A year ago while looking up at Mt. Blanc from our chalet just before leaving Chamonix I more less decided to come back. What I did not want was to return and do the same race again. The 100 mile UTMB was still something I was not too sure about. And so I signed up for the 119km long TDS. Longer than CCC, shorter than UTMB – it seemed to be the ideal next step. For some yet unknown to me reasons the organizers ranked TDS as more difficult than UTMB.
My preparations for this race started unofficially with the Translantau 100. Although I was far from fit for that race it was a good self assessment on a difficult course at the end of previous racing season. A six week break with very little running followed. Then from May 1st a preparation proper and booze free diet begun (all the training notes are filled under TDS tag). In general I followed a similar Tue-Thu-Sat-Sun training routine as a year ago with few changes:
a) I added few Wednesday track sessions early on into the training
b) I decided to alternate trail and road on my Tuesday runs to add some pace to my training
c) I stuck with my Thursday morning Mt. Parker routine but I shortened the overall distance of those runs by about 10km.
d) During my training after studying few TDS race reports and realizing what that “Difficult” rating meant I made an adjustment to my training plan – I focused more on climbing and descent rather than overall distance on my long Saturday runs.
After all the issues I had early this year I was lucky to have injury free preparation for TDS. However just about 2 weeks ahead of the race some strange feeling around the right knee appeared. There was no pain, it did not bother me at all while running but I felt something was weird. I could only hope that it won’t bother me during the race.
We arrived in Chamonix on Saturday evening, well ahead of Wednesday morning race start. This combined with the entire previous week spent in the same time zone should have been enough to avoid any acclimatisation issues. After few days of hanging around, 2 short light flat jogs and zero hill work the race day arrived. Together with Tilly, Adrian and Sam we decided to spend the night in Courmayeur rather than in Chamonix to avoid the 4am bus ride and get some more sleep ahead of the 6am race start. All was fine except the fact that I left my race shorts in Chamonix. It looked like I would have to do the race in my compression tights only – not ideal. Luckily Adrian saved my ass (literally) and lent me his spare shorts. I taped my right achilles, calf and knee as a precaution.
I was not really sure what finishing time to expect. I have never done anything as long and tough as this so just finishing the race was my main target. Then judging from my 2014 CCC performance I guessed that I should be able to do it in around 25 hours. Just to get some idea about the pacing I looked up time splits of several people who finished the 2014 race around the 25 hours mark. It did not help that much though. My only strategy was to start easy and be fresh after 50km before the monster climb.
We arrived to start only about 15-20 minutes before the start. It was a bit cool and still dark but only minutes before sunrise. Headlamps were definitely not necessary. I was in my regular summer attire – jersey, compression shorts + shorts, calf guards, sunglasses and cap. But I decided to run with arm sleeves as well at the beginning as it was still a bit cold. At the end I kept them on for the entire race – they were great also during the hot sunny day. I went for my ASICS Gel Fuji Trabuco 4 shoes and it was a great choice.
We lost Sam somewhere but with Tilly and Adrian we found ourselves a decent starting place near the front. Music, briefing, speeches, countdown – that all happened while me full of emotions mixed with nervousness ahead of the journey into the unknown tried to keep it all together. It is impossible to describe the feelings in the final moments before the start…
And then we were off.
I lost sight of Tilly and Adrian as the crowd swallowed me. I was not really bothered. The road was wide enough so no traffic jam. I could keep an easy steady pace. If I passed some people with this pace – fine, if people passed me – fine too. Soon we started climbing. It was a climb from about 1220m level of Courmayeur to 2409m at Arrete Mont-Favre. I was going easy trying not to repeat the fast first climb mistake of CCC last year. But there were points where I felt I am being held back by slower people ahead. No wonder as I was somewhere around 900th place at this stage. But I decided to be patient, pass only when it was OK to pass, keep it steady. Unlike last year I reached the top of the first climb feeling totally fine and could jog down to Lac Combal without any issues at all. I was enjoying the beauty of the country we were passing through taking pictures left and right (while making sure I do not block anyone).
