Now if your looking forward to reading an uplifting made it through till the end post for some motivation. Stop reading.
However if you revel in others pain and disappointment please read on.
How did I get myself into this? a question I continued to ask even after the race start. Originally I entered the OCC (53K) the wee event. I knew after the Laveredo in 2014 putting myself through the rigours of over 7000m climbing and the challenges that brings was not exactly something I wanted to do, but as it came to be I did not get into my preferred race. Because I had enough points I was offered the 'opportunity' to enter the TDS. With a 48hr time limit on the offer I mulled it over, talked to Bryan, mulled some more and was struck down with the sickness known to many as 'fear of missing out'. This sickness is not to be taken lightly as it takes over the minds of normally sane (it's relative) people.
Training for this race was a bit hit and miss. The French Alps are pretty extreme and as I had done a similar distance/height in the Dolomites I did have an idea of what I was going up against. Training was bad, motivation was nil since I got injured in December, started rehab in March and basically made it up a I went along trying to mirror my previous years training that got me through the Dolomites. The few races I did this year were pretty telling in that every race, I was running with the sweepers. My fitness per mile on Garmin seemed fine. My fitness in race reality was awful.
So with this at the back of my mind I continued onwards anyway. Training as best I could, getting my gear together and booking our holiday. We arrived in Chamonix 8 days before the race.
I wanted to try and acclimatise to conditions and avoid the sickness I had suffered last year. We hiked a few days up some pretty impressive trails with equally impressive heights and views. Glacier de Bossons and Aiguille du Midi were absolutely stunning, The trails to both started at the rear of the chalet which was very handy at the end of a hard day.
Race day was getting closer and more random Scottish punters were arriving. Sunday evening we went out for something to eat, met Ash and Richard in The Jekyll and Hyde. Lots of running chat and lots of beer. This was my first mistake. I had a terrible reaction to the beer (bad pint obviously). Two days later and I'm still off colour! I don't tend to do hangovers so this was not nice at all. Standing in the queue for registration in the heat on Tuesday afternoon was horrid. Took us ages to even find the sports centre, not a single sign, I guess you are just supposed to know! The registration is slow, very slow as they check a random list of every single persons mandatory items. I think it was 7 and it was like airport control where you put required items on a tray an move along for the inspection. Given the numbers of people and the scrutiny of gear it was pretty well run. A wee wrist band was put on and a timing tag on your rucksack. Numbers in an envelope and your drop bags within a bag. All becoming very real and very scary.
My cut number and wrist band :-(
Tuesday night I stuck with my usual pre race food of pizza and a beer. My stomach was feeling slightly better but my beer was just out of ritual more than want and did not go down well. How I battle through!
I had set the alarm for 5am on Tuesday so that I could have an early bed. It worked, I was shattered and was in bed and asleep just after 9pm. I enjoyed a rare decent sleep before a race but woke just before 3. I had my alarm set for 3:15 so decided I'd just get up and have a more gentle start to the day. Breakfast eaten, lubed up, race gear on. The weather was threatening to be hot. Sun cream in my bag, Sunglasses on my head. We set off at 3:55 to get the bus at 4:30.
En route a car stopped and a women shouts, bus?? we say yes.. jump in then. Wow, we got to lift to the start by random French folk. The broken English conversation was pretty funny.
There was no queue for the buses but we still had to walk up to and round a lot of barriers just to emerge at the point of joining to cross the road and into a very short well ordered line for the bus.It seemed senseless but hey, these organisers... organise to military precision and it seems a lot of common sense and understanding goes out the window with an organisers T-shirt.
We had booked a bus for 4:30 and Bryan had bought his day ticket for the Road to Hell day trip.
No one checked our names against bus times booked so we just jumped on. A wee trip through the Mont Blanc tunnel and we soon arrived in Courmayeur. The excitement was building and we followed like sheep through the small town till we reached the start area. Again everything ran smoothly. The incidental great thing about running a race dominated by men... no queue at the ladies .. hell yeah!! The men's loo was out the door.. sweet revenge!
