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.


Kit List

Burgos Ultra Stage Race

The dark sky was tinged with the promise of the day ahead as the deep sound of the beating drums and horns emanated from the forest.  Our group of 23 runners walked purposefully towards the sounds with some trepidation and nervousness of what lay ahead.  We had come from all parts of the world to run the Way of Legends, a 250 km stage race that traverses along the historic pilgrimage path of Saint James to the finish line at the Cathedral of Burgos, a magnificent world heritage site.  We all had a shared goal; to become a legend in our own right and complete this grueling and challenging race whilst experiencing the natural beauty, culture and gastronomy of this amazing region crossing through different landscapes reliving each stages own legend as we went.  As we came upon the sounds we could now see the Druids that had come to bless us on our path, their ancient dialect translated for us as they gave each of us poison berries to take in the event of capture.

Check out my video of the race here:

As we set off the dawn broke and we witnessed a spectacular sunrise and eased our legs into the first few kilometres of the 48 km day ahead.  The race is a fully catered event except for your fuel during the race, so a small rucksack (I used a 3L Waa Ultra bag) is all that is required for you to carry to include the mandatory kit along with your food and drink. Don’t be led to believe that the lack of self sufficiency makes this race ‘easy’.  To run over a marathon a day for 5 days straight through varying degrees of technicality and some chunky ascents & descents, with all extremes of weather at both ends, meant that we were all truly tested and our legs were feeling the pain and fatigue by the end of the week.

Beating the drums with Stan

What a revelation a catered multi day race is after running self sufficient events!  At the end of each day the wonderful team of professional chefs cooked up amazing organic and vegan option meals.  Lunch always consisted of a soup of the day and a selection of prosciutto, cheeses, guacamole and bread with the option of wine and beer if you so desired.  Then a full dinner followed and you awoke to coffee and a tasty breakfast to set you up for the day.

Dinner time!

Different to all other stage races this one has amazing and uniquely comfortable camps with beds, hot showers and massages available.  On the night before the final stage we slept in the Monastery of San Pedro Cardeña and were each treated to our own individual Shamanic drum ceremony with the wonderful Oscar Martine before embracing the spiritual sounds of the monks final songs at the end of the evening.

With Oscar the Sharman and my finishers medal

We were all touched spiritually during this race in our own ways, and this became apparent at the awards ceremony on our final night together where most of the runners felt the desire to share with the group how much they were feeling, not just how they were feeling but how much.  Something had opened up in all of us and the outpouring of emotions from everyone was something I had not experienced before, we all had to dig deep during the week and we had all been there for each other.  I will always treasure the memories and the unique finishers medal; a bespoke design by Oscar the Shaman which represents a helmet and therefore a legend, but when turned upside down represents the phoenix and rebirth ‘a rising from the ashes’.  The race is limited to 36 competitors so will always retain this magical feel so don’t delay in signing up, I’d highly recommend it!

Happy finishers

My Kit list:




