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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We wouldn’t want it to be easy, would we?

A year ago I witnessed my husband, Dion; tackle ,suffer and ultimately complete the HURT 100 where in the days after this accomplishment he said to me in all honesty ‘I don’t think you could finish this race’. He said this with 2 meanings; firstly he knew that kind of talk would challenge me to want to do it & he’d then get another trip to Hawaii out of it and secondly I think he honestly thought it might just be too big for me. Of course talk like that is like waving a red flag at a bull so in August 2018 I entered the lottery and was drawn in the ballot to run the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team 100 mile race, where the acronym HURT stands for so much.
HURT 100 is a 5 lap course of 20 miles and 1500m/4,900 feet gain & loss per lap; a series of out and backs in a T-bone style route with 99% of the route run on muddy, treacherous, tree rooted, rocky jungle trails in mid 20 degree temperatures and 80% humidity. Dubbed as one of the toughest hundred milers out there due to the terrain and conditions resulting in a yearly 50% -70% DNF (Did Not Finish) rate mainly from either stomach or hydration issues due to the humidity or feet issues from the onset of trench foot but if this doesn’t get you the tight 36 hour cutoff is the final factor. The winning men roughly come in at 21-24 hours and the winning female from 25-28 hours so there’s not much time left on the other side of that.

Course profile looks a bit lumpy!

In 2018 I’d crewed Dion for the first 4 laps meeting him at every checkpoint with supplies of cold drinks, extra food and supportive excited encouragement and then ran the last lap with him. He’d had a strong 4 laps and was in 12th position overall but the 5th lap took us just over 9.5 hours as his legs started to cramp up and seize up at every climb and every decent. The lap for me was fun! I was enjoying a very relaxed pace of the 20 mile loop in the Hawaiian sun with the man I love going into the finish so perhaps this filled me with a false sense of doability. Combined with completing my first hundred, the iconic Leadville 100 in August, followed by taking on ‘The Beast’ that was Oman by UTMB I felt I was in a good place to become one of the few that finish HURT 100.

Feeling strong ahead of the race.

I’d had a pretty good lead up to the race, recovered well from Oman and was feeling fit, strong and motivated to go. I felt I was missing a bit of vertical trails in my training due to living in snowy Chamonix where my runs had been reduced to shorter times outside and more time on a treadmill. I had a good race nutrition strategy to be using a lot of liquid fuel (Active Root, Torq, Mountain Fuel) combined with the food at the most amazing checkpoints I was pretty sure I had the nutrition part nailed. Armed with the strongest head torches to light up the forest for the night sections and all my kit tried and tested.
The flight to Hawaii is long, 2 changeovers and at least 18 hours in the air isn’t ideal but I arrived with 3 days to acclimatise but did manage to pick up a cold from the flight, waking up on Thursday with a sore throat, not enough to cause me to worry but it was in the back of my mind. Self catered before the race meant I could keep my nutrition on track and I stood at the start line at 6am on Saturday morning ready and raring to go. I stuck with my friend, Cheryl who was back for her third attempt to finish, up the first climb and as the sun came up we separated and I enjoyed getting a bit of a run on the slightly runnable sections. Dion wasn’t able to meet me during the first lap due to timing rules but the checkpoint crew are so amazing I didn’t need him.

Cheryl & I at registration

The checkpoints are the best I’ve experienced in a race, the volunteers are super attentive and due to the layout of the race you visit each one 5 times and get to know the people there and they become you’re very own support crew. With a huge array of drinks and food on an ever changing menu along with ice towels for your neck the are worth their weight in gold.
I focussed on drinking my energy drinks between checkpoints and eating a little something along the way before a good fill up at each checkpoint. Lap 1 was going good, I felt strong, grateful for the unrelenting rain showers that kept me cooler though provided more mud and humidity. At 5h 45m I was excitedly back at the start/finish where I was due to see Dion and get an ice cold bottle of coconut water from him, only to find out he’d been sent to the next checkpoint as they’d taken down a wrong number and told him I’d already been through. Disappointed but not crushed, I soldiered out of there to tackle lap 2.

