Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cham Story 2010

I think it's worth telling a bit of the tale of the dramatic events in and around Chamonix last weekend, in which the real winners were British Ultra Running and probably The North Face company, as a background to my very small part in them. So if you're interested, pour yourself a dram or a G&T or whatever, and settle down as you may be involved a while.

The Background

The last weekend in August in Chamonix is now firmly established as the "Ultra Trail" weekend. It started with the first running of the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" in 2003, and has grown in popularity over subsequent years to reach its current status as the annual pinnacle of the ultra calendar in Europe if not the world. There are now three races each year involving over 5000 runners:

- the "Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix" (CCC), 98k and 5600m of ascent, with 1800 runners, starting in Courmayeur at 10am on the Friday, with a maximum allowed time of 26 hours
- the "Traces des Ducs de Savoie" (TDS), 111k and 7000m of ascent, with 1200 runners, starting in Courmayeur at midnight Friday and following a somewhat wilder route back to Chamonix in a maximum time of 32 hours
- and of course the original big one, the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" (UTMB), in which 2300 runners start from Chamonix at 6.30pm on Friday evening and have 46 hours to find their way back via an enourmous loop loosely following the classic "Tour du Mont Blanc" walking trail. The first half to Courmayeur is 78k and 4400m of ascent, and the tougher return leg, on a route mainly along the same route as the CCC, is 88k and 5100m of ascent making a massive 166k and 9500m in total.

To put these into some sort of UK context, the general feeling is that as undertakings, the CCC is a little bit easier than the West Highland Way, the TDS a little bit harder, and the UTMB in a different league.  Before this year, in spite of some pretty adverse weather at times, all the races which were planned went on to start and be completed.

Demand for places in the UTMB is high and a ballot is held in January. This year I missed out, but was able to progress to an automatic entry into the TDS and a guaranteed UTMB entry next year, so with that objective I drove out to Chamonix a week before the race, did a couple of acclimatisation runs then generally lazed about for a few days. The weather was great, sunshine and blue skies. There was a forecast for some rain on Friday then showers on Saturday but no dire warnings involved. A number of friends from the WHW family were in town for the various races and spirits were high.

Friday 27 August

We woke up to the sound of rain and a message from the UTMB organisation on our mobile phones (a mandatory piece of kit for participants!) - "weather conditions rain wind cold Provide the necessary equipment". We had breakfast, it rained. A number of us had arranged to meet up near the "pointy man statue" for a chat and coffee before retiring to our beds again for last chance sleeps. As we turned up from various directions it rained - it was just as well  there was a tent errected near the statue. We waited for an easing in the rain so we could make it to the cafe a hundred yards away; there wasn't one so we got wetter. Unbeknown to us the CCC was just starting in identical weather conditions. An hour later we left the cafe and walked home in the rain. Later it stopped. Then it started again.

At 6.30 the UTMB got under way in a slight easing of the weather. Not long after it was raining again. I was due to get a bus at 10.00pm to go to Courmayeur for the start of the TDS. I walked up to the Sports Centre in the rain, there were a lot of people still there although the buses were supposed to have been shuttling runners over from 8pm. I got a phone call from George Reid and John Malcolm, also up for the TDS and booked on the 9pm bus - "we're still here, and they're talking about calling off the race". I went and found them. It was one of those situations where information comes bit at a time, sometimes conflicting and you're never quite sure what to believe. The first thing we heard was that because of the heavy rain, strong winds on the Col du Bonhomme, and mud slides causing the route markers to be washed away on the Col de la Seine, the UTMB had been stopped; runners were being brought back from St Gervais and Les Contamines.

It was clear that the TDS buses were going nowhere so we all gathered in the Sports Centre out of the rain. We first heard that the TDS start would be delayed until at least 3am, then until at least 5am, the organisation would make a decision by 2am latest. Could we go home and get some sleep? No we must stay here because if a positive decision was made we would go to Courmayeur asap. We scattered around the floor and dozed. Though not properly asleep, I was roused by George at around 12.30 - "It's off, have a beer". Well at least there was plenty of that around. A drink and a shrug and we all went our separate ways, it was clearly all over until l'anee prochain. I wandered back through town philosophically. At least we hadn't had a soaking three or four hours on the trail like the UTMB guys.

