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  • Writer's pictureCoach Martin

TDS (Sur les traces des Ducs de Savoies) Part 3

Walking back out into the night felt cold even though we were at no more than 700m. Walking through this village that now seemed deserted felt a little surreal. Soon we were heading down a main road leading out of the village, and then off the road onto a path in descent. Across the stream and then we were headed upwards. And not just normal upwards, super steep upwards. 30 - 50 meters straight upwards and then cross the road, 30 – 50 meters straight upwards and then cross the road, 30 – 50 meters straight upwards and then cross the road. Ok, I’ve got the message. There’s a road leading up to Hauteluce with lots of switchbacks and we’re just cutting across all of them. Fine, let’s just take this easy. To be honest I was feeling pretty good in this section and I guess the others were too as we forded ahead, overtaking a number of other runners. This went on for a few kilometers until the path evened out into a pleasant woodland kind of track. No more cutting across the road and we could keep a good forward motion. We even ran a little in some sections. In less time than I had been expecting we were trotting past the lake of Hauteluce and into the village. Maybe a kilometer of road led us to the departure station of the ski station and the signs directed us down the stairs and into the actual station. Here was our next aid station, much sooner than I had expected, but just as well since the one after was 15 kilometers, 1000 vertical meters and many hours away. I wasn’t really hungry but some watermelon, a cup of coffee and more of those buttery biscuits went down very easily. We were only in there for 10’ but by the time we came out it was no longer dark. The sky was a light grey color with just a few clouds. We walked through this small village admiring the beautifully maintained streets and architecture – it was very obvious that this was a rich tourist based economy. The signs directed us upwards out of the village on to a larger road but then turned to follow the road downwards. I must admit that this was a little disconcerting as we were very aware that the next 7 to 8 kilometers were supposed to be all uphill, gaining nearly 1000m of elevation. But soon all was revealed as we were guided off the road, at first directly under the ski lift, and then onto a steep and narrow path. Slow and steady, slow and steady! That was to be our mantra for the next couple of hours. I was in front – the old man setting the pace for the younger guns behind. The sun was getting higher in the sky, keeping pace with our slow progress. Higher and higher, until we left the narrow path and found ourselves on a larger track. Further up I decided to stop to take a rest. Carlo stopped beside me, while Stefano and his friend continued, as well they should. But we couldn’t stop all day so off we went again. Higher and still higher. I really don’t know how long we kept climbing but it must have been for well over an hour. And then we reached a driveable road – without doubt a service road for the ski lifts and the ski stations positioned up here. A large jeep was parked just at the point on the road where we met it and three men were standing around. We looked at them expectantly. Check point, water station! They ignored us. Ok, absolutely nothing to do with the race. But the sun was really shining high in the sky now. So out came the sunglasses and off we went again. This road was actually quite easy and was a pleasant change from the steep paths that we had been following since Hauteluce. We were now able to chat as we continued our upwards trek. But all good things come to an end and the signs directed us off the road onto a single track which pointed directly up a small hill and a monument on top of it. It was a small hill so in 5’ we were on top. To our surprise Stefano was sitting on the monument. “Is this Mont des Vorès” I asked excitedly. “No, no. That is still a couple of kilometers still”. I have to admit I felt a little let down, but then looking at the course profile I could see that most of the elevation for this section of the course had been done, and that we were now only about 43 kilometers from the finish. That made me feel a lot better and attaching a photo taken with Stefano I sent a positive message to our running club’s Whatsapp group, who I knew were following us closely. They moved off and we followed a few minutes later.

I munched on an energy bar as we dropped down off the hill and back onto the same service road as before. We were now very decidedly in a ski zone with ski lifts and stations just about everywhere around us. It was getting quite hot now and the running tights that I had changed into at Beaufort were too much. As we reached a ski lift station I suggested stopping for 5’ while I changed out of the tights and into a pair of shorts. Carlo was quite happy to do so and disappeared around the other side of the building. I was all changed and ready to go by the time he came back. I didn’t inquire about what he had been doing around there! From there to Mont des Vorès was another half kilometer and we were soon under the short but steep climb. Five minutes later we were standing on top and looking down the other side and could see Mont Blanc on the far horizon, very far horizon.