Running into the checkpoint on lap 2-Pirates of Paradise

Steadily drinking and keeping my energy levels up, focussing on walking the hills and getting a little run on any of the flattish or downhill sections I was pleased to reach the next checkpoint in high spirits and energy, with Dion waiting there for me. A quick turnaround and I’m back out, crossing back past Cheryl on the climb back out. We’re both positive, give each other a special high five greeting spurring each other on. With the style of the route you are constantly back past people after the first lap which is great for giving each other encouragement.

Arriving at Nu’uanu on lap 2

The climb out starts out okay but now in the heat of the day the humidity, unbeknownst to me, is starting to take its toll on my body and I start to feel nauseous and reach the next checkpoint looking a bit green under the gills and not having taken on enough fluids or energy, Dion tries to fill me with everything possible to get me back on track. Armed with a watermelon and grape snack he sends me out with strict instructions to just keep sipping my energy drinks and keep moving.

The river crossing into and out of Nu’unau

The climb out of the checkpoint is unrelenting, having passed another runner on the crest vomiting, I too am brought to my knees. I stumble down and try and steady my heaving stomach and spinning head. I try to drink a little and attempt to cool down and bring my heart rate back down to no avail. I attempt to eat the watermelon but then it comes, I start dry heaving and vomit it back up. I try to swallow a paracetamol as this sometimes helps when I’m overheated but this too won’t stay down. The spinning and nausea stops enough to get up and I keep moving. The key in this race is to keep moving as time is always ticking.

Rainbows amongst the HURT

Tick, tock, tick, tock! I complete lap 2 in 7 hours, slower from nausea which also meant I’d had to complete the last 40 mins using my phone torch as I’d not planned to be in the dark already and didn’t have a head torch on me. With a 36 hour cutoff, any laps 7 hours and over and you’re in the danger zone, especially with no real time buffer. I was a lot slower than I’d wanted but I was there and although behind schedule, not impossible especially with Dion joining me for lap 3, if I could get my nausea to stay away we could make this up.

The terrain is anything but easy

Armed with Dion and head torches that light up the jungle we climb back out. Slow and steady up the climb, trying to retain a low heart rate and keep the nausea at bay. The heat doesn’t subside for me, any remnants of the breeze disappears in the night and the heat is stifling. We get through the next checkpoint ok and the climb out starts ok again with renewed fuel in the body but it’s not long before my pace drops again in an attempt to keep my heart rate down. As soon as it rises, I feel ridiculously nauseous so this is imperative but the clock is ticking. Finally reaching the next checkpoint, my tank is empty and I’m moving forward on sheer will rather than anything else at this stage. We try to take some time in this aid station to refuel me, helped by a very patient volunteer who tries bringing me every bit of food they have to try and find something that I’ll eat….lentil soup, potatoes, chicken & beans, chilli, cake…you name it. All I want is the one thing they don’t have, chicken noodle soup 😂

 

Dion’s tells me we need to move, and we need to get up this climb quicker as we are chasing the clock and I actually manage to get moving again out of here with a steady hike up, we reach the top and get through the pig gates ok but suddenly the nausea is back with vengeance this time. I sit on the side of the trail and try to drink some warm coconut water that Dion’s been carrying, it doesn’t help. I try a salt tablet but as soon as it hits my throat I’m vomiting. I suck on a hard sweet to get rid of the vomit taste but it’s all I can stomach, any sip of water or energy drink after this comes back up and I’m just getting slower and slower. Even at this slow pace we pass a couple of people that are in an even worse state than me. This race just ruins people!

All the suffering

It feels like forever and it is, 8 hours of forever and lap 3 is finished. And so am I. I can’t keep anything down, I’m devoid of energy and even if I leave for lap 4, I’d need to do this in 8 hours and then only have 7 hours to do lap 5. Do the math. It doesn’t add up. I can’t even cry, I want to cry. I want to scream and shout at the world because I wasn’t able to finish. But all I can do is sit and stare, caked in mud, sweat and a good dose of humble pie. HURT you’ve beaten me, with good reason, but you were too much for me. This time.
“If you don’t challenge and push yourself to the limits you don’t know what you can achieve. You won’t always achieve them but you will learn a lot about yourself and how to become a better runner going forward. Yeah there are easier 100 mile races out there but ‘We wouldn’t want it to be easy, would we?”

