Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2009
by Susan Donnelly
Let’s start with some of the questions people keeping asking about the race:
- How far? 103 miles
- Where did it go? One large loop around the huge Mont Blanc massif starting in France, then south through Italy, north through Switzerland, and back west into France for the finish
- How many runners? About 2,300 runners (compared to 100 – 300 for the average US 100-miler)
- How high was it? The highest climb was 8323′ over Grand Col Ferret crossing from Italy to Switzerland (Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the American east is only 6,600′)
- How hard? 3 climbs 8000′ or higher (the hardest ultra I’ve ever run)
- Total climb: 30,849′ of total climb (1800′ more than the 29029′ of Mt. Everest)
- How long did it take? 44 hours (about 13 more hours than my average 100 here in the US)
- How many drop bags allowed? Only 1 at mile 48 (about 4 fewer than I usually use here in the US)
- Any aid stations? 10 aid stations, 13 un-stocked additional checkpoints to record our chips so we couldn’t cut the course
- What did I have to carry? A lot! Abridged from the race requirements…”personal cup or tumbler 15cl minimum (they provided no cups – we bought one of the race “beakers”), stock of water minimum 1 liter, two torches (headlamps) in good working condition with replacement batteries, survival blanket, whistle, adhesive elastic band enable making a bandage or a strapping (mini 80cm x 3 cm), food reserve, protective raincoat for bad mountain weather, running trousers or leggings (at minimum pedal pushers covering the knees), cap or bandana, and identity papers (passport, required by frontier police forces). The weight of this pack at the start of the race or at the exit of a refreshment posts must be superior, or equal to, 2 kg. At all other points of the course, the weight of the pack must not, for any reason, be inferior to 1kg.”
- How many nights’ sleep did we miss? Two (we usually only miss one here in an American 100)
- Anything else? They used timing chips on our wrists for timing us at aid stations. Our numbers also had flexible chips in them so they could be read with portable bar code readers at remote checkpoints. I sent a big “love you” to mom and dad every time my chips got read!
We had arrived a week early to sleep and get our bearings. As the days fell away, the 2,300 other runners, their families, and crews flooded into the town. The start/finish scaffolding started to go up and the air filled with excitement.
Two days before the race, we went through the elaborate packet pick-up at a gym in Chamonix. The extensive process entailed standing in at least five lines – one to sign the anti-doping honor form, one to get our packs tagged, one to get our wrist-band chips, one to get our t-shirts and official drop bags, then one to get our numbers. I also stood in an additional line to get text messages from the chip readings along the course sent to mom and dad’s phone, figuring it might be fun for them (it was!). Looking at the same lines the next day, we were glad we completed this process early.
The five lines, explained in five languages.
Line 2 – Rob gets his pack tagged.
The day before the race, we were lucky enough to run into Mark Barnes, his wife Elizabeth and friend Jane in town. Mark and Jane were running UTMB with us. We’d run Hardmoors 110 mile race in England with Mark and since he’d finished UTMB before, Mark was able to compare UTMB to a course we all knew, turning some of our “unknown” about the course into “known.” Very reassuring and much needed. There was a lot of attitude in Cham.
Chip on the back of our numbers.
The morning of the race, we shoved with our British friend Jon Steele and everyone else into another building to drop off our drop bags. After DNFing at Champex in both of his previous tries, Jon was here to break the curse and finish the race. Jon’s an extremely strong runner, though today he looked tense and a bit nervous. This course had to be hard. Nervous again…
As the hours passed toward evening, there was a distinct change in the town’s mood. The collective bravado of the past several days gave way to quiet tension and grim expressions that were hard not to absorb.
Start in Chamonix to Les Houches (5 miles)
We joined the masses waiting near the starting line, two tiny drops in a shifting sea of people, trying without much success to keep quiet and off to the side as the minutes clicked down to the 6:30 p.m. start time. It was more like a major marathon than any ultra I’d ever run. Officials on the loud speaker were yelling encouragement and whipping the runners into excitement. At 6:30 pm, the sea began to move. We rose and walked slowly under the starting line.
We walked/ran into a chute all the way through town that was absolutely crushed on all sides by hundreds of enthusiastic spectators on the sidewalk and by half as many people on balconies in the hotels lining the course. It was overwhelming. We couldn’t take it all in. A voice I didn’t know yelled “Susan.” I made eye contact with an enthusiastic woman, then smile gratefully and said “merci” even though she probably couldn’t hear it. Who??? Once glance down at my number told the story – my name and country flag were on my number, large enough for spectators to yell for me. And yell in support the whole entire 103 miles, they did.
