“After reading this I shook my head and laughed at my own antics , so I think for the benefit of readers new to this blog Id better explain a little , I have a degenerative shoulder injury sustained while whitewater kayaking nearly 2 years ago, one which I am scheduled to have surgery on in October, I have postponed this operation twice to avoid missing my summer and its racing but this was Ill advised as it has rapidly became very unstable over the past few months and I am now having trouble just keeping it in its socket , keep reading you will understand why I write this”
I arrived in Chamonix last week to beautiful weather and high spirits, my knee was feeling better for my semi-taper and the thought of a cool sunny high level run across the Alps was making me happy. This was a good feeling because lately the thought of running was not having that effect on me , quite the opposite in fact . Trying to keep fit has been a hard battle between injury and lack of interest , I should have been psyched for this race, training hard and banging in the 90+ mile weeks like I had been previous to the Marathon Des Sable and the Himalayan 100 the year before but instead I was suffering from tendonitis in my knee and had struggled to get in 25 quality miles a week and these were an effort both physically and mentally, C’est la Vie. I would head to Chamonix and try to finish the TDS no matter what , hopefully I could just keep plodding to the finish-line, after all how hard could it be ?
I was staying in a lovely apartment located bang center of town with 3 of my ultra-running compadre’s , Johnny Millen the dark horse of ultra running , a guy who really can run with the best yet never tries to give the impression he is anything special , in fact he lives by the Joss Naylor code of looking like a throwback from the 70s school of fleece and woolly hats 😉 he was entered in the 160km UTMB race , next the Lentil kid , the super modest yet incredibly talented Paul “Pyllon” Giblin, only his second year of Ultra-running yet already a growing force in the Scottish Ultra scene, winner of last years Cateran and powering himself to second place in this years West Highland way Race , rounding off my talented bunch of companions was Davie Bell, a super experienced and indomitable ultra runner / adventure racer who over the years has completed more races than even he cares to mention, UTMB and WHW race include …… Errrr, now wheres my qualifications ? , Hmmmmm did I mention I was good at kayaking once ? 😉
After settling in our first foray into the Chamonix countryside was a steep bimble up to the top of Le Brevent , a huge mountain towering over Chamonix at 2525m high. I left the apartment thinking we would be running up a switchback trail but no, not us , it was to be straight up the side of the mountain following the steepest mountain bike trail we could find … half way up as I puffed along at the back I swung under a tree that blocked the path , I held on a second to long and managed to dislocate my arm much to the alarm of the lads … I found a rock twisted on it to pop it back in place, painful but nothing Im not used to by now. As we progressed onwards and upwards I felt the altitude and my legs were ever tiring , not the best pre-race prep I know ! Eventually we reached the clouds after a climb of over 1500 metres .. at this point Pyllon and Johnny decided to race to the top ….. Bloody hell !! I was already knackered , quickly they disappeared into the mist bounding up the hill ….. Davie and I opting for the “old bulls” approach of cruising up to enjoy the “pleasure” … Pretty soon Davie and I decided to the head down towards the cable car restaurant for a crêpe and Cafe’ and let the whippets go for it …. Davies remark of “they’re a stone lighter than a meringue” made me laugh as we jogged down towards the restaurant. It was a truly beautiful place to chill out , with superb views of the Mt Blanc massif opposite . After our lunch we decided on descending via the cable car to save our quads for later in the week. Johnny and Pyllon eventually arriving home hours later after what most would consider a very hard day in the mountains , to them just a warm up of things to come.
The next few days were spent ambling around in beautiful weather,eating,drinking and eventually registering for our chosen races. Johnny queued with us for a while until eventually noticing that the UTMB registration wasn’t until later in the day 🙂 The usual identity and kit check ensued for Davie and I but Paul was pulled aside for a blood test , those élite athletes get all the fun 😉 we were given our free T-shirts , mines being a little on the tight side 😉 … my lack of training the past 6 months hasn’t been kind … never mind its something to work on once I get back to proper training , my goal is to get that T-shirt to fit again !! After all the excitement we headed home to relax. The next morning we went for a “brisk” 10km trail run by the river to keep our legs oiled , I glanced at my watch which said 6:40 m/mile pace as Pyllon casually chatted to me on the home straight !! personally I was ready to collapse 🙂 later that day Katie , Johnny’s girlfriend arrived in town so we were all put on our best behaviour , well for 10 minutes !! she was cool and very nice to , so we all headed out to the square for something to eat , a last supper !