“Where are we going now?” asked Carlo. I pointed along the valley, a path leading away from us, some hundreds of meters below the ridgeline. “Up there, right up to the head of the valley where you can see the ski station of Col du Joly”. And we truly could see the ski station, but only just see it, because it was 7 kilometers away. This was going to be a long morning. Now this path is actually really pretty. On your right the mountain rises up steeply to a ridge between 200 to 300 meters above you, on your left is a huge valley and you can see clear across to the other side. On any other day it would have been a wonderful, tell all your friends about it, kind of run. For us, and the other runners, it was going to be a long hard slog. The path was a well worn single track, sometimes buffed out, other times full of stones, sometimes grass and sometime, where it crossed a stream a muddy wet bog. Sometimes were we running easy, other times reduced to a shuffle or a rock and puddle avoiding hop and skip. Every now and then there was a small uphill that we very wisely walked up. But up and down we went, around puddles, over rocks, overtaking some people and then overtaken ourselves. But we were always getting nearer. Our water was running out but we had no choice except going forward. And then when we really seemed to be quite close and we could actually see the aid station tent and the people around it, not to mention the ski lifts, the path went up. Not a small uphill like those we had been used to until now but up, up, decidedly up, up. Well, we had no choice so up we went, and up a little more. Quite possibly it was shorter than it seemed but it felt quite long. But finally we were up and could see the path stringing out along the ridgeline and you know, actually it was even slightly downhill. So away we went. I would like to say that we ran quickly down to the aid station but the truth is we walked. Of course we walked, no point in wrecking ourselves in order to arrive a few minutes earlier.

It was cool inside the aid station, almost a little cold out of the morning sun. We ate, we drank and we filled our water bottles. Maybe we stayed a little longer than we should have but in the end we left the calm of the aid station to begin the long descent to Notre Dame de la Gorge.

The first part was on ski service roads and ski pistes – not very beautiful, let’s be honest. But we did have part of the Mont Blanc Massif in front of us and that is not bad! As we descended from the 2000m of Col du Joly the terrain became increasingly forested, firstly small shrubs and bushes at 1800m, then increasingly thicker trees as we arrived at 1600m. The path became a track in the woods. Not as easy – small rocks, roots, sometimes wet patches. Now remember when I said, some hours back now, that I always fall down in every race. Well, in long races it can quite easily be more than once and just after we passed a very courteous French lady, I did it again. This time not a forward trip and a spectacular parachute roll but a slip on wet rocks and a full, on to my back and bum, type fall. Embarrassing, as I am sure we had looked so confident as we trotted past the French lady. But there it was, so I picked myself up, cleaned myself off and continued down almost as nothing had happened. Honestly, how do you get to be so vain in the middle of a race like this? And the path went down and down. A number of really quite steep sections where we were thankful to have the poles. I don’t quite know how it happened but at a certain point I noticed that Carlo was nowhere to be seen. He had been right behind me but now I was alone as I tripped and trotted down the path. I wasn’t really worried as he had been having some troubles on the steep and technical terrain but it was nothing that would stop him. So I just continued down and started running into people. “Come on Martin, go Britain, flying the flag” (for those who don’t know your name is very prominently printed on the race bib as well as your national flag). Now this poor fellow couldn’t possibly know how tired, hot and irritated I might be, nor could he know that I left the UK over forty years ago and really don’t care for the place. “Listen I don’t give a monkey’s about Britain, I don’t live there and frankly I find the Union Jack as ugly as shit”. I’m sorry, whoever you were. I really didn’t mean to take it out on you. Wrong place, wrong time and wrong sentiments! Please forgive me.

Finally the descent leveled out as I reached the stream. The stream that everybody walking up had been promising me as I passed them. A number of them had even suggested taking a cool off in the stream but I was just happy to be down, and ready for the next, reasonably flat section to Les Contamines.

