The North Face Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc 2009

My strategy for the lead up to 18:30, and the race start, was simple, to stay off my feet and out of the sun for as long as possible. I decided to hibernate in my hotel room most of the day and only leave to take my Cormayeur kit bag at 17:50 hrs. I decided not to queue up at the start line for the briefing and instead rested by the river. 10 minutes before the start I made my way over to the carnival atmosphere at the start area, and lined up near the back. 2 minutes of silence to contemplate our run, then the usual foreboding – French foreign legion - music and we were off squashing our way through the start line. The streets were narrowed by the sheer weight of the supporters who cheered us off. After 5 minutes I managed to get into a steady run, the race had now begun, we were off. It crossed my mind as to weather I complete the huge circuit and run through the streets we were leaving behind; to finish in god knows how many hours time.

After a small climb through the woods we descended down to Les Houches, we would now start the first proper climb and it was the usual story of dodge the poles. This year I decided against poles again, most people say they help, but the idea of a mechanical aid doesn’t sit well with me, with regards to the purity of the run. About 90% of the field didn’t agree with my philosophy. Part way into the climb my stomach started to give me pain, I cast my mind back to last year and thought oh no not again - last year I set off with a less than settled stomach, which didn’t ease – but by the top of La Charme it had gone and would never return - no wonder babies cry when they get trapped wind. A swift descent into the ever darkening valley found me in Saint Gervais and the first rest point. The support here was amazing, running in along the high street high fiving the kids, to cheers of Bon Courage and allez allez. This was an amazing level of respect that would continue throughout the run.

I got into my routine here; pick up a bottle of water fill the bladder in the rucksack; put in a salt tablet, and then forage for food, some to eat there and then, and some that could be carried. My diet on the run consisted mainly of cheese salami and crackers, dark chocolate, fruit loaf and little bars of muesli and plain chocolate pieces to carry along with me. After 6 minutes I was off into the night and heading for Les Contamines. This is a short run but has a deceptive amount of climb in it. I enjoyed it as there was lots of support and it felt good to be moving easily. Les Contamines came and went and I soon set off for the start of the biggest climb up to Col Du Bonhomme.

A break at La Balme to re stock and I set off on the steepest part of the climb. By now it was 1 am and we were further into the hills so the support was few and far between until Cormayeur. I was almost glad of that as no one – apart from worried fellow runners – saw me fall over a steep grass verge and down the steep wall of the trail. It felt very steep, but luckily I managed to break my fall by slapping my arms on the trail as the rest of my body slid down the cliff edge. A few worried runners made to grab my arms, but I managed to climb up myself. I couldn’t resist shining my head torch to survey the void I could have been tumbling down. I checked myself for injuries, nothing apart from a grazed hand and sore arms. I had escaped lightly. “Be more careful I told myself” it worked I never fell again.

Over Col Du Bonhomme it was cold and cloudy so I put my jacket on. I made the long descent to Les Chapieux in good time, and was ready for another break. Then I started the next climb to Col de La Seigne. Looking back down these long climbs and seeing a snake of head torches stretching on into the distance is one of my enduring memories of this race. This time was just as wonderful as the first time. By now I was in a good rhythm and I felt it was a good sustainable effort. The top came and went easily enough in the wispy cloud, and I was at Lac Combal for a nice bowl of soup at 6,000 feet. Then it was off for Arete Mont Favre. I ran the initial part of the road to the start of the climb. I recollected how in 2005 I did this in daylight and now it was still pitch black. That felt good. The climb up and over Mont Favre felt good and the descent into daylight rejuvenated me. The thought of some pasta in the valley far below spurred me on.

There was a bit of confusion finding my kit bag. After resolving this I sat down and did the usual repair job on my feet, followed by a lovely bowl of pasta. Even though I was not taking my time 35 minutes had gone in a flash. A chance to take some of my own food was good, and would be a nice change for a while. I also had my Ipod here and decided to listen to it all the way to Grand Col Ferret for a bit of company; well sort of. So all too soon it was off to start the tough climb up to Refuge Bertone, only this year it seamed a lot easier. It wasn’t as hot but still I was in better shape. I made good progress up to Bertone, and ran well on the undulating path to Bonatti. Here I ended up taking a long toilet break, even queuing up with some guy that did not appreciated my urgency.

