Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind.
The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
– Mary Schmich
The desperate cry of “Pierre!” tumbles down through the sweating, swearing procession faster than the skull-sized chunk of rock that it’s warning against. I bellow my contribution to the chorus then look up to see if it wants to hit me – no danger, it’ll pass five or six metres wide, to my left, but there is a sudden snap as it bites into the hillside a short distance above me, leaving splinters and shards and a puff of dust as it soars once again into the air with an angry hornet’s drone. Sixty metres below me, a light blue T-shirt sacrifices precious hard-won metres and scuttles back down the slope, out of the path of the rock as it follows the call of its name before plunging into the snow with a spray of slush and a satisfying “whumph”, and the warning cries fade to silence.
As grateful as we are for the diversion and the chance to breathe normally for but a few brief seconds, with the excitement over we must return to the task in hand, and once we have been herded through a maze of red tape by a dozen volunteers at the very top of the potentially perilous steep col, after a 1300m climb under a stifling sun through scree, snow, and brittle rock, the second serious ascent of the day is over.
My spirits soar as I haul myself over the last few rocks, and as my timing chip is swiped by a beeping high-vis vest at our fifth checkpoint, I can finally see the impending descent: there are persistent snows on the north-facing side of the col, allowing for care-free bounding with an open gait over a forgiving-yet-refreshing crash mat if you do take a tumble, and when the slope gets a little steeper, a few hundred metres of speedy glissade on soft snow of a perfect consistency.
“Do this bit on yer arse!” a safety volunteer, perched high on his observatory rock, calls to us as people file towards the deep runnel in the centre of the snowfield, carved by the passage of hundreds of buttocks before us. Not a chance, I scoff, I’m a skier first and a runner an unbelievably-distant second, and I will not have this solitary opportunity for joy in a day of interminable suffering taken from me. Grinning from ear-to-ear and leaking the occasional whoop of delight, I find myself racing downhill shoulder-to-shoulder with a bushy-bearded Canadian in a green T-shirt as we zip past a cluster of bumsliding runners. We emerge, breathless and soaked, at the bottom of the slope, the end of the snow, and immediately launch into a full-pelt run over loose rock, gripless slabs and broken trails, switching leads for the next 4km until we stumble into the clamour and hubbub of the revito station at the Emosson Dam, where the temporary friendship is cast aside by the selfish need to refuel. Thinking back to the all-too-brief glissade descent as I squirt some mango, avocado, and ginger puree into my panting gob, I realise that it’ll be the last taste of happiness I’ll have for a very long time.
But my, what a strange way to spend a day. Well over a thousand quite-weird individuals have gathered voluntarily in the centre of Chamonix in the middle of the night so that they can tramp up and down some mountains for a few hours, and they’ve paid good money to do it. Why? For most of us – almost all of us, in fact – there can be no question of winning, of being the first person today to step for the second time over the line that, in another two or three minutes, we will all jostle and shove our way towards. We are confident that there will be no podium to clamber onto once we’ve dragged our stained, smelly, clammy selves back home. We all know that we are going to be thoroughly miserable for at least some of the day, when the various cramps and aches or vomiting and fatigue sets in, and some of us can even predict, quite accurately, the exact point on the course at which our personal ailments will strike.
Some of us are going to fall over, and for a lucky few it will mean nothing more than a grazed knee or torn shorts, but for others there could be bloodshed or broken bones. Some of us will, despite our best efforts, be taken off the mountain before the race has even been won, if we fail to meet one of the fairly-strict time barriers. Others will make it past each checkpoint towards the end of the allowed time limit, but they’ll still be out on the mountain come nightfall, and they’ll have to endure the final, and arguably most brutal, section of the course by the light of a head torch.
Everyone in the crowd surrounding me knows all of this, and glancing around as I stamp my feet in the chilly pre-dawn, there are a handful of LED-illuminated faces that are visibly terrified. Others appear to be a bit more calm, their eyes closed and head thrown back as they concentrate on their breathing, changing the air in a pair of lungs that will have to work hard today. Some people are laughing and joking with their neighbours, stranger or friend, it doesn’t matter. Sixty seconds.
The reasons we each have for being here, despite the undeniable suffering we will inevitably face, are as unique as our fingerprints. Maybe we enjoy a challenge, maybe we lost a bet. There could be others in the crowd who, like me, are curious to see what the human body is capable of with the luxury of an impeccably-organised safety net beneath you, so that you can apply that knowledge and confidence in your own abilities to whatever else you do in the mountains. Perhaps there’s one or two masochists dotted about who enjoy the sensation of an arse crack rubbed raw, and are prepared to go to extreme lengths to get one. There are, without a doubt, some people here this morning who are only running to pick up three points towards the necessary score of nine for entering the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race twice the length of today’s comparative stroll. So, yes, there are definitely a few masochists amongst us.
