Gran Trail Courmayeur Ultra Adventures

“Congratulations, you won again!! How do you do it?”


“How come you’ve never written about your running performances?”


These questions have now cropped up a couple of times since I raced the Gran Trail Courmayeur (GTC 105) last week …and my answers haven’t got any clearer. I mumble something about how I’m sure no-one would be vaguely interested and change the subject.

Both situations played on my mind and it looked like a pattern was beginning to form. Eager to break the trend I sat down with a cup of tea over the weekend to reflect back on the GTC 105 and ask myself a few questions. Ultimately it’s the lessons I glean from the overall experience to take forwards to my next race which are the golden nuggets.

What was the game plan for GTC105?

Looking back on the first half of 2017, I’ve only taken part in a handful of races based on a conscious decision to focus on solid training blocks to build endurance, strength and develop technique, ready to take on my A race for 2017 - the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) in September. I have the tendency to race hard so find it challenging to hold back to use races for training; subsequently my recovery period can be unnecessarily extended and impact negatively on longer term goals. My only other major race during 2017 was at the beginning of May where I set the new overall course record for the inaugural XNRG Devil’s Challenge multi day event along South Downs (150km over 3 days).

The GTC105 was primarily selected to benchmark my training for my A race. The race fell within an ideal time frame two months out from the UTMB with sufficient time to recover, move through another solid build phase, then taper. Admittedly there was a slight twinge of guilt as my five-year wedding anniversary to the super supportive Ben, fell the preceding day so any form of celebration was rather overshadowed with race preparation and the normal pre-race nerves.

Finally, the route also covers some of the same terrain as the UTMB so it was helpful to head out and recce the course in line with my military 7Ps ethos (Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance).

How many hours do you train a week?

This question crops up again and again when I speak to people about ultra-running and I have to admit it’s something I struggle to answer as my weekly training volume varies massively depending on my training phase. Coach Danny from Moore Performance takes care of my overall strategic programme; then balances weekly/daily sessions through Training Peaks. The breadth and depth of technical data that can be used to support training and recovery is simply phenomenal.

I have to admit, I’m a Strava fan and have been known to target the odd segment for a QOM cup within a training session. Looking back through my weekly, monthly and annual statistics (spent 146hr running and 75hr cycling in 2017 so far) does give an indication of how much time training takes up within my life. My training volume is probably a lot less than other endurance athletes though I find mixing up my session with different cross training activities e.g. cycling, Bikram yoga, walking with weight belt and swimming (though not in the last four weeks!) supports recovery and minimises injury. Quality over quantity wins every time and cutting out junk mileage under the watchful eye of Coach Danny has really supported my performance.

What kit do you find works?

Everyone is different and it’s essential to test out clothing and equipment during training to make sure it fits properly. I’ve been supported by the French endurance company WAA for the last couple of years, so use their kit as a baseline then supplement with other specialist pieces. I’m always on the hunt to try out new items to improve my performance; especially since I’m so petite it can be difficult to find sizes that fit properly.

WAA Ultra Rain Jacket

WAA Ultra Carrier Short Sleeves

Salomon S-Lab Sense 8 litre with 2 x 500ml Soft Flasks

Inov-8 Rocklite trainers

Wigwam Merino Ultra Socks

Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z-Poles

Did you have any injuries in the lead up to GTC105?

This season started with a frustrating foot injury that I picked up during a team building exercise working with the British Military. The meeting of a rather large and heavy tractor tyre and my right foot resulted in two weeks unplanned enforced rest. It continued to niggle for a few months though Gemma, my talented sports masseuse from Team Bath, has worked wonders with her magic fingers. I was super relieved nothing re-emerged over the twenty plus hours on my feet during GTC105.

What did you eat or drink before heading across the start-line of GTC105?

I stick to my usual routine – no carbo-loading magic, just real food. Breakfast is an egg based muffin stuffed with sausage, mushrooms, onions and cheese, all washed down with a cup of tea. Nutrition throughout any of my events follows the real food rule with picnic snack bags packed with baby tomatoes, dried meat, nuts and dried fruit. Avocado is my secret weapon hidden away in my drop bag ready to refuel me mid-race.

Did anything go wrong during GTC105?

I really struggled in the heat to keep eating. Reviewing the quantity of food I’d actually consumed at the end of the race was rather disconcerting. There was an awful lot left! I’ve experienced hotter temperatures in the Marathon des Sables in 2015 though the stages were generally shorter so I’d be back in my tent after 3.5 to 4 hours resting and eating then. I think the combination of the temperature in thirties, steep ascents and technical ground meant I found it challenging to keep eating regularly and will need to rethink my nutrition strategy for the UTMB.

The biggest (and most painful) mistake was battering my poor left big toe around the 50km mark. I find it can be difficult to maintain concentration over long periods of time and any slight distraction can cause you to trip, stumble or fall. There’s a really steep moraine boulder field on the ascent to the Elisabetta Hut where I stubbed my toe rather viciously. It was one of those situations where I knew it had completely ripped off; yet there’s nothing you can do. I chose to ignore the pain and soldier on until the end 65km later. Needless to say, it was a pretty bloody mess by the time I peeled my socks off over twelve hours later!

My final mistake was only revealed a few days after the race when I was back at home unpacking my kit. I’ve been experimenting with the Petzl Mylo head torch in preparation for the UTMB as I’ll be running through the night (twice!). It’s battery powered with 3 x AA, yet I discovered I’d unknowingly packed 3 x spare AAA. Luckily I had another spare torch and battery combination though it was a useful reminder to check, recheck, then triple check your race kit!!

How do you stay motivated during the race?

Sometimes the distances involved in ultra-running can be overwhelming; 105km is a long way whichever way you look at it! I always break the route into manageable chunks – distance away from the next check point, the next climb, or sometimes just the next kilometre if I’m crawling along, relying on my Garmin 920XT to beep and flash my split times. The race route snaked back into Courmayeur at the 75km point where the shorter (and arguably more sensible) distance finished. The temptation to stop after being on my feet for 13.5 hours did flitter through my mind; it would be so easy to sit down (as many did) though something deep down knew I would keep going.

I won’t lie, it was a tough race physically and mentally complete with a couple of proper meltdowns. At one point, there were full on tears after stubbing my left big toe against yet another rock for what seemed like the millionth time. I always try to balance a mix of internal and external motivations; my inner voice interchanges across a wide spectrum, from a spot of gentle encouragement, to the brusque military-esque “man-up” and inevitably everything in-between. If thinking becomes too much energy, then my world shrinks to literally the next individual step accompanied by my personal affirmation “I can do it”. Every step is a step closer to the end.

When is your next race?

The Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc is literally getting closer by the day. On Friday 1st September 2017 at 6pm, I’ll be stood in Place Triangle Amitie, Chamonix on the start line along with 2,300 other ultra-runners from across the globe as the evocative Vangelis Conquest of Paradise echoes across the square. The route traces around Mount Blanc; the “White Mountain” and highest in the Alps through France, Italy and Switzerland over 170km of trails with over 10,500m ascent (and descent that particularly batters the quads!). Over 25,000 hikers tackle the trail every year and it takes on average 10 days to complete; a bit more sedate than the 32 hours I’m aiming to finish in!

Over the next six weeks I’ve got a block of recovery as I find I’m usually pretty battered physically and mentally from an ultra, then I will build into another solid endurance and strength phase, before beginning the long taper.

Why the UTMB, it sounds crazy?

This race holds a particularly special appeal as I’ve considered Chamonix “home” over the last seventeen years throughout my global nomadic wanderings. Every Christmas and New Year I’ve enjoyed the annual snowy pilgrimage to catch up with family members, hit up the off-piste above Grands Montets and beat my younger brother at air hockey in Cham-Sud. More recently Ben and I celebrated our wedding in the Grands Hotel de Montenvers overlooking the Mer de Glace with our family and friends.

In 2007 I completed the 98km CCC (Courmayeur-Champax-Chamonix) race within the UTMB series and literally stumbled across the finish minutes before the cut off time. Ten years ago, even the mere notion of entering the longer and tougher UTMB was far beyond my comprehension yet deep down I dreamed someday I would be “good enough” to take part.

It’s time to find out if I really am!!

I’d be interested to know how your running season going. What races have you got lined up over the next few months and how is your training going?

Happy running,


© 2020 by Anna-Marie Watson

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