Feeling better I was off on the relatively short stint to Arnuva. This was mainly downhill and an easy leg. Arnuva was now basked in sunshine but it didn’t have the sting in it like last year. I even sat in the sun, and then set off for the highest point on the run Grand Col Ferret. It felt like a comfortable climb, not at all how I had it in my memory – in 2005 it was horrible incessant rain and last year I felt like the sun was bearing down on my back. Near the top I even had to put my jacket on due to the wind chill. Soon after on the other side it came off and I made good progress to La Fouly. Still feeling good I had a short break and made my way for Champex in beautiful sunshine.

The climb up to Champex felt good and a ½ can of red bull - off a guy whom was accompanied by his granddaughter – didn’t do any harm. This time going into Champex I felt strong. A quick patch up of a blister and a great bowl of pasta – the best food on the course – and I was off on the run around the lake towards Bovine. This was the first time I had seen this in daylight as in 2005 it was pitch black for me at this point, and last year my race never got this far. It was beautiful and the climb of Bovine in daylight was much nicer than I remember. On ascending Bovine I was passed by 2 young Female runners storming up. On the descent I decided to try and stay with them. This worked and kept my pace up until about 10 huge cows with bells a bonging, decided to block the entire trail. A patient 5 minute wait and they made their way into the impossibly rough ground to the left. I continued to Trient without my fast moving female duo to pace me.

It was now dark again and whilst ascending out of Trient and up Catogne I decided to put the Ipod on. Choosing a narrow piece of trail with a big drop off the side to get it out wasn’t the wisest of moves. I almost over balanced over the edge whilst fiddling with the ever tangled earphones. I carried on into the night enjoying the music and the fact that I still felt strong. A long descent and Vallorcine was the next checkpoint. Would the food be different? Well no it wasn’t but I though it was. In my foggy minded state I managed to look at cheese and think they were chips, even getting excited about the fact before taking a closer look and being amazed at the harsh reality of the cheesy – not chip – feast.

Back out into the blackness and I was now following the river to Col De Montes. I power walked most of it as it was gently uphill. Eventually we crossed a road. I had never done the part after this road crossing and wasn’t sure what I was climbing. Eventually we made the top of a steep climb and I realised that I had climbed the last major ascent. So I made a bit of an effort across to La Flagere and left the 2 guys I had followed up for dead. It was an inspiring scene down to my left was the lights of Chamonix and the half moon and stars lit up the sky. But I had to concentrate as this was the roughest ground on the route and was full of little ups and downs, so tough to get a rhythm. On entering the last checkpoint at La Flagere I was made to feel paranoid. The medic stared into my eyes and asked me if I was o.k. I told her yes. Then she asked about food and water. Did she not realise I had been sorting myself out for the last 31 hours? Maybe it was the bewildered look on my face, who knows! I was o.k. and left after a small cup of coke and taking some water in my bottle. Just one descent left. I made good progress and overtook a few on the way down. My lap of the Chamonix town felt special, I had dreamed of this ever since finishing the Ramsay round. A few people at each turn clapped, after all it was 3.20 am , and not a time for large noisy crowds. I completed the large loop of the town and crossed the line. Cheering was going on in my head even if the reality was much more silent. A quick photo, the chip removed and a prized finisher’s gillet was handed to me. It was over. What a run. I loved it. It was just as good as I hoped I would be.

32 hours 52 mins is faster than I anticipated, and I am very pleased with my effort. I finished at 03:22 on Sunday morning in 168th place out of 1383 finishers and 2286 starters. That put me in the top 7.5 % of the field. But I took over an hour longer at checkpoints than intended. I think that I could do a sub 30 hours. But I think I will leave that challenge for 2011.

I have some more tourist style photos of my trip here.

Thanks again, and a big thumbs up, to all those who sponsored me on behalf of St Johns Hospice Lancaster! We raised just over £550! You are all very generous.
It gave me great pleasure to hand it over today 16/09/2009.

The Results and event website is here