Ontop of Great Gable, December 2018, Rob Brown and I knew that we were going to make it back into Keswick and successfully complete what we thought was a well earnt Winter Bob Graham Round. Fueled with this excitement, and maybe one too many gels, the chatter started to turn to what would be ‘The Next Big Thing?’ We had heard a lot about the PTL, a 300km extended loop of Mont Blanc run as part of the UTMB festival, and it seemed to tick all the boxes. The one big box it ticked for me is that by all accounts its pretty easy to get into, there is no messing about with point systems and lotteries. So that was it, and 8 months later we were nervously stood on one of the most famous startlines in the trail running world, looking around the small crowd of 300 people, chatting the usual pre-race nervous chat:
“They look like they’ve got light bags!”
“Should we be wearing compression socks, compression shorts, a compression t-shirt AND a compression visor? (why do you need to compress your head?)”
“Maybe we should have mounted our GPS unit on a U-bend like that guy?”
This was evidently going to be a real step into the unknown for us, but Rob and I have always enjoyed ‘winging it’, and with neither of us having done anything like this before we assumed that ignorance would be bliss! Stood under the UTMB arch in the centre of Chamonix, an almost sacred place in the world of trail running, my feelings were unlike anything I have felt before any other race. The normal nervous excitement was still present, but the edge of competitiveness was blunted and I didn’t have the expectations of results, rankings and times weighing down on me. The PTL is pitched as an adventurous mountain journey, not as a race, and my emotions seemed to have aligned themselves with this ethos. Yes, we were going to push ourselves as hard as we could, but Rob and I are definitely not in the business of taking things too seriously!
Could we do it? For some reason we kind of thought so - but a lot can happen in 290km!
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
Chamonix to Morgex. Total Distance: 82km, Total Hight Gain: 6420m Total Time: 22hrs 43mins
After the traditional overly dramatic UTMB music, we were off, and we ran through the streets of Chamonix totally psyched for the adventure that lay ahead. Nothing was yet known of the deep muscle pain, the sleep deprivation and the upset stomachs that lay ahead. So we relaxed, and ran the easy trails down to Les Houches, thinking that this would be one of the few times over the next few days that we would actually run. We briefly saw Jasmin Paris, Jim Mann and Konrad Rawlik en route, and we all spoke about how inexperienced and underprepared we felt. “Oh really,” I thought “ some of the most acclaimed runners in Britain are underprepared...where does that leave us?”. Before we could say much more Jim had disappeared into the distance with comments from Konrad “I think we are already going too fast”.
The first climb took us up to the Cabane des Rognes, about 1900m of climbing. We chatted the whole way up and the climb seemed to fly by. We could see the long strung out line of teams all the way down the hill, and even though it was starting to get hot, we felt like we were moving well, eating and drinking well, and happy to start getting some space from the other teams.
As the day progressed we got into the swing of things. Settle into the uphill hikes, eat at the huts whenever you pass them and take water at any opportunity. As we left the Tre la Tete hut around 4:30 pm, after wolfing down the first omelette I have eaten in years, we were congratulating ourselves on making good time. It was around this point that we had the conversation about how long this little adventure was going to take us. Obviously our prior planning was pretty flaky at best, and like I said before ‘winging it’ was our prime strategy. With hindsight, the level of naivety and inexperience is quite amusing:
“So, if the UTMB is 180km(ish) and that only takes like 30 hours, and we have to only do 100km more than that, then how can this possibly take 7 days?”
“That seems logical, but I guess we are carrying bigger bags and we are doing some off-trail bits, so you can add on some time for that, but it seems hard to believe that it will take any longer than 4 days, right?”
I imagine the Salomon athletes that finished in 4 days had a very similar conversation, unfortunately for us punters, this was a totally unrealistic pipedream - and it didn’t take us too much longer to find that out!
