retain the much needed calories I had consumed. That battle lasted less than two minutes though as I decided I couldn’t feel any worse if I was sick, and so I emptied my stomach contents onto a grass embankment, thankfully with no witnesses. After the vomiting I just wanted to lie down and feel sorry for myself as I suddenly felt drained of energy, but that wasn’t an option open to me and so I continued, moving onto and up the tiny 300m climb to the next Col. Despite being devoid of energy I wasn’t cold and I began to pay for the overdressing I’d done at Cormet- it wasn’t even 6pm so was still quite warm. I should have stopped to take off a layer but in my eagerness to just keep moving I didn’t do that for quite a few hours and so remained too warm.

During the first half of the climb I cut a pathetic sight and went to some very low places as my mind swarmed with negative thoughts including: I hadn’t trained enough for something this length; my earlier rise up the rankings now looked foolish and naive; those who were watching my progress online would think “I knew he was going to pay for that early pace”; this ultra-running pursuit really wasn’t for me, I’d given it a couple of goes so who could blame me for retreating back to shorter races with my tail between my legs?; perhaps I could take an honourable retirement from the race, I had been sick after all and no-one could say I hadn’t tried?

Sufficient Self-Pity

It’s amazing what the mind goes through when in such a state and recovery from this seemed an impossibility at that stage. To retire though I would have had to turn back to Cormet and despite all the negative thoughts I never once stopped or looked back. As people passed me on the climb I’m sure they must have wondered how I could possibly have been ahead of them, such was the speed with which they flew past. At about half-way up the climb I finally decided that I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself anymore and forced down some food and water. Although my pace didn’t improve my mood gradually did until finally I reached the Col and level ground. I started running again as I hit the downhill and that was the final piece of the puzzle in terms of regaining my racing-mojo. Suddenly, the torment of the previous 40 minutes was gone and I was focused only on the task in hand again, feeling positive about what was to come. It’s amazing how bad you can feel during such a low and yet how quickly you can come out the other side. Although that 40 minutes felt like an age at the time, in an event of this length you can afford to go through such a bad patch and still go on to have a good race. The downhill to La Gitte was steep and relatively technical in parts, which allowed me to reel in a few of the runners who’d passed me, which further reinforced my improved mood. About two thirds of the way down I even stopped to take my only photo during the race of a beautiful gorge we were running above – not a sight I would have been able to appreciate just 10 minutes previously. Shortly after that I came across the American guy again and he’d apparently just been licked by an over-friendly cow. The race had a number of rules and regulations that would incur time penalties or even a disqualification for flouting them, something Linda and I had been jokingly testing each other on in the days before the race. One of these rules stated that any assistance received outside the designated aid stations would result in a time penalty. In my improved mood I playfully suggested to the American that the lick he’d received from the cow constituted such assistance and he should be more careful in future or risk a penalty – but the sarcasm was definitely not detected. I was quickly past him so didn’t try to explain the joke and shortly afterwards I reached La Gitte where I was welcomed by a man playing an accordion. I had lost 5 places at this point from Cormet, but at the top of the Col I think I’d lost double that so was on the right track again.

The Single Photo I Took

By this point we were fairly spread out and I rarely saw more than two or three other runners at a time. I still had two climbs and descents before I reached the food station at Col du Joly so it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and not getting too far ahead of myself. At the top of the first climb, about 80km in the event, I caught up with a couple of people and passed them, having a brief chat with one. We talked briefly about what was to come and obviously knowing the course far better than me he thought that finishing in under 20-hours was a possibility given where we were. Up to now I had only been focused on getting round, and even beforehand I hadn’t entertained thoughts of anything close to that time. Suddenly though I had a bigger target than just finishing and felt galvanised to see how fast I could go.

Latvian Connection

At that point I didn’t change my pace or effort but just a few minutes later I got taken by surprise when someone actually came up from behind me – the first time that had happened in many hours outside of my bad patch. He wasn’t going that much faster though so I decided to drop in behind him just for a change of pace, still thinking about that new time goal. A few minutes later we were still together and started chatting – little did I know then the effect this coming together would have on the race.

