Within the UTMB - Part III : Italy

10 Mar 2010 08:00
Jean-Loup Fenaux
Focus on a race

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

Descent to Lac Combal

We are now in Italy.

I lead in the steep downhill, where I feel I am able to run despite the poor visibility. Damien follows, but not as quickly, and I stop a number of times to wait for him. One runner passes us. Gilles is last but passes Damien and catches up to tell me he’s not doing well. We lead off.

The fog isn’t as thick at the summit as on the Croix du Bonhomme pass, and lifts quickly as we go down. Daylight begins to penetrate the clouds and the countryside is more and more visible.

UTMB 2008 - En descendant du Col de la Seigne
Credit : akunamatata

After the steep downhill, we run for a while on roads until the Elisabetta shelter, then to the right on a rocky slope where I catch up to two girls whom I passed at the end of the descent to Les Chapiex. We reach the flats of Lake Combal where we cross several creeks to the nutrition post.

Lac Combal Saturday 06:13 – altitude 1970m Since nutrition post at Col de la Seigne : D+0m D-546m, 4.5 km in 0:49:11 Since Chamonix : D+3783m / D-2848m / 64.6 km in 11:42:47

Lac Combal Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-06:18 11:48:34 681
Gilles S-06:14 11:44:04 658
Laurent S-06:12 11:42:44 657

At the nutrition post I eat and drink a little. I’m a little shaky and sit down on a bench for a moment. It’s still cold and I stay covered up. I don’t fill my bag with water or powder, which I had planned to do, for the first time since the start. It’s sign that I’m not eating or drinking properly and my thinking isn’t the best.

Gilles joins me. I take out my timetable, I’m almost an hour behind on my-36 hour goal, and a little over one and a half hours behind on my 34 hour plan, but it’s not so bad. Damian finally arrives, he’s not feeling well and is going to stay for the moment because he doesn’t feel like continuing as he is. So it’s just Gilles and me who head off. Stop time: 9’19”

Climb to the crest of Mont Favre

I quickly notice I left my water bag and since I will need it at all of the other nutrition posts, I go back and find it on the bench where I left it . . . my thinking is obviously not too clear.

Gilles is running easily ahead, I run to catch up. It’s more or less daylight and we are on the level section of Lake Combal, below the Miage glacier moraine which runs down the Italian side of Mont Blanc. There are a few runners around us, about every 100 metres. It’s now daylight but I haven’t bothered to take off my headlamp since my stop, another sign of fatigue.

Soon we reach where the trail splits, to go right to the climb to the crest of Mont Favre. As I run I feel that the climb will be hard! And it is hard, and I go slowly. The climb seems endless, but again I tell myself to be patient and get over it. I pass the first abandoned chalet in Arp, then the second with a herd of cows and the cowherd.

UTMB 2008 - Mont Favre
Credit : akunamatata

The weather is good. I take in the magnificent view of Mont Blanc from the Italian side. Compared to my first time here, hiking in 2004, the Miage glacier has melted enormously and is a lot higher, and the lake which was encircled by ice is now a moraine lake.

Gilles leads by twenty metres and I speed up so I won’t get behind. It’s hard for him too. On the ridges we can’t pick up the pace and we are passed by several groups. Finally, the last ledge and we are on the crest.

Mont Favre crest Saturday 07:26 – altitude 2435m Since nutrition post at Lac Combal : D+465m D-0m, 4.0 km, 1:04:04 Since Chamonix : D+4248m D-2848m, 68.6 km, 12:56:10

Mont-Favre crest Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-08:00 13:30:53 856
Gilles S-07:25 12:55:42 640
Laurent S-07:26 12:56:27 642

Descent to Chécrouit pass and Maison Vieille shelter

After crossing the crest I hope things will go better. We run a little but the start is still difficult and our pace is so-so. After a moment I warn Gilles that I want to take a break. I undress, I still have my nighttime clothes and it’s starting to warm up, so I take off my hooded jacket and my vest, as well as my headlamp, just keeping my long-sleeved shirt. Since I still feel weak on the downhill; I snack on some sesame crackers.

We head off after this welcome break. We run smoothly, I’m still behind Gilles on the downhills and levels, we are still being passed but little by little it gets better. I think I was really dumb to wait so long before eating and taking off the clothing which was bothering me. Another sign of fatigue. Then on the ski slopes I slowly pick up speed on the downhills, leaving Gilles behind, catch up and pass all the runners I saw before and zoom into ter Checrouit feeding area. Obviously the downhills are better than the climbs: sign of not enough nourishment?