As we climbed to the Col d’Enclave we were showing our first signs of fatigue. It had been a really hot day and this was the first part of the course that would take us to over 2500m. Rob had flown in from the UK a couple of days before, and despite a ride on the cable car to Le Brevent as acclimatisation, was in need of a few more red blood cells. Also, having the same complexion as Ron Weasley, Rob struggles in the heat. As a rule, Rob tends to be a lot stronger than me, and as a pair, we seem to have made peace with that and we manage our strengths and weaknesses pretty well. But for me, as I know that these moments of weakness for Rob are few and far between, I make sure to savor them...is that bad form? Annoyingly these moments never last too long and before we knew it Rob was back on form and as it was getting dark we arrived at Refuge des Mottets, where we were served a great meal accompanied by lots of smiling friendly faces. We got chatting to another British pair who we had met during the day. Their plan was to have 8 hours of sleep at Mottets and then head out at 7 am. This sounded delightful and very tempting, but our plan was to head out into the night and get to the first ‘life base’ in Morgex.
The food gave us a real boost and the climb to the Col de la Seigne seemed effortless. We could see a great trail of lights snaking down the hillside from the Col d’Enclave, but we were alone, excited to be pushing on into the night.
Now in Italy, we weaved along narrow single track, over ridgelines, in and out of the clouds, until we got to a section where we had been instructed to stick rigidly to our GPS track as we were going off-trail. It was like being back in The Lake District, endlessly traversing steep wet grass until we got to the bottom of a small gully where we had caught up to another French team. These guys have obviously not run in The Lakes and were not getting on very well with the vertical grass and scree as we climbed up towards the small Col where a Mountain Guide was waiting for us. Shouts of “Putain” made Rob and I smile and egged us on to get ahead of the French team so as not to be stuck behind them on the more technical ridge that lay ahead. This was the first “ohhhhh this is why the PTL is different” moment. We knew there would be technical passages, but we had assumed that because its a race and the organisation are having to manage a lot of different people with a lot of different abilities, then, in reality, it would just be ‘a bit tricky’. All I can say is that I am glad that I have spent years on sketchy approaches to rock climbs and teetering along crumbling alpine ridges, as the section through Tete de l’Ane was wild! Loose wet scree, mud and rock all angled at about 45 degrees, ready to eject you into the darkness, down 500m to the valley below. It concentrated the mind, that's for sure, but eventually, we were on slightly safer ground and we started to make the 2000m descent towards the valley and the first Life Base at Morgex.
We jogged into town in the first light of day, a bit frustrated by the fact that we had lost any kind of GPS signal and the maps were as good as useless for finding our way through the streets and roads in the valley. We had a plan. Eat. Shower. Get 2 Hours sleep. Eat. Organise Kit. GO! Unfortunately, the only hot food on the menu was lasagne, and as neither of us enjoys eating animals, the only option was a cup of bouillon soup, banana and some crackers. Normally Rob and I both eat a vegan diet, but we had accepted that we would have to bend our normal morals and eat some dairy and eggs on this trip, but in no way were we prepared to eat meat and it seemed so shortsighted on the part of the organisation to not offer any vegetarian food. It felt like a bit of a kick in the balls, and with the chaffing that I had started to get over the last few hours, it was extra painful! We would just have to wait until the next mountain hut to get some good food…
Morgex to Refuge Champillion Total Distance: 131km, Total Hight Gain: 11204m Total Time: 47hrs 30mins
We were learning that we needed to study the (shit) maps a bit better. The first part of our next leg seemed pretty straight forward. An easy climb to get us out of town, a long traverse, then another climb to take us over the Col before dropping down to Rifugio Fallère, and a hot meal. Easy!
It took us 6 and a half demoralising hours to make it. Reality had now set in, and we were starting to understand why the time limit on the PTL is 7 days and not 4. In reality we were lucky to have got to the Rifugio at all, as about 1 hour after we had started I stopped and exclaimed “I can’t do this anymore! I just can't walk with my balls hurting like this, I need to sort them out”.
