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  • Writer's pictureCoach Martin

TDS (Sur les traces des Ducs de Savoies) Part 2

We walked up the central street of the Bourg, high fiving some young kids, applauding a group of street musicians, envying some people eating ice cream sitting in front of a bar. Then we were turning right, the street getting steeper as we left the sounds of the town behind. Up a lane, turn left along a small road, turn right up another lane which then becomes a pebbled path. A fountain gave us the chance to soak our caps in an effort to keep our body temperatures under control. And then it was a path, no longer easy paced walking but having to push with our poles, calf muscles and feet straining against the steep and uneven terrain. Up and up it went. I had been here twice before. Once while dark menacing storm clouds gathered ominously behind us, the other time under a relentlessly burning heat wave. Totally different conditions but what didn’t change was the steepness and length of the climb. I knew it was going to take us hours and that going a bit faster now would make absolutely no difference and might even harm us later on. We set into a steady pace, not too hard, not too easy. A few people passed us but it seemed that we passed more. There’s a road that bisects the climb at a certain point, and when I heard loud cowbells and cheers I began thinking that we might already be there, but it felt too early. And of course it was! Just a charming couple who had hiked down from the road to cheer and give encouragement as everybody passed by. But ten minutes later we reached the road. We were just below the lower outlying walls of the fort and could see the larger shape of Fort de la Platte way up above us. Still another half hour at least! I suggested a short break and we each munched on an energy bar while catching up on our hydration. Then we set off again. The same steady pace, but now we were up higher above the tree line. We could look way below us and see the valley from where we had come.

Able to observe the other mountains in the distance, see the fort where we were headed clearly, and also the long line of other runners both above and below us. It was cooler now, a slight breeze cooling us as we toiled ever upwards. Closer and closer, then finally we were there. A crowd of people around the water station. We were happy to stop climbing for a while, fill our water bottles and try to eat something. 1200 meters from Bourg St. Maurice to here in the warmest part of the day but it certainly wasn’t finished. From here we still had to climb up to the Col de la Forclaz, 400 meters higher than our present position. Then down into a small valley and climb back out, up to Passeur Pralognan at 2570m the highest point in the race.

So off we went. The path was easier now, much less steep and quite wide in places. Easy terrain, where we were able to keep up a good pace without too much effort. Before long we reached the Lacs de Forclaz (Lakes of Forclaz) and making our way through the herds of sheep arrived shortly afterwards at the Col. Now we could see the short but sharp descent into the small valley and the steep looking ascent on the other side. That’s where we had to go so we might as well get on with it. So down we went, treading carefully, occasionally breaking out into a short jog till we reached the bottom. Carlo was leading and I followed a few paces behind but I was feeling increasing fatigue. I suggested a short refueling break so we sat down on the side of the path and ate an energy bar. How long passed? 5 minutes, 10 minutes who knows? We certainly weren’t timing it. But at a certain point we stood up and rejoined the procession of runners (walkers) aiming for the pass. Feeling better now I took the lead, even opening up a small gap on Carlo, as we got closer and closer to the pass.

And finally we were there. A volunteer advising us to put on a jacket and to stow our poles as there was a queue of maybe 10’ and due to the technical nature of the descent on the other side. We joined the queue. Carlo put on his jacket while I decided to just pull up my arm warmers and put on a hat. There was music! The volunteers at the pass, a mix of Alpine Rescue and medical personnel were not only assisting and advising the less technical minded in the descent but they were enlivening the proceedings with entertainment – music, singing and dancing. In particular three girls looked as if they were having the time of their life. It could have been a beach party in Ibiza except it was a lot colder and there was no alcohol or drugs to be seen. Finally it was our turn and we dropped quickly into the descent, not before saying goodbye and thanking our party hosts. Yes the first part of the descent is narrow and steep. But there were fixed ropes to hold onto if you needed them. I had done this descent a few years before in the dark and in the rain and it hadn’t been pleasant. Now, in the light of day it wasn’t really a big deal. We made quick work of it and were soon on the easier slopes and footpath below. It was also a lot warmer down below. Soon Carlo needed to remove his jacket while I rolled down my arm warmers and put my hat in a pocket. My operation took a lot less time than Carlo’s so I continued down slowly while waiting for him to catch up. We could see a wide drivable path down in the valley and couldn’t wait to get there. What a relief when we finally arrived! It should only be a few kilometers now to the Cormet de Roselend aid station and we were looking forward to being able to sit down for 10’, eating, drinking and re-evaluating. We had a choice, jog it in or walk. We decided to mostly walk. Jogging all the way would only have saved 5’ at the most. It was longer than we thought but finally we arrived and thankfully sat down.