A short run through a shaded wood took me past a church with 4 friendly looking fellows sitting on a bench. They were no doubt enjoying the sight of exhausted runners and being able to comment on their various states of looking quite frankly awful. “Quatre kilometre, toutes plaines” (Four kilometers, all flat) one of them shouted. That didn’t sound too bad. Not bad at all. But first of all I needed to slow down and wait for Carlo. So I continued walking but slowly now hoping that he wasn’t too far behind. Every now and then I looked over my shoulder to see where he might be. A couple of other runners passed me and then finally there he was – fast walking with occasional pieces of jogging. I relayed the four flat kilometer info and considering the lack of shade we decided to fast walk it in. And luckily we did because it certainly felt like more than four kilometers, though the flat part was mostly correct. There’s not a lot to say about this section. Certainly, when I ran it in the other direction at night, during the early part of the UTMB, it felt a lot shorter, and a lot cooler.

It took us the best part of an hour to get to Les Contamines and the heat was beginning to get to us before we arrived in the cool shadow of the aid station, and the chilling water fountain at the entrance. We didn’t stay long. Just enough time for some tea and cake and to fill our water bottles. And there was Stefano again! He was just leaving as we got ourselves together and followed at a short distance. It was hot down here in the valley and we took every opportunity of dousing our heads in the water fountains that we met. But then we were soon above the various settlements and hiking up a steep but wide service road. There was a bit of shade on the right hand side of the road so we were all staying there as much as possible, overtaking any day hikers or families as quickly as possible so as to return to the shade. We knew this was part of the last climb, and when you’re on the last climb you feel that there is probably nothing able to stop you from getting to the finish. But it was not going to be as simple as that. As the service road finished we found ourselves on a similarly steep path in the woods but here at least there was more shade and it was cooler.

“Scusami, ma tu sei Martin, quello che scrive su Spirito Trail”? (Excuse me, are you Martin, the one who writes on Spirito Trail”? What! And that was our introduction to Arianna. So now we were three, and chatting away we made our way up higher and higher. Then Arianna said that she needed to rest a bit but would try to catch us later. So we were two again. And then we were joined by a Spanish/Italian became Dutch girl who we had met the day before. More chatting, more uphill walking and we arrived at Chalets du Trucs. This is a beautiful little high meadow, surrounded by mountains and dotted with a number of small and not so small chalets, some of which were obviously bars and restaurants. We walked through the meadow marveling at the beauty until our new friend turned to me and said “Which is the Col de Tricot”? Now, I knew that we still had to climb the Col de Tricot and I also knew that people usually spoke about it in rather awed terms but I hadn’t really though about it until that moment.

I looked up at the mountains surrounding us and then I saw it. A shallow but very steep little valley leading up to a low point between two peaks. “I’m guessing that’s it. It doesn’t look too friendly does it”? It was still quite some distance away and we couldn’t yet see the procession of ant like figures making their way up but it looked foreboding. Anyway we had no choice so we trotted down the path leading to a slightly lower meadow with other chalets. A quick head dousing in a stream and we were on the approach slopes of the climb. It was hot, really hot and with not even a breath of air to cool us we were struggling and sweating immediately. Our young lady friend drew away from us while we slowly plodded upwards. The story of the hare and the tortoise, but in this case the tortoise never saw the hare again! I was leading up the first maybe third of the climb, but as we got higher and I felt as if every step was a herculean task I motioned Carlo to pass me. Twenty, sometimes thirty steps and then 10” of rest. Again and again I repeated this process, occasionally glancing down to see how far we had come. We passed a couple. He looked fine, still strong, and was encouraging his companion. She was hardly moving and the rear parts of her legs were covered with sunburns and ugly looking blisters. There was no way they were going to finish the race. Shortly afterwards we saw a rescue team of two charge down from the col above presumably on their way to provide assistance. Looking up I could see a large upright rock at the col. I had no idea if this rock was 10 meters high or 50 meters. But it did give me something to focus on and be able to judge the progress I was making by observing how much bigger it was getting. It was on the right hand side of the col so I decided to only look at it when I reached the extreme end of the leftward switchback. Each time I reached there, and as I changed direction, I looked up at the rock noting the changes I was seeing. Every third time I would also look down to see how far up we had come, pitying those who were still on the lower slopes or even those I could still see making their way across the meadow to the base of the climb. Slowly, slowly we were making progress. There was even a slight breeze now, as we got higher and higher. Not enough to cool us but sufficient to give a momentary sensation of respite. A small stream crossed the path at the apex of a switchback as I came up behind an improbable looking couple. The small, almost minute Mexican crouched down to wet two caps in the stream and passed one to his giant German companion. Then he looked at me and smiled as I passed him my cap for similar treatment. Small gestures among fellow sufferers. No questions of race, gender, age, physique or nationality here. The only element was that of a sharing of suffering and determination to see it through to the end. It wasn’t a competition but everyone conducting his individual battle, in total respect of that of others. They stood aside while I passed by. I smiled again, thanked them and wished them luck. Not so far now. Carlo was maybe a minute or so ahead but the path seemed to be flattening out as we took on the final switchbacks. We could see the volunteers and rescue teams standing on the col, greeting each runner as they crested the last part of the climb. My trusted rock was now towering over us, welcoming us into the valley on the other side. I felt relieved as I too walked up the last few meters and found myself on the col. Carlo was already there, bent over and leaning on his poles. We exchanged a smile. It was only another 16 or 17 kilometers. Nothing would stop us now.

