Maybe it was naive of me, but I had hoped it would be a lot easier this time. I thought that’s what training did? You break yourself a little, then you come back stronger…
I had mapped out a route using a piece of string that I thought would be about 60km, with over 5000m of ascent, but around the 25km mark I was struggling, and could barely break out of a brisk walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Soon enough, it started to feel a little bit like survival jogging, and I remapped the route in my head to take the quickest path home, guessing it to be about 45km total. Starting to squeal involuntarily in the final few hundred metres, I arrive back at home some fourteen hours and twenty after leaving that morning.
After peeling the sweating, stinking tights and sleeves off me and sinking an ice-cold restorative sports drink, I ran the route I had taken through mapmyrun.com. It turns out that if I had taken the original route, I would have accidentally found myself on an 85km/6500m run, with not enough food and little hope of getting home before daybreak. The shortest way home turned out to be 65km/4600m. Though broken, I instantly stopped feeling sorry for myself, and decided that pieces of string might not be the most accurate way to measure long distance runs.
It’s a nice warm-up, clambering up the ladders by the Aiguillete d’Argentiere to the Tête aux Vents, striding at pace through the nature reserve in the early morning before the crowds arrive, and down the blocky-but-decent path to the Col des Montets, then eating some distance on the road towards Buet, the start of the Berard Valley, and up until the cluster of tiny lakes halfway up the Val de Tré les Eaux. From that point onwards, however, and for the next fourteen kilometres, the path is seldom anything but shifting rocks of various sizes, from grit and pepples to splintering slate tiles. When the Cheval Blanc first comes into view on the way up to Col des Corbeaux, a crumbling pile of grey-white gravel, it’s summit towers 800m over you, but once you are around the corner, past the junction for the outrageously-exciting but time-consuming dinosaur footprints, and at the base of the actual climb there’s barely 300m left of it, and it looks merely depressing, rather than debilitating. The path is well-marked with skywards-facing fingers of rock, but the ground is pretty shitty and it probably isn’t one you’d want to do by headtorch.
On the way up the Cheval Blanc I started getting lactic squeezes in my knees, and for a while I had to climb kind of straight-legged and lop-sided, which opened up an old war wound in my right hip, and thanks to the heat I was already running with a pretty bad chef’s arse (and, being a chef, I’ve known a few bad ones). I had forced down a litre of porridge for breakfast, and by halfway up Tré les Eaux this had transformed into a relentlessly painful bubble of trapped gas. Despite tooting some pressure off while trotting along the saddle of the Cheval Blanc and across the barren, flat-grey moonscape of sculpted limestone on the Combe du Buet and Le Cabaret, my aching legs, stinging ring, and my swollen abdomen combined to sink my mood and sap my energy. It’s a pity, because the scenery up here is other-worldly – the crumbling 1500m west face of Buet and the Tours de St-Hubert, the soaring limestone towers of the Cornes du Chamois to the north-east and the Rochers des Fiz to the south-west, and all around you more fountains and waterfalls spouting from the cliffs than you could count. It’s just a pity that, being a runner and not a hiker, you can’t stop and drink it all in with a pair of binoculars and a cup of tea.
The route now descends for 1700m along the Fretes de Grenier and down into the woods of La Grand Joux before climbing back up towards the Cirque des Fonts, which is, to be honest, unnecessarily beautiful, and if you haven’t gone to see it before, you should stop what you are doing right now and go there. As the path turns south and climbs towards the Petit Col d’Anterne, I see two runners coming towards me at a fair clip, with bigger bags than mine and legs filled with walnuts. I wonder how long they’ve got left today, as we exchange a tired nod.
Up to the Lac d’Anterne and towards the Col d’Anterne, and with a low ceiling of dark grey cloud obscuring the surrounding peaks (which was not in the forecast, I worry), the area has a distinctly British feel to it. After filling my platypus at the Refuge de Moëde Anterne and stomping down to the Pont d’Arlevé through puddles of sheep piss, the end is in sight (barely 18km away) and the final 800m climb to the Col du Brevent doesn’t seem like such a great task, but the path steepens significantly for the final 300m and I’m forced to stop and whimper like a lonely puppy every now and then. It is with a whoop of glee that I reach the Col still with good daylight, and the head torch isn’t needed until well-along the low traverse for La Flegere. With a sudden moment of clarity, I realise that if I’m quick I might just make it down in time to grab a pizza from the Stone Bar, so I lift my knees high over the gnarled, sinuous obstacle course of roots on the descent through the Bois de la Trappe to Argentiere.
What have I learned? A huge porridge breakfast won’t make me popular with people running directly behind me, and there’s going to have to be some serious lubing-up to avoid future chafing issues. Take a moment to picture that, if you want.
Overcome by my love for all things concerning honey bees (what incredible creatures!), I accidentally bought eight 20g tubes of Sports Honey at the ultra marathon market last week. I thought I’d misheard the lady, but no, only four euros change from a twenty note, and it’s too late to say no at that point really. Works great for a massive kick up the arse before a steep climb, but once they’ve run out I’m just going to refill a used screw-top fruit gel pouch with my own honey for a fraction of the cost.
I hurt less today than after the big jog of a fortnight ago, and I’m already thinking of where to go next. The cycle continues: out comes the map and the piece of string.