The chaffing from the previous day had reached unacceptable levels of discomfort, and it was really getting to me. The boxer shorts that I had been wearing the previous day had been the problem and no amount of cream seemed to ease the friction, so I had decided to go commando. For a while, this had worked, but no longer, and the fiery burn needed to be dealt with. So, with Rob on lookout duty, I got naked and started to examine the damage. My first thought was that I was going to tape everything up against one leg so there was no chance of rubbing or movement. Just imagine the scene, a half-naked man, stood in the middle of the trail, frantically wrapping sports tape around his genitalia....you’re welcome! Obviously, this didn’t work. There was already too much lubrication down there to make anything stick, but luckily I had packed a spare pair of boxers. Some posh Icebreaker numbers. As a last ditched hope, I slide them on and LUCKILY they were the solution. Just tight enough, just soft enough and no stitching in awkward places. So that was it...I didn’t take them off for the rest of the race and these have now been christened my lucky pants!
It was a joy to finally reach Rifugio Fallère, and the hot meal that we so desperately needed was delicious. Once again we left a hut feeling re-energised and ready for the next climb, and a section that looked like we were getting up into some real mountain terrain.
About two-thirds of the way up Mont Fallère we looked below us to see a team of three powering up the hill. “Who on earth is that? Look how fast they are moving!” After a couple of minutes, we were convinced that it was Jasmin's team. We were delighted. Not caring that they would soon be in front of us, we lapped up the fact that we were ahead of this team of elites. Eventually, they caught up with us just as we reached the summit ridge, and so too had the storm that had been brewing. So without too much chat, we all started to scramble as fast as we could to get away from the high points and the ridges. It felt really exciting, and with the rush of adrenaline Rob and I left the others behind, being able to descend the wet rock more confidently. The storm blew in and out for the next couple of hours as we headed into the darkness, and the excitement of being high in the mountains, at night, in poor weather, pushed us forward. Before we knew it we were making the long descent down into Etroubles.
As we entered the town I saw a few cars parked up, and I was sure that I heard someone shout “Sam Hill”, but I just pushed it to one side, thinking that it was my tiredness and imagination. All of a sudden, as we entered the street lights, someone was hugging me. Fran? “What are you doing here?” Dave (a good friend who I completed the PDG with) and Fran (my other half) had made the long drive from where we live in Switzerland to come and cheer us on. What a cool surprise! Luckily there was a cafe still open at 11pm (Italy!!!), and we got stuck into some Focatchea and hot drinks. It was a welcome shock to the system sitting down and chatting to Fran and Dave, and it was lovely to hear them commenting on how fresh we looked compared to others they had seen. It gave us all the enthusiasm we needed for the next climb up to the Col de Champillion.
Unfortunately, after our goodbyes, it didn’t take long for reality to hit home again. It was 1500m vertical to get to the Refuge Champillion, it was midnight, and we were getting sleepy. After climbing for an hour or so Rob seemed to be slowing up. “Yes!” I thought “He is showing weakness again!”, but sensing it wasn't the time to revel in the fact that I was feeling ok, I asked what he wanted to do, and if there would be anything I could do to help. We decided to sit down for 5mins, close our eyes, and see if that tricked our bodies into getting going again. So this is what we did, and by the time we turned our torches back on, the steam train that is Jim, Jasmin and Konrad approached us. They seemed in good spirits, and this was enough to lift ours. We waited for them to pass, got to our feet and ground out the next 1000m of climbing silently. We were both pushing hard, and even though Rob said he still felt like shit, he was sticking with it. About 200m below the col we had a quick sit down where I quickly proceeded to ‘hit the wall’. After feeling pretty good for most of the climb, I crumbled and basically crawled up the last 200m. It’s funny how quickly you can go from hero to zero, but luckily the Refuge was closer than we had thought, and after a quick descent the lights welcomed us in. The PTL volunteers are amazing at these huts. They ask you what you want to do, and quickly go about sorting things out. “Sleep,” we said, and we were ushered to the dormitory. We asked one of the lovely volunteers to wake us up in 2 hours time and then lights out.
