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  • Writer's pictureCoach Martin

TDS (Sur les traces des Ducs de Savoies) Part 1

It was the middle of a late august afternoon in 2017 and I was sitting on the side of the path at the 60th kilometer. Even though I was on a mountain at over 2,000 meters I was sweating copiously. I tried to eat something from my supplies – an energy bar, a gel. Everything made me feel sick. The race hadn’t gone that badly up to now but the unusual heat was killing me. I don’t do well in the heat! My head was spinning and the idea of getting up and going on to the next aid station just made me feel worse. When I did finally get up I turned in the opposite direction, walked the 200 meters to the aid station that I had passed no more than 20’ previously and took a DNF.

This was the TDS, the so-called bad sister of the UTMB, shorter yes and with less elevation but so bad, and clearly not prepared to give me an easy passage. This was the second time that I had attempted the race. Last time in 2012 it had been the bad weather, a huge storm blowing in just before I reached the Cormet de Roselend aid station at 65 kilometers. That storm caused a 60% DNF rate among the runners with the majority calling it quits at Roselend, just as I did.

And I wanted to finish the race, believe me. I had already completed the smaller sister race, the CCC, in 2009. I had finished the UTMB in 2010, 2011 and 2014. I wanted to finish the TDS so as to complete the triple. But it was rejecting me for the second time. The day after, when I arrived home, I was pretty sure that was it. I wasn’t going to try the TDS again. I would never finish the triple. But you know how it is. During the last part of an Ultra race you’re swearing on everything you hold dear that you’re never going to do something as stupid as this again. At the end of the race you’re as happy as hell but really no, you don’t want to put yourself through that again. A couple of weeks pass and you’re remembering all the great parts of the race, the sunrise as you reached some pass in the middle of the mountains, the spooky silence of the forest during the night, those weird hallucinations, those great conversations with a fortuitous companion who has now become a friend, how good hot instant coffee tastes at the 80th kilometer, the cheers and high fives as you run through the finish chute and that first beer as you sit down and cheer in the people who finish just behind you. But you still remember the pain, just not so much. A couple of months pass and the pain is a fleeting memory but the good moments, yes the good moments remain, firmly imbedded in your memory, even when you took a DNF.

For my money the CCC is the best race in the UTMB festival. It’s long enough (100km) to be a more than worthy and testing objective. You get to see some of the best views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc during the early hours of the race when you’re still fresh enough to appreciate them. When you finally get to the French side and you climb up to the Aiguille Rouge you have all of the French side of Mont Blanc in front of you, and if you’re a mid packer like me you do that during the early morning of the second day, so great views again. And you appreciate it as much as you did the Italian side the day before, not because you’re fresh and raring to go but because you know the race is nearly finished. So, you know what I did? I put my name in the hat for the 2018 CCC, just so that I could get a little bit of confidence back, and because the race is fricking awesome. And my name came up.

I know, I know. Why is he talking about the CCC if the title of the story is the TDS? Well bear with me a minute and I’ll explain.

I trained fairly well but not great. Quite a bit of skimo in the winter, including a trip to Morocco to ski the 4,300 meter peak of Toubkal. Four trail races between 20 – 30km in May and June. A 45km race in the Dolomites in mid July and another 57km race at the end of the month. August was mainly a lot of mountain walking with a bit of running thrown in and biking. But when I turned up in Courmayeur on the morning of the race I had very few doubts that I would finish. It just didn’t cross my mind. As I was standing in the starting corral I found myself next to an Italian guy. We started chatting and introduced ourselves. He asked me a lot of questions about the race when he realized that I had already finished the CCC race, even more so when it came out that I had 3 UTMB finishes as well.

The starter gun went off and so did we. Through the streets of the town, and then up towards the mountains. Carlo was close by and we continued chatting – a good way to keep our initial enthusiasm in control. We did lose each other briefly during the first descent, and then again later at the second climb of the day, over Grand Col Ferret during a small rainstorm. But by the time we got to La Fouly at 40km it was pretty clear that we had each found a race companion. And so that was it. For the next 60km we stayed together. Sometimes I was leading, sometimes Carlo was. We decided that staying in the aid stations for more than 10-15’ was a no-no. Throughout the night and into the morning, talking, encouraging each other, assisting where necessary. And finally running into Place des Amities in Chamonix together.

Drinking a celebration beer together and saying goodbye only when the shuttle bus had taken us back to Courmayeur. But yet again at the end of the race I said that was it. I wasn’t going to do any more of these crazy races.

Until one day in October when Carlo called me and said he was thinking about the TDS and would I like to do it with him. To be honest if anyone else had asked me I would have said no. But the idea of doing the race together just gave me so much confidence that, of course, I said yes and so we enrolled our names for the lottery.