Laimonis – I wouldn’t find out his name till much later, was from Latvia and as well as having done this same race last year (in awful weather) he’d been out in Chamonix for a week before recceing the course and so knew this part of course a whole lot better than me. We made good progress to Col du Joly, discussing the possibility of a sub 20-hour time on the way, and it got dark just as we arrived there. Although we hadn’t specifically discussed it before we arrived, it became obvious that we were both happy to wait until the other was ready so we could leave together. We barely knew each other and yet were suddenly seeing the advantages of some camaraderie in the dark for at least the next little bit. It was at this aid station that I took a liking to the orange segments and much to the amusement of the volunteers there I kept on coming back for one more bit until I’d had probably a dozen. By this time it was the only food I was eating apart from the occasional gel, so it was a good thing I did eat a lot. This was also the first aid station that had beds, which I’m sure got some good use from those just looking to get round in under 33 hours.

Not Finished Yet

After 5 or 10 minutes we put our head torches on and began the descent to Les Contamines, which would be the final big aid station. As we’d arrived at Col du Joly we saw we were just outside the top 50 placings – and so suddenly we had an additional tantalising carrot to complement the 20 hour goal. This gave us increased impetus and we made decent progress down to Les Contamines – although having lost one place and gained one we were no better or worse off. As we approached the lights of Les Contamines town I realised that I was going to complete the event. Even though I was still a very hilly 24km from the end I just had this sense of confidence that no matter what happened now I would get there. For a brief moment I let my thoughts dwell on this and became slightly emotional (yes, I am that soft), before I quickly realised that was a ridiculous and dangerous train of thought at this stage. I didn’t lose that sense of confidence that I would get round but I didn’t think about the finish after that for quite a few hours.

 

Recorded Heart Rate (orange) and Altitude (white)

At the aid station we did our own thing and as I changed my top I saw Laimonis leaving the station, thinking I had already gone because he couldn’t see me. I didn’t have a chance to shout out to him so I quickly finished my change and set-off after him. A few minutes later as I reached the bottom of the climb I shouted after him, eventually getting his attention and our unplanned partnership recommenced. At this point I really didn’t know what the course had in store for us in the remaining section – I knew there had to be at least one or two climbs and corresponding downhills but I hadn’t really studied this part of the route and was too tired to remember any details. Liamonis was a good source of information in that regard and vaguely described the route, while reckoning we needed about 5 hours to get from there to the finish. We had taken 15:20 up to that point – so under 20 hours actually seemed out of reach at that point. Nonetheless we pushed on up the last major climb of the route with the intention to see how close we could get. The section from here to Col de Tricot – the last high point in the race – was probably my strongest section of the whole race. We gained 7 places during those one and three quarter hours but most of those were hard won during the ~1200m of climbing the leg contained. When we passed people we really flew past them though and they didn’t have a chance of hanging onto our coat tails. I’ve no doubt that the pace was boosted by the fact that we were working as a pair as it would have felt a lot more lonely in the dark if you were by yourself. The clear night also helped our cause as we could see the reflective route markings some way ahead as well as headlamps up the hillside that gave us targets to aim for. Although I was working as hard as possible during this section my heart rate had dropped again from earlier to average around 115bpm and it would hover around this till the end – meaning an average of 128 for the whole event.


 


Head Torch Trail (© petzl.com)

Psychology 101

Anyone who knows me well wouldn’t, I’m sure, describe me as a social butterfly. And while many may not have thought about it they shouldn’t be surprised to hear I’m very solidly on the introvert side of the personality-type scale. This manifests itself in a number of ways but when it comes to running it means I actually, on occasion, seek out opportunities to do it as a solo endeavour rather than with other people. This includes not only short runs but even day long adventures into the hills. I know some of my friends can’t comprehend why I would choose to do something like that alone but for me it’s almost a necessity sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I do also enjoy socialising – including running with other people – and some of the best experiences I’ve had in life have been shared ones, but I’m definitely not hard-wired to be able to do that constantly.

There is a point to all this if you’ll bear with me, before you wonder whether you’re still reading a race report. With the above in mind, one of my biggest pre-race worries about the TDS was whether I could enjoy running with 1500 other people for such a long time. I enjoy competing but those events are always over much shorter distances and with much smaller fields. I certainly don’t go into the Scottish hills, alone or otherwise, hoping to run into crowds of people – so how would I find spending a whole day in the hills constantly surrounded by them? Those fears were at least partially unfounded as, at least from my perspective, I had plenty of space around me for most of the day. That meant I didn’t feel like I was part of such a mass-participation event and as a consequence I’m sure I was able to enjoy it more.

What I find interesting though is that during the night section I clearly benefitted from having some company, even though it was someone I’d only just met. I know that as it gets dark, and particularly when you’ve already been going all day as was the case here, you have to really dig deep mentally to keep up a good pace. It’s probably no surprise therefore that having company can make the job easier – it’s just that it was not something I’d anticipated given my concern about their being too many people. Perhaps I’m more of a people-person than I give myself credit for?! Numerous times I’ve already mentioned the support we all got along the route and again, I wasn’t expecting that to be such a contributory factor in the memory and enjoyment of the event.