Morgex to Cabane Louvie Total Distance: 174km, Total Hight Gain: 14717m Total Time: 63hrs 58mins
It felt like I had just managed to ignore the burning sensation in my glutes and fall to sleep when I felt my foot being tugged at. I wasn’t quite as happy to see the lovely volunteer this time, I guess that’s our 2 hours of rest then? Again, seemingly not knowing what to feed us as we didn’t eat meat (what year is it?) we threw down a small breakfast, did some foot maintenance, and hit the road. Today was going to be a good day, full of mental checkpoints: The Col du By marked the halfway point in the total distance, we were crossing into Switzerland, AND we got to run down a glacier...which is heroic.
The climb up to the Col was long, but we were used to that by now. I remember the highlight of the climb being that I put my new waterproof poncho on for the first time. It’s made out of the same material as those silver foil blankets and Rob proceeded to christen me ‘The Ghost of Gary Lineker’ saying that I looked like a packet of crisps. That was enough to keep us entertained as things started to feel more and more wintery as we approached the col. Stopping in the bitterly cold wind we snapped a few pictures of the Glacier du Mont Durand that lay beneath us on the other side. Credit to the team that created the course (and reimagine a different course each year), there is no way you could get bored on a route like this. We strapped on our microspikes and headed down to meet the Mountain Guides that were stationed on the ice and had fixed ropes across the most crevassed sections. It gives you such a boost seeing smiling faces and there is something psychologically uplifting about smiling back and pretending that you are feeling fresh and pain-free. Once off the fixed ropes, we ran down the rest of the glacier and onto the moraine and it wasn't too long before we had caught the team we had been ‘yo-yoing’ with for the last couple of days. The pair were from Turkey, and from what we had observed, hard as nails. Whenever they came into sight Rob would pipe up “looks like we’ve got ourselves a couple of prime turkeys” or “look. Its the turkey twizzlers!” Is that racist? Probably? I blame the tiredness, but it has me in fits of laughter every time and it was always great to see these troopers battling on. Whenever we bumped into them we would ask “have you had any sleep yet?” as their strategy was to just keep going and at that point, I think they had had less than an hour of sleep compared to our 4 hours. So a pattern emerged where we would stop and get some proper food and rest, they would pass us while we were sleeping, and then we would pass them later in the day. It was always a highlight of the day seeing The Twizzlers, they always had big smiles on their faces no matter how much pain and suffering they were going through.
After a technical descent and quite a bit of route-finding, we were at the Chanrion hut, where, as usual, they didn’t have any veggie food. At this point, we were not in the mood for debate and rather than use one of our PTL tokens for the free meal in the refuge we just decided to order off the normal menu and suck up the Swiss Hut prices. One rosti, and 20mins ‘sleep’, later we were on the road with the aim of getting to the Cabane de Louvie for some proper sleep. As always, some actual food gave us the moral lift we needed and the journey down to the Mauvoisin Dam felt really light-hearted. You could that we were on form as we chatted the whole way down, where Rob topped things off by taking a pee off the dam - how could you not take an opportunity like that?
The night started to draw in, and so did the rain as we climbed up towards the Cabane. The giant crisp packet came out again and I rustled my way upwards. As a side note, I’ve never used a poncho before but I am now a total convert, how have I not discovered this versatile garment in all my years in the mountains? We passed The Turks at the first small col we reached (as they had passed us during our previous 20min nap) and after one more short climb, we were heading downwards towards the lights of the Cabane. We got a really warm welcome into Louvie, and luckily they weren't too stumped by our seemingly progressive dietary requirements. We met two Dutch guys that we had also been yo-yo-ing with. These guys were veterans of the PTL having completed it 5 times, and I couldn’t help thinking that they looked absolutely fucked. “I wonder if we look like this?” Probably! They had taken some sleep and were just heading off again into the night. After a few words of encouragement and acknowledgment of the mutual pain that we were all going through we said goodbye ad climbed into bed.
After an hour and a half the alarm went, the stinging legs were convinced to stand up, and we staggered into the dining room for breakfast. There was no mirror, but I guarantee that I felt as bad as the Dutch guys had looked. It had reached the stage where tiredness and the aches and pains were just a comical part of life. I guess if you didn’t view it all as some kind of sick hilarious joke it would be pretty easy to start crying, hug the closest person you could find and beg them to make it stop! As it was, some bread and jam, a cup of tea, and stuffing our feet back into wet sock and shoes seemed like the only available option. We would get to the life base a Fully today, and that would be a big milestone.