Saturday 28th August

Back at the hotel I lay down, tired but brain still wandering over events, unable to sleep. I was just starting to doze off when we had another text from UTMB "TDS/UTMB to depart Sat 28th course Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix buses leave Sports Centre Chamonix from 0630" This meant that all the TDS and UTMB runners were offered a race along the second half of the UTMB course. It wasn't what I'd come for but I would kick myself if the weather turned a bit better and it would still be a good ultra. The buses would take a couple of hours at least, I'd set an alarm an get a later one. Still unable to sleep, I was roused again by a second text "Due to cancellation of CCC and repatriation of runners, bus departs for Courmayeur now limited to 1000 runners". Because of flash flooding on the section between the Col de Montets and Flegere, the CCC had been stopped. 400 runners had passed this point, the rest were now being bussed back from all down the course, creating a shortage of buses.(Incidentally, those who finished the CCC and those who were still going when it was stopped had all put up a pretty heroic performance in truly appalling conditions)

Effectively, this meant that out of the TDS and UTMB fields, the first 1000 to turn up at the bus stop would get to race. It was now 5am. If I was going, I had to get my stuff organised and go. I looked outside again, the rain was like stair-rods. But these are the times when you remember that this sport isn't exactly about comfort, so out I went. One of the first people I met in the bus queue was Shirley, one of the few WHW folk I hadn't met so far this week. She's been stopped at St Gervais on the UTMB, had a few beers then made it back. "I think I'm still slightly drunk". We had to queue in an orderly line and this was out in the rain of course. I don't know how the cutoff was managed but we got on the bus.

Amazingly, as we drove out of the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy we were greeted by blue sky. We got out at the Courmayeur Sports Centre and grabbed what was available for breakfast. Although we hadn't communicated during the night, all the usual suspects were there - George, John, Ritchie, Drew and the others, it clearly takes more than a drop of rain to halt the Tartan Army. Before we left to walk through the town to the start we put on sun screen.......

The Race

The start was scheduled for 10, but we eventually got under way at 10.15, a little circuit of the town then up the hill to the Bertone Hut. I knew what was going to happen here but I didn't have the energy starting out to prevent it affecting me. At least a thousand closely packed runners (it turned out that in the end there were 1250 starters) were going to run uphill for a couple of miles and then converge onto a single track which effectively goes on for the next 6 or 7 miles. If you were near the back (of course I was, even if I'm not tired it's my normal tactic) your pace was going to be set by the guy in front for the next couple of hours or so. The modern CCC follows a different route initially to thin the field out, but we were on the UTMB route; the same thing had happened to me on this, the "old" CCC route when I ran that race in 2007.

Still I was happy to go with the flow, up the long 900m climb to the Bertone, then along the wonderful slightly undulating balcony to the next checkpoint at the Bonatti Hut. The weather was fine, the ground underfoot seemed to be drying out well, the views were as good as ever and it was great to be doing something after all the frustrations of the night. It wasn't to last though, as we descended to the next checkpoint at Arnuva it was clouding over again and a chill wind was springing up. The mist turned to drizzle and it was rain jackets on for the climb up to the Col de Grand Ferret, at just over 2500m the highest point on the course. I was glad to get my jacket on. In spite of all my pre-race concentration on lightening my load, when it came to setting out in the prevailing conditions I had opted for a fairly heavy jacket and overtrousers - my packed seemed to weigh a ton as normal.  The lack of sun affected the ground underfoot on the climb, slippery mud most of the way, without poles I would have struggled to make progress as I was as usual wearing road shoes. It's an honest climb though, nothing sneaky, and the top seemed to come fairly quickly.

The descent was the real disappointment. From the col down to La Fouly is usually 10 kilometeres of wonderfully runnable wide track at a perfect descending gradient, 8 minute mile territory even for me. Today it was run, slip, check, adjust, almost stop, start again, all the way down. I kept thinking how it would be in Rocklites......

Just before La Fouly I met up with two other Brits, Ken and Dave, and I travelled on with them for quite a way. The long gentle descent down the Swiss Val Ferret went easily, and the nicely graded 300m climb up to Champex at the end wasn't too bad. Plenty of people were eating and suiting up for the night here, but we agreed on a brief pause to top up water and press on to make best use of the remaining daylight.

