I like to think that I’m a simple man – I’m not referring to the figurative “who am I?” or “where is my running journey taking me?” but to the literal interpretation of actually knowing where you are going. Sure there is now an abundance of route plans, maps, compasses, GPS gizmos and smart phones to navigate your way, but none are really a substitute for that first hand experience and having traveled a particular path before….
The path in this story is that of The CCC trial, part of the UTMB weekend and an event that crosses the mountainous borders of Italy, Switzerland and France. For me a path into the unknown. One of self discovery and exploration. One which would, literally, elevate me to heights I’ve not been to before, and there lay my concern. A fear I would struggle to admit openly – the unknown frightens me! But more on that another time.
Whilst I am confident in my abilities to ‘just get things done’, and am becoming accustomed to the need to just ‘keep going’ and the challenges (both physical and mental) encountered during an ultra, I recognised that, for me, running The CCC will be different. I was uncertain as to how and when those challenges might manifest in the unfamiliar terrain of the Alps, how I’d react to the environment and how I’d cope with the demanding cutoff times. I’d go as far as to say I was fearful that, on seeing and experiencing it, I wouldn’t want to face it again! The urge to say “enough” might come before I even start out! Hence the need to ‘Know where I am going‘!
I was coaxed into planing a weekend on the CCC route to gain some experience of running the technical trails that I’d face in September. I am so glad I did. Besides more refinement of my kit and approach, I discovered the benefits of that first hand experience which I will so heavily rely on during the event.
I’ve written separately about the weekend, the journey and run itself here – CCC Recce, and now I want to reflect on those learnings I took away when I left the mountains and how I came to recognise the importance of a ‘recce’ run in the preparation for a race. With this in mind, looking back I can only say the experience was a valuable one. I learnt so much about myself, particularly my ability to prepare and adapt. Four themes in particular have stuck with me: ‘Familiarity of the route and understanding the terrain’, ‘Refining your kit and equipment’, ‘Planning an approach’ and ‘Building Confidence’. Summarising the benefits of these I’d say that….
Familiarity of the route and understanding the terrain:
A recce run develops a sense of familiarity with a route, and that leads to a feeling of comfort. I associate comfort as a good thing! You’ll feel confident in the route, knowing what lies ahead. These feelings will set your mind at ease and the route will be one less thing to worry about on the day.
Knowing the route should mean you’ll be less likely to get lost(!), minimising the time-pressures you’ll face through not adding unnecessary miles to your run.
You’ll identify exactly where checkpoints will be located and how you will arrive at and depart them, helping you to efficiently navigate through and spot your support crew!
The terrain is incredibly important. Having first hand experience of the elevation and type of ground you will be running will prepare you for the race. I fell on my recce run, through my own naivety when crossing a glacier. Better that I fall in training than during the actual race because I wasn’t assessing the risks clearly!
Know the terrain
Whilst you get insight as to when you will be able to run and when it won’t be advisable too, race day will be different. I’ve now seen and experienced terrain I’ll be traversing at night with nothing but my head torch to guide the way. What I think I can run will be different to what is actually safe to run on the day.
Refining your kit and equipment:
Most of the kit I tested on my recce was by Montane. Exceptional kit I love using. Preparing it is time consuming as you check and double check you’ve everything needed. Sorting my kit into my Montane Via series packs is now second nature to me. Dry sacks for race kit, nutrition, tech, med kits, recovery kit etc. all have their place and are packed in a way to make them accessible as needed. My prep’ has definitely been made easier through having top quality, lightweight and pack-able Montane gear!
How I used to pack
How I now pack
Knowing how your kit reacts – you might have worn it all numerous times before, but where it might be perfect over hours of continual use, it might not be until you’ve worn it 10-20hrs (or beyond!) that you notice different irritants! Test, test and test again! I intimately know my Montane Zip Fang, Montane Minimus Stretch Ultra and Montane Allex Micro kit now!
Adapting and adjusting your kit on the move is vital. Knowing when to start thinking about taking that extra layer out, swapping garments or re-shuffling your pack as you run. Putting this to practice is the best way to see how your kit reacts – your pack will sit differently with different items in it! Simulating race conditions will give you the experience to adapt it efficiently. The Montane Via series packs are great for making such adjustments – the adjustable bungee system is incredibly flexible to be able to compress the bag (quickly!) to meet your different needs.
Montane Via Series Pack
Montane Via Series Pack
I run with flexi straws on my bottles, on my recce run I found they moved about a lot as I ran. I’ve now refined the art of packing these in a way that doesn’t result in a constant jaw bashing!
Planning an approach:
Until you know for certain where, and under what conditions, you’ll be running, any plans for how you’ll run, your pace, eating and refueling etc, will be an estimation.
Recce runs will give you the insight needed to know where you can make effective plans – I now know the hills (mountains!) and the terrain. I know where I can (and should) stop, where I should push on, were I should refuel as I move and where I can take a moment to recuperate and absorb my surroundings. My plans are more than just estimates now.
Run when you can
Push it when you can
Connect with your run when you can
It is too easy to look at an elevation chart and say “I can run this section”. As I mentioned, knowing what the terrain, the visibility (or lack of) and isolation of the route will impact your plans. Being able to adapt to the conditions as you go will be essential to maintaining momentum.
Eating at checkpoints is inevitable. Eating enough along the way to get to the checkpoints is critical! Power Hiking up 600m+ of elevation takes energy, reaching a summit and immediately running takes more energy. I’ve experienced the inclines, I now know where I need to fuel (and how much!) to make sure I’m ready for these challenges.
A recce isn’t a race, the race pressures are removed and you can spend time connecting with your surroundings. Make the effort to look up and absorb the environment, take some pictures and hard memories along the way. On race day this won’t be a priority and you’ll be preoccupied with competing or fighting the emotional stresses and fatigue to be able to enjoy it the same way.
Enjoy where you are
Have some fun
Absorb the surroundings
Build your confidence:
Familiarity breeds certainty. Certainty breeds confidence. You’ve been here before, you know where you are, you don’t need to worry. You’re starting the mental battle with an advantage!
