Rain drops falling. I lay awake listening to the rain pattering on my tent. No long alpine route awaited me this time. Instead there was a quite different challenge to face before I could next crawl back into my sleeping bag. Months before I had caught sight of an article in a running magazine about a run following the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Something about it appealed and thinking it would be fun I entered my first (ultra) trail race. Over a distance of 155 km, with 8500 m ascent, at an altitude ranging between 1012 m and 2537 m, and passing through 3 countries (France, Italy and Switzerland). Just a long run around Mont Blanc!
Mid-August I took the sleeper train from Waterloo to Chamonix. I wasn’t quite alone in the Argentiere campsite since I planned to join fellow AC member Dave Wynne-Jones and his partner for a route or two. Disappointingly, our attempt on the Grand Jorasse was scuppered by too much snow and put paid to my yearning to get high. Running and some wonderful long walks had to suffice until race day loomed.
Registering for the race, I started to feel not a little apprehension. There were huge numbers of runner types wandering around Chamonix clad in the latest (and lightest) kit. Hmm. I’d invested in my first pair of trail shoes (in a sale) just the week before and was borrowing a rucksack (which flapped about horrendously, being far too big). As for poles, unfortunately the thought of using them had never even crossed my mind! And, with the majority of runners being French, Italian and Swiss, the flatlands of Southampton probably weren’t the best preparation.
The Triangle de l’Amitie Square, 1900 hrs on Friday 26th August 2005, and a mass of 2000 people waiting for the off. This was the 3rd ultratrail Tour du Mont Blanc and the entire town fully entered into the spirit of it. The cut-off time was 45 hrs, so I decided to enjoy it and just keep going until they made me stop. As the King in Alice in Wonderland said, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till yLeaving the festivities of Chamonix, I started running the wooded trail towards Les Houches, jostling for space and treading carefully, trying to avoid being tripped up by hundreds of poles. A mere 8 km to the first refreshment point and the whole village must have turned out. My abiding memory of the run is the incredible support all the way along through France, Italy, Switzerland. A huge number of volunteers manned the refreshment points in villages and at refuges. For hours they ensured a continual supply of hot and cold drinks, and trays of all kinds of foods to tempt the runner’s palate and refuel the empty stomach.
ou come to the end: then stop”. That was our mission.
Starting at 1900 hrs, it was not long before dusk began to fall. We were treated to a stunning sunset and I’m certain I wasn’t alone in feeling what a privilege it was to be out among the mountains on such a night. You could feel the beauty, places to return to with the luxury of time. Gradually runners started to space well out, and I was alone for long stretches. Running into Courmayeur for breakfast I was astounded to be told I was the second woman to pass through. Just before the last Italian checkpoint I managed to catch Simone Kaiser, a veteran of trail running and the Marathon des Sables, and her husband, who I think were a little surprised to see me! I gave it my all to reach the Grand Col Ferret to be the first woman into Switzerland, but expected them to pass me at any moment. On to the next checkpoint, and the next. One section at a time, but I wondered just how long I could hold my lead. Running into Champex the sound of alpinehorns playing brought tears to my eyes, I hadn’t been sure I’d even get that far. The day wore on, and while the “ups” and “downs” seemed to take care of themselves, the “flats” got harder. But, I was running home now, through the peaceful village of Trient, up and over the last high col, and down towards the French border. The heavens opened but Chamonix was within reach that evening. Through Vallorcine and Argentiere in pouring rain, and then along the dark and slippery “petit balcon sud”. Finally, I hit the road and lights. For such a wet evening there were a great number of people out, and still a wonderful atmosphere. 26 h 53 later I was the first woman home (24th overall) with a lead of a mere 20 minutes over Simone, but more than 5.5 hrs over the 3rd woman. We were, however, far outdone by the Swiss man who won in an incredible time of 21 h 12!
In Chamonix the following day, I watched as runners crossed the line. They had my deepest respect. It was an event where all who took part could feel a tremendous sense of achievement. The spirit of ALL the participants and supporters contributed to it being such a great event, and is something I will never forget. It was an amazing experience and a very special run.