Leadville 100-The Race Across the Sky

This ain’t no powder puff race!

Epic, iconic, awesome and legendary are words you commonly here when people talk about having run a 100 mile race, which are all true when talking about Leadville, but what about legacy? How many races out there are not only changing our lives as runners but those of people in their local community? How many races make you really feel part of an extendable family?

Race co-founder Ken Chlouber, an avid marathon runner dreamt up the race as a way to make Leadville famous and attract visitors during the 1980’s after the closure of the Climax mine which was a major blow to the towns economy, putting the town as the highest unemployment level in the USA overnight as thousands lost their jobs. The first race was held in 1983 and has been held annually since. The race starts and finishes in Leadville, Colorado on an out and back course on trails and dirt roads through the heart of the Rocky Mountains climbing and descending 15,600 feet (4,800m) with elevations ranging between 10,200-12,600 feet (3,100-3,850m). The altitude adds that extra element of brutality which results in most years having only a 50% finishing rate. 2018 was no exception with only 52% of starters making it across the finish line before the 30hr cut off.

The Leadville 100 strips you down to your raw inner and you’re reborn when you cross that finish line, life changed forever. But the local lives are changed too. Every year since 2002 the race, through the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, gives a $1,000 scholarship to every graduate from high school, helping to set them up on a path to success. Their mission is to support the needs of Leadville, Lake County community and build a better, brighter tomorrow, while respecting their mining heritage.

It’s no wonder that the support along the course is second to none! The community love and embrace the race spirit and they are there to do what they can to help each and every runner reach the finish. Checkpoints morph into small festivals with fire pits and parties absolutely on point.

4am start with Ken & Marilee at the helm

Starting in the dark at 4am the race sets off at a quick pace with a relatively downhill start to the first checkpoint, puncturing the night sky with head torch light trails and whoops of excitement from 750 runners amid plenty of friendly chatter and stories from the trails. The story of a bear sighting along this very trail only a few weeks back sticks with me through the race. Sunrise along Turquoise Lake welcomes us to May Queen at 13.5 miles.

Sunrise at Turquoise Lake

The first real climb of the day is quickly upon us as we head up Sugarloaf Pass on a very runnable but deceivingly draining up hill, some runners choose to run this, but I opt for a running start moving into a power hike before reaching the top and enjoying a really fun downhill stretch known as Power-line to The Outward bound checkpoint at 23.5 miles.

Feeling strong out of Outward Bound

The second climb takes place up Mt Elbert after going through Half Pipe checkpoint, it’s not the full way to the top of the mountain but it’s still a hefty ascent to combat before reaching Twin Lakes where my crew are waiting patiently for me ready to get me sorted again at 37.9 miles in.

Heading out of Twin Lakes packed and ready to take on Hope Pass

Refuelled and refreshed heading out of Twin Lakes I pop on some tunes to help keep my cadence hoping that I can keep up a good pace up Hope Pass. Two small ankle deep river crossings chill me right down as I wade through freezing water but wet feet don’t bother me and I shriek and laugh as I cross through.

Loving the river crossing!

I snap open my hiking poles as I see the ascent of the pass ahead and altitude quickly takes its toll. I go from moving well to a slow motion hike that doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere fast but my legs are like lead and my chest is so tight I feel like I can’t breath, I feel runners coming past me but I’m too paralysed to do anything more than the crawl I’m managing. Frustratingly slowly and painfully I make it to Hopeless aid station and refuel before tackling the last 200m ascent before some relief back down the other side to Winfield. As soon as I’m heading down hill my legs free up and the more I descend the better I can breath and I start to pass a few people again. I feel disoriented by this as I’m normally a stronger climber than a descender but the altitude has flipped this all on its head. Ken’s words ‘Make friends with pain and you will never be alone’ were echoing in my ears loudly.

Obligatory selfie on top of Hope Pass, making pain my friend!

I’m greeted at the halfway point at Winfield, 50miles and just under 13 hours, by my first pacer Aaron, a total stranger to me until today. I love this about the running community, you only have to seek out support and you find it. I now have 2 new life long friends who both sacrificed their weekend to join me through the night to help me get to the finish. Aaron is keen to get me moving quickly and we don’t hang about the aid station and within minutes we are back on the trail and commencing the steep ascent back up Hope Pass.