When you are confident, you engage and rely on other sensations and feelings to assess your progress. Recognising past feelings at certain points of the route, how the upcoming section made you feel, you can draw comparisons from your experience and this time you know what was previously unknown. There’s no longer anything to be fearful of!
However, as easily as confidence can be built, it can be shattered quicker. The unknown can lead to ignorance and naivety. I’ve thrived off this many times with the “just do it” attitude. But, those moments of realisation (like recognising the enormity of your challenge), can be frightening. Be sure not to dwell on these thoughts and prevent them building into something more. Don’t get too comfortable!
During my recce I covered 80% of the route I’ll be running. I now have the confidence that the other 20% is achievable. I can rationalise it. It’s another 20km, I can do that. Its one more “incline”, I can do that. The finish is far closer than the start, I can do this!
Would I encourage others to undertake such a ‘recce’ before a big run? Absolutely. For me the benefits are clear and ultimately the experience is vital and very worthwhile. Whilst we all react differently though, a recce run isn’t a complete solution. It may raise more questions that you’ll need to work through. Adjustments you’ll need to figure out for yourself some other way. And some things are more difficult to prepare for – like running for extended periods of time without sleep. As a “9-5” worker this is more difficult to plan. As a “5-9” adventurer you can push yourself so far but there will remain challenges to be faced on the day.
There are many sayings about being prepared. One of my favourites being “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail“. Do what you can to give yourself the best chance of success, know where you are going!
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Last year I ran the Stour Valley Path 100km (SVP100). I found it tough going. This year I went back for more. There was a slight twist this time round – I already knew other runners and I’m far more experienced (where as the SVP100 2017 was my 2nd Ultra, the SVP100 2018 was my 5th of the year!). I Met Chris on the course last time out and we were both going back and we’d been in touch about running it together from the start. I also knew Ged (when we met at Race to the Tower) and had talked him into joining us (he was way too easily convinced!).
Prep wise, I knew I was ready after a few months of Ultras and that the distance was a given. But I remember the course being tough and my mind has jumped forward to The CCC in just 3 weeks time. I didn’t want to get injured!
Much of the day had blurred into a few memories. The three of us started together and ran 13 hours together to the finish line together. Naturally there was a hell of a lot of chat and laughter as well as silence and the low points. Over the course of 100km you pass many sites and trees (and along the SVP route also churches and bridges!!) and it becomes difficult to process them apart. So I thought, as this is the first time I’ve completed the same event twice, I’d revisit and compare the memories from last year to this….
Why I ran the course
(2017) Post RTTS I had the craving, I’d sampled something I liked and I wanted more. I wanted it soon. I started looking and I found this local(ish) 100km and didn’t hesitate to sign-up. Race day just 3 weeks away.
(2018) I enjoyed last year, I want to work towards a black t-shirt (as I’m a simpleton!) and as part of my 12 month challenge the race slotted nicely into the month of August without too much hassle or cost.
(2017) The SVP100 had under 100 competitors – that said, the amount of effort and input to organise such an event is still mammoth undertaking. There is no doubt a greater reliance on support and volunteers to make the event go to plan (which a number of local running teams support). The team did a great job with information, route planning, training guides and support throughout the day.
(2018) Somethings had changed, there were close to the limit of 200 entries this year. In addition, for the first time there was the SVP50. This meant that there was a single starting wave for the SVP100 and far more runners (and grouped together along the course). Despite all this, the organisation remained slick and ran perfectly. Without the volunteer’s enthusiasm and support this wouldn’t be possible!
(2017) There was pretty much no training for this one. I was counting on the fitness I’d built over the past few months and the fact that I’d continued running since RTTS.
(2018) Again there was no specific training, although over the year I’ve run further, fast, harder than ever before and had already completed 9 races ( 5 marathons and 4 ultras), so I was in great shape. More importantly, I’m more experienced and wiser to the challenge of ultra running.
(2017) Once again I met a fellow runner, Andy, on the train out to the starting point. Andy and I set off together, both with the intention of making a certain train we’d booked back to London later that evening.
(2018) Whilst Andy wasn’t here this time, I was already setting out to Run with Chris and Ged. More people, more fun. I’d still booked a train home, although I was more calculated this time with a 13 hour target and enough time to wash and eat afterwards!
(2017) I started out with a little niggle in my right knee felt from a run the week before. Whilst I felt comfortable starting the race, within 10 miles I could feel some discomfort as a result of the hard ground and grooves from tractor ruts (there was plenty of ankle rolling this day!).
(2018) I was ready for the terrain this year. Having been through it before I knew what to expect. The scorching summer was going to make the ground very hard and challenging, but two days of rain before the day was a blessing! Limited ankle rolling this year as I’m now more accustomed to my foot placement when running!
(2017) As the miles ticked by, Andy powered on, I was now out on my own, head down, miles to go until the next checkpoint. This race was a real learning curve for me. There were long, lonely stretches where I went almost whole check points without seeing other runners.
(2018) this time, whilst the miles ticked down, there was no loneliness. The company was ever present and besides running with Chris and Ged the course was constantly peppered with runners. Through the early single track paths, to the gradual scattering of the field, after halfway through the course, on leaving Sudbury we ran into (literally into) a large group of runners from the SVP50. This added to the vibe and atmosphere and gave us all plenty of opportunity to chat away the miles and take out mind off the run.
(2017) It dawned on me that I entered the SVP100 with preconceptions. Incorrect expectations even. I had the mind set of “I did the RTTS in 11 and a half hours, I’ll beat that time here”. Wrong. Different race, different place. No two are the same as I was about to find out. I realised that the course was flatter (I think) than the RTTS so without noticing I’d spent more time running and less time walking and recovering. I’d exerted myself more and thus tired sooner.
(2018) No preconceptions this year. I knew the race was tough. I knew the challenge it would bring. I did however learn once again that it is probably tougher than I think. It is a very very flat course with minimal elevation gain (just c 2,000ft) over the 100km. Whilst that means there are few hills to force you to walk, rest and eat, it also means you are for long stretches running and using the same muscle groups. The fatigue is more noticeable!
