I know at least one person who reads this blog has been eagerly awaiting this post. I hope he enjoys it. For those of you not eagerly awaiting this post, I hope you enjoy it anyway.
Last Monday, crew chief Sarah Baker and newly hired assistant crew chief Nancy Baker, arrived in Argentiére. The crew doesn’t get paid much, but they sure work hard. M and I had been looking forward to familiar faces and were glad they came all the way to France to visit.
Last week was also a taper week for M and I so we could be fresh for our race this past Saturday in Italy. The race is called The Grand Trail Courmayeur and it is 105 kilometers long. For our American audience, that came out to about 65 miles. To answer the next question, yes that is to be run all in one day.
M and I knew the race would be our toughest challenge yet, but we felt well prepared after training for a month here in Chamonix. At just after 7 am Saturday we set off from Courmayeur in hopes of being back sometime before 7 am Sunday. The race cutoff time was 1 pm Sunday so we had plenty of time, but we both were planning on beating the 24 hour mark.
Mountain ultra races in the Alps are known for their climbing and this race was no exception. I am certain that there is a secret competition amongst race organizers trying to see who can make the most ridiculously difficult course. The race began with a 3 mile descent to the bottom of the first climb. M and I had broken the race down into sections that went from aid station to aid station in order to make the race seem more manageable. The first aid station was supposed to be around the 8 mile mark at the midway point of the first climb. We should have remembered that like all other races, there is usually some wiggle room as far as where the aid stations are actually located. The first aid station was at mile 9.5 and after climbing for 2 hours, I was ready to refuel.
The climbing continued until the next aid station at about mile 15. This section is where we began more serious climbing. There were quite a few boulder fields to cross and some snowy steps that had been hacked into the side of a cliff where we used a rope to ascend through a crevice in the mountain. Eventually we descended into the town of La Thuile and another aid station, or in Italian, ristorio. Of course descending really only means its time for the next section of climbing and so began the next climb. The climb up to Baite de Youlaz aid station was actually one of the easiest climbs of the day with only a few boulder sections and a larger than normal portion of narrow paved mountain road. This was only an appetizer for the next part of the second major climb of the race. Miles 24-32 were the longest and hardest miles I have ever done. By this point in the race, there had begun a torrential downpour and the temperature dropped considerably. Pants, jackets, gloves and hats were all required for the race and I was thankful because I needed all of them. I ran out of water about mile 28. This normally would not be a big deal with only 3.5 miles or so to go to the next aid station, but when there are mountains and lots of technical climbing in between you and that aid station, it becomes quite an ordeal.
I was at such a low point that each time I would come around a corner or over a saddle hoping to see the aid station, and all I saw was more mountains to climb, I just had to laugh.
I learned all about staying calm and not panicking during this point of the race. The reality is that there is nothing you can do except keep going and trying to use as little energy as possible til the next aid station.
When your best speed is about 30-45 minutes per mile, 3 miles takes a long time. After what seemed like forever I spotted the aid station off in the distance. Along the way there was the prettiest blue lake I’ve ever seen.
I finally made it to the aid station located on a saddle in the coldest and windiest spot they could have found. I refueled and put on more clothes and got going down as fast as I could. I was glad the trail down was only really steep and rocky because otherwise it would have been difficult.
The next ristorio was at the Refugio Elisabetta, which M and I had stopped at 2 years ago during our trip around Mt. Blanc. It was quite nice to be on a familiar part of the trail. It was also nice because most of this part of the trail was either downhill or flat.
By this point in the race, my body and mind had rallied back into form and I was looking forward to the next climb up to the Maison Vielle aid station. This part of the course was also familiar so I knew what to expect on the next climb. I knew it was not too long and not at all technical and thus allows for a steady pace. Unfortunately this is where my calf decided it had had enough racing and would not allow me to push off going uphill or plantar flex going downhill. Even though I was having my best race ever, I knew it was over at that point. There was no point in continuing to race when I couldn’t run at all. There was also no point in ruining the rest of my summer by injuring myself beyond repair.
I was told at the aid station that I would have to walk down to Dalonne so I decided to drop out of the race at the Dalonne checkpoint. I also wanted to make it to Dalonne because that would be the furthest I had ever raced at 48 miles.
That particular aid station was the biggest of them all, with hot food and the ability of picking up a drop bag that had been placed there earlier. It was also where our crew could meet us and help out a little bit with resupplying for the last section of the course.
Earlier in the evening, M had blazed through this aid station and was greatly helped along by Sarah and Nancy. They helped M refill her bottles and change into dry clothes and be on her way. I showed up about an hour after M left and the crew supported my decision to drop. They also carried all my stuff back up the hill to our apartment, walking slowly the whole way so I wouldn’t have to walk alone in the dark.
Nancy made me a sandwich and Sarah kept a sharp eye on M’s tracker so we would know when to go back to Courmayeur and see M finish. We all tried to sleep a little, but I mostly just tried to relax and eat after such a long effort.
Sarah, Nancy and I got up at 3:30 am and made our way back down to the finish area in order to greet M and cheer her at the finish. A little over 22 hours after starting, M came down the finishing chute to the roars of all 3 of her supporters. It was M’s best ever race and she finished second in her age group and fourth overall among women. The last part of the course had been utterly diabolical with the shortest but steepest climb, and one of the more technical downhills of the entire race.
M conquered her fear of heights and conquered the hardest race she’s ever done. It was a remarkable feat, and we were all very proud and humbled by her performance.
We decided that Pizzeria De Moulins back in Chamonix was calling our name, so we left Courmayeur a day earlier than planned. We made it back to Argentiére with no problems and then proceeded back to Chamonix and killed off quite a bit of pizza.
M and I are now in recovery mode which basically means we eat all the time. Fortunately we have temporarily moved to Zermatt, Switzerland where there is no shortage of yummy food to keep us full.
I hope to have another blog with pictures from our trip up the Auguille du Midi soon. You will certainly see many pictures of Mt. Blanc!