The music stops, ten seconds. The quiet contemplation as I stand wiggling my toes and stretching my fingers has to cease, there are no more thoughts of what-ifs and why-are-we, there is no starter’s pistol or klaxon or a loud “Go!”, but the countdown has stopped so I suppose now is the time, and to the tune of a hundred cowbells and the applause of god-knows how many, we surge towards the church, shuffling along in a pretend-jog with flashbulbs blinding us as we try not to step on the heels of the people in front, but as the road widens and the hill steepens on our way out of town we have enough room to start swinging our limbs a bit, and with the applause thinning out to an occasional pair of sleepy well-wishers, the soundtrack changes to the hushed scuff of two thousand rubber soles on tarmac. It has begun, we are on our way.
I’ve run this particular part of the route a few times in the last couple of months, I know what’s coming: I need to overtake as many people as I can right now, or I’ll be stuck in a series of bottlenecks as the trail gets narrower on its way into the woods. Aware that I’ll pay for it later if I try too hard at this early stage, I try and nip past whoever I can when I see a space, whenever the rocky 4×4 track will allow, but before long we are squeezed into single file as our path creeps uphill towards the Col de Bellachat. The line is slowed to a walk as we cross a pile of scree before being funneled through a thick wall of brambles, and most of us have the good manners to stay in single file, but two red skin-tight vests prance over the stones and elbow their way back into the queue on the other side, overtaking at least ten silently-fuming people. Tutting in polite indignation, I vow to overtake every red vest I see today.
“How are you, Pete?” I am torn away suddenly from my train of thought, the all-consuming task of putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again. I steal a glance over my shoulder, I don’t recognise the man. Confusion.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“I’m pretty good Pete, you?” He repeats. I remember, surprisingly slowly, that my name and number is stapled to my side, just above my liver.
“Not too bad for now, but ask me again in an hour…”
Through carefully-measured breaths we discuss races, ski touring, holidays. Janne tells me that it’s hard to train for routes with lots of ascent, such as today, in his native Finland, and I reply that here, it’s hard not to.
My, you’re awfully chatty for someone with another thousand metres of ascent in your immediate future, I think, not unkindly but perhaps quite loudly, because to my thoughts he replies “I think it’s good to talk to people during a big climb like this, it stops you from hyperventilating and keeps you cool.”
Well, I’d never considered that, and I’m not sure the science is totally correct, but you are a lovely chap so I’d be delighted to share some conversation with you. We chatter away as the trees under a starry sky are replaced by alpenrose glowing in the sunrise, but I probably wasn’t keeping him cool enough, because as we climb over the Col de Bellachat and up towards Brevent, he flies off into the future. He will finish two hours ahead of me, in position 49. Maybe I should talk to people more.
The route through the Aiguilles Rouges. Click on the picture to see it a bit bigger.
From Brevent, we have fifteen kilometres until we reach what I think of as the first major milestone of the day, the village of Buet, as the path weaves through the forests above Chamonix, across the Flegere ski area, and into the Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve. Whilst quite technical at times, the trail is one that I’ve run so often that I could almost do it blindfolded, and, feeling healthy and naively-confident at this early stage of the day, I cover the distance quickly and take the lead of a small pack of runners on the steep, rocky descent to the Col des Montets. A pleasantly-simple grassy plod down from the col drops us at Buet and the first crowd of clapping, cheering strangers, and I see the welcome faces of my support crew at the front of the mob. Whilst I squeeze some of my home-made fruit goo down my gullet and gulp down some luke-warm sugary tea, Georgie swaps my shreds of rubbish for fresh fuel and Dan refills my hydration pack with some lemon chemicals. I think about sitting down and soaking up the festival atmosphere for a few minutes, but they turn me around and kick me through the gate, out across the meadow. With 26km and 1900m of up now behind us, we are just under a third of the way around the course.
The route over the Col de la Terrasse, past Emosson, and to Le Tour. Click the picture to see it a bit bigger.
As I walk away from Georgie and Dan at the Buet revito and towards our second ascent up to the Col de le Terrasse, the route’s longest, I try to mash a cured ham and cream cheese sandwich into a stomach that doesn’t want it – the very thought of food at this stage adds to a quiet nausea brought on by the sickly energy gels I’ve already started sucking down, despite the soothing ginger in my fibre-rich fruit puree. But the day has barely even started, and I know that if I don’t get some decent fats and complex carbohydrates into me to balance out the sugars in the gels, then I’m as good as finished.