As the start loomed it was still dark, Crap, wardrobe malfunction already! Into my wee race bag which felt it had a sack of tatties attached and I found my buff and head torch.. sorted. Bryan kept my drop bag as he was going to meet me where possible and have some goodies available at our first allowed assistance point of Bourg Saint Maurice, 50k into the race.
The countdown begins, I can count to 10 in French no problem, not quite as simple backwards though :-) but I got the jist of it! Off we go. I walk. 1 min 54 secs I cross the line. I walk. It was just a huge amount of fun and noise and cow bells and camera flashes. We were soon running, it was light enough to run without a torch.. damn.
The pace through Courmayeur was not intense and I was jogging comfortably. No sign of what was to come, thankfully as I would just have turned back! We quickly hit a tarmac'd uphill, yep I thought, here we go. Soon turning to rocky fire path and as far as you could see, snakes of people way up ahead rocking it whilst I stumbled at the back wondering why I was blowing out my butt already.
I stopped to redo the wardrobe, torch in bag, visor and sunglasses back on head, my bag was still feeling way too heavy and my back was straining already. My nice new shiny Black Diamond light as a feather walking poles were getting a pure beating. The hill kept going and we passed through the first small water/toilet station with about 1320 meters of climbing done. I could see everyone stopped in a queue on the hill so decided I'd take the opportunity to use the loo. Good choice, the ascent was very slow due to it being a single track and the sun was coming out.
Amazing views as the sun came up
After an up, there must be a down, technical and twisty and in a queue. I told myself this was ok as it saved me trashing my legs too soon. Plenty hours and hills ahead where there would be plenty space for us all. We hit the flat and I could see the first food checkpoint. This was also a cut off. I ran almost all the fire road to get there in time. Just, 20 mins I think. I had some noodle soup and bread, refilled my water bottles and left quickly. Shortly after rejoining the queue for the next hill I heard a horn blowing and I assume it was a warning the checkpoint was closing.
This was a long hill, it was a slow hill and I was loosing all my puff, struggling to breath, sweating like I was in an overheated sauna but feeling cold. I still had my arm warmers on and the slight breeze that was blowing was making me nip. All around folk were shedding clothes and moaning about the heat.. I felt so left out of this party! I topped out eventually 1962 meters gained. When you are in a line going up, there is no stopping for a breather, it is just keep going no matter and hope you make it. I was delighted to see a water station at this point but even more delight to see Victoria O'Reilly who had been in the long line.
We decided to run together, being able to talk to someone was amazing!! We set off playing, as someone put it.. checkpoint chicken. We had a long downhill into a stunning valley. We jogged what we could to give us a chance against the foreboding checkpoints. The heat was getting intense in the valley and I was glad to at last join the party.
At the bottom before our climb to Col du Petite St- Bernard
By this point all the queuing was over, we had space to just keep going. Another long meandering climb into the checkpoint 2602 meters climbed. Bryan was waiting there. He was not allowed to give assistance but I could chat to him over the tape!! We got food/drink/loo etc, I left to speak with Bryan and Vic was a few minutes behind. I had got cold yet again and decided to put my T shirt back over my vest, I started walking out waiting on Vic. It seemed strange to me but I completely did not want to go on alone. I almost had a feeling of dread at the thought of going into the night (when it came) on my own!! I stopped walking!
We were now about 30 mins inside the checkpoint cut off. Off we plodded, 14 km with a approx 3 hours to get to Bourg Saint-Maurice. This was mainly a downhill section and we managed fine for most of it. Vic is not so good with the rocky technical downhill, almost like Bambi on ice ;-) Suddenly the cut off was getting close and we were still a good bit out. We stopped relying n the Garmin km to the race km as one of them was def out of sync. We were soon racing downhill into town to make the 5pm cut off. I had pulled a bit ahead of Vic getting there about 16:45 and Vic coming in about 16:50. We were allowed assistance at this point and Bryan and Marianne got to work getting food and clean clothes sorted. Then at 16:55 without the food even leaving our hands we were told the checkpoint was closing in 5 mins and if we wanted to continue we would have to leave now as there was a kit check when exiting the point.
