I am going to start this post with the fact that I did not finish TDS. What follows is a report of my view of the race up to the 50.7km checkpoint at Bourg Saint Maurice – to cut the story short my first 15.2km were atrocious for reasons I will make clear below, from there to 35.9km I was starting to feel quite good and moving pretty well. Then, from about 42km until I dropped my morale took a nose dive and my head and heart just were not in the race – again, I’ll try to make my reasons for this clear.
La Grattague (22nd & 23rd August)
I had arrived in the Alps on Monday afternoon, 22nd August, feeling pretty tired but very happy. I was staying about 40 minutes outside Chamonix at a place called La Grattague at 1400m. On my first evening I went out for a hike and run just before sunset and all was well – the scenery was beautiful, I was out for about 50 minutes, covering 8km (+370m) and just relaxing, taking photographs. I spent the evening preparing my race vest and drop bags for Wednesday’s race.
Before leaving La Grattague for Chamonix on Tuesday 23rd August I went out for a pre-lunch hike and run. I was out for 65 minutes, again just relaxing and taking photographs and enjoying being out in the peaceful mountains on my own! I covered 11km (+540m) and felt well-adjusted to the heat (30º+c) and the elevation (ranging from 1400m to 1700m).
Chamonix (23rd August, the night before)
Preparing to leave for Chamonix caused me quite a bit of anxiety which I really wasn’t expecting as I knew I would have to be travel down to Chamonix! The anxiety came from not being sure what to expect; I kind of knew it would be busy and I was really worried about finding an appropriate parking space and a place for dinner. In addition to this, having only passed my driving test in December, this was only my second day of driving abroad.
I had arranged to stay with a friend who was also racing TDS, at a chalet with his parents who would drive us to Courmayer at about 0430hrs the next day. Again, this caused me some anxiety as I struggle at the best of times being around unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places but it sounded better than being cooped up in a hotel, on my own in Courmayer – this would have involved a lot more pre-race stress in terms of logistics!
I arrived in Chamonix around 1530hrs and had no trouble parking which was great! I also had zero trouble registering for the race and getting through kit check – there were no queues or crowds at the expo when I arrived there around 1615hrs. I started to feel more relaxed, less anxious and certainly ready for a beer and a snack with some friends. So that’s what I did. I headed over to Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (MBC), which was a stone’s throw from the chalet, and met up with a couple of people to talk race strategy, eat fries and drink beer (and water) for an hour.
Anxiety began to rise again when I actually arrived at the chalet and figured I’d need to go over my drop bag once again. My friend also had to sort out his drop bags and crew bags because he had the good fortune to have support out on the course! It really seemed like a monumental task and all I wanted to do was nap, eat and then sleep or at least sit in quiet contemplation before drifting off. Unfortunately that was not to be and we had to walk across town to the Big Horn restaurant. It was getting late and once more my anxiety began to rise as I realised I wouldn’t be eating (or sleeping) for quite some time, that allied with the fact I was about to enter a restaurant to meet yet more new people was not doing me wonders. To cut this long story short, dinner arrived at 2045hrs and we were on the move back to the chalet at 2130hrs.
We set our alarms for 0330hrs and while my friend prepared his crew/drop bags I spoke to my girlfriend for a while on the phone and looked at the surrounding mountains and the stars. We turned out the lights at 2245hrs…and neither of us slept at all properly. I think we both managed a grand total of around an hour, maybe 90 minutes, of broken sleep before the alarms went off. I showered, ate some fruit and drank some coffee and waited for the inevitable pre-race movement…
At 0415hrs, 15 minutes before we were due to leave for Courmayer, I was still waiting for my usual movement. It wasn’t happening and I wasn’t feeling too great about it. I figured by the time the drive was over and we arrived in Courmayer it would be time. We arrived. I went to the nearest coffee place and went straight to their toilets. And I waited. And waited some more. And still it didn’t happen. By the time I gave up it was 0520hrs and we decided we should head for the starting area. I did not feel happy, physically I felt bloated and a little sick. Mentally I felt tired and worried. Not the best start to the biggest race of my life.
Courmayer to Lac Combal (0-15.2km, +1329m)
We got into the starting pen, towards the front as per the plan – my friend was aiming for sub-22 hours and I was aiming for 24 or 25 hours. The atmosphere was tense and there was a minor verbal altercation between my friend and another runner as it was, to say the least, pretty cramped conditions.
I did my best to block out everything and everyone around me. I gave my friend a thumbs up, a smile and a nod and that was the last we saw of each other until Saturday evening!
