Chamonix Centre - Refuge Mottetes BSM France.
Day 1 started EARLY! VERY EARLY INDEED! 4am alarms and a 5am start for today’s miles, insisted upon by wing man, Fabio, who I have to blame for getting me on board with this BIG adventure in the first place ;) The early start was something I came to appreciate however, as all refuges we stayed at served dinner at 7pm on the nose... And you do not want to miss it! Not forgetting we had A LONG WAY TO GO! A quick breakfast and large coffee before we set off to circumnavigate Mont Blanc Massif on foot... all 105 miles of it and not forgetting 10000m+ elevation gain. 5am, watches synced and we are off... We both knew the start to the UTMB Circuit pretty well; a nice flat 8km stretch followed by rolling trails en route to Les Houches. This first day alone was set to be my longest time on foot and furthest distance ever travelled all on the first day. Many more PB’s were set this week, more on those to come…
So we get to Les Houches pretty quickly, chatting about what we have in store over the next few days and, the main talking point of the morning, the volume of our hostel room-mate’s snoring keeping us up last night! After a short walk through the town towards the trail entry it was time for the first climb of the day.
TREKKING POLES AT THE READY.
Prior to this trip I had refused to succumb to the use of poles for steep ascents and accept the possible benefits the Wizard Sticks could have for getting me up the climbs... Until now the idea of being self powered through the mountains deeply resonated with me. That said, being a heavy set 6ft 4in tall top heavy runner, I decided this was the trip to give them a try, ready for my 2 upcoming mountain races this summer. After their first day in full time employment I have to say, BEST. DECISION. EVER.
Forcing you to use your upper body more and arm power (something I'll need to work on building) you can push into each stride giving a little extra power and ease off the legs a little. Also they keep your posture true, keeping you upright and back straight, particularly helpful when carrying a 10kg backpack for 10hrs plus... I couldn't imagine the hands on knees power hiking I was used to previously with all that weight on my shoulders. So, ego aside I think my plan for negotiating the mountains and upcoming races is going to be - run everything I can run (depending on where in the race, this may be just the flat bits or it might be some moderately steep bits), enjoy running the downhills, for everything else - power hike, WITH POLES. So, Leki Micro Trail pros consider yourself permanent extensions to my arms from now on. I salute you.
The sun was now up and beating down on us for the first 900m climb then straight into a 1000m descent. With temperatures up to 32 degrees, hydration was going to be crucial. Although I lost count, I think most days we were both getting through at least 6 dual bottle refills... that's 6 litres of water! Peeing is a good sign of hydration, keep drinking, keep peeing! We had a lunch stop of about 45 minutes each day, having fuelled up en route on fruit as well as the occasional iced tea energy drink that Fabio favoured and not forgetting my #1 choice, medjool dates! Our first lunch stop was spent at Les Contamines. A lunch of local bread, peanut butter, apricots and salty nachos was a chance to restock the tanks and take a breather. C’EST BON! Ready for 2443m Croix du Bonhomme. That's the next summit to tick off on the list. This one is a big one. With the highest elevation refuge on the entire Tour Du Mont Blanc she is a welcome, beautiful sight waiting at the top.... the perfect place to rest our weary legs. Except it’s not time for us to stop quite yet… a 900m descent and 700m climb over 13km are between us and sleep.
Pushing on the last climb is a bit of a gruelling stretch of hard road following from a very rocky, infinitely switching back descent that seemed to go on forever, but the sight of the Refuge Mottets is a sight for sore legs. 60km, 3600m climbing and 13 hours on our feet made for the sweetest tasting beer I have ever tasted. It’s 6pm. Dinner is at 7. We made it. Day 1, you beauty.
Refuge de Motetts - Refugio Elena
Day 2 and we cross into Italy! Something Italian born Fabio is pretty excited about! It doesn't disappoint. A slightly shorter day than yesterday but still 45km to travel to Refugio Elena, another stop that blows our minds for the location, views and the food! All of the food en route blows us away. Both Fabio and I eat a vegan diet but we are fed plentifully and pretty healthily too! Soups, veggies, huge salads, and mountains of rice and potatoes. Our nightmares of not eating were quashed pretty quickly.
Back to running, day one’s climb needs completing. 700m over a few kms of STEEP technical terrain, lungs soon searing and bodies well and truly warmed up and into gear as we go up the summit of Col De La Seigne. With an altitude of 2516m the views were breath taking, The mountains open up to give us a wide open valley and incredible views of the Mont Blanc Massif from the Italian side as the summit of this climb is also the location of the FRANCE > ITALY border. With the sun not long risen at this point it really was special.
At the bottom of this descent we bump into 2 female hikers…one of which was not looking particularly well! Laying on the floor in multiple layers and a sleeping bag suffering from sickness and a fever it was a brutal reminder of how things can turn in these conditions and also the importance of your safety gear and mandatory kit for races in these exposed and remote places. After spotting a car and using Fabio’s Italian to hitch the girls a lift (and declining one ourselves) its onwards and, yup you guessed it, UPWARDS for us. ALLEZ ALLEZ!
