(This is the third of three parts on my UTMB experience. To keep them in the proper order, read the two posts below first - and again, all images can be enlarged by clicking them)
After leaving the Courmayeur sports gymnasium, I started jogging up the city streets. They soon turned up a small country road. Now it was starting to get quite warm - I am guessing it was well into the high '80's. It was nice as often I would pass an old fountain with flowing water from the Italian Alps. I would soak my bandanna and head sweats rag into it to stay cool.
After a short while, the road ended at a path that looped around a waterfall before starting to climb up.
On the way up, I met the same runner from Denver that I ran with going up Arete du Mont Favre. We chatted for a bit and commented how hot and tough it had become. Then he asked me if I knew what the next cut off time was.
@#$^*! This whole race I had forgotten about the cut-off times. Now I was worried. I started trying to climb faster (I did not know the cut off times) and soon passed some runners. The view of Courmeur from the high trail was beautiful. But it still went up and it seemed to be getting hotter.
I was really sweating with it pouring off my face and back. Thankfully the S!Caps were working great as I had no nausea. Near the top of the climb I looked down at the valley below - wow, we sure had climbed a lot of the Italian mountain. At the top was a small aid station. I re-filled my bottles and took off. The trail was a rolling trail for sometime. Many Italians and French hikers/trekkers passed by in the opposite direction. Occasionally I would run past a group of locals out having a picnic or sunbathing on the mountain side. I could only imagine what it would be like to have this part of nature as my backyard.
I entered two small aid stations between the 82 and 90km marks. They were merely small mountain cottages with fountains fed from the Alps. The ice cold mountain water felt and tasted great. I left the second one (called Refuge Bonatti) and started a long decline towards the 94km mark. The decline wasn't terribly steep but it was hard on my legs as I was running out of steam and it was still getting hotter. I would stop and soak my headwrap and bandanna in each ice cold mountain stream I crossed.
Finally, after what seemed to be a non-ending descent I arrived at Arnuva the 94km point. This was a decent sized aid station in Italy. It was quite warm and in fact a runner collapsed there from the heat causing Italian paramedics to rush in and help him. I again had my standard bread and cheese, chocolate and water. I also downed a bit of flat coke here. As I sat there looking at the map with my legs feeling quite dead, I thought for about the 100th time that doing MontBlanc 2 weeks after Leadville was probably not my wisest decision.
Finally I stood up and headed out. On the horizon was Grand Col Ferret at 2537 meters high the highest point of the race. I really doubted if my legs could get me up the climb. The trail seemed to just keep going with runners becoming smaller and smaller until mere dots in the high distance. See the runners? You want want to click and enlrage this photo:
But the fear of cut-offs kicked in and up I went. I tried doing a power hike, just moving forward one step at a time. After awhile it seemed that my breathing calmed a bit and I was actually making steady progress. Soon, I was actually passing people. Bit by bit I progressed towards the summit, the valley fading far below me.
Finally, I reached the top of the climb after a series of switchbacks. At the top I was checked in and asked if I was OK. I actually was. There was a O2 tent set up for runners who needed it. I snapped a few photos of the mountain and valleys of Italy from the Col at about the 100km point and then headed down the trail.
The trail down from the Grand Col Ferret was long and usually gentle. I ended up running with a runner from Germany and we chatted quite a bit. It was nice as we kept going forward. The weather cooled a bit and this part of the run was really nice as we kept a nice pace down along the valleys, and descended to La Poule at 102 km (merely a small table with volunteers).
As we rounded a corner I heard a lot of cowbells. Throughout most of the race, crowds and volunteers would ring cowbells to cheer on the runners. I figured it must be an aid station or town getting close as there were a lot of bells. I turned the corner and looked at the source - a large heard of cows heading to the dairy. Their bells were loud and encouraging, even though I don't think they cared a lot about these crazy runners passing by.
I continued the run along what became a single track trail. Often the path became wet and muddy and required some careful stepping. The trail went down steeper and entered the town of La Fouly. Here I went to the aid station which had a bit of a small town carnival atmosphere as families were out and there was a side area selling food (including raclette!) and beer and wine. I refilled my water bottles and once again had my famous meal of bread, cheese, chocolate and water.
The weather was starting to get a little dark so I opted to put on my tights, Moeben sleeves, headsweat and headlamp.
I left the station and dropped down to the trail. Here the trail started out as quite rocky but I picked my way through actually maintaining a nice pace. After awhile I needed to turn on my head lamp and continue the run. Soon it became dark. Here, my body just started to shut down. I could not keep my eyes open and literally would fall asleep on my feet for a split seconds at the time, each time waking up as I staggered a step to the side.
Finally, I hit a point where a young couple were volunteering at the start of a dirt trail. They had a bonfire going and I asked if I could sit. I closed my eyes and instantly slept for about 10 minutes. When I woke up - I felt completely refreshed. I started running again and soon caught up with a group of about 9 people who must have passed me while I rested. I fell into their pace and we formed almost a pace line as we picked our way through the trail. No one spoke English, but we were for the most part quiet as we made steady progress.
Finally, the trail ended and we came upon a street. Arrows on the street pointed the way to a small town ahead. We went into the town and came to Praz de Fort, a small village. As I entered one section, there was a house with 3 older ladies sitting outside. They had set up their own table with cups of water and bottles of beer and wine for the runners. I started to pass but glanced at their lawn.
