Getting High in the Alps

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Well friends, it all boils down to this blog post for 2018. The big one. The main event. The one for all the marbles. Yes, it’s finally time to spill pixels and re-tell the tale of my experience in Chamonix, France for the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix) trail race. For the uninitiated (shame on you!), this is essentially the super bowl of trail running on the global stage. Road runners have the world majors, trail runners have the UTMB trail races that take place in Chamonix. Even getting to the start line has its own strict requirements, that for some racers can take years of trying. For starters, you need to qualify. This means collecting points in other races. Each race requires a certain amount of points collected in a certain number of races. Once you have the points, you have to enter a lottery (yes, for real), and hope you get drawn. Once you secure an entry, you have to finalize registration, submit a medical certificate, and stay healthy till the main event in September (lottery is in January). What follows is my story of the event (but not the entire journey!!).

Album of Race Pictures (Click right and left)

Race Photos from CCC

Brief synopsis of my lead up to catch you up. Won the lottery in January and entered the race with great expectations. March 6th, some very bad things happen to my foot. I’m immobile for 6 weeks on crutches kinda thing. This led to an extremely late start to my running this year, and put all my big plans for racing in question. I didn’t actually feel even remotely ‘capable’ of running until early June. However, I overcame my problems, adapted, and had a pretty wicked run of fun and challenging events, including the Quebec Mega Trail 100k race in July, and the 125km Canadian Death Race in August, to name a couple. Each event raised questions and doubts about my ability to run due to injury (I’m currently awaiting a firm date for surgery, which I delayed until AFTER race season and a planned 3 week trekking trip in Patagonia). However, as time went by, and with each race, I beat my expectations and raised my confidence. So, finally stepping on the plane in Montreal bound for Paris late in August, I was at peace, and confident in my abilities to most definitely complete this race, and willing to push myself and see how I could do against the best of the best globally.

Course Profile

So how can I summarize this event succinctly? Well, from a stats perspective, it is 101km in length. The climbing alone is a total of 6,100m of vertical (that’s a lot, BTW). You are given 27 hours to complete the event. You pass through 3 countries: Italy, Switzerland, and France (and no, passports were not needed). The lowest elevation of the race is at about 900m ASL, and we top out over 2,500m ASL. The majority of the race seems to be spent at an average of between 1,800m and 2,000m. Reading those stats on paper or looking at a course profile, it is hard to fathom doing this for average people. It’s even hard to fathom to many runners. Everyone starting the race is fairly accomplished, and this is NOT their first tough race. Despite this, with a starting field of over 2,000 athletes from around the world, over 25% of racers failed to complete the race. Let that sink in for a moment. Got a sense of this bad boy? Perfect, let’s continue!

I never felt like this was a race I HAD to do. I like trying small events, cool events, big events, etc. etc. Going to the biggest, craziest race however, was never my priority. However, over the years, I’ve collected (unbeknownst to me) plenty of points, and had what I needed to enter the lottery. On a whim, and based on tales from ‘the big show’, I decided to throw my name in. I got drawn on my first attempt, which is pretty lucky, and decided since I had a slot, I had to take it (same logic applied a few years back when I had a chance to do the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race). Besides, with family in Switzerland to go visit, and a burning desire to head to the mountains, we decided to make a mini vacation out of this, and have adventures along the way, and cap it off with me doing a little run around the mountains 🙂

Album of Pictures from Switzerland

Swiss Weekend 2018

First stop on the trip was Switzerland, by taking a few trains and spending the weekend with family I hadn’t seen in a few years. We had a great visit, filled with lots of beer, wine cheese, and good laughs. It was amazing what we managed to pack into a few short days with them, including my world debut at attempting (and somewhat succeeding) to play an Alphorn. While there, I also managed to squeeze in 2 decent shake-out runs in the forests around where my relatives lived. All in all, it was an all-too-short visit, but extremely energizing. I was staying loose, happy, and completely unstressed. Come Monday morning, we got a drive to the train station, hopped a train to Geneva, then a bus that took us into the belly of the beast, Chamonix, France. Yes, the winter Olympics have been held here, as well as other areas in the vicinity. After all, we were in the heart of the Alps!

