121km, 7,300 metres ascent
All my races throughout 2018 would be training for this event, which was part of the Ultra Tour of Mont Blanc world summit of trail racing. The route travelled 74 miles along the Grande Randonnee paths crossing through the Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and Aosta valley countryside from Courmayeur in Italy to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in France. Wild and remote terrain. The main challenge for me was not the distance but the 7,300 metres of ascent. I find it extremely hard to climb. I fully intended to train hard, make the cut offs and enjoy this adventure.
After a damp squib of a year of fail and slow times mainly due to a mini catalogue of mini injuries, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to start this race. Since my entry had been accepted, apart from a few home spun events [running from Ilkley to Meanwood, followed a few weeks later by running from Skipton to Meanwood], my training had been virtually non existent.
My catalogue of injuries was matched by a catalogue of failures, on the short 24 mile course of the Lakes Mountains 42 I got lost in a blizzard, and ended up at the wrong lake, struggling to find my way back to the route, some walkers kindly showed me where I was on the map. I had a very slow time at the Liversedge half marathon, followed a few months later by almost my slowest ever road marathon. I failed to make the start of the Northern Traverse, which I had been looking forward to for 6 months, I wasn’t fit to start the Three Peaks race nor the Jura fell race and I withdrew from the Lakeland 100 at the end of July after just 42 miles.
Why would I toe the line of the TDS? Should this race join the list of races I didn’t start, or those that I started and failed to finish? I definitely wasn’t overtrained and I had tapered. I decided that if I managed half of this race I would be happy. There was transport back to the start from some of the checkpoints. My previous visit to this area had blown my mind and it was impossible to withdraw from such an opportunity. I joined the British Mountaineering Council and took out their search and rescue cover (insurance is a mandatory requirement of the event). I finally caved and bought a Salomon race vest after refusing to for years, I went up and down Sutton Bank in the North York Moors, then Blencathra in the Lake District. I was ready.
The day before the race, we were notified by text of a change to the route and a later start (I think due to a the forecast of a storm in the afternoon and evening of day 1). Instead of catching the 4.30 am bus from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to Courmayeur, I was now setting a later alarm to catch the 6.30 am bus for an 8 am start.
It was great to see my friend Matt as I made my way to the start, the streets of Courmayeur clacking with poles attached to lycra clad runners wearing a selection of gear to die for. We took some pics, I went to a portaloo, Matt hopped over the barrier and I moved it to one side to squeeze through and we set off on our adventure from Italy to France. We chatted as we trotted along the streets thronged with well wishers and when we started to climb, Matt disappeared and I followed in his wake.
There was a very long climb. I was labouring. As a woman in her early 50s, I wondered if that was the correct word to use, I decided it was, I really was labouring. If glaciers went uphill I could call my pace glacial.
Checkpoint 1, Col Checrouit Maison Veille. 6.76 km
I arrived at 9.31 am, position 1786
I was right at the back but there was no cut off here [time by which you must leave the checkpoint to continue the race without being withdrawn].
Arete du Mont-Favre, 11.36 km
I arrived at 10.52 am, position 1779
Check point 2, Lac Combal, 15.29 km
I arrived at 11.43 am, position 1789, the cut off was 11.45 am
Almost the last to arrive. A kind marshall handed me my back-up head torch and spare batteries which he had picked up and I identified as mine. Thank you! I grabbed a few snacks and headed off quickly, conscious I remained at the back of the field and was literally bouncing off the cut offs. This was a long way to come to be timed out so soon.
From here I pushed a bit harder, though still labouring, I thought the sweepers were right behind me but wasn’t sure, I powered as hard as I could and carried on. I ascended and heard a shout of my name and was so pleased to see Ross and Steve making their way down, “ey up” I said, no time to talk, chasing cut offs and close to the bone but seeing them made me smile and gave me a boost. Still ascending, the weather turned and the wind was cold, I put my waterproof on and heard Eirik shouting me, “ey up” I said and smiled as I reached the top.
Col Chavannes, 19.99 km
I arrived at 1.10 pm, position 1775
From here, there was a long downhill stretch, through the Vallon des Chavannes, it rained for a while, then there was a grassy section to Lac Verney where the route circled the lake. I heard a lot of cow bells and thought there were lots of supporters; in fact there was a massive herd of cows at the side of a lake. As I ran round the lake I searched for the check point. I knew I had only a short time, 10 minutes or so, to make the cut off. I had to leave the checkpoint by 4.15 pm, but I couldn’t see it. I scrambled up a steep hill and pushed as hard as I could and dashed into the checkpoint at 4.15 pm.
