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

It’s the small things that matter most

During my experience as a runner I have learnt a lot of things and sometimes it’s all the little things that can make the biggest difference.  Whether that’s out on a training run or a big race event or adventure challenge.  Here’s my wee list of the small things that matter to me.

  • Hat – Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just for when the sun is out, a visor make a great rain shield for your eyes as well you know!  I have a variety of hats and visors for different conditions.  I love running in a visor in the UK, the sun is not that hot or scorching that you need the full head cover and the visor actually means you can let the hot air from your head escape easily.  My favourite is the Compressport pink visor.  For more full cover I use the Salomon XA cap which I used during Transvulcania this year.  When I head to the desert though nothing beats my Raidlight Sahara Cap, aptly named as it works a treat in the Marathon Des Sables through the Sahara desert keeping you neck covered up from the scorching and unrelenting sun.
  • Sunglasses – A recent convert to Julbo sunglasses after a thorough and glowing recommendation from hubby, Dion, I’ve got myself a pair of the Julbo Run version.  They sit well on my face without slipping down the bridge of your nose.  Previous to that I had been using Naked Runner sunglasses which had served me really well too, lasting about 2 years through some pretty hard core events so they certainly took a beating.
  • Beanie – I don’t like the cold, so I have to keep my ears and head warm and I turn to my X-Bionic Soma Cap Light, it fits as snug as a bug and keeps me toasty warm up top.
  • Headband – When I’m not wearing a visor/hat/beanie I use a headband as my fly away bits of hair can get quite annoying when they hit you straight in the eye, so I reach for my Lululemon Cardio Cross Trainer Headband or their Fringe Fighter Headband (which can also double as an ear warmer in the slightly cooler temperatures).
  • Sunscreen – It’s all too easy to get burnt out there, so I always reach for an all day protection called P20 so I don’t need to worry about re-applying when I am out all day, or out in the extreme temperatures of the Sahara desert (I use the 50+ for that).
  • Socks – I don’t know whether I have just been lucky or smart but I won’t be changing my sock formula anytime soon as I don’t (touch wood) suffer from blisters.  I have two favourites.  I love Injinji socks and they have got me through a lot of multi day stage races wearing just one and only one pair of socks through extreme heat and sandy conditions without washing, and secondly are the X-Socks range from X-Bionic that just keep on going in the same way no washing required!  Ideally washing is great, but I can safely say these socks are fantastic and it is definitely worth investing in a few decent pairs to keep your tootsies in tip top condition.
  • Salt tablets – During exercice you lose a lot of sweat and more specifically, sodium (or salt).  As most of us have probably cut down our intake of salt over the years based on nutritional advice you could be not getting enough.  Especially if you are an endurance athlete.  I tend to use salt fairly generously in my day to day cooking due to the level of exercise I do, and rely on salt tablets only for endurance events so anything where I will be out for longer than 4 hours.  During an ultra run I will look to take a salt tablet every 1-2 hours depending on the conditions (I took 1 every 2 hours in the Ultimate Trails 110km in The Lakes but I took 1 every hour during the Marathon Des Sables and KAEM.)  I have found during events if I haven’t taken my salt consistently then I can feel nauseous which then means I don’t eat, which means I don’t have energy to compete and then subsequently suffer from cramps during the night.  Other runners I know have complained of other symptoms such as cramping, disorientation and slurred speech.  This is probably why you might find yourself craving savoury items rather than sweet during heavy exercise or soon after, your body does try and tell you what it needs after all.
  • Menstruation – Just for the ladies, but it happens and it can be a pain in the you know what.  I’m lucky I can plan my cycle (with the pill) around races so I don’t have the added hassle during an event but for when it is due I like to use a Moon cup rather than tampons or liners.  The moon cup is a reusable silicone cup that you insert and as required remove, rinse and re-insert.  It’s safer, greener and cheaper and you can find them at your local Boots store.  The good thing with the moon cup is that it doesn’t need to be changed every few hours, I can pop it in and go all day and sometimes all night depending on which day of the cycle I’m on without needing to remove which is really handy when you are out for some long days on the feet.
  • (R) Underwear – As a long time sufferer from chafe I was delighted to find out about Runderwear.  For years I have stuck to running commando for the lower half, but still ended up with some chafe especially if the heavens open and it’s that delightful mix of sweat, rain and all sorts of dust and debris rubbing together to make that un-loved and rather painful chafe.  And for sports bras, I have tried every brand of sports bra out there and even though I am not that well endowed up top anymore (only just scraping a B cup these days) I still got chafe for any run over a half marathon distance.  Throw a running vest/back pack on top and I have scars to prove just how bad chafe can be, my solution to this was to tape my hot spots up with zinc oxide tape which does work but what a ball ache!  But no more!  Runderwear to the rescue!  I was sceptical to say the least but after trying out a pair of briefs, g-string and crop top I am converted.  To date they have got me through a marathon (wearing a running vest too) without a hint of chafe.  The Runderwear briefs and g-string are perfect for all but the crop top doesn’t offer the full support some of the more voluptuous chests would call for, but I would highly recommend for anyone fitting into a B cup or below as it gives me enough support.  Stay tuned for a full write up on the Runderwear in full brief (get it!).

I hope these ‘little’ things help you in your running adventures.