On the 12th of January the god of luck smiled upon us and we were in. Carlo and I don’t live anywhere near each other. It is over 300km and about 3 hours by car. So each one of us pursued his own training plan and although we had a vague idea of maybe meeting up at some race, that actually never happened. I have to admit my training went really well – mainly running, ski mountaineering and gym work in the winter and spring. Running, cycling and swimming as spring turned to summer. Some shorter races in March, April, May with reasonable results. But as I ramped up training towards June and July I managed first place finishes in my category in a 20km, a 42km and a 56km race. So the speed was there. Would the distance and resistance to fatigue also be there?

I turned up in Courmayeur mid Tuesday afternoon. The race would start at 04.00 the next morning. In the meantime we had to go through the usual bib collection and obligatory material inspection. It’s a bit of a pain having to stand in a queue, have your identity checked, pull out the material that they want to see and check (a bit of advice don’t have all of your material in the race pack because you’re just going to have to repack it all again later) but it does get you into the race mood. Seeing all of the other runners, feeling their excitement and nerves, chatting with a few of them in this babel of international languages.

Considering the early morning 4am start of the race Carlo and I decided to eat early and try to be in bed by 9 o’clock at the latest. That just about worked out but there are always some last minute details to attend to. My kit, pack, shoes, race bib and poles were laid out clearly by the bed. A little further away were my two aid bags – one for Beaufort with a change of gear and my lightweight rain gear (I was taking the heavier version for the first part since there was a possibility of rain) and the other one for Chamonix with shower gear and a change of normal clothes. I didn’t want to be making any mistakes or forgetting something at the ungodly hour of 2am when the alarm was scheduled. I was worried about hearing that as well.

It turns out I didn’t need to be as I was already awake 10 minutes before. The gear went on pretty well even though I’m not at my best at that time of the morning. Breakfast in the hotel was perfectly laid out by the owners who seemed more than happy to be of assistance to these crazy runners – cereal, bread, ham, cheese, fruit juice, coffee, brioches. By 3 we were out of the hotel and making our way across the square, firstly to the bag deposit, and then up the road to the race start. There were so many people around, a cacophony of languages, nervous faces and so many smiling and efficient volunteers. You have to hand it to the UTMB, they have an amazing organization.

We somehow managed to get into the starting corral fairly early. A convenient place not too close to the fast elites but not so far back that we could get badly held up by queues on any narrow paths. We also managed to avoid getting checked for obligatory material by one of the numerous teams in the corral making these checks. Not that we would have failed the check, but the idea of getting everything out and then putting it back into the pack would have been pretty nerve racking. The last few minutes before the start of the race are so tense. You start wondering why the hell you are standing here at 4 in the morning, with a load of other nutters and getting ready to run in the mountains for the next 40 hours.

And we were off! The first 200 meters was a mix between shuffling and walking. Trying not to walk on the heels of the person directly in front and hoping that whoever was behind me is being equally attentive. As we entered the main thoroughfare of Courmayeur the shuffle walk became a jog, and then a slow run. There were lots of people cheering along the street, clapping hands, shouting “bravo” and ringing cowbells – this is 4 o’clock in the morning people, what are you even doing here? Then we were running down towards the river, crossing the bridge and making our way up the steep road on the other side. The race had only started 5’ earlier and it was already time to walk. The road got steeper and then abruptly became a ski piste, actually the service road of a ski piste but still very steep, so out came the poles and we were ready for our first climb of the day. How do you describe the walk up a ski piste in the dark surrounded by hundreds of other people? The only really memorable parts where when we got further up and could look back at the lights of Courmayeur now many hundreds of meters below us and the line of headlamps stretching out behind us. The aid station at the Col Checrouit Mountain Hut came into view. Carlo and I had decided before the start that we wouldn’t stop at all at this aid station. After just 7km and 750m of elevation what could we possibly need? The service road disappeared and we now found ourselves on a narrow path. This was one of the reasons that I had suggested to be quite forward in the starting corral and also to avoid the first aid station. With 1600+ runners this path could create quite a lot of queuing problems. Our strategy seemed to have worked as the total delays on this section were probably less than 5 minutes. An alternation of fast walking and running where possible, took us up to the Arete du Favre and the short descent down into the Val Veny. Here we were no longer on a path but you certainly couldn’t call it a road either. But there was plenty of room and many people came racing past us. We just let them go – 135 kilometers and 8000 meters of elevation to the finish! The second aid station and our first stop soon came into view. It was time for a second breakfast. I grabbed a coffee and five slices of ginger cake. Three went straight into my mouth, two accompanied me out of the aid station to be eaten over the next ten minutes. We glanced at the timing as we left – 20’ ahead of the cut-off after 16 kilometers looked good.

