Redemption at Gran Trail Courmayeur

I smiled as I ran down from Elisabetta refuge, this time last year it was pitch dark and a violent storm raged around me as I was halfway through the Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km race in the Italian mountains.  I did not finish (DNF) the race which is why I was back for another crack at it.  This year I felt stronger, the sun was still shining brightly and would be for another 2-3hours before darkness would descend, whereas last year I was already in the pitch dark at this halfway point of the race so I felt like I’d come a long way in the last 12 months. 

Look of focus coming down from Elisabetta

Italian race directors have a reputation for bringing us the daring and super technical races and with the Tor Des Geants (TDG) as part of their (Valle D’Aosta Trailers) repertoire this event certainly meets expectations with the brutality and sheer toughness of the route.  105km with 6,600m elevation gain and loss with a 30hr time limit and awarding 5 ITRA & UTMB points, it’s a beast! 

An early start meant an early rise for the Chamonix crew,my friends Jana and Sarah were running the 55k with Zoe and I running the 105k; and a quick trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel taking us into Italy to be ready to register from 5:30am and ready to race at 7am.  The race has 3 options with the 105k and 55k starting together and the 30k starting at 9am.  Excitement was building as runners made their way into the start chute filled with nervous anticipation of what the day would bring for us all.  Some would race well, others would not make it to the finish line.  I wedge myself in somewhere in the middle so as not to get caught up in the fast start but not too far back to be held back.

Jana & I heading to the start line

Heading out of the town of Courmayeur the route splits and the 55k runners go one way and the 105k the other, heading into trails to Champex Di Pre-Saint-Didier. Skipping the thermal resort, unfortunately,  and climbing up to the Petosan valley and crossing the Plan Praz via a few chain ropes to the Deffeyes refuge at 2,500m where the views open up to picturesque lakes below.  A bit of minor climbing via some ropes reaches the lakes for a nice runnable section back down towards to La Thuile.

All smiles!

It’s from here the biggest climbs begin, following part of the TDG route in reverse we are ascending to 2,047m in the Youlaz Valley, Colle Di Youlaz at 2,661m and reaching the highest pint of the race below Mont Nix at 2,830m.  Memories from last year come flooding back and I recall being petrified up here, there’s some seriously sharp drop offs alongside some dramatic ridge lines that the route follows including a few snow patches to cross.  After a year living in the Alps I’m feeling more confident and it’s not as daunting but still causes my heart to race.  

Steep ridge lines to take your breath away

And race it does as we descend slightly but ascend again via some precarious climbs up to Colle du Berrio Blanc at 2,818m and Mont Fortin at 2,755m where the refreshment point here has been flown in by helicopter due to it’s inaccessibility.  This time last year I was donning all my layers and waterproofs as the storm was about to break, however this year the sun was shining strongly though being at altitude I did put on my arm sleeves and gloves at this point.

Stunning views

The trail starts to descend and runs alongside the lakes towards Col Chavanne crossing numerous snow patches before reaching Elisabetta refuge still at 2,197m. 

I’m excited to join the UTMB route here and I start imagining what I’ll be feeling like in 6 weeks time at this very spot, hopefully I’ll be feeling the same energy and excitement in similar weather conditions.  I wonder if I can make it to Courmayeur before the sunsets? 

Sun starting to set, but still a bit of time to go

Alas the headtorch goes on after the climb up from Maison Vieille refuge to Courba Dzeleuna for the descent into Courmayeur where my impromptu support crew, Jana (who had already finished the 55k) and Chris, are waiting with pizza and cheers to motivate me for the final 30k section.  I fuel up and down a Starbucks cold latte and head back into the night feeling strong and full of positive energy believing I’ll be back in Courmayeur before sunrise.

One very happy lady to see pizza!

