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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Tour du Monte Rosa. 08-10 August 2014

Having already completed my annual weekend training run around the UTMB course, I decided on something completely new for my final weekend of training before tapering starts. The Tour du Monte Rosa (TMR) has been on radar for quite some time now, ever since I stumbled across it’s signage on the Europaweg trail whilst fast packing the Chamonix to Zermatt Walker's Haute Route a few summer’s back. The Europaweg is pretty mind blowing in itself; a dramatic section of high level contouring trail that defies logic given it’s perilous position. From this I had a strong sense the TMR would be a great route to run and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The TMR is much more low key when compared to the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), and consequently the information available on the route as a whole is fairly sparse. I got hold of the Cicerone guide book and a route map from the map shop in Chamonix, but there are several route variations between the two. I decided to stick with the mapped route (a) because it seemed relatively ‘official’ and up to date, and (b) I didn’t want to carry the guide book.

The overall distance and elevation gain involved wasn’t 100% clear, but seemed to be around 100miles with 10,000m of ascent / descent. It was however noticeable that a lot of the running would be above 2,000m, and there were numerous passes over 2,800m as well as climbs of 1,500m vertical ascent or more. A challenging route for sure. The plan was to tackle the whole thing in 3 days starting and finishing in Saas Fee and with overnight stops in Zermatt and Alagna. Easy hey.

It didn’t prove too difficult selling the idea to US team mate Mike a Foote who is over in Europe training for UTMB. He was as excited as I was about using the route as an excuse to explore new trails and escape the Chamonix hubbub. We met in Martigny late on Thursday evening, stayed overnight in Brig before setting off from Saas Fee on Friday morning after a relatively leisurely start.

I haven't been to Saas Fee before, but it’s another one of the Zermatt style car free towns where you have to park up on the outskirts and transfer in. Even the views from the sides of the multi-story car park were pretty mind blowing and immediately raised the excitement levels.

Saas Fee to Grachen was the first leg, running the high-level balcony path known as Hohenweg. It's a very well established section of trail averaging about 2,100m in height and offering plenty of exposure. There are all sorts of impressive bits of Swiss trail engineering to negotiate the glacial outflows, rocky outcrops and steep valley sides the route traverses. It feels safe because it is clearly is so well established, but you wouldn’t want to take your eye off the trail too long…

Playing around on the Hohenweg

Foote on a northern section of the Hohenweg
Me on the Hohenweg
Hohenweg provided a great overview of the Saastal valley before we turned to enter the Mattertal valley, which then leads into Europaweg. Grachen was our first taste of civilization, and being a Swiss village, of course it really is. The only negative being it was lunchtime and the shops were shut. It was naive of me to walk into the local patisserie, the only food option to be found open, and enquire about gluten free options. Cue puzzled look from the assistant; that’d be a ‘no’ then.

From Grachen it's good pull to get up on to the Europaweg trail, and it tops out at over 2,600m, but plentiful visual distractions make the leg work more than worthwhile. There is even a EU flag to mark the start! That confused me a little being in Switzerland but I shall avoid any politics. The Mattertal valley below seemed a very, very long way down - which it is - but there are numerous 4,000m summits all around to feast your eyes on and keep you looking up. The trail is also somewhat precipitous in places, traversing live boulder fields and scree slopes. From afar these sections frequently look impassable, but aren’t quite so bad on closer inspection and provide a bit of fun when conditions are dry, as they were. The red and white painted markers to guide you across are excellent, but almost certainly the boulder fields would be a different proposition in poor visibility. It was never fast going, the trails often being technical and bouldery, but that made it all feel a lot more natural than TMB.
Foote on Europaweg

Foote and I on the Europaweg

Awesome Swiss engineering!
Our opening 'easy' day, wasn't all that easy, so it was good to finally arrive in Zermatt at the head of the valley, and the foot of the famous Matterhorn, unfortunately concealed by a blanket of cloud. Refueling was high on the agenda, as was a good night’s sleep in preparation for a long middle day that would take us through to Alagna in Italy.

The mixed forecast had been an ongoing cause for concern leading into the trip, particularly given the minimal kit and clothing we were carrying for the 3 days – basically our UTMB compulsory kit. Day two would start with a 1,700m climb over the glaciated Theodulo Pass topping out at 3,317m. Heavy rain at any point would almost certainly necessitate a wait-out at a refuge, and probably a high degree of cold and suffering! It rained heavily overnight, but eased for our departure from Zermatt, although it was still damp and grey at 7am when we made our way out of town and back on to the trail. Wouldn’t a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast be a little more sensible?