We started off well. It was downhill so this should be easy. After 10’ I was seated on a convenient rock trying to get my breath back. I felt absolutely exhausted and judging by the look on Carlo’s face he wasn’t feeling much better either. We sat there panting in the hot sun, sipping on our seriously diminished water resources. “Dai ragazzi, andiamo” (Come on guys, let’s go). Arianna! She had caught up with us. “Okkaaaay! Let’s do this!” Our new friend had brought with her a new dose of enthusiasm and determination. Up we got and continued on down the mountain. It wasn’t a really technical terrain but full of stones and bushes and changes in slope and holes and god knows what else. But we just slogged through it. Heat, dust, sweat, more heat.

Parched throats. We could hear rushing water in the distance. Some ten minutes later we were standing on the banks of the small gorge. Water fell and crashed its way deep within the bed of the stream while we looked, rather in trepidation, at the Tibetan style suspended bridge.

Everyone was taking photos. Excited by this novel interruption to the usual footpaths, or maybe just pleased at the chance for a momentary break. Arianna crossed first. Carlo and I followed. Careful with the footing, the water rushing below left no doubt as to what would happen if someone fell in. The swaying of the bridge was disconcerting, a reminder of how you might feel on the deck of a ship at sea. But of course no one fell in and we regrouped on the other side where we found a smaller stream and the chance to douse our heads. Arianna and I filled a water bottle. Freezing cold water, almost certainly bereft of any minerals and therefore no use for quenching our thirst, but it gave some momentary relief. Not far now to Bellevue some hikers told us, maybe 10 or 15’.

We were galvanized and made our way along the trail in that direction. But it was not that easy. The trail was extremely narrow in some parts and forced us up onto slippery and scrambling type traverses. Not difficult, but with the accumulated fatigue and our desire to go as quickly as possible, not so easy either. But we emerged onto an easier trail. Almost runnable! And so we almost went straight past the sign, pointing us up through a wooded area with no path towards Bellevue. But I saw it at the last second, called the others back and up we went now in sight of the ski station, a mini aid station, and some volunteers with a water pump.

This was it. This was the moment I had been waiting for all day. From here it was truly all down hill to Les Houches and then the easy path to Chamonix. My gaze looked out over the valley to the other side where the Aiguilles Rouge stood against the skyline. Somewhere nestled below them were the Tete Aux Vents and La Flegere. The two symbols of pre victory on the UTMB and CCC courses, places that in those races I had desired as ardently as Bellevue where I was now.

But we still had to get to Chamonix so down it was. Arianna and I running slightly ahead, chatting away and Carlo following slightly behind. The easy tracks of the high meadows led us almost effortlessly down until we reached more technical paths in the forests below. Here we were forced to be more careful but continued chatting, exchanging experiences, points of view and above all what we were going to do when we reached Chamonix. The unanimous decision was drink a cold beer!