I spent very little time at the Lac Combal refreshment point. All I needed was to refill my two water bottles (I carried the water bladder too but kept it empty for now). It took a while to actually do that as there was a big crowd there but I think I was out of there in about 5 mins, managing to also eat some banana pieces. From here we started the climb up to Col Chavanne. Just before that we passed some horses. One young one was standing there clearly expecting every runner to pat him on the head. And almost everyone did .
As I was feeling great I decided to try to move ahead through the field. Passing was not easy but possible. Experience from walking daily on crowded Hong Kong streets came handy. It was slowly getting warmer, there was not a cloud in the sky but it was not hot, yet.
I gained about 130 places between Lac Combal and Col Chavanne and I was having a great time. And (for me) the best part of the race was just ahead. After running downhill from the Col Chavanne we entered this five lakes area.
The views were breathtaking… I was in a perfect shape to run but I still stopped here and there to look around and enjoy the places before leaving them behind. And then came the most entertaining climb of the day.
From the lake we climbed up a small hill – lovely switchbacks through some dense bushes. And lots of people and photographer were squatting in those bushes cheering us on on our way up. It felt like on a Tour de France climb. This was one of the few places along the route accessible by road – so that explained the number of fans.
On top of Col du Petit St. Bernard was another checkpoint. I was about 80 places ahead compared with Col Chavanne. I passed this CP quickly after refilling water and grabbing some food.
Here we crossed from Italy to France. Almost 40km covered and long descent to Bourg St. Maurice ahead. The descent was at first gradual and very pleasantly runable. I had to hold myself back in order not to go too fast. Later on it became steeper and at parts quite dusty but overall it was a nice part of the race. The only mind numbing thing was that it took forever to get down to the town we could see from so far away …
My Garmin was about 5km ahead of official distance but at this point I haven’t realized that yet. Anyway – I knew where I was – approaching the CP before the biggest climb of the race! While crossing the road not far from checkpoint somebody tried to talk to me. My mind was somewhere in that lovely blue sky so the only thing I could comprehend was that the guy was not speaking English. All I could reply was “sorry, I don’t really speak much French”. He laughed and told me that he is speaking Czech – a language that I should have zero problems understanding. But when your mind is somewhere in the blue sky … Anyway, once we established we can understand each other easy he pointed at the hill above the town and told me “that is what we have to climb, to that fort and beyond…” It did not look that bad from where I was at that time…
I planned a longer break at Bourg St. Maurice CP. I was still feeling great considering that I have covered over 50km by now. But big climb could not be done without some proper checkpoint feast. I ate 2 or maybe even 3 bowls of noodle soup, few pieces of bananas, some cakes and drank quite a lot Pepsi or Coke, not sure what they had there. I was not worried about stomach issues. I knew that the pace up that hill will be slow and all that stuff will have enough time to settle. I filled my bottles with salty gassy water and some Nuun and added about a liter of water to my bladder too. I also recharged my watch a bit here for the first time. I mistakenly thought that our drop bags would be here. They were not. It did not matter much. I did not really need anything from the drop bag right then. We had to go through mandatory gear check before leaving the checkpoint (they wanted to see phone, 2 headlamps with spare batteries and waterproof jacket). All was OK with my gear, climbing ahead.
I left this CP further 130 places ahead compared with Bourg St. Maurice. Once out of the checkpoint we ran through the town for a while. But soon the climb was on. And the heat was full on too. There were few locals offering some water and even hose shower before we left the town. I took every opportunity I had to cool down or replenish every drop of water I used up while it was possible. Priceless lessons learned the hard way during hot HK summer runs…
While we were in the forrest section the climbing was fine. I was passing people ahead of me without really pushing too much. But once we were out of the tree cover it all changed into a different league of climbing… I could feel I am slowing down. I was concerned that even the extra load of water may not be enough in these conditions. There were many people around me stopping, I saw people who looked fresh 10-15 minutes earlier dropping like dead flies and lying down napping along the trail. It was seriously bizarre. I had to stop few times myself. I had to ration my water supplies to make sure I survive to the next water place.