Check point 3, Col du petit Saint Bernard, 36.36 km
I arrived at 4.15 pm, position 1773
I had to leave urgently, or be timed out. I grabbed a piece of cake, a piece of bread and a piece of cheese and ran out. I pushed all this food into my mouth and wondered if I had made the time out, I followed the sign that said ‘sortie’ then I saw I was heading toward some coaches and thought maybe this was the path to the bus of shame. I felt like crying. I was shovelling this food in my face whilst running to the bus of shame. I had been timed out. I was forlorn.
Then I saw a man standing to the side of the route, he was just stood there, and he called out “hello Sarah”. Who is he, I thought, I know him. Oh I can’t believe, it’s Andy! How amazing! I gave him a hug and asked him if other runners had been through here, “yes, many” he said. Andy Spink of Yorkshire had been cycling in the area, seen that I was running from Courmayeur to Chamonix earlier in the morning, and had surprised me by travelling to greet me and offer me support!
“I am worried I have been timed out and this is the way to the bus of shame”, I said to him. He looked confused. He followed me along the route, for a little while, we chatted as the path headed towards the coaches and then the path turned to the right and I rejoiced I was not heading for the bus of shame! Andy said he would see me at the next checkpoint at Bourg St Maurice, and I trotted down the hill along the track used by the Romans many centuries ago, for a couple of hours.
Seez, 48.09 km
I arrived at 6.12 pm, position 1378
I checked in at this small check point, and made my way then through the town to the main check point.
Check point 4, Bourg Saint-Maurice, 51.28km
I arrived at 6.39 pm, position 1727
Andy greeted me with the Yorkshire flag and Eirik met me as my official support, he sorted out my bottles, I ate some snacks, Andy tied the Yorkshire flag to my running sack. Eirik ushered me along the way, politely suggesting I might wish to use the toilet, promising not to tell Richard Adcock who has previously admonished me for using official facilities when natural opportunities are more available. I left at 6.51 pm. The cut off was 7 pm. I had read about the climb from Bourg Saint Maurice, and knew it was going to be tough.
However, I was at this point in the race two hours later than the usual time, due to the late race start. Also the route had been changed, so we didn’t have the sweltering 4 hour climb I had read about. The route change meant that we missed out Fort de la Platte, Col de la Forclaz and the Passeur de Parlognan which was supposed to be one of the most stunning places to be. Instead, the path detoured, the route was longer but less ascent. We were climbing through woods which were dark, before nightfall. I heard thunder and it started to rain heavily, so I put on a warm top and my waterproof.
Cret Bettex, 61.89 km
I arrived at 9.55 pm, position 1282
My memories of this section are limited, it was dark, I was tired, I think it was mainly road.
Check point 5, Courmet de Roselend, 70.44 km
I arrived at 11.35 pm, position 1475. The cut off was 2 am.
The marquee was busy, with tables and benches full of left over food and runners sorting kit; runners sleeping on the floor. I found a small space and did some faffing, I found some food went back to my place and tried to sort out my feet. I put blister plasters on wet feet and they slid off so I tried to keep them in place with the sock which worked for a while. I left the checkpoint after a bowl of warm pasta, I had spent almost an hour in there. I headed off into the dark wearing what I wore when I arrived. I had a full set of warm dry clothes in my drop bag, also new trainers but I decided to continue with what I was wearing and not to have a sleep.
From here the route went up to Col de la Sauce, La Sausse and then to La Gittaz. My recollections of this section are limited; there was alot of ascending, the path was very muddy, we were sliding up and sliding down, I was glad of my walking poles and don’t think I could have managed without them.
La Gittaz, 78.45 km
I arrived at 3.08 am, position 1310. The cut off was 4.45 am.
My recollections remain limited other than ascending in the mud in the dark, the rain and mist made visibility by headtorch difficult. What I can remember of the upward trudge in the dark. I was thinking of reasons why I needed to keep going. I didn’t want to stop and to be transported back to civilisation, unless absolutely necessary. I was tired, but still enjoying the adventure. I thought of my year of failure. I was now well within the cut offs and no longer fearing being timed out. I thought that I might just be able to do this. I worried that I was pushing my body beyond what it was trained for but as each hour passed I felt it could be done.
Entre Deux Nants, 82.08 km
I arrived at 4.40 am, position 1294
This was a fairly surreal section, as daylight broke, slowly moving through farmland then up to the Col du Fenetre where I slipped on wet rock, was saved from a further slide by a runner from Switzerland, and bent one of my walking poles.
Check point 6, Col du Joly, 89.57 km
I arrived at 7.03 am, position 1286
I checked in and out as quick as I could, keen to make progress. The cut off was 8.30 am. There was a happy couple playing music and enjoying themselves, the atmosphere was good.