The next part was the steep climb up to Col Chavannes which at 2600m, was the highest part of the course. My legs were feeling heavy on this climb and Carlo steadily pulled away from me. We were in a long queue of people so I wasn’t that worried. Regular steps, using my poles, I just followed the pair of feet in front of me, glancing every now and then towards Mont Blanc over my right shoulder. And then on the steepest part of the path, right in the middle of a longish traverse it happened. I dropped one of my poles, the one on the side that led down the mountain. Luckily it stopped a couple of meters below me. Almost without thinking I also stepped off the path to retrieve it, not noticing that the steep incline was made up of small gravel and stones. Away went my foot, with my body, head and pride following immediately behind. I managed to stop but now I was stuck a meter or so below the path, but I had managed to grab the fallen pole. Luckily a young Chinese runner extended his hand and helped me back up. I have to say thanks whoever you were. Angry as hell with myself, the rest of the climb flew past. And then there was Carlo at the col waiting patiently for me.

Now came the long descent down towards the Saint Bernard valley. But it’s a fairly well kept military type road so the only real problem is keeping up a reasonable pace for the whole descent. Well, the only problem unless you’re an idiot like me. The one thing I’m really good at is tripping myself up. Honestly I think that if I manage to finish a race without tripping and falling over at least once then I’ve probably been blessed by a higher being. On the plus side I’ve become rather adept at falling and rolling with the fall, just like a military parachutist. So down I went and over I rolled, finishing in a strikingly prone position on my back. I could see Carlo looking at me aghast as a friendly French runner stooped over me with a concerned expression and one of my poles in his hand. I just shrugged, extended my hand to the French runner who kindly pulled me upright. “Ca bien, pas de problem. Merci” I declared in my scholastic French. He probably thought I was nuts as he handed over my pole. “Merci encore. Bon voyage” I smiled. He hesitantly moved off, no doubt figuratively shaking his head, and we behind him.

Eventually the road was going in the wrong direction towards La Thuile, whereas we were headed for the Grand San Bernard Pass. So the race signs directed us off the road, on to a narrow single track and down a steep slope. A few minutes later we were crossing the bridge over the valley stream and ascending the other side. On the map this looks like quite a short section but it’s a continual up and down, mostly up, where it’s difficult to set into a constant rhythm of any kind. But away we went along this muddy and cow pat strewn path. A little up, a little down, some flat sections where some other runners jogged along but we just kept a constant walking pace. The pass where the aid station is located looked deceptively close but having done this part of the course before I knew very well that it was going to take a lot longer than it looked. And I was becoming increasingly worried for the time barrier. Where had we lost time, had we been going so slowly? By my calculations we had already eaten into the 20’ advantage that we had at the last aid station of Lac Combal and would probably get to the pass with only 5 or 10’ to spare. I didn’t say anything to Carlo but I was becoming increasingly upset. The last climb up to the pass is a steep single track amongst overgrown blueberry bushes. No chance of overtaking here even if you want to. Just accept the pace of the people in front of you. But come on people, no need to take a breather every twenty steps! Keep up the rhythm!

Finally we were there. As we walked inside I voiced my concern over the time barrier to Carlo. He just looked at me as if I was mad, pointed to the sign bearing the cut-off time and showed me his watch. Oh my god! We were an hour and a quarter ahead of the cut-off. I had the timing all wrong. We had actually gained nearly an hour since the last aid station. Total relief flooded over me. Now I was feeling great! We ate the soup, added bread and cheese. I grabbed a cup of coffee and we were out of there. Down from the pass and on our way to Bourg St. Maurice. Walking some, jogging some, mostly jogging to be honest. The path is either military type road or pleasant green fields. Some people overtook us, mainly we overtook other people, especially as the easier part finished and we found ourselves on a steeper trail.

You can see the town in the distance as you run down but it doesn’t look very close – that’s because it isn’t! Finally we started seeing some houses, a beautiful little water-mill, a few people clapping and cheering and we had arrived at Seez. Is this the Bourg, Carlo asked me. I was sorry to disappoint him. This is just a water and drinks station. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible but Carlo needed some water. So we took a few minutes before continuing down the roads and paths and then ten minutes later arriving in what looks like the industrial part of the Bourg. The thing is once you feel you’re in the town you think you’ve made it. But there are probably 3 kilometers to the center where the aid station is located. We crossed a few roads and then entered a kind of forest park. Jogging through the trees was pleasant but we soon exited on the other side where asphalted path and curated grass took their place. Walk a bit, jog a bit, walk a bit, jog a bit. It was pretty warm down here as well seeing as we had dropped from over 2000m at the pass to about 700m here. Finally we were making our way past the coach station and then the rail station, across a main road and up into the central square to the rave party – no sorry, it was an aid station, it just looked and felt like a rave party. We managed to find ourselves a space to sit down and utilize a small part of a table. Soup again, this time with rice. Some bread and cheese. Some cake and two pieces put into a pocket. Fill up our water bottles. Let’s get out of here! But, first of all the control point. Telephone, check. Headlamp, check. Rain jacket, check. Stuff it all back in and we were heading up the road out of town. Tic, tic went our poles on the tarmac. Tic, tic let’s get out of this mayhem. Tic, tic let’s get up higher where the air is cooler.

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