MdS – What worked well & not so well

I am a Marathon Des Sables finisher! I successfully completed the gruelling challenge and after months of meticulous planning, it’s now time to understand what worked for me and what didn’t. If you are planning to do this event or something similar, I hope this information may be of use to you. Se my original posting here for a detailed kit & food list of what I took.
Was my training right? I had done the training, and I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, and it wasn’t enough. Not to finish how I wanted, yes I finished which can never be taken away, but maybe my training wasn’t quite right. I did the mileage that’s for sure, you can see that on my training plan, but there wasn’t enough hills (both as hill repeats and long distance miles in the hills), there was a lack of strength and conditioning and the lack of heat acclimatisation was an obvious hindrance to me as the heat really affected me. I spent too much time running on roads (the dark winter nights & mornings the main cause) which has of course helped me, I would have been worse off without all those miles, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and my advice to anyone taking this on would be hills, hills and more hills. 6 stages is a long time and you need to be consistently strong, recover well (which I felt I did, that routine won’t change) and be ready to change your game plan mid race if needed. Get into any dunes and run and run and run! If you don’t have dunes, then hills to build up the power in your legs to get you through the leg strength sapping dunes.
Food was better this time around, it still needs improvement. Still too much sweet, I didn’t enjoy the muesli or the Pro Bars for breakfast and would look to change this to cous cous. I would swap out the tracker and Eat Natural bars for more Pepperami (they were a Godsend and I can eat them all day) and the tuna packs were a great boost too as they are wet, so quite easy to stomach. I’m keen to try out some gels again as Dion found these worked really well for him and gave him good bursts of energy along the way. I took 2 Oxo stock cubes and made a couple of cups of hot stock in the afternoons which was a tasty, salty drink which made you feel good and also quickly got some fluid in. For the little they weigh, I’d be taking one for each day of different flavours. Biltong is also a great source of protein and a tasty snack, my friend, Philip Boardman, who I had met at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon had brought me some over from South Africa.
I was happy with my clothing. X-Bionic is brilliant and I wouldn’t look to change this. It offers great protection for your body in terms of both from the sun but I also had absolutely no chafing. The X-Bionic clothes keep you cool, but I also noticed during the night stage the top was also working at keeping my body warm as the temperatures dropped. My Raidlight hat with the neck flap was great in protecting my neck, I tried taking the flap off for the charity walk thinking I’d be ok, but quickly put that on as you could feel the sun beating down in minutes! My New Balance Leadville shoes did the job again, I had them in a half a size up from my normal running shoe, and the AR Desert gaiters from South Africa were great. No sand got in to cause irritation, and they lasted the distance. I wore Injinji toe socks which work well for me (zero blisters) and at the start of the race I had Compressport calf guards on as well, but due to the high extremes of heat mixed with the constriction of the calf guards, my legs, including my ankles, broke out in a horrible heat rash. I ditched the calf guards after the long stage and it seemed to help.
I didn’t seem to find the Raidlight Olmo 20L pack as comfortable as the 30L Raidlight I used in Kalahari. It seemed to sit too high on my waist, rather than on my hips, so more of the pack weight was on my shoulders, so even though my pack was a kilo lighter, it felt heavier; or was it just the other elements of heat & sand confusing my feelings? The drink bottles again worked great for me.

Ready to go - full kit rehearsal still at home

Ready to go – full kit rehearsal still at home

It was a bit cool at night and although I had a long sleeved skin, I ended up nabbing a long sleeve thermal top from tent mate Cheryl on day 1 when she was dumping weight from her pack, which I used every night. I had my buff which worked 4 fold; as a neck buff during the day if needed (I didn’t this time), wore it as a boob tube in the afternoon to save wearing a bra, then it was an eye mask early evening while people were messing around with torches, then finally as head cover during the night when it got cold. I also had a pair of little shorts and 3/4 compression tights for the afternoon/evenings. You could just wear your race kit all day and night but it is ‘refreshing’ to change into something else for a while. Some people take underwear and spare pairs of socks, I don’t run in underwear as that prevents chafing, and I wore the same pair of socks all week with no issues. My socks were walking themselves by the end of the week however! They looked very cute standing up all on their own two feet!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

My Thermarest sleeping mat was as ‘comfortable’ as it could be, although it’s noisy when rolling around on it; that is until it got a puncture on the night of the long stage which was rather annoying and ultimately very uncomfortable for the last couple of nights sleep. The lack of pillow was also uncomfortable after the first few nights. I had been using my pack as a pillow, but then it started to get too empty so then used my kit, but that wasn’t enough, and it stunk! So I need to find a solution to this, possibly going back to the z-lite mat or similar and I have heard of someone using a condom blown up each night as a pillow….might be one to try out.
I added a small bottle of antiseptic hand gel to my pack before the start and was grateful for that small touch of hygiene throughout.
It is always interesting see what other people wear and bring with them, but it is all pretty similar in the end.  I hope these thoughts are of some help to you with your own plans.