Cori and I have been working on our garden and we found a couple of old garden gnomes that we stuck in for fun. Since then, the gnome family has increased to about half a dozen. When I saw this gnome covered lawn - I just had to snap a photo.
I continued to run and the road left the town and soon connected to a trail that went up. And up. And up. I was feeling pretty good and passed about a dozen people on the way up. Finally we entered the town of Champex-Luc on the Italy-Switzerland border. This was the 123 km point and the second (and last) of the drop bag stops.
I entered the large tent. There I found my drop bag and switched into some drier and warmer clothing, replaced my batteries with fresh ones and downed my standard meal. I also pulled out a miso soup mix packet from my bag and downed it - the hot broth tasted great.
I then decided to head on out. The town, as the name implies, lies along the shore of a small lake. Soon the path left the lake and dropped down a wide rocky road. The road dropped into a valley but then started to climb out. This began the climb up Bovine. Right where it started to climb I met an older French runner. He and I started talking as we climbed up. The trail seemed to cross through some dairy land and then enter a very very rocky section.
It was quite steep and at times there appeared to be no trail at all. As we struggled up, the man mentioned that later "This trail gets hard."! I almost laughed - here we were, in the dark, on a steep mountain climb, picking our way up towards this river crossing among large boulders....and later it will get hard.
At the river crossing, it did in fact get tougher. The rocks made progress slow and it was very steep. Eventually though, we reached the top (by this time we had caught two other runners). Then we continued along the Bovine Ridge, lights from the villages in the valley far below were visible.
At one point we entered an aid station. I put on my gloves and another layer as I was quite cold. I was happy to learn that this station had vegetarian broth so I downed a couple cups. Then we were off again. We went through a cattle gate and then the trail started to drop - steeply and fast. It was at times very hard to run or even walk. This descent seemed to go on and on. While it was only 6km from the peak to the aid station at Trient, it seemed to last forever. My legs were feeling very sore and tired from the constant downhill with frequent breaking to stop from falling or going too fast.
Finally we entered the town of Trient. It was this nice little Swiss village. We were directed along the old streets to the rest stop. There I grabbed my standard fare and sat down. I happened to sit next to two British runners. She was still going on, but he had decided to call it a day there.
After resting, I grabbed my stuff and headed out the door. The next climb was to the summit of Catogne. Once again, I started my power hiking and was soon passing people. This climb (like every other climb in this perversely difficult race) seemed to go on forever, through constant switch backs and inclines. Near the top at the 143km point, I finally was able to stop for a breather. What followed was a 6km descent that lost nearly 850 meters down to the village of Vallorcine.
Along the way, the sun starting rising. I had finished my second night of running (if you could call it that). My legs were really tired and I dreaded the downhill. But I was really worried about the cut-off so I pressed on. Once again, the constant and relentless downhill switchbacks continued but eventually I entered a large tent in Vallorcine.
There I paused just long enough to refill my bottles, grab some bread, cheese and chocolate and then head on out. I was on my way to final climb (technically a series of climbs with one heck of one).
I started towards the Col des Montets, a short incline. This was the 152 km point. There was a small crowd there and the trail crossed a road to the base of what looked like a pure vertical climb. This was the final challenging ascent - about 3 miles straight up to the peak of Tete aux Vents. I started climbing, dreading this. But as I went up I began talking with a French runner. He had lived in the states about 3 years ago and we talked about various races such as Leadville and Badwater. This made the ascent easier and I was doing a nice pace. After making it up about a third of the way, I decided to slow my pace a bit.
The view from this climb was amazing as the valley floor faded away below. Once I got about 2/3 of the way up though it became more difficult. My breathing was uneven and I was not having a good time. Other runners were passing me (it seemed as if there would be no runners left behind me) but I didn't really care. I just was pushing myself forward.
Finally, I reached the top and there waiting was a French goat - staring at the runners. He probably thought we were all nuts (I had to agree with him at that moment).
I was glad to have reached the top and started running a path along the crest of the mountain. Far down below, somewhere, was Chamonix. As I rounded a corner I saw, yet another climb. It was short but it was still a climb. This was La Flegere at the 160km point. I checked in there and headed back out.
Now the descent started. It was only 6km from this point to the finish line, but it appeared to go on forever. After passing through this final point, the trail became a long series of steep switch backs. My legs and ankles were crying out in exhaustion and pain. I tried to power hike it down (running was out of the question).
Soon I met up with an older French runner named Jean Marc. We tried to speak but his English was as good as my French. But we stayed together. As we approached the town limits, we came across another French runner who spoke a bit of English. The 3 of us decided to run in together.
As we rounded the final corner, 166km (103 miles) behind us, we joined hands and raised them in the air. We crossed the line together. I was glad - because at that moment I really wasn't sure I had any desire to try that course again....maybe after I rested a bit, but not then.
Overall, with 31,000 feet of climbing, this course was very hard (especially on the heels of Leadville). At times I found the isolation caused by not being able to communicate or even share a joke with fellow runners made it even harder. It did appear that those trekking poles really helped and if I were to do this again, I might consider training on them. While the mountains were never at high altitudes, the constant, relentless and at times perversely steep inclines and declines made this very challenging. But, the scenery was beautiful.
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