Wasatch 100

Wasatch 100

Sunday, September 23, 2012

2012 Northface Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc - TDS Race Report

Ten years ago was the inaugural running the 100 mile North Face Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France.  Over that time it has become the premiere ultra-running event in the world.  The course goes through France, Italy, Switzerland then back to Chamonix France circulating Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. today it is made up of the 100 mile UTMB, the 100K CCC (Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix), the 112K TDS (Sur Les Traces Des Ducs De Savoi), and the multi-PTL Tour.

                   (you have to blow these pictures - about 8K in the race after the rain started again)

In 2012 we made the decision to make the trip. I would run the main UTMB and Kelly would run the CCC  yet when the lottery results came in Kelly got in her race and I did not.  As a consolation, the race organizers allowed runners to choose priority in the following year's race or entry into the TDS.  Since Kelly got into her race I decided to do the TDS.  My main goal in this event is to have a great time and see some spectacular scenery with over a thousand like minded individuals.

We arrived in Geneva on Tuesday and took a 1.5 hour shuttle to Chamonix.  We made the decision to arrive two days early just in case there were problems with the flight and to adjust to the time change. Our hotel, the Hotel Croix-Blanche,was just a block from the Start/Finish line in Chamonix.  The location was near many restaurants and shopping all for a good price with friendly staff.

Wednesday was registration and tourist day.   In the morning we rode up on very expensive Telepherique de L'Aiguille du Midi cable-car to (3,842m/ 12,605ft) just below Mont-Blanc. It was well worth the price for the views of Alps (be sure it is a clear day).  After getting back we went to the race   checkin. It was a multi-station process where runners need to show they have packed all the required    supplies which includes lots a bad weather and safety gear.  All the equipment would need to be carried by the runners through the race and there no drop-bags are allowed in the CCC or TDS.

The remainder of the day we explored the downtown, shopped at the expo and of course we found the one brewery where we enjoyed my only pre race beer with the company of Byron Powell from iRunFar.com.  Then in late afternoon the demon of the UTMB appears in the form of continuous rain that would once again plague the race. 

At 2:45 am, just before my alarm went off I was awakened by thunder and flashes of lightning. With the storm outside I got up early to begin getting ready and to remain dry I pulled out most of my rain gears so I would remain dry waiting in the bus staging area.  Surprisingly, when I got outside the rain had stopped and lifted my spirits for some potential good weather.  

The bus ride was 45 minute trip through the Mont-Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur, Italy. The bus dropped us off at what appeared to be a conference center on the other end of town. At the drop location everyone walked off the bus but few knew what to do and there was no race officials directing the masses so many including myself sat under the awning of a conference center.  Finally, I saw large groups of runners walking off in in one direction and sure enough it was to the starting line on the other end of town.  

At about 6:55 the helicopter started flying above with loud motivational music a multilingual announcer saying things I could not understand until the Italian countdown and then the 1,400 runners were off charging through town up to a ski area for the beginning of the first climb.

(the staging area at the start)

(the run through Courmayeur - also see the video at the bottom of the report)

(run up the ski area by Courmayeur - mile 3)

(Col Checrouit Maison Vieille aid station 7K at 1956 meters)
It was nice running the first hour without rain and perfect temperatures (limited views).  That only lasted about 1.5 hours and after leaving the first aid-station the rain came.

Each aid-station was organized chaos.  This is a week point in the race organization.  The stations are just slightly larger then in the US where we have way fewer runners.  With up to  but 1,400 runners I would always have to wait and fight to get my bladders and bottles filled.  The food was even harder to get to.  The food would either be salty or sweet with local cheese and meats but with the crowds I would just give up and leave.  In the European races they rarely sock hydration mix so I had to carry my own supply of First Endurance EFS mix in ziplock bags through the race.

The next round of pictures and the one at the beginning of the report is from the final few miles of the first climb to the Co de la Youlaz (2661 meters = 8,730ft the highest point of all the races with a total climb of 4,386 ft. 

The next 7 pictures are of descent down to the town of La Thulle.  The first kilometer was on good surface but then it became very slippery.  I wish I had video going because every person was falling on their ass in the mud or cow crap.