I managed to apply sun lotion and Vaseline whilst being jostled around, pushed and shoved and still I felt pretty unwell. The close proximity of a couple thousand runners was also doing my anxiety absolutely no good, I felt slightly worried and wondered if this was going to be my day. I figured I would just go out, as per my plan, pretty hard out of Courmayer on the road and then settle into a fast hike and jog on the first climb up to the aid station at 6.5km.
At 0559 the countdown began and the tension in the air seemed to rise with every second that passed. I can’t remember if a hooter sounded, a gun went off or some other signal occurred but all of a sudden we were moving forwards. First at a shuffle, then at a jog, then back to a shuffle, then up to a jog, then a short standstill and then, finally a rhythm seemed to settle and we jogged through Courmayer town centre heading for the trails above. The only problem, for me anyway, was that jogging was making me feel uncomfortable and I started to feel quite sick. I knew that I would need to go to the toilet at the first aid station or I would only get worse.
I did my best to ignore the feeling of sickness and the bloated feeling in my stomach and to keep pace with those around me. I thought that I would settle into a strong climbing pace once we hit the trails but this was not to be as it was pretty tightly packed with runners all the way to the aid station at Maison Vieille-Col Checrouit. I stopped once during the first climb to see if having a pee might release some pressure but this actually just made me feel worse and, to add insult, it also meant I dropped back down the conga line by around 200 places or so – just from a two minute stop!
I arrived at Maison Vieille-Col Checrouit (+801m) with a cold sweat on my brow and, if I could have seen myself in a mirror, probably with a pallid tinge. I headed straight into the hut, straight to the toilet and found to my surprise that first of all they were of the south-east Asian squat style and, secondly, that I still couldn’t go. At this point I really did consider dropping. I couldn’t believe it – 6.5km into 119km and was I really thinking about throwing in the towel and heading back the way I’d come? Well, yes. Pardon my Italian here but: fanculo quella! I took a sip of some Tailwind and felt immediately nauseous so I decided to switch to water instead, again, nausea. Again, fanculo quella.
I emerged from the hut to find a huge conga line of runners in front of me heading out of the aid station and up the climb to Arête du Mont-Favre, 4.7km away. I was dumbstruck by the sight and realised that I had lost yet more hundreds of places whilst I tried to deal with my stomach issues! We literally stood stock still for minutes at a time, shuffling forward occasionally and being bumped and jostled by less patient people scrambling up either side of the line. To be honest, if I hadn’t have felt so rough I would have been one of those impatient runners. In my mind I figured that this may well turn out to be how the day would pan out but pushed that thought aside and kept on moving up as best I could.
I found myself getting quite annoyed with the delay – some of it was caused by congestion on the narrow trail, yes, but quite a bit was caused by people seemingly standing around chatting and taking photographs. I was around position 1277 at the point and by the time we arrived at Arête du Mont-Favre I was around position 1555. To say the least my race was going pretty badly. Even if I could have been able to run at this point I would have found it difficult as the trail was so narrow and those around me seemed to be quite happy strolling along and so, maybe unreasonably, I felt my mood begin to sour toward those people. My mood soured further when a helicopter came along and destroyed the peace and quiet for almost 30 minutes. My mind was really not in it at this point and, as I tried to run the descent into Lac Combal aid station from Arête du Mont-Favre I began to feel even more sick and tired too – I hadn’t eaten since 0400hrs and I hadn’t managed to drink more than a few sips of water since 0600hrs.
I stepped aside on the descent into Lac Combal and began to make my way slowly down, hoping that the brick in my stomach would dislodge itself sooner rather than later. As I was walking towards the aid station I took my phone from my pack and called my girlfriend – I don’t think she was expecting a tearful and ill boyfriend on the other end of the phone so early into the race. She told me that what would be would be and I should just go find a toilet and wait there for as long as necessary! I did just that. I arrived at the aid station around 0925hrs, went straight to the toilet and ten minutes later emerged feeling relieved and very hungry. I spent 4 minutes grabbing what food I could and then headed out feeling quite determined to get my race back on track.
By the time I left Lac Combal, six minutes before the cut-off, I had dropped into position 1783 over the course of 4, mostly downhill, kilometres.
Lac Combal to Col Du Petit St-Bernard (15.2km-35.9km, +2602m)
I marched out of Lac Combal aid station like a man possessed, cramming food into my mouth and taking huge draws of water from my bottles as it had been so long since I had been able. Immediately I started to climb up and catch people. I looked back after a while and could see the aid station behind closing down with a few dejected runners who had been timed out – I couldn’t believe I was so close to the cut-off and so close to the back of the race. I began to run.