(2017) I also didn’t adapt as I ran. One example that came back to hurt me after the race was when I felt some discomfort in my back, something had shifted in my pack and instead of stopping and addressing it, I decided to continue to the next checkpoint to sort it out, some 7 miles later. Mistake, I was in agony for days afterwards and it was only two months later on a holiday that a friend (qualified physio) noticed the lump in my back and massaged it out!
(2018) History almost repeated itself here. Once again I felt something in my back. My hydration system was causing me hassle (sometime after the 4th Checkpoint). This was the first time I’d experienced it. Whilst I was too stubborn to address it straightaway, I did eventually sort it out before it was too late. I decided to drink all the water and remove the bladder. There was some discomfort as a result from the content of the bag but I’m not expecting any lasting pain this time round!
(2017) Later in the day I met Chris shortly after the half way checkpoint. We ended up sticking together for the rest of the course, both tiring and relying on each other to get through what was left.
(2018) Well you know what happened here! I met him before the start and crossed the line with him! Impressively Chris received his 5 Star black t-shirt this day!
(2017) Come the final check point the sun was setting and the temperature dropping. we’d slowed to a hobble and decided that we were both happy to walk the final 4 miles (it was probably faster than we were running at this point).
(2018) The final checkpoint was a little demon for me. I didn’t want a repeat of last year. I wanted to know how we went wrong and to run it in the day light. We reached the checkpoint with the sky starting to darken. An attentive Pierre refilled my bottles, received a sweaty hug and sent us off on our way. The last five miles were covered in day light, with what felt like a strong pace and desire to get to the finish. There were no wrong turns this year but I still couldn’t understand how we ended up going so wrong last year!
(2017) Eventually we reached the finish to a great welcome from the volunteers still working through the night.
(2018) The finish didn’t feel like an “eventually” thing this year but an “inevitable”. We started together, and we finished together. We came in just under 13hrs, a target I had in my mind before we set off. This couldn’t have gone any more to plan!
On reflection, 2018 was more enjoyable than 2017. Not because of the faster time, the better feel of the run, but because of the company. It is so corny to say it, but it makes a difference. I enjoy running, but I’m not competing with anyone (the winner popped a sub 9hr time!!!). The achievement is the completion and the journey you take to get there. It is such an amazing thing to share with someone and I enjoyed every moment of the day spent with Chris and Ged. It was challenging, it was tough, but together we got through it. At different points in the day we all felt great and we all felt low (I hit a particular dark place just before we reached 30miles), but the camaraderie of each other dragged us out of those holes each time.
Besides those two, there were a plethora of familiar faces around the course. From Matthew (the race Director), Mark Parry (whom we ran with shortly after checkpoint two before I vanished into the distance), Steve Skinner who came bounding past with a smile on his face later in the race, Clair on the SVP50 who was fighting her own battles and wining, Pierre the bearded wonder manning the final checkpoint, Lenny who popped up in a field with his camera at hand to snap some race photos and also James Poole who I got to meet for the first time – whom casually popped out a 50km after smashing the NDW100 last week and then preceded to appear at every single checkpoint supporting through the 25+ Advent Runners out on the course! (not to mention those familiar faces of Coren, Dan and Sophie who I didn’t get to see on the day).
The memories of last year came flooding through thick and fast as I recalled the wrong turns we took, where something happened, where I met chris and so on. The corn field I remembered so vividly was missing though, nothing but a waste land of spikey bastard foliage this year. A shame. Chris was determined not to get us lost this year and expertly navigated us through the course with the occasional subtle acceptance of “off course” before we strayed too far in the wrong direction.
The one concern I took away was the amount of chaffing and discomfort I experienced in this race. My inner thighs, my waist, my nipples, my watch rubbing on my wrist and the awkwardness of my bladder in my pack all raised concerns in my mind. They were dealt with, but I don’t understand why these all caused me hassle that I’ve mostly never experienced before. A slight concern I need to think about before the CCC!
Towards the end of the race, as the comments of “not far to go2 and “Last mile” were muttered by passers-by, I knew we could stil achieve that sub 13hr. It was meaningless really and second to us all finishing together. But the determination we all pulled out to step up and rise to the challenge was incredible. Crossing the line together was the finishing touch to the achievement and personal victories!
My final thoughts, the SVP100 is tough. Very tough. You get 4 UTMB qualifying points from this race and they are very much earnt! You run endlessly, the terrain is hard and uneven (not rocky, ridgeway uneven, but dried mud uneven) and your legs take a pounding. I definitely ache more after this event than many of the others I do. Don’t under estimate the Stour Valley Path!
Back in January I opened an email that told me I’d secured a ballot place in The CCC – A mountain race that is part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT). I shit myself. I was scared. Why? because this is a race that spans 3 countries over 100km, >6,000m of elevation gain and has a strict 26 hour time limit to complete it. That, is The CCC!. Luckily by this point I’d met some amazing trail runners who were there to support me. Jana, who will also be doing the race this year after having to defer entry from last year, and Yvette, who soon volunteered to crew me. I’ve also received much support from Jack and Maggie who have both also completed this gruelling challenge.
After much persuasion, Yvette convinced me to get out to the Alps and experience the course. I’m going to write separately about some learnings from the ‘recce’, but for now I shall recap the weekend. A weekend I’d planned around covering as much of the course as possible, whilst not taking any time off work. I’m wise like that.
The plan seemed straightforward enough – Fly to Chamonix (France) after work on Friday, stay overnight before getting a bus to Courmayeur (Italy), running approximately 40km to La Fouly (Switzerland), staying overnight before running another 40km to Vallorcine (France) in time to get the last train back to Chamonix. I’d then fly back to London first thing on Monday to go straight to work. Simple.
