I travelled over to the alps with Lucy Colquhoun, a fellow WHW record holder, and Allen Smalls, a great training buddy of late. Arriving to beautiful alpine sunshine we camped a night at the picturesque Mer de Glace site just outside Chamonix and made an early start at around 6am on Friday morning. Kit choice was an entertaining debate that lasted well over an hour the night before. We would carry everything we needed for three days out on the trail, although overnight stops would be a hotel the first night and a pension the second, and provisions were topped up regularly en route. The trick was to keep everything to a minimum. That inevitably resulted in below standard hygiene but frankly, we didn’t care. The forecast was good and we would travel as a group of three so we erred on the side of fast and light as opposed to safety first; a joint decision.
The run down valley to Les Houches was very pleasant but we were soon into the not-so-genteel climb up to Col de Voza and La Charme thereafter. We were all quickly awakened to the ‘sharpness’ of the alpine climbs, something that catches a lot of people out in the race, particularly given there are so many major climbs over the course of the race. From La Charme followed a fast descent into the town of Saint-Gervais, the town which knows how to party on race night. It was much quieter last Friday morning around 9am, and a pleasant setting for a quick re-supply of drinks.
The next section along the valley bottom to Les Contamines was surprisingly eventful thanks to some embarrassing navigation errors by me, but we all managed to see the funny side and arrived safely in town where temperatures were really hotting up. We took a generous stop to ensure we were all well re-fuelled for the big climb out of town up to Col du Bonhomme which, given the now scorching conditions, was hugely energy sapping, along with the effects of the altitude. The regular mountains streams that crossed the trail proved to be a saviour as we cooled ourselves down as often as possible. Topping out after the 1,300m (net) climb was a relief to us all, probably the main reason for our blast down the other side which was done in a traditional route one – straight down the mountain – British fell running fashion. It must have been quite a sight because the numerous walkers on that side of the mountain seemed to stop in their tracks, perhaps for safety reasons?
We hit Les Contamines mid-afternoon and were all feeling the affects of the heat but there was still plenty of trail ahead, and our day against the clock had to continue if we were to stand any chance of an evening pizza in Cormayeur. Onwards and upwards, to La Ville de Glaciers following the nagging road climb. Lucy’s ’20 questions’ game seemed to help morale and provide entertainment before the steepness of the final clamber up Col de la Seigne at 2,516m reduced us all to silence. A moment of reflection on the French/ Italian border at the top of the pass was one of the high points of the weekend for me. The mountains were at their finest in the late afternoon sunshine, and fluffy white clouds gave the scenery even more depth. Another fast descent to Lac Combal, this time lead by Lucy, set us up for the final climb of the day up to Arete Mont Favre, and boy was it a grind. We were all feeling it now, and the final factor in the challenge was low blood sugars. We rallied as a team, twice, and coaxed each other well to the top of the final descent into Cormayeur, and eventually made to our hotel after around 14 hours on the hoof. Unfortunately the pizza craving had faded, and the heat had actually made us all not feel like eating, but for function more than anything else it had to be done.
With 78 of the total 166kms under our belts the three of us felt a little more relaxed about day two, so after a leisurely start to the day we set off from Cormayeur at around 9.30am. In true UTMB fashion there was no opportunity to warm up our heavy feeling legs as we were straight into a steep and compact climb from the start, up the switchbacks and through the woods to Refuge Bertone, the legendary refuge that towers above Cormayeur town. Thankfully the woods provided plenty of shade; we were in for a hot one again. Onto the contouring path running along Val Ferret at high level, the views across to the Mont Blanc massif were incredible, and with just gentle undulations here and there, the opportunity to enjoy the scenery was gratefully taken. We soon closed in on the head of the valley and dropped down to Arnuva for a quick re-fuel before hitting the big climb of the day, Grand Col du Ferret. It’s not the biggest climb on the UTMB route, but it certainly felt like it for the three of us, as we grinded out the relentless switchbacks to take us to the Swiss border at the top. Being a Saturday there were plenty of walkers, runners and MTBers (madness) out on the trail, but we just kept heads down and maintained progress despite the curious looks from onlookers.