The trail climbs up, steeper and steeper, through lush green forest and over the occasional ice-cold torrent, but the shade and spray does little to detract from the heat of a violent midsummer sun, and as the sweat gushes from my forehead I start to experience my first doubts, and the creeping pessimism slows my stride. Until now I’ve been comfortably overtaking people, fixating on a pair of buttocks in the distance and gradually narrowing the gap until I pip past them, but now as my energy is sapped and my enthusiasm wanes, the hunter becomes the hunted, and I can hear poles tack-a-lacking up the stoney trail behind me like the footsteps of a giant spider, until four bearded, bald, and bandana’d Frenchmen sail past me, barely even sweating. They are followed by others, and more, again and again. My feet start to drag, bouncing off of the tree roots and rocks covered with the corpses of thousands of ants, their panicked comrades swarming to gather the bodies crushed by an endless procession of rubber soles, but they are fighting a battle they can’t win. Allowing myself a little indulgence in melodramatics on account of my exhaustion, I can’t help but think that I know how they feel, and as the trail climbs higher and the scant shade of the forest is replaced by a dusty path through sun-scorched scree, I wallow in my self-pity, internally howling my laments that I’ll have to pull out of the race at the next aid station.
“Oh, putain!” I cry, breaking into a sprint before my brain has told the rest of my body why. The man in front of me, half a biscuit shoved into his gob, has lost his balance and toppled over backwards, sliding a metre and a half from the narrow path over the rocks. I reach down with one arm and we grab each other’s wrist as his friend does the same, and we haul him back up onto the trail. “Ca va?” we ask as he brushes the grit from his grazes, and I notice his dossard is covered with blood, but it’s already dried. I then see that his friend has an impressive wound on his left forearm, with broad carmine ribbons from wrist to elbow, and a painful-looking gash that refuses to scab over. I bring up the rear as the three of us turn back to the climb. Five hundred metres to go.
There are an awful lot of abnormally-fit people living in Chamonix, which, given the nature of the terrain, isn’t exactly surprising. But the exploits and endeavours that some of these superhumans get up to are, quite honestly, beyond belief. You are constantly bombarded with the most preposterous tales of incredible skill and endurance: a new speed record on the Frendo Spur, a solo ascent of the Grandes Jorasses, Kilian has just jogged up Mont Blanc again, someone squeezed a traverse of the Aiguille Verte into their lunch break; just about every other day you hear of something that leaves you mouth agape, brow furrowed, a dumbstruck “How?” half-formed in your throat. For most of us mere mortals it’s a double-edged sword – whilst we draw inspiration from the seemingly-impossible accomplishments that the top-level athletes are capable of, it can also be tempting to think “Well, if they can do it, there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t be able to as well…”, and it’s easy to forget that their capabilities are the result of countless hours of dedicated training, year-upon-year of hard-earned experience, and, usually, a level of devotion to their sport that could be described as slightly-worrying.
As I trudge wearily through the scorching heat behind two others who, limping and blood-stained, look as enthusiastic about the race as I feel, I start to get the impression that my own recent training regime up to this point – working lunch and dinner six days a week in the restaurant, followed by three weeks at sea level in Ireland and the UK, peppered with the occasional bout of moderate drinking, and finally, donating a pint of what little remained of my thick, vital, altitude-conditioned blood to the NHS – might be sorely lacking to perform very well in an Alpine ultramarathon. But whatever mistakes I’ve made in the run-up to today can’t be changed now, and dwelling on them, whilst providing a distracting alternative to the horrific realities of the here-and-now, won’t get me around the course and out of this living hell any quicker. I need a strategy.
The simple fact is that my sea-level lungs cannot cope today with the relentless and repeated ascents at altitude that are the key to success on this course, whereas in the past I’ve had no problem in powering quickly up these steep climbs with my ski-tourer’s legs. But contrary to my previous approach on routes such as these, I make a decision to take it easy on the uphill, to use the time to digest a bit of fuel and pump some caffeine into my blood so that I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in readiness for the descent, where I can make up for lost time.
So once the incessant plodding up to the Col de la Terrasse has given way to the spirit-lifting glissade down the other side, and after taking on supplies and getting a motivational kick up the metaphorical arse from my support crew at the Emosson Dam, I launch head-long into the absurdly-steep descent through the forest as the narrow trail weaves through towering cliffs and past sheer drops, the path slippery with a thick carpet of pine needles. I manage to overtake people and slowly fight my way back through the positions, and once again I find myself leading a small pack of fit-and-sporty runners on the pell-mell charge for Chatelard, the halfway-point of the course. As we bleep through the seventh timing checkpoint, someone claps me on the shoulder and says “That was well descended, mate. Good one,” and although every fibre of my body is aching and I don’t know how much I’ve got left in the tank, I am, for now at least, back in the race.