The plan made sense to me. Yvette did all the hard work in arranging the accommodation and logistics. I set my mind to breaking down the run based on the actual route of The CCC, checking the regulations and timings of the different checkpoints I’ll experience on race day. This is when I first saw the flaws in my plan. It was going to be very tight! The weekend was about the experience and that also means enjoyment. I was now introducing an element of pressure by setting time targets we simply had to meet, (If we didn’t make it to La Fouly in time, we wouldn’t get to sleep, if we didn’t make it to Vallorcine in time, we’d be stranded and face an expensive taxi back!), these targets were based on the cut-off times to be allowed to leave the checkpoints and continue the race. I was confident it would be OK, Yvette was a little concerned, and rightly so – I’d been training for this. She hadn’t. Regardless, it was the only plan we had.
So here is how the plan unfolded and the adventure that we went on, one experience, from two different perspectives….
We were supposed to get to Chamonix well before midnight. Rest up ready to tackle the run. Severe weather in Geneva though meant our flight was delayed by over two hours. There was one final transport bus from Geneva to Chamonix departing at 23:59. As we disembarked the plane at 23:45 we were already deflated and acceptance of the almighty taxi expense we were facing. Dammit. This wasn’t on my expected list of issues we’d possibly encounter. Having been to Chamonix numerous times before, Yvette rushed me to where the bus normally departs. It was 00:06. Remarkably it was still there. Our deflated emotions picked up as Yvette caught the attention of the driver as he was climbing into the cabin. Some pointless and aggressive gesturing later, he let us on to the bus. Crisis averted. Yvette to the Rescue.
Nearing 02:00 we arrived in Chamonix and made our way to the lodge, let ourselves in per the instructions left and proceeded to arrange our bags and get ready to depart. With an 08:30 bus to catch we’d be up at 07:00. Geez, we were going to be shattered. Before we knew it, the alarms were buzzing, we were bumping into each other trying to turn them off. Quick breakfast of champions (two twinkie type cakes and a coffee) and we were off. We left out bags in the storage (we’d stop here again on Sunday night also) and took with us everything we’d need to be autonomous for 2 days of running (with the expectation of a meal in Switzerland later that night!).
Yvette: Successfully passing through security with our poles packed in the hand luggage, we faced a 2-hour delay. This meant missing our 10:30pm EasyBus pick up and potentially missing the very last bus of the day heading into Chamonix. Not a great start to our trip. Once we made it through Geneva passport control, it was already after midnight, but we tried our chances and rushed to the bus station hoping to see the tacky orange rundown looking EasyBus. Wahoo…it was still there. Relief! Finally arriving at Chamonix at 1:45am, feeling very sleepy walked to Chamonix Lodge, darkness everywhere apart from the odd streetlight. Pretty certain Dai asked what that dark thing in the distance was…err it’s the silhouette of a mountain. Not sure if he was messing with me or if he was genuinely clueless and baffled (Dai: Just ignorantly naïve!). We prepared our gear and went to bed at 3am.
Our bags were heavy and stuffed full. Yvette’s more than mine as she’d borrowed a bigger bag from Jon. We arrived in Courmayuer and set about finding some bread for the journey. There was only one thing we could do to carry it – flatten it and stick it in an elastic side pocket on my Montane Jaws race pack. This was going to get sweaty! A quick pause to take in the village, a picture taken by a local and we started ‘running’. I say ‘running’, it wouldn’t be for another 5 hours that we’d do any actual running!
On leaving Courmayeur, the first 10km is all up hill, or up mountain rather! Starting at about 1200m, you run along the steady inclines as the roads wind up until Ermitage (1500m) before the trails begin. From here the path takes us into a forest trail and the climb continues until it opens onto the bare mountain at Suche Damon (about 5km in and 1800m up). We’d been following the GPX on the Sunnto watches, and so far, so good. Carrying on around the path though we were soon deviating from the route. Tracking back and searching around the building revealed no other routes. I was confused. Back and forth we went before eventually a local runner came down from the path. Yvette knew enough Italian to have a conversation and he led us back to the building and directed us through the outhouses to a path. How confusing! This worried me a little, the ease at which we were lost.
Yvette: First 20min of the CCC route takes you along the residential streets before you hit the forest. I don’t think there was one point where we ran this; it was a long uphill road. Then as you enter the forest you realise how steep it quickly gets.Despite having the GPX route on our watches it was still confusing knowing which way to go, and immediately we couldn’t make out whether we had go through someone’s back garden or continue along this trail path which did not look right according to our watches. I took the opportunity to ask a runner coming towards us and in my broken Spanish/Italian managed to figure out that we did have to go behind the house.
Onward we continued, and the path required us to climb down and cross several glacier streams. I’ve never seen anything like this before. The Ice carved into the mountain, frozen solid but leaking water underneath. I soon slipped on my arse. Luckily no damage was done but a wakeup call served!
Yvette: We reached a section where you cross over rocks with water flowing through it. Not sure how, but Dai slipped and fell on his arse, not quite so gracefully, but had to laugh.
As the climb continued, the path again opened, and we were presented with some incredible views. There was also this wooden structure from times gone by. It was a great photo opportunity, but I genuinely do not know what it is (any ideas?). Continuing on, we misread some signs and ran the wrong way. Only we hadn’t realised for quite some time and, once again, some other runners and Yvette’ Italian came to our rescue and took us back to the signs. We struggled to keep up with them running back down but did have time for a quick chat. One of them revealed he has entered The CCC 5 times and failed to complete it 5 times! He claimed it was the mental challenge the beats him. Again, worried? Yeah, a bit! Anyway, with an extra little climb added to our trek, we continued, being sure to keep to the left path and the next intersection as advised.
We were now facing a climb of about 600m over 2km. It was steep! It was vast and open with a dirt trail littered with rocks and boulders, winding its way up the side of the mountain. I powered on ahead of Yvette and had my mind focused on the summit. I reached it. It wasn’t the summit. Damn. I’d actually reached Col Sapin at 2435m. This was an intersection of many paths and mine would continue up further to 2571m and Tete de la tronche. Oh well. As I continued I past several other hikers doing the TMB (Tour du Mont Blanc – an 11-day trek of the region) and I chatted with an American Mum and daughter. Whilst I waited at the top for Yvette I messed around with some Instagram stories, my own sort of video journal of the trip. It mostly involved swearing. I’d just climbed over 1200m across a 10km.
