In 1991 I pitched my tent in the same spot as far more famous climber from South Africa had done 8 years before. Chamonix is the birth place of alpinism and modern mountain travel. The view from Snell’s Field camp site at sunset up the Mer du Glas to the Dru was and still is inspiring. I did not realise that I would come back to these mountains to run many years later.
Fast forward to 2010 and I was standing at the start of the world’s biggest 100 mile trail run. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This was by far the biggest thing I have ever tried.
I believed that I could circumnavigate the highest peak in Western Europe, traveling through 3 countries and climbing almost 9000m in altitude in under 46h.
My sister and Mel flew out with me to act as my roving support team.
Imagine Cycle Tour fever on steroids.
This is the start line 1h before kick off.
Chamonix goes big for this event. Even the local chocolatier joins in the action and makes the course profile in chocolate and the medals for hopeful finishers.
And to much fanfare and Vangelis “Conquest of Paradise” we set off through the streets on our 166km adventure… at 4 minutes a km.
When I say the locals go big imagine my amazement when about 20 minutes out from the second refreshment station I could hear cowbells and the announcers revving the crowds. Running into the streets of St Gervais it was like the parting of the seas on Alp du Huez. I could not help but high five spectators and push back a tear.
I had serious doubts if I would even see my seconding crew.
A few km later the first real climb done and it is raining and dark as we run towards the quaint little chapel of Notre Dam. Suddenly a runner comes towards us on the dark and rainy single track trail next to the river. The only words I understand are “arete” and “avalanche”, then “cancel”.
Now what the hell to do 30 km into the biggest adventure of my life in the rain, in the dark and not knowing what is going on?
We carry on to the next town.
And just like that my dreams went out the window. I had to reassess why I was doing this.
Why I was driven to be the first saffa to do the UTMB, why I wanted more, longer, faster, higher.
It took a while.
But mountains have a way of drawing us in.
The next day we took the telepherique up to the Aiguille du Midi
I realised that what attracted me to this race in the first place was not the hype, the banners or the crowds in the towns. There was another way to experience this trail and that was to explore on my own terms.
So one early morning in July many years later I found myself in the same town square in Chamonix, way before anybody had woken up and I started my trail.
I had no cut off times and only a rough plan to do the UTMB route over 4 days. I carried emergency gear and lunch and enough water for a few hours. My plan was to run to lunch time, resupply in a town and then head up towards a mountain hut for the afternoon stint.
And so I found myself at Notre Dam just after lunch on day 1.
A big climb lay ahead to the refuge in Italy where I would spend the night.
I slept in dorm style accommodation, dinner was a three course affair and I could not resist waiting for breakfast before setting off the next day. This comprised of fresh rolls, coffee, cereal and fruit. Not bad for a mountain hut at altitude.
Day 2 I started up the road before any of the other guests and I climbed over the col in the distance.
I was well into Italy by then and I had climbed 2 passes over 2000m en route and then it was down towards this lake.
The views were spectacular.
In fact talking about other guests The UTMB actually follows the Trail du Mont Blanc. A hiking route which normally takes people 10 -16 days to complete. It was down to Courmayeur after this and then on to the Refuge Bonatti. I was gunning down some flowing single track when a hiking group stood in my way. They would not budge and actually signalled for me to stop. I did and they asked where I had come from and where I was going. I was still a bit confused until they insisted that I stop and have some Swiss chocolate with them. And they say the Swiss are not hospitable?
The pink church in Trient, in Switzerland is a pretty big feature on the route and I overnighted here for my third night. The day before was long and hard with 50 km and a long stretch of tar. It was the biggest day of the trip so far. During the UTMB race this is where the action gets real and racers start taking strain. I was no exception.
On day four I suddenly came across these carvings in tree stumps in a lush forest. The care taken was astounding. They were magical. Not much further along the path I came across two retired gentlemen with rakes. Raking the trail. They were not rangers, they were Swiss. It blew me away how the three countries I travelled through were so different, in food, in culture, in friendliness. Not much further I got lost with less than 30 km to go on my way to Chamonix. My foot hurt from the effort of the day before and I was over it.
My mission had been to enjoy the trail, explore blank spaces on my map and enjoy moving lightly across terrain. I accomplished all three of these so I hopped on a bus and drove back to Chamonix. In the end I had run all the sections of the UTMB either in training or on my solo circumnavigation trip. I was happy and I did not feel I had to prove anything to anybody. I got on a plane and came home.
Last August I was in Jonkershoek with Mel and I got a frantic message from my buddy Jacques who lives in Dubai. We had done some running together many years ago.
Anyway Jacques’ message was about the 6 day TransRockies Trailrun in the USA. We were both unfit and needed something attainable to get us motivated. The by line of “Summer Camp for trail running adults” seemed to fit.
So in August we rolled into Bueno Vista in Colorado to start our adventure.
