As the sun was coming up on the Sunday morning, I left Vallorcine back in French territory once more, I had a mere 18km left to travel, but this included a final, almost sadistic, 870m climb and with 148km behind me, I was starting to hallucinate due to all the stresses this challenge had placed on me in the previous 34 hours.
2286 runners had started the 166km race along the trails around the base of Mont-Blanc on the previous Friday evening. This was a race of extremes, designed to push the human body, mind and spirit up to and potentially past their respective limits. Physically we had 166km (103 miles) ahead of us, which in itself would be a challenge, but distance was only one dimension included in the tortuous course selected by the organisers as it went from a minimum altitude of 870m (2,854ft) in Saint Gervais, to a maximum of 2,537m (8,323ft) at Grand Col Ferret after some 100km, with several ‘undulations’ before and after totalling 9,400m (30,840ft) well over the equivalent of climbing and descending Mt. Everest. All this had to be completed within a maximum of 46 hours, and as if this was not enough, the start time of 6:30pm, meant that the majority of runners would be competing through two nights, with no sleep. This would add to the mental challenge.
This is what we had known from the start, and yet start we did and although spirits were high as we left, I doubt if any of us were taking anything for granted.
The first part of the race was relatively straightforward, with the first 21km – half marathon distance – consisting of a largely flat start followed by the first 800m climb before a grassy ski-slope descent into Saint Gervais. Some were obviously taking it easy, and indeed I lost my colleagues shortly into this section as they intended to follow a run / walk strategy from the off. In fact, the only real problem with the first section was the congestion and as a consequence the danger of being impaled on the walking poles carried by 99% of the runners.
Saint Gervais itself was fantastic, our first real stop and it seemed like the whole town had come out to greet us with the soon to become familiar calls of “Allez, allez. Courage!”
The feast laid out before us was also to become all too familiar by the end of the next 40 hours or so, trays of bananas, oranges, dried apricots and raisins, were among the more predictable items, but also biscuits, both sweet and savoury, cake, dried meats and soup. By the end of the run I had sampled the calorific content of most of those foods on offer.
As I left the busy checkpoint, the cries of “Bravo!” diminished and I tried to focus again on the next segment – there were now three climbs before the nominal ‘half-way’ point of Courmayer at 47 miles. The first, la Croix du Bonhomme, was over 23km away, and there was a gradual climb up through gravel paved forest trails to get to the real base of this ascent. As I climbed steadily upwards, the night air and the increasing altitude rapidly brought the temperature down, although it was not until stopping at a mid-way checkpoint that I noticed this and so downed a hot soup and sweet cup of tea and rapidly moved on.
The first big ascent now started up to 2433m (7982ft) and the terrain changed noticeably as well – the shielded gradual inclines of the forest trails turned into exposed shale strewn rocky outcrops which the runners were traversing in single file. With only the occasional ‘passing’ point which I took advantage of, the trail became more and more monotonous and at 2am on Saturday morning I had my first experience of ‘sleep-running’. As I struggled to concentrate and keep my eyes open, I slowly crested the peak. The brief stop at the top merely confirmed that the temperatures were the predicted freezing; as I consumed another welcome soup and started to shiver after only 30 seconds – mind you I still only had a tee-shirt and running shorts on.
As I set off down the 900m descent into Les Chapieux I was bouyant and pleased with my time – I was on for a predicted 32-34hour finish – but had I gone out too quickly? How were the others fairing? Would they pass me in a heap on some remote mountain, or would I be forced to ‘abandon?’
I contemplated this many times over the next few hours as I went through the expected highs and lows of long distance running, but another more pressing problem was soon to befall me. As I jogged down the zig-zag, rock strewn channel towards the next checkpoint I trod awkwardly on an unseen rock with my right foot and felt a searing pain as my ankle folded outwards on itself. I immediately sat to my right on the grass verge and nearly blacked out as the pain overwhelmed me. I lay my head in my hands as I tried to ward off the encroaching tunnel vision.
Two or three runners passed me with enquiries of “Ça Va?” to which I mumbled a hopeful “Ça Va bien!”