The views at the top were breath-taking. I could see down into the distance and the path we’d take. A nice steady downhill all the way to the Refuge where the first checkpoint would be. The weather was suddenly questionable, but the waterproofs stayed in the bag. Finally, after 4 hours we could run.
Yvette: On track, we then came to the first beastly climb, Tete de la Tronche (2584m), winding up, a slow hike to the top, with my head down and not focusing on where Dai was (he was like a little tiny black dot in the distance getting further away from me, damn him!) finally made it. As the saying goes, ‘the best view comes after the hardest climbs’ and it certainly didn’t disappoint. A few videos and selfies (including a peeing with a view pic in the middle of the mountains, standard) we could see the weather starting to change, spitting rain it was time to move and head to Bertone. What was really cool was seeing where the trail path continued from Tete de la Tronche. You could trace it with your finger right across the mountain until it disappeared.
We hit the Refuge Bertone (1970m) shortly after and it was full of people on their TMB treks. We refuelled on the soggy (sweaty!) bread (on which I nearly choked inhaling it!) and set off again. On to the second Refuge on our path. We left after nearly 5 hours which was pretty much bang on my target for this weekend. Not bad considering we’d stopped a few times and been lost twice! As we ran we soon started passing people we’d spoken too at Bertone. There was some cool stone structure someone had built, and we passed the mum and daughter again coming back from another path that they would have taken at Col Sapin.
Some Well deserved soggy bread
To our left were more incredible scenes of the mountains and the valley as we ran along the path Strada Del Villair. Eventually a short uphill climb took us to what I called “The Pub” – Refuge Bonatti (2025m). More refuelling and a moment to compose ourselves. We filled our water from the water fountain. It was so cold and refreshing. It was and is the best water I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to have more of this when I go back. Next on our list was Arounouz (Arnuova di Mezzo, 26km done and 2000m). Along the way we passed several derelict buildings and many river streams to cross. A few were fortunate to have wooden bridges over the. The route was still fairly flat but single track and we encountered a lot of people we needed to pass. Of all the people though, we weren’t expecting to see 3 young boys. They asked us the time (it was nearing 6pm) and we were a little concerned that they were heading in the opposite direction to us and were dressed in nothing but shorts and cotton shirts.
“The Pub” (Refuge Bonatti)
Views over to Aiguille de ‘l’Eveque
“The Pub” (Refuge Bonatti)
Arnuova Di Mezzo wasn’t open. We sensed now would be a good time to put some layers on. It was getting very windy and overcast. Out came my bum and willy on the mountain as I squeezed into my Skins leggings. Just as we were layering it started raining, Phew. Well played. I was pleased with myself. As we were doing so, the 3 young boys reappeared, again asking the time. We questioned them. They were local. We followed them down the path, winding down to Arnuova Desot (1780m) which is where the 3rd checkpoint will be on the CCC. At the bottom there was a party. Two drunk men had starting the climb looking for the kids. We assured them they were just behind us and they were grateful. The locals sure are relaxed about the mountain! With the Rock tunes blasting, Yvette did a little trail dance and we charged our watches. Next up was the climb to Grand Col Ferret (2537m) and the crossing to Switzerland!
Yvette: The route between CP1 – CP3 is so runnable you can make up for lost time. The weather changed quickly, temperature dropped and started to rain. Dai with his weatherman predictions was right to make the call on chucking some extra layers on and wearing waterproofs. Out of the blue we came across 3 kids, they weren’t wearing any sort of hiking gear and what was stranger, they were alone. No sign of parents or some older, responsible looking adult. They were dressed up in smart shirts and fashion trainers. As we made our way down, we could hear music, then 2 men appeared on the trails, dressed in suits, both quite drunk and smoking cigars. It was obvious they were looking for the 3 boys. There was some kind of big party, sounded like they were playing Queen’s Greatest Hits album. Had a bit of a dance as we walked by, banging out some air guitar moves, Dai looking at me like I’m crazy.
The beginning of the climb was another open and steep trek. The sound of cow bells rang strong and we saw a field(?) full of cows and bulls which we’d have to walk through. There was a farmer at the top sitting chatting on his phone. As we walked and joked about the smell of shit, we saw a pool of manure, and as we passed it stared to gush with fresh shit from the buildings. lovely. The smell really was horrific. Around the building we went and to a steeper climb that was very exposed. Then we stopped to layer again as it was starting to rain. Carrying on up we took the decision to stop again and put every layer that we could, up ahead there were dark clouds forming and within seconds we could see nothing. very limited visibility to just metres ahead of us. We powered on. Yvette was focusing on the ‘plinth’ she’d read about at the summit. I arrived first. It was very cold and very windy up top. We stayed a very short time, long enough for a few photos and then we were on the move.
Yvette: Our next big bastard of a climb lay ahead of us, 754m climb with 2537m total elevation and approx. 32km into the CCC route. This would also be the point in which we’d cross the border onto the Swiss side. Clouds were rolling in fast and visibility pretty much zero, Dai who was always ahead of me by about 5 minutes or so disappeared into the mist. It was kind of spooky. All I could see was the path in front of me for a few meters, with no idea where it was leading to and how much further I had to climb until I reached the summit of Grande Col Ferret or where he had wondered off to. I just kept thinking, surely that bloody signpost on a rock that I’d seen on Google images and blogs is around here somewhere. There it is, made it!! Damn I wanted to hug that rock. I bowed to it and rested on it. It felt great knowing we smashed the 2 biggest climbs in 1 day. Hugging and smiling, and a quick selfie to remember the moment we didn’t delay and carried on. Shame about the clouds as we missed out on the panoramic views from the top.