Sub 20-hours?

We reached Col de Tricot just after midnight, knowing there was very little climb left in the race. We also knew that we were by now comfortably in the top 50, but we still had to push to not drop back again. By now the downhills were certainly less than comfortable and not much of a relief from the uphills. At the bottom of the first descent we had to cross the Bionnassay rope bridge over a roaring river. We’d been warned to have no more than two people on the bridge at once to minimise any swinging, and without being able to see what was making the noise it certainly felt a little exposed. I’ve since been informed it’s a very picturesque location but that will have to wait for another time. It was around this area as we were skirting round the mountainside that we occasionally came across some ropes to help guide us over some rocky sections. Those ropes signified that there was the potential for quite a significant fall off to the side, but because my light was focused straight ahead on the path I wasn’t aware of just how precarious it might be.

After a tiny 50m climb up to Bellevue we were finally on what felt like the home straight – 5km of downhill to Les Houche and then a seemingly flat 8km to the finish. Not only were we close in distance but we had almost 2 hours to get back to Chamonix and to be under 20 hours, so it actually seemed plausible again for the first time in many hours. The downhill was steep and littered with tree roots so it was painful and relatively slow – taking 40min to reach the final aid station in Les Houches. Just before we reached there it became apparent Laimonis was going to be capable of a stronger finish than me, but we stayed together until just after the aid station. We caught another pair of runners actually in the aid station itself, which forced us to make it a very quick stop so we could gain some psychological advantage by leaving before them. These would be the last people I would pass in the race and I’d actually lose one of those places, to an even faster finisher, during the final 8km.

Bionnassay Bridge (apparently)

As we left Les Houche we saw we had 80 minutes to do the final 8km and it was now apparent that it was no longer just possible to finish sub-20, but it was now expected. At that point I definitely stopped being quite so competitive as I just focused on getting through the final leg. Now we were in the street-lit town the reflective course markings were less obvious and we actually managed to miss a turn. Although it only cost a minute or two of time it was pretty frustrating when we felt so close. Soon after that Laimonis ran on ahead and I was alone again for the first time in hours, trying to run as much as possible of this final stretch.

Uphill Finish

I was trying not to look at my watch too often and focus on running – but lots of it felt gradually uphill and so I was forced into a fast walk for much of it. It turns out the last 8km are net uphill (just) and so it wasn’t just my mind playing tricks. By this point my knee was beginning to ache again and my muscles were beginning to seize up so I certainly wouldn’t have looked healthy. At a couple of points there were some people, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, cheering us, which gave me a little boost each time. Eventually I reached what I thought was the outskirts of Chamonix, though it was actually some of the suburbs and so I still had longer to go than I realised. After a final gentle uphill that I again walked I finally knew where I was and that there was around 800m to the finish. I certainly didn’t speed up over those 800m but I did at least run them all, knowing that soon I would go round the left hand corner and see the finish just 50m away. During that last stretch I started to get a little emotional again as I felt able to release the build-up of emotions and tension that had gone into both the build-up and completion of the event.

Finish!

Just before the finish I heard Mattias, my Swedish friend who had finished over an hour ahead of me, and his girlfriend Caroline cheering me on – which brought a big smile to my face as it was great to see someone I knew there. I got cheered over the line by the few spectators that were still there at close to 3am, and although I would have got a more rapturous reception had I finished the next morning I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. After collecting my prized gilet I met up with Laimonis, who’d gained a couple more places during his fast finish, and thanked him for his company. Although only minutes had passed since I’d finished I could already barely walk and so with nothing else to do I hobbled the 500m back to the chalet.

No Pressure

When people were asking me beforehand what sort of time I’d do I was being very genuine in predicting 27 hours plus or minus 3 hours. In saying that time I was taking account of a number of things, including that I didn’t feel as well prepared as I’d planned, I was conscious of my experience from the Bob Graham last year, the longer course here, the unknown nature of the course and other things like altitude and the potential for difficult weather (which includes too much heat!). First and foremost I wanted to finish it, because it’s a long way to go not to at least complete it. Beyond that I didn’t have any high expectations to perform at a particular level. In finishing in 19 hours and 44 minutes, in 45th place overall, it’s an understatement to say I vastly exceeded my own expectations. After 4 or 5 hours I knew, at least position-wise, I was ahead of where I thought I’d be, but it wasn’t for another 10 or so hours that I first got any hint of what sort time I might do and that I would more than likely finish fairly high up the field. Having that realisation was one of the factors that spurred me on to push myself in the last few legs. I know that had I realised such a fast time was possible before I started the event I may not have performed as well, so I’m grateful for my own naivety in that regard.