Col Chécrouit Saturday 08:07 – altitude 1953m Since nutrition post at Mont Favre Crest : D+25m / D-507m / 4.4 km in 40’53 Since Chamonix : D+4273m / D-3355m / 73.0 km in 13:37:03

Col Chécrouit Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-09:16 14:46:19 1084
Gilles S-08:08 13:38:17 665
Laurent S-08:h06 13:37:02 657

I have my picture taken jumping around as I arrive at the shelter. I hadn’t planned to refill my water bag. I eat and drink a bit. Gilles joins me and says he was wondering if I was making fun of him when I said I had trouble climbing. No, the bounce came back on the downhill after the snack. We sit and enjoy the wonderful view and head off. Stop time: 3”38”

Descent to Courmayeur

Easy start on trails through green slopes which in winter are ski slopes down to Courmayeur. Then the route changes from two years ago, we stay to the left of the ski runs instead of going on the right.

The downhill has energized me, I feel great and want to take off. So I go, leaving Gilles behind and have fun. There aren’t many runners, but I pass, again and again. This broken descent may be hard for others, but I’m feeling great! With the regular training on the stairs at La Defense, my quads take the strain without complaining. I wonder if I will pay for it later, but this is too good to miss, it’s for moments like this that I’m here.

Below, a group of spectators, I’m proud to zip past; I pass another runner and keep running along the side of the road down to Dolonne. I run on the streets, cross the village on the main street and still running, enter the sports center, first major stage of this race.

Dolonne Sports Center (Courmayeur) Saturday 08:42 – altitude 1190m Since nutrition post at Col Chécrouit : D+0m / D-763m / 4.5 km in 0:31:09 Since Chamonix : D+4273m / D-4118m / 77.5 km in 14:11:50

Dolonne Sports Center(Courmayeur) Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-10:01 10h30 15:31:40 1053
Gilles S-08:48 08h49 14:18:30 637
Laurent S-08:43 09h16 14:13:19 624

Stop at Courmayeur

I pick up my bag, which the volunteer had trouble finding. I enter the sports centre, climb a few steps and sit down in the first space where other runners are sitting on the floor. I take off my shoes, change socks but nothing else. The temperature is still relatively cool and my long-sleeve t-shirt breathes well and I think it works well for me. I take my second bag of powder and leave the unused bag.

I look at my timetable: 52 minutes behind on my 36-hour goal, 1:38 on the 34-hour. It hasn’t changed since Lake Combal; my downhill speed made up for the slow climbs. 1:51 behind 2007, but only 7 minutes on 2008. Not too bad.

I go to the food tables, take out my water bag with the prepared powder. I don’t feel like eating anything. There’s only a plate of pasta, and it’s all gone, we have to wait for some more to come. I don’t feel like waiting, and soup is out of the question after the problems at La Balme. So I go out and drop off my bag with the volunteer without eating or sitting at a table, with some regrets and doubts just the same. I stopped for 34’56”, reasonable, but a little long seeing as I hadn’t eaten anything.

Outside I meet Clarisse who tells me that Gilles is nearby, busy eating and changing. Gilles hadn’t dropped his bag off and didn’t even go into the building. I don’t mind waiting, I’m a social animal and I don’t want to start off on my own, it’s always better to leave with a group than solo. But Gilles takes his time since looking at his time he has given up trying for a PB. I think it’s a waste to have worked hard on the downhill and spend this time waiting, but at least I’m enjoying myself.

Second stop 20’24”, for a total of 55’20”

Crossing Courmayeur and climb to Bertone shelter

There, we’re off. We cross the bridge back through Courmayeur, climbing several steps to the downtown where people ignore us or give us strange looks, and take the main street where I started the Gran Trail Valdigne two years ago. We have an easy start walking, and are passed and left behind as we come to the houses and then the chalets to reach the trails.

The following climb is steep and hard, I can’t catch up to the other racers who slowly move ahead. One woman stays behind me without passing all the way to the top. Italian hikers go up the trail and slowly leave me behind, which my arrogance tells me is a sign of my infamous inability… Gilles is still some distance behind; he seems to be feeling worse than me, if that’s possible.