All the layers
Grand Col Ferret 2537m
We knew it was downhill from here for about 10k towards La Fouly. The freedom to run was immense. Our bags were so light at this point as we were wearing everything. It was a great feeling. We were full of energy as we’d not run much yet and had great fun running the trails. We were the only people on this section. It was liberating. All around us the views were amazing as the mountains were scattered with white snow and glaciers punctuating the green slopes. As we got lower we winded down and through some fields and saw some villages in the distance with street lights flickering through the trees. We felt close. Maybe 15-20 mins away. It was starting to rain and we were thinking of food and sleep. Then we hit our first real obstacle. A cow in the path. We tried unsuccessfully to move them along. Nothing happened. A slow walk. More cows. Then a bull step forward. Fuck. 38km in and still 2000m, up we didn’t know what to do. It was as if the cow had told the bull we’d done something. The evil stare was very intimidating. He wouldn’t move. Yvette wasn’t comfortable. We checked the map. The path would continue and then U-turn around the cows and the buildings. So, we took the dodgy decision to leave the path and cut the corner. Downhill through vegetation. It was very risky, but slowly we successfully descended and re-joined the path.
Yvette: Trying to pick up some pace on the downhill, we had 3miles to go, when we come to a sudden halt and saw a cow on the trail path. A big cow! Literally blocking it. Munching away on grass, it turned its head to look at us and then continued munching away totally ignoring us. We were shooing it, waving arms around to move it on and I was clapping. Nothing. What a stubborn cow. I kept telling Dai not to go too close, he was as stubborn as the cow not listening to me. You just don’t know how these animals would react. For some reason I was a little scared, so I was looking around to find another way to cut across. Thankfully the cow slowly plodded down the path, and as it moved off the path we then noticed this black bull further down blocking it. Fs!!! It had sharp horns and just stared at us. Dai was determined to walk towards it but I wasn’t chancing it. Plus, I realised I had a bright red Salomon vest pack on. Bulls charge when they see red right!!? I mean I was a target to them. Just like the running of the bulls/bullfighting, they see bright red/pink moving around and they practically blow smoke out of their nostrils ready to charge. I did not fancy being chased by a bull, not that I would have had anywhere to run to but uphill on dead legs. Dai said that was a myth and that it wouldn’t happen. Whatever! We couldn’t stay there all day, we were wasting time, and so I made the call to cut through an overgrown grassy section going down a steep hill. I think, this the only point in our trip where we had a disagreement as he warned me not to go down there, it was too risky. I didn’t listen (ok, we’re both stubborn) and with my poles, poked the ground to see where it was stable and made my way down. The path was looping around to the right anyway, so it I would reach the same path eventually. I left Dai behind me, and he would either follow me or somehow negotiate with the bull and get through. He decided to follow me. Ha-ha.
Down into a forest we ran, our energy levels drained. We were soaked through from the vegetation and continuous rain. Darkness was setting in. We thought we were close so didn’t get our torches out. It took longer than expected though for us to reach La Fouly. As we continued further we went off the path and emerged onto the main road. Checking where we were looking for the accommodation. It must be close. Sign spotted. It was done. Nearly 10pm and very dark. We walked up the hill (dammit) and found the hotel. It was all closed. A message to Yvette to “let ourselves in”. A room with no key. Shared showers. No towels. Fuck that’s annoying, a shower was second on our “most wanted” list after food.
We headed straight out for food. Everywhere was closed (it was 22:30 in a very small village after all). The one open bar agreed to sort us out with something. They offered us some cold cuts. I was very happy with that. We ordered one each along with a pint of coke. When it turned up, it was massive! The most packed cold cut plate ever with fruit, nuts and cheese. It was epic! Yvette was struggling to eat but I couldn’t stop. We stumbled back to the hotel, had a shower (and a pat dry!) and went to bed. It was gone midnight, we’d be starting it all again in the morning. We wanted to leave by 8am….
Yvette: Out of the mountains and onto the road we reached Maja Joie hotel at 10pm, pretty dark. They had left a sign on the door we managed to figure out that we could go straight to our room, there was no key. Weird. Dumped our vest packs, didn’t bother to shower and went straight out to find anything that was open. We followed the sounds of people laughing and music playing. A place called Auberge des Glaciers. Everyone was getting on it, and we turned up looking sweaty, tired, dirty, smelly, and dazed. Annoyingly the kitchen had shut, and despite begging he said there was nothing he could do. Our eyes moved towards the crisps and nuts hanging behind the bar, if there was nothing else available, we had a backup plan at least. I would just opt for every crisp flavour and a pint of coke for dinner. He mentioned another place further up the road, somehow my legs moved quicker than my brain and I sprinted to this other restaurant. Ergh damn, kitchen closed. Rushed back to Auberge des Glaciers, ready to buy every crisp packet they owned, the man could see how hungry and desperate we were to eat. Knowing we had run 41km from Courmayeur, he felt sorry for us and said he could serve us cold meats and bread. Perfect!!! How many platters he asked….’we’ll take two’!!!
That pint of coke tasted so fucking good! I’ve been hearing how coke is the way forward for post long runs, or even flat coke in the last stages of an ultra-race. Something about the sugar, caffeine and carbs that reenergises your body with a boost and settles the stomach. I don’t drink fizzy drinks at all but if this is part of recovery and feeling human again, I’ll try it. The platters came out; yep it was obviously a sharing dish looking at the size of it. I took one bite of bread and I swear it took me 5-10min to chew on it before I could swallow. I had no saliva to break it down, I felt slightly nauseous. I was hungry, my body was screaming for food, but I just couldn’t eat it. I was watching Dai and he was demolishing that platter. He’d finished it while I was still on the same piece of bread!
07:00, the alarms are ringing. It’s time to get up and go. First stop, the breakfast bar. We head down stairs to the packed dining area where there is a table laid out with Yvette’s name. We chat to the Hotel staff and sort all the admin before tucking into another breakfast of champions. We have bread. Dry bread. Toasted bread. Just bread. But lots of coffee too. As all the other hikers gear up and head out we are lagging behind, it’s 08:30 before we make our escape. Ahead of the plan, behind the intention. But we are out.
The first 10km of the day is a nice and steady run. After leaving the road in La Fouly we hit a path along river that was rocky, but downhill. It was a busy section as we caught up with all the morning hikers setting off on their journeys. On Occasion we needed to pass several large groups, everyone was in good spirit though. We were fresh and smiley, the rest had worked wonders and the crisp morning air was a delight to breathe. I was conscious of the terrain. Whilst flat and downhill, the rocky paths were a slight concern, it could well be that I might be running this section in the dark next time. That could be hazardous. I was recalculating my ability to get this section covered before the sun goes down next time!