Foote on the climb out of Zermatt
Leaving the rain behind in Zermatt
We maintained a sense of humor despite the glum weather, and our patience was quickly rewarded as the rain eased and we caught glimpses of blue skies towards the top of the climb. At around 2,800m we caught out first view of the summit section of the Matterhorn through the parting clouds and we literally jumped with joy!

The Matterhorn revealing itself. Me getting excited….

Gandegghutte (3,029m)
It was still chilly up high, particularly after an early soaking, but moving across the glaciated pass somewhat swiftly kept us warm enough, and the novelty of running uphill on snow became a welcome distraction. We eventually reached the Refugio del Theodulo perched right on the pass, straddling the Switzerland / Italy border, before descending an un-glaciated south facing snow slope to reach the grey moraine filled bowl of the upper Cervinia ski resort. Foote was a happy man to have crossed into Italy; the thought of pizza, espresso and warmer restaurant service was a real motivation.

Upper Cervinia ski area
A short (relative) descent and then re-ascent took us over Col Cimme Bianche, and then down past the beautiful turquoise Gran Lago, before a fine trail took us along a hanging valley past old farming settlements and into the ancient hamlet of Resy. It was fascinating to read up on the history of this area afterwards; these inhospitable high valleys providing a summer home to farmers and their livestock for many years. Farming at this height (2,400m plus) with such limited access must have been a real challenge, even just for the summer months.

Vallone di Verra before Resy
The polenta feast at Refuge Ferraro, Resy
Now starting to feel a little depleted I insisted on a proper lunch at the next refuge - Refuge Ferraro in Resy. Polenta was menu of the day, and it was suitably fine, with the portions generous and runner-friendly. Happy days. The afternoon would bring two more hefty passes, taking us up to 2,672m and 2,880m respectively. Running in and amongst the clouds provided real atmosphere, depth and constantly ‘teasing’ views. The first pass was Colle di Bettaforca and was the more straight forward of the two. We didn’t dwell in Stafal, the valley bottom village between the two climbs, but marched straight into Col d’Olen at 2,880m.

Col d'Olen - great cloud display

The whole the of the final descent was in the cloud, possibly not a bad thing, concealing the 1,700 metres of downhill running before we were done for the night. We seemed to go a little astray in our route choice into Alagna, but it took us down in a fairly direct manner, so mattered little. In the end even singletrack connoisseur Foote was happy to cruise down a vehicle track despite it being boring and gently graded. Running hard downhill for over an hour was certainly ideal preparation for UTMB. The rustic village of Alagna was our overnight stop for the night, and offered excellent local Italian cuisine and lodging – certainly a place to go on the list for a return visit.

We had company in the mist descending to Alagna
The final day involved a mere two passes, but both involving ascent of c. 1,600m so not to be under estimated. I was unsure how long the final day would take, but what I did know was that I needed leave Saas Fee in the hire car by 4pm at the latest to ensure I made it to Geneva Airport in time for my Sunday night flight back to London. There’s nothing like a deadline to help focus the mind. Experience on the route suggested it would be relatively slow going, so I conservatively planned for a 6.30am start. It was too early for a hotel breakfast, so a banana and no caffeine it had to be.

Leaving Alagna behind on the climb up Colle del Turlo
The first climb followed an impressive flag stoned vehicle-width track over the famous Colle Del Turlo. The grading was gentle making it a little too drawn out for my liking, but it is a real marvel of historic trail engineering. It has clearly been an important trading route for many years, something you can’t help but ponder as you gradually work your way up. In many places it is even retained and built up on dry stone walls, and is near perfectly intact, again a testimony to the quality of it’s original construction. The top of the pass was again cloud covered so it was a shame to miss out on the views, but I was grateful to start a descent.

Colle del Turlo (2,738m). Picnic anyone?
There were quite a few lingering snow patches on the north facing upper part of the descent, but they soon disappeared and I could settle into around 1,500m of descent and a section along the Valle Quarazza took me to the popular tourist village of Macugnaga. The local shop there offered plenty of options for a late breakfast and a good refuel which I knew would be required to get me over the final pass. I got some strange looks as I wolfed down a tin of peaches and a pot of yoghurt whilst sat in the village square watching the Sunday morning world go by.

And then straight back up 1,700m to the final pass of Monte Moropass (2,868m) and back into Switzerland at last. No less impressive, this pass is complete with a gold Madonna statue and various bits of handrails and walk ways to help the traverse of big slabs of rock that form the pass itself. 