Disbelief lead to mad panic, there was lots of folk going through the Abandon tent, we were asked if we were sure we wanted to continue. Our next stop was 1100 meters uphill and even though 3 hours sounds plenty time... you never know till you go. Vic tried to get her water refilled to be told she could do it at the next checkpoint.. re read last sentence. This lack of understanding was shocking. They mailed us about having extra water, they questioned us about being fit enough for the climb yet they tried to put a runner out without water so they were not late closing a point!! What was annoying was it was a public tap which they had cordoned into their checkpoint!!
We left the checkpoint a bit rattled with not enough time to feel satisfied we had done what we needed to make the next checkpoint. Can't go back so forward it was. We were very quickly into the climb, and it was amazing, meandering single track through forest and hillside. We were making plans for the next checkpoint and beyond.
Then it happened. One minute I'm feeling fine, blethering away, plodding slowly upwards but all is good. Then a switch was pressed. I felt dizzy, told Vicky I'd have to sit down, my HR was racing and I duly lost all the food and water I had taken on at the checkpoint. I've not had such projectile vomiting since my last bout of what appears to be 'mountain sickness'. As always it is case of, yep feel better for that, lets go. I soon realised I was kidding myself. I had no energy and I was simply running out of puff requiring to sit down, let my HR settle, stomach settle, light head settle before making another effort. I told Vic to go on but she wouldn't. Not when your in 'that nic' .. cheers ;-) We were soon caught by others, including the sweepers .. oh wtf? No way. We kept going passing the dead and dying and lucky for us the sweepers had to pick them up.. reprieve.
I was still well out of sorts but we were getting there, I insisted Vic went on so that she wasn't timed out. No point the two of us being disappointed and I was not enjoying holding her back. She told she would wait at the checkpoint to see if I made it through, if not she would go on. I had met a French guy on and off throughout the last 20k. He now passed me as I chucked my poles away in disgust and sat down yet again. He was trying to get me to follow him, now, come, we sprint. Oh ok I might as well eh. I got up and plodded after him.
We soon topped out and he sprints to the checkpoint table. I follow and get my number scanned, I'm still in :D he then gets his number cut and says I have 2, and waves in my direction to bring me towards the marshals, I'm pretty confused and asking for Aqua in bloody France!! They then try to cut my number, I'm, non non continue continue. Then this complete stranger has huge rant in French with broken English about out in hills alone. Sorry pal, but where I come from we do not pull form races if we can go forward.
I'm out the checkpoint as quick as possible, no food just a water refill. I couldn't eat anyway. I did have gels and jellies in my bag. I had managed to keep a gel down since being sick so I was ok.
Vic was waiting 100m up the hill, trying to call Marianne. I join her then walked on but things are getting a bit much. I'm ill, I know I'm ill, I have 4 hours to cover 10K to the next checkpoint. My mind crashes and I tell Vic I am turning back. I can't go another 10k in these mountains in this state. She reckons I'm doing the right thing so I turn back, walk 20mtrs. Nope, if I can walk back I can still walk forward. I catch Vic, she is on the phone, I decide I'm keeping going and walk ahead. Then I get dizzy and nauseated, I'm hanging over my poles for balance.. oh F this, I'm through. So I tell Vic again I'm going back, 10mtrs this time, no can't do it. I'll just keep going :-) Hhmmm, pattern emerging here, within 2 minutes I can't see beyond the hopelessness I'm feeling and I don't want to hold Vic back anymore. I make that decision.. again. See you at the other side, take care and I'm away, stumbling down the hill towards the checkpoint I have just left.
