Dig deep! – TDS Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction

 
It has been over a month since my experience of running the TDS so it’s about time I got around to writing about it! Here goes…

I was delighted to get a place in the ‘Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie’ (TDS), a wild trail race of 119km with 7,250 metres of climb which starts in Italy covering some amazing terrain across the Alps and ending in Chamonix.

TDS 2014 Climb Profile

It had been a dream of mine to run one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc series of races for a few years ever since I became interested in Ultra Running. In fact, my choice of first Ultra was made based on the fact that the Norfolk Coastal Ultra carried 2 qualification points for the UTMB races. To be at the start line (let alone the finish line!) of such an epic race was the culmination of two years of planning, training and hoping that I would get a place as entries are managed by a lottery system with only a one in three chance of getting in to some races. I had hoped to get a place in the Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix race (CCC) a slightly shorter event covering 62 miles but I was not successful in the lottery for 2013 or indeed 2014 (with double the chance) such is the level of interest in these races. Fortunately I was offered one of the few remaining places in the TDS. I later found out that the TDS doesn’t get as oversubscribed as the other races, partly because it is a newer race but mainly because it is widely regarded as the toughest of all the races!! ‘The wild alternative’ is how the website bills this particular race and rightly so as I found out! A huge amount of other planning and logistics all had to come together to make this happen too. I had to arrange the time off work, book accommodation and arrange ferry bookings as you would expect. In addition I bought a caravan, had to order a new company car with a tow bar and then arranged a camp site for the family to stay at, making a family holiday of it. A lot had gone into this adventure!

First long descent after a couple of hours climbing

The Event Build Up

I found out that I had a place in the race early in January, seven months to plan, train on the hills, prepare, check and re-check kit and generally wonder how you could possibly do all you can to be ready for such an undertaking! Those months flew by and I was able to get some good training and enter a few races with a suitable amount of climb. This was the aspect that concerned me most. I was confident that I could go the distance and had the stamina to keep going but the amount of climb was something else! It is hard to equate it to something meaningful but seven times up (and down) Snowdon from sea level sounds daunting so that will do! One of my training events was to complete the Welsh 3000s, a 25+ mile route covering all of the mountains in Wales over 3,000 feet (15 of them) in one day. This has 4,000m of climb so having completed that I was at least gaining more confidence that I had it in me.
The months passed and my family and I were soon off on our adventure, driving onto a ferry at Dover for a trip of over 650 miles towing to the campsite near Lake Annecy. It proved to be a good choice with a great swimming pool and mini waterpark for the kids. The site was about an hour away from Chamonix and there was plenty of time to relax and explore in the lead up to the event. Perhaps I was a little too relaxed as I totally forgot about the race until the day before and didn’t really consider my usual pre-race preparation. More about that later!
On Tue 26th August it was time to relocate to Chamonix and get register for the event. The heavens opened and it rained non-stop for 24 hours+. Such was the intensity of the rain that damage had been done to river beds in France, Switzerland and Italy! Fortunately there was no impact on any of the races, everyone just got soaked while queuing to register.
The morning of the race I knew I had to be on a coach at 4.30am from Chamonix, though the Mont Blanc tunnel to the start at Courmayeur in Italy. On reflection, to spend the night before in a shared dormitory in a hostel was probably not the best idea and consequently I had very little sleep the night before, with noisy room-mates and an incessant alarm clock going off every ten minutes from midnight onwards! I did feel I had got my own back somewhat when I got up at 3.30am and made little effort to be quiet.

The atmosphere at start line in Courmayeur was electric. 1,600 runners all ready, all singing and cheering as the start klaxon sounded with a helicopter hovering overhead filming the events. 7am came and we were off on this incredible shared journey.

The start line in Courmayeur

The Race

 
After an initial 2k jog through the crowd-lined streets of Courmayeur the course soon started twisting and turning up the route of an out-of-season ski run and the pace slowed. One of the hardest things about entering a large race is not being able to travel at your own pace and this was one of those occasions. A slow walk with nowhere to go because of the sheer numbers of people ensued and several competitors’ flailing walking poles around without regard for others didn’t help much. Soon this section was over and the first checkpoint passed. Numbers began to thin out as people found their own pace. The scenery became more and more impressive and the constant sight of snow-capped Mont Blanc and other high peaks was breath-taking.
Magnificent view of the Alps from the Italian side

The early miles of a long race are always a tentative time when you realise that you have a long way to go and anything can happen! A few hours in and a few checkpoints covered then things start to settle down. It had been dry all morning and the sky was clear. A marked contrast from the previous day and this meant a different set of challenges. The temperatures in the valleys were climbing and as I started the long 8 mile descent into Bourg St-Maurice I was sweating heavily and working hard to keep hydrated. Fortunately in some of the mountain villages there were drinking water fountains with ice cold water flowing freely. These were very welcome as the temperature must have been in the high twenties.

An early climb

The Bourg St-Maurice checkpoint had the usual variety of food, hot and cold drinks but I was getting a little bored with cheese, salami and French bread now having had it for the last few checkpoints. I opted for some chicken noodle soup and this became a firm favourite of mine for the rest of the race. It was easy to swallow, salty and tasty. No chewing required! There was plenty of other food available, fruit, chocolate, cereal bars, biscuits and cake to choose from.

Looking back down into Bourg St Maurice

The climb out of Bourg St-Maurice is long, very long and it was still very hot. Quite a few runners were stopped at various points along the side of the track and I saw a few people reacquainting themselves with their choice of nutrition from the last checkpoint! This was getting tough now. 25 miles in, about 50 to go! The seemingly endless climb was briefly split up by an unofficial checkpoint and pop-up shop set up by the local farmer’s family who were out milking their goats at Fort de la Platte. Three generations of the family had come out to cheer runners on and sell them coke, fruit juice and the like. I passed on the goat’s cheese raclette but did have a welcome rest before carrying on. Night was starting to fall and so was the temperature as I continued to climb. Several hours after struggling to stay cool I was now layering up and starting to shiver, my breath visible in front of my face. As the climb continued up to around 2,600m the temperature was little above freezing and the best way to stay warm was to keep going.

