Within the UTMB - Part IV : Switzerland & back to Chamonix

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

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

Descent to La Fouly

We are in Switzerland.

Our morale has picked up with the return of sensation at the end of this climb. Since daybreak this is the first climb which isn’t a struggle! We tell each other we are well under 40 hours and we are motivated to move up in the ranking on the downhill. So we run, carefully though, but enough to pass quite a number of people.

At the Peule crossing one guy who was behind takes a shortcut and is way ahead, but the marshal calls him and he has to go back. Then we are passed by a rocket—it’s Damien! Wow! He seems to be feeling a lot better. This is great because we left him in poor shape this morning, ten hours ago and we were worried he would quit. Damien continues to zoom and after a long slope and final steep descent into fields and woods, the three of us meet on the rocky river bed and finish with long strides on the road to La Fouly and refreshments. Awesome, the trio is back together!

La Fouly Saturday 17:27 – altitude 1593m Since nutrition post at Grand Col Ferret : D+30m / D-974m / 9.3 km in 1:32:44 Since Chamonix : D+6366m / D-5808m / 108.1 km in 22:57:23

La Fouly Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-17:27 S-17:49 22:57:23 668
Gilles S-17:27 S-17:49 22:57:13 663
Laurent S-17:27 S-17:40 22:57:18 666

At the refreshment post, I fill my pouch with water and powder, then look for something to eat and am convinced by Damien’s suggestion to try a new diet based on tucs and cheese which I find works not too badly.

Gilles thinks he sees some faces from before our stop at Arnuva, which we take as confirmation that the time taken to sleep at Arnuva was made up by better performance afterwards.

At the back I see some mattresses and am tempted! Only a few minutes, I promise . . . but getting up I don’t see Gilles or Damien on their bench. I look for them, without success, and am convinced they have left and leave with the idea of catching up. Stop time: 12:45

From La Fouly to Champex

This part is nice, with a ten-kilometer steady downhill to the lovely Swiss mountain valley of Val Ferret. I am almost alone and I alternate running and walking. First on the wide roads which overlook the river on the right. Then a narrow trail in the undergrowth which climbs and falls up to the Saleina ridge, a wooded moraine from an ancient glacier, with a downhill trail full of roots. Then an easy path and the road to the charming village of Praz de Fort, and part of the road and trails down to Issert. No sign of Damien and Gilles, but wondering is useless; I’ll see at Champex.

After crossing Issert and following the road for a little, I have to attack the hill to Champex-Lac. The runners around me are faster and this scenario repeats; I have to admit that over long distances I don’t have the energy to climb quickly, but I do fine on downhills. So I slowly climb up the trail which finally takes me to Champex. A last scrabble to the second major nutrition post of the race.

I see a face I recognize, Sylvie C., who tells me her husband is in the race. Then I see Clarisse who says Gilles and Damien aren’t in yet, so they didn’t leave before me, they’re probably cursing me.

Champex-Lac Saturday 20:19 – altitude 1477m Since nutrition post at La Fouly : D+533m / D-649m / 14.7 km in 2:38:35 From Issert : D+461m / D-39m / 4.6 km in 1:00:37 Since Chamonix : D+6899m / D-6457m / 122.8 km in 25:48:43

* Champex* Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien S-20:54 S-22:10 26:24:17 673
Gilles S-20:28 S-21:37 25:58:40 619
Laurent S-20:18 S-21:37 25:48:37 588

Stop at Champex

I immediately decide to use the waiting time to sleep. so I go to a tent which is out in the back. The ground is covered with mats, it’s warm, there is a crowd. I take off my shoes and stretch out under a blanket for 30 minutes. I really do sleep this time and wake up in half an hour, on the nose.

Going to the exit, I meet Gilles who opens an eye from under a blanket, says Damien isn’t feeling well and he left him on the trail and he is going to sleep for another 20 minutes.. Going from one tent to another, I feel chilly. I use the waiting time to eat, which I do properly this time: pasta, cheese, soup …

I go back to the sleepers’ tent to see Gilles and as he gets up, look who’s coming in—Damien. We quickly decide: Damien will sleep, Gilles and I will go on ahead.

Since I feel cold, I put my second technical shirt on under the other one and pull on my windbreaker with the hood.

Stop: 6’ to lie down, 34’ resting, 38’45” to eat and find Gilles, 1:18:45 all together! My longest stop yet, not really well used. It’s now almost three hours past my 36-hour goal!