Outside town, the crowds lessened, the pack thinned, and we were finally able to slip into an easy shuffle. This was the flattest section on the entire course, down through the Chamonix valley on easy dirt and paved roads. Rob and I figured everyone would go out too fast, as usual. Still, I didn’t like feeling last. It was fun to joke with some of the women along the way, through minimal French and body language, that I was ahead of Rob and patiently dragging him along. Rob hammed it up a bit and everyone got a good laugh out of the universal male-female joke.
Les Houches to St. Gervais (13 miles)
Once through the small aid station at Les Houches, we took some paved roads through town and finally hit our first climb, a modest one on gravel road, as the sun was starting to set. We struck up a halting conversation with a young Italian woman who was there for her first UTMB and like so many of us was wondering if her training had prepared her for the course.
Spectators with cowbells.
The rest of the pack was silent and to our surprise, many runners were already coughing in the altitude and cooling air. I was dismayed to feel a blister forming this early due to a rock in my shoe. By the time we reached a race tent near the top of the climb, it was dark and we just had donned our headlamps. The course was marked periodically with large dual reflective/red flagging. They used the same flagging throughout the course, even when reflective might not have been necessary.
We ran down trail through farmland onto dirt roads and suddenly encountered a group of people next to the course. Something was going on, though it wasn’t clear what. A few runners ahead of us stopped in line front of the people and I dutifully queued. When I stepped up to the main person standing in the trail, she held a calculator-looking device out to my number, it beeped, and she indicated I could go on. Aha! That’s what the chip in the race number was for!
St. Gervais to Les Contamines (18 miles)
Shortly after, we emerged from quiet darkness into the startling light and party noise of St. Gervais. Obviously a major aid station, it was hard to tell where to go amid all the busy sidewalk cafes.
The aid station was a marvel. The ultimate of all aid stations. First up was an area for water (“natural” and sparkling), then an area for the sports drink (tasteless like Heed), then a set of tables labeled “Sale” (salty) and another set labeled “Sucre” (sweet). The salty tables, my favorite, had several types of crackers, wedges of brie other cheeses, some sort of summer sausage, cut-up baguettes, soups – too much food to contemplate. The sweet table had good-looking dark chocolate bars broken into jagged chunks (yum!), several types of cakes, and tons of other stuff I passed over.
Looking back on St. Gervais aid station.
Throughout it all, a young drum band dressed in wild costumes and faces painted more for Festivale in Brazil was playing with all their might. With all the choices and noise and trying to communicate in French, it was hard to concentrate on the business of running and managing my aid station stop. We walked out dazed with a few slices of baguette, into the darkness. As Rob said, it was more street fair than aid station.
The way to Les Contamines wasn’t too remarkable. It wound around, up and down a bit, road and trail, and emerged finally on road in the quiet town. Rob and I walked up the road toward the aid station and passing a tour bus parked on the side of the road, most likely waiting for a break in the runners to go on. There were a few sleepy people inside. Right behind the bus, we saw a handful or two of runners walking back toward us on the sidewalk. I wondered as I climbed if we headed out of the aid station back down this road.
Breaking the night silence, Rob said he was surprised that so many people were dropping already. Dropping? Oh…the bus and the runners walking toward us suddenly made sense. Wow…
Les Contamines to La Balme (24 miles)
We wound around on road through some kind of city park, and at a bench I finally stopped to get rid of the rock I’d been unsuccessfully juggling around in my shoe since the start while runners streamed by. The rock turned out to be a safety pin (thankfully, unopened!). What a laugh. In a not-so-bright move, I’d put my race pins in my shoe the day before the race so I wouldn’t lose them when we checked out of the hotel, then…you guessed…forgotten them. I fished two of them out as Rob laughed. The other two must have been lost in checking out and re-packing the car. I hoped.
Show cleaned, we ran up a road past innumerable holy shrines, nicely lit, all the way to Notre Dames des Gorges, a beautiful church curiously lit in multi-color lights. Just across a short bridge, we passed a companion shrine of rock, also lit in multi-color. It reminded me a bit of Rock City in Chattanooga.
The road here turned to an odd mix of pavement and rock that we later learned was an old Roman road…wow. It climbed three steep miles along what must from the crashing sound have been the edge of the gorge, then into a windy, high meadow to arrive at La Balme aid station in the dark, frigid cold.
Coming into La Balme aid station.
La Balme to Col du Bonhomme to Les Chapieux (31 miles)
At the aid station, we immediately ran into Mark and Jane, and while we briefly compared notes, speeding through the business of eating and donning jackets, Jon Steele arrived to join us. It was freezing and none of us wanted to be there a moment longer than necessary. Rob and I tanked up our water, grabbed some food, said goodbyes, and headed on up the rest of the climb.