Our accommodations for the rest of the week (the race started Friday in Italy) was a tiny, but cozy, little apartment smack downtown in Chamonix, about 500m from the finish line of my race. Even on arrival, the town was in full blown trail running fever. The events include a total of 6 different races, and one of the shorter ones was actually finishing up as we arrived. In an ironic twist, we were having a devil of a time finding the address and location of where to pick up our apartment keys, stomping around with our giant backpacks on in the throngs of cheering fans. Eventually, we realized that the keys were being picked up from a real estate place literally (5m) beside the finishing arch of the race!! It was pandemonium there, and definitely set the stage for how big this series of events is over the course of the week. Keys in hand, we returned to the apartment, promptly rushed out to buy some groceries for supper, breakfast and lunch the next day, and returned to our little home to settle in. We were a bit tired, and I had yet to plan out full day of activities for the next day.

Album of Pictures Hiking around Chamonix

Hiking Around Chamonix

Speaking of activities, how would YOU prepare for a major race like this? In my case, I opted to maximize my mountain time. We had a 3-day unlimited pass for all the cable cars, buses, and trains in the area (there are LOTS), and there was a pile of trails and adventures I wanted to have. Accordingly, I would spend my evenings enjoying local beers while hatching plans for us the next day. For the next 3 days (Tues, Wed, Thurs) we spent most of our days over 2,000m hiking and soaking in the views (far from the big crowds). We got up each morning at the crack of dawn, had a quick breakfast, and wandered off with a packed lunch and sense of adventure. No ‘tapering’ or ‘relaxing’ for me.I much prefer the activity. After all, we’d spent all the time, effort and money to get here, might as well make the most, right? Besides adventuring, we also found time to visit a local brewery with a contingent of Quebec racers. Beer was ok, but service was appalling, so I won’t even mention where, nor will I recommend them.

The only other exception to the pattern was a few hours on Wednesday spent at race registration, which was a gong show. Thousands of racers lined up in the pouring rain waiting to get in and undergo the rigorous racer check-in. This race has very strict equipment requirements, which you must carry with you at all times or risk disqualification. As part of check-in, there was mandatory gear check and sign-off. If any of your gear was deemed inappropriate, you could be denied entry. The process took quite long for each racer. All my gear passed no problem, but the process still took over an hour and a half. Not cool UTMB, not cool. It looked like they were trying to make things efficient, but there were still major choke points. Hopefully that improves over time somehow.

One Last Beer Before Racing

Thursday, the day before my race, we spend lots of time lounging at elevation, and upon returning to the town, I roped myself into doing a ‘mini race’ with a major prize from Suunto ($900 watch). To spare the agony of a full re-telling; It was a 3k race ‘treasure hunt’. I was solid, and ran anaerobically like a mad man… to arrive in 2nd place…. by 20 seconds. I was gutted, but was congratulated for being so fast and getting 2nd. I then had to jog the 3k back to the starting point to collect my 2nd place prize… an insulated water bottle. Ugh. Way to burn up all my energy the day before the race, right? Lol. I figured I was just blowing out the system before the real test, which would start in earnest in about 12 hours….

Marching to Start Line

So here we are. Game day…. I mean race day. 5:30am wake up to catch a 6:30am bus to Italy to toe the line for a 9am start. Deanna the trooper was by my side the whole way, and would be taking buses organized by the race to try and follow me and catch up to me at various points in the race. She would have an entirely different, parallel experience to mine, but nonetheless spend the entire time awake and following my progress via her phone, offering encouragement and help wherever she could. As a result of some pretty decent times I’d turned in during a few other races, I was fortunate enough to be placed in he first of four corrals at the start line. I’d be in the first wave of runners, followed in 5 minute intervals by the other waves. However, I still opted to stand at the back of the wave, which meant there were about 500-600 runners ahead of be when the gun went off. I have never experienced anything like this in a trail race. It was more like a road marathon, with a sea of runners ahead, visible each time I crested a hill in the village we were running through before starting the long ascent of our first climb.

