Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tour du Mont Blanc: unfinished business

Two years ago, I had a blast on the course of the UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 100-mile race held at the end of August since 2003. I did not actually run the race but joined the Lafuma team led by Karine Herry as they were training on the course a month prio to their race. The manager of the team, Bruno Tomozyk, had planned for us 4 stages but we were forced to shorten the first one as we got caught into a bad storm near St Gervais. We ended up covering the entire course in 5 stages over 4 days.
Last year, I could spend only two days in the Alps and was already glad to join them again for one day, and with Scott Jurek this time, in their first training stage, from Chamonix to the Col du Bonhomme. With Scott getting familiar with his new use of poles:
This year, we planned our family Tour de France with one week in Chamonix so I was looking forward to getting back on the UTMB course again (for those who missed the previous episodes on the blog, our tour led us through Normandie, Vendée, Massif Central, plus London and Salamanca for the rest of the family). My goal was to cover the whole course in two stages this time. Chamonix-Courmayeur via the Col (pass) du Bonhomme, and Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix.

With the well-known adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the fact that I ran solo and it was just training, my report will be short and I invite you to look at the two photo albums I posted on Picasa:
  1. Chamonix-Courmayeur (128 pictures)
  2. Courmayeur-Champex-Col de la Forclaz (237 pics)
Stage 1

On Wednesday July 22, I left the appartment at 7am and enjoyed the quiet road going through Les Gaillands and Les Houches. At the Col de Voza, I actually took the GR5 (Chemin de Grande Randonnée #5), going down to Les Contamines-Montjoie through Le Champel and by-passing St Gervais. I reached La Croix du Bonhomme in 5:02 (mile 23), under a light rain. Close to Les Chapieux, I heard an helicopter, saw spectators along the road and thought the Tour de France was ready to pass by. But I had to wait for 30 minutes before seeing the competitors so, when it was time to resume my run, I was too cold and too late to stop at L'Auberge de la Nova, the restaurant in Les Chapieux. I refilled my only bottle left (I discovered on my way up to La Balme that I had lost my other bottle out of my waist belt holder). By La Ville des Glaciers I was out of water and could not find a source. Fortunately I had bought a bottle of Coke at Les Contamines, but was really short of fluids once I got to the Refuge Elisabetta, on the other side of the Col de la Seigne. Despite that, I was pushing the pace, worried that I would not make it to Courmayeur in time to catch the last bus for Chamonix. The hike up to Col Chécroui was hard, as well as the sprint down into the Courmayeur Valley but I arrived at the bus station with 20 minutes to spare, phew! I was actually the only passenger on the bus and the driver was amazed by what I had run today (46 miles). Here is a view of the cloudy soup over Courmayeur (from Col Chécroui):Stage 2

The next day (Thursday), the meteo was supposed to be bad, such as all the lifts were closed in Chamonix. Actually, the thunderstorms only hit the valley at the end of the afternoon, bringing a lot of rain and some snow on the peaks. Therefore, I waited for Friday for attempting the second stage. We left the appartment around 6:15 am and Agnès dropped me in Courmayeur where I hit the trail at 6:50. It took me just one hour to reach Le Refuge Bertone, where I stopped for a few pictures of the amazing views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Actually, the weather was so nice that I kept stopping for pictures all along the beautiful Val Ferret. Make sure to check the photo album out. I was moving reasonably fast and feeling well, reaching the pass, Le Grand Col Ferret, in 4 hours and 5 minutes. On the way down on the Swiss side, I thought I'd recharge my batteries at the farm of La Peule (or La Peula), ordering a cheese omelette, their specialty. It was really good, and very very cheesy, but quite a bad idea just 26 kilometers in a run. The next 10 kilometers were down and I was unable to run, my stomach getting quite upset as it was working hard on processing the melted cheese... Knowing that drinking cold water over melted cheese is actually pretty bad from a digestive standpoint, I drank less and started getting dehydrated too. I was also unable to take on any additional sugar and it was not long before my legs felt heavy and stopped cooperating for the remianing hard climbs such as the hike up to Champex then Bovine. I called Agnès from Champex to arrange for a pick-up at Trient or Vallorcine. I was so slow going up to Bovine that I got caught into a rain storm and called it a day at Le Col de la Forclaz, after 39 miles, missing the last 30 km (19 miles) of the course.

Lesson learnt: no fondue, no cheese omelette, no raclette, no croûte au fromage, while running...! Should not be too hard to remember, ok? Here I am with the killer omelette, before realizing it was a bad idea...
Anyway, that's still two ultras and quite some ground covered in two days. For the ones not familiar with the Tour du Mont Blanc, the trail is usually covered in 7 to 9 days by hikers. Granted, which much larger and heavier backpacks. Actually, you can even hire mules for the week, but this is not getting you much faster.
Unfinished business then, and one more reason to come back to Chamonix!

If you ever have the chance to visit this amazing region of the Alps, near the highest point in Europe, the trail is very well marked but make sure to get a map as there are several variations. And remember, this is mountaineering so be prepared for a quick changing weather. With that, all the best to the 2,300 participants of the 7th edition of UTMB on August 28th!


Scott Dunlap said...

Looks amazing! Thanks for sharing and for the great pics. I'm sure that's the last egg and cheese you'll have mid-adventure.


Mark Gilligan said...

Thanks Jean,

I'm looking forward to Aug 28th and am crossing my fingers I won't have to deal with the weather you referred to. It looks like it will be amazing.

Congrats on your great run at Skyline 50k!

Unknown said...

I need a list of UTM coordinates for the Tour du Mont Blanc - anyone have any ideas

Fitness Foodie said...

I just finished the MBT and had the priviledge to still be in Courmwayeur and then Chamonix to see the racers start and finish. What an amazing race, my husband and I were so motivated that we are already planning our first trail race and hope to make it back for this one some day.