About 7km into the run the path took a sharp turn and opened into a beautiful elevated path lined with trees either side. It was like a tunnel of nature. It felt endless as we ran through, the morning light piercing through the gaps in the leaves. As we came out the other side we ran through the Swiss villages of Praz De Fort, Los Araches and Issert. These villages were quaint with wooden cabins, lush gardens and quirky decorations (Gnome village!). After running through nature for so long it was a weird sensation to be on the road and weaving through picturesque man-made structures. The villages were small and soon came to an end, as did the running. It was time to begin the first of 3 climbs this day, we were re-entering the Forrest and the Sentier Des Champignons (~1480m) that would lead to Champex-Lac.
The trail is littered with wooden carvings, some representing creatures of the forest, some were mythical. All were unique and special. The path was undulating and occasionally we could run, skipping and jumping the tree roots as we went. We interchanged with a group of other runners, joking occasionally as we passed. Laughing as the group stopped one of their runners from eating a bunch of berries she’d picked from a tree!
Yvette: 9am start and 14km to the next destination, CP5 Champex-Lac. Perfect flat trails to start off with, easy on the legs, beautiful section through the woods, took us through a quiet village in Praz De Fort, charming wooden cabins. Then as you arrive to Issert, the 3rd out the 6 climbs begins. The route takes you through a steep forest path; this is when you see wooden carved sculptures every few meters, quite amusing. I think I stopped paying attention to it while Dai made the effort to take photos. I just wanted to reach the top. I think by this point, I was getting frustrated with the running vest pack. It was weighing me down (I may have carried more than I needed to) and starting to rub my skin. No matter how much I tightened the straps it would become lose and bounce too much. My mood started to drop a bit.
We briefly met the runners again as we arrived at the bottom of Champex-Lac and said our goodbyes. As we entered the town, we saw the lake – Lac De Champex – we’d heard so much about. It was beautiful. We stopped briefly to admire the scene and soon pushed on after I challenged our timings. We had a long day ahead and a tight time frame to make the bus! It is true that I was pushing Yvette. She hadn’t enjoyed the climb and I was conscious it would be difficult if the negative thoughts consumed her focus so early on. She’s so strong and led us off again, around the lake and through the town, where a local event/festival was taking place. There was music and food and all sorts of entertainment. We were offered what looked like Vodka shots which we were happy to decline!
Yvette: We reached Champex-Lac (first of the assisted checkpoints) and I remember from a blog I read that you would run beside this beautiful lake. That it was. Stopped for a moment, refuelled beside some Harley Davidson bikers. The town was buzzing, some festival event with market stalls and such a nice vibe I could have chilled here for a bit. Dai would always check up on me, and I guess he was also aware that I had never run this far before and I think he noticed in my eyes and the expression on my face that I was slightly off. It wasn’t so much my feet or legs, thankfully. Dai would reassure me, would offer to swap vests, hug me and give me a bit of encouragement. He didn’t have to tell me, but I knew what he was thinking and trying to say. “Snap out of it, we need to stick to the plan and keep going. There is no way out now. We have a train to catch so work those little legs”. He was pushing but I needed that push.
We were presented with a short downhill along some wide trails for a brief rest before the start of the second climb. The ground was again rocky, and we took a moment to stop and refuel (I was expecting the climb imminently, but we still had some way to go). And then it begun. in the peak of midday, the sun shining high, the heavy sweats of the power hike would take over as we made our way up to Refuge Bovine at 1987m…
The Climb to Bovine…
was probably the most technical
The climb started off on a wide paved road and we passed many hikers in both directions. Then the incline started. Some incredible views climbing a gravel path. We passed a lot of people. Behind us the views were vast, mountains and glaciers as far as we could see. As the path turned and the incline increased we paused to absorb the views. Then, far away in the distance we saw hikers climbing. They were a looooong way up. It looked like it would take an age to reach where they were. We continued with our power hike, crossing several streams flowing down the mountain side (at one point a wide section of the path was submerged) and were momentarily disheartened as a runner ran past (fair play, he was nailing this!). We continued climbing, stopping every few turns to catch our breath and swear. Eventually we reached that point where we were the ‘people high in the distance’, which surprisingly didn’t take us as long as I thought it would.
The path opened into more, lush green vegetation and fields as we continued upward. The sound of cowbells ringing in the distance grew ever so slightly louder, until we passed a small wooden cow shack. Then you could really hear the cow bells. After last night’s encounter I was slightly worried and also for Yvette, she was a little way behind me. As I reached the top I could see a larger building, packed with hikers, a restaurant. Besides the hikers, were bulls. tens of them, everywhere, amongst the people. This was daunting. I slowly walked passed as they eyed me up. They were very tame though, most just sitting there, enjoying the sun. I went and sat down in the tabled area to await Yvette (whom I almost missed as she appeared so quickly!). We spent a good 15 minutes eating, drinking (more fresh, cold water!) and admiring the bulls. We then set off again, threading between the bulls and climbing what remained of the path to the top, where the next downhill section would begin. We were ready to run again!
Yvette: There was refuge called Alpage de Bovine, surrounded by cows. These ones had a ginger mullet, I stood next to one and only then realised the size of these bells hanging from their necks!! They were like 5kg kettlebells. As we took a break, this cow walks over towards me, gets a little too close to the fence, curious, almost touching me. I jumped up to move away and said to Dai “Seeeee it’s the red vest’”. He rolled his eyes at me.
No longer afraid of the bulls
What a hair cut!
The run down was very technical. There were a load of people on the path and large rocks and routes to navigate. It was an instant quad burner and the legs were on fire, but as with the previous day and morning, the freedom to run after the power hiking was a much-welcomed relief. By now I was appreciating the need to run when the opportunity presented itself. If I’m to make the cut-offs during the CCC I’ll need to make the time up on the downhills and flats!