As we headed home for an early night I noticed the weather was taking a turn for the worst and it was feeling pretty heady , electricity was building and we were certainly heading for a storm .. We sat discussing the possibility of bad weather and what we would do about it when a text arrived in from the organisers , they were obviously concerned ….
Another text came in later to tell us it was now compulsory to carry 4 layers of winter clothing, the ball game had changed .. running across high ground with the heat of the sun and complete visibility is one thing, crossing it in winter conditions is another,the TDS race would be especially tough as this was a route away from the ultra trail , a race over exposed and remote ground, I thought to myself “you can pick them mate” my fingers were crossed. Our pick up was at 5am , we would see what the weather was like then . All night the rain lashed down and the thunder and lightning bashed and clashed relentlessly. I don’t think I slept a wink during the storm, I can remember seeing my watch say 3am then It was 5am and time to roll … outside was a deadly calm, the storm had stopped and the air was still .. out we went to the bus that would ship us through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Cormayeur our start line.
We arrived to a cold but dry starting line , the cloud was low however but hopefully as the sun came up it would rise. Paul headed to the front of the starting line, he meant business …. Davie and I content to sit nice and cosy in the middle … the sun was rising and music started to play , the atmosphere was building and as the darkness drifted away I saw the lean and mean faces of the other runners , this was a tough race and one filled with athletes from all around the globe , at least 40 nationalities was accounted for. This was no marathon full of fun runners , it’s not going to be fun , this was a high altitude 75 mile mountain race with 23,500 feet of positive ascent over extreme and difficult terrain raced to tight cut off times and would not finish for most until at least 24 hours later , only the qualified need apply… I wondered what I was doing there among these hardened individuals , maybe last year but this year, hmmm I had the experience and the stones but did I have the legs , I didn’t know ! 🙁
The music stopped and the race director made an announcement to everyone , then BANG , we were off !!! The race headed down through Cormayeur across the bridge , which crossed a very nice grade 5 kayak gorge and then it climbed up , and up until we hit a fire road heading VERY steeply up to a cable car station several thousand feet above at Col de Checrouit . I got my poles out and run/walked up the relentlessly steep and rapidly deteriorating path to the top , was I glad to see that checkpoint , my legs were on fire! A good excuse to stop and rest if only for a few minutes , I grabbed some bread and honey and headed off-road and steeply up again , this time heading to Col de Youlaz . It was lashing down with cold rain at this point and I put my waterproof jacket on before heading out into the open country , as I approached the Col I saw a huge bottle-neck of runners , it was like a line of ants snaking up a huge rocky slope finishing in a muddy scramble to the top over loose shale and with a death drop to the side , nice !! I sat in the bottle-neck for well over an hour ! slowly moving up the mountain one step at a time, at one point a large group of runners tried to move past the bottle neck and a large argument ensued. I started to shiver as my temperature had now plummeted due to the slow pace , I had to strip off in the sheet rain and try to get a warm thermal on , this was turning into a nightmare scenario ! stuck in the open freezing to death. As I began to approach the rocky scramble ahead , rocks were careering from above and people were slipping and sliding everywhere , there was real danger here , bodies shoe-horned into a slippy mud strewn rocky ascent was certainly not a good thing. Thoughts of falling with a shoulder like mine are not positive thoughts , my inability to stop myself falling was making me nervous imagine a dislocated shoulder stuck on this ice rink of an ascent ,8000 feet up a mountain top … screw that … I was uncomfortable to say the least .Eventually I topped out , frozen to the bone but at least I was moving again , the rain had made the descent path a mud slide , people were falling everywhere in front of me .. I slid myself , twice , the second time I held myself onto my poles and subluxed my shoulder, here we go again !!! it went straight back in , but this really shit me up and I picked my way slowly down the descent of slippery rock,mud and grass for what seemed like an eternity … I just couldn’t risk a dislocation out there , I was now realising that with the current state of my injury I had put myself at risk in a way I had never considered .. eventually we hit a trail and I could confidently run again without fear of slipping so I headed for the checkpoint at double speed. My knee at this point was already feeling weak , god this is starting to sound terrible, like the oldest runner in the world has a running blog .. haha 🙂 , I hit the checkpoint at La Thuille and sat there considering whether to just pull out there ..