Arete Du Mont Favre was the third of today’s four climbs. The glorious descent into Courmayeur takes us down to the lowest point of the day at 1195m. It is also kilometre 80 of the UTMB route so far, and the location for the first big aid station for the race itself; a fitting point for today’s lunch that’s for sure! It is also the starting point of the CCC Race I will be running during UTMB week in September. So every step from now on needs to be remembered and learnt from! Straight into a 600m climb over 5km tells me I’ll be starting the race with poles in hand at the ready and definitely hiking! Once at the top of this climb (1800m) the route is pretty rewarding with a 12km stretch of runnable rolling trail that is a delight to run. The views were amazing where we had a quick rest and snack stop at Bonatti refugio. From there, an ascent to our stop for the night Arriving at the refugio was bliss, the earliest we have arrived so far on the trip giving us time for a sit down and a beer before dinner! Happy Days.
Refugio Elena - Trient
Another country hop today; Italy to Switzerland. Of course, not before some hobbling and limping down stairs and some serious taping required to my rubbing toes and hot spots on the bottom of my feet. No blisters just really sore balls of the feet, from the pounding on the stoney grounds - to be expected I guess! Feet taped and breakfast done we leave the refugio to tackle the penultimate day of the trip! How has that happened already!
Today is a net downhill day... which will mix things up a bit for sure. Another record chalked up within the first hour of the day, that being my highest elevation attained on foot - 2583m to be precise. The Grand Col Ferret, and as the name suggests we are already firmly on Swiss soil. This spot was insane. As the mountains opened up here to present us with the most beautiful valley views. A monster of a descent that rolls on and on for nearly 20km. The ground and civilisation awaiting us! The chance to enjoy some beautifully swift running, getting to push the pace and really cover some ground over a short period of time compared to everything up to now. Fabio really enjoyed pushing the pace today, the guy had me working hard!
Once down and running through a beautiful little town in Switzerland… we had to make a decision as to whether we would make it to Champex before the supermarket there closed. This was something we had to consider each day and a tip for anyone choosing to take this adventure on, all the shops will close for lunch between 12 and 3 so you have to plan this into your schedule for the day. After chatting to a local outside a pretty little restaurant we decided it was too close to call so we ended up having an early lunch at said restaurant and enjoyed the most expensive tomato spaghetti I have ever had in my life! Tasty but at 18 euros per plate it was by far the most expensive lunch date I’ve ever been on!
We left here happily satiated and ready to tackle the rest of today’s miles ahead of schedule; also now hitting familiar territory for the first time on the route as we ran past the beautiful Champex Lac which is on the OCC race that I had run the year before. Before we knew it the descent down to Trient was in sight, and speaking of familiar sights the pink church was now visible and we happily descended at some pace, spirits really high. We made great time today and got to our hostel for the night with enough time for a beer or two outside in the sunshine!
Trient – Chamonix Centre
Awaking for the final day in Trient was really something, we couldn’t believe that this was the last day! Today’s miles would see us returning to Chamonix from the opposite direction we left and we couldn’t wait to get under way and enjoy the shortest day of the four with 30km until we were back in Chamonix to enjoy the real celebrations having completed our venture. Legs and feet felt SORE today but its funny once you start running it seems to soon be forgotten, and we were once again moving really well today …. All things considered!
We chose to not stop for lunch and just power on to get it finished, eating our leftover supplies (and a raid of the fruit over breakfast!). It was still a seven hour day with some BIG climbs. The biggest being the final big climb, that takes you up above La Flegere, this is the only bit of the course that differs from the OCC route I had completed previously. The UTMB route (and CCC route) take you above Flegere and the descent to Chamonix begins a few hundred metres higher this time around. What a sight that was though, as from here you can SEE CHAMONIX!! We were back! We made it! Well… just the 8km descent down into Chamonix left. A section of trail that I have run many times and I think it might even be one of my favourites, I guess as it carries with it the finish to all the races and the feeling of completion and returning “home”.
We both really enjoyed this descent and Fabio was flying! I was pretty impressed with how we both were still moving to be honest. We discussed on this descent what we were going to have to eat and drink when we got back and all of the amazing things we were looking forward to gorging ourselves on! Hilariously however, upon making it back into Chamonix, instead of relaxing in a pub or drinking a pint from a frosted glass or sitting in a restaurant and ordering from the menu we actually ended up going to the supermarket and buying some favourite snacks and two tins of beer and going to sit in an open green space for a CHEERS and a small picnic. It’s funny the things we had got used to eh. It was the perfect finish though, as we took in what was now the end of our 4-day adventure. 180km, 10000m of vertical ascent. 2 slightly broken men, content, satisfied and still smiling. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.