One of the most famous mountain ultra-races in the world is the UTMB (Ultimate Tour of Mount Blanc), a 171km race around the Mont Blanc Mountain range. This race is part of the Race week in Chamonix, during the week there are 5 huge races, UTMB is describes as “the queen of the course” , I didn’t have enough qualifying points to enter this race, but I bumped into a guy in a race in Wales who enthused about the more technical TDS race. The TDS’s full name is “Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie”. If the UTMB is the queen, the TDS is “the wild alternative” – it is shorter at 119km but has 7200m of climb and 7400m of descent. It runs on paths that are more technical and has one particularly huge descent that is tricky to say the least.
TDS was one of my big goals this year, but only one of my goals. I have run in the mountains all year but have backed off over the last 2 months focusing more on 5k speed and road marathon training. The advice is that you can’t do everything and it showed a bit as some of the climbing has come out of my legs. However it is a huge adventure and one I was looking forward to.
So on an aeroplane we jumped and off to Chamonix we went. Clare (non-running wife) and I landed in Cham on the Friday and the race was on Wednesday. The town was buzzing; over 8000 competing runners were in town, from all over the world. The elite mingling with the masses. I was one of the masses, but in my element, the atmosphere was electric. Tuesday was registration day, that was an achievement in itself. Going through all the checks, passport, waterproofs etc, etc etc. All packed and ready to go.
On race day I was out of bed at 03.00 and grabbed a sandwich, said my goodbyes and grabbed my kit. To my amazement as I tip-toed downstairs in the hotel, the restaurant was in full flow. The hotel was providing early breakfast for runner! I missed out on that one. Short walk then into town and jump on a pre-booked coach that drove under Mont Blanc through the tunnel to Courmayeur (I forgot to say that the TDS starts in Italy and runs back to Chamonix in France).
Jump off coach, into sport centre, black Americano, walk through Courmayeur to start line, sneak into the elite section of start line at front of race (pretend I am elite) mingle with great and good, film crews and look up at the drone cameras above our heads. The music gets louder, the crowd cheers, the tension amongst the twitchy runners grows, the clock strikes 06.00 (Wednesday) and we are off. 1600 runners charging through the streets, passing cafes, shop, schools and the church and then up we go, up and up out of town running up a grassy ski slope, no snow but a big hill. The first hour of the race climbs about 600m and was ok really as everyone was settling in and getting sorted. Day broke and it was light before we hit the first top.
My race strategy was to race hard and I had a schedule for 23 hours, friends of mine had run that time in previous years and I had decided to run hard and hold on for the ride. I was stunned, at the top of the first big climb was a long (4k descent) of a gradually downhill wide track. The part of the race I was in (top 15%) ran so quickly downhill, I was really putting a lot more effort in than I had expected to keep with the crowd. It was too fast for me and wisdom made me slow down a bit. We then got into the Italian mountains proper, the views were stunning, peaks and glaciers drifting in and out of the clouds was breath taking. I took some photos and sent some texts to Clare, Ian (my mate) and Matt Armstrong, short texts, superb, stunning.
As the sun climbed, we climbed, it got hot, very hot, low 30s. I misjudged 2 aid stations and ran out of water for a while; I drank a little from a mountain stream and kept pushing hard. All was well.
All didn’t stay well. Half way into the race I stopped eating and drinking properly, and not long after that I started to be sick and couldn’t keep any fuels down. This occurred at the same time as the really big hills start. When you leave Bourg Saint Maurice there is a straight 2000m climb, huge. That is twice as high as Scafell Pike and non-stop. I was flagging big style. People were overtaking me rapidly and I kept sitting down and resting (that never normally happens). At this point I really started to question what was happening. If I didn’t change something I would not get round, I would DNF and have to come back next year. I sat on a rock and had a word with myself, I needed to use every trick in the book to speed up and get my sorry a** going. A few more text and replies including one from Matt. saying that DNF meant do not fail and to keep pushing. It is amazing how calming down, getting stock of what you need to do or try to do and encouragement from afar really helps.
I decided to walk up the hill counting 40 paces then stop and rest from 10 deep breaths, then repeat. I must have done this for about 3000m of climb, slow but progress. I was ok on flat, on gentle up, but rubbish on steep (I couldn’t keep my breathing steady, I was just puffing and panting and had to work really hard to slow my breathing). Any flat trail didn’t count when counting paces, but I didn’t go over 40 paces on steeps even if I thought I could, as I needed rhythm and I needed to sustain. I then started to eat 1 or 2 pieces of dried mango and drink water (mountain fuel recovery powder was good) after each set of 40 paces. The more I ate the more I rewarded myself with a few extra seconds rest. Food started to stay down. Long story short I got to Cormet de Roseland which is just after halfway and is a big aid station and is where you get your drop bag, it was just getting dark and a storm was forecast.