I was soaked through , frozen and obviously not fit enough to take the full challenge of this race on , Davie was nowhere to be seen , probably miles ahead at this point so what’s the point of continuing … well plenty !! I was in the Alps !! and the following section was manageable ,so why not continue checkpoint to checkpoint and enjoy my day .. I grabbed some noodle soup and some more bread and headed out into the rain , up and up again I went eventually topping out at a nice lake , I ran along the lakeside before climbing again to Col du Petit-St-Bernard. I arrived here soaked through and it was howling , there were lines of guy laid out with silver blankets on … shit !! I headed straight though and ran the flat before a nice trail twisted its way 4000 feet down to St Germain , my knee at this point was weakening rapidly and I had to lay off the steeper parts of the descent but as I dropped height the temperature picked up and I felt myself warming up . I caught up with a french man , Basile . He was amazed that a Scotsman was not at the front of the race, after all we live in the mountains . haha … he was funny and told me he had run the UTMB and CCC several times, and had been in the first TDS race in 2009 , they started the TDS he said, for runners looking for something more extreme and mountainous that the other races , not so far as the UTMB but tougher and more rugged … next year they will change the course , and race from Chamonix to Courmayeur … Hmmm , Ill keep it in mind .. ha-ha 😉 What I do realise now is that there is an ignorance to what the TDS race is actually about, I originally thought it was the worst half of the UTMB and that is why it was less famous and never needed a ballot entry, the CCC being the best half and hence the reason for its popularity but NO, the TDS is a race set out in an entirely different ilk to the CCC or UTMB , it was devised in 2009 to be a race to suit the mountain goats, the runners who want away from the Ultra trail , runners who really want to go into the wilds and rough it , it is longer than the CCC in distance and it has sections on it harder then the UTMB so be ready, this is no sister race to the UTMB, it’s a brother from another mother !! Its nasty and this year only 44% of the 1500+ TDS runners finished the race.
2012 ULTRATRAILTV – TDS™ YOULA by UltraTrailMontBlanc
We cruised the last few miles into Bourg St Maurice together and it was here I decided to call it a day , I looked high into the mountains above me, looking at where I had to go , it was dark and foreboding , nightfall only an hour or two away , the forecast was for even more bad weather. I doubted that even if I wanted to continue whether I could move fast enough to keep warm through the night , so after 35 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of ascent/descent I decided to call it a day , feeling a little foolish to have thought I could sneak a finish , this race was proper TOUGH and needs 100% respect and superb conditioning to finish, two factors I hadn’t been able to give …… I sat for a while contemplating my day, despite everything it had been a good one 🙂 no Gilet for me , just a tight T-shirt 😉 , but still a great alpine adventure. I checked my phone , Paul was sitting in 25th place from 1500 runners , WOW !! that was amazing , this was a field of super tough runners racing in extreme conditions and Paul was right up there at the front !!!! And Davie was forging on up the mountain in front of me , good man 🙂 the runners were now fast dispersing from the checkpoint so I walked the last few metres to cross the line and register my retiral from the race . There were several buses of runners retiring and I was pointed to the one in the middle , I climbed on and fell asleep , waking up in Cormayeur !!! bugger , they had shipped me back to the start I thought , nightmare !! but no , it was the right bus and a quick change of buses and were off through the tunnel back home.
I arrived back at our apartment where Johnny was chilling out following the race , Paul was now 23rd , superb !!! Davie hadn’t been heard of for several hours , no concern really , he knew what he was on . I showered and piled Ibuprofen down my throat , I headed out to get something to eat. I headed to a café close by the finish line , the Poco Loco .. one awesome little burger bar and the reason for me falling off my vegetarian wagon for a few days , burgers are my Achilles heel and after 35 miles I was needing a fix !! It was now nearly 1am and the first of the TDS finishers were coming in so I grabbed a bench near the finish-line to watch ….. News came in that Davie had retired from the race high on the mountain , Hypothermia had set in and he had to withdraw from the race unable to keep warm through the night , that just shows how tough it had got up there after dark , he is nails !!
First over the line was Dawa Sherpa , a mountain goat from Nepal. After that they came in sporadically but every runner had a look of relief to be finished and most had a 1000 mile stare as the realisation of what they had been through sank in now the running had stopped . I was keeping an eye out for Paul , I think I was drifting off to sleep when Johnny Millen arrived on my bench with Katie , Paul had held a 25th place and was just about an hour away from finishing …. fantastic .. we went in to the cafe’ for hot chocolate and a heat as we waited . WE kept our eyes on the feed waiting on Paul to come through the last checkpoint , soon he had passed through so we headed out into the street to stand at the finish-line …. I received a phone-call from Paul’s sister , the swizzler, they were watching us back in Glasgow on the finish-line web-cam , haha 🙂 She was texting Johnny and I requests for Bolt arms and the Mo-bot .. live on camera ha! Brilliant .