Champex was half distance maybe a bit more on this course, but everyone who has been along this way will tell you that this is where the work starts. The cruel finish to the end of the UTMB, three big climbs each with their own particular brand of challenge. The first one is Bovine, the most technical ascent on the UTMB, a jumble of tree roots and boulders where no real rhythm is possible. Half way up here we had to put on our torches. The long descent from the top down to Trient is usually pretty harmless but tonight we got the first inkling of what was to come; mud at times worthy of Rotherham had us lurching and sliding in the darkness most of the way down. At the Trient checkpoint I decided to rest and have something to eat, and to change into a dry shirt - I'd brought all this stuff, I might as well use it! Ken and Dave were going strongly so I told them to press on.

Eventually I pulled out of Trient for the second of the three climbs. This one is OK going up; long and steep but a good rocky path underfoot, I just latched onto a small caravan of runners going at about the pace I wanted and shut my brain down until we got to the top, graced by a small tent, one marshal and a bonfire - a long night out for him. The weather was looking much better now though, the sky had cleared and the temperature really started to drop. On these long uphills at night you occasionally look up to see the dots of headtorches ahead of you - at one point as the ground had started to level off I saw lights way higher than I expected, a real moment of deflation until I realised there was something familiar about the pattern of the lights I was looking at - it was the tail of the Plough constellation, breathe again!  But the sting in this section was on the descent - it's muddy at the best of times, tonight it was just horrendous, I'm sure I went slower on the descent than on the up. I was glad to get to Vallorcine, a bowl of soup and a cup of tea.

At Vallorcine you used to be able to think quite justifiably that the UTMB, or the CCC, whichever was your course, was in the bag. A gentle ascent up to the Col de Montets up the ancient Chemin des Diligences (coach road), then an undulating but benign 5 or 6 miles down the valley to Chamonix. Then some massochist in the organisation decided that a little more spice was required. From the Col de Montets you climb 60 steep and rocky zigzags then rock slabs and boulders to gain another 800m to the Tete aux Vents, after which you follow an undulating rocky track on which there is barely a hundred yards where you don't have to place each foot (and sometimes hand) with care, for several kilometers to the Flegere checkpoint. I had to dig quite deep on this stretch, I was slow, and by the time I reached La Flegere the daylight of Sunday had arrived. I was just about to leave the checkpoint when Neil MacRitchie came in looking fitter than I felt. We started down together but as he broke into a run I carried on walking. There was still a final 50m to climb, but strange things happen in ultras and when I was half way up it I suddenly started to feel some energy flooding back. From the top of the rise I jogged all the way down into the valley and through Chamonix to the finish, beating my "predicted arrival time" (which had been automatically texted to Jan by the organisation, based on my location and recent speed) by 15 minutes, so by the time she arrived I had collected my goodies, had a rest and was chatting to Neil, having picked up 20 or so places on the final stretch.

I was also met by Mike (M Gilet Rouge) and his wife Gill, to be first congratulated and then sternly admonished that the "UTMB Finisher" vest which everyone in this rearranged race had collected was definitely fraudulent and would not be recognised on any occasion in which I wore it in his sight. After a solid breakfast and a couple of hours sleep I was ready for the day where we caught up with what had been going on. Jez had at last shown the world that he really is the star that we all knew he was by winning the race outright, and Lizzy Hawker took the ladies' prize to complete a UK whitewash which probably won't go down too well with the locals but sent our gang home happy. Ritchie's training miles paid off again as he came home third Brit (or first Scot, which he probably considers far more important). John Malcolm had a storming run, and there were the usual impressive finishes from George, Drew, and the rest of the contingent. Shirley must have sobered up along the way because she finished well, along with Helen.