I stared ahead at the tent, the lights were now on and I was hoping to get back before needing my torch. Oh, yeah, who an I kidding, there is not a hope in hell I am walking back down that hill into the checkpoint, and anyway, Bryan is still at the next checkpoint waiting for me, me stopping here would blow our logistics to pot. I pull out my jacket, buff and torch. I tuck the jacket into the bungy straps for easy access, stick my buff and head torch on. I turn around and move forward. It's only 10k, I mean how hard can it be... remind me to never listen to the wee voices in my head again!!
Onwards I plodded, passing people, sipping water and keeping it down. I even managed a couple of jellie sweets. I was stopping and starting, it was hard, it was dark and I was crawling round the side of a gully. My torch only showed me darkness where the path at my side disappeared. I could hear water roaring somewhere. I found this quite exciting and it gave me a boost of adrenaline. I eventually reached Passeur de Pralognan where they had a first aid box and quite a few medics. Turns out this is where we have to sclimb down the rocks hanging onto ropes. I try to march past the medics, giving a smile and a squeak of fine thanks. Then duly fell down the first bloody step. I got tugged up and made to have a break. Lots of questions, dizzy? eaten? when? drink? etc etc. I mostly told the truth and they gave me a sugar sachet. Don't swallow, just put the sugar under the tongue and let it dissolve into the blood stream, bypassing the dodgy stomach.
I was allowed to continue on my own. There were guys leading you down the worst of the roped section, then you were on your own. There was 2 females in front of me making a much better go of it than me!! After the mega steep bit it was so slippy, mud on rocks and small stones just rolling me along. I took a few tumbles, one hurting my elbow pretty badly. Oh FFS!!. I checked my watch, I could see head torches miles ahead snaking up yet another hill. I wasn't timed out yet but soon would be and I was still at least 2 very hard miles away from the checkpoint.
Seeing the distance I still had to go, the conditions under foot, the hills still to climb, self pity came calling. Mind games again. I quickly kicked it out. I mean I entered, I paid, I trained. This was all my own doing and I was going to enjoy it, no matter what. I took my rucksack off, with everything wet with sweat it was now mega heavy or maybe I was just getting weaker. I just lay down on a rock and stared at the stars. It was an amazing clear night with a huge bright moon. My mood lifted and I soon got up and got myself sorted for the final push to the checkpoint. My stomach had settled to just nausea and my head and HR seemed back to normal. My legs though were truly gubbed.
Then I got lost !! well I wasn't really, it was just that I could not see any markers on the fire road, so after 2 corners and no flags I turned back. I got back to the river crossing where the last flag was turned and started walking back the way I came making sure I had not missed a flag. There were more torches coming down the hill so I knew even if I couldn't find the path this time I could at least come back to them. There was no other flags I had missed so I just continued on the fire path. Eventually I came across a flag. I relaxed a bit, I could also see torches heading uphill.
My race was almost over it was 0015 and I still had a bit to go. I wasn't too disappointed at that moment. Maybe because I was so tired. I then heard a vehicle at my back. The Medics were taking the folks from the first aid station to the checkpoint. He stopped and asked if I was ok. I was and I was walking well. His car was full but asked if I wanted him to return for me. I said yes please. The sudden happiness knowing I didn't have to crawl up that last hill to the checkpoint was a great feeling. I was soon sitting in a warm 4x4 with a really nice French Anton Krupicka lookalike :-)
Thankfully when I got to the checkpoint the bus was still there and Bryan was still on it! Sadly Vic was also on it. She made it into the CP with 1 min to go but no time to gather breath/food or water.
Final checkpoint 3841 meters climbed
And that as they say is that.
A huge thank you to Bryan for your support all through training and the race.
And Victoria who stayed with me when I was so sick. I am so sorry it was to the detriment of your own race.
Huge congratulations to those who finished their chosen race. You are all legends. Commiserations to those who like myself did not come home with a Gilet. Disappointed but no doubt determined to have another go.
Also all those random mental Scots and honorary English/Indian folks, who cheered supported listened and made it such a great event. I had decided as this was probably the hardest race/effort I have ever had to make that I would not be putting my name in the hat for next year. Suddenly I feel beaten and I hate being beaten.. it would seem sleeping at altitude is the way to go .....