Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km – in summary, one of the most scenic, most enjoyable and most challenging events I have undertaken. Well run on the day, but with room for improvement in terms of pre-race communication. Everyone (runners, volunteers and spectators) was super friendly, and willing to account for my 20 words of Italian (most of which are foods). Definitely one to add to your list, but make sure you keep track of their Facebook page for pre-race updates.
I’m still on the hunt for a finish at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which means more qualifying points are required to allow my ‘guaranteed place’ for 2019 to kick in. With that in mind, I joined the back of the joint start pen for the 55 and 105 km events at the Gran Trail Courmayeur, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, on Saturday. All I needed was a sub-30 hour finish in the 105(ish) km event to get my points, but the race has such a generous cutoff for a reason. It has 7000m gained, and the same descended, with much of it being quite technical (fixed ropes provided and crampons compulsory kind of technical); finishing isn’t guaranteed, particularly with only 1 pain-free run under my belt since early March.
I had come out a week early to do some recces – always dangerous, as one is inclined to get carried away and knacker oneself instead of tapering as one should! This allowed me to have a look at the final leg (the route being from Courmayeur down to Pre St Didier, climbing high above La Thuile before dropping through the town, over Mont Fortin to Col de la Seigne and Elisabetta. From here, it follows the UTMB route back through Courmayeur and out to Refugi Bonatti, before looping back over Col Sapin to Courmayeur. I managed to see some of the more technical elements during my recces, which gave me enough of an insight to scare me! Registration opened on the Friday night, with a wrist band, GPS, bib and a Tor Des Geants booklet handed out for inspiration. The slightly irksome 20 euro deposit for the GPS bore fruit at the finish, when I suddenly had 20 euros available for an ice cream!
After packing my kit and having a good 7 hour dirtbag sleep in the car, I pootled up to the start area for the Italian/French/English race brief, in time to get my GPS checked and squeeze in to the back of the start pen (thankfully not the front, judging by the pace the front runners went off). We were briefed that mountain guides would man certain sections, and that if we were told to put our crampons on, it was for good reason, with a lot of snow on the high ground (topping out about 3000m). The weather was due to be sunny with cloud (perfect for most of Saturday in the end) with some rain overnight but no storms(!). With crampons taking up space in my smallish race vest, I packed gloves, waterproof trousers and a thin hoody on top of the other compulsory kit and a lot of food, leaving out my insulated sweater.
The first 4 miles was downhill on groomed single track or road, being my only miles that were sub-14 minute. The start of the climb saw the race start properly, with zigzags climbing through the trees. A Brit expat living in the south of France (also Ben) overtook and saw my RAF100 flag; we had a good chat as we continued climbing, with the effort lessened by the conversation. With entrant population being majority Italian, significant minority French, a fair showing of Brits and 20-some other nations also represented, discussion with passing runners was ‘Buongiorno/Ciao’ followed by a mix of English and French, with occasional comedy moments of 2 Brits trying to speak Italian to each other. The first aid station at Petrosan (subject of one of my recces in the car, with some interesting Duchy of Savoy era battlements) came and went, with a top off of water and some orange slices and dark chocolate taken on board. Onward, up the hill…
As a somewhat overweight runner, I’m realistic about my chances in most races, but this one was all about gaining the UTMB points in as scenic a setting as possible, and this, the first of three (different) loops absolutely provided scenery. A long climb to 2000 metres+ saw us traversing clifftops/bottoms, snow fields and some quite exposed sections, before reaching a beautiful rifugio with spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif. The only hairy moment came when passing a chap who had stopped for a quick rest on a narrow section; I stood on a wobbly boulder and came very close to going head first down the mountain. Luckily, he grabbed me in time to stop a fall, and turned out to be Graham – another Brit. Conversation filled the short descent to the aid station. A quick refill of soft flasks and some chocolate, orange slices and crackers pilfered for the next leg, and it was on to a section with ropes provided, dropping past some thundering glacial waterfalls, during a very technical 1500m descent over almost two hours (for me).