This was a miserable climb for me. I was still fresh and growing cold, so I wanted to climb fast to warm up. The dirt road petered out into incredibly steep, rocky, single-track trail. I’d normally love this but I got stuck behind a line of runners with poles who slowed to an absolute crawl on the uphill. I was almost falling forward into them, could have easily out-climb them. I passed a few in frustration but couldn’t see around the entire line to make big passes in all the fog and cloud. The runners slowed down so much it was puzzling and we were going so slow I was having a hard time staying warm and not stepping on the heels of the one in front of me. It was maddening, but while watching the heels of the runner climbing in front of me, I suddenly realized that the poles were actually slowing them down – they were searching for four “footholds” instead of two each step – “pole, foot, pole, foot” instead of “foot, foot.”
The sluggish pace, the unpredictable hazard presented by the poles (some runners planted poles each time, some swung them back behind occasionally like ski poles and I had to dodge the unprotected metal tips), the fact that you couldn’t easily pass runners with poles (especially if they used them to block trail, which they did), the incessant clacking of the unprotected metal tips on stone, and finally getting stabbed in the thigh and then the foot by one of those tips…by the time we reached the aid tents at the Col du Bonhomme (26 miles) on the top of that long, incredibly steep climb, I detested poles with an absolute, fuming passion.
Col du Bonhomme aid station.
The top was extremely rocky and bouldery with several trails woven here and there and only a couple of yards’ visibility in the clouds. I had no idea if Rob was directly behind me or not, but was happy to have other runners to follow, though careful to keep strictly with the flags and still check my own navigation. You couldn’t tell which trail was true and which might be a cow or sheep trail off the side of the mountain, and I almost thought I heard one of the emergency whistles in the dark.
The long downhill started slowly, through dangerously slippery rock and boulder in the fog, but finally eased out into dirt road. A long while later, we rolled into the chute at Les Chapieux and into the huge brightly-lit aid station tent.
On chute out of Les Chapieux, we passed Mark and Jane, then Jon on their way in. None of them were doing well but it was the wee hours of the morning. To be expected. Hang on until daylight!
Les Chapieux to Col de la Seigne (37 miles)
The quiet line of runners climbed a gradual, uphill paved road almost three miles through a lonely valley as the sky began to lighten. We could see the river below to the right. The gentle climb topped out at a few beautiful but random stone buildings that the map alleged was La Ville des Glaciers, in an open, treeless valley. We passed three runners sleeping next to the road under the overhang of one of the vacant buildings. No one said a word.
The course wound back and forth a bit, slightly uphill before diverging off onto dirt road at Refuge Des Mottets, a large stone farmhouse. As we walked out to a small point along the farm fence, I noticed a dirty Great Pyrenees dog laying quietly in the cold, wet grass inside the fence above, watching us all calmly but intently. I was felt sorry for the dog as we rounded the corner, until I saw what as on the other side – a ewe with two stark-white, newborn lambs. Aha, a working dog. The sky was getting brighter but the sun wasn’t visible yet. Time for the extreme pre-dawn cold. The road got steeper and wound farther up the side of the valley, then turned right to head almost straight up to the ridge line to face the glow of the rising sun that was just over the crest of the ridge from us. Clouds blasted past, left to right in front of us as the sun lit them up from the other side of the ridge. The entire world seemed bathed in gold. Silhouettes of the runners in front of me climbed up slowly in the bright glow and wind. It was ethereal…like we were climbing to paradise.
Starting up La Seigne in the cold.
A new figure darted in the sky ahead. After a few steps, it turned into a stunt kite, looping like a trapped bird in the sky above the aid station that itself was perched in the golden clouds on the crest of the ridge. In one calm moment as we reached the crest, we saw the sun, then were nearly blown off our feet by the freezing wind. We crossed as fast as we could over the invisible border into Italy and down the hill.
La Seigne aid station emerges from the clouds, freezing in the wind but breathtaking.
Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal (40 miles)
It was so mind-numbingly cold in the wind on the Italian side of the hill, even in the morning sun, jackets, hats, and gloves, that we kept running just to keep warm. In survival mode, Rob ran down toward warmth while I tried to snap a few last photos with numb fingers. Despite the cold and speed, this was for both of us the prettiest part of the entire course. Steep, jagged peaks laced with glaciers rose on the left and a lower but no less jagged set formed the other side of the valley on the right, while the wide, green valley rolled down and straight ahead of us for miles upon miles ahead. The trail ran down into the valley over rock scree trail and then dirt road. A huge herd of cowbells clanged incessantly in the shadowed valley by the river on the right, like a giant wind chime. We passed on a bridge over the river and rolled along to the Lac Combal aid station sitting in the middle of a wide, green meadow, frozen but in the morning sunshine.
