Race time. The 119km and 7,300m TDS journey that will see me run (mostly, hopefully) from Courmayeur in Italy back to Chamonix in France.
The race that I've been aiming and training towards since my first ultra in October last year.
I'd done the training. My legs felt great during the recent recce on the UTMB route.
I'd got a race plan, knowing when/where/what I was going to eat and drink.
I'd got a great playlist lined up on the iPod.
I'd set myself gold, silver and bronze targets. Tough targets. But achievable ones all the same.
I purposely didn't share my target times… I don't want to deal with people's disappointment when I failed to meet them.
The #1 aim for the race (and the only target that I did share) was to make it back to Chamonix and earn my gilet. Anything else is a bonus, but there'd still be some regret if I didn't run a good time too…
So at 0600 on Wednesday, after a short bus ride through the Mont Blanc tunnel, I embarked on my toughest racing challenge to date.
I'd been warned about the concertina effect of the first climb out of Courmayeur so, after wishing Keziah and Carol luck, got myself into a strong position about 10 rows back from the start.
With the start music blaring and a surprisingly huge crowd for so early in the morning we were off for a quick sprint through the streets of Courmayeur before starting our ascent into the wilderness.
Even with my strong starting position, I was still passing people on the climbs and feeling pretty strong; eventually reaching the top of the first climb (at 2,409m and 1,293m above Courmayeur) in 1h46m and 189th place (almost to the second on track for my gold standard time).
I remember plugging my headphones in to the uplifting beats of Fort Knox Five and letting a massive grin spread across my face as I gazed up towards the Mont Blanc massif... I'm running the TDS and I'm doing alright!
I started to pick more people off on the descent down towards Lac Combal, but was continually frustrated by runners in front of me wanting to walk descents at this early in the race. I took a few chances, hopping over rocks, and managed to overtake around 30 people on the 4km descent.
I try not to spend too long in aid stations, but when I reached the checkpoint I realised my hands were really cold as the early morning sun hadn't yet reached the valley; and I struggled to open the stick packs of Tailwind that I was using for fuel... think I need to look at alternative containers to the stick packs (but also a mental note that I needed to keep an eye on my body for the long day ahead!).
The next section of trail down, up and back down again to Bourg St Maurice passed in a bit of a blur.
The only memorable section was the short sharp climb up to the Col du Petit St Bernard. The support here was absolutely fantastic (with a couple of British voices cheering me on), and the climb so steep that it felt like the supporters were standing directly on top of us! An amazing atmosphere. One of the marshals shouted to me that I was only about 40 minutes behind the leader... shit, too fast!
After eventually reaching the checkpoint at Bourg (6h23m race time and 98th position), I quickly refilled my water and left through the town via the mandatory kit check; somehow making up 20 places through the checkpoint.
We were warned beforehand about the long climb out of Bourg. 1,900m of climbing, no shade, temperatures pushing 30 degC and I was leaving the checkpoint at 12:30pm... I started losing quite a few places here, and even briefly considered turning back to Bourg. I should've spent more time at the aid station to make sure I was properly refuelled and hydrated.
Almost 4 hours after leaving Bourg St Maurice, I topped out at the 2,546m Passeur de Pralognan... 10h09m into the race and down to 132nd.
Exhausted, I took too short a time to appreciate the views before the long descent to Cormet de Roselend. This was a tough descent; steep, rocky, a bit of a scree slope, there were even ropes fixed to help people on this section... definitely more technical than anything we'd encountered on the UTMB route and I briefly spared a thought for the runners behind me that would be doing this in the dark.
I didn't realise that the live tracking website also uploaded short videos from certain checkpoints. This was one of them. Lots of my friends back home were watching the videos and commented on how fresh I was looking for someone who'd run 66km and climbed 4,500m... what I didn't tell them was there was a flight of steps down to the guy swiping our timing chips; I nearly fell down the flight of steps, which was why I was running so quickly!
There was a drop bag available at Cormet de Roselend, where we could have left anything we wanted as long as it would fit inside the supplied bag... I'd chosen to just leave much needed suncream and the additional Tailwind I needed to get me through the rest of the race.
I was particularly jealous watching all the other runners around me changing into clean, dry tops; fresh shoes; and tucking into tasty snacks. I made do with some salty noodle soup and decided there was nothing for it but to get out of the checkpoint and make my way up the next climb.
The next climb came and went, followed by a great descent down to the pretty La Gitte (literally a solitary gitte in the middle of nowhere). On the descent, the river that we were following suddenly plunged away leaving us running on trail carved into the rock face in a beautifully picturesque gorge; just with a pretty big drop down to the side... if you check my Strava record for that section, there's a sudden massive peak in my pace, not sure why...
I was starting to feeling really tired by this point, but reached La Gitte (74.5km and 4,860m ascent) in 12h25m and slowly climbing back up the rankings to 107th.