The weak ankle I had created at the classic cliffs in Cornwall some weeks earlier had not healed properly and I was now at its mercy to complete this current challenge. After a moment or two, I got up, realising that I needed to keep moving or compound my problems with exposure; I was relatively close to the next checkpoint, 2-3km, and probably halfway down the descent.
I limped miserably down the mountain into the checkpoint at Les Chapieux after a total time of 8 hours 21 minutes, with 50km completed. I got some coke and filled my bottles, sat to warm myself with some more soup and contemplate my options.
In the end it was a simple unwillingness to give up that motivated me and after strapping my ankle to try to reduce the swelling which had already commenced, I changed my clothes for longer sleeved and drier outfits and set off. Nevertheless, I had stopped for 30 minutes which was longer than I had hoped.
The next climb to Col de la Seigne, the highest of the first half, was similar to the last in terrain, although it commenced with a gradual incline on a tarmac road for which I was very grateful. My ankle, although swelling and tight, was not causing me too much pain and seemed to be loosening up enough for me to continue.
As the runners made their way along the side of the valley, the snake of headlights outlined the route ahead up to what I correctly assumed was a false peak. We transitioned yet again into the barren moonscape towards the real summit of the mount past and across innumerable streams and tributaries of the valley rivers below and my headtorch picked out the glistening frost on the rocks through the breaks in the mist that we were now cutting our way through. At times visibility was bad and I consciously pushed myself harder so as not to lose sight of the reflective strips on the backpack only a few meters in front of me.
Eventually the checkpoint at the top of the peak with it’s bonfires surrounded by huddles of competitors, came into view – 10 hours 58 minutes had elapsed. I hardly stopped at all here and pushed on down the other side of the mountain towards Lac Combal.
As I jogged slowly along the trail descending a megre 500m to the valley floor onto which the melting glacial waters begin to collect, a miraculous thing happened.
The sun came up.
After so many hours and so many miles travelling with merely a headtorch for illumination, the sensory deprivation only becomes apparent when the night turns first to twilight and then dawn. The difference it made to my mood and motivation was stark and I positively bounded along the pathway and began to forget the trials still ahead of me.
Lac Combal was a small check point and I had reached there by 6:14am but was high after my successful completion of the first night and confidence started to return that I would be able to progress without any further incident. I moved on swiftly and the time began to pass quickly because I now had the glorious distraction of the environment. This was what I had been looking forward to. The ‘mere’ 465m climb to Arète du Mont-Favre passed almost without me noticing, and suddenly I had only the last 9km downhill before the respite of Courmayer.
To my surprise I started to pass people again on the descent into Courmayer, but the final part of the trail down into the town was a steep dusty forest trail with short zig-zags from side to side which seemed to go on forever. By the end of this I was glad to see the sports centre where I could collect my drop bag and sit for a rest and collect my thoughts. The final downhill section had wrecked my quads and my right shin was getting increasingly tight as well – although at this stage my assumption was that this was related to my becoming more acquainted with the hill before Le Chapieux.
I had taken a shade over 14 hours to reach the nominal halfway point and the rest was welcome. Dry clothes, a pasta meal and lots of coke made a big difference, but as on previous occasions, half my rucksack food supplies (energy bars, shot-bloks, chocolate coated coffee beans) had come along for the ride, as I had not used them, so I decided to pack light for the second half.
After less than an hour, I was on my way again.
The climb to Refuge Bertone had been billed as a tough one; over 800m but from a standing start, so to speak, after the rest at Courmayer. After only an hour my legs had stiffened appreciably and it was a struggle to get going. I was also becoming more concerned about my right shin, in which there was the occasional sharp pain.
Nevertheless despite all my current misgivings about my physical state, I was currently on a mental high – the sun was creeping upwards in the sky, there wasn’t a cloud in sight, it was warm, the views were as spectacular as I’d expected and every person the other runner’s and I passed were still encouraging us with shouts of ‘Bravo!’ Who could ask for more!
The ‘peak’ at Bertone was a welcome sight, and I yet again considered how nice it might be to be snowboarding in the opposite direction, but after a brief Coke I carried on. The next section, first to Refuge Bonatti and then the bigger checkpoint at Arnuva was a steady and in comparison, relatively easy 12km, and I jogged as much as I could while the opportunity was there and found myself again overtaking people towards the next checkpoint.