And what a climb it was!! In a span of about 7km, we were going to climb 1,500m vertical! This would actually be the longest, potentially toughest climb of he entire course, and was a hell of an introduction to the type of race this would be. To summarize, in races around home, you can build up a lot of elevation gain, but it is all rolling terrain. Over there? It feels You are doing one of two things. Going up steep, or coming down steep. There is very little flat or rolling terrain at all. During that first climb, I had a lot of time to contemplate this race and form some thoughts. Initially, my thought was that this sucks. We were lined up in one giant snake climbing the mountain. You couldn’t pass anyone (narrow trail with no ability to go around), and the going was excruciatingly slow. I hated it, but we all had to endure it, so I just sucked it up. Secondly, I decided that having this many people really doesn’t give this race the feel of a trail race, where you experience solitude. Finally, I realized that even though we were surrounded by ‘the best’, I was SHOCKED at how un-skilled some runners were, softly treading around the simplest rocks / obstacles. I guess some people only race flat, unobstructed terrain, and still collect points, but have not technical skills. However, at the top of that climb, and before the first aid station, my opinions started to change.

Racers Snake up Tete de la Tronche

As we finally crested Tete de la Tronche, the terrain did become a bit rolling. The track widened, and there were some opportunities to execute passes. As a result, my pace picked up dramatically, and I started executing on my visions of hanging back at the start, and picking my way forward (or clawing…?). The field began to spread out, and I started actually finding my groove. It was a real mind boost. In retrospect, that painful slow climb was actually a blessing in disguise, as it truly prevented you from blowing up too early, and pushing too hard, which is a major issue for many in these races. By now, I know that many of the racers that blow by me early in a race are just making bad decisions, and that I’ll eventually pass them down the road. After all, these are feats of endurance and mental strength, not raw speed and bravado (except, perhaps, the very pointy end of the stick that most of us will never see…). As a result, I started enjoying the experience more, and allowed more joy into my pace as I cruised into the first aid station of the race, located at Refuge Bertone, the 15km point of the race.

I quickly filled my two bottles, grabbed a few snacks to gnaw on as I ran out of the aid station (simple stuff like cookies and a slice of meat – more on aid stations later…). As with most races, my focus was on forward motion, and using aid stations more to re-stock my pack rather than linger and eat on the spot. The next two sections of the race were fast and shorter. Leaving Bertone, it was a fast, mostly flat 7km run around the mountainside to Refuge Bonatti, which was just a refreshment station rather than full aid station (liquids and a little bit of food). The next leg was only 5km long, so I really didn’t pick anything up here, just grabbing a handful of pretzels or something and staying moving. From here, we made our way to Arnouvaz, our last stop on the Italian part of the course. This section started out rolling, and wrapped up with a steep twisting downhill run. During the downhill, I made up some spots and was passing people who were more hesitant. However, I almost ran right off the mountain at one point, nearly missing a hairpin turn! Luckily, I caught a tree on my way off the track and swung back on the trail. With that adrenaline spike, I cruised into Arnouvaz to re-stock and re-fill bottles before starting the trip towards Switzerland!

Bored Cow on Route

With a quarter of the race behind me, it was now early afternoon, and time to start another climb to cross a 2,500m mountain pass and move from Italy to Switerzland. At 14km long with a decent climb on the way, this would be a serious leg. Right out of Arnouvaz, we started our climb up to the Grand Col Ferret, which marked the border crossing. Starting out, the climb was quite stunning, and weather nice, however, we could see clouds on the horizon. As we moved higher and higher, it started getting colder, and the first hints of rain presented themselves. Good thing we were all carrying tons of mandatory gear to keep us warm and dry as needed. The trick is to know when to put it on. Wait too long, and you’ll already be paying the price. Put it on too early, and you overheat, leading to more sweating. I erred on the side of caution, and after crossing the fog-shrouded summit (very anticlimactic!!), I pulled off and put on my waterproof jacket, hat, and gloves. My idea was that we were now starting a long decent, and I figured I wouldn’t be as hot. Plus, the rain was picking up.