Cabane Louvie to Fully: Total Distance 206km, Total Vertical 16113m, Total Time 71hrs 46min
Food was pretty much always on our mind. Were we carrying enough? Where would we get our next hot meal? Gel or bar? In ‘normal life’ I have a deep-seated paranoia of being hungry, so you can imagine where my head was at after 70 hours of food uncertainty.
We passed Cabane Mont Fort just before dawn and I wandered in desperate for second breakfast. After a few mildly desperate Bonjour’s I wandered into the kitchen hoping to find someone to help me in my food hunt. Luckily there was a guy cutting bread for his guest's breakfast and slightly stunned by the appearance of a disheveled looking runner he took pity on me and handed me half a loaf of bread and some sachets of butter. Result! And as the sun started to come up Rob and I chomped down the food while studying the route across Verbier and down to Fully.
Even though we were basically running in a ski resort the route that we followed to take us from the far side of Verbier to the Pierre Avoir was surprisingly interesting. There was scrambling, knife-edge ride lines, and flowing trails, but we knew the fun would soon be over and the thought of the 2000m descent down to Fully was hanging over our head the whole way. Nevertheless, it was turning into a beautifully sunny day and we were still smiling and whats more is that I was soon to be on home turf. We could see the peaks of the Dent du Morcle and the Grand Chavalard, mountains that I know well and can see from my home in Villars-sur-Ollon, and I was excited to get there...just the matter of a couple of vertical kilometres down to the valley and then a couple more back up the other side.
It goes without saying that the way down from the Pierre d’Avoir to the valley was long, slow and quad-burning, but we passed the time by blasting music from our phones. We air guitared to The Darkness and air saxed to Born to Run - anything to distract us from what was going on in our legs, and just as every hill does, it came to an end and we were on the flat in the valley. It must have been around midday and the sun was blazing down on us as we set off to run from one side of the Rhone valley to the other. Mentally this was hard, as in our head we just had it that once we were down the hill we would be at the life base, eating food, getting showered and napping. In reality, it was a 4km sweaty grind along tarmac...a small slice of hell. After the comically long run around the outskirts of Fully we found the life base and were treated to what I have come to lovingly call (after living in Switzerland for a few years) ‘a Swiss moment’...
Rob & Sam: “Hello, we would like to eat, shower and sleep please”
Volunteer 1: “Ok, your drop bag is here and you must walk outside and around the corner to get food”
Rob & Sam: Walk to the food room and take off our shoes
Volunteer 2: “You can’t come in here with your bags, you have to go back to the reception area and leave everything there and then come back for food”
Rob & Sam: Walk back to reception, dump all our kit, walk back to the food room.
“Est-ce que vous avez quelque chose de végétarien?” “No? Pourquoi pas?”
Frustratingly eat dry pasta and cup-a-soup.
Walk back to reception.
“Where can we sleep”
Volunteer 1: “You have to walk BACK to where you ate food and there is a room behind there with some beds”
Rob & Sam: Walk back, find the beds, and lie down.
Whilst all this is going on my head and body start to do some strange things. At first, I feel like I have eaten too quickly and feel like I am going to be sick so I walk outside to get some air. Then, I feel dizzy so I sit down in the shade and try and get some deep breaths. I feel like my body is buzzing, everything is starting to go numb and my breathing is getting more difficult so laying down is my next priority. After finding going around in circles I find the beds and curl up, but sleep is an impossibility. Every time I am on the verge of slipping into sleep my body shocks me awake with a mini panic attack. I have to catch my breath and try again. At some point, Rob comes back into the room after taking a quick shower. I literally have to think “how do I speak? Can I actually open my mouth and say words?” It was such a strange sensation, but I manage to stutter out that I am not feeling great and there is no way I can run feeling like this. After about an hour of panic-ridden rest, I decided that I am not going to get fixed by laying in a dark room and that the best option is just to get moving and hope that things get better. So Rob and I sort out all of our kit and food, do the usual feet inspection, invariably break a few more Swiss rules and head out into the heat to start the climb up the Grand Chvalard.
