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Within the UTMB - Part II : Leaving Chamonix

09 Mar 2010 08:00
Jean-Loup Fenaux

This is the second part of Laurent Thézé’s report of this participation in the North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® 2009.

Start at Chamonix

Bang! We’re off!

Umm, we’re not off. Or rather, they’re probably off at the front, we can hear shouting, but we’re not moving. Little by little we move towards the arch. It takes 1’14” to reach the start line.

We still can’t run, it’s really jammed, but on the fun side, it’s crazy, there’s spectators packed along the side, runners in between, I even see people crying. We go through Chamonix carried along by this remarkable wave of energy which we soak up in preparation for the hours of solitude to come.

We can only start running after seven minutes, just before we leave Chamonix. Despite the crowd, the four of us stay in sight of each other, and head off together as planned, at an easy 10-11 km/h pace.

UTMB 2008 - Start
Credit : akunamatata

From Chamonix to Houches

The road from Chamonix drops a little, then we reach the Gaillands climb where supporters have gathered. I wave to Koline, whom I met last winter at an UFO off-road and then at Grand Raid in Mercantour.

Now we’re on the valley road to Houches, with several ups and downs. This part of the course is easy, and since we’re fresh we want to pick it up . . . but we want to stay relaxed, and there’s still a lot of runners so we don’t try to pass. We go through Eaux-Rousses in 47 minutes, come back to the highway and bridge up to Houches, still with lots of spectators.

At Houches, before the nutrition post I put on my mittens, take out and unfold my walking sticks in preparation for the climb to the Voza pass ahead. I haven’t used them this far because they would have been a hazard with so many runners around.

We see Gilles A. who tells us we are making good time, which is to say, congratulating us on not going too fast. Then Clarisse, and Gilles changes his shirt with his personal assistant . . . Damien, Jan and I head to the nutrition post.

There is a crowd. I just have a cup of water. Gilles rejoins us and we set off again. Stop time: 31 seconds.

Les Houches Friday 19:30 – altitude 1012m Since Chamonix : D+123m / D-146m / 8 km in 1:00:21

Climb to Voza pass and on to La Charme checkpoint

We’re headed to our first trial—just an aperitif!

Jan falls back, we don’t see him again. We watch our heart rate so it doesn’t go over 80% max heart rate, 85% at the outside. This part of the race is always fun: we are on the road and the starting tension is gone, we meet the first challenge and we just feel good, the countryside is gorgeous, with night falling—it’s ecstasy! Gilles chats with everybody. We pass houses, lots of spectators. We make it to the top without pushing it—great. We’re sweating, however, and we can head off at an easy pace.

Checkpoint, no problem; it’s just a mat. I was worried because last year, the marshals used a manual scanner on the race bib, which caused a major tie-up.

La Charme Friday 20:34 – altitude 1799m Since nutrition post at Les Houches : D+808m / D-21m / 6.9 km in 1:03:23 Since Chamonix : D+931m / D-167m / 14.9 km in 2:04:16

Descent to Saint Gervais

We start running again, this time on trails and it starts to get dark. There are unauthorized refreshments offered as we pass chalets, nice, but we keep going. A steep climb up the ski slopes, still lots of crowds, we stick together, feeling good, faster on the descents and we pass on the hills.

Night falls, but I don’t turn on the headlamp for most of the descent because of the crowd of runners around me who light up the trail. I don’t have any water left on the descent, I drank more than planned because of the higher temperature; this is a good sign for my hydration and I can last for the several minutes to the bottom.

Some steep parts, a last section on the road and we are at Saint Gervais, with lots of spectators and in high spirits. It’s a real party here; I high-five kids as I go by.

St Gervais Friday 21:30 – altitude 807m Since nutrition post at La Charme : D+6m / D-998m / 6.1 km in 0:55:56 Since Chamonix : D+937m / D-1165m / 21.0 km in 3:00:12

Gilles suggests we meet at the far end of the nutrition zone. First refill of water pouch, with bag of powder; it takes, as planned, about 3 minutes. Then refreshed, I top up my liquid intake with a glass of water and a banana which I chew carefully to help it digest. As I move ahead I see mini-bowls of soup; I’m tempted, I try to drink quickly but it’s hot and Damien and Gilles leave without me. Stop time is 3’55”.

UTMB 2008 - Saint-Gervais
Credit : akunamatata

Leaving, I see Francoise on my right—what a nice surprise!. I’m surprised to see her here because I thought she had left in the morning, but I’m really pleased and flattered to have a personal supporter! Francoise tells me I’m in the first 1000, but I don’t know where I did that, probably at Houches. She will tell me later that I still seem fresh. We run together for a moment on each side of the fencing.