Seriously in the pain cave heading back up Hope Pass for the 2nd time! (Photo credit : Aaron)

We are literally heading home now but the thought doesn’t motivate my legs into action, we crawl up Hope Pass as the wind picks up and the sun starts to make its descent. Jackets, buffs and gloves thrown on we get over the pass and back at Hopeless aid station Aaron has to pull me away from the warm camp fire to get going. We need to make up time as I’ve now eaten well into my good head start of the cut offs and the concerns of chasing cut off times starts to kick in. The 30 hour cut off set for the race is very tight and it certainly means there is no time to rest at the check points as you can all so easily lose valuable time and miss out on finishing like 48% of starters this year did.

Up and Up!

It’s dark before we reach Twin Lakes again so head torches are back on and we tackle the freezing river crossing in the dark which certainly wakes me up! And then we make it to Twin Lakes now 62.5 Miles in and making cut off by only half an hour. Dion, my husband, who has been crewing since the start is there and he offers forceful encouragement and I can see concern is all over his face; he knows how badly I want this belt buckle and he fears this is slipping out of my reach. At no point have I felt like quitting, I have come into this race with the right intentions and the positive mindset with the mantra from the race briefing still ringing in my ears “I commit, I won’t quit”.

We head off again into the dark and it’s straight back into a climb up Mt Elbert, again my legs are like lead and I start to feel really queasy and continuously struggling for air, with bouts of dizziness which has Aaron worrying as I keep stumbling. As we finally reach the top the heavens open for a downpour saturating us before we make the next checkpoint. It’s here I put on every layer I have, 2 base layers, 2 waterproof jackets, buff and gloves to try and get warm again. Aaron forces me to eat more than I have at any other checkpoint and we get down to Half Pipe at 71.1 Miles where we’ve now managed to make up 10 mins and we are 40 mins ahead of cut off, the time hangs over my head somewhat as 40 minutes isn’t really that much in the scheme of things and I know I need to keep digging deep if I am going to be awarded that finishers buckle.

We change pacers at Outward bound station 76.9 miles and James joins me to get back up Power Line, that really fun downhill now has to be climbed! It’s the first time I’ve spoken to James in person and within 10 minutes I’m double over and vomiting no doubt making a great first impression. Somehow the vomit makes me feel better and we ascend the hill so much stronger than the last 4 climbs. James is loving it and pushes me to get a jog on again when we reach the top for the descent back into May Queen at 87.8 miles, passing about 50 runners, where Dion and Aaron are surprised to see us down already.

Daylight breaks again

The sun is just starting to rise as Aaron joins me for the final leg to the finish, just 12.6 miles to go and we’ve got just over 3 hours to make it but on tired legs this doesn’t mean it’s in the bag but I can feel it, I can feel I’m going to get that belt buckle and I surprise Aaron with my refound energy and we start playing a game of Pac-Man, every person we see we aim to catch them and we end up passing 50 runners to the finish line.

Enjoying my game of Pac Man!

That finish line! Before you enter the town of Leadville you can hear the cheers and applause which spurs you on and as you turn onto 6th street you still can’t quite see the finish line but the streets are lined with local support. Everyone has come out to cheer us all on and the noise is deafening, tears start flowing as I get choked up by the emotion of it all knowing that I am minutes away from finishing my first 100. As we get closer we can see the finish line, the uphill finish line I might add, and we start to plan how to position me for the finishers photo, under strict instructions from Dion to make sure I leave a gap between runners so he can get a good photo. We decide to pass a couple more, then a couple after that until finally my feet hit the red carpet and I’m running under the banner and into the waiting arms of Merilee. Tears are flowing and I look up to catch Dion also crying, embraces and photos and more hugs from James and Aaron, and of course Ken. I’m on cloud nine, I’ve done it, I’ve raced across the sky where legends are created and limits are tested. I gave the mountains my respect, and earned respect from all. Ken tells me ‘Finishing this race will change your life. It truly has and it will change your life too if you let it.

One very happy 100 mile finisher!