All the way throughout the race, I had been receiving text messages from my wife, who was back in our chalet, with Jenny and Helen, the wife and daughter of my colleague Greg, who was with John and Tim behind, following a ‘1 hour before cut-off’ strategy. The organisation uploaded times from checkpoints in real time, so the giant map they had sprawled out on the dining table for the two days and the Internet updates became the mission control of our races. The texts were a lifeline as I had no real idea of my position and being largely on my own needed all the encouragement I could get.
From Arnuva, where there was more food and drink laid on, there was a final big push through Italian territory, as the next peak – Grand Col Ferret – marked the border into Switzerland. This was a climb of 768m over 4.5km and the route to the top was strength sapping and I was being passed by runners with walking poles who seemed to be having a much easier time of the rocky incline.
Eventually I successfully crested the highest peak of the race and this was another big psychological barrier out of the way. I had covered 100km in about 20 hours and now had 18km downhill to ‘rest’. Although I consider myself good at negotiating the descents, after such a long time and distance into the race, running downhill was becoming progressively slower for me. Some of the trails were dusty and although short, the occasional steep inclines were difficult and slippery to get down and it was along this section that the blisters under the balls of my feet really developed. The final forest section after La Fouly was thankfully level and a pleasant run parallel to the boulder filled gorge where the melt waters from the mountains were impressive but presumably a trickle compared to their springtime glory. This was followed by further downhill sections through typical Swiss valley hamlets, where the trail meandered intimately through the overhanging and avalanche protected rural buildings.
After a short climb (460m!) at the end of this section I was at the last major checkpoint of Champex Lac but even so, I was depressed at my lack of speed and the diminishing time I had left to the cutoff, but most of all I was struggling to comprehend how I would tackle the three major climbs totalling 2500m I still had to complete.
It was about 8:30pm on Saturday night by the time I arrived and all but the last vestiges of daylight remained. With more pasta and local culinary delights onboard I was on my way, only this time with a head-torch again.
The initial section away from Champex Lac, skirted around the lake but I was largely on my own for the initial downhill section through another forest trail.
Then my worst nightmare was realised.
We began clambering up rocks.
For over 330m (1100ft) the trail was littered with basketball sized rocks and larger boulders with such an incline that I had to push down on my knees with my hands to provide as much assistance as possible, even so each step was exhausting. Mercifully, my mind was beginning to numb to everything that was being thrown at my body – although I cannot say the same about my body; nevertheless, as with every other section, I eventually reached the top and had another summit behind me. It had taken me 2½ hours to do a mere 9km – hardly sprint speed and when I got to the top I felt colder than I had all day but after the now obligatory soup and donning my longs, I moved on.
The terrain of the ‘Bovine’ descent into Trient started out similarly to the previous hateful ascent, but this did not last long as the pathway downwards transmuted into an equally frustrating tree-root strewn zig-zag descent. What next? I thought.
I arrived at Trient and as I went through my now ritual bottle filling, soup drinking and coke quaffing, I contemplated the fact I had only 28km to traverse, and how quickly I might manage that – ordinarily I would be disappointed not to manage this in around two hours, but this was not normal, my feet and body were broken, I could hardly stand, let alone walk or even run, my mind was telling me this was ridiculous and I should just stop and that there was no way I could manage another two hills, it was still dark and I was seeing faces in the stones on the ground and ghostly figures in my peripheral vision from the eerie illumination of my head-torch – and yet somehow I just got up and went.
I left Trient on my own and following the reflective strips laid out every fifty meters over the entire course, immediately started up towards Catogne. I remember very little about this ascent and descent other than it was the most lonely part of the race for me and the terrain, without daylight, was similar to much of that I had already covered. I reached Catogne, just after the peak after a further 1:45 and then started down back into French territory without so much as a border post guard to wave to.
As I shuffled my way into Vallorcine, it was 5:10am on Sunday morning, I had been running for nearly 35 hours and the bonfires by the side of the roads, where the huddled spectators still shouted encouragement, looked inviting and merely served to remind me the temperatures in the clear conditions had dropped yet again to freezing.