Speaking of which, the next 10km were pretty much all downhill. And as it turned out, would be extremely muddy and treacherous with the increased rain. It seemed all the rain was running from the top of the mountain straight down our trail, turning it into a swiss chocolate slip and slide for many racers. The lower and further we got, the worse things became. I watched racer after racer try to navigate the slick mud only to lose their footing and go down hard in the mud. I’m talking head to toe coverage here. It was nuts! I somehow got lucky and avoided any major tumbles. I lost footing a few times, but summoned all my cross-country skiing balance skills (Thanks Dave and Lise!!) to just ‘slide it out’, going with the ‘flow’ of the mud. I got pretty giddy a few times as a result here, and had some genuine fun! Before I knew it, the terrain was flattening out a bit, and we were on the final trot into La Fouly, the next aid station at km 41. With the continued rain, and temperature drop, I really didn’t want to stop long and catch a chill, so I once again worked hard to get in and out quick, although I did stop just a little longer to make a few gear adjustments (re-packing some clothes to make sure the pack stayed dry and compact).

Climbing towards Champex

Leaving La Fouly, it was another 14km section, with more downhill. The terrain was very runnable, and was basically picturesque Swiss farmland and valley as we ran down hill along a river. I was truly enjoying the views here, and felt very much at home. Must be because I was in my ancestral fatherland of Switzerland! At one point, we ran through a beautiful little village, Praz de Fort. Due to the rain, there weren’t too many spectators out. However, one fellow cheered me on, saw my Canadian flag and said ‘I’m a Canadian too!’, to which I replied ‘Well I’m a Swiss citizen too!’. Turns out we were both Swiss / Canadian citizens. Of all the people. Too funny! I smiled and ran on through this neat little village, knowing that at the end of this stage was Champex-Lac, well past the mid-point of the race, and a MAJOR refueling stop for runners. For most runners, this is also the transition into darkness. While we had now been going roughly downhill for about 21km, this was about to change, with an abrupt little kick up to Champex. For some reason, I had thought we’d run down/flat all the way into the station. Boy was I wrong. THe next 2.5 – 3km was all uphill, and pretty steep. Above me, I could hear some cheering, and it felt re-energizing to finally pop out on top with people cheering. This was the first ‘support station’ as well, which meant racers friends and families were out cheering, creating a lot of buzz and excitement!

To add to my personal happiness, this was the first point in the race that I got to see Deanna, who had been taking race buses around the course to catch me. I was now roughly 56km into the race, and feeling pretty good. However, I was soaked, and wanted a reprieve, so I got Deanna to supply me with a dry shirt to put on. This ‘aid station’ reminded me more of a beer hall. It was a HUGE tent, with a veritable smorgasbord of food for racers to enjoy. Trays of meats, cheeses, and breads piled high, along with the usual race food stuff of cookies, brownies, chocolate, pretzels, nuts, etc. etc. I opted to make a nice big bowl of soup with melted cheese, and also have some cured meat. After all, I’d been lugging a collapsible bowl and spork the whole time JUST for this! I must say, it was heavenly to have a nice bowl of warm soup at this point. Deanna happily chatted with me as I ate and got re-dressed to head out. I probably spent almost 15 minutes at this stop. It was my only planned ‘rest’ of the race. On the way out, there was a surprise gear check which delayed me further, as I had to fish specific gear out of my tightly packed pack. As I did that, I crammed another couple Snickers into my face before finally heading out again.