I took a short pee break at the first fort. I could see that where I went to pee few people already went to throw up. Every place with a bit of shadow was full of people hiding away from the sun… I pushed ahead, there was no point wasting time with more than half of the climb still ahead. It took me a bit over 2 hours to reach the Fort de la Platte timing point – only 5km from Bourg St. Maurice but about 1100m higher up. (I found after race that to my surprise I gained about 60 positions since leaving Bourg St. Maurice). There was no official refreshment point here but there was a small farm. I almost stumbled over a pig. We could refill our bottles and cool our heads from taps here. It was also possible to purchase some soft drinks and even beer from the locals. A bottle of Coke looked tempting but I was not really sure where I put my cash. Finding it would waste too much time probably. So I just drunk more water and dropped another Nuun tab into one of my water bottles.
My recollections of the last third of the ascent are a bit blurred. We climbed a bit, there was bit of donwhill and there was one more steep uphill bit before reaching Passeur de Pralognan (2546m).
I gained places again, about 50 of them, by now I was at position 493. The entire 12km long climb from Bourg St. Maurice took me 2h45mins. On one hand I was relieved I had survived the biggest climb of the race. On the other hand I was worried about what was coming. I saw some videos of the steep descent and I had my concerns. Especially on legs weakened by the long, hot, exhausting climb.
This mad descent did not disappoint. Rangers on hand, ropes to hold on to, gravel to slip on, rocks to hit, insanely steep slope – this had it all. The greatest art was to handle both the poles and the ropes, as both were needed and sometimes simultaneously . When I made it through the scariest section I had another worry. People above me slipping all over the place – last thing I needed was for someone to let some rock loose above… So once I was on the less steep part I tried to get out of there as quickly as possible. Gradually the descent became more runable and I was again happily navigating my way down the hill. There were some big changes in light and temperature as evening was approaching, sun was lower and sometimes blocked by the hills. On the sun it was still hot but in the shadow pleasantly cool.
I reached Cormet de Roselend one place down since the Passeur de Pralognan – so more less no change there. Here we had our drop bags. I did not plan to stay too long. I started charging my watch, went to get some food (noodle soup, bananas, orange, cake), drinks (gassy salty water, lots of Coke, a bit of coffee I think). I packed my sunglasses into the backpack and took out the headlamp as I expected the darkness to catch me on the next section. From the drop bag I only took 2 extra gels just in case and my favourite biscuit that I ate on the way out of the CP. The next refreshment point was about 18km and two climbs away with only a timing spot in between. But with evening coming I did not expect that much of water consumption. I went on with only a liter of drinks. Two bottles of gassy salty water, one of them with Nuun tab in.
I tried to wait as long as possible before switching on my headlamp. One reason was to preserve the battery. The other – the headlamp was not helping much during that time when it was not yet exactly dark. The first bit after CP was quite runable although one had to be careful not to slip. After we crossed a stream we entered a rocky section – the trail just on the edge of a deep ravine – only low rocky wall separating us from some seriously deep a noisy hole (noise = raging water). Here I kept turning my headlamp on and off as sometimes it was too dark to go without it (and I did not want to end up in that deep hole) but still not that dark to keep it on all the time. Soon we were on nice dirt trail through some grassy area. And soon it was dark enough for full time headlamp on.
My recollection of the next part is bit mixed up – I am not sure what exactly was before and what after La Gitte timing place. All I know I felt quite strong on the first dark climb passing quite a lot of people. At La Gitte I was at 383rd place, 110 up since Cormet de Roselend. Here at La Gitte I first time realized that my watch is ahead – it was showing 79km while the sign at the timing station only displayed 74.5km. Some lady pointed me in direction that did not seem right. I went there but when I ended up in “forest” of stinging nettle burning my legs I knew something is not right. I turned around and saw the trail to follow in slightly different direction. Where that lady was pointing me was direction of tub of water. But as I could not see any tap filling the tub with fresh water I was not brave enough to drink from it.