The golden Madonna statue on Monte Moro at 2,868m!
Time was certainly getting on by now, so I had to keep moving quickly on the descent to Mattertal Lake and then round the valley corner back to Saas Fee. I managed to move well despite another 10 hour day, and was relieved to have made an early start. Around the lake there were tourists abound, getting bus transfers up from the Saastal Valley. It soon hit home how much solitude and great alpine running I had enjoyed along the way, despite several sections through unsightly ski resorts.

The final descent towards Mattmark & Saas Almafell / Saas Fee
The views of the many surrounding 4,000m+ peaks unfortunately hadn’t been very frequent due to the cloud, but somehow the constantly changing skies had really added to the atmosphere of being high up in the mountains. It’s a route that must be respected when travelling fast and light, and I would generally advise on allotting a little more time. But despite it’s fast-pace, it was certainly a weekend to remember and ideal preparation for UTMB.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

UTMB - Training on the Course. 25-27 July 2014

Mont Blanc massif, from Arete Mont Favre, Italy
Breaking news – the passes haven’t got any lower or less numerous and the trails no smoother – UTMB is still an absolute beast of a course! So nothing new there, but an important part of the process is putting those thoughts about the difficulty of the course right to the front of your mind to help with mental preparation for the race. It’s such a crucial aspect in this game, right?

One of my favourite weekends of the year is training with friends on the UTMB course. I’ve found it’s the best way of preparing for this mighty race – getting out on the course and running the whole lot in 3 days around 5 weeks out from the race. Good for the leg strength and good for the mind.

I’ve had a fairly solid stint of training off the back off Western States at the end of June, and I’m now very much in a peak spell to get the long ‘hill’ days in and really start tuning up. As previous years my plan evolves around several long weekends with back-to-back long days, providing a great excuse to check out some cool new routes.  Last weekend in The Cairngorms was simply magical, but I was still feeling energetic enough to run 105 miles around Mont Blanc in 3 days over the weekend just gone.

So back in Chamonix for the first time in a year – déjà vu. Even just being in Chamonix triggers all sorts of different emotions and memories, all UTMB related of course, and lots of good ones. Preparing for another run around the great mountain always brings a sense of anxiety through the challenge involved, and the unknowns the mountains often bring. It’s never easy, but the appeal is always there. No matter how many times I make the journey the sense of accomplishment never diminishes. The appeal is not only in achieving a complete circumnavigation of such a symbolic mountain, but to experience a journey that absorbs so much culture and visual delight that it’s hard to put it into words. Put simply, it’s always a great experience.

We had a stellar line-up for this year’s training weekend with the whole The North Face EU team present as well as Rory Bosio & Mike Foote from the US, and our Italian friends Gustavo, Pierro & Carlo. A real international and eclectic bunch, all brought together by a shared passion. Brilliant.

We ran, we ate and we generally had a lot of fun.

There are several traditions to the weekend which were maintained in quite some style. Like a long first day from Chamonix to Cormayeur (78km) with a ridiculously early start. There were still a few people walking home from a night out when Gemma and I departed Chamonix town centre at 4.25am! I accompanied Gemma for day one, as she is running UTMB for the first time and doesn’t know the first part of the route through to Cormayeur. With Foote also with us for spells of day one too, they were both excited about running sections of the course in daylight for the first time, it brought back memories of when I did so for the first time – quite a while ago!

Then a stop-off to see Jacquemout at his rustic refuge Col Checroit / Maison Vieulle located before the descent to Cormayeur for some relentless hospitality and warm humour. Have you ever seen a spaghetti sandwich before…? On day two we finished at Leon’s patisserie in Champex-Lac to sample some pretty darn fine fruit tart. My waistline was again saved by my gluten intolerance. These proprietors are amazingly passionate about the race from their distant part of the course – in Italy and Switzerland respectively – different countries to the hosts in France. It says it all about how this race brings people and communities together.

One new introduction to the weekend was a run over Fenetre d’Arpette  at c.2,665m, the alternative, but still official, route to Bovine. It was a last minute decision that Mike and I took, and it turned out to be the highlight of the weekend – the year – possibly one of the most enjoyable bits of trail running we’ve ever experienced. We ended up on the narrow and dramatic pass above fluffy white clouds, surrounded by rock, snow and blue skies. The photos don’t really do it justice, but take it from me, we were grinning from ear to ear.