We didn’t hang around at the top either, instead descended out of the brisk wind to find a pleasant spot to eat before making our way down to La Peule and eventually the bottom of Val Ferret (Swiss side). Once beyond La Peule we bumped into the back-markers of The North Face team who were out on the UTMB trail following the same three day format as us. It was Keith Byrne and partner Sara who were good spirits despite Sara’s knee troubles. It was at this point we realised we had missed a new section of this year’s route which follows a single track grassy trail from La Peule, in a more direct line to La Fouly, avoiding the prolonged switchbacks along the gravel vehicle track which has never been particularly exciting. We were hundreds of metres below the turn-off point by that point so we opted for the old route, over the river and down the road to La Fouly. More food and drink, then a blast down the gently descending riverside path toward Praz du Fort, surprising a French runner who overtook us hours before as we cruised past. It was Lucy who helped pushed us on. That girl knows how to run, particularly on the flats and descents, leading from the front!
Lucy leads the charge down valley to Praz du Fort
As the day went on, the three of us seemed to get more and more laid back, enjoying the running, adventure and variety of trails. Praz du Fort proved to be our favourite town of the trip, a peaceful group of rustic alpine buildings, many overhanging the narrow road that meanders through. Window boxes, livestock and vegetable patches all made it feel homely and quaint. A dip in the village fountain helped to keep our cool before the prolonged and disorientating final climb of the day up to Champex-Lac, sitting as it does perched on the end of a hanging valley.
Al and myself soak our weary legs in the Champex lake
It was great to reach our overnight stop in good time at around 5.30pm and as we ambled through town were welcomed by Kim and Topher Gaylord (President of The North Face Europe) who dived out of a café to catch us as we passed by. I first met Topher at the West Highland Way race in 2006, and subsequently got in touch when I joined the TNF team. We were delighted to join them for a drink and catch-up, just as Spaniard Sastres was putting the finishing touches to a great Tour du France performance in the final time trial, being shown on TV in the cafe. Topher and Kim were leading a group of ten or so runners around the UTMB course, including the legendary American runner Scott Jurek, who was back in the Alps to prepare for this year’s race.
After an overnight stay in a great pension on the main road in Champex, we re-joined the TNF group first thing at the pre-arranged RV point outside Leon’s patisserie. Leon, as I understand it, is the person behind this year’s ‘Petit Trotte a Leon’ a crazy multi-day, non-stop team event being run prior to this year’s UTMB. Needless to say there was a great welcome from him with so many elite runners hanging out at his shop. After taking the golden opportunity to buy a gourmet lunch from the patisserie we made a start on day three, running in convoy up to the base of Bovine, and straight up to the top without too much time to think. With Topher, Scott, and French superstar Sebastien Chaigneau amongst the ranks the pace was quick, particularly up the climbs from Topher and Sebastien where their alpine fitness and excellent technique using poles clearly shone through. On the descent from Bovine we reformed as a convoy and blasted down to the bottom without too much ado.
L to R - Scott Jurek, Kim Gaylord, Sebastien Chaigneau. At the top of Bovine.
L to R - Topher Gaylord, Jez Bragg, Allen Smalls, Lucy Culqohoun. At the top of Bovine.
Again the group split up on the climb out of Trient, the two guys with ‘four legs’ storming up the quickest, leaving myself and Scott to joke about our naivety at not using poles, although we both found out minds quickly changing as the day went on. The fastest running of the three days came from Catogne down to Vallorcine where the four of us practically raced to the bottom with our competitive streaks shining through. Lunch in Vallorcine as a group also provided an opportunity for the presentation of Topher’s birthday cake, a remarkably intact piece of blackcurrant tart transported by Scott - a great effort. We also grazed and chatted as a group for a short while before the gentle climb up to Col du Montets, the start point for the race’s new ‘twist in the tale’ climb up to Flegere. As with all these alpine climbs, I found the first few hundred metres the worst as my legs struggled to change gear from running on the relative flat. Eventually they did, but once again Topher and Sebastien we were well into the distance, so I settled for my routine position of third (not that I was racing…..). The new climb is nothing less than sadistic, coming at the 152km point, and being roughly 800m in vertical ascent. The other added difficultly is the technical trail that links the top of the climb, Tete aux Vents, with the Flegere cable car station, namely the Grand Balcon Sud. It is certainly not a fast section and awkard drop offs, twist and turns all make for a painfully slow final high level section before the final descent to Chamonix.
All I could think as we descended back down to the Chamonix valley was how massively challenging it will be on race day. The organisers have made a significant change to the route, so even more so than previous years, it will be the smart runner who shines through. I suspect the journey of this year’s race will a hugely emotional one, it will break many hearts and make many dreams. I just hope it will be the latter for me.
Despite it being my fourth Tour du Mont Blanc - two race completions and two training loops - what really strikes me is how much of an epic adventure it always is. The three of us came away from the training weekend with very special memories, as well as the training and experience that will hopefully provide us with the race performance we are looking for.