Lac Combal to Col Checrouit (46 miles)
We left continuing down the same dirt road along the flat valley floor, with tall peaks flanking both sides. Rob and I found ourselves running near a group of Korean runners. We were all looking ahead toward a flat road through the trailhead parking lot ahead when someone yelled from above on the right. We all looked up at the same moment to see the course head straight up a ridiculously steep bank we’d almost missed. Several languages groaned in unison and then we all laughed because, of course, it couldn’t have been that easy.
We toiled up the hill and slowly passed some people leading ponies laden with building supplies headed to a nearby refuge. I stopped part way up to wait for Rob and as one of the ponies passed me back, it’s hip swayed enough on the narrow trail to knock me flat on my butt. Good enough. I stayed seated,waited for Rob.
Rob leading a crowd up Arete Mont Favre.
When we finally reached the top of the climb at Arete du Mont-Favre on the side of that same gorgeous valley, Rob and I stopped for a few photos. It was breathtaking. But as soon as we broke the camera out, the whole handful of runners from a variety of countries that we’d been climbing with broke theirs out too and we all traded turns taking each other’s photos, with lots of laughing and mugging for the shot. It was a fun break for everyone.
The trail descended easily from there down along the ridge-side in open sun and it felt good to finally start thawing. I reminded Rob it was time to switch from “merci” to “grazie,” a quick Italian lesson before spectators. Then along one curve, we heard a “hey guys!” and turned to find Jon catching us. He looked strong and awake, much better than at Les Chapieux, and we laughed together for a moment before he took off ahead. We didn’t even catch him during our brief stop in the Col Checrouit aid station. I checked with Rob on our time against cutoff and he said we were fine.
Along Arete Mont Favre.
Col Checrouit to Courmayeur (48 miles)
This section was short but brutal. You could see Courmayeur from above and it seemed so close. Rob and I were consciously taking it easy during the race, trying to soak in the experience and at the same time doing damage control since we both had 100-milers coming up again in two weeks (Wasatch for Rob and Superior Sawtooth for me) but there was no way to take this descent easy other than to get it over with.
Dusty trail into Courmayeur.
The difficulty was the ridiculous pitch, probably around 60 – 70 degrees, on hot dusty trail. One pebble underfoot and you’d slip, which I did, multiple times. It beat up our already tender feet, tore at our quads, and contracted our shin muscles on each foot landing far beyond normal. The few switchbacks were there purely for show. Two runners ahead of us cut straight down the switchbacks, a maneuver that was both stupid and against the rules, then had to rest and recover at the bottom while we passed them. Real smart.
Trail of a different sort through Courmayeur.
We had drop bags at Courmayeur, a major aid station. I was having trouble with my contacts in the dry dust, and we both desperately needed to do some foot maintenance. The drop bags, thousands of them, were lined up by number and hanging along the fence as we arrived. Some little girls had made it their mission to see who could match runners with drop bags the fastest. They efficiently snapped our photo and directed us into the massive gymnasium that had been turned into a huge cafeteria.
Our helper and Rob with the drop bags.
Workers had pasta ready so Rob went to get us some plates. Ah…real food! I sat down to do my contacts and feet when a worker who recognized me from a previous aid station came over and asked if I was going back on the bus. I laughed and said “No, of course not. We’re continuing on” (I didn’t look that bad, did I?). Between his persistence, his decent English and my bad French, I slowly realized he was warning me that we were only 15 minutes ahead of cutoff. What?!? I yelled at Rob to get back over here, and explained the situation. Rob, confused, said he didn’t remember a cutoff here. We asked another nearby person, who confirmed it. We had to get out, and fast. I slapped new protector pads on the two quarter-sized blisters and shoveled down the plate of pasta while Rob yanked on clean socks, downed a Red Bull, and swallowed a few bites of half-chewed pasta. We dumped our bags as fast as we could and bolted out of the aid station door.
In the chute outside of the aid station, we saw Mark and Jane…but on the spectator side of the plastic fencing. Mark said they had come into Courmayeur just behind us and had decided to drop and catch the bus back. It was hard news. They both looked good and we were going to miss knowing they were there and maybe running with them. Mark told us we looked strong and that we could finish. It was so calming to hear – we knew he was right but sometimes you just need to hear it. Still we were down on cutoff, so I took off leading strong. I was NOT going to come over here and DNF something I knew I could do, just because I’d been goofing around earlier on the pace!
Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone (51 miles)
The run through Courmayeur, down narrow alleys adorned with window boxes filled with red geraniums, past memorial plaques and busts of mountain guides, across green, park-like traffic circles, past old stone buildings, across a crashing white river…. It was afternoon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the town was bustling. There were multi-colored flowers everywhere, stuffed into every conceivable nook and cranny, and they were happy to be there. It was beautiful…and we couldn’t afford to stop for a single photo.
I was leading hard. We had to made to make up time. We passed runner after runner on the roads up through and out of town before arriving at the trailhead in the baking heat for the rest of the steep climb to Refuge Bertone. Being from Tennessee, I figured I knew how to do heat better than most of the runners there. Poles be damned, I was going to climb this thing at my speed.