To my great surprise Stefano was there. Who is Stefano you may ask. Well, he’s a guy from my running club. Quite a bit younger, quite a bit faster and he had overtaken me during the climb up to Col Chavannes. Which was why I was surprised to see him here in Cormet de Roselend. I’d seen him quite a bit during late spring and late summer as he had taken part in the once a week track workout that I organise, but then I hadn’t seen him over the summer as he had been in the States with his family. He had just returned to Italy two days before. Which, of course, was why he wasn’t way ahead of us. Between the lack of sleep and 9 hours of jet lag from the West Coast he was feeling a little off and who can blame him. He left the aid station 10’ before us together with another friend and this time I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be seeing him again, but things didn’t really turn out that way. We were to see each other quite a lot over the next 24 hours. Soup, bread, cheese, cake and coffee and we were also ready to leave. Just before we left we pulled out our headlamps. We were going to need them fairly soon and it’s a lot easier to do that in the comfort of the aid station than up the side of a mountain.

So off we went. First an easy, wide track and then a single-track footpath, up towards the Col de la Sauce. You know I mentioned how much I fall over? Well, yes of course, I did it again! This time not so much a fall, as a sliding down the side of a bank above a large puddle. Down I went face first while just narrowly avoiding a complete belly flop by putting out a hand to brake myself, while holding on to my poles. That was probably not a great move! I almost certainly dislocated my middle finger and quite possibly caused a small fracture as it is still swollen 6 months later. But that was not going to stop me finishing this thing. So gathering up my poles, and my pride, we continued up to the col while I gently cursed under my breath. It was just beginning to get dark so headlamps went on as we reached the col and started down the other side. Finally a nice runnable path but in the dusk it was better to err on the side of caution, particularly considering my fondness for close up examinations of the terrain.

So down we went, and down still further and then we were in a gorge. A storming, roaring river in the middle, sheer rocks faces on each side and us following the steep and rocky path on the left. This must be beautiful in the light, it really must be. But in the dark with only our headlamps to show us the way it was really quite disconcerting. But gravity was helping us so we managed to mostly run. It was long, longer than I had imagined from the race profile – only about 5km but we dropped 700m in those 5 km. Finally we could see the lights of La Gittaz, a collection of houses in the midst of this huge valley. I guess there must be a road that arrives here from somewhere as there were a number of cars but as we arrived it seemed like an oasis of life in the middle of a mountainous desert. There was music and lights and a familiar sweet smoke in the air wafting over from the groups of young, obviously not runner, people sitting around. They certainly looked more relaxed and full of fun than we did. I have no idea why but I had just one overwhelming desire (might have been that smoke in the air!) – coffee and biscuits! And they really hit the spot. Now I don’t know what these biscuits are but I was to eat a lot of them over the next few hours. Buttery! They were just packed full of butter and sugar. Delicious. Plus we had now covered 75km. Over half way! Only 16km now before we reached Beaufort and our drop bags. It seemed so close but we were about to get kicked in the butt!

I started off up the steep slope above La Gittaz with Carlo just behind me. I was feeling much better than I had a few hours ago and, unfortunately, I had totally underestimated the next climb. In my mind we would be up at the next col within a short time, down a little descent and racing back up to the final pass before the descent to Beaufort in no time.

An hour later we were still climbing. 90 minutes later and the climb was leveling out, and leveling out, and leveling out. When are we going to get there? But finally, almost without realizing it, we were there. Well I guess we were there because it wasn’t really a col or a pass or anything. It was just that the flags started to go slowly downwards. Note very carefully, I did not say the path started to go down slowly, just the flags. There wasn’t actually a path, just a mountainside and the flags guiding us down. For a few minutes it was incredibly disconcerting – but we figured it out and just followed the flags. Some ten minutes later the flags redirected us onto another path in the middle of a moraine and we were back to normal functioning. We overtook a couple of Chinese girls on the moraine as they were struggling with the path finding. They quickly latched on to us and for the next few kilometers we were accompanied by female Chinese chatter – a lot of it and quite loud as well. Finally we reached the low part of this high valley that was marked by an emergency aid station. Just a few tents, a covered area for sitting on the ground and a number of volunteers. We just walked on by – no need to stop. Now came another climb. This time up to the Pas d’Outray – probably only 200m total of climbing but definitely not a walk in the park. After 5’ of this climb I decided that I had heard enough female Chinese chatter so I walked off the path to let them continue. “That’s the wrong way” the first one said to me “the path is over here”. “Yes I know. Just taking a rest. Have a good race!”

They moved off and we rested for a few minutes before following at a safe earshot distance. Up and up, then a long traverse to the left. We could see the aid station lights at the pass directly above us but the path just kept going left and slightly upwards. Finally we reached the ridge and now we just had to traverse back right on level ground – easy, super easy! Finally the pass.