Champex Lake

Lucky for me, it was still light out at this point. Most racers would be in the dark by now. I was making decent time for a sea-level flatlander. Good thing, as I was now heading into the longest leg of the race, 17km with no refueling. This leg had it all. Rain, cold, darkness, tricky footing in mud, a big climb. It would be a real test of racers after leaving the comfort for Champex-Lac. There were a couple time points on the leg. First, a spot called Plan de L’au at the 61km mark, then a summit at La Giete at 67.1k. However, in the darkness, fog, and rain, I never noticed the first point, so had no idea how I was doing in progressing this stage. There were definitely some low moments in this one, especially on the climb in the rain and mud. By this time, I had the headlamp on, but in the heavy fog, it wasn’t particularly helpful, to the point, that while my body could move faster, my visibility prevented it. Eventually, I was running by what looked like a barn that was having a rave, judging by the music in it. I thought to myself, geez, someone is having a fun wedding or something, and I’m out here suffering. However, upon turning a corner, I realized it was La Giete, which was actually the check-in at the summit. The volunteers were in a barn, which we actually got to run through, with music blaring. Luckily, they also had some water, which I was in need of. This pleasant little ‘micro-stop’ really lifted my spirits and was all I needed to head back out with a smile. It also signaled the start of the downhill part of this leg which basically took us all the way to Trient, the next aid station (except for one more little climb)!

Trient was the last Swiss stop on the race, and another chance to see Deanna. It was located in a Swiss village, and once again had a pretty festive atmosphere with all the friends and family. Deanna and I hung out for a very short bit as I filled up on mixed nuts and filled up my bottles. I was getting a bit tired, but still in good spirits and on pace. Tempting as it was to hang out, I once again plodded out quickly. I was uncertain what was ahead, and soon discovered a crazy steep climb, that’s what. On paper, it didn’t look worse than some other climbs, but for some reason, it seemed BRUTAL. My only salvation on the climb was the fact that I had gotten a full size Snickers from Deanna for this leg, and was saving it for some delayed gratification and chocolate kick when I’d need it. All told, the climb was about 700m over about 3.5km, and it HURT. However, once I finally ate my secret power source, drank a bunch of fluids and snapped out of it, I got to the top feeling pretty decent. It would have had pretty nice views I think. All I saw were some twinkling village lights far below, and a tent of volunteers to make sure everyone was ok at the top. From here, it was time to bomb down the other side, crossing from Switzerland to France somewhere on the descent (unmarked), and cruising into Vallorcine, the 83k mark of the race, and the last time I’d see Deanna. I quite enjoyed this descent, and when finally in Vallorcine, I actually felt quite good, and energized that I had under 20k to go and still on pace. I wasted very little time here, catching a quick kiss (and another Snickers bar) and encouragement from Deanna before heading into the dark again.

Course Map

I should mention that all along this race, I’d been doing good at moving up the ranks. In terms of progressions, each checkpoint logs you in, and after the fact, you can see where you were in each leg. My progression looked roughly like this: 722nd, 576th, 501st, 450th, and now sitting at 422nd. So I had been steadily moving up and passing people, mostly on the downhills. However, I had now also become part of a little cadre of racers moving at similar speeds, recognizing the same packs along the trail. I wanted to surge this time, and set out at a good trot to get to the final major climb first, since I was usually a little slower on climbs. We were now heading up the Col des Montets, and ultimately the aid station at La Flegere before finishing the race. For some reason, I had discounted this climb. However, the reality was that after over 80k of big mountains, I was starting to hurt. And be tired. Once on that climb, I hit my absolute lowest. I had expected a nice trail climb, but instead, we were presented with what I contend was the most technical climbing and descending of the entire race. The trail included 800m of climbing, but also a fair bit of descent, then MORE climbing to get to La Flegere. The descents were rocky, rooty, seldom-used trails.

