UTMB – TDS RACE Weds 26th August 2015 06:00
I competed this race in 2013 and was the hardest race I had ever done, the blog is also on pureTRAIL.uk website.
Entries opened for the 5 races of the UTMB week in December and qualification is required over the preceding 2 years to ensure running experience and stamina for these endurance events. My qualification for the was completion of the TDS race in 2013! All of the races have a lottery because more people apply than they can allow to run, except the TDS. Not as many people apply and that is one reason I did as I was pretty much guaranteed entry. Also, as a taxi driver, it’s easier for me to holiday avoid my busy summer period at weekends.
The race is highly technical trail running race of 75 miles and 7,250 metres of ascent. When you consider Mount Snowdon is 1,085 metres in height, there is a lot of climbing. At times there are ropes and steel bars to hold onto to avoid falling on jagged rocks! At least this year we started an hour earlier and I managed that part in daylight and was very thankful.
All competitors are required to take additional clothing in a backpack such as, waterproof jacket and trousers, warm and waterproof gloves, leggings, emergency food, additional long sleeve top, warm hat, cap, mobile phone, 2 head torches (both with additional spare batteries and I forgot an elasticated bandage! When it came to register on Tuesday I had to run to a chemist and buy one, a bit stressful with only a few hours until registration closed but within a few minutes I was happily clutching a proper bandage. I even cut a 1m strip off for another forgetful person in the queue. Lesson learned. The checklist randomly produced a list of 4 items from a list of 15, but it’s good that checks are in place. The man in front of me didn’t not have full leggings and was not happy that he was turned away. The problem the organisers have is that should weather conditions change at heights of 2,500 metres, people can suffer from hypothermia and it is then very difficult to rescue someone off the mountain.
OBJECTIVE 1 – to finish within the 33 hour cut off
OBJECTIVE 2 – to finish under 30 hours to qualify for Western States 100
OBJECTIVE 3 – to finish quicker than 2013, in 28:17
OBJECTIVE 4 – to finish the race running in with my wife and daughters
OBJECTIVE 5 – to finish injury free
Wednesday and race day – this required a 3:30am alarm but I was already awake at 3:16 to catch a 4:00 bus to the start in Courmayeur, Italy. The problem, with this is that you arrive at 4:45 and sit around in a sports centre for an hour before walking nearly a mile to the start! In this time I made sure I had everything needed at my fingertips in my backpack and rearranged my dropbag (clothes, food, etc), which I would receive at an aid station about halfway around the course. I had breakfast of bananas, grapes and nuts and hydrated well. With 20/30 minutes to the start at 6am, people left to walk to the start line. For the second year, I have no idea how people knew where to go but I just followed the 1,800 others.
It was still dark so I put my head torch on my head and then realised it would be light within 15 minutes so I elected to put it back as we run through Courmayeur town centre with plenty of supporters for a while and then the start of the first big climb of 700 metres ascent in just 7 kilometres. It seemed I had hydrated well because I stopped for two pee stops on the climb losing about 150-200 places. At the first checkpoint I was 1,721st out of 1,800 (these were only known after the race) and the queue out of the checkpoint was at a standstill because the wider skiing route turned into a one foot wide path. One foot wide paths make up 80% of the TDS route from then on, the majority of which had varying amounts of water, gravel or snarly rocks to negotiate. Finally we get to a stretch of downhill and then I have to consider how fast to run this stretch as I don’t want to hurt my quads so early in a very testing race. A lovely run down to a beautiful lake and the first of many aid stations and up to 1607th position. I always seek the salty noodle soup but also the salami and cheese that’s available. I also had a little ‘doggy bag’ for extra salami to eat on the move. Everything seems to be going well, except the long queues up ahead, although each time it’s probably saving my legs for later.
The sun had risen and the temperature was also rising quickly. Having run the next section before, I knew to fill an extra water bottle due to the time between checkpoints and the heat of the day. I still had to refill in a stream prior to Col de Petit St Bernard which is a border area between Italy and France. 2 climbs of 600m and 500m are in between and this takes time, there is a 10k downhill that seems to take forever because I still have to watch my footing in case of tripping over loose stones.
Another top up of water, soup, salami, cheese and I grab some Overstims bars as these always taste good and seem to give me energy. Up to 1,376th and I’m guessing others are struggling with the heat, climbs and descents. I felt glad that there was a good runnable section but daren’t push it too much too early as there was a massive climb after which took me 4 hours in the race 2 years ago. I decided I’d call my, Sophie, my wife to say I’m fine and I was half hour quicker than 2013. The phone cut out after a few seconds so decided I’d call my pureTRAIL.uk events director, Mark Brooks, and he’d convey my emotions to Sophie. All on track and a great aid station minutes away. This was overrun with extremely hot and sweaty people sitting down in the shade. I decided I’d stay standing, re-fuel and go. I knew from last time there would be a kit check so I was ready for them this time. Two head torches out (with spare batteries for each), mobile phone and waterproof jacket all ticked off their list. Onwards and upwards.