Climb to Bovine

There are still three difficulties: Bovine, Catogne and Tete aux Vents; it’s better not to think of them and focus on the next step. The two of us start off walking in the cold. We skirt the lake, which we can hardly see because it is now night. First some pavement as we leave Champex-Lac, where several couples are strolling—oh, yeah, it’s Saturday night! It’s not that cold and we quickly warm up walking. Then a trail to upper Champex, we jog a bit on the way down to lower Champex and Au, climb up along a brook, cross three torrents on rocks.

After a long approach a steep climb to Bovine with its boulders, a famous course hazard, especially at night. We climb together; someone zips past, it’s hard but we finally get to the upper part, a terrace with a view of the town of Martigny lit up at night; we can now run a bit.

We arrive at the feed station of the mountain pasture of Bovine, where a pair of young women in mittens serve a dozen or so tired runners. Gilles is feeling good, he chats away. Stop time: 6’18”

Bovine Sunday 00:18 – altitude 1987m Since nutrition post at Champex-Lac : D+704m / D-194m / 9.2 km in 2:39:57 For the final sharp climb : D+327m / D-0m / 2.2 km in 1:27:09 Since Chamonix : D+7603m / D-6651m / 132.0 km in 29:47:35

Bovine Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-00:35 30:05:14 674
Gilles D-00:16 29:46:27 638
Laurent D-00:15 29:45:57 637

Climb to Portalo pass and descent to La Forclaz pass and Trient

We leave with some others to go through some wet sections and climb several hundred metres to the Portalo pass.

And now the downhill . . . now we’re really running, over rocks and roots and we pass others. We reach the La Forclaz pass, quiet at this point, then some flat trail and down some more to Trient on a steep path with undergrowth, steps and roots.

I remember the problems I had here two years ago, with my shins hurting so that I had to tackle each obstacle carefully. Somebody told me, “I had that, you can make it but it will hurt,” which is exactly what happened. But tonight I’m fine, we run and we pass others.

Trient Sunday 01:52 – altitude 1300m Since nutrition post at Bovine : D+74m / D-761m / 6.2 km in 1:28:30 Since Chamonix : D+7677m / D-7412m / 138.2 km in 31:22:23

Trient Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-02:11 D-02:20 31:41:11 647
Gilles D-01:50 D-02:19 31:20:50 606
Laurent D-01:50 D-02:20 31:20:51 607

The nutrition post at Trient is lively; there’s a crowd of people. Gilles asks a volunteer when he thinks Damien might arrive. Just when we plan to leave, Damien comes in and we decide to leave together. Stop: 19’15” before Damien arrives, 7’07” after, a total of 26’22”

Climb to Tseppes and Catogne and descent to Vallorcine

Our trio is together again, for good, we hope.

After going through the last Swiss hamlet on the course, we face the second last difficulty, not a small one, with an ascent of 800m. Fatigue starts to show and a desire to sleep. Gilles suggests taking turns to help us keep going, each leading for 50m of elevation. I find it hard at first, but it works, and keeps us from going to sleep by having to lead. That’s when Gilles says that this time he’s really done in, this is the last time he will do such a long race, but I know this is just the ramblings of a sleepwalker who doesn’t mean it.

UTMB - Catogne
Credit : akunamatata

There’s still a mountain pass above to the real summit of Catogne. I lead, cheered already by the thought of the downhill waiting for us.

Summit of Catogne Sunday 03:58 – altitude 2060m Since nutrition post at Bovine : D+778m / D-18m / 4.6 km in 1:38:56 Since Chamonix : D+8455m / D-7430m / 142,8 km in 33:27:41

Several hundred metres to the checkpoint, a tent on the trail under which volunteers huddle, all bundled up.

* Catogne* Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-04:00 33:30:54 581
Gilles D-04:00 33:30:51 580
Laurent D-04:00 33:30:37 579

And there it is, a lovely long downhill lies before us. Goal: to the bottom!

I want payback on this descent. In 2007 my shin splints didn’t bother me on the way up, I even passed a lot, feeling like I had only been out a few hours. But five minutes going down before the checkpoint was enough for everyone to catch up to me because I was so slow. Then paying the price of this pain, absent on the way up, I found myself going up to go down, that is to say, backwards . . . yes, 800 metres of elevation backwards, at night on a narrow trail where I had to move aside every 20 seconds to let the dozens and dozens of runners who caught up. Besides the pain, boulders to avoid. More than 3:30 to Vallorcine like that—that builds character!

But tonight . . ., yeah, I let loose. No longer tired, Gilles and Damien following, I catch up to runners, pass and count the number of positions gained. First some narrow steep paths zigzagging, then fords, undergrowth, the course seemed to have changed a bit. We come to a wide gravel road which I recognize where we pass a dozen runners at once, then a final steep rocky drop, more positions gained and arrival at Vallorcine. That was great!