Saint Gervais Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien F-21:30 21:30 3:00:21 1052
Gilles F-21:30 21:30 3:00:24 1053
Laurent F-21:30 21:30 3:00:09 1043

From Saint Gervais to Contamines

I don’t want to be dropped so I catch up to Gilles and Damien as we leave Saint Gervais, near the bridge which crosses the highway, erected for the race, with its flight of stairs. Leaving the town, at the start of the trails, a marshal redirects me because I was heading towards the houses. Gilles was following me ;-)

Damien moves ahead, I use a short downhill to pick up speed without straining, which lets me catch up and I try to stay with him or close behind. Gilles is still behind us. There’s still lots of crowds, the pace is steady, without overdoing it, I watch my heart rate. At one point I tell Damien the pace is faster than I would like, keeping in mind I need to save something for the second half of the race, and he slows down to where I like.

I recognize all the sections of the race, this turn and that climb, I know what’s next, which is reassuring and good to know. This part goes well and seems shorter than last year, which I attribute to being fresh, not having pushed it so far. The final zigzags up to Les Contamines surprises me because it is so soon. Runners are coming single file, but the pace is good, not too fast or too slow. More spectators on the road up to the nutrition post. It still seems like a big party.

Les Contamines Friday 23:05 – altitude 1160m Since nutrition post at St. Gervais : D+516m / D-163m / 9.9 km in 1:30:58 Since Chamonix : D+1453m / D-1328m / 30.9 km in 4:35:04

At the nutrition post at Contamines, as I planned, I don’t fill my water bag. I take the opportunity to have several bowls of soup. We leave with Damien. Stop time: 2’25”.

Les Contamines Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien F-23:04 4:34:47 867
Gilles F-23:10 4:40:15 988
Laurent F-23:04 4:34:47 867

On to Notre-Dame de la Gorge and climb to La Balme shelter

Damien and I move along easily, running through Les Contamines on the highway and then on to the side roads after crossing the tennis club.

The pack of runners has thinned. On this section we alternate running and walking; I notice that Damien is matching my pace. This pace seems more effective, to keep in shape for the climb ahead; besides we catch other runners and are hardly ever passed. Still lots of spectators when we cross the highway, and groups along the road. It’s still evening and we are in the valley.

We come to Notre-Dame de la Gorge, with its large chapel on the right. It’s odd because we pass beside the chapel, but I remember leaving a hundred metres on our right, on the other side of the creek.

I don’t think about it for long, because after going through this area lit by torches and enlivened by numerous spectators, we begin the climb on the Roman road, the start of the fun climbing to the Bonhomme pass and the Croix du Bonhomme. It is steep, stony, and lots of groups coming down. We reach the Roman bridge and from afar hear the music and racket as we approach Nant Borrant. As we pass the chalet, the crowd is lively and tipsy as they line the trail.

The climb continues. Damien has no memory of the food stop at la Balme, nor the long flat just before, and I know we are in a pasture which we can’t see. We can see the glow of the nutrition post lights, and head to the garlands of lights which frame the trail.

Refuge de La Balme Saturday 00:28 – altitude 1706m Since nutrition post at Les Contamines : D+556m / D-10m / 8.0 km in 1:20:20 Since Chamonix : D+2009m / D-1338m / 38.9 km in 5:57:49

La Balme Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-00:36 6:06:53 709
Gilles S-00:41 6:11:08 752
Laurent S-00:36 6:06:54 710

I follow my plan and refill my water bag and powder. I’ve run out; I’m on the nose for planning. I have 4 mini-bowls of soup, but I skip some which are too salty. It’s cooling off so I put my vest over my long-sleeved t-shirt. Stop time: 9’14”

Climb to Bonhomme pass and to the pass and shelter at Croix du Bonhomme

After the shelter, I shine my headlamp on some signs and see the marker to the La Fenêtre pass. It’s the trail we were supposed to take in the Tour du Beaufortain in July, stopped because of poor weather conditions.

And quickly conditions worsen and I slow down. Gilles joins us, surprised to have caught up. I am passed and then dropped by Gilles and Damien. Runners line up behind me and I move to the side to let them pass. I am feeling weak. It’s too early in the race to bonk! But I have to deal with it. I hang on, hoping to get over it. And then slowly, I reach Plan Jovet, the ladies’ plan and finally the pass. Visibility is poor, we arrive in clouds.