Having been out in the mountains for over 9 hours and completed 30 miles, it’s a little surreal walking through the narrow streets of Bourg Saint Maurice but reality soon hits me. A massive climb of 1,754 metres awaits and I’d not gone 1/2 mile when there were families outside their houses, with their kids, offering cups of water, some had troughs and hats or Buffs were dipped in the cold water to help cope with the heat of the day. This climb is the longest of the race and I was only too familiar with it from 2 years prior. It was head down and follow the person in front and not think of time. Just one foot in front of the other. The only stopping was to wipe the sweat from my brow, again and again. Previously I’d arrived at the summit just in time to put on my head torch and jacket ready for the evening. This time we had started an hour earlier so more daylight meant arriving at Roseland just before dusk. Over the summit is the most technical section of the course, with jagged rocks and a steep descent, with handrails of rope or metal to help us from falling.
I faffed about getting food, putting jacket and waterproof trousers on (for warmth), head torch on, and getting more food.
Finally I left in the dark and slowly made progress up a slight hill that then turning into an almighty steep ascent to La Gitte (was far worse than the profile looked). It was just following the person’s feet in front of me for hours. Having completed the race before, I now have a better recollection of the route and enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the long downhill through Notre-Dame de la Gorge where I saw no one for an hour and arrived in Les Contamines at 04:23 (33 minutes up on 2013). I remember this checkpoint well because last time I had to have a caffeine gel to give me impetus for me up the steep climb out. At least I had a climb up through the woods (my favourite terrain) but also I knew the climb up Col de Tricot was really tough. About 800 metres of ascent in 2.5 kilometres, the steepest section of course but that’s most of the course ascent done. I followed a guy all the way up and eventually there were 6 of us just heads down and snaking up the slope.
Legs are feeling the downhills more than the ups now and a sticky clay surface with narrow gullies was not helping my legs! Then a technical down to a lovely bridge over melting glacial waters giving a chill as I crossed it. I had forgotten the technical up. Using my hands to climb over boulders, and then a few areas where ropes or metal bars were required to assist. I ran a few of the flat paths and caught a few people out by running past them. Once past, I wouldn’t stop for a while as it doesn’t seem right to overtake and then they go past and walk. I could ‘smell’ Bellevue, the ski station where I had visited on UTMB amended route 2012 and TDS 2013 and the start of a mainly downhill finish for TDS. 10 miles to go and about 250 metres of ascent left. The start of the finish.
I loved the next section, through the woods for a few miles but some sharp, slippy and technical bends to negotiate. I was running behind Frenchmen who was ushering me to go past and I said I wasn’t in a rush to pass, but I did! I knew there was a tarmac downhill that takes us right to the next aid station of Les Houches and about 10k to go. I got my customary cuppa of tea and fruit cake and called my wife, Sophie, who confirmed they had been up and out for a few hours and we’re ready to meet me at NEPA (absolute quality running clothing from Korea and their only shop in Europe) to run into the finish with our 3 and 8 year old girls 😃
I decided I would do my best to run what I could but any hint of a gradient was proving very difficult. A combination of a shuffle with the poles working overtime and running on the level and downhill, got me near to an English guy ahead and I convinced myself he was trying to stay in front of me. He had been chatting to a lady with a baby buggy so I asked her and she said he was just aiming to finish before 10am. When I asked her the time, I realised I could finish before 10am and therefore knock 20 minutes off my previous time! A quick call to Sophie to expect me before 10am. They were ready.
On this stretch, it amazed me the amount of water that comes from the glacier in the mountains. Absolutely gushing down the mountain like a torrent. Maybe I hadn’t really noticed it previously.
The last stretch of road and lots of people walking towards me were congratulating me and then I enter the Main Street and more people clapping and 1 kilometre to go. Sophie and the girls where in position and all gave me a hug. Mark was there with camera at the ready. Hand in hand with my daughters, we ran the last 200 metres to the finish with Mark videoing the moment for posterity.
Finishing time was 27:52:23 and 25 minutes quicker than 2013. All objectives achieved and felt amazing at the finish. I have taken it easy at the start to be in 1721st position and eventually 583rd overall. This compares to 2013 where I did similar and came from 1421st to 518th. Proves that the race has become more competitive as the UTMB has become more oversubscribed and some UTMB rejects from the lottery, are offered places in the TDS.
The family thoroughly enjoyed Chamonix and want to go back in 2016 so I’d better make up my mind which race to enter. So many choices, CCC is 60 miles, UTMB 103 miles and more time in the mountains and less time with the family, or the TDS AGAIN! Oh! There is a smaller 30 mile race but that’s not really for me!
My legs recovered well and all my objectives achieved. One month later I completed the Chagford Challenge of 30 miles on Dartmoor for the 5th consecutive year and therefore delighted to maintain my fitness. 77 marathons (and Ultras) completed and now closing in on my 100th, planned for early 2017.
I entered the Western States but expecting the odds to be against me at a ratio of 10:1, it was a slim chance and both Mark and I at pureTRAIL.uk were unsuccessful. That saved a lot of cash on a family holiday to the States!
All the talk is all about UTMB when Chamonix is mentioned in the Ultrarunning world but I absolutely love the solitude along the narrow paths of the TDS route and thoroughly recommend it to anyone considering the UTMB.