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Petite Trotte

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…


REALITY.

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.



ACCEPTANCE

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 pretendin