I thought about why and how my body and brain went into such a meltdown in the life base at Fully. In hindsight, it must have been the combination of the stress from the long downhill, the heat of the day, the stress of things not being easy when we got to the life base and the lack of sleep catching up with me. Luckily, I have had episodes of anxiety and panic attacks at previous points in my life and recognise the symptoms and understand that it is just my stupid brain not dealing with things properly. Thus, when I feel like I can’t breathe properly I know it's not serious and I can rationalise things a bit. I have learnt that I can calm myself down enough for things not to get on top of me, it is still really unpleasant and stressful but at least I know what is going on.
ITS ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Fully to Salanfe: Total Distance 247km, Total Vertical 21146m, Total Time 103hrs 13mins
If Rob had not been with me on the climb up the Grand Chavalard I doubt I would have made it. Getting moving was the right decision, but I still didn’t feel right and I was moving pretty slowly. The whole way up the 2500m climb Rob chatted away to me and made me laugh. He recited whole stand up comedy shows and we played genius games like ‘guess the lastest kitchen utensil I bought’. It took my mind off things, and although slower than we had hoped we summited just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The colours in the sky were amazing, and we sat next to the summit cross eating trail mix, soaking it up. It was moments like this that made me forget that I was part of a ‘race’. The only thing that mattered was that I was with a great friend having a totally unforgettable adventure. It was incredible that only a few hours ago I was a quivering mess and now I was sat on top of a mountain, totally loving what I was doing.
The descent from the summit down to the Cabane Fenestral is technical. There were a couple of Mountain Guide positioned along the ridge and they had fixed ropes in the most difficult and exposed areas. Rob and I are at home on this kind of ground and moved quickly down the ridge, passing the Twizzlers (who were a lot less confident on the downs), and we were soon at the last technical section where a Mountain Guide told us that there a section lower down where we might need microspikes. This had been another point of anxiety, as when we were leaving the life base at Fully, in my haze I had missed all of the instructions to carry my microspikes on this section and I had left them in my drop bag. It was not until we had been hiking for about an hour that Rob said: “I wonder why we have to carry microspikes on this section?”... Luckily the snow patch we needed to cross was not frozen solid and had some big footprints to follow, so crisis averted we traversed round to the Cabane Fenestral to another warm PTL volunteer welcome (no ‘Swiss moments’ this time).
While having dinner in the hut we learnt that the Turkeys behind us had needed to ask for help from the mountain guides on the way down the ridge, and we hoped that when they got to the hut they would take some much-needed sleep, but we knew that they wouldn’t, “those guys are mental!”
We ate well, but I didn’t sleep well. I was still having battles with my brain and I had the same experience as when I laid down in Fully. No Sleep. So after a frustrating hour of listening to Rob breathing deeply, we got up and got going. I felt drained, but the fact that I knew the area and could picture our route helped push me forward, and I knew that once we were down to Collognes (the next crossing of the Rhone Valley) we were basically on the home straight.
We could see lights ahead of us on the climb and knew full well that it was those sleep-deprived maniacs we had come to love. Before leaving the hut the volunteers had said that the pair had got in while we were asleep, had a bowl of soup, then headed straight off. Machines! Not that we were racing them, but we knew that we would see them soon, as it was a difficult descent from the top.
We weren't wrong. Just after we started to climb down the loose rock on the other side of the Dent du Morcles we caught up with The Turks who were confused about where to go, we pointed them in the right direction and they followed us along the steep exposed trails. The terrain felt wild in the dark. Steep drops and crumbling paths sharpened the senses. I felt guilty leaving the two guys behind as we pulled away from them and over the next hour or so we looked back up into the maze of cliff bands and scree to see their head torches hardly moving.