I was happy with my race although the performance wasn't one of my best. I ran this course (the then CCC) in 2007 finishing in about 17 and a half hours. The new finish over to Flegere probably adds a couple of hours, conditions were much worse, especially the muddy night-time descents, the events of the preceding 12-15 hours weren't condusive to a relaxed starting condition,  and I'm three years older, but even so  my time of 21:40 was pretty unspectacular.  Against this, I was in good shape at the finish and never felt at any time that I was in danger of not completing the course. Although I felt I slowed up a lot in the second half this was no more than those around me as I continued to pick up places steadily through to the end, rising from position 1061 at the Bonatti to 781 at the end. Maybe in future I should heed the wise words of Murdo tM, who I know always felt I had taken on a bit too much this year in doing 4 long ultras as well as a handful of "10-12 hour" races.

But the impressive statistics were (a) that the race took place at all - the amount of rethinking and on-the-feet reorganisation done by the race directors and their crews during the harrowing Friday night was truly amazing, and (b) how well the runners responded to this. Normally in the Chamonix races, in good conditions, drop-out rates of 30-40% and higher are commonplace each year. At 10am on Saturday morning,  runners assembled for the reorganised race in Courmayeur. None of them had had more than an hour or two's sleep, all of them had already got extremely wet in the preceeding 12 hours, many of them had run 15 or 20 miles in very poor conditions the night before. They faced a course ankle-deep in mud for many miles, and no-one knew what the state of the last section (closed 6 hours earlier to the CCC) would be when they eventually got there. 1250 started from Courmayeur; 1127 finished.


On Monday it was still a bit rainy. Jan and I drove round to the Giannada Foundation in Martigny where there is normally a good art exhibition on. Afterwards, out of interest, we drove up the Swiss Val Ferret until we could see up to the Col de Grand Ferret. It was completely white with snow.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Pack your bag and go?

One of the great things about running a supported race such as the West Highland Way is that you don't have to carry much. A water bottle and a couple of Mars Bars seems to be the norm for most of the people you see, probably less than you take on a typical day out training, and this means that the running is pretty enjoyable. A glance at some of the leaders in the American events suggests that even items such as shirts and hats are superfluous if you can rely on your team turning up with anything you might need at the next aid station. 

Now go along to an unsupported event and it's a different game. You first carry everything the organisers insist you take, which is usually quite a lot of stuff. If you're like me you then throw in everything that you think you might need, or that might make your journey a bit more pleasant (a small flask of your distillation of choice for example to see you through the hard times...) and you end up STUFF. Yes it feels like capital letters. Stuff that makes breaking into a jog on anything other than a significant downhill a decidedly unattractive proposition.

So I was quite surprised to see on Jez Bragg's blog that he thought the introduction of a minimum weight of rucsac rule for the UTMB races was a good thing as it would stop people "travelling light". Now the minimum weight is, wait (or should I say weight) for it,  ONE KG! (or 2kg including a litre of water as you leave each aid station). I have jackets that must weigh more than a kilogramme, so I've clearly been getting something wrong here. So I decided to be a bit more scientific and see what I could get the weight of my pack down to.

First, here are the "obligatory" items

Rucsac  487g (one of the smallest Raidlight ones with all the stuff I don't use cut off)
Waterproof Jacket 224g
2 torches with batteries 130g
1 set of spare batteries 35g
Whistle 5g
Bandage 15g
Space blanket 35g
Cup 25g
Phone 91g
Bladder and tube 93g
Emergency food (say 2 gels) 66g
Passport 28g

This lot comes to nearly 1300g. Personally, I wouldn't go without a light fleece, warm hat and gloves,a few blister plasters and some vaseline, and a bit more food than this, adding on another 500g or so, so just how do these guys do it?

But at least the exercise has got me down to a pack of around 2kg (3kg with water), so I'll leave out the manhole cover and 2 extra sandbags and see if it makes a difference this time.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


I wanted a last solid day in the hills before leaving for Chamonix and the TDS; I'd done enough miles on forest tracks for the week already but I needed a bit of serious height gain, so I decided I would have some Snowdons.

Now Snowdon is a maligned, overcrowded, rather desecrated old heap of stones but I still love it. Like Mont Blanc in its own way, it has everything  -  one of the best climbing crags in Wales at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu ("Cloggy"), the high Trinity face which holds good snow most winters, and about ten largely independent footpaths to the summit - broad tracks for easy running, rocky scrambles, knife-edged ridges, grassy cwms, something for everyone. And just an hour's drive away, I can't complain.