Suddenly a wisp of a runner burst round the corner to cheers and whistles , it was Paul , I grabbed my camera and shot him running across the finish , I shouted him to let him know his family was watching and tried to grab a few more shots . 18 hrs and 35 minutes of super tough extreme running across the high mountain passes of the Alps , horrendous weather and mud strewn trails , he had held his own against some of the best mountain runners in the world , he had proved himself once and for all !!!! I was made up for him !! he was shell-shocked and tired but still found time to tell us the tales as we headed home …… a great night !!
We awoke to the news that the CCC and the UTMB would now be altered due to the weather conditions , the CCC would not cross the high paths and would stay closer to the valley and the UTMB would not cross the Border and would circle Chamonix , the distance cut by 60km … apparently we were the crash test dummies during the TDS .. haha , now do not be fooled though , the weather and underfoot conditions still made these races super tough and just as challenging. I could sense a mixed emotion from Johnny , he had come to test himself out against the mighty Ultra trail Mont Blanc and he was being short-changed but also a slight relief he didn’t have to go the distance in the conditions outside , either way his race would be ultra-tough , he would go hard !
We chilled out most of the day as we awaited Johnny’s race , soon it was upon us and the dark horse running machine was raring to go , a 58th place in last years CCC and a long list of fast times in the hills Johnny is an off road runner of the highest calibre so I was excited to see him go for it over the shortened course .. he would of course be up against some of the worlds best but he would dig in up those hills and give it real welly I was betting 😉 .. Off Johnny went to the start and Paul , Davie and I headed off to get a good vantage point to see the runners leave Chamonix to run through the night … we were stood watching a cordoned off street expecting the start of the UTMB.. suddenly a dirty tired runner came up the street , he was the winner of the CCC , a sudden realism that we were watching the wrong race … Paul ,Davie and I ran (in reality hobbled) down the street like 3 old age pensioners as our raced out legs just didn’t want to work , we hit the main street just making the UTMB start and cheering them all off
We left the square and went to chill out in the apartment keeping an eye on the race updates for Johnny’s place , he was 250th , pretty good ! then he 220th , then 180th …. wow !! pretty soon it was midnight and I couldn’t keep my eyes open , outside the rain had come in and I imagined their night run to be a tough one …. I awoke to find Johnny in 170th place … now that’s out of 2400 runners !! I imagined him in his vent shorts and old woolly hat running past state of the art top to toe Salomon wearing runners giggling in his madness through lack of sleep .. he’s a geordie 😉 Soon we were at the finish line waiting on his arrival and sure enough he sneaked round the corner in his trademark plain kit , but in an incredible 165th place !! yahooooooo !!!! he looked fresh as a daisy and was looking like he’d just done 10km not 100km …. superb !! way aye man ye did greet !!! 😉 … A fellow adventure runner and good friend from my home town , Jason MacDonald also completed the UTMB this year and I was lucky enough to meet him in Chamonix before he headed off to Les Houche .. nice one Jason , Well done 🙂
What a great trip with great people, we had our races , we had our laughs and I ate a burger !! I learnt that if you don’t do the miles in training your legs will not do the miles racing , I learnt that it’s finally time to stop pushing , admit I’m injured and chill out until I’m able to be fit again , I learnt that great runners are normal people and that my French is merde , but most of all I learnt that you should always let your eyes acclimatize to the light before sitting on a toilet seat in a toilet with no lightbulb !!!!
Mark, I was very lucky to be able to spend a week with you (Moxy and Oz). It’s a holiday I’ll never forget. So thank-you!
Awesome effort mate – you’re some man, prepared to put it on the line when you knew you were far from 100% with the shoulder and knee. That’s courage.
Hoping for more adventure soon – missing those hills already.
It was my pleasure mate 🙂 Despite everything I had a ball
Hi Mark Good read hope you recover well,get the shoulder sorted and get some big mile in soon. I am still struggling to manage the Ben Race,between injuries and time commitments I cant do enough training to run a reasonable time,3 hour races are to long for me,think I would fall apart completely if I tried what you do.well done from Glen Roy.
Thanks John , next time I’m up in Fort William ill give you a shout , would be great to say hello 🙂 You ever get out in the kayak much these days ?
Nice one Mark! The original “just go for it” man!