The long climb up away from La Gitte was really testing my energy reserves, and I could feel a hot spot on the outside of my left foot. The race helicopter buzzing overhead and the latest Above and Beyond podcast took my mind off the climb and I was soon sitting next to the mountain rescue guys at the top applying a Compeed to my foot.
As I sat tending to my foot, a Greek runner topped out the climb. He was asked by the rescue team if he wanted any water but he declined, gesturing that he had some good music on and was keen to closely follow the attractive lady in front of him who was wearing the shortest of shorts, even shorter than Johnny Fling's... I can't really blame him to be honest; I got my shoes back on and followed as quickly as I could.
Cresting this climb, the Col du Joly (next checkpoint) came into view and I could even hear the music from what looked to be a hilltop disco. Great, I thought, I can taste the noodle soup from here!
But no... you can see the checkpoint, but you're not going to it. It seems to be a bit of a theme with the TDS route that, if there's a climb to be had, you're climbing it! So down we went, and then back up again... all with the checkpoint in view and earshot.
I eventually arrived after 14h49m, and it was time to dig out my head torch from my bag.
I hit a massive purple patch on the descent down to Les Contamines, managing to hit 5:00min/km pace on the flat section into the checkpoint having overtaking 10 people over the 800m descent. Total race time 16h12m and 100th place.
This checkpoint was a big milestone for me. I knew if I made it here that there were just 2 big climbs and just over a half marathon to go (albeit a VERY hilly half...).
I set off from the checkpoint and quickly formed a group with 3 other runners. It was at this point that I realised that I hadn't actually spoken to anyone (apart from 'Grazie" or "Merci" to the aid station volunteers) since leaving Keziah and Carol at the start line all those hours ago. One of the other runners spoke broken English (but still phenomenally better than my French) and we had a good chat about the race and where we were from, this was great as we realised that we'd picked our pace up and dropped the other 2 runners.
This climb led to a much bigger descent than I'd anticipated down to Chalets de Miage. This looked like it might be a really pretty place to be, and my new French friend told me there were great views from here; up to the Glacier de Miage and the Aguille de Tricot... all I could see was the string of head torches zigzagging in front of me up the 600m climb to the Col de Tricot.
This was the last big climb of the race. And it was possibly the steepest, at least it felt like that.
I was shaking my head in disbelief and relief as I topped out the climb, leading to a pair of medics rushing over to me. I told them in particularly poor french that I was just tired and, worried they might try to pull me from the race, ran off down the side of the mountain before they had chance to intervene.
According to my route profile there was supposed to be a 400m descent and then along to Bellevue. What we actually had was a 400m descent, over a rope bridge above a waterfall (I think as it was still dark), then up a bit, down a bit, down a bit, up a bit, then up some more to the checkpoint.
The ski station at Bellevue eventually came into view and, despite near exhaustion having run out of water and food some time ago, I knew I had this in the bag; I'd been running for 19h33m and was in 100th place.
The 800m descent down into Les Houches was tough going; my quads refusing to function normally which wasn't really surprising.
After a brief spell of dry heaving on the side of the trail (my stomach was completely empty and was now refusing to accept anything), I caught up with the lady in short shorts (who'd managed to lose her Greek admirer) on the descent and we ran into the final checkpoint at Les Houches.
I'd had enough of running now and just wanted to get this over and done with; so I managed to down a cup of Coke and carried straight on through the checkpoint.
No sign of Carrie as I ran past her front door (it was 2am so I'll forgive her!). I thought about ringing the door bell but:
- I wasn't sure which one it was
- It was only 8km to Chamonix and I just wanted this to be over
Spurred on by the thought of actually being able to sit down and rest, I refound my running legs and covered the last stretch in around an hour, overtaking a couple of other runners in the process. So fast that Ross, who was coming down to meet me at the finish, missed my sprint finish* by about 5 minutes.
*no one saw me, so I'm claiming that it was a sprint... the actual pace may have been a bit slower!
Over the finish line to a slightly inauspicious finish. A random spanish guy who'd finished just ahead of me handed me a can of luke warm beer... but that didn't matter, it was the best tasting beer ever.
And after 119km, 7,200m of climbing I'd finished in 21h15m and 97th place. I was a happy man.
I missed out on my gold target time which was to finish on Wednesday (i.e. sub 18 hours), but given the conditions on the day I don't think I left anything out on the course... as my finishing photos lay testament to.
And I'd achieved my #1 goal, which was to claim one of the coveted finisher's gilets for myself. I'm going to enjoy wearing that with pride, a memory of the toughest event I've done (so far...).
So, what next?
Well, I think I need to take some time to take my race head off and put the fun back into running. I met some really great new friends out in Chamonix (the Scottish support contingent was incredible!), so hopefully some adventures with them to look forward to...
And then to Italy in November to gain the additional points I need to enter next year's UTMB....