At the aid station I got my drop bag, changed my socks, shoes, put my compression tights on (if it was going to get wet and cold I didn’t want to attract attention to myself for wearing shorts (I was a little concerned that the medical teams may focus on my nausea (there was no need to worry) but I wrapped up warm. I texted Clare and said I was struggling and I was going to stop in the aid station until I started eating. Clare was following progress on the live tracker and I didn’t want her worrying that I had stopped. I ate banana and drank a little water. It didn’t stay down, up it all came again. Not good. I chatted to a Scandinavian runner who had run the race a number of times before, he said the weather was not looking good and the next bit was scary and he was retiring. I thought “Right if it’s going to get hard, it’s going to get hard for us all, and it was already hard for me, it will slow others down to my pace. Bring it on”. Although I hadn’t kept anything down, after an hour or so in the aid station I went out into the dark.
And on and on into the dark, not feeling better, but not getting worse, at the next aid station I had a full bowl of soup, just outside I threw up, but not only a bit came up. Some stayed in, oh little victory. More drink went in and bits of mango, more mountain fuel and flat coke. Earlier I had texted that I was no longer in race mode, I was in survival mode but I was determined to get back into race mode, I was picking up and moving better. If you type UTMB into google (or any other commercial search engine) you can pick live tracking and put my surname in, it shows you my ranking at each check point. I was 527 at Bourg Saint Maurice and during my bad patch I dropped to 865, all those buggers overtaking me, grrrr.
On the last big climb of the race 600-700m ascent, it was just starting to get light. I was picking up and although way off my target time my spirts were good and it was still absolutely brilliant. One last big climb, in the valley I caught up with a petite French lady. I walked behind her with the plan of not overtaking but not stopping every 40 paces, if I could stick with her she would get me up the last climb. She was superb, a very steady but relentless climb up the hill. She was the engine driver, I was behind her, the stoker, and eventually there was a big train of runners behind us chugging up the hill. She led around a dozen of grateful runners up the hill. I thanked her in pigeon French at the top and felt guilty as I shot off downhill, although I had 25-30 km to go I could smell the finishing line and I was racing again. It was fantastic running and a huge technical descent, a Portuguese runner stayed with me and as we chatted about running downhill fast and energy highs and lows we over took loads.
He left me on a short climb and I left the mountains and headed down to the river. For the race you wear your national flag and first name on your bib and on the back of your running pack. This is great as spectators see your name and nationality and shout out, it was fantastic hearing little old French people and young children shout “Allez Steve, good job, courage”. As I ran down the tarmac road to the last aid station there was a couple walking up, the lady had a cow bell as we ringing it with too much enthusiasm (in my opinion), As I passed him he said “Keep going” in English, the lady then said my name from my bib and to keep pushing, she said “Allez Steve” and as I passed, her she said “Steve, Steve shit I know you!” They turned out to be a couple I have met at races abroad a couple of times who were walking up to cheer on their friend. She gave me some haribos and a big hug. That’s it I am back in the game, re-invigorated and on my way home. The last leg was undulating along the river, I had checked out the last bit on the Monday so knew what to expect. It was just over 8k and the first k or so was walking up a steep road. My legs and spirit were back, I ran really hard, as fast as I could, thinking of my park run endeavours and away I went, I covered the last section in 54 mins and took back about 30 of those bloody places I lost walking up that hill. One of the Elite American runners ran with me for a couple of k, it was her last tapering run before the CCC race (101K) the next day, we chatted about the beauty of the mountains and about being able to finish strongly.
I ran into town, I had run well at the end bit but around 5 hours slower than my schedule. I think I was 617th out of 1600, but neither the time nor the places was the important thing. Clare was at the finish to give me a hug, I crossed the line and raise my arms (in an Amy Young Tribute) the finish was great, Clare and I chatted with the INOV8 team as I had one of their caps on, they took the mick out of my oversized Hokas and said I would have been in a couple of hours earlier if I had run in innov8s. The important thing was that I had to dig deep and be smart to get round, I had to change things and endure. I know It was my own fault because I ran too fast at the start, but hey ho.
Clare asked me if it was the UTMB for next year, I was very clear that there was no chance, By the following morning I was considering it, and now I have forgetting the bad bits of the race and focused on the good, I am planning big days in the mountains in the future.
I wore my HPH vest for all the race, this worked well as I had my number on it and it fitted well over my waterproof, not only that but I chatted to a Ambleside runner at the start, he said he had seen an HPH vest in Cham during the week, I said “No chance” it wasn’t me and I couldn’t see there being another. BUT in the first quarter of the race a French guy said “Hello Hyde Park, I run for that club and have done for the last 3 years” his name was Anthony and after a quick chat about him moving to Oxford to study, he said goodbye and left me in his dust.
The big races in the mountains take some logistics and planning to train for and get to. They are however days that I will never forget. I was out for just under 28 hours, I ran up mountains in Italy and France, I ran beside lakes and glaciers, I crossed mountain streams and climbed rocks and ran through trees. I saw flora and fauna and had a blast. At the top of one mountain I could hear the call of my favourite mountain bird screeching above me – the mountain chough, and I thought “Yep, you and me both”.