I started passing runners and climbing fast in the free and clear. I kept my heart was pounding at the edge of it’s aerobic limit as I passed more runners. Rob dropped back a bit but hung on. Switchback after switchback after switchback, I kept on pushing. I could do it. It felt good.
I finally rounded a switchback and saw Jon immediately ahead. After a quick half-hug, he said he was hurting for water. I stopped and gave him a couple of beaker-fulls as Rob passed us, too worn to even recognize Jon. Jon is strong and would certainly make it to Bertone – I just wanted him to make it in good shape, for whatever climbs were ahead.
Looking behind us past Refuge Bertone to Courmayeur below.
Refuge Bertone to Refuge Bonatti (56 miles)
This section and the next, up the long, narrow Val Ferret toward the head at Grand Col Ferret, was the second-prettiest part of this ultimately pretty course. This part ran along one side of the valley, at about 6000′, half-way up the side of the ridge, sparse with trees, and therefore stayed high but fairly level or gently rolling all the way. The river ran parallel, far downhill to our left and on the other side of it. The Grandes Jorasses and it’s glaciers rose sharply all along the valley. Mountaineering territory. The guidebook, when describing this section, used the term “visual ecstasy.” It was easy to see why.
Entering the Val Ferret. Lots of runners ahead.
I was feeling great and wanted to run this section to make up more time. The only problem was other runners. There were so many of them along the trail that they would clump together every so often in groups of 10 or 12 like clogs in a pipeline, no one willing to pass, and all of them using stupid poles, making it horribly difficult for me to pass even one or two individuals on the steep hillside. But pass, I did. I hadn’t quite gotten used to the French way of shoving past the runner ahead but had long since decided that even though international trail etiquette didn’t seem to include alerting a runner ahead that you’d be passing, I was going to. A quick “sur la droit” or “la gauche” and I went.
Clinging to the side of the mountain, toward Refuge Bonatti.
We passed a lot of runners. The wind was blowing so dusty that I had to put up the camera and was thankful I needed sunglasses in the open, treeless sunshine. Every once in a while, I’d get some free and clear trail to glide along and lengthen my stride. It was bliss.
Arriving at Refuge Bonatti.
Refuge Bonatti to Arnuva (58 miles)
The bliss continued. This was more of the same, at least until the descent into Arnuva. I loved the running sections – just what you’d picture about running in the Alps.
The descent into Arnuva, next to the river on the long valley floor was steep but runnable. Along the way, we saw, not for the first time, a wife join and accompany her husband from the top of the descent to right outside the aid station, flagrantly violating the race rules that crew and aid can only be given within a certain radius in certain aid stations. Whatever…let them make their own choices. I wanted to run my race honest and to be able to look back on the run with pride.
More spectacular scenery towards Arnuva.
We arrived at Arnuva. I got some chocolate and crackers while Rob filled our bladders (hint…remember that tidbit for the next section).
Arnuva to Grand Col Ferret (62 miles)
The course stayed briefly on road out of the aid station, long enough to pass over the river, then it took an abrupt, steep right turn uphill on trail. A very steep turn. Steep enough to make my achilles tendons scream. I couldn’t imagine how Rob with his chronically tight tendons was handling it, but he was quiet behind we as we passed more runners at mountaineering pace – one slow step, pause, and then another.
Partway up this first half of the climb, Rob asked me to check his hydration bladder for leaks. Nothing. We proceeded on, but I began to notice that my own hydration bladder felt weird. It was bouncing off my spine as we climbed. Uncomfortably so. “Rob must have filled it really full,” I thought. I took a sip to empty it a bit and choked….sparking water! Yikes, the bladders were probably about to explode and that would be a race-ender for sure!
We quickly dropped our packs. Mine was full as a tick, literally about to explode and it wasn’t a new bladder. I prayed for it to hold. We couldn’t afford to dump the water since we had 7.5 miles left to go over the highest peak on the course until the next water. The lid hissed wildly as I opened it to let off the pressure. I drank some and closed it back up without any extra air space so whatever remaining carbonation would have room to build up without explodig. We opened Rob’s and did the same but I spilled water on Rob’s jacket, gloves and hat (hint…remember this for later too).
The climb up Col Ferret into the clouds.
Crisis averted, we finished the initial climb and passed a refuge on a small shelf on the grassy side of the mountain in strong wind. Runners were following each other up a short cut that started the final ascent up to the Col, but we walked the extra .10 of a mile to the course flagging and did it right. I was still climbing strong, though the sun was starting to set behind the peaks on the other side of the valley head. It got cold very fast, especially with the wind chill, and I stopped to pull my jacket out of my pack and get out my gloves. It was just going to get colder, especially because we were going up. The climb up the Grand Col Ferret stretched out of view above, into clouds that hadn’t been there when we started the climb. None of this boded well. We needed to be off the summit before dark.