Predictably, just a few short minutes later, I am struggling uphill again, clawing my way with gritted teeth up our latest climb of over 1200m, through mushroom-scented pine forests, over ridiculously-pretty Swiss chocolate-box meadows strewn with every possible variety of Alpine wildflower, across twinkling streams and past gushing snow-melt waterfalls. A white-faced young man at the side of the path is emptying his guts onto his shoes; we all pat his shoulder and commiserate on the way past, but I can do no more, if I stay and listen to his retching I’ll be forced to join in myself. Yet as grueling as our current efforts are, with more than 4000m of ascent already behind us today, every step brings with it not only another jolt to weary muscles, but also new-found determination, as each step we take now brings us closer to the finishing line, and not further away from it. As the trail winds its way past the ardent applause of a solitary, beaming volunteer in a high-vis vest, and, finally, up to the breezy summit of L’Arolette at 2330m, the mighty snow-capped dome of Mont Blanc looms into view, and with it, the promise that the end is, if not near, then at least getting nearer.
I haven’t puked the energy gel back up, the ibuprofen has kicked in, and I’ve accidentally necked the whole damn bottle of liquid caffeine. I nearly died on the climb up from Switzerland, but now I’m fucking invincible, my legs are a blur, and I’m screaming past everyone that appears in front of me like a fighter plane. I can see through bends in the path and my feet know where to put themselves without even asking my brain. If it could only be like this for the next 30km until the finish line, I’d be there in twenty minutes, and it never once occurs to me that this sudden, fiery burst of exertion might drain me completely and come back to bite me in the arse later on. That doesn’t matter right now, we are flying down to the revito at Le Tour and there’s only one more crushing ascent left to think about. Dan refills my hydration pack with clean, cold water to try and balance out the cocktail of chemicals in my toxic stomach whilst I spray gibberish at Georgie. I toy with the idea of having them donate one of my little bottles of caffeine to my green-shirted Canadian friend when he appears, but my selfish side rears it’s Gollum-like head and stops me, these are my drugs, I’m not sharing them, and I instead ask that they give him only raucous applause. I later find out that he DNF’d at Le Tour, and I am struck with remorse.
Cramming another ham sandwich into my chops as I stagger away from the aid station, I run the numbers through my head for the hundredth time: could it be true, are we only two-thirds of the way around the course? Do we really have to do another 27km and 1300m of ascent before this is over? A familiar face appears beside me: the same guy who congratulated me on the descent from Emosson, who had overtaken me on the climb up to L’Arolette but had dropped behind again as I flew on wings of caffeine and painkillers down to Le Tour. We share a few hundred metres of relaxed strolling through yet another flower-choked meadow, the warm air thick with the hum of honeybees and the inventive chirping of blackbirds, before he pulls away at a brisk pace and calls “You’ll find me again on the next descent, I’m sure,” but I won’t.
A wide, easy trail through the woods clinging to a shady, north-facing hillside takes us through the tiny hamlet of Le Planet and past Argentiere, along the Petit Balcon Nord to Le Levancher and down to the revito at Les Bois, then whilst a pair of apologetic young ladies search our bags to make sure we’re carrying all the mandatory race equipment (with time penalties for those who aren’t), you can stare up at the day’s final climb: yet another steep path through the forest up to Montenvers, perched high on the shores of the shrinking Mer de Glace, under the gaze of the magnificent and imposing peaks of Les Drus and the Aiguille Verte. By this point, too-many hours into a day that doesn’t want to end, any more caffeine wouldn’t do a thing to wake me up, all it’s doing is making my heart hurt a little. But now I feel like it doesn’t matter, I don’t need a brain, and I fall into the motions of our last climb methodically, mechanically, almost in a trance, registering nothing until I rise above the trees and see the final checkpoint at the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille silhouetted on the skyline, still some three kilometres distant, and my determined attempt at progress collapses once more into a disjointed, shuffling despair.
