Friday evening just after 6, the sun still beating down. I've deliberately turned up late, not wanting to sit around in the heat so I make my way to the back of the massed field up on the church steps. The atmosphere is amazing, the music, the inspirational pre-race speeches, the ritual reading of the meteo, the final good wishes and then the count-down by the crowd, 10, 9, 8, to the final crescendo of cheering and increased music volume as we get to "go!" It takes me 5 minutes to cross the start line, and another 5 to be able to start running, but surely no big deal in a race that's going to take at least 40 hours. Down the rue Paccard I see Ritchie with Scottish Saltire up on the balcony, then the road widens, the runners start to space out, and it begins.
Everyone runs the first 5 miles to Les Houches, why not, it's flat, then the work starts. The first climb takes us up 2600ft in 4 miles to La Charme but it's a wide easy track, not too steep, just a loosener-up for what is to follow, out with the poles and get into the rhythm. Head torch on at the top for the start of the 9-hour night shift then straight down to St Gervais 3300ft below and the first party. Every town, village and mountain refuge along the route takes this event to its heart, with music, festivities, bonfires and great support for each and every runner. "Allez, allez" and "bravo, courage" are cries that each one will hear time and again on his journey around the mountains. I down a couple of cokes otherwise pass on through the town without stopping.
From St Gervais to Les Contamines the route follows a newly linked path called the "Sentier de Val Montjoie". I walk it with Jan a few days later, and it's wonderful as it wiggles its way alongside the bubbling river through woods and meadows, past chalets and trout farms. Tonight though all I see is the stream of headlamps ahead floating through the tunnel of darkness, and the dust from feet on the dry ground rising into our beams. The cumulative height gain from St Gervais to Les Contamines is nearly 1700ft, but it's easily won in lots of little ups and downs so goes almost without notice. I arrive at Les Contamines almost spot on my target of midnight, 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off time. My plan this year is to work up slowly to around 2 hours ahead of the cut-offs and stay there with minimum effort to Champex three quarters of the way round, and see how I feel then. The aim is to finish! I stop to eat a bit in Les Contamines, soup, bread, bananas. I am using a gel every hour en route and drinking Nuun for electrolyte replacement. I've tried this system on some long training runs and the Devil o'the Highlands, and it seems to be going well.
From Les Contamines it is 8.5 miles and around 4400ft of ascent to the next high point at the Croix du Bonhomme (just like a trip up Ben Nevis in the dark!), and we start to lose the pastoral landscape we've traversed since the start and get into the mountains, rocky singletracks and uneven ground. I take the ascent steadily, without a pause except for a quick cup of soup at the Balme checkpoint halfway. We are in mist now and I discover a problem I've not had in previous years. The descent to Les Chapieux 3000ft below is one of the worst on the circuit, a choice of steep pathlets diverging and rejoining every few yards over muddy hillside and rocky outcrops. There is a luminous marker every 50 yards or so but I can't see from one to the next in the mist; last year I was much further up the field in a continuous stream of runners, but this year my cautious approach has left bigger gaps. Nevertheless, the schedule says an hour from Bonhomme to Chapieux so that's what it takes, I make up time on the much better track over the last mile or so. My previous encounters with Les Chapieux, the first major pit stop 30 miles into the race, have been uniformly bad so it's good to arrive feeling in good spirits. Life's not completely rosy though as for the past hour or so I've started to lose the taste for Nuun, and it's getting harder to drink and consequently harder to eat. It's a bit worrying as I'm only about 10 hours into the race. My 15 pulls per hour on the Camelback have gone down to 5 or 6, but I'm still managing a gel an hour. At Les Chapieux I get down some soup and a banana, and set off for the next uphill.
The Col de la Seigne is a few miles of road and then an easy track, not steep but continuously rising for 3300ft in about 6 miles (a walk up Snowdon!). Previously I've had to stop and rest several times here (last year I fell asleep for about 20 minutes by the roadside, which is where I think Mike the Gilet passed me), but this year I'm working on Mike's advice, never stop on a climb, just go slower and keep going, so I get to the top without a break. It's daylight by the top so headtorch off and we can see where we're going - down into Italy at the dawn of a perfect day! It's an easy jog down to the Lac Combal checkpoint, and a couple of cups of coffee hit the spot, but on the next climb up to the Arete de Mont Favre which is only 1500ft of vertical I'm definitely starting to feel queasy. I cheer myself up with the long descent to come, over 4000ft in six miles down to Courmayeur. Before the start I said to Jan my aim was to get here between 11 and 12 o'clock and she's there waving as I jog in at 11.30. This is the major base 48 miles in where you can send a drop bag, so I have the luxury of a change of clothes; I also eat another bowl of soup and down plenty of coke, and after the first stop of more than a couple of minutes or so since the start I feel decidedly more human. Jan plasters me with sunscreen and says I'm looking good as I set out for the next stretch.