Finally the forest path deposited us onto a steep road. The valley lay before us and we could see the towns of Les Houches below and Chamonix in the distance. I don’t really know how steep that road was, but my legs kept telling me it was very steep, steeper than they were happy to deal with right then. So we walked/jogged/trotted down the road. Some runners in front of us and some runners behind us and on all of their faces the realization of nearly being finished. It’s strange, you wouldn’t really consider yourself as being nearly finished at 9-10 kilometers from the finish in any other race, but here it was different. The last ten minutes of descent were even steeper than the first part but finally we were in the town. People clapping, “allez, allez”. At the bottom of the hill we turned right onto the main road and after less than one hundred meters a volunteer was welcoming us into the last aid station. A large cool tent, and really spacious because no one was spending a lot of time here. Filled our water bottles, not too much it’s only 8 more kilometers, ate some fruit and drunk some coke for an instant sugar boost. We walked out of the aid station feeling refreshed and walked straight into Nuria Picas, smiling and offering congratulations. Hallucination? No, it was really the champion trail runner Nuria who lives and trains in Les Houches. She was not running in this edition but was out and about supporting friends, and actually just about everyone she ran into. Super nice! I’ve long been a fan boy, now even more.

Anyway we set off again, crossed a few roads, followed another road down towards the river and across the bridge, up the other side and out of Les Houches. High up on our right the entire Mont Blanc massif was showing off in the late afternoon sunshine. Carlo and Arianna had spent very little time in the area before and so I enjoyed playing the tourist guide, pointing out the various summits, rock faces and glaciers.

We shortly found ourselves on the road, which then becomes a wide path leading to Chamonix. All straight from here on in! So we walked on, a rapid walking pace, at times breaking into a jog on the few short descents. But the road was nearly always slightly uphill – Chamonix is slightly higher than Les Houches. We talked, we joked and sometimes we were silent, each one of us exploring their personal emotions at the idea we had nearly finished our journey. Finally we reached the area of Les Gailland – the famous climbing area of Chamonix. I whooped with joy. From here to the center was just a question of a couple of kilometers. But still we had to find our way through the periphery of Chamonix. The course markings directed us up through a number of side streets, instead of the main road that the UTMB course uses on its mad dash out of town. No problem, we just kept walking, looking around and enjoying these last few minutes before the storm of emotions that would greet us shortly. And then it was there, in front of us - a policeman holding up the traffic and directing us into the pedestrian precinct of the main thoroughfare. So many people were on the streets clapping and congratulating us. We walked through the first 100 meters feeling slightly bemused. I knew Arianna’s boyfriend was waiting for her at the finish line to take photos, so I suggested she should push ahead quickly so that he could get some nice photos without these two ugly idiots. We could get photos together afterwards. She didn’t want to leave us but we insisted and encouraged her to trot off ahead. As she drew away I turned towards Carlo, “Bene amico mio, cosa vogliamo fare. Camminare come due vecchietti o corriamo questi ultimi metri?” (Well, my friend, what are we going to do. Walk like two old guys or are we going to run these last few meters?”). He smiled and began a slow jog while I also accelerated to keep up with him. We made sure not to catch up with Arianna while we enjoyed these last few minutes. The sides of the road were now packed with people, the noise was growing as we got closer and closer to the finish chute – clapping, “allez allez”, music blasting from the speakers.

And then Giuseppe, a friend of Carlo’s, darted out from the crowd with a video camera, shouting and encouraging us on, even running with us into the finish chute in order to capture the moment. We could see Arianna cross the finish line just in front of us and then we too were running across the line, hand in hand as we had one year before.

Hugs, kisses and congratulations! We were joined by Giuseppe and Arianna’s boyfriend in he finish area, where everybody was talking at the same time, trying to take photos and nobody really knowing what they were doing.

Over the next half hour we managed to pick up our finishers’ vests, eat something and drink a cold beer. Finally a cold beer!

The next morning we were seated at breakfast, back in our hotel in Courmayeur. We had caught the last shuttle bus from Chamonix and got to bed after midnight. Now we were ravenous, ready and willing to replace all of the calories we had consumed, plus a few more just in case. Just as I got stuck into my second ham, cheese and salami sandwich in walked Stefano. He had finished the race some 45’ before us. We sat round the table, smiling at each other as we munched our way through two days worth of food, and a fortnight’s worth of coffee. What an adventure and what wonderful company!

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