The forecast was good for a change, the alarm went off at six, but I loitered in bed and lingered over breakfast, so it was past eight o'clock when I finally tumbled out of the car in Llanberis.  No early starters today, a bit of activity at the railway station but no-one on the track yet.  I eased into a steady pace for the first few miles to the summit. As went I thought about the food experiment I was going to make. I read Stuart Mills' blog about his winning run in the Lakeland 100 a few weeks ago, and it seemed that he ate very little so I asked him about it. His theory is that if you're running at a demanding pace (say in a marathon) then your body needs carbohydrates, but if you're going much more easily as you do in an ultra it will switch to consuming fat, of which we all have plenty. If our "intelligent" scales at home are to be believed I have about 20% body fat, about 14kg, well that should be good for 500 miles at least so using up a bit of it going up Snowdon should be easy. So I had taken just one or two gels for emergencies, otherwise just water.

It was a treat to be on this track, usually so crowded, on my own on a sunny morning, the miles drifted by

   Cloggy from the Llanberis track in the morning sunshine 

    Looking back down the track towards Halfway House and Llanberis 

and I was soon on the summit. Off down the Miners' Track, usually considered the easiest way up from the Pen y Pass side, although its initial descent is every bit as technical as the far superior Pyg Track, but it has the advantage that once down this first bit it's an easy run all the way down to Pen y Pass. Into the cafe to top up water and my no food strategy was immediately blown. The place had been poshed up a bit since my last visit, and the array of cakes on the counter was just too tempting. I'll have one of those I said, pointing at a thinnish scone-looking affair; they come in twos said the lady serving, with butter and jam. So that was that but I did feel a little slowed down starting out again.

Next objective was the classic "Snowdon Horseshoe" round, up over Crib Goch and Crib y Ddysgl and down over Lliwedd. The 2000ft from Pen y Pass to Crib Goch looked big, come on, just get stuck in, there's a 2000ft climb round every corner on the TMB, so it was done. The morning was wearing on as I threaded my way though the traffic on the Crib Goch ridge and pinnacles. The crowds were friendly, everyone prepared to wait a second or two when it was clear I was going faster. I've been coming along here for at least 45 years so I can remember pretty well every hand and foothold by now, but it's always an entertaining stretch.

   Looking back over the Crib Goch pinnacles 

The only mist of the day caught me on the final ascent to Snowdon summit, which by now had succumbed to the normal Sunday lunchtime human battering, so I wasted no time in heading off down the first nasty 1000ft 
   Typical August Sunday on Snowdon summit

of the Watkin Path and out into the sunshine again. This second half of the Horseshoe always seems less crowded than the first, I guess because quite a lot of people don't quite know what they're taking on and bail out at Snowdon. Anyway the climb up to Lliwedd and descent that follows are a real pleasure in the now warm sunshine. 
   Lliwedd from the Pyg Track

As a one-off I would be trying to get as close as I could to three hours for the horseshoe circuit, but as part of this longer day I'm happy to be back at  Pen y Pass in three hours forty minutes after leaving. I know I'm a failed experimenter now, and the cafe gets hit for a cup of tea and a flapjack this time. I've planned my trip to avoid too many of the "haven't I seen you before today" comments you get when doing laps on the same mountain, but I do get one or two on the next stretch back up to Snowdon via the Pyg Track. I think this is one of my favourites, a long balcony with wonderful views over the lakes below, while at the same time a good enough surface to keep up a reasonable speed without having to think too hard.

   Crib Goch, with (top to bottom), the Horseshoe, Pyg, and Miners Tracks

Just as I emerged from the top of the zigzags to join the Llanberis track for the final five minutes to Snowdon summit I was passed by an uphill train, the hundred year old steam locomotive giving its all on the final steep incline. A stirring sight and sound, a million miles from the diesel drone that follows most trains on Snowdon. And the smell, that smell that you only get from steam, immediately bringing back childhood memories of trips to the seaside before cars figured much in the average person's life. If you really have to have a railway up a mountain, it ought to be memorable.