Again I am not sure if this was before or after La Gitte but as I was climbing up the road, switchback after switchback I smelled smoke. One more bend and there was a fireplace, few people and some drinks – some impromptu drink station at the end of the road. I asked for some Coke and went on.
I could hear the loudspeakers of Col Joly from quite far thinking I am almost there. But there was a nasty surprise. The route took a turn away from the sound, through a field (I saw there medics taking care of a runner fully wrapped in space blanket, not sure what happened there) and towards a climb. The climb was not anything extreme but at this stage any climb hurts. Worse was the technical section right after the top. Very rocky, slippery and difficult to get through at places. I had to go down on my butt and use both of my hands to pass a steep rocky narrow bit. Some guys behind me were a bit more brave… Then I heard “ayayayayayaaa” and sound of someone slipping off the trail and down the steep slope. He clearly managed to pull some amazing handbrake stunt. He stopped maybe 5 metres down the slope but I could hear some gear bouncing down to the abbys. The other guys (speaking Spanish I think) managed to pull their amigo back up. I could go on.
Eventually after jogging through some cow crap I made it to Col Joly. I was another 30 places up, feeling reasonably OK. It was the usual CP routine – watch charge, soup, banana, cake, Coke, gassy salty water etc and quickly out of there. Thirty something km to go and the next 10 to Les Contamines were all downhill. I tried to run as much of this section as possible to make up some time. Some parts were quite technical and hard to run in the dark but most of it I did manage to run. It was relatively uneventful section with some people passing me but me passing few more than that. The final bit through the town seemed never ending but it was nice for a change to be back in civilisation for a while after over 40km in wilderness.
I spent around 10 minutes here I think making sure I am well fed for the final climbing section of the race. Again the same stuff as at previous CP and quickly out. Once I got out of the tent I felt a bit cold. The only time I felt cold during the race. “Luckily” we started climbing quickly, it did not take long to warm up again. The first part of the climb was a road through the town, later it turned to a dirt road. And it was pretty much all straight up for long sections. Somebody passed me right after the down. But that person soon settled on pace same as mine only 15-20m ahead of me. I guess our pace was not too bad as we kept closing on and overtaking more and more people. We had close to 100km in our legs here but I was feeling pretty good. Soon I crossed over the top and I could see what was ahead. Some descent followed by the final beast – the Col Tricot climb. From distance I could see a large bright light at the top and many headlamps moving slowly, very slowly up towards that light. On the profile map it looked like just a small hill but the reality was worse, much worse. No wonder some people called this last proper climb a wall, some other “the most evil climb in history of all climbs, ever” …
But before climbing up there I first had to get down the hill I was on. It was getting a bit painful as I could feel that both nails on my big toes are pretty much busted …
This last climb was about 2km long with over 500m of elevation gain. I told myself “don’t look up, just keep going, have a drink every 500 meters”. This did not work. I did look up and I had to pause here and there. And every time I paused I had a shot of that awesome cold Nuun with gassy salty mineral water mix. I kicked in one gel as well – one of only 4 or 5 I used during the entire race.
This was relentless pursuit of every single meter of elevation gain. I thought that I could make the climb in about half an hour but at the end it took me almost an hour. I haven’t passed anyone on this climb and few people passed me. But by the time I finally made it to the summit (2126m) I was 39 places up since Les Contamines – now solid position in top 300.