Day three ended as it always does outside The North Face store in Chamonix. Running with Mike on the last day, I joked we might get emotional on returning to Chamonix. Of course you do in the race, because this route and the race can't fail to trigger emotions.

A quick shower and a bite to eat in Chamonix and before we knew it we were soon making our way back to the airport for a late flight back to London ready for work on Monday morning. A shock to the system to say the least, but another memorable weekend training for UTMB in the bag.

Gemma on the final section to Col du Bonhomme, looking back towards Les Contamines & Saint Gervais

Val Ferret from near the top of Grand Col du Ferret (Italy)

Top of the Grand Col. Couldn't see a flaming thing.

Some of the team, just before leaving Champex on the last day.

Views ascending Fenetre d'Arpette
Final climb to Fenetre d'Arpette (photo credit: Mike Foote)

Foote & I at the top of  Fenetre d'Arpette

Chamonix - finished

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Rigby Round Fast-Pack, The Cairngorms: 19-20 July 2014

Well, nearly.

I had a great outing in The Cairngorms last weekend, deciding last minute to take the sleeper train up to Aviemore and have a go at a fast-packing a bunch of Munros as part of my training for UTMB. The Cairngorms are famous for forming the highest continuous mountain plateaux in the British Isles with five of the six highest mountains in Scotland. It’s an area of Scotland I’ve spent very little time exploring, particularly from the western side, so I thought it would provide an ideal location for a weekend challenge. I then stumbled across the Rigby Round, a continuous circuit of all the Munros in the Cairngorms – 18 in total – devised by Mark Rigby in the late 80’s. There are a number famous ‘rounds’ in the UK, and many more less so. This is definitely on the less-well-known end of the scale, so appealed in that sense, but also appeared to offer a suitable degree of challenge.

After a busy week at work I caught the Friday night sleeper train from London Euston to Aviemore which got me right on location very efficiently despite a rather miserable night’s sleep due to the air conditioning being defective on the train. It was a humid 31°C in London, and Garmin told me the temperature was exactly the same in the sleeping berth! My protestations to train staff fell on deaf ears, the response effectively being like it or lump it. I certainly wasn’t about to do an about turn for a reason like that - there would be far more significant challenges to overcome over the course of the weekend.

Arriving in Aviemore at 7.40am Saturday morning I grabbed a taxi to the start point for the round at Loch Morlich Youth Hostel in Glenmore. It’s only about 6 miles to the east of Aviemore – I know, what a wimp – but with the relatively late start it would be tight getting anywhere near half way round on day one as it was.

The route is quoted as being around 75miles with 6,000 metres of ascent/ descent, but it obviously depends on your precise route choice and method of recording the stats. I aimed to complete the round in two days, with an overnight camp between. Previous completions – and there really aren’t that many – have gone continuously targeting sub 24 hours. I was adopting the route, not any time goal, and given the hefty load I was carrying, you will appreciate my aim was building strength for UTMB as opposed to flying round to set a record. I was travelling ‘tortoise style’, carrying everything I needed to be self sufficient for a 36 hour period, including; sleeping system, stove, food, clothing and all the usual navigation and safety paraphernalia for long solo days accross remote terrain.

Whilst I did feel a little weigh-laid by the amount of kit I was carrying, I also drew comfort from the fact that if the weather really did get bad – the forecast wasn’t that great at all – I could just get the tent set up and wait for it to pass through. In the end it was fairly consistent all day; a stiff wind on the tops, plenty of clag (mist) on the tops above 800 metres (that would be for the majority of the day then) and persistent misty rain.

Lairig Ghru; clag ahead!
I went anti-clockwise, heading in to my first summit via Rothiermurchus Lodge and the Lairig Ghru. Braeriach was the first summit and, once into the main part of the ascent, I could see barely 50 metres in any direction. The compass and GPS became a lifeline when picking a line around the head of Loch Enich to Sgor Gaoith and negotiating some rather disorientating ground around the Wells of Dee (I assume the source of the River Dee). The 2nd and 3rd summits formed a triangle, so at Loch nan Cnapan I dumped my pack to move quicker.

There was a brief spell of around an hour when the visibility was better enabling some glimpsing views from the top of Sgor Gaoith and then to pick a direct line across to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, a rather insignificant hill which you would probably ignore unless you were box ticking like I was. A rather unsightly land rover track then allowed a fast traverse to collect my pack again, and then a return to the trudging with a long and rough contour around the western flanks of Monadh Moor to reach the col before Beinn Bhrotain. Again, I could ditch my pack for a quicker out and back, before following the ridge-line north and over the summit of Monadh Moor. With a lot of the lines connecting groups of hills in this round, the route was often rough and slow and there were few trods to latch on to. I lost count of the number of ptarmigan and arctic hares I spotted, or nearly tripped over. It was amazing to be sharing this claggy wilderness with them, which in the winter would be as close to arctic as you can get in the UK.