I was still 2 hours inside the cutoffs as I descended in to the ski resort of La Thuile, having made good (walking) progress down the mountain. I managed to turn my phone on and saw a load of supportive messages, which cheered me up no end as I felt a bad patch coming on. I took a few minutes to refuel, empty my shoes of stones and lube up, before attacking the 8 mile or so climb past the exposed Col Youla, on to Leg 2. With a couple of thundery grumbles, the heavens opened as we climbed through the woods, providing relief from the rising temperatures. On with the waterproof jacket, until the next check point. While my legs were feeling strong on the descents, my legs, lungs and head were struggling to cope with the steep grassy climbs on the upper reaches. Reaching the higher technical section though, the excitement of being in the no fall zone masked the lack of fitness, and I found myself picking up pace on the long exposed traverses, no longer as nervous as I had been when recceing the area solo. By pushing these sections, I managed to stay 2 hours or more inside the cutoffs, overtaking Graham and catching up with Ben at the rocky outcrop of Mont Fortin.
As we bimbled down from the highest peak on the course on the long undulating travers towards Col de la Seigne and the French border, the rain that had threatened earlier started in earnest. By the time the epic thunderstorm we had been told wouldn’t happen arrived, we were making our way down the rubble slope from the exposed ridge, and so enjoyed a mix of hail, rain, wind and sheet lightning and thunder overhead. The stop at the Elisabetta Refuge was a brief one, scoffing a big handful of ham, emptying my shoes and cracking on past Lac Combal (scene of my 2014 UTMB drop). The dark cloud brought night earlier than expected, and with the storm still in full swing (about the time the winner finished) a lot of runners opted to drop at this point rather than climbing back on to the ridge with the storm in full swing. Some of the race support guys were flashing their blues and twos whenever they saw a headtorch, so I passed the turn off and went to see whether they were halting the race due to the storm. It turned out it was just to let people know there was a lift back to Courmayeur if they wanted. Feeling good and with points in mind, I summoned the will to crack on (though plenty of others didn’t).
It was now a case of putting my head down and grizzing it up the hill, soaked to the skin; the storm eased as we headed towards La Maison Vieille, above Courmayeur. I grabbed a ten minute power nap before yet another technical descent in the dark, coinciding with Ben’s arrival. An unexpected steep climb followed by the long drop brought us in to Courmayeur. A bit more admin, and Ben and I set off through the town towards the first steep thousand vertical metres of the third loop. We were both hallucinating that rocks and trees were various other things (my favourite being the Trump Balloon) until we topped out and started the long traverse with, as the sun came up on day two, spectacular views of the back of Mont Blanc.
The final few hours were quite emotional. We had left Courmayeur with more than 2 hours in hand, but I had slowed right down on the climbs, so we were concerned that over 26 hours of moving, including heat and hail, would stop us getting to the finish. We cracked on up the last pass, discovering that we had enough time to take the final challenging and at times dangerous descent, including a number of snow covered torrents, at a sensible pace without putting a finish at risk. We jogged down the high street to applause as 28h30 approached. It appeared the plaudits were mainly from faster runners who had finished, showered, eaten and had a full night’s sleep while we slowly followed behind them.
Of the 306 entrants in the 105, at least 110 DNF’d, with up to 196 finishing. Ben and I came in in 153 and 154th place, with 90 minutes in hand before the cut off. Happily, the finish was right next to an ice cream shop, so I spanked most of my GPS deposit on replenishing calories. Luckily, the legends that are Lou, Jamie and Archie put me up the night after the race, to allow me a solid night’s sleep without far of being rousted by the Carabinieri. With slightly sore feet but no other ill effects yet to emerge (probably due to the amount of walking done rather than running), it was a successful and enjoyable day (and a bit) out, in a beautiful area, with some awesome people. Now for the long drive back to the UK…