One of the interesting features of this race was the ability for people to track your progress online, seeing your time and position each time you passed through one of the 15 or so time checks (it had me in 1st place at one point apparently!). When I came back to the chalet and checked my emails I had masses of Facebook notifications – it seemed I had developed quite a following during the race from people tracking my progress. Although I shared a couple of texts with people during the race I was unaware of the extent of the interest and it was really touching to see people ‘virtually’ cheering me on – even if I didn’t see it until I had finished! Quite a few even seemed to delay going to bed to see some more progress and Jen stayed up until after the end and I’d called her. It certainly added a new dynamic to the event and probably also meant I had less to explain about it when I got back!

Slippery Slope

Two inescapable outcomes of this event are, 1) I actually enjoyed this one, demonstrating that ultras don’t have to be miserable and grim, and 2) performance-wise, while I’m never going to be threatening the elite I can actually do some reasonably competitive times – and I do like competing. There’s something highly appealing to me about doing these big adventures and this has given me a real urge do some more events of this ilk. I have to confess I’ve already identified half a dozen that have jumped from ‘I’ve never even heard of it’ to ‘I’ve got to do that one day’. I’ve no intentions of become purely an ultra-runner just yet, but doing something like this once every couple of years is definitely appealing to me now.

Check-point times

There is however something very special about the UTMB week that means I will definitely be back for it another year. I don’t want to risk tarnishing the memories of the TDS quite yet though so it means I ‘have’ to enter the UTMB itself, which I have to remind myself is a third longer and so probably twice as tough. Then there’s the PTL, which is a race for teams of two or three that is 300km long with 24000m of climb – yes the number of zeros is correct there. It’s considered so tough that I haven’t even met the qualification criteria yet (though completing a UTMB will sort that out)! I didn’t know that I wanted to do this race until I saw the amazing reception the small field got as they left Chamonix for 5 days of self-sufficiency in the mountains – but who wouldn’t want to treated like a hero just for starting an event? I obviously need some team-mates for that one so if I start talking to you about this ‘great little race in the Alps’ then consider yourself forewarned.

Finally, I have to give a lot of credit Linda, because not only did she finish in 26 hours in 300th position out of 1000 finishers, but she was second in her category and so got to go to the prize giving and collect a cow bell – what a fantastic well deserved memento. The only annoying thing about her performance is that I think it was arguably a better one than mine, but I tried to look gracious during the prize giving ;-) .

This is the second ultra-event write-up I’ve done and not only is the tone quite a contrast to my previous Bob Graham one but it also marks a distinct change in some of my running ambitions for the future. I wonder what the next chapter will hold?

Training Revelation

My Bob Graham report concluded with a brief round-up of the training I’d done for it, so I thought I’d do the same thing here. Interestingly, at the time I believed that I got round the Bob Graham thanks to the significant amount of training I did before it, but after this performance I think I got round it in spite of it. For the 5 months prior to my BG round all I did was climb, climb, climb as much as possible – ending up averaging 12hours and 4000m per week. Most of that climbing had to be walked of course because, particularly in the last couple of months, you’re constantly tired and doing multiple long days, and that naturally slows down your running.

The contrast to my training for the TDS is quite stark. Although I had planned to do quite a bit, I ended up just doing lots of running, quite a few hill races, but not really that much climbing compared to what I’d planned. I averaged less than ~7-8 hours and 2,500m of climb per week over the same preceding period, and the climb actually drops to less than 2,000m when you take out the one week of ‘proper’ training I did three weeks before the event. So I was generally doing a lot less training than for the BG but was actually running most days, including hard efforts and races, which meant I was reasonably fit for anything up to 3 or so hours. I just didn’t think I was ’119km/7250m’ fit’, hence the belated one week of dedication where I averaged 2000m of climb a day for 7 days. That was clearly a pretty intense and tiring week and was done at a lower intensity than I’d been used to, but this combination of running over the preceding months and then one hard week of long, consecutive days seems to have been pretty effective – even though it came about by accident rather than design.

So as well as having a fantastic experience at the event I’ve also learned a lot about how I can train differently and more effectively for such an event. The fact that I was actually fitter this year for the TDS, despite spending less time training, has been a revelation.

PTL Route – any volunteers?