With visibility so poor, and my pack avoiding any sort of dexterity in my movement, it was a testing day for sure, and the climb to the next group of summits including Angel’s Peak, Cairn Toul and Devil’s Point felt like a real grind. Once on the ridge it wasn’t bad at all, with some enjoyable boulder hopping on the tops of the summits.

I was hopeful of getting closer to Ben Macdui before succumbing to the lure of a hot meal, dry sleeping bag and comforting tent, but with the misty rain prevalent for most of the day now getting stronger, I decided to call it a day after 8 Munros, seeking out a camp spot at the foot of Carn a’Mhaim. It was also fair to say that the steep and rough flanks of this hill were not particularly enticing in the fading light and on tired legs.

Corrour Bothy at the end of Day 1. Not great conditions. Camera stayed in pocket for most of the day!
It wasn’t all that easy finding a suitable camping spot out of the wind and avoiding the bogs but I got there in the end. It was a delight to get my wet clothes off and feet dry, as well as to get a hot meal and brew on the go. The New Zealand sourced freeze-dried meals by Expedition Foods really hit the spot.

Not a bad overnight camp location despite the gloomy conditions
It was late by the time I had myself sorted – gone 11pm. Sleeping time would now be a little compromised with 10 Munros and more than half the total distance still to cover on day two. I settled on a 4.30am alarm, aiming to be packed up and on the go within an hour. With a slightly fitful night’s sleep, it wasn’t too hard getting up when the alarm went, although it was raining heavily, and my heart immediately sank with the thought of another wet trudge on the hills.

Packing was slowed down somewhat by the presence of midgies, but I was on the climb up Carn a’Mhaim by 5.45, and on the summit by 6.30. The timing was perfect because no sooner had I started moving, the rain cleared and breaks in the cloud started to appear. The climb itself wasn’t half as bad as it looked the evening before, perhaps just the rest gave me a new lease of life. Ben Macdui was next offering the biggest climb of the day, and somewhat teasing glimpses of the incredible scenery around me, now right in the heart of The Cairngorms. The summit usually provides some of the best views in the area, but the clag was still hanging around up high, so it wasn’t to be.

Novelty - I can see something!
A bag drop facilitated an efficient out and back to Derry Cairngorm before a quick descent to the outlet to Lock Etchachan and a north-easterly ascent of Beinn Mheadhoin. By this time the views were really opening up, and I was even rewarded with a little sunshine. Heaven. I took a poor line off Beinn Mheadhoin following the wrong gully too far to the north, but it did the job and got me down to the head of Glen Derry before re-ascending to the plateau between Beinn Bhreac, Beinn a Bhuird and Beinn a Chaorainn. Again I dropped my bag to climb two of these hills, reclaiming it for the latter, from which I would head north across to Fords of Avon and then Bynack More. It was around this time that I had to make decisions on timings, because the day was now getting on, and I was conscious of my 21.15 train departure from Aviemore. With great disappointment I had to leave the most easterly summit, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, which would have added over an hour with a long out and back. It was too risky - the timings simply didn’t stack up.

Ford of Avon - in the river - and very refreshing

The summit of Beinn a Chaorainn
I had some finely tuned timings worked out in my head for the last couple of summits which would have me finished by 8.30pm, and I seemed to hit all those one by one. From Bynack More, the penultimate summit, there was a really imposing view of Cairn Gorm which was the final summit, involving a significant descent to The Saddle near Loch Avon before a steep ascent of the south east side of Cairn Gorm. From afar it seemed unachievable so gave me some anxiety late on, but on closer inspection there was a good diagonal trod which got me up there efficiently.

I was at the top of Cairn Gorm at 7.20pm and from there I called a taxi to pick me up from Glenmore at 8.30pm. It was the same driver that had picked me up the day before, so I was hopeful he wouldn’t let me down. I just needed to run the lengthy descent via the ski centre to get there in time. That was all fine, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

Panorama from the top of the final summit, Cairn Gorm.
And before I knew it I was tucked up in bed on the train south, nodding off for a well earned sleep, ready for work in London the next day. Quite some weekend.