It’s not over! I follow the mountain pass to Croix du Bonhomme. I am still feeling weak despite the easier slope. I go over the pass, with its Tibetan flags invisible in the darkness and drop down the several metres to the shelter.

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme Saturday 2:17 – altitude 2433m Since nutrition post at La Balme : D+773m / D-46m / 5.5 km in 1:40:06 Since Chamonix : D+2782m / D-1384m /44.4 km in 7:47:09

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-02:09 7:39:40 693
Gilles S-02:09 7:39:40 693
Laurent S-02:17 7:47:04 729

Descent to Les Chapieux

I get out my second headlamp, which I usually wear on my waist to light my feet, useful when going downhill in the fog. But the lamp opens, the batteries fall out and I can only find one. I swear, but I have to do without.

The fog is heavy, vision is poor and the start is difficult. Fortunately I know the trail but it’s still tricky. I’m feeling a bit better, or rather my weakness does not bother me as much going down. However, I slip on rocks, two little falls, and a harder one on rocks; I hurt my arm a bit. I try to follow a guy going fast, but can’t catch him. There are lots of trails and you have to pick the right one, and it’s hard to see. Finally I tuck in behind a guy who is moving steadily, but I can follow, at first with difficulty but I hang on and it gets better. By following him I avoid losing time finding where to go and he lights up the trail ahead. On my end, I help him by lighting around his feet. We head down like that to the chalets at Raja.

There the fog thins and the trails widen. I’m definitely feeling better, the downhill has allowed me to recover and I run well, passing many runners all the way down and finish strong at Chapieux.

Les Chapieux Saturday 03:03 – altitude 1549m Since nutrition post at Croix du Bonhomme shelter : D+0m / D-884m / 5.4 km in 0:46:18 Since Chamonix : D+2782m / D-2268m / 49.8 km in 8:33:27

Les Chapieux Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-03h00 03:08 8:30:04 649
Gilles S-03h00 03:08 8:30:49 660
Laurent S-03h02 03:11 8:32:55 684

At the nutrition post I refill my bag with water and powder; it’s not empty, I didn’t drink it all this time. I don’t want any more soup because I think I had too much at La Balme and it affected me when climbing the pass. I have some banana and I don’t know what else, but not much. Stop time: 7’43.

Climb to Ville des Glaciers then to Mottets shelter

I start off behind some guys who begin running when we leave the houses, and I let them go because I don’t feel like running on this part of the course, a slight uphill. I settle into my rhythm, walking quickly, leaning on my poles. I try not to bang them too much on the pavement so I can enjoy the quiet night. The night is cold, I am alone. I pass one or two runners. The trail goes down after a left turn, crossing the creek splashing down from the glacier on the left, and goes back up to Ville des Glaciers, deserted. I catch up to two guys and run on the short downhill which rejoins the road.

I resume my solitary walk, the road is easy. Now I feel better. I see lights ahead which show the road above to the Seigne pass. I scarcely notice the Mottets shelter as the climb becomes steeper and I attack the col.

Climb to Seigne pass

On the climb I meet Gilles and Damien. First I see Gilles and he says Damien is just ahead. I’m pleased but amazed to have caught up. The slope is steep, the trail is wide in a series of zigzags. Now if I look back I can see a line of lights climbing the steep valley from Les Chapieux. Ahead of me and Gilles, Damien stops and throws up. Yikes, what happened? It lasts over a minute. We head off, but he’s not doing well. Is it fated for one of us to be sick on the climb of each major pass?

The road becomes a trail, crossing to the left, then climbs again slowly, splitting into multiple ravines. I go ahead and catch up to several runners. Now in higher elevation we are in clouds again with visibility dropping, as well as the temperature.

UTMB 2008 - Col de la Seigne
Credit : akunamatata

The col is waiting, but I finally make out the checkpoint light, hazy in the fog. I enter the volunteers’ tent, where a guy who was with me at the end of the climb is taking shelter. The marshal waves his wand over my number and I ask him my rank. I wait for Gilles and Damien; it’s windy and really cold, but on the climb I covered up with my windbreaker with the hood, and pulled my woolen gloves over my mitts. I can stand the cold as long as I don’t stop for too long.

Gilles and Damien soon meet me, and we head off.

Col de la Seigne Saturday 05:24 – altitude 2516m Since nutrition post at Les Chapieux : D+1001m / D-34m / 10.3 km in 2:12:26 Since Chamonix : D+3783m / D-2302m / 60.1 km in 10:53:36

Col de la Seigne Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-05:25 10:55:05 637
Gilles S-05:25 10:55:50 638
Laurent S-05:24 10:53:39 634

Within the North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® 2009 :