Rob caught up, starting to shiver in his wool shirt but his jacket was still wet. We climbed to stay warm while we discussed options. By now, the wind was starting to howl enough that we had to raise our voices to hear each other. He resisted putting on the jacket but we went only a few more long switchbacks before giving up and donning jackets. Unfortunately, his gloves were useless, so the rest of the way up the Grand Col Ferret and back down the other side into La Fouly, we traded my gloves back and forth.
Sun in setting and we’re ascending – getting cold!
At the Grande Col Ferret, there was no view – just a few yards’ visibility in the twilight clouds. We had layers on top but were still wearing shorts on the bottom. The aid station workers were head to toe in full mountain gear. It was bone-chilling, hypothermic cold and I was relieved to get there in the remaining light. We summited quickly at the invisible border between Italy and Switzerland and started running as fast as we could down the Swiss side to warmer temperatures in the fading light. Time to switch back to “merci.”
Col Ferret aid station – highest point on the course.
Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly (67 miles)
I really wanted to get to the next town and aid station – La Fouly – in the light, so we ran as much as we could. Night would bring colder temperatures no matter where we were, so it was better to be down low in warm air and better to get as many miles as possible before headlamps were necessary. We were gaining plenty of time on cutoff.
Rock scree of the pass turned into shrubs, which turned into sparse woods. We finally turned our headlamps on shortly before reaching dirt road. We crossed a bridge and joined the main road to head into the town of La Fouly but despite anticipation, the aid station refused to materialize. When it finally appeared, we walked straight into what looked like…uh…the men’s locker room. I retreated a less…challenging entrance that went straight to the food. I sat down to clean my contacts again from all the dust and Rob eventually found me in the crowed. They were out of baguettes (though some runners were eating bratwurst), the place was stuffed to the gills with probably 100 people, it smelled bad, and they were playing old Van Halen (David Lee Roth era). I have good memories of a previous visit to Switzerland but couldn’t wait to leave here, which was a good thing, but moments out of the aid station, the cold hit us like a sharp slap in the face. At least the aid station had been warm.
La Fouly to Champex-Lac (76 miles)
We left La Fouly with a loose handful of runners, only two of which were talking. The trail wandered in the dark along a crashing river. At one point, there was caution tape and flashing lights up to prevent us from taking a tragically wrong step. One of the runners, a girl from Hungary who didn’t speak a word of English, panicked and retreated dramatically back against the hillside. We tried to convince her it was ok, we weren’t going in the water, just around, but she refused to budge so we continued without her.
While running along an old railroad bed, a chipper Jon appeared out of the dark behind us. It was a perfect surprise. We stuck together the whole way, through the tough-to-navigate and quiet burgs of Praz de Fort and Issert, all the way up the endless climb to Champex. On the climb there, Jon kept pointing out how far away the lights of Champex were, so I started noticing and my mind started complaining (ignorance can sometimes be bliss). To make up for it, he confessed that he’d been puzzled that everyone in Italy was looking at him funny until he realized been saying “gracias” instead of “grazie.” You just have to know Jon. The miles to Champex went fast.
The Champex aid station was another big tent. When we were finally preparing to leave, Rob bent down to re-tie his shoe. Faster than I could react, a nearby runner with poles tucked under his arms turned, and the pole tips swung in front of Rob’s bent-over face, inches from his eyes. Rob straightened up, looked at me, and I said “let’s leave.”
Champex-Lac to Bovine (81 miles)
Yes, bovine like the cow. This was, thankfully, a unique section. We’d heard mutterings about it from Mark but had no idea what it was like other than “awful.”
To start with, we helped Jon leave the Champex aid station where he’d dropped the last two years. His relief was obvious. I could identify from my own tries at Leadville. He asked if we could stick together to Bovine – “of course!”
We ran around the Lac. Jon stopped to put on warm pants and reply to text messages, while Rob and I got out our handwarmers and continued. It was going to be a cold night. Jon eventually caught back up but by then was having trouble staying awake. We were on a gradual climb up through woods on a wide trail. I tried all the usual tricks to keep Jon awake – asking questions to keep him talking, trying to get him to eat, etc.. We were eventually joined by a German who asked to stick with us because he knew English and thought it would help him stay awake. “Sure,” but our main focus was keeping Jon moving.
We got slower and slower. Nothing was keeping Jon awake. We suddenly had to step over a runner laying in the middle of the trail asleep. Jon was starting to waver from side to side in sleep deprivation symptoms I knew all too well. We had hours to go until daylight so he prognosis looked grim. Finally, Rob told him to put on his iPod and crank up the volume. Lo and behold, it worked.
