The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc TDS

Preparation for the TDS was a 12 week training cycle (including a 2 week taper with reduced volume) of specific training with lots of vertical. I commenced with training after a short recovery block after the Azores Trail Run and had a recovery week in pancake flat Amsterdam mid June.

Arrival

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We took care of travel logistics (flights, transfers and housing) in January already and the trip out was uneventful. We arrived before 15:00 in Chamonix, settled in for a while, went for a jog and then headed out to watch the start of the PTL. The weather was mellow with some cloud cover, however we knew worse times were coming. Afterwards we took care of groceries for the next few days with everyone carrying a few bags back home. I took a lot of cheese (when in Rome), a bunch of avocados and some red wine (always compulsory) with for snacks.

We prepared dinner and those doing TDS (most of us) started getting gear ready for the checkin the following day. I went to be early and had a good rest.

Checkin

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Woke up to p*ssing rain during the night and even more of it during the morning and it shaped up to probably be a very very wet and slippery TDS, much like the 2012 edition. Went for a short 30 minute jog, got soaked and was quickly reminded just how cold being wet in chilly conditions feel.

For checkin I had a chance to test the waterproof specification of my new WAA Ultra rain jacket and thankfully in passed during a good 20 minutes of standing about in heavy rain. The only organisation feedback I have at this point is the short checkin window (one afternoon) for the 1600 TDS participants – all other races have slots across 2 days. I went through random obligatory material checks as well We found a pizza place with a multi-course “trailer” menu for lunch and afterwards headed to the trail zone and picked up a few last minute items at really good prices.

Dinner was spent again finalizing bags, charging phones and GPS watches and putting clothes ready for dressing real quick at 4am the next morning. I also put breakfast ready, prepped the coffee machine and headed to bed just after 21:00.

Race day

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Had a good almost 7 hours of sleep without interruption and was dressed up and having breakfast (energy cake, bananas and some coconut milk, water and coffee) by 04:00. Sergio and Sidonio joined me a few minutes later and we met up with everyone else just outside the house and made our way to the bus departure zone in downtown a while before 05:00. Missed our designated 05:00 bus, but made it to the 05:30 one. Good spirits throughout the bus ride, along stop at the tunnel en route to Courmayeur and had some last snacks and sips of water before getting off the bus and dropping halfway bags at the departure.

Courmayeur

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This was the biggest race in terms of total participants (1600) for me thus far. The ambient was great and emotional – an energy that’s very difficult to put in words. After the Italian national anthem, we set off through some streets of Courmayeur before commencing with the first climb into the mountains. I was expecting a narrow single track, but it was quite wide and runnable without much congestion. I controlled heart rate for the climb very well and never spent much time in a high or red zone.

Col Checkrouit (7km)

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Used the bathroom quickly, then grabbed some water and isotonic before setting off again. It was starting to feel colder a little higher up and I noticed a strong headwind on the descent towards Lac Combal. Beautiful view of snow covered mountains accross. Noticed Arnaud Julia Bonmati coming up from behind and I let him pass. He took the win in 2013, coming back some 30 places towards the end. Extremely windy section next to the water.

Lac Combal (15km)

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Had some chocolate, cheese (when in Rome!) and stocked up on liquids before going up what looked like a “hill” in comparison to what awaits us later in the day. A long and winding dirt road section followed and I just setlled into a comfortable stride, low heart rate and let gravity do it’s work. I’ve learned from past ultras that going hard on these flowing sections set you up for serious muscle strain later on. Went through some streams, cattle and another small lake before another short climb up to to Col du Petit Saint-Bernard.

Col du Petit Saint-Bernard (36km)

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The usual liquids refill, grabbed some banana pieces and a salty broth and eased into what would be one of the longest descents of the whole course. Temperature started rising a few kilometres later as we went into the valley to the first checkpoint with assistance. Nice single track, lots of kids waving flags and a run through a park and picnic area. At this point I regretted not having neither sunscreen nor sunglasses, but so it goes. Lots of movement at the checkpoint.

Bourg St-Maurice (51km)

I had some coke, refilled liquid and took a few minutes to consume various bits of food I don’t really remember. My backpack got checked for mandatory gear prior to departure. We passed several houses on what was the start of probably one of the longest climbs on the course. Noticed many families having mega sized ice cold beers in their gardens. That thought soon detracted by the single track into the climb. It was very very hot on the way up and I passed several runners, many of them just standing gasping for breathe or working hard, but not really moving. Bourg St-Maurice to Cormet de Roseleno was 16km odd and it felt like more than an hour for what was the 5km up to Fort de La Platte.

Fort de La Platte (56km)

There was a bunch of us in a train, spread out over a few hundred meters. This would continue mostly until Col du Joly, where the group spread out. A fun climb and very technical descent into the “halfway” section at 67km where we had access to our drop bag too.

Cormet de Roseleno (66km)

Refilled on gels, liquids and spent maybe 10 to 15 minutes here, taking time to eat and drink well as the next aid station was 19km and 1700mD+ away, with some unforgiving terrain. Realized maybe 2km after leaving I probably consumed too much, but the first part was a longish climb, so there was time for the stomach contents to settle. The descent into La Gitte was very beautiful, with sunshine and many grassy hills.

La Gitte (74km)

Replaced fluids from a water tank and went straight into the next climb. Unforviging, with soft terrain that often gave way, it was getting colder, visibility wasn’t that good going up and the descent was tricky, with some large rocks and plenty of mud. A few more kilometres and we arrived at a super chilly Col du July.