Check point 7, Les Contamines-Montjoie, 99.9 km
I arrived at 9.13 am, position 1239, the cut off was 11 am
By this time, I was unable to run, no matter how slowly, I was reduced to walking, tapping my bent walking pole. I wanted to take my shoes off and empty them of stones which were stinging my feet. A kind marshall tried to take me to a bench where I could do this but it involved a detour of about 5 metres. I dropped my bag on the floor happy to sort my feet there and then but he urged me to make the time to go to the bench which I did out of respect to him. He shook my hand and said that he hoped I made it to the finish. I think he thought my chances were slim. After I emptied my shoes of stones, I washed my hands and had some bread and a cup of tea with sugar and headed off as quickly as I could.
I crossed the main road and headed up through a residential area. I saw an incline heading up a track through some woods. Something happened which had never happened before My feet stopped moving. My legs did too. They all just stopped still and I was stood there feeling like a right div. Now what?! Ok. Deep breaths.
“Come on. Please move.”
Oh. Ok. We really have to move, this is silly. We can’t just stay here all day. Forever?
“You do realise that if we don’t move we will be timed out.”
“Please. I am begging you”.
I realised that I needed to be extremely creative here.
“You do know that the brain is a traitor, don’t you. It is telling you to stop, but you don’t have to obey it. Come on, please!”
I promised my body I wouldn’t do this again, I would train properly in the future. Eventually after a long conversation, along these lines, the feet and the legs started to move, but very slowly.
“This isn’t fast enough. We will be timed out.”
A bit faster. “Thank you Thank you Thank you!”
Though we were now moving, I was scared, I didn’t know how long it would last for. We all moved, slowly and all the people who had gone past had disappeared off ahead.
While I was pleased to be moving I had no idea how long these legs and feet would follow my instructions.
A runner (clearly now a walker) appeared beside me. I looked at him and said, emphatically,
“we have got to finish”, mainly for the benefit of my feet and legs, to make sure they got the message. He looked forlorn and ready to cry. He said “there is a really difficult climb coming up” and I thought “oh dear, now we have to climb along a rock face, I don’t stand a chance with my legs.”
We continued [we being me my legs and feet] and I urged them to “act normal in front of the other runners”.
Down a track we went, I searched ahead for a rockface and couldn’t see one, the runner of doom told me he needed to stop before the difficult climb and sat down on a bench. Eventually we crossed a river and I filled my cap with water, as it was so hot. I saw a big climb ahead, but it didn’t look as scary as I had expected. It was 500 metres, and there was a path! I thought I would sleep after walking through the herd of cows but I continued to inch my way up the path. I thought that 200 to 300 people went past me as I slowly moved up that hill and I was the last runner out there.
I thought by the time I made it to the top I would be timed out and I was devastated at the prospect of defeat having come this far.
Col de Tricot, 107.03 km
I arrived at 12.43 pm, position 1256
I surprised myself by making it to the top. From here it was it was a long descent, and I stopped to take photos of the Bionnassay glacier before crossing the scary bridge across the river which only took 2 at a time.
Bellevue, 111.00 km
I arrived at 2.01 pm, position 1262, the cut off was 3 pm.
I was still convinced I was the last person in the race and felt ashamed, I had overtaken so many people leading up to midnight the day before, marching along the metalled road with my walking poles like a giant mechanical spider and now I was last and reduced to a shuffle. My mood was low. The morning was bright.
Check point 8, Les Houches, 115.61 km
I arrived at 3.07 pm, position 1255, the cut off was 4 pm.
The funny thing is that from here I lost it, I had no idea where I was, I didn’t realise we were heading to Chamonix, someone at Les Houches said “finis!” and I said “is this the end?”
“No, it is 8 km to go”
The path along the river was quiet and I relaxed and enjoyed the quiet but I could not work out where the end was and how we got there. I was unable to run, my feet were sore, and I thought I was the last person in the race, I was feeling quite disappointed with myself. I walked and despite my sorrow I was enjoying the peaceful walk. I could not understand where I was and when it would finish.
I found myself walking through a street, people were saying well done, and then all of a sudden, Eirik shouted my name and sprayed Prosecco in my face! I was cross as it stung my eyes but I was grateful as I realised he was celebrating my finish! I took my cap off so I could feel the Prosecco he was emptying onto my head and I ran into the finish to cheers!
123.41 km, Chamonix, arrived 16.42 pm, position 1255
This adventure took me 32 hours 41 minutes 31seconds
Reflections, what an amazing event, and I felt so proud to have completed this. The support of my friends on the journey was special and I was so grateful to all who came to see me at the start on the event and at the end.
Marcin Swierc 1st male finisher 13.24.00
Audrey Tanguy 1st female finisher 16:05:22
Matt Allen 896th, 29:36:20
Sarah Smith 1254th 32:41:31 159th female
Audrey Tanguy 1st female finisher 16:05:22
Matt Allen 896th, 29:36:20
Sarah Smith 1254th 32:41:31 159th female
470 did not finish
470 did not finish