Sunday, 10 September 2017

Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS). Defeated but not beaten

I arrived in Chamonix on Sunday evening 27th August.  The weather was good.  Dry and warm.  There was an amazing view from my hotel room looking towards Mont Blanc and Aguile du Midi.  It was good to be back and memories from 2015 came flooding back.  I was disappointed to miss Mark Clarkson's Bob Graham the same weekend but he smashed it!

This time the plan was slightly different.  The TDS.  A 120k route from Courmayeur to Chamonix with 20,000+ ft of elevation gain on rough, remote terrain.  The race was on the Wednesday so I had time to soak up the atmosphere before then.

On the Monday I went on a training run up Le Brevent which was easily accessible from behind the hotel.  A lovely forest trail zig zagging all the way up to the Col.  There was some low cloud and drizzle on the way up which was refreshing.  There were quite a few folk out, some running, some walking and some throwing themselves off the top attached to paragliders. Crazy.  On the way down I said hello to Rory Bosio (as you do)  who was doing the OCC and had a nice chat with a female American who was going to be doing the UTMB.

Training run done, I spent the rest of the day lounging around eating ice cream and getting a sun tan.  Tuesday was registration day.  I got there an hour early.  Quite a few people had the same idea so I joined the queue.  Luckily registration opened early so I was in and out within an hour.  The mid-day heat was fierce.  I met Helene in the queue.  It was lovely to meet her, she is from Paris and we said we’d look out for each other’s results.  Helene was amazing and finished well within her predicted time.  Congratulations!!

Wednesday was race day.  Up at 3am to catch the bus from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur.  I managed to have some cold porride, two bananas and a breakfast bar.  I also made sure I was well hydrated.  There were warnings of rain late in the day but the temperature was high and the sun was going to be out.  I reached the start line having dropped off my spare bag for the halfway point.  Time to chill for 45 minutes. 
Sunrise on the first climb

The entertainment began with around 10 minutes to go to get everyone motivated.  It was dark but headtorch was not required as the sun would be rising in the next hour.  The start was crazy.  Everyone sprinting down the small streets jostling for position in preparation for the first climb. This was unnecessary for the TDS as there was plenty room on the trail and we were soon nicely spread out.  I reached Col Checrouit, had some liquid and a few slices of salami. Yum. The next checkpoint was Lac Combal.  I was feeling fine although the temperature was rising and I was trying to drink loads.  I was also conscious of salt intake.  I necked a bowl of noodle soup and headed for Col Chavannes.  A tough climb which took over an hour.
En route to Col Chavannes

Once I reached the top there was a long descent to Alpetta. It was hot and I needed to urinate.  The descent seemed to go on forever, a steady gradient and runnable but I took my time.  A few runners passed me, but I wasn't taking much notice of that.

We hit the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard and I was starting to feel it. Hot, tired, thirsty. My hips were stiffening up and my glutes were worn out.  I refuelled and set off on another long descent to Seez, a small checkpoint before the big one at half way.  There was water on tap and I dunked my head into the trough.  Really refreshing.  It was another 3k to Bourg Saint Maurice. I was walk/running at this point.  Even on the flat and downhill.  I couldn't sustain any momentum.  I took a good 15 minutes at Bourg.  A couple of bowls of noodle soup, some bread and some melon.  My kit was checked as I exited for the essentials, headtorches and waterproof.  Rain was on the way according to the forecast.

I knew what was in store next but you can't visualise or even comprehend how relentless the 6,000ft climb out of Bourg up to Passeur Pralognan via Fort de la Platte and Col de la Forclaz.  Hands on knees for the majority.  Yes, you can say it's 3 times the height of the Cheviot.  But firstly, the Cheviot is over 3 miles from bottom to top.  This climb was 6,000ft over 6/7k.  The gradient, the heat, others dropping like flies at the side of the path it was an experience.  I was hiking for 5 minutes then resting.  This wasn't what trail running means to me.  It took around 3 hours to reach the top then the nervous descent on the other side using fixed ropes to traverse down.  I ain't great with heights and this was a test.  
Another hour to go on the bitch of a climb

I was certainly feeling defeated on the path down to Courmet de Rosalend where I ultimately withdrew from the race.  My first voluntary DNF.  I was in around 180th place at this point which is pretty respectable but I couldn't face walking another 30 miles just to finish.  It was a clear decision and I have no regrets.  I have fond memories of the CCC.  That was a runners course.  This was not.

I thought a lot on the bus ride back to Chamonix.  Two and a half hours.  I still think it was the right choice.

I had a great time in Cham, and met some lovely people. An experience.  If I see another hiking pole it will be too soon.  Ban the lot of them.  Yes, they give you an advantage but I still say it's cheating.  


  1. Hi John ! Nice story and really great pictures ! You always stayed in the top 200 and this is already impressive. You just missed the night and it was not a big loss beacause you know, it is cold and dark, you can not see a thing and the time seems so loooong :-)
    Hope you already have new plans, maybe in Chamonix next summer ?

  2. Great write-up (only just got around to reading it!) and I'm 100% with you on banning 'wizard sticks'! Even ignoring the advantage they give the user, the complete lack of spatial awareness displayed by some users makes them dangerous; I spent most of the early stages of UT110k trying to avoid being tripped and/or get a chunk gouged out of my leg.