Col du Joly (86km)

Took some time here again to eat and drink well before a long drop towards Les Contamines. Daylight was fading so I mounted my headlamp already, entered a dirt road which soon became a techinical and wet descent through a forest down to Les Contamines. My GPS watch died here too, so flying blind until the end. Pitch dark between the trees. No runners in front, or behind. It’s always nice moments being alone too, but also can’t help to constantly wonder if one’s not lost. The course markings were very reflective against the headlamps and it was almost easier keeping tabs on the course at night than during the day. Tedious flat section before Les Contamines.

Les Contamines (95km)

Again took a few minutes to refuel and was quite optimistic to know that there’s only 23km missing until Chamonix, however combined with a 1300mD+ elevation change, that’s never easy at the tail end of an ultra (more on this later). I also bumped into Sergio’s wife, Nivalda, who was waiting for him on the way into Les Contamines. Started with the climb up feeling pretty good, passed 2 runners and noticed a few lights behind me too. Had music playing loud and continued up the dirt road, only after about 10 minutes realising I probably went off course and passed an important turn as I couldn’t see any lights behind or in front. Backtracked a few minutes, which is always risky on an uphill because if you were in fact on course before, you’d have to climb up again. Saw lights coming up the hill a while later and noticed them taking a left into the forest. Followed suite and lost maybe 15 to 20 minutes with the navigational error. We climbed in a group of 3, went down pretty fast and then probably had the worse experience of the whole course. Col de Tricot. A WALL!!!! This climb was so steep, the path went up in a zig zag and literally it felt like you’re not even moving despite grinding pretty hard. Ditto for the lights in front – they appeared to also just be “standing”. Was happy to pass through the top, however it wasn’t over, just yet. Some more single track with marginal climbs, a checkpoint before the last descent and what a fun ride it was going through the muddy forest before some tarmac into Les Houches.

Les Houches (111km)

Didn’t stick around too much here as I knew I could comfortably do a sub 19h final time even if I worst case just jogged to the end. Word had it it’s all flat into Chamonix, but the course was mostly a gradual few degrees climb on mixed terrain for about 8km. Was pretty stoked to reach the “1km missing” barrier, knowing it’s pretty much in the bag and looking forward to all sorts of forbidden food at the end.

Chamonix (119km)

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Nivalda, Ana , Paulo and a few others were at the finish, also waiting for Sergio, who was still a few hours back. I arrived 01:45 and remember sensations of relief, joy but also coming to grips with probably a few damaged toes and an intense burning sensation in the lungs from the altitude changes during the course. Managed to come in 34th out of 1600 runners, first Portuguese back “home”. Bumped into Sebastien Nain who arrived 90 minutes earlier, exchanged some words and we took a photo together. I made my way towards the food and drinks area, another Portuguese, João Nunes arrived and we had a beer together before I started shivering from the cold. Time for a hot shower!

Thursday

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I went back to the finish line to wait for Sergio’s arrival, but to also get fresh chocolate croissants and hot coffee from the bakery in town that opens between 05:00 and 06:00. I could not manage to sleep before 07:15 and woke up at 10:00 pretty fresh given the pounding of the day before.

Went downtown for a while, watched the others come in, had some more to eat and then went home to try to recover some hours of sleep before dinner.

Leisure time

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The TDS is the first of the UTMB races to finish up, so it was quite nice to be able to kick back and wind down after the adventure while everyone else (CCC, UTMB and OCC) runners still had to grind some teeth. I spent Thursday and Friday mostly just being around the house, taking the odd walk into town and catching up with work. Also spent a lot of time eating, but managed to keep it cleanish, although the volume was still quite large.

Friday after the wet UTMB departure, a few of us went shopping and racked up some expenses from the Millet, Salomon, The North Face and other stores in what’s probably the closest to 5th Avenue New York that I’ve seen for trail and outdoor thus far.

Sunday

Today was “tourist” day – we went up to Aiguille du Midi  and then visited Mer de Glace before a dinner of epic sized pizzas!

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Takeaways

  • Train at altitude before doing any of the UTMB races. The median altitude for TDS was 2200m with 2600m peaks. Back home in Madeira our highest peak is 1900m, at which altitude it’s not really possible to train for very long distances. I’d fly out a while before and spend some time above 2500m for a few days where possible. The cable care up to Aiguille du Midi is a good option too. It’s possible to spend a few hours per day there, just hanging out in the building, eating, reading, working etc.
  • I didn’t do any recon of the course, other than a rough overview of the profile map. I would most definitely consider doing some of the UTMB courses, especially the tail end, to have a sense of what to expect towards the end. Les Contamines is 23km out from the finish at Chamonix, it was however a downright nasty section of the course with some really intense climbs that I wasn’t expecting at all. Probably also good to have a mega dose of some caffeine source prior to leaving there.
  • Pickup as much water as you can from natural sources (streams, waterfalls etc.) when available as there’s some sections of 18km+ that’s going to set you back more than 2 hours and a 1L minimum capacity won’t fly there.
  • Have warm soup. Everywhere.
  • Walking sticks. Use them religiously. Do most hill training with them too.
  • In terms of pacing and strategy, I’d probably would have been more careful during kms 30 through 51, maintain a better average from 51 through 87km and then be more focussed on that last climb out of Les Contamines – it can be worth 10 to 15 positions in that section alone.
  • Col de Tricot means “a wall” 🙂 You will dream that, for days.
  • Pay close attention to weather forecasts. And have good gear. Seriously, don’t cut corners here.
  • Get into a proper sleep rhythm of bed by 20:00 a few days prior in order to be able to wake up before 04:00 on race day, functional. The devil’s in the details, but you can literally stuff up months of work by failing with sleep.

With that, I’m closing the season without any more ultras this year. Ditto for Grand Raid Reunion. I will structure 2015 around 3 races to free up some time for other projects.

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