The scale of the challenge became even more evident now. The landscape barely visible in the moonlight but lines of headtorches showing the rough line of the course and the sheer size of the mountains. Some of those lights seemed so high up, surely they were passing planes not solitary figures on a track which I would have to climb soon! The climbs were relentless and the terrain so technical. One particular section seemed to go on forever, an incredibly steep descent of over 500m which zig-zagged down the mountain side. So steep that the organisers had deemed ropes and chains necessary and installed these at various points. I am pretty confident on technical ground and found myself looking to overtake a number of the slower competitors during this descent which brought its own challenges. Most were more than happy to move over and let someone faster show the way in return for a short rest. On more than one occasion I was glad I had my trekking poles and the extra stability they provided. Definitely worth the extra weight.
As the trudge continued long into the night my spirits began to sink and I started to feel like I might not make it to the finish line. The enormity of what lay ahead dawned on me and my mind started to flirt with the idea of DNFing and what this would mean. Determined not to let this happen and very aware that success or failure in an Ultra is largely in the mind I resolved to press on to the next checkpoint and sort myself out! I was having a real low point and decided that I needed to spend as long as necessary at the Cormet de Roseland checkpoint and leave feeling good otherwise it would be game over! I knew my drop bag was waiting for me there and gladly underwent a full change of clothing, a fresh slathering of Vaseline on my feet and lovely clean, dry socks. Food time! For the love of God, not more salami and cheese!! Even though I love them I couldn’t face any more. Thank goodness for chicken noodle soup. After nearly 45 minutes at the checkpoint and countless bowls of soup I did indeed feel better and slapped myself metaphorically in the face, deciding that there was no way I was quitting unless I was taken off on a stretcher! My experience in long events previously had taught me that the rising of the morning sun has a miraculous effect, seeming to cure all ills and give a new lease of life. If I could make it to the sunrise I’d be fine. Sure enough the sun eventually rose and I pressed on with a renewed sense of purpose, visualising my glorious crossing of the finish line to rapturous applause, still some 20 miles distant!
As the hours went by my focus changed from whether I’d make it to whether I’d make it IN TIME! With a 33 hour cut off I had calculated I was a good couple of hours clear of this but I had a scare on reaching one of the final checkpoints. I had expected to find that there were 8 miles to go as I reached what I thought Bellevue. It turned out that I was actually at Chalets du Trucs and had 5 more miles to go than I thought. Panic set in, how could I have miscalculated? Did I really have to cover 7 miles in an hour and a half to avoid being timed out when I had managed little more than 2 mph during the night! I bolted and covered the next descent in a remarkable time. I overtook 20+ people on this leg and remember thinking do these people not know that they are pushing the cut-off or have I got it wrong? I wasn’t slowing down for anyone though – I was in the zone and loving it! Hurtling past surprised, tired runners like I was being chased by a madman! My choice of shoes (my trusty Adidas Kanadia TR6s) seemed to provide a level of grip that many others couldn’t match and were really working for me. Several of the guys in Salomons seemed to be struggling on the wet, slippery grass and one guy in particular wasn’t keen on me passing him. When he had slipped on to his backside at least five or six times in front of me I’d had enough. I picked my moment and leapt around him as he floundered.

From the last checkpoint at Les Houches the final few miles into Chamonix seemed to take forever, running down a never-ending forest track. Finally across a bridge and back into civilisation. The streets of Chamonix were lined with hundreds of people cheering everyone on. With half a mile to go I found my family and my eleven year-old daughter ran in with me. I was feeling quite emotional at this point anyway but on seeing me running in hand in hand with my daughter the cheering and shouts of ‘Allez Allez’ got even louder. I was overwhelmed at the support of total strangers and crossed the line with tears in my eyes after 31 hours 34 minutes of effort. My goal achieved I was on top of the world. What an experience!

Approaching the finish line with Rachel

After the race

 
My seventh Ultra completed. Without a doubt this was the toughest race I have ever done. Never have I had to dig so deep to complete an event and I learnt a lot about myself and about running during the race. At the finish line I was really thinking maybe that’s it for me and Ultras, perhaps I should give it a rest for a while, the fateful words ‘never again’ were uttered! The nature of this type of event though is incredible and the atmosphere indescribable. So much so that the pain soon fades and thoughts turn to ‘what next?’. Barely 18 hours later I was googling the other races in the series!! How much longer is the UTMB? How much extra climb is there?
Finisher!

‘Pain is temporary – pride is forever’ they say. This may be a cliché but I now know the true meaning of those words and that is why I’ll be back! As soon as I can get a place I’ll be at the start line of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 105 mile race through three countries with 9,600m of climb. A little wiser perhaps and a little more prepared hopefully but definitely in awe of mother nature and the truly awesome challenge provided by the magnificent Alps.

Lessons Learnt/Ultra Advice

1.      Man cannot live on electrolyte alone! Alternate with water/cola/other drinks.
2.      Trekking poles can be a lifesaver on steep terrain in the mountains.
3.      There is only so much salami you can eat – even if it is your favourite!
4.      Plan a nutrition strategy and know in advance what works for you.
5.      Know that an Ultra is almost entirely a mind game, won and lost in your head.
6.      Anything can happen on an Ultra. Stick to your race plan and KEEP GOING!
7.      Sunrise will happen! Hang on in there.
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