Saturday, August 8, 2009

UTMB Course Preview Weekend

UTMB has been my focus race for the past 6 months and with it just over a month away, it suddenly entered the realm of possibility that I could actually journey over to Chamonix by train and run the course in advance. I received encouragement for this option from my coach and one of my great mountain running friends so I took an extra day off from work and enjoyed an easy 5-hour train ride through Switzerland and across the border into France.

Plans called for running the full 103-mile course over 3 days. This is a very popular 9-11 day hiking circuit, so I knew I wouldn't be alone and shouldn't have too much of a problem finding a refuge to sleep in during my two nights out. Unlike the race, where I'll have access to support stops and at least one drop-bag at the half-way point, this dress rehearsal would require me to carry all the sports food and drink needed for 3 days, some extra clothing & survival gear, and basic stuff for staying in a hut, like a sleeping bag liner, ear plugs, and a tolerance for being super-close to lots of fellow stinky trail companions. The weight added up and my pack felt a bit more like a Marathon des Sables race pack than a UTMB pack. With no real worries but feeling a little bit bogged down, I set off from Chamonix at nearly mid-day on a Saturday -- destination, le Ville des Glacier, half way up the Col de la Seigne, which marks the French-Italian border and sits about 35 miles away from Chamonix.

Day 1 brought fantastic weather, stunning views of the Mont Blanc massive, and some unexpected gear and water-finding challenges. I managed to work through these challenges, actually replacing my backpack 3-hours in -- trading my old pack for sunscreen and a few gels, but certainly got behind on hydration and nutrition throughout the day. I paid for it later, but for most of the day the running was excellent and I was happy in my element.

I topped out on what I thought were the final climbs of the day (Col du Bonhomme and Croix du Bonhomme) and started my journey down the valley, where I expected to find the hut I had booked for the night. Soon the sun had set and I was still descending, now in full darkness. I popped on my headlamp, which will be mandatory at UTMB where I'll run through 1, perhaps 2 nights. The descent ended and I discovered that my downhill finish actually included quite a long slog up another valley to reach the hut. As I ran up that valley, the weather changed, bringing me a taste of the storms to come the following day. I reached the hut at 10:30PM wearing all my foul weather gear, but still shivering. I was near delirious and briefly considered just running through the night. Crossing a high pass in an approaching storm without a tent and already cold and dehydrated -- well, these thoughts finally penetrated my senses so I stopped at the hut and barged in at a very improper time for hut arrival. I begged the hut warden to find some food for me and desperately tried to rehydrate to stop the queasiness and shaking. With a bowl of soup in me, I tiptoed into a room full of sleeping hikers, found the last remaining bed, and proceeded to lie awake for 7 hours while 29 people snored, coughed, tossed, and turned their way to a decent night of sleep. I looked at the ceiling all night -- listened to the wind roar -- thought about everything, from 1,000 things to worry about to 1,000 things to be super happy about.

Right as I decided to crawl out of bed after sunrise, the storm started in full -- considering that Objective 1 of the day was to cross a 2500 meter pass, I opted to stay in bed for a bit, where I managed to sleep about an hour -- finally. I then set off for the pass, running until it got too steep and then speed hiking with trekking poles. The day was cold, drizzly, and often full-on rainy. I was running in all the clothing I brought, so I had few options to stop or slow down, else I'd get cold fast. This part of the course, aside from the mid-way visit to Courmayeur, felt remote and raw. Awesome glacier views, trails made for mountain running, and epic scenic beauty that really lifts your soul.

Day 2 was a very long day, so long that I ran out of daylight and lodging options before my planned stopover in Champex. I opted instead to stay in La Peule, a village of one building, which had thankfully just been turned into a mountain refuge. This great little stopover spot is just inside the Swiss border after the big climb over the Grand Col Ferret. I later realized that with my first night's stopover in France and second night in Switzerland, I had run through the Italian section of the route all in one day. Ciao, ciao Italia!