Vallorcine Sunday 05:09 – altitude 1260m Since nutrition post at the summit of Catogne : D+10m / D-810m / 4.9 km in1:11:09 (instead of 3:35 in 2007, that’s 3:1, right?) Since Chamonix : D+8465m / D-8240m / 147.7 km in 34:38:50

Vallorcine Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-05:08 D-05:20 34:38:34 550
Gilles D-05:08 D-05:19 34:38:33 549
Laurent D-05:08 D-05:19 34:38:32 548

At the nutrition post the three of us are determined to not waste the time we gained. There are only a few people. I stick with the tucs and cheese, I haven’t filled my water pouch since La Fouly, and won’t do it yet. Stop time: 10’25”

On to Montets pass

Coming out, it is really cold, camp fires invite us but we don’t give in. We go towards the col des Montets on a trail which ascends slowly. Almost nobody around, daylight comes, the lack of sleep begins to tell.

Col des Montet Sunday 06:10 – altitude 1455m Since nutrition post at Vallorcine : D+195m / D-0m / 3.6 km in 0:50:34 Since Chamonix : D+8660m / D-8240m / 151.3 km in 35:39:49

Last climb to La Tête aux Vents

At the pass, in the semi-darkness we can see several headlamps on the slope to our right. But they’re higher up, we have to climb all that! Well, don’t wimp out, I take the lead to try and set an example for our drowsy three. After a few metres amid boulders and as I try to keep up the pace so we aren’t caught by the voices and lights behind us, Gilles and Damien call from 10 metres back: “What if we just sleep for ten minutes, we’re beat!” So we sit by the side of the trail and I, still in my dream of gaining places, see 15 runners pass us in a row. Ten minutes later we set off, but it’s hard with these steps, they are unending and twice I find myself falling back and catch up by pushing on my poles. On top, despite the wind, I take a break for crackers to dull my hunger.

La Tête aux Vents Sunday 07:54 – altitude 2130m Since nutrition post at Col des Montets : D+680m / D-5m / 3.9 km in 01:43:48 Since Chamonix : D+9340m / D-8245m / 155.2 km in 37:23:37

Tête aux Vents Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-07:54 37:24:06 530
Gilles D-07:53 37:23:49 529
Laurent D-07:53 37:23:31 528

Across to La Flégère

We cross a hummocky area and start the traverse. I want to pick up the pace and catch the runners we see on the ridges far ahead. But I realize I don’t have a lot of energy left and it’s hard enough to keep the same pace as Damien and Gilles who seem satisfied. Besides, the view of Mont Blanc is fantastic, with the sunlight shining on the peaks and the valley still in shade. I soak it in.

UTMB - La Flégère
Credit : akunamatata

On these paths we need to pay attention, with areas with large boulders. We gain a couple of positions, Gilles and Damien go ahead and speed up as we start to descend. My thighs start to hurt and I take a packet of Sportenine from Gilles to be ready for the downhill to come where I hope to go quickly. I also take a glucose capsule to mitigate the hypoglycemia which I know is closing in. Then a downhill with technical areas, we can see the cable car station at Flegere and hear music; I can see the race tent almost across from us, away from the buildings.

La Flégère Sunday 08:35 – altitude 1877m Since nutrition post at la Tête aux Vents : D+64m / D-317m / 3.5 km in 0:41:07 Since Chamonix : D+9404m / D-8562m / 158.7 km in 38:04:44

La Flégère Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-08:34 38:04:04 513
Gilles D-08:33 38:04:00 512
Laurent D-08:34 38:04:07 514

We go through the checkpoint quickly. I ask for a glass of water, which takes a few seconds but Gilles and Damien don’t stop for an instant.

Last descent to Chamonix

I catch up on the wide road down, then a short sharp uphill to the cable car station, which we pass under to begin the final descent. We start running on a wide road, obviously a utility road for the ski hill. The slope is steep and rocky; we try to stay to the side where it is grassy because it is hard on the joints and muscles. Damien speeds ahead, I follow at 20 metres, Gilles behind the same distance.

After several hundred metres, we split left onto a path. The slope isn’t as steep, but it’s full of rocks and roots—look out! Damien forges ahead, I try to keep up while paying attention to my poles; Gilles trails behind.