I had stopped again for over 30 minutes for the usual warming soup and sweet tea, but by this stage I was starting to feel nauseous as well so forced myself to eat to stave off the first signs of a lack of energy. As if things could not get any worse, I had used up the last of my painkillers at about midnight and the effects were starting to wear off.
There was a relatively easy initial path from Vallorcine to Col des Montets but as the sun was rising for the second time on my challenge, I began to hallucinate. Up ahead a family playing in a courtyard turned out to be a plum bush by the side of the trail, and a photographer kneeling to take photos of the runners also turned out to have a similarly high level of floral attributes. I can’t tell you how many Disney characters I spotted in the undergrowth.
Nevertheless, the sun was coming up and this was therefore my last day running.
As I crossed the road which presumably led to Chamonix by a slightly less tortuous route than that which I was about to take, another runner and I started up towards la Tête aux Vents, the final 800m climb which turned out to be another bolder strewn clamber I’m sure Sherpa Tenzing would have been more at home on, rather than the ultra-marathoners around me and as if to underline the point I spotted an alpine ibex balancing precariously, but with apparent ease on the steep incline halfway up. I was regretting not bringing my walking poles.
Eventually, at 8:27am on Sunday 30th August, nearly 38 hours after starting, I reached the final peak. The last of the ten mountains I had set out to conquer as part of this challenge, but with 16km still ahead of me and the state I was in, I hardly felt like celebrating.
The route down into Chamonix was similar to the steep descent into Courmayer some 26 hours earlier, but I tried my damnedest to speed up as I had already been passed by too many people looking fresher than me. My jog was a painful shuffle and although the last few kilometers seemed to last forever, the clambering, labouring and exertion was nearly over.
All the way throughout my journey I had asked myself ‘What next?’ as I moved from one trial, some of my own making, to another. I should have learnt not to drop my guard until the final whistle, and as I pushed harder down the dusty trail with 163km behind me, I shuffled too fast into an immobile rock, lost my footing, fell flat onto my front and rolled off the left side of the precipice.
For a brief instant I slid down the leaf covered bank gaining more momentum than I had in quite some hours, but then managed to arrest my fall. As I backed my way gingerly up the steep bank to regain the trail, a lone Japanese spectator arrived and assisted me, more with the familiar “Allez, allez!” than with any physical help.
Ironically, the pain I now felt in my knees was sharper than anything in my feet or legs and distracted me to the extent I could continue marginally more easily than previously.
As I rounded the final corner after the descent into the town of Chamonix, the crowds were growing thicker. With still a kilometer to go, I was running to the finish, faster and faster, hoping my family would be there to meet me – my mobile battery had long since demised so I had been out of touch for several hours.
Then suddenly there they were, 800m from the finish waiting patiently, excitedly, in anticipation. They had seen two days come and go while I’d been away and I had taken the long route around Europe’s highest mountain to be back where I had started. After a short embrace, we all ran on together, the pain was gone, there was no stiffness, just elation – I was home.
The finish line was a mere formality ahead of us.
As I ran across the final blue timing mat and stopped my watch, Réne Bachelard, the organiser of the race, was there to meet me with smiles as he had with all the runners, we were all winners in his eyes. I too smiled, as broken and exhausted as I was, I smiled. I had achieved what I set out to achieve; I had significantly beaten the cut-off time for one of the most difficult races in the world. The crossing of that line became more than symbolic though, and with it came a physical shut down as the anticipation of many hours was realised. We found a spot to celebrate in the shade nearby with two more Cokes before returning in a daze to the Chalet, where I was asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.
Final Result for me – Time 40:34:23, position 642
Of the 2286 runners that started, 1382 finished – a shade over 60%
My immediate thoughts upon finishing were that I had no idea how I had completed such a challenge, and that there was no way I could, or would, attempt such a thing again. On reflection, I achieved it with the support of all my family, who were there for me throughout the race, with the support and donations of all my friends and colleagues through the commitment I had made to the SOS Orphans charity and of course, through sheer dogged stubborness and unwillingness to fail.
The human body is a remarkable thing and can achieve so much more than we ask of it under ‘normal’ circumstances.
I have not yet found my limits.