The super-friendly La Peule Swiss hut keeper took care of me with a late night Omelet and my choice of any of the 30 beds (I was the only guest that night). Physically, I was tired, but not wrecked. I managed nutrition and hydration a bit better on day 2, but remained colder than I would have liked. I set off on day 3 with a nearly 10km sprint to the nearest village with a bus station. The section between la Fouly and Champex (about 20km) is in a valley with no serious climbs, which makes it a good candidate to skip on this circuit. I opted to cut out this section to get me on the original route plan for the day and to make it to Chamonix before midnight. As the visibility was terrible (I was in a cloud nearly all day) and the rain continued, I felt ok skipping this valley in favor of my daylight time on the big climbs ahead. Soon I was running again, up the surprisingly steep routes up to Bovine and Catogne to the final climb up from Col du Montets. I began to think in terms of climbs and meters of elevation gain rather than in terms of distance or time. It was an odd sensation as a runner to think ("ok, 2 climbs to go: 800 meters, then 1200 meters -- with the descents, that'll be something like 4 hours" over a distance that would take less than 2 hours when not in the mountains).

The bad weather finally broke its stranglehold on the region during my last hour of running back in to Chamonix. I was ecstatic and suddenly sad about the end of this odyssey.

I ran a strong final hour, really shocked at how good the legs felt, but realizing that it was the mountain views that were powering me -- shutting off all signals of fatigue and pain. Mont Blanc came out of the clouds and welcomed me with open arms into Chamonix. The closer I got to town, the more clouds would lift from the surrounding peaks. A late evening sun lit up Mont Blanc right as I entered the streets of Chamonix. I was on fire -- so incredibly overjoyed. I sprinted my heart out like I was racing for first place in the real race. Tourists stepped aside as I ran at top speed through the streets of Chamonix, backpack swinging back and forth, smile beaming wide. I reached the center of town and suddenly stopped -- hands down on knees, bent over, tears in my eyes. I looked up at the awesome glaciers flowing nearly into town, looked at the final moments of sun on the top of Mont Blanc, and listened to the raging glacial river off to my side. At that moment, the numbers didn't matter -- the run was some distance, with some amount of climbing and descent, for some number of hours. All those 'somes' didn't really matter. What mattered was that feeling in Chamonix, that feeling on Col du Bonhomme, that feeling on Grand Col Ferret, that feeling on every climb, every scenic vista, every ridgeline -- that feeling of love for nature, for the mountains, for the glaciers and rivers -- that feeling that boils up inside you and calls you to these special places to savor life. Oh, how sweet it was -- how sweet it is!
More photos on Picasa here.

Reflections on the course (for those considering UTMB): it's big, it's stunning, and it's seriously mountainous. There are few sections where you can get into a normal running rhythm for more than 30 minutes -- the course feels like it's either going straight up or straight down, with only a few transition bits thrown in. I highly recommend trekking poles -- real ones, not the super-light racing poles. 31K feet of climbing and descending is only runnable for the very elite and much of the time I found myself speed-hiking the climbs, using my trekking poles to power me along, set pace, put me in a rhythm, and keep me upright. I've done mountain marathons where you can run most of the ascent -- that's just not the case for the UTMB route. Lots of the steep climbs seemed in the 1 hour to 90-minute range, so it felt like cycling high passes -- just set a rhythm and stay on it until the top. I tossed the poles in my backpack for the descents and ran all of them but one steep, technical descent late in the course. If you run it outside of the race itself, bring water purification stuff, because it's rarely easy to find clean water as often as you need it. Final thought -- it's the Alps, so despite the season, bring sufficient warm/dry gear. Despite having gloves, hat, shell, two wool shirts, etc., I still got really cold and would have been in trouble had I been injured on the trail. Lesson learned!

Thanks for reading!



Anonymous said...

Jeff, I really enjoy reading about your adventures, the countries, the culture... You're a great writer too. All the best on this one. Thanks for sharing! Paul

Will said...

Fantastic report

That is serious training ... doing the huge route beforehand.

The cow-bell video is just superb. So loud but beautiful.

I envy your fitness and the views you will enjoy as you brave this huge challenge.

All the best,

Jeff Grant said...

Much appreciated Paul and Will -- much appreciated!

Sylvain said...

Amazing story Jeff! I enjoy how you manage to make human feelings stand out of such "inhuman" epics...
Best wishes of success for the real one!

jim said...

Here is a course flyover of the UTMB in Google Earth if you are interested...