Then after 3 or 4 minutes, I stumble and fall. I was being careful; was it my thinking which failed, my reflexes shot, or my foot which didn’t lift because of tired muscles? I’m on the ground, my hands, fortunately free of the straps, couldn’t stop me and my face hits the ground, hitting my nose and mouth. Happily it was between two roots and no rocks! Getting up, blood flows from my nose, both nostrils. I call to Damien to wait, a good thing he is still in earshot. I take out my whole supply of toilet paper, a dozen sheets, and make plugs to stem the flow.

Gilles catches up, I’m ready to go again and we join Damien who is sitting a hundred metres ahead. We are passed by a couple of runners whom we had passed when leaving La Flegere. Gilles wants us to stop for a moment, but I feel up to it and want to keep going. So I lead, to set a pace I can maintain.

I stay in front for the rest of the descent, running when possible but not as fast as before, slowing to a walk when rocks and roots seem risky. At this pace we pass three or four runners. I have the impression that Gilles and Damien are holding back, probably to keep an eye on me or chastened by my fall while I still want to press forward. Farther on I catch up to a woman with an Italian accent who tightly tells me to pass if I am running. I am at a loss for words and then gather she is trying to run as much as possible to the finish and doesn’t want to be passed by someone who will then walk and get in her way. Gilles and Damien also pass her; she doesn’t let it bother her, and passes us several hundred metres farther on. She finishes 4 minutes ahead of us.

We come to La Floria, a house covered in flowers which is a bar, and we cross the deserted patio. It must be nice to just sip something with the panorama of Mont Blanc before you. But we don’t slow down and keep running. Farther down the road widens, and we meet hikers and runners coming the other way, which is encouraging. We make sure to congratulate the runners coming up, which to us is amazing! They tell us the highway is 300 metres ahead, as we walk and run on these steep and rocky trails with our tired muscles. Then as we approach the pavement we start running so we’ll look good as we come to the finish line. Arrival !!!

Here we are, in Chamonix, we did it, now we can’t fade at the end. I don’t know where we go or how far we go in the town. We pass crossroads, turn from one side to the other, with more and more spectators: bravo, bravo, thank you, thank you . . . A guy joins us whom we passed at the start of the downhill. He slows down beside us, but I have an urge to sprint with him et on n’en est pas à une place près. He almost apologizes, saying, “Well, you tried to run down the hill the whole way . . . ” But when we see him running at 15 km/h, more or less, I think it was a good thing I didn’t try to sprint to the finish with him.

We reach the center of town, the final turns, the entry to Mont-Blanc square, some more turns through the crowd. The advantage of coming in in the morning instead of the middle of the night a few hours earlier, we have a real welcoming committee! And there’s Clarisse who sees us and takes our picture. One more final corner and there’s the last straightaway ahead, between the wall of spectators, with the finish arch at the end and the photographers lining the side. I come up beside Gilles, we hold hands, Gilles having convinced a reluctant Damien, and we finish together with our arms in the air.

There, it’s over!

Catherine Poletti is there, as usual, to greet the runners with a kiss. A few seconds to enjoy the excitement of the finish zone, and we move on to collect our finisher’s fleeces, symbols of completing this ordeal.

Chamonix Sunday 09:47 – altitude 1035 Since nutrition post at la Flégère : D+0m / D-842m / 7.1 km in 01:12:44 Since Chamonix : D+9404m / D-9404m /165.8 km in 39:17:28

Chamonix Arrival Departure Time Rank
Damien D-09:47 39:17:21 504
Gilles D-09:47 39:17:21 504
Laurent D-09:47 39:17:21 504

So the three of us arrived at Chamonix at 9:47, on the course for 39:17. We sit for a while at the nutrition post with Clarisse, recuperating with food and drink, and then we split up.


Several things to note:

  • The satisfaction of finishing, of course.
  • The satisfaction of a three-way accomplishment, even if we were sometimes separated.
  • No injuries! No after-effects, no muscle problems, the few owies healed in two or three days, no post-run blues. I gave myself a week to recover and started running again the next Sunday.
  • Finishing in 39:17, with 4:52 for stops and 34:25 moving. Less than hoped for, even less than my first try in 2007 which I finished despite injuries, but largely compensated by the satisfactions I mentioned above.
  • We spent too much time on refreshments.
  • My diet needs to be revised, even if I avoided stomach problems, which is a big deal, other than the soup at La Balme which was undoubtedly too salty.
  • This recent experience confirms that I need to work on my climbs, especially over distance, while downhills were good, proof that the hard training on stairs paid off.
  • I still haven’t won yet!

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

If you have taken part in legendary races and would like to share your experience with us in this blog, please contact me at [email protected]