The climb from Courmayeur to the Bertone Hut is generally felt to be pretty cruel; only 2700ft but steep, relentless and south facing. Last year it was hot hot hot, this year it's merely hot so again I make it without a stop. I'm still getting some Nuun down but can't face gels any longer, even though I've a pile of them in my bag. Two cups of wonderful coffee at the Bertone revive me, as does an encouraging phone message from Mike, and with a re-wetted hat (you soak your hat in every available stream and water source along this Italian stretch) I'm off again. The section from the Bertone, via the Bonatti Hut then down to Arnuva is a really brilliant contouring track, little ups and downs, no technical ground and superb views across the southern aspect of the Mont Blanc range. I can remember running it all at a fair clip in the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) race a couple of years ago. Today it's frustrating; I can jog the downhill bits but as soon as I put any effort into the ups I start to feel sick. I feel that I have miles and miles of running left in my legs but I can't access it somehow. Nagging at the back of my mind also is the generally accepted view that the next checkpoint (Arnuva at 60 miles) represents about half way in terms of time and effort; I'm feeling pretty bad and I still have a long way to go. I carry on as well as I can but a final little up just before the descent to Arnuva proves too much; I have to sit down and throw up. After this and a few minutes rest I feel much better, and immediately swallow a good drink of Nuun and half a bag of fruit pastilles. I reason that if I can get some more real food in at Arnuva I'll be OK, so I jog down to the checkpoint 800ft below.
I'm not feeling great but I manage to down soup, bread, banana and cheese, and a mug of coke. I refill my Camelback but discover that I've drunk less than half a litre since Courmayeur nearly 5 hours ago. I set off for the Grand Col de Ferret, 3 miles further on and 2500ft up. It's an easy track and not steep but as soon as I start the up I feel nauseous again. I determine that I'll just take it very slowly. The amazing thing is that everyone else seems to be going at the same pace! Aside from my gastric problems I seem to have now found my correct place in the field, having gone up around 600 places since the St Gervais checkpoint. It's still a sunny day, now blending into evening, but a chill wind springs up and the caravan stops to don jackets at the Elena Hut, then we plod on up the hill. I am convinced that this is my last effort; I can't eat or drink and I feel really bad, but at least I don't stop, and at last the top arrives. A quick look back to the Col de la Seigne which brought me into Italy nearly 12 hours ago, and I stumble into Switzerland.
As soon as I start going down it's a new world. I feel better, I can make progress, I even start running again. I start to make plans. It's about 12 miles downhill to Issert then a short climb to Champex. I'll have a long rest there, an hour or two if necesary to regroup. Everything feels good until La Peule. This used to be a checkpoint but now there's just a guy pointing to the track down, saying it's about 5 kilometers to La Fouly. The route here has changed; it used to go straight down to the valley base at Feret then an easy track aongside the river to La Fouly, now it's a track contouring high above the valley, generally going down but with sharp bits of up thrown in as well. Physically and psychologically this is a disaster for me, getting down to Issert is suddenly a challenge, with the climb to Champex to follow, and I'm feeling really bad on all the ups. But still La Fouly is a big checkpoint base, maybe I can get going again there. At some point a mile or so before La Fouly it's getting dark and we're descending into woods, so I have to stop and pull out my headtorch; as I bend over to search my bag I start to retch and have to sit down. The process goes on for several minutes. As I'm sitting with my head in my hands, my WHW buff is recognised by the next runner going past - "Hey, who is it, are you OK?" It's Jon, looking strong enough to finish this time (he does). I tell him I'll be OK and off he goes. I sit for a few more minutes but this time I don't feel better, just the same. I get up and start the final descent to La Fouly. Walking downhill feels bad, running can't be done. Any more uphill is unthinkable. It takes me half an hour to cover the final mile or so down to the checkpoint in the village. I'm still an hour and a half ahead of the cut-off but I accept that it's over. I call Jan, she's disappointed for me, she saw me looking good at Courmayeur and the text mesages have shown me progressing up through the field at every checkpoint since.
I hand in my chip and get the bus back to Chamonix, feeling bad all the way. Back at our appartment I still can't face eating or drinking, I have half a cup of tea then crash out at about 2.30 am. I wake up at 7 feeling great. No blisters, no sore muscles, ready for coffee and croissants, ready to run from La Fouly to Chamonix, no problem. But that opportunity is gone, nothing for it but to head off into town for the finish, and face the music. Everyone's done well congratulations all round, I'm the only one not to have made it.
Six days later I'm disappointed of course, but taking part in this event is always a great experience and I still feel privelieged to have been a part of it. I'll try and work out what went wrong for a later post. Back next year? The people that know me won't have to ask.