Eventually, we made it down to the Cabane Tourche and guzzled down a hot chocolate. From here we could see the lights from Villars (where I live) and the thought of my warm bed crept into my head, but the hot choc was enough to get us moving and after a quick 5min power nap a bit further down the trail we settled in for another 1500m of descending back down to the valley. The PTL is a fairly repetitive and predictable story: You go up, you go down, sometimes you feel great, sometimes you feel like hell, but never did I feel like I wasn’t going to finish and I always tried to live in the moment and not think too far ahead. On many occasions, I visualised finishing and pictured what it would feel like to be running into Chamonix. For me, I think that it was really important that I kept those feelings of pride, accomplishment and total satisfaction in the back of my mind and when I was having any real low moments I think that it helped to pick me back up and get the legs moving again.
Climbing back up the other side of the Rhone Valley after passing through Collognes, on our way towards the Col du Jorat, I hit the inevitable lowest of lows. The lack of sleep seemed to be really getting to me and as we climbed I started to weave all over the place in a state of delirium. I didn't know what to do? I knew I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I would fall asleep whilst walking, stumble, and wake up just before falling over. I tried my best to push and push and push, and I felt like I was letting Rob down. It must have been a hilarious sight for Rob, but eventually I had to throw in the towel and I lay down on the side of the trail for 15mins to try and get my shit together. I don't really remember sleeping particularly well, but it was enough to get me back on my feet and motivated to carry on. Maybe it was the miracle of the power nap or maybe it was knowing that rosti was awaiting me at Cabane Salanfe, but I was back from the dead...for now.
ALL THE EMOTIONS
Salanfe to Chamonix: Total Distance 290km, Total Vertical 24276m, Total Time 121hrs 56mins
We slept for half an hour at Salanfe and filled our bellies with potatoey goodness. We were psyched. We could practically smell the pizza’s in Chamonix that we were going to inhale upon arrival. We were going to do this!
As we climbed up toward the Col de Barberine a huge electrical storm rolled in. Not wanting to get completely soaked or struck by lightning we hunkered down, put on all our layers and got into our lightweight shelter. We were pelted with hail, sleet and rain for about twenty minutes, but we were warm and happy. While we waited for the storm to pass Rob pulled out his phone and read out a couple of messages of support from friends that were following our progress. With the ability to manage my emotions long gone, I felt a tear or two run down my cheeks. It wasn’t the first time that Rob and I had let ourselves have a little sob, in fact by that point there was basically a constant lump in my throat and even the sight of a slightly cuter than normal Marmot would have sent me into floods of tears. To say that it was an emotional rollercoaster, as well as a physical one, is an understatement.
The storm passed and we were treated to beautiful pink skies over the Mont Blanc Massif. Looking at the mountains in front of us we knew that we were almost home, but funnily I didn’t feel that sense of relief that you often get when you know that you are nearing the end of a race. I just remember, as we sat at the col tucking into my salt and vinegar crackers, feeling pretty content.
As we headed down from the Col de Barberine I heard the faint sound out expletives been shouted from bellow. Shifting my focus from my feet I spotted two figures waving and I connected the dots. “Mark. Rich. Amazing!” A totally unexpected surprise from two friends that I used to work with back in Switzerland. They had been climbing in the area and thought they would take a walk and see if they could find us. Even after 100hrs on the go, there was no sympathy. Encouragement took the form of ridicule, abuse and piss-taking. A classic formula, and one that I have come to expect from Mark, but it was great to see the lads and it made the run down to the famous Emosson Dam fly by. As it got dark, and head torches were turned on, we were so grateful for the extra injection of energy on the long, flat, monotonous road around the lake. The light-hearted chit chat was just what we needed. As we reached the car park, our little support team stealthily peeled off and headed for their car. Strictly speaking, it is not really within the ethos of the event to have people come and run with you for a section, and as there were a few other cars about Mark and Rich were worried they might get us disqualified or something. So, like that, without as much as a goodbye, we were alone again in the dark.