Those good feelings don’t last and by the time I’ve ascended to Bertone refuge and I’m on the Val Ferret balcony I’m experiencing some small blackouts from low blood pressure and I realise that whilst I’ve nailed my nutrition this race I haven’t drunk enough electrolytes and I’m out of balance. By the time I reach Bonatti refuge I’m feeling hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably and although I’ve put on my waterproof trousers & jacket, base layer and buff and it takes me half hour wrapped in a foil blanket in a heated shelter before I can move again. Few runners appear to be in high spirits here; fatigued, cold and covered in layers of dirt and sweat this was now developing into type 2 fun and hopefully not delving further to type 3.

The Fun Scale

There’s still 2 more ascents from here before eventually a brutally steep descent begins, frustratingly including yet more ascending before finally descending towards Courmayeur.  The sun has started to rise by now and I’m greeted by a stunning sunrise at La Suche which lifts my spirits somewhat knowing that although these last 30km have not been my finest hours that I AM going to finish this race.

Sunrise at La Suche

I find myself passing some runners as the race hits the outskirts of town as I can now smell the finish and I keep my pace going and enter the village of Courmayeur finding the local village coming alive in the early morning which enthuses me more with the locals cheering me on.  Finally it’s the home stretch and I’m greeted by Chris, Jana and Zoe to cheer me across the finish line.  I had done it!  

Crossing the finish line (Photo: Chris Clayton)

Finishing Gran Trail Courmayeur meant so much more to me than just a race finish, not only because of my DNF last year, but I’ve taken so much confidence away from reaching the finish for the upcoming challenge of UTMB; the Ultra Tour Mont Blanc on 30th August which is a 107 miles with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss.  If I hadn’t been able to finish this race it would have meant some serious mental and no doubt physical hurdles I would have had to overcome if I were to be even half a chance of finishing UTMB.  Time will tell and I know I will hold my head high with my heart and spirit strong when I toe that start line on August 30th in Chamonix.

Finished!

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Exploring the roof of Morocco – Atlas Mountains

Winter is coming…This year having spent my first year in Chamonix I’ve had the experience of -10 degree days, even colder nights and knee high snow paths that the chance to escape this year to run in Morocco held more significance than usual. With the snow drifting onto the tarmac of the Geneva airport runway as I looked outside the aeroplane it dawned on me how flying to Marrakech every March has been a perfect escape for me from the winter blues and of course also an awesome way to run in such a beautiful country without having to pay the cost of a MDS entry and carry all of my kit and food to survive!
This was my third year at the Tizi n Trail 3 day stage race and this time I’d brought 15 others with me, an eclectic mix of ages, nationalities and cultures, with one common interest; running. Scottish, English, Dutch, Australian, Swiss, Canadian & Romanian with ages ranging from 30’s to 60’s get everyone got along. The race has around 120 other competitors mainly from France who enjoy the fact this is a race during the day but at night in the camp hot showers, food and bedding await to make it more than a race but an experience.

The gang!

Held in Morocco you’re guaranteed of course to get a bit of warm sunshine which is ideal for those of us emerging from the winter season and with the location of the race changing every year in Morocco it is always a new experience with new landscapes to explore. This year we were in the Atlas Mountains, starting from Lalla Takarkoust, a 1h45m drive from Marrakesh.

Tai Chi warm up

Fresh Moroccan tea and coffee awaited us at the start line of Day 1 before a gentle Tai Chi warm up commenced. The temperatures were forecast to be in the mid 20’s with 13 miles and 600m ascent to cover. It was meant to be a gentle but challenging start to the event but almost all of us felt eager to get going so set off too quick at the start making the most of the first flattish 3 miles before the heat and the hills kicked in. It wasn’t long before we left the flat lakeside and ascended through remote villages sharing criss crossed trails with locals and donkeys alike. The local children offered shouts and high fives for encouragement and joined many of us for a few minutes running, squealing and laughing along the way. A final stretch along a rocky river bed revealed our bivouac perched up a final climb from which a panoramic view of the mountains was our reward.