The format is the same as the Cape Epic in that you need to run in pairs each day and cover the 210 km over 6 days. Distances vary between 24 km to 38 km per day.
Altitude is the real issue as you do not dip below 2200m for the 6 days.
Recovery would be key. I locked my nutrition plan down 10 months ahead of the race.
My eating plan consisted of a huge amount off protein in very specific portions, some carbs and no fat. It worked incredibly well.
I would need to have this perfected come race week hence I decided to stick with the program rather than change to a potentially better plan and not have this new plan dialed in come race week. Just like you train your physiology you need to train your gut.
Gu was a sponsor so my carbs were taken care of. As a result I travelled to the US with a rather alarming amount of protein powder hoping that the K9 units would not show too much interest.
Back to the TransRockies: Accommodation is in tents and all food and drink is provided.
I realised that this would be a completely different undertaking to what I had done before, that our team dynamics and personal strengths (and weaknesses) would determine success or failure.
This is Camp Hale where the 10th Mountain Division of the US army trained for WW2. This was our overnight for two stages.
This run was not too unlike mountaineering in that we spent most nights well above 2500m in altitude.
In climbing there is a hierarchy of rules:
1) Come back alive,
2) Come back friends,
3) get to the top. That is certainly what we did. I knew that I would have to be able to cover 20+plus km per day. Day after day after day. And that is what I trained.
All my training consisted of keeping my heart rate under 140 bpm. So that meant no speed work what so ever. It took a while but my body did respond.
It was uncanny but the first day I knew we were running too hard, everybody was. It was day one after all. After that my HR hovered around the 140 mark for the majority of the run. Our training approaches were polar opposites. Jacques would run longer when he had the time and when temperatures dropped to the low 40C in Dubai whereas I tried the back to back to back runs approach with not many pure recovery days. There would be a fair amount of walking and that we would have to do it 6 days in a row.
This is us descending from the famous Hope Pass at 3800m on day 2. This is the same pass that the Leadville 100 goes over twice!
Our mission from the start was quite clear. We were going to have fun and do the best we could. We managed one training session together in the lead up and we both were running at sea level. Jacques is a dive instructor in Dubai so training camps were not that easy to organise. The usual sandbagging of not admitting to having done any training was the norm. Even more so we were going to experience this journey together.
Some minor blisters were dealt with.
Peter van Ketz says that on all his expeditions his partner’s welfare is his top priority. Like in any relationship you need to look after each other in order to get the best possible result.
And the race went incredibly well. The route took us over high mountain ridges and this obligatory 1 km river section which was heaven on tired and hot feet.
We ended on the podium every night only because there were only three teams in our category.
In fact we ran with Miss Canada for a while. Well she did not wear a crown but our pace was similar so we spent some time together. Miss Canada because I forgot her name and called her that instead. She eventually pulled away when I asked her to sing to us on one of the long winding up hills.
The second last day was 36km and we were confident we could close on second. Suddenly, on the only technical stretch of the route, 12km from the end my partner screams and we are reduced to a walk. One badly twisted ankle and cramps in both quads.
Our day changed just like that and potentially our race was on the brink. Jacques dug deep. We borrowed some hiking poles and continued. We were concerned about taking pain killers or anti inflammatory’ s at altitude so Jacques sucked it up like a trooper. We were reduced to walking @ 16min pace down a dirt road towards the ski town of Vail.
That night Third Eye Blind was playing in town. I went for a walk and found a bench outside the stadium to take in the whole experience.
There was serious debate about or plan for the next day. I assumed that we were in for a long painful walk. And I prepared accordingly. I even packed in an extra top in case it would get cold at altitude. Imagine my surprise when we set off like a rocket train on the longest 38km day of the event.
There were some big climbs and it was predicted to be hot. Completely unbeknownst to me it is amazing what some drugs and determination can do. I was hanging on for dear life. On the first climb out of Vail I asked Jacques what the doctor had said the night before. His response of “It’s ok” did not give anything away. Then it dawned on me that he had taken some drugs to dull the pain. Bastard I thought. You could have told me we were going to be working hard today. 5km from the end I was overheating. I had to stick my head into a stream to cool down. Actually it was more like a muddy puddle. And just like that our roles had reversed. Jacques was looking after me and making sure I was OK.
Fortunately I don’t have a picture of us at the finish line because my cap and face was black with mud. Many ice-creams later we were returning back to normal and I could think again.
These three runs were very very different.
I do not for a minute claim that one is better than the other.
However the objective determines the approach, training, nutrition, result and ultimately the learning.
Unless I am incredibly clear on what my desired outcome is I am in trouble.
Many of our trails are there to be run every day. We don’t always have to travel across the globe to have adventures.
Thanks to Mark Seuring and all at SPARC, Drifters Extreme and Spar for making this evening possible.