At this point, I knew that the 30mins sleep back at the Cabane Salanfe may not have been quite sufficient. I could feel the temptation to lay down and sleep creeping up on me, but it wasn't long until Loriaz (where we planned to sleep for a few hours) and I had run in that area and knew the ground we had to cover. So we started to climb up towards the Col de la Terrasse, hoping that by midnight we would be tucked up in bed with bellies full of soup. An hour into the climb I was back into my stumbling, drunk old man impression. All of a sudden my vision went blurry, I went momentarily blind and fell over on the trail. “Rob, I think we need to take a quick break!?”
We quickly put on all of our clothes, lay down on the trail and set an alarm for 10mins time. It was too cold and not far enough away from a proper bed to justify sleeping for any real length of time, this would just be enough to reset out systems and buy us a bit more energy.
The miracle of the power nap had once again brought me back from the edge of oblivion. All I had to contend with now was the never-ending false summits as we approached the col. The descent down to the hut was more technical then I remembered, and our goal of making it to the hut before midnight had been a bit overconfident, but we had made it through one of the toughest physical and mental days of my life.
During the day we had spoken about the fact that we wanted to make the finish of this adventure a memorable one. Neither of us were prepared to stagger in over the finish line, feeling absolutly destroyed, in the middle of the night and with no crowds nor atmosphere. We wanted the glory! We wanted our friends around us. We wanted the full UTMB experience...AND we wanted to eat as much food as we could handle. So we figured that if we had a good amount of sleep at the last mountain hut, set off early in the morning, we would get into Chamonix in the afternoon, and it would be the fairytail finish that we were after. So after three hours of sleep at Loriaz, it was great to feel relaxed and casual...almost! I woke up to the sounds of Rob scathingly saying, “What a cunt!”. This was not the normal jovial, sarcastic comment that I am used to from Rob. He meant it! While we were asleep, a few other runners had come into the little outbuilding, and on leaving they had decided to make an unnecessary amount of noise and leave the door wide open, letting in the bitterly cold night air. I think it is fair to say that Rob can be a pretty competitive person and this was like an act of war. “There is no way we are letting those bell ends beat us,” he said. “It’s not a race Rob”, but as soon as our trainers were on, we were running downhill faster than we had during the whole event. I started to try and suggest that it might be a good idea to take it easy, it would be a shame to injure ourselves so close to the finish, but luckily we passed the ‘bell ends’ soon enough and the pace returned to the sensible. Although, we were amazed that we felt so good after so many days on our feet. The fact that our bodies could still handle it was unfathomable?
From the Col des Montets we climbed up the well know route toward Tete aux Vents, heaving ourselves up the steep ladders, and occasionally pausing to take in the views of the Mont Blanc Massif. At the top of the climb we joined the route of the CCC race and there were still runners, who had started the previous day in Courmayeur, pushing through the final kilometers down towards Chamonix. For me and Rob, having not seen this many people in days, it was a bit overwhelming and the only thing that we could do to deal with it was run. It was like all of the aches, pains and fatigue had been washed away. We started to run like we were in a 20km race. We passed everyone we saw, and as we had the PTL bibs pinned to the back of our running backs, we would occasionally hear shouts of encouragement and often disbelief. We couldn’t quite believe it ourselves? We were running hard, with the biggest smiles on our faces, whooping and shouting, feeling totally fresh.
We zipped through the checkpoint at Flegere and continued on what felt like our victory lap, down into Chamonix. On the single track zig-zags below we playfully ran up onto the banks, jumped over rocks and dodged trees to overtake people. As far as running memories go, it will be a feeling that I will remember forever!
We arrived, out of the woods, at the edge of Chamonix far far ahead of schedule. Before heading into town, and before we were surrounded by people, we paused, took a deep breath, hugged each other and thanked each other for the most unforgettable adventure. Rob changed into his Keswick Athletic Club vest, a nod to our Lake District fell running roots, and we headed off to find the finish line, where we had started 120 hours before.
It was amazing to be able to finish strong.
We ran fast through the streets of Chamonix, wearing huge smiles, and as we crossed the finish line...well, I don’t really have the emotional intelligence to be able to describe the feeling? But I do know that I will hold onto that moment for a long time.