I’ve been known to DNS a race for a bit of drizzle, but there was no way I could use that excuse for this one. Blazing sunshine was on the cards, and as the race started at 7am, the top bits of the Mont-Blanc massif were already getting pink from the sun.
Except for the 60Km race distance, I didn’t really know what to expect – I had not read the manual, neither on sign-up nor in the lead-up to the race. I had just happened to be hiking in that area on race day the year before and thought that it was a nice setting to be running in, so I signed both my husband Simon and I up for the 60Km and forgot about it until the day before. This was going to be a training run for the mighty CCC for us, and the strategy was to just finish in one piece. However for a change, we had decided to run separately, so that Simon could stick his teeth in a solo ultra for once instead of dragging me along.
As we all counted down in French with the race director Olivier, I anchored the happy memories of finishing the 78Km Davos Alpine in my mind, and looked forward to a great day out with like-minded trailies. I blissfully blanked out my sprained ankle, which Simon had strapped DIY the night before with a little help from Google, and up we went.
When in the Alps, you invariably start your race hiking up a vertical wall. This was not going to be different, with a first single-file track going up steeply in the forest from St-Nicolas de Véroce. There was a lot of friendly banter and introductions being made as we all hiked up slowly. Ten minutes in, a few runners voiced their worries about the ascent, having just arrived from the flat land which is Northern France. I still had no idea how much higher we would hike up during the day, but I should have taken a clue from the race name. For this was the Montagn’Hard, with its mighty 5000 meters of ascent, and it would show us later that it needed to be respected and deserved.
After the first uphill, we descended as steeply to the first aid station, where the buffet laid out in our honour made me think that we were in a posh hotel. In addition to the traditional fare of bananas and oranges, there were baskets of fresh baguette, cured ham and big chunks of cheese. I went straight for the noodle soup, followed by a cheese and ham sandwich, and finished my breakfast off with a hot coffee and a biscuit. This could prove a challenge: was I going to make the generous cut-offs if I stopped for a full meal at each aid station? I filled my water bottle with a mix of water and a bit of coke and off we went, up the second *hill* of the day (which would reveal itself as a vertical kilometre) complete with breathtaking drops. The name of the game was ‘dodge the poles’, with less inapt runners trying to kill their followers after blinding them. The gradient was so steep that I was seeing eye-to-eye with bums, so I started trying to remember my companions of misfortune based on their neither bits.
To keep me entertained, I started photographing some of them – from the sweaty to the wobbly ones, the floppy to the impossibly toned ones, they all got a place of honour in my phone. The collection will be called ‘Fesses of Ultra’, as a clumsy homage to Ian Coreless ‘Faces of Ultra’ (a wonderful series of black and white portraits – do check out the gallery on his website). His version is like the North Face, and I made it my mission to get the South Face covered, too.
As the hills kept on rolling, I started noticing a pattern. Invariably, dozens of fast ‘grimpeurs’ would pass me on the uphill sections, muttering words of encouragement; I wasn’t very good on the ups, blaming a mix of legs and lungs – both largely untrained. However, the downs were a completely different story, and I seemed to transform into a downhill machine: with my poles back in the bag, I would tackle each downhill as if it was a matter of life and death. Arms spread wide, I would run down in what felt like focussed laisser-faire: root dangers would be ignored, stones would roll but not cramp my style, any occasional slip would keep my senses heightened. It felt like absolute fun and total freedom. As happens in such long events, I ended up hanging around with a group of about 20 runners of similar ability. Some were rookies doing their first ultra, some had come back to tame the race or better their times, some were seasoned ultra runners using it as a training run – and all were fantastic company. We chatted races, jobs, life – and bodily functions, as you do. A group of them nicknamed me the Eurostar for my downhill speed (definitely no style points – I felt like a graceful mountain goat but most probably looked like a clumsy sea lion).
The aid stations came and went, each with their buffet, cutting the race into five 12km chunks. For our elevenses, we had the amazing 2120m Col du Tricot, complete with hanging bridge and snow, and its landing of meadows on the other side. That was the point were I decided to stop ignoring the throbbing in my big toes, and the change of socks revealed huge bloody blisters on both sides. I got my sterilised surgeon kit out (erm, a safety pin from my bib, which I duly sterilised with some extra pure saliva) and drained the buggers, taping them but fearing they would be back with a vengeance.