Bertone Shelter Saturday 11:00 – altitude 1989m Since nutrition post at Dolonne : DD+814m D-15m, 4.9 km, 1:22:54 Since Chamonix : D+5087m D-4133m, 82.4 km, 16:30:04

Bertone Shelter Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-11:52 17:22:06 838
Gilles S-11:03 16:33:39 625
Laurent S-10:59 16:30:01 614

At the nutrition post, I don’t feel bad, it’s warm, I drink a bit and doze in the shade, soon joined by Gilles. An Italian volunteer asks me twice if I am OK, I tell him sure, I’m fine. I don’t fill up my water pouch with water or powder, which I’ve barely drunk despite the heat. Stop time: 12’08”

Crossing the ridge to Bonatti shelter

We leave with Gilles. It’s not easy.

The ridge is gorgeous with the view of Mont Blanc, the Giant’s Tooth and the Grandes Jorasses. It is a section I would like to run after having walked it the last two races. But it’s not to be this time. I can’t run at all or even walk quickly. Gilles, ahead of me, doesn’t argue. We make our way slowly in this magnificent place and beautiful weather. Of course others catch up, follow for a bit and then pass since we don’t show any sign of matching their pace.

Since I feel this way, I worry about the climbs ahead, I don’t want to even think about Grand Col Ferret; every little hill scares me and I am apprehensive about the little ledge which leads to the Bonatti shelter. Our slow progress nevertheless brings us below the shelter and I work up the willpower to go ahead and climb the final metres with less difficulty than expected.

Bonatti Shelter Saturday 12:39 – altitude 2020m Since nutrition post at Dolonne : D+385m / D-354m / 7.5 km in 1:26:57 Since Chamonix : D+5472m / D-4487m / 89.9 km in 18:09:10

Bonatti Shelter Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-13:33 19:03:53 849
Gilles S-12:39 18:09:05 630
Laurent S-12:39 18:09:11 632

We sign in at the checkpoint and ask our positions: in the 600’s. We don’t feel great and our morale is low. Checking my timetable doesn’t make us feel better, since we seem to be behind an irreparable 1:25 on a 36 hour time and 2:21 on 34! Gilles talks of stopping, without conviction, but I want to finish whatever the time, and I bring out my back-up plan: instead of finishing in the middle of the night, alone, we will arrive in the morning to the cheers of the crowds. Stop time: 9’32”

Traverse and descent to Arnuva

I have trouble keeping up on the traverse. We see ahead and above us the Grand Col Ferret which we must pass after having gone back down into the valley. It is wrapped in clouds for moments, it must be windy up there! Above the descent to Arnuva, Gilles says he doesn’t want to run, but sets off anyway.

We reach the nutrition post, a beautiful location in the Italian valley, a cul-de-sac on Ferret pass and Switzerland. There is a lot of activity and excitement with families welcoming their runners.

UTMB 2008 - Arnuva
Credit : akunamatata

Arnuva Saturday 13:52 – altitude 1769m Since nutrition post at Bonatti Shelter : D+96m / D-347m / 4.3 km in 1:03:15 Since Chamonix : D+5568m / D-4834m / 94.2 km in 19:21:57

Arnuva Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-14:44 20:14:03 838
Gilles S-13:51 19:21:27 655
Laurent S-13:51 19:21:29 656

Our planned finishing time seems unattainable. Gilles agrees with my suggestion that we don’t tackle the col Ferret right away but have a nap to recover. We go to the rest tent, not ideal with all the noise and the stuffy heat in the tent. Gilles stretches out for 30 minutes, I detour to the toilet and rest for 18 minutes. Then we eat and drink a bit, and Gilles leads off. I ask him not to go too fast because I’m not sure I can catch him. Stop time: 44’32”

Climb to Grand Col Ferret

It’s hard to get going. I find myself behind a group of runners whom I pass to motivate myself to not slack off. It’s certainly a hike on this climb. A ledge, a steep hill, and I reach the Elena shelter in 34 minutes, where I meet Gilles.

We attack the steep slope. Little by little we catch up to groups and pass them. Not at our best, but feeling returns slowly and I think the few minutes of rest are paying off. We reach the col, cloudless and a strong wind; one might freeze here even in the afternoon sun. We only stop because the volunteers, all dressed up, scan our numbers.

Grand Col Ferret Saturday 15:55 – altitude 2537m (highest point of the race) Since nutrition post at Arnuva : D+768m / D-0m / 4.6 km in 1:18:11 Since Chamonix : D+6336m / D-4834m / 98.8 km in 21:24:40

Grand Col Ferret Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-16:04 21:34:16 759
Gilles S-15:54 21:24:35 716
Laurent S-15:54 21:24:22 714

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