Beardy & Blondie crossing the finish line day 1

Relaxing in the sun chatting and eating the tasty sandwiches and fruit prepared by the berbers whilst watching the steady stream of competitors cross the finish line, we all agreed that this was how to do a multi day event. Showered and refreshed we were treated to some songs from the local children before the sunset and it was time for our catered dinner.

Glamping Berber style

Ready for a restful nights sleep we settled into our mattress lined Berber tents only to be awoken at 3am for a full camp evacuation. A freak windstorm had demolished the camp site and we were being taken to safety in the nearby school buildings until the storm died down. The organisers acted promptly and their efficiency combined with all the runners complying with directions with no one kicking up a fuss everyone was kept safe and sound. Even a breakfast of tea/coffee and Moroccan pancakes and bread appeared before the storm finally subsided enough for us all to make our way to the start line. Bleary eyed and a bit tired but all full of high spirits day 2 beckoned.

Ready to start day 2

The storm had definitely caused a drop in temperature keeping us all a bit cooler for the gruelling day ahead. 16 miles and 1,250m ascent through amazing scenery. The first climb brought us out on top of a gorge that opened up in front of us to reveal the most amazing ridge line that we ran along bouncing over rocks before winding back up through little villages. I found my feet on this day and got into the competitive spirit moving up from yesterday’s 17th overall/5th lady to finishing 9th overall/3rd lady. The positive feeling of moving up in the rankings throughout the day buoyed me to keep my momentum.

Stunning route for day 2 (Photo: Graham Kelly)

The climbs were unrelenting and talk in the camp later that day revealed that although everyone had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the day we’d all had to dig a little deeper to get to the finish. Each participant had their own challenges to deal with that day but we were all in awe of Suzan from Holland as she truly embodied the spirit of the race to finish that day. Suzan’s bottom lip trembled as she strode intently towards the finish line, she was smiling but fighting back the tears that pricked her eyes behind her dark sunglasses. It had been a tough task out there on day 2 of Morocco Tizi n Trail race, putting Suzan well out of her comfort zone with 1,250m of ascent over 16 miles of rough and technical terrain in the Atlas mountains, somewhat different to the flat lands of Holland. She’d done it and now surrounded by her newly formed Tizi family she glowed from the achievement.

Suzan reaching Day 2 finish line

Hopeful of getting a good nights sleep after the previous nights storm we all tucked ourselves away for an early night after a delicious Moroccan feast of tagine and couscous. Alas it was not to be and we were in for even more adventure, it was the mountains after all, and torrential rain had us all shifting to corners of the tent to escape the waterfalls.

Our dining room

Awaking from our slumber to a new day, the mountain tops glistened with fresh snowfall and we wondered what the final day ahead would bring with an anticipated ascent of 1,450m in only 9 miles we were heading to the Moroccan ski fields of Oukaimeden. We set off through a quaint mountainside village dotted with cherry blossom trees in full bloom before descending into a river bed that was now full of bubbling streams from all the rain.

Splashing our way through the streams (Photo: Graham Kelly)

With no chance of dry feet we splashed our way upstream towards the next climb. With ever changing scenery we climbed higher and higher eventually giving way to the mountain top village and ski fields of Oukaimeden at an altitude of 3,500m, leaving us all breathless from the combination of exertion, altitude and mind blowing scenery.

The views got better and better every minute!

This years race had as past years races brought all of the runners together with new found friendships but this year like no other we’d also come together with the race volunteers and staff like no other due to the weather throwing us all in together in the most extreme ways. The experiences, laughter and memories of the 3 days was over far too soon but having felt that we’d all experienced so much more than most other races discussions during the awards dinner back in Marrakech quickly turned to talk of returning for next years edition to be held in the beautiful region around Ouarzazate.

Smiles & cold coke at the finish line

For me I headed back to Geneva airport, a little tanned, a lot more rewarded from the experience and also carrying a shiny 3rd place female trophy that will give me the extra motivation to keep pushing my training through the last of the Chamonix winter before starting to focus on the upcoming running season.

My shiny new trophy

To join me in Morocco in 2020 email me at: runningdutchie@hotmail.com