And not a moment too soon. We almost immediately arrived at the “awful” part – miles of all-fours climbing straight up a boulder fall that made the trail exceptionally difficult to follow. You’d climb up a boulder, then have to swing your light around to find the trail. It took hours. To put it in perspective, the race gives you 5 hours to do this 8-mile section, and we needed it.
I pulled out my extra headlamp and pointed it down on the trail so Jon could see easier and so the extra light might keep him awake. He surprised me shortly after starting the boulder climb by singing, and not bad at all! I couldn’t hear the music but amused myself by trying to guess the songs from the words as we clambered up among the boulders. No luck with the song names but the words kept me awake and guessing. In the first hour or so, Jon’s footfall was exactly where mine had been a few seconds earlier, even if it wasn’t a good line up the rocks. But as the climb progressed, I could tell he got stronger because he started choosing his own foot placement where I’d gone bad, and his reactions were faster.
We finally reached Bovine in the cold and dark and stopped to wait on Rob, who we thought had fallen back. Rob, however, was right behind and asked angrily what we were doing, saying we were in danger of missing cutoff at Bovine. What?!? Again?!? How?!?
Bovine to Trient (86 miles)
Depressed and angry to be all of a sudden, AGAIN, close to cutoff, I took off in the lead. This was a long, steady three-mile downhill on twisty, single-track in the dark to Trient. Something I’d love to run. I couldn’t take my eyes off the trail, so couldn’t tell if Jon and Rob were within sight behind me. It was especially hard after passing another runner to tell if the headlamp behind me was either of them or one of the runners I’d passed. I finally gave up and trusted that they were keeping up, occasionally yelling for Jon, like a sonar waiting for a “ping.”
When I made it to paved road near the aid station, I waited for them. Rob emerged from the trail first and we talked. Rob said he wasn’t sure we’d make cutoff at Trient. I think I remember seeing Jon come off the trail and us telling him we were going to run the short distance on into the aid station. I led, running fast, determined to get there. I had a lot riding on this race and I knew for sure I could do it. I was regretting taking the pace so easy on some of the earlier stuff.
We ran all the way through town into the aid station. This was the blackest point in the race for me. I wanted to grab some food and water in the crowded tent but needed first to know how we stood on time. I asked Rob point-blank if we could finish. He said he didn’t think we were going to make it and my heart sank. I looked around at all the other runners in the station and thought about all the other ones we’d passed – none of them looked worried. Rob said we had 12 hours to go 20 miles. We filled our hydration packs. I didn’t understand the problem. Standing there in the middle of the aid station, we argued in front of everyone (in English) about the calculation. I couldn’t understand what he wanted to do because it almost sounded like he wanted to drop, very unlike him. He insisted his calculation was right and we couldn’t finish. Finally, furious, I said it didn’t matter, I was going to go on until they pulled me. He agreed. But what, I asked, were we going to do if Jon hadn’t even made it to Trient before we left? He wouldn’t know why or when we’d left Rob said Jon was strong and could probably catch up with us. I argued back that I didn’t feel good about leaving him and that he wouldn’t even know why we’d left without him. We grabbed a handful of food and were arguing about it when we walked out of the main tent to see Jon outside in the vestibule. Relieved to see him, I still didn’t know how to explain the situation. Rob cut to the quick, telling Jon we were heading out, that time was tight, and that he needed to keep moving. I was still angry with myself about leaving him but we went.
Trient to Vallorcine (92 miles)
I led hard. Again. Really hard. We ran out on paved and dirt road to the base of the steep climb up to Les Tseppes and over. Like the climb from Courmayeur up to Refuge Bertone, we needed to make time. The climb was single track switchbacks up a dry mountainside in the growing dawn. My heart was pounding at the extreme edge of it’s aerobic limit and I kept it there as I passed more runners, amazed at how well my body responded after all the previous miles. Same as before, Rob dropped back a bit but hung on. Switchback after switchback after switchback, I kept on pushing. I could do it. We passed runner after runner.
At the top, far from being tired, I was wound and ready to run. Perky, even. So I did. Poles be damned again, I was going to run. Rob caught up and eventually passed me on the downhill feeling pretty good with himself. At the bottom of the hill, we emerged into a parking lot that looked just like the one we’d arrived in after a run earlier in the week. Everything after that looked extremely familiar – the name of the restaurant (Les Edelweiss). . .
A few yards away from the aid station, we heard a train. The tracks were between us and the aid station. A worker frantically gestured for Rob and I to run. I ducked last under the gates as they came down, and the train crossed 30 seconds or so behind us.