My run didn’t last too long as I caught up with what appeared to be everybody else on the next significant climb. Out of Lac Combal to the timing point at Col Chavannes (the highest point on the course, 2603m) I had managed to pass a measly 25 people on a section that I had been looking forward to for weeks prior – I knew it to be pretty steep in places and fancied my chances of gapping people had my race plan been going to plan at this point. As it wasn’t going to plan I once again found myself in a slow moving conga line and taking risky opportunities once in a while to step out of line and hammer upwards for a few metres at a time. Still, I could feel myself getting stronger and I was really happy when I reached the Col feeling absolutely fine and really energised – there was something about emerging from a shadowy, gravelly mountain path onto an open, windswept Col that caught my attention!
From here on to Col du Petit St-Bernard the route was largely downhill with a few climbs thrown in for good measure. I chose to pace myself conservatively, as I would have done had I been higher up the field, and ran for about 6 minutes at a time before fast hiking for 3 to 4 minutes. I cannot deny the fact that I was absolutely loving it on this section. From Lac Combal to Col due Petit St-Bernard it is 20.7km with a climb of 1273m and a descent of 1055m – perfect mountain running territory and something I relished. During my fast hike sections I took sips of Tailwind, ate a banana and ate about 4 Chia Charge flapjacks, during the running sections I kept a steely eyed focus ahead and ran as quickly and confidently as I could past other runners. I was moving up the field and I knew it, I was enjoying myself, and I knew it.
Just before reaching Lago De Verney the terrain started to head upwards and once more the queues began to appear but more sparse than before but no less slow moving. This took the shine of the previous few kilometres as I had to slow down and get my head out of racing mode for a short while – I took the opportunity here to dip into some streams, cool myself down and eat/drink more. I didn’t know it at this point but we were about to reach the border with France and I was about to accomplish something I had wanted to do for a long time; namely crossing from one country to another entirely on foot!
We reached Lago De Verney and the terrain here became runnable for quite some time, so I ran and enjoyed the view. Occasionally I slowed it down to eat and drink but mostly, I ran. I could see that at the other end of the lake awaited a steep, rooty climb and that shortly after the top of that climb the Col du Petit St-Bernard would be ready and waiting for me with open arms! This climb, it turns out, was really the last significant one of my race. It was quicker than any of the others and there was a lot of support on the slopes and at the summit which made it quite exciting and energetic!
However, as we got over the climb and onto the section into the aid station I began to feel a little nauseous again and as though I need the toilet – was the opposite of my earlier problem about to happen. In short, yes. I arrived at the aid station and immediately visited the toilet for about 10 minutes which is about 5 minutes longer than I had intended to stop at all. Damn. Damn you to hell stomach. And damn you to hell you slow, slow race!
I emerged feeling better and I was glad that whatever had happened had passed quickly and with little negative effect. Granted, I probably lost a fair few places but I couldn’t breeze out of the aid station and back onto the trails without first filling my bottles and eating as much as I could manage in 5 short minutes. I left Col du Petit St-Bernard having gained 190 places and sitting in position 1568. I left feeling in fairly good spirits and I left knowing the next section would be largely downhill. I figured I could maybe gain another 190 or more spots.
Col Du Petit St-Bernard to Bourg Saint-Maurice (35.9km-50.7km, +2649m)
From the Col down to Bourg is 14.8km with a total descent of 1419m. There is so little climb that it’s not even worth mentioning.
The first 6km out of Col du Petit St-Bernard I felt absolutely wonderful. I was running along a gentle downhill on some good trail surface under the hot sun and catching, matching and passing a lot of other runners. In my mind I figured my race was at a turning point and that I was about to start moving at the pace I had wanted to since starting out in Courmayer. However, as the terrain became steeper I decided to slow it down a little lest I blow my quads before the halfway point. Unfortunately for me those who were behind me had no such thoughts in their head and I was overtaken over the course of the next 6km or so by a lot of people. It wasn’t a great feeling at all but I was determined to stick to my plan of conserving my quads. But, by the time I was about 3km out from the Bourg Saint-Maurice aid station my mind had turned against my plan, against my fellow runners and against the folly of the race itself – all I could think about was the fact I was heading into the biggest climb of the race out of Bourg and I would be once more stuck behind a lot of slower people on steep, exposed terrain. The climb for those nearer the top 900 to 1000 or so should take between 5 or 6 hours, I calculated that for my position in the race that was more likely to be 6 or maybe even 7 hours.