Back on Snowdon there was decision to be madeNo more easy options to Pen y Pass, next descent has to be 3000ft plus. Did I have time for one more ascent and two descents? Without really making a decision I headed off South-Westwards. At the junction I looked at the start of the South Ridge knife-edge, easier and less crowded than Crib Goch but somehow more elegant; no, that would lead me down to the Gwynant valley and a definite return in darkness, for which I had no torch. So I sloped off right down the long gently descending track to Rhyd Ddu.  Another fine route this one, dotted with families who know they can do it and want to get away from the hordes coming up from Llanberis. A gentle jog all the way to the village. The Cwellyn Arms was almost too tempting, but I still had ground to cover and settled for a swift half of coke and a packet of crisps.

   Final mile to Rhyd Ddu in lengthening shadows

Down the road a mile or two to the start of the Snowdon Ranger track. This starts with the best uphill of the day; long easy zigzags, compact smooth gravel underfoot, perfect angle, the sort of ground where you can really feel the four-wheel drive effect of the poles. TMB land in Wales. But about a third of the way up I had to take stock; if I carried on it would be dark or very nearly for the last few miles of descent, why turn a nice day out into a possible epic? So I turned off left, up over an easy grassy climb to a place that my generation will always refer to as the "Telegraph Col", though the posts from which this name came are long gone now. At 1550ft it saves me nearly 2000ft of up and 4 or 5 miles. The route down to Llanberis is a perfect balcony track down a lonely valley, even on an August Sunday; in the past it's been for us a mountain bike single track blast when the mood took us, or a walk from the hut in Llanberis over to the Cwellyn Arms for lunch on days when the weather permitted nothing else. This evening it was my get out of jail card, and I ran steadily all the way down to the town.

Back at the car, my Garmin said just over 31 miles and just under 13,000ft of ascent. Good enough. I ran out of time, not energy. And the two scones, one flapjack, and a packet of crisps kept me going, I was never hungry. I'm going to re-read Stuart's stuff, and although I still think a bit of regular carbohydrate input is good, I'm now more convinced that he's on to something. I never went particularly fast, I just kept going. Ready as I'll ever be for this year's Chamonix experience.


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Birthdays and Heroes

Well last week another year clicked by. On Saturday I was at a nephew's wedding, the sort of occasion when you meet distant family that you haven't seen for years. Jan and I re-acquainted with many of our own generation; nice people, sensible souls who don't spend their spare time running hills, climbing rocks and ski-ing real snow. Sometimes of a morning when the first trip downstairs hasn't been great I wonder if I should join them. Plenty of people to ask if you're really sure you want to be doing this sort of thing nowadays. 

But we are who we are; the experiences we've had mould us, and so long as the good times outnumber the less good we'll keep coming back for more and be thankful that we can. We're not short of role models. Like Marco Olmo winning the UTMB outright at 59.  Joe Brown and Chris Bonington climbing in their seventies better than I ever did at any age. Joss Naylor seemingly running on forever.
These are the superstars of course, but less well known and often even more inspirational stories abound. In 1977 I was prompted to start a climbing diary (which I still keep up) by reading an article in the old "Climber and Rambler" magazine about a guy called Ivan Waller, who "had kept a meticulously accurate climbing diary since 1923" and at the time was still climbing. I kept the diary but didn't come across any other reference to Ivan until many years later when I browsed then bought a little book by Ronald Turnbull called "The Book of the Bivvy", which contains the following passage:

Once there was a man called Ivan Waller. In 1931 he climbed behind Colin Kirkus on a seriously overhanging route called Mickledore Grooves in the days when falling off generally meant death, or severe injury if you were really lucky.

What happens to mountaineers as they get older? They just turn into older mountaineers. At the age of 70 Ivan turned to the Munros and climbed 140 of them in two years to become Munroist number 207. Three years later he backpacked across Scotland in the Ultimate Challenge event. Still in his seventies he completed the 45 mile walk of the Lakeland 3000ft peaks in a day, and climbed Tower Ridge in winter conditions without causing the slightest anxiety to my cousin, who was his companion. He also traversed the Cuillin Ridge twice, the second time escorting an older companion. He considered the Corbetts: "This may be beyond my span because I still have more than 160 to do at 81 years of age  -  but a man can try".

Way to go. I'll now put this subject away until August 2011.