A drink of water, some encouragement from the volunteers and we were on our way down. This climb had taken its toll but now we were golden – all downhill to Beaufort. Yes only downhill, all 1500m of it! This descent can be divided into three separate and quite distinct parts but if you asked me which was the worse, I would be hard put to answer. The first part was steep and rocky with sharp switchbacks and cliff edges. I saw more than one person taking it very carefully for fear of tripping. It was hard on the soles of our already tired feet. A mix of stones, rocks, dust and holes! But down we had to go and so we did. Trying to run but often relying on our poles for support and balance. Every now and then some phenomenon would pass us in full Kilian mode while I found myself wondering how come he was all the way back in the mid pack with us. My headlamp, which had been performing fantastically up to now, was fading and I was having more and more trouble to see the path. I was pretty sure it was just the batteries, but changing them in the middle of this steep and rocky path just didn’t seem a great idea. So I pushed on hoping that they wouldn’t give up on me. Finally the steep path finished as we left the rocky part of the mountain and crossed over into the tree line. This was better I thought, more fool me! I indicated to Carlo that we should stop and asked him to help me with his light while I changed the batteries. We had probably been awake for 24 hours by this time so between the dark, the tiredness and the accumulated brain fog it took me a good 5 minutes to change the batteries. But when we moved off again the amount of light coming from my headlamp had probably tripled. This was going to be easier now. Except it wasn’t! After maybe half a kilometer of easier terrain the path, now in the forest, increased its steepness and pointed almost straight down the mountain. Together with the numerous exposed roots and dust this was now an obstacle strewn toboggan. And down it went, every so often a short respite but mostly just steep, difficult and unpleasant. We slogged though this trying to make the best of it but our legs were beginning to protest. We could see the lights of Beaufort below us but they didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. Then the steep part finished and we started traversing towards the right. Nice, we can almost run a little. And then it traversed left. Nice, we can run a bit. Then it traversed left. Ok, we can run a bit: Then it traversed right. Wait a minute this is not such a great idea. And now left again. This is bloody stupid! Why are we going backwards and forwards loosing maybe just 10 – 15m every time? This continued for some time but at the end we emerged onto a field with the inclination of a ski piste (black version). The flags were pointing straight down this field. So down we went while I kept thinking what this could have been like in a rainstorm. When we arrived at the bottom the backwards and forwards game started again but the path was much better and we were coming across a number of buildings. A good sign for our hopefully not too long arrival in the town! We had now joined the back of a group of French speaking runners and good humor was in the air. The path twisted down across grass fields, crossed some small roads and passed alongside numerous farms and mountain villas. I was just following the group and letting them pull me along. At a certain point I realized that Carlo was no longer behind me. Guessing that he had probably stopped for a pee I continued down but let the group gain on me. Then after one last weird, cobbled path around a house, up and over a stream I was on asphalt inside the town. Now you have to remember that it was something like 3 o’clock in the morning so you would normally expect to find deserted streets. Not at all! I kept meeting people who would clap, “allez, allez”, “good job”. Half a kilometer of this and I reached the aid station. Still no sign of Carlo so I might as well wait inside. The aid station at Beaufort is like the one in Courmayeur on the UTMB course, housed in the local sports center. So think big, the biggest aid station you’ve ever seen in your life, unless of course you’ve already done the UTMB, in that case the same. First stop was the drop bag pick up. I showed my race number and a volunteer scurried off to fetch mine from long lines of other bags. Even with my tired and befuddled mind I can see that there are still a lot of bags still waiting to be picked up. I am pretty sure we’re not that high up in the classification so the only explanation was a lot of race withdrawals – a lot of terrible DNFs. The eventual drop out of the race was 40% (only 1091 finishers out of 1785 at the start) which, considering the ideal weather conditions attests to the difficulty of the course. That is the same as the UTMB that is 25 kilometers longer and has another 1000 meters of climbing, and so much more than the CCC with its 25% drop out rate. I shuffled off to a side room to make a complete clothing change. Socks, shorts, shirt, shoes. I swapped out my heavier rain kit for the lighter version seeing the now favorable weather conditions. Added just a couple of energy bars since I wasn’t eating many of them. While I was doing this, in walked Carlo looking relaxed, so that he could also change.

Then we walked over to the tables to claim a place to sit and get something to eat. And there was Stefano again! He had taken an hour sleep to combat the jet lag and was now fueling up before starting off again. We were almost ready as well so we decided to unite forces for a while. Drop bags were left with the volunteers at the exits and we moved off again out into the night. A sharp climb up to the ski-village of Hauteluce awaited us, 500 meters of climbing in 6 kilometers.

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