With 3km to go before Bourg Saint-Maurice I had made my mind up. I would drop. Pardon my French, but, fuck it. On the descent I knew I would yet again be pushing the cut-off at Bourg Saint-Maurice as the aid station would close and time out at 1700hrs. I knew if I had said to hell with my quads a little more I would have made it into Bourg well before that, but, because of my mental state and a niggling fear that my stomach might go bad on the climb I decided against hammering into Bourg. I walked it in from 3km out and arrived at 1636hrs. I did my best on the way in to talk myself around and when I arrived it was with a grim mindset – I went to the food tables, ate some bread and soup, drank some Coke and then, well, then I’m not sure. I looked at the profile for the next section of the race, I looked around at the other runners in the aid station who were suffering pretty badly and then I looked inside myself and decided to sit down and mull it over. Yes, I sat down. With 20 minutes before the cut-off I sat down and began to think about whether or not I had mostly enjoyed myself or whether or not I had mostly hated being out on the course surrounded by people who had basically not said a word to me for 10 hours and 30 minutes.
As I continued to mull over my options and to take on water and more soup I quickly scanned my vitals: my heart rate was low and felt good, my stomach hurt a little but not enough to withdraw from the race or the next climb, my legs felt fantastic, my breathing wasn’t at all laboured and to all intents and purposes I looked on the outside like I was only just getting started. But, mentally, I had nothing. I felt lonely and isolated; I had tried striking up conversations with Americans, Canadians and some British people through the day and got little more than a few words from them. I tried striking up conversations in broken French, Italian and Spanish during the conga queues but got little more than silence. I wasn’t enjoying myself and it didn’t look like many of the people around me were either.
I walked over to the ‘Abandon’ tent, took off my number and asked what time the bus back to Courmayer/Chamonix would be and where I might get it from. The woman who took my number looked at me puzzled and said that I had another six minutes before the cut-off and before I would be timed out – “Are you sure? You look great.” – “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not having any fun at all. It’s too crowded. When’s the bus please?” – “Okay, if you’re sure. The bus leaves at 1730 from the station. You’ll be back in Chamonix by 2015. You’re sure?” – “Yeah. It’s all good. I’m done, thanks.”
With that, I was done. I made my way out of the aid station and to a local store. I bought a can of coke, a can of beer and some salted crisps and then ambled over to the bus station. I felt light. I felt like I’d made the right decision and I was glad to be away from the madding crowd.
La Grattague (25th August, the day after)
I didn’t arrive back to my apartment in La Grattague until 2315 on August 24th. I was still covered in dirt from the race but I was feeling serene and not at all down about abandoning the TDS before the halfway point. I cracked open a beer, ate some pasta, had a shower and then enjoyed another beer on my balcony in the peaceful mountain darkness. Before going to bed I had already made up my mind that I would head out every day for the rest of my trip and in so doing log my biggest ever training week in terms of mileage and vertical gain and descent! I felt tired and slept very well.
I woke up energised and excited on August 25th. I quickly checked LiveTrail to see how my friends were getting on in the race – the friend I started with finished in 20:58:15 and my other friend finished in 28:02:46. I felt happy for them both and dropped them both congratulatory messages before I headed out for my run and hike.
I set off at 1305hrs and stayed out for 3:20:29, covering 21.5km and +1091m. My initial goal was to summit Mont Joly, but instead I made do with Mont Joux – the main summit was a little too ambitious as it was very hot out and with 51km and +2600/-3000m from TDS in my legs and in my head, probably not advisable!
I hiked hard on most of the inclines pausing at streams to soak my forearms/arm sleeves and hat and in shaded sections I ate and drank plenty. My main goal for the day was to run all of the downhills and to run them mostly hard – mission accomplished! Secondary to that I wanted at least 1000m vertical gain to add to the 2600m from yesterday – mission accomplished. Finally, I wanted to have fun, lots of it – mission definitely accomplished.
I enjoyed being out, exploring new trails and putting to bed my mental demons from TDS. It was great to just take the time for photographs too; I even sat down a few times just to enjoy the views – especially from the summit of Mont Joux.
Over the following days I ran/hiked:
Friday 26th: 16.6km (+934m) [Solo, La Grattague]
Saturday 27th: 10.7km (+166m) [with my friend who finished TDS in 28 hours, Chamonix]
Sunday 28th: 12.3km (+684m) [Solo, La Grattague]
I left La Grattague on Sunday 28th August and my week of running turned out to look like this:
Now, it’s on to the rest of my year and looking ahead to next summer’s racing schedule. I will return to the Alps but I’m not sure I’ll be returning to run one of the UTMB races – from what I experienced at TDS and from what I’ve heard from friends who ran UTMB, OCC and CCC, they are too crowded for my liking!