With tired legs and mind, I was now struggling, but so was everyone else. We started the climb with around 8 people, and gradually people dropped off one by one, until it was just me and 1 other fellow still keeping the pace heading up. For my part, I was locked onto his heels with my eyes, just following blindly. I would have followed him right off a cliff if that’s where he went. Once again, I was clutching a Snickers for dear life, awaiting the right moment to let its’ power get me through. That moment came when the dude ahead finally broke and pulled off the trail to the side, and I was faced with also stopping, or pushing ahead. I opted to push, otherwise it would look silly. Snickers ingested, I slogged up and up and up until finally seeing a lit tent up in the distance… La Flegere!! Salvation!! The final aid station!

Pulling back the tent flap, I walked into what felt like a field hospital. Broken runners were seated all around the tent. Some sipping soup, others pop, most of them with glazed looks on their faces and little discernible life or energy. I fed off of them, opting to again try to quickly fill my bottles and head out right away. After all, there was literally only 8km of downhill separating me from the finish line and a well-deserved nap! The past leg had definitely took a toll, but I was pumped for the 8k downhill. So much so that I took off at high speed on a technical rocky section, throwing caution to the wind. Forgetting I had heavy legs and slowed reflexes, I paid the price, I rolled my right ankle about 3 times, and my left one twice, each time feeling the excruciating pain of my ankle muscles being pummeled. Eventually, I eased up, reminding myself that at this point, it didn’t really matter much. I MAY be passed by 1 or 2 people on the way, but I had raced well and with a good time, so I should just try to finish in one piece! Sure enough, that’s pretty much what happened. I passed a few people, and was in turn passed by a couple others. I still made up spots on the final push!

Finish Line Photo

Once back in Chaamonix village, it was a ghost town. At 3:50am, there were no crowds. Deanna managed to find a spot to see me coming in, then cut through side streets to cheer me on a couple times. A table of drunks outside a bar cheered for me, but apart from that, it was very quiet. A big difference from the chaos of the daytime finish that would be experienced by slower runners, getting thunderous cheers all the way in. However, I was happy with the quiet finish. So much of the journey in these races is a solo effort, it was somewhat poetic to finish to no fanfare. Of course the finish line itself had an assortment of officials and volunteers, but that was it. After crossing, I somberly walked over to collect my finishers’ vest, then over to the food tent. It was only aid station food, so I skipped it, but did take a beer for the road. I don’t think I even drank it until several hours later.

Morning After Finish

After a few hours of snoozing, Deanna and I got back up and made our way back to the finish area to cheer people in. My buddy Dale was going to be in sometime before noon, and we didn’t want to miss him. My body felt remarkably good, all things considered, and we stomped around the village for a bit. Once he finished, we made plans to meet up with friends at a pub to share some beers and swap stories. This ultimately wound up being an impromptu pizza party at our condo as people weren’t up to partying all night. We turned in around 9pm, packing before bed since the next day we were heading to Lyon to wrap up our European trip. We had an all-to-quick 24 hours in Lyon, doing a bit of city touring (why are there always so many hills in villages AFTER races??), enjoying some beers before another early night to bed.

Album of Pictures from Lyon
Post Race Relaxing in Lyon

All in all, my UTMB / CCC experience was great. Although the entire atmosphere was quite overwhelming, as a race, it was pretty amazing. Traversing 3 countries on foot, crossing high mountain passes and experiencing all the physical and mental highs and lows that go along with it were truly spectacular. There are no easy races, and for 101k, this one was probably my toughest, with over 6,000m of climbing in that distance, it had the most elevation to overcome. Physically, I held up well, and still think I’m improving year over year, which is great. With surgery on the horizon, I’m nervous about next year, but fingers crossed I have even bigger adventures in the future!!

Although I wasn’t filming this race for the magazine this time, I did still drag a camera around with me and got some footage. To see my little video from the race, watch it just below. There’s some pretty nice scenery! Time to rest up though, as coming up is another doozy, a 24-30 hour adventure race.. Wilderness Traverse!! Can’t wait for that one. Till next time, hope your adventures, whatever they may be, keep you fulfilled!

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