Vallorcine to La Flegere (98 miles)
I can’t explain the oddity of this section except that I had deja vu in the extreme. The trail out of the aid station, the stream crossing, the campground next to the trail, the man folding the tent in the trail on the other side of the fence from the campground, even counting the 75+ switchbacks up Les Tete aux Vents…I was so absolutely, positively sure we’d done this all before in the race that I took no pictures. I even resolved, this time, to take a better count of the switchbacks up Les Tete aux Vents because I remembered losing track last time. There’s no physical way we would have been on any of these trails before the race. It’s impossible. And to this day, I still can’t resolve my memory of that section with the exact copy we experienced as we ran it. The two are so vividly alike it gives me chills.
Mont Blanc peak comes into view ahead. Not long to go now.
On Les Tetes aux Vents, we knew we were close to the finish. It didn’t seem possible. We played around and took lots of photos. Then headed down the easy descending trail in the wide open sun to La Flegere, where you can see Chamonix in the valley below. It was a hot section and I was out of water. I wished I had more sunscreen. I wished I had more time to enjoy the trail. I wished it wasn’t almost over.
La Tete aux Vents and the signpost to Chamonix.
La Flegere to the Finish (103 miles)
It was all downhill from here. The aid station was small compared to the others and perched on the side of the hill in the open sun. We stopped long enough for some food and lots of water, then left and ran through the ski resort of La Flegere and on into the shade of the nearby evergreen woods.
While I made a pit stop, Jon apparently came out of nowhere and passed us. Rob reported it to me when I rejoined him moments later. Though I’d love to have finished with him, it was good to know for sure that he’d finish. We knew we’d finish too, and the mantra from here on was “damage control” in anticipation of our next 100s two weeks later.
Descending La Tete aux Vents – love the rocks!
On the switchbacks down, we saw the Hungarian girl sitting dejectedly on a rock on the side of the hill. Through sign language and mutually-lousy French, I learned her knee hurt and she was upset about it. I told her she’d run “this much” (arms extended) and only had “this much” (fingers almost touching) to go. She smiled and nodded thinly. She eventually finished behind us, smiling, I hope.
Only one other landmark sticks out on the descent – La Floria. It’s another refuge/restaurant on the side of the hill halfway down to Chamonix. And brimming, stuffed with flowers and spectators yelling for us. Rob ran through the cafe while I stopped to take a photo of the blinding, multicolored flowers outside. He stopped midway and when the care-goes told them he was waiting for me, one of the couples understood him. Then he apparently told them I was very attractive, payback for my early jokes about dragging him along? When I arrived, I saw a guy gesturing understandingly to Rob but didn’t quite get it until Rob explained the story to me later.
La Floria. Yes, this IS trail.
The descent down to Chamonix from there was uneventful. We guessed it was a trail we ran earlier in the week, but found at the end of the trail that we guessed wrong.
Forest trail down to Chamonix.
The moment my shoes touched pavement in Chamonix, it was over. No more trail, and another year before we’d even have the possibility of being here. The finish would be fun but it just wasn’t the same as being out on the trail, looking around the next corner, reaching the summits. We ran across the river, turned right by the gym where we’d registered several days before, and started seeing spectators. We ran past the building where we left our drop bags, then through the now-empty expo area. We turned right, then left onto Chamonix’s main drag past the Super grocery store where we’d bought many a baguette and on into the chutes through the crowd.
As the fences started, we saw Mark Barnes. He gave me a hug and said he’d get a video. There’s nothing you can say to that, nothing like seeing a happy, friendly face, welcoming you in.
In Chamonix, starting into the long finish chute.
Amazingly, the tunnel of people cheering us in was the same as the one cheering out at the start – huge and enthusiastic. We ran down the streets we’d been walking for the past week, unfamiliar under all the yelling people, so foreign after two days on the quiet trail. So many strangers yelling for us and giving us strength. I thought I was going to cry.
We finally took the last right turn and looked ahead to see the banner we’d started through. A step…two…and we crossed the last chip pad to be welcomed by smiling race staff. Lisa Bliss and Tim Englund appeared in the chute with us out of nowhere. We talked for a few minutes (Tim finished hours earlier) and exited the chute into the incredible hubbub.
At the end, I told Mark I understood why someone wouldn’t want to run it again. The poles and the number of runners were incredibly frustrating. You can blow past people like they do to you, but it’s still extra work to pass so many people and all those poles. But like Rob and I talked later, the scenery and the “what’s-around-the-corner” factor are undeniably alluring. It’s an incredibly beautiful course. It’s the hardest 100 I’ve ever run but also the most beautiful. It would be hard to cross this off the list forever…
Jon Steele finished 1005th in 43:48:59.
Rob Apple and Susan Donnelly tied for 1114th place in 44:24:34.
Of the 2278 starters, 1383 completed the entire 103-mile course, with 1213 finishing within the 45-hour official time limit.