I thought the climb was bad. But the descent that followed was the single worst part of the entire race for me. First – it was not all just descent, some climbs kept appearing and they were driving me crazy. I was swearing a lot. And the trail was technical. Lots of rocks, roots, slippery at most places. I wanted to be at Les Houches quickly. I knew however that on this surface this will be long and painful 8km. I hated every single bit of this section. I knew that Les Houches is at about the same level as Chamonix so we had to get down about 800m but we often kept climbing up instead of going down. And as my progress was slower than I thought it would at the last CP I was running out of water… Somewhere along the way we crossed a shaky suspension bridge above some raging waters – may be it was good it was dark and I could not see what is below me …
We passed some train station or something like that (not sure, it was dark) and after yet more (mild) climbing I found myself at a place called Bellevue – just above Les Houches. Our timing chips were scanned here and we were sent off with some friendly warning about slippery start to the steep downhill.
I was about to start that descent when my tired brain got an idea – to ask those guys if they have some water there. They said “of course, in the toilets, it is good, you can drink”. So I quickly backtracked a bit and went to refill my bottles from the taps at the toilets as I was really thirsty by now. It tasted better than Evian.
What followed was about 700m of elevation loss over some 4.5km. And again I hated every bit of it. It was never ending and people kept passing me all over the place, sometimes not in the safest manner… It was still easier on the legs to run down rather than walk so I kept running when runable but in slower pace than most people around me. Only when we finally emerged on the road leading to Les Houches I picked up some more proper running pace and pushed more less all the way to the final CP and refreshment point. I arrived here at same place I left Bellevue apparently. I find it weird as I only recall people passing me not me passing others …
It was only 8km to go and flat overall but still with some uphill and downhill sections. It looked like I may be able to make it in sub 25 hours but I surely would have to push all the way to the finish. So in order to make sure I would not bonk on the final stage I still took in some food, drinks and Coke before continuing. Other than that I did not waste any time. I was cutting it close to the 25 hours time. I was thinking about taking off my windbreaker for the final dash but I was glad I did not. It was quite cold morning down at the town level…
First bit of the last section was a road and uphill. And that was fine. I did not run, just fast walked giving the food in my stomach time to settle a bit. Then we turned on some dirt path that roughly followed the main road to Chamonix bur through a forest. Power hike up the hilly parts, running on all flats and downhills. I was surprised to see I am passing all those people that flew past me on the descent from Bellevue to Les Houches. None of those guys was running now. My slower descent and fast final 8km seemed to be working out as the better option.
Near Les Bossons we joined the road and soon we were at Les Pecles part of Chamonix – familiar sight as that is where we stayed last year. I was only 2.5km from finish. I passed few more people before the roundabout. Then I saw my family waiting for me right at the beginning of the town. My older son joined my for the final dash towards the finish only to split at the final turn to let me cross the line by myself.
I made it – Thursday morning, 06:51am, Chamonix, race time 24h50min38s (Strava link here). Still in one piece, no injuries, no blisters, only 3 knocked toe nails. And happy with my time.
This was the hardest and longest thing I have ever attempted. I had my ups and downs but luckily no major issues during the race. It seems I got my nutrition just about right. Lessons learned last year during CCC paid back this time, especially the pacing. And thankfully the technical route was mostly dry. The weird feeling knee gave me no trouble at all during the race and it feels totally fine now. The only minor issue I experienced was sore left achilles on the later steep climbs. I found it a bit swollen after the race but it was totally fine the day after. And the day after I also started to think about UTMB for 2016.
My gear for the race:
compression shorts (2XU)
shorts (those borrowed from Adrian)
jersey with pockets (AWOO)
arm sleeves (AWOO)
calf guards (Compressport)
toe socks (Injinji)
Asics Gel Fuji Trabuco 4 trail shoes
Z poles (Black Diamond)
Raidlight Olmo 12l backpack
0.5l soft bottle (Marmot)
0.5l flask (UD)
light windbreaker (Salomon)
hat (Raidlight from Hard As Nayls race)
few buffs (regular souvenir buffs)
silicone folding cup
Of course I also carried all the compulsory gear, luckily I haven’t had to use any of the cold and wet weather stuff packed in my backpack.