I waited at the bottom, we were just outside of Trient (1285m). The walking signs indicated 30mins, so it shouldn’t take us long. We used the moment here where we had phone signal to make some arrangements and estimates for our evening arrival, and for me to film and load more stories to the ‘Gram! Before long we arrived at a campsite and took the opportunity to again refuel, drink the always present cold water and use the facilities on site. There was one mountain left to climb (and about 10km to go). It looked the steepest of them all, a right fucking bitch to overcome…
The climb certainly felt like the steepest climb. We only saw one person all the way to the top (He powered past, coming out of nowhere with an epic power hike!). Initially I thought the route was taking us straight up the mountain. Maybe I was delusional and imagining the paths ahead, but thankfully there were switch backs leading up and up. There was this a amazing tree which caught my attention, initially I noticed the criss-cross texture before realising there were no branches. It was solid and tall and stood out amongst the others. Looking back, it formed an exception view with the mountains in the backdrop. I waited for Yvette, making sure she saw this tree!
Up I continued. It wasn’t walking or hiking really. It was more an endless session of deep lunging. This was definitely the steepest of the climbs. I was ready for the summit before we’d barely begun. Up ahead, straining my neck I saw some mountain bikers. They were heading down. I understood the word “cinq”, the lead biker was indicating there were 5 more to come. Ok Ok, I understood his hand gesture, not the language.
The summit (Catogne, 2050m) never felt like appearing. Eventually though the path flattened and to my right were sensational views. I carried on a little and tested the path, it was beginning to descend. So I tracked back and intended to enjoy the views and recharge my watch and wait for Yvette. I’d barely sat down before she arrived. She was emotional, we rested and absorbed everything our eyes could see (including Barage d’Emosson in the distance which was a real confusion for the eyes, to see a dam so high and so far away). The joy of knowing we were one downhill and less than 10km from the end was sensational. So onward we went, one more time, all downhill.
A moment to enjoy the views
A moment to relax!
Yvette: This was our final climb of the recce route; I can’t actually tell you if this was harder than the other climbs. I lost sight of Dai…again. I kept looking up wondering if I was close to the top, nope…stop looking up…keep going. This was the pattern throughout the route; now and again you would be teased into thinking that the highest point was so close but then it would continue winding further up. Legs were dangling a bit! I’m sure at one point I hallucinated, but I looked up and saw a dark shadow of a person for a few seconds and then suddenly disappeared. I’m sure it was Dai having one final look down to see if I was close.
I then found Dai perched on the edge of a rock. That was actually quite a memorable moment to capture. Your eyes are usually fixed to the ground as you run, rarely getting a moment to look up and admire your surroundings. That was one thing we took the time to do, we made sure to stop and take photos and just embrace the unbelievable views. It’s the only chance Dai had to appreciate the route he’ll be racing. Plus from La Fouly to Chamonix he will be running this section in the dark and by the time he gets to Chamonix it’ll be sunrise. We had 10min to sit together and look around us. I think I had another cry in front of him. With 6km to go until we arrived at Vallorcine, it was all downhill to the end.
Momentarily I had a mild (internal) panic as I saw a path going up. It suddenly felt like we hadn’t submitted, but thankfully as we neared a sign we were directed away from the peak, we had indeed reached the highest point (circa 2070m) on this section and would be continuing down. Ahead of us, all around we could see beautiful paths weaved into the mountains. We were energised, light footed and excited. We bounded down and before long hit a section of wider gravel switchbacks. They weren’t too rocky, but they sure were hard underfoot!
Another sign saw us eventually take a step off the path, we were entering Then a turn into the green forest – Foret Verte. The ground was softer here. But no easier to run as it was so uneven. Then, out of nowhere a sense was triggered, one that felt forgotten on this run, one that had become a repetition of wind, cowbells and the thumping of our feet hitting the ground, we heard a sound. A hoot hoot. A train. A fucking Train. Yes. We were close. Very close. We were so far ahead of schedule, we’d be home before we knew it now.
We came to the end of our journey soon after, a bridge symbolised our finish as we’d walk from here across the road and to the station. Time for a hug, hi-five and a quick trail dance. We were done. We were well ahead of last train but unsure as to how frequent they might be. We had just mussed on of course. it was 17:59 as we reached the station and Yvette saw the lights go out inside the ticket room. She kept knocking the window until answered. The kind lady advised the next train was due in any minute and we could buy tickets onboard. Result. We walked around to the platform and like perfect harmony the train arrived. We were so happy.
Yvette: We did it! Dai did his celebratory trail dance. We completed 83km of the CCC route just before 6pm, and we were ahead of schedule by approx. 1hr 30, according to the last train. Day 1 – 41.5km, took us 12hrs and Day 2 – 41.5km, took us 9.5hrs. Vallorcine is the final assisted checkpoint and with 19km remaining, we’d be reunited again at Chamonix where he’ll cross that finish line. There was a train arriving as soon as we got to the station, perfect timing! Back to Chamonix.
It was now back to Chamonix, time to check in, collect our bags again, go out get some food and meet with Jana, Maggie and Ali who’d been out running some of the GTR route. As we reached the hotel, we were super excited to find our room had a bath. So of course, a bath was had!
Within the hour we were clean and heading back out. First stop, food (we went to a Pizza restaurant and saw Max, another friend of Yvette’s) and then a stop at “the Pub” to collect a present for Jana. Finally, half an hour later than we agreed, we arrived at the hotel to meet the others. We shared stories of our journeys. Received advice from Maggie and feminised about her race last year before accepting it was time to leave. It was nearly midnight and we had a wakeup call for 03:30 to make the flight back to London.
6 Hours later and I’m at my desk in work, many of my colleagues still not in. But I’m smiling, exhausted, but smiling. Acknowledging to myself that this is just the beginning of an epic story!
I can’t thank Yvette enough for this trip. Coaxing me out to the Alps and making me realise I needed this, the arrangements, the positivity and fearlessness of attempting such an adventure and not least the support. Ever since I found out I’m running the CCC she has had my back. I know I’m in safe hands for next month!