(a herders house)

On the way down the rain lightend up to a drizzle so I pulled my rain gear to avoid overheating on downhill run.  After a few miles of sliding in the mud we got a regular dirt then a paved road so for the first time in the race I was actually open up a run.

(old abandoned rock home)
The next 8 pictures are of La Thuile another Italian ski town at 21K/13 miles.  The aid-station was again total chaos with all the runners and their spectating family packed into a small building. After fighting to get my bladder and water bottle refilled I had to go out into the rain to get dressed into my rain gear.

Not long after leaving La Thuile, I began to heat up again so despite the rain I pulled off my rain gear  for a more comfortable climb.  

In the race there were only 11 Americans so it was nice to actually see one Erika below.  Despite all the people in the race very few people would talk with each other even in French.  It was great to break from the silence with some conversation with Erika and her friend from California.

 (another abandoned rock homes)

 Final stretch to the top of the Col du Petit St-Bernard 2,188m/7,178ft

After a steep final climb, I made it to the aid-station at the top with a total 2nd climb of 722m/2,368ft. This was the best stop considering it was easy to refill my drinks and actually got to eat some real food.

For the first time leaving the aid-station I got cold in rain and wind.  So put back on my rain gear and try to warm up my hand I even put on my protective dishwashing gloves.  As seen in the pictures belew like most of the race, I was surrounded by most beautiful scenery in the world yet it was continuously covered in clouds so I saw very little.

(below is some shrine)

 (see the cows with bells - cool!)

Water mill in St-Germain

View of the valley towards Bourg St-Maurice

After descending 1,375m/4,511ft, I made it to the Bourge St-Maurice aid-station at 44k in 8 hours.  For the first time in the race we had some blue sky and I was able to remove all my rain gear.  Again the aid-station was chaos but fought my way in to enjoy some of the local cheese and meats before getting my gear checked at the control post (see below) they checked to make sure I had all my safety and bad weather gear.

(Running through town)

 I found a french hiker to take my picture

The climb out of town was relentlessly steep (reminded me of Hope Pass in Colorado) but it was nice to have good weather for about 1.5 hours. On the way up we passed Fort du Truc which was built in in 1913-1914 and helped to defend the town below in WWII

After another two miles of steep climbing we reached Fort de la Platte. It was built near the mid to late 19th century to protect the recently annexed Savoy region of France from the Italians.  Today it is used by goat and cow farmers to produce milk and cheese.

The next few pictures are the approach to the Col de la Forclaz (2,350m) at about 50k and again it started to rain. At first I decided to just wear my rain jacket but nearing the top the winds picked up so my hands started to get cold and so out came the dishwashing gloves.

The picture below show the next climb.  I would drop about 500ft then climb an additional 100ft back to the top of the next climb.  The rain got worse and at the bottom I had to put on all my rain gear and headlamp.  By the time I reached the next summit it was dark.

To get an idea of the trail conditions the mud picture says it all except the steepness.  I could hardly climb in the slick crap.  When I finally reached the top there was a warming hut filled with distraught runners getting out of the wind and rain.  I was fine temperature wise and the volunteer said I had just 4k to go to the aid-station.  

The 4k began with half mile rope descent on rocky cliff on slippery rocks and mud.  This was acutally dangerous especially with all the runners hanging for dear life.  After the ropes section the course was  a constant side with runners sliding and falling allover the place.  I was completely covered in mud from falling countless times.
Finally after 15 hours and 7 hour 10 mile climb that gained 6,738ft, I was done.  Not that I was physically or mentally unable, I was not having fun.  I came to this race to see great views and run.  I had no desire to slog through mud for the next 20 hours just to see clouds and get another jacket.  60% of the runners made the same choice too.

Garmin report: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/220092522

In the end, I will be back for the official UTMB.  After 3 years of bad weather that altered the races the odds are favorable for some better years.  The nice thing is we also planned a vacation after where we enjoyed driving through Switzerland and Germany so the trip was not a waste of time.  Below is a video summary of various parts of the race.