Eventually, somehow, I make it over the final summit before the section of the route I had always feared the most, a relentless descent of nearly 1200m from the Plan de l’Aiguille down to Chamonix, the finish line, home. I suck down a mouthful from my secret weapon, a screw-top pouch of pure honey, but I fear that the rocket fuel of simple sugars might be too-little, too-late. Still, there’s only one way down from here, and with a snarl of defiance that leaves my mouth as more of a pathetic mewl, I muster what little remains of my energy and clump heavily across the alpenrose and splintered granite towards the spindly, wind-blown shrubs at the top of the treeline, and as the hillside tumbles precipitously out of sight and down to town, onwards through the mighty pines of the Grand Bois.
Onwards, downwards, I am passed by a trio of determined-looking runners, and I couldn’t keep up with them if I tried, which I do. We share friendly platitudes as the distance between us grows, nearly there, it’s over, keep going! I’m truly happy for them, better trained, fitter, and more capable as they are, but it’s impossible not to visualise, with a tinge of sorrow, the position counter ticking away as you fall behind. I catch up with someone else, his laboured movements are identical to mine and his face carries the same weary, dazed expression. When the narrow path allows, I squeeze past and slowly draw away from him. Nearly there, we mutter at each other, keep going!
I know this trail like the back of my hand, but the familiar landmarks at the side of the path don’t make sense – someone has moved that pile of fallen trees, this rock used to be lower down – and I can’t use them to measure where I am, how much more of this hateful mountain I’ve got left to descend. An occasional gap in the trees provides a glimpse of Chamonix far below, but it never seems to get any closer. Every footfall I make sends jolts of pain from my toes, stubbed and swollen, through screaming shins and stiff knees, all the way up to burning thighs and creaking hips. It takes every ounce of energy to resist the pull of gravity and stay upright on the inconceivably-steep and perplexingly-technical trail, and it’s almost impossible to plug my feet safely into the maze of twisting tree roots and broken rocks.
“My friend, I thought you liked downhill?” someone cries out as he speeds past me, a familiar face that I don’t remember meeting, his legs a blur, an astonishingly strong finish that I simply can’t comprehend.
“I’m done!” I call after the rhythmic thud of his shoes on the rocky trail. “I’ll see you down there!” But I don’t. He’s long gone by the time I emerge from the torture of an endless descent through the forest and onto the final kilometre of blissfully-flat tarmac through Chamonix’s increasingly-busy streets, past the growing applause of strangers in bars and restaurants and the respectful nod of dusty runners, medals around their necks as they limp away from the finishing line, leaning heavily on wives and girlfriends. Crowd control barriers lined with friendly faces funnel me towards the spot where I had earlier today been stamping my feet and glancing around nervously, and as the cheers and applause blend with the staccato crackle of a loudspeaker into a single, deafening roar, my foot crosses the line, that same cursed line that I had hopped over for the first time nearly seventeen hours ago, and suddenly I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, where I’m going, or how many more bloody metres I’ve got to climb up another bloody mountain. Unable to think, barely able to stand, my support crew press a plastic goblet of booze into my quivering hand, and I am escorted to the closest thing to collapse onto, which I do, and there I remain, for an awfully long time.
Well, that’s the end of that one. Days later, my legs can bend in the middle again and the stairs are no longer a considerable obstacle, although walking to the shops still leaves me out of breath. An exhausted body with a weakened immune system has become the temporary home of a hacking cough and nostrils dripping with mucus, but through a carefully-chosen diet of pizza and beer, I’ll fight off the infection in no time. The hastily-blurted protests at the thought of doing anything like this again have given way, inevitably, to sitting down with a map and thinking about where to go next. Because even though the whole experience ranks among the hardest things that I’ve ever done, it turns out that, contrary to what I felt at various times throughout the day, it isn’t impossible, and the thought of how much closer to that line I can get is, I have to say, quite intriguing.
I’d like to thank the wonderful Fitzgeraldsies, of skinnylegsphoto.com, not only for being my early-rising, long-suffering support crew throughout the day, but also for most of the beautiful photographs littered throughout the preceding blurb. Go to their website and look at their pretty pictures.
Thank you as well to all of the other runners I met along the way who helped me with kind words and inane chatter, or even just shared a few steps with me. On a race like this, you really aren’t competing with the other runners (at the level I’m running at, anyway), you are competing against the course and the terrain, and you draw strength from each other. It’s a team effort, it’s just that the team is made up of people you’ve never met before.
I was running the race today to try and raise a bit of money for the North West Hospice in Sligo, so I’d also like to thank absolutely everyone who donated to the cause. It was, in all honesty, your generosity that kept me moving during some of the darkest moments of the day. I’m delighted to announce that we’ve reached our target, and we managed to raise €2000 for the hospice.
We are going to leave the lines open for just a little bit longer though, so if you’ve got any change lying around and would like to chip in, pop along to the fundraising website here: