Midnight… The time Cinderella turns into a pumpkin. The time I’d usually be tucked up fast asleep in bed though tonight it signals the start of a 147km journey over 9,100m through the Italian and French Alps from Courmayeur back to Chamonix, my mountain home. Welcome to the Tour de Savoie (TDS).
This race was the natural next step for me in the UTMB series after completing the CCC (in 2008 and 2019 - see blog post ) and standing on the podium in 7th place for UTMB in 2017 (see blog post here and here). Dubbed as the outlier of the UTMB series the TDS was purposively ‘toughened up’ and extended from 119km to 145km in 2019 to be on par with its sibling the UTMB and offers athletes a ‘different’ challenge.
This ‘different’ challenge is a far more technical and remote course than the other UTMB races. Think trails which dwindle into nothing and are only visible due to the race markers; are predominantly composed of tree roots and rocks; or the gradient becomes so steep crab like side stepping maneuvers are the easiest way down. The route also passes through swathes of remote mountains with limited aid stations so it’s essential to carefully consider how much food and water to carry.
During the lead into an event I find part of the overall experience exploring the route in advance. I relish this ‘prequel’ which offers a perfect training block with the opportunity to get to know the mountains, identify way-points along the way and improves my mental preparation. I’d split the profile into four chunks:
~ The Intro - Courmayeur to Bourg Saint Maurice (49 km) which has a notably tight cut-off to be wary about…
~ The Wilderness Zone - Bourg Saint Maurice to Beaufort (43 km) which is topped and tailed with a double VK (Vertical Kilometre) ascent out of Bourg Saint Maurice; then descent into the world capital of cheese otherwise known as the town of Beaufort.
~ The Unknown - Beaufort to Les Contamines (31 km) - I’d be unable to head out onto the stretch for a recce due to lack of time and logistical constraints so from Hauteluce onwards was a blind spot.
~ Homeward Bound - Les Contamines to Chamonix (24 km) – Up and over the Col de Tricot aka the final lump, down to Les Houches, along the River Arve and the finish line awaits!
Back to Tuesday 23rd August 2022, I turn to catch my breath for a moment; the view yields a golden crescent moon which hangs luminous over Lac Combal, set against the pitch black sky and outline of distant mountains. The headlights of fellow runners, tiny pin pricks of light mark the trail zig zagging up the mountain side. I struggle with late night race starts; or anything which interferes with my sleep though the view makes it worthwhile. Night turns into day passing another ‘Herds Beware’ sign thoughtfully placed by the race organisers. I navigate through another herd of gentle giants chewing their curd and find the gentle clunking of their cow bells soothing.
Everything then metaphorically though unfortunately not literally goes downhill from Beaufort…with ‘only’ 55 km left my pace ground to a halt. I’ve never been sick to empty in a race before; that moment when there’s nothing left and you’re left shaking. Exhausted. It’s not a pleasant experience hugging the toilet bowl or clutching a bowl in bed though at 3am by the side of a trail it’s even less so. Time passes. Slowly. The twinkling lights of Col de Joly aid station tease me from afar. Judging distance in the dark is beyond tricky and the path twists and turns in all directions. Finally, I’m rewarded with salty noodle soup to help settle my stomach.
The kilometres creep past slowly. Another 9 km down the trail I stumble into Les Contamines. I’ve been running on empty for 12-hrs and with 24 km to go I need a break. The decision was made for me. Joe wraps me in a blanket and I curl up on wooden bench where 20 mins turns into 45 mins. My dad’s homemade banana cake from Ricky Lightfoot’s recipe in the book ‘Eat Run Enjoy’ by Billy White – link here - accompanied by sugared tea offer the energy boost I need to tackle the last ‘lump’ aka the Col de Tricot. It’s pure relief to enter the final home stretch along the River Arve as fresh and bouncy morning runners full of energy zoom past. The streets of Chamonix bustle with everyday life and under the UTMB finishing arch my family and friends wait to welcome my arrival and celebrate my journey.
It’s not over until it’s over… Race plans change. Be flexible. During this race I mentally switched from placing to participating. I knew I could finish within the time frame and was determined to cross the finish line – so 2023 wouldn’t involve a return effort! The TDS has the highest attrition race of the UTMB series races where 60% of participants cross the finish line. It’s difficult to judge ‘hardness’ levels in races though I’m subjectively inclined to believe this is harder than the UTMB…
Support Crew – This task is an endurance feat in itself. The combination of navigating French backroads, monitoring the LiveRun tracking app, being in the right place at the right time with the right food and equipment; then offering positive words of encouragement when you’re exhausted is hard. Your crew are your life line. Massive thanks to my parents, Joe and Bryn for working through the night to support me! Huge kudos to the support crew members I met who were also juggling 7-month old babies and toddlers.
UTMB Week – This is THE annual global pilgrimage of runners to celebrate everything trail and ultra-running. Chamonix explodes in a mass of people as the circus comes to town. The TDS is done and dusted before the other races start so there’s plenty of time to kick back and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. 2022 brought a new sponsor; Hoka, who injected their own flare and the IRONMAN brand marketing philosophy was noticeably visible in the explosion of merchandise on sale. If you want a UTMB branded hoodie, t-shirt, water bottle, USB charger or anything else…
What’s Next?? I’ll pre-empt this inevitable question and openly admit I don’t know. I’ve trained and raced on the IM 70.3 triathlon and ultra-race circuit since 2012 and this 10-year global journey has surpassed my wildest dreams. There’s always another race out there; though for the next few months I’m planning to kick back, focus on developing my strength and conditioning skills, renovating my new home in Frome…and maybe contemplating a couple of FKTs (Fastest Known Times) in my local area.
Train Smart. Run Happy.
Photo 1: Podium action placing 7th lady in the UTMB in 2017. This is still my lap top screen saver and brings a smile to my face each day.
Photo 2: Gentle Alpine giants. The race could have been named the Tour of Cows as the route traced through the high Alpine m
Photo 3: Power nap under a blanket at Les Contamines.
Photo 4: My stellar support crew with my parents, Joe and Bryn the Bedlington/Lurcher.