Then came the plat de résistance, the most dreaded climb to the Tré-la-Tete refuge, an isolated mountain hut with incredible views. We were promised that it was going to be a breeze after the Col du Tricot, but there were murmurs of fear whenever the climb was mentioned, and I started picturing it as the Evil Villain. In the early afternoon, with temperatures in the high twenties, the risk of getting barbecued in the exposed, 2h section was almost certain. To counter the adversity, I decided that it was time for my secrete weapon: the iPod and its special running playlist. And how did that work! Within one track I was singing my way up. Within two tracks I was passing other runners. On the ups! The force was with me, and was there to stay. Against all expectations, the hot and dry drag up Tré-la-Tete proved a most enjoyable, if solitary climb, made better with a handful of cascades to dip your head gear and rehydrate. Almost too soon, the refuge came into view – but it took another half hour to actually get there and be welcomed by a small but perfectly formed team of volunteers, dressed up for the occasion. Lots of runners took the offer of fresh free beer at that stage, but I am pretty sure that none of them knew about the technical downhill that was to follow.
The iPod went back in the bag, but the music-generated endorphins were still aplenty and made me fly down to the valley floor, and unbelievably, got me running with a big smile all the way to Les Contamines, a few kilometres away, attempting to drag a few fellow runners with me. I wish Simon had been with me at that stage, as I had always assumed that the only reason I was running, was to not look like a wimp in front of him. Given that I had just covered 40km – almost a marathon – and climbed the equivalent of one Mont-Blanc since breakfast, this enjoyment and display of happiness were a full mystery. I even started toning the smiles down, for fear of being accused of doping. My ankle, although sore, was still holding up pretty well, and my knees were reasonably beaten but still fully functional. As for the earlier blisters, they had either gone numb or they were fine – I didn’t really care, as long as they kept quietly to themselves.
At the last checkpoint, where each runner was given a star arrival with name on microphone and claps in the village centre, I gave Simon a call to tell him to not wait for me at the finish but go for a beer and meal. He clumsily tried to disguise the fact that the last climb was yet another bitch of a hill, and so off I went for the last 2h of the race. Indeed the forest turned into a vertical wall, and running turned to climbing. Poles were used as ice axes as I was lifting my tired limbs up at the sole force of my arms. That last stage was very solitary, having dropped all my ‘team mates’ from earlier in the day, and I wondered what Lizzy Hawker must feel when she’s leading a race and traversing a forest at night. It felt magical as the sun was slowly fading, but I could picture the trees turning into threatening creatures after night had fallen, closing into you with the moving shadows of head torches. The thought of being stuck here at night gave me a second (twelfth) wind and I started focusing on relentless forward motion – and soon enough I was ‘chicking’ more runners.
I will always remember reaching the top of that last hill as the sun was just starting to disappear behind a mountain, tainting the Mont-Blanc massif all sorts of pastels. The last check-point team was happy to see a smiley face and I was delighted when they promised me that it was all downhill from there. I soaked the last rays of light as I realised I had been going since the sun went up the other side, and flew down the hill and to the finish line.
I have never finished a race without a big smile on my face, and this was no exception. In fact, this was probably my biggest smile so far – like, ever.
- The views are just breath taking, with different angles to the Mont-Blanc and the surrounding mountains and glaciers, cascades, forests…
- Food! Not just at the aid stations, but also at the finish, where you get free home-made soups and quiches, sandwiches and beer
- Incredibly well way-marked, with markers literally every 50m
- Easy option out: I’m glad I didn’t take it, but I knew there were 2 easy access points to re-direct to the smaller, 38km race, or back to a bus station in case my ankle would start playing up. Great if you’re unsure and want to use this as a test alpine race
- Tough! Not a very runnable race, with most of the terrain being either too steep or too technical. A bitch of a race, but Oh so rewarding!
- Physios available the day before the race to tape you up (unfortunately we were too late for them) and also at aid stations
- Good for your eco karma: no disposable cups at water stations, you have to carry your own reusable cup
- No medal, but finisher’s arm-warmers instead – at least a useful reward
- Did we mention the bargain price of Euro 45? That doesn’t even seem to cover the quantity of food I ate…
- 2 UTMB points if you make the cut-offs
- Erm, come back later, we’re still looking for one.
For more info:
Montagn’Hard on facebook