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The 2013 TDS - Lets park the car (outside the supermarket) and go by foot!

by kirsty
Monday 2nd September 2013

Race report: The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) - Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade tells us about an emotional journey around Mont Blanc

Having a little bit of a lie-down after telling a medic that I’d just been to the supermarket is not something I expected to be part of my experience at the TDS race at this year’s UTMB but it just goes to show how unpredictable these things are. I expected rain, possibly snow, freezing cold temperatures on the tops and didn’t get any of these things. I also expected fatigue, trashed quads, moments of elation and moments of utter doubt and fear and some tears. It didn’t disappoint on these things.

Having run the CCC for the last two years and failing to get into the UTMB in the ballot this year, I decided to plump for the TDS. The middle child of the UTMB races, it is 120km long and has 7250m of climb. On paper this doesn’t sound that much harder than the CCC, which is 100km and 5950m of ascent, but let me tell you, I found it a lot harder than I found the CCC.

I arrived in Chamonix on the Monday, in time to see the PTL kick off. This is a self-supported challenge consisting of 300km and 24000m of height gain! Competitors would be out for 4 days and 4 nights. The emotion in Chamonix town square when they set off was incredible. There was just such respect for the huge challenge they were about to take on and I started to get goosebumps about my own forthcoming challenge.

Tuesday was mainly about resting and registering. Registration is a lengthy process as they have to take the safety elements very seriously indeed. All competitors have a long list of mandatory kit and I know from my own experience that it’s all absolutely necessary stuff. They check that every competitor has all of the kit (to the level of detail that waterproofs are of the necessary quality for use in the mountains) and if you’re missing anything or if anything is sub-standard you’re sent away. They tag your bag with a tracking device (so that they know where you are at all times and so that your friends and family can follow you online), they tag you with a wristband, you’re issued with your bus ticket for the journey to the start in Courmayeur, your drop bag and spares bag, and your technical finisher’s t-shirt (which always has to stay unworn for me until I’ve completed the race).

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: The start of an emaotional journey into the trails around Mont Blanc © Pete Aylward

Race day dawned with a bright and early 4am start and I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as nervous as I did on that day. I always think that nerves are a good thing, especially for a race like this, but my feelings were way beyond ‘healthy fear’ and into ‘paralysing terror’. I really can’t explain it, except to say that I was just feeling like it was all beyond me, that I was a bit of a fraud in this sea of tanned mountain runners with legs like telegraph poles. Despite it being only 3am in the UK I got some very well-judged texts from my best friend, which really calmed me down and got me into the right head space for it and I will be forever grateful to that person. It made a huge difference to a challenge in which the mental side plays such a big part.

After a very emotionally charged start, the first climb took us up 1300m, then down a bit, then up another 600m. All felt ok and psychologically it felt good to have reached the highest point we were going to reach (2600m) within the first few hours. Then followed a great, gradual downhill which went on for ages and lulled me into a false sense of security about how awesome the downhills were going to be. I was eating up those miles at this point! It was all going to be ok! Little did I realise that this was going to be the only easily runnable part of the course until the last few kilometres. After this it was either tough ascents or technical, rocky, and because of the rain on the Tuesday night, slippy descents. You really had to keep your concentration on the downhills and they really ate away at my quad muscles as I slowed to negotiate tricky bits and had to skip out of the way of all manner of things there to trip me up. Progress was painfully slow and very frustrating. I had to banish all thoughts of how far there was to go and how long it might take, or there’s just no way that I would have been able to cope with the enormity of the task ahead.

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: Incredible support and inspiring scenery © Pete Aylward

The toughest part of the race for me came at 50k. The preceding section was reasonably ok, then there was a bit through a town which was a huge boost as every single person we pass cheers for us like we are family. It’s a constant stream of ‘bon courage’, ‘superb’ and there’s plenty of cowbell action and this sort of support is one of the key things that makes this race so special. But then we started to climb, 1200m in the heat, and just when I thought it was over, a very sharp extra 400m when it was suddenly very cold. The point at which we could have a rest, a hot meal and get access to our drop bags (at Cormet Roseland, 66km) seemed tantalisingly close, but then never ever seemed to get any nearer. After the huge climbs came a very nasty downhill involving big rocks which had to be negotiated with the aid of ropes. So on top of exhaustion, coldness and muscle fatigue I now added terror into the equation. Why didn’t I do a nice flat road race instead?

I was initially buoyed by the checkpoint at Cormet Roseland (partly because of a lovely chat with a Swedish man who showed off his freakishly clean and baby-like feet, as I and an American woman looked at our disgusting trotters with embarrassment) but we were into the night now and I was getting tired. I focused on getting to Les Contamines (95k) and in the last few kilometres before I reached it I was conscious that I was nodding off. Confident that it was impossible to actually fall asleep while running, I kept going and just as the checkpoint was coming into view I found myself being helped by a nice marshal as I had evidently nodded off and headed into the road. On being quizzed I was certain that I had just been to the supermarket and my car was outside so I was fine to drive myself home. I was encouraged to have a bit of a rest by the medical staff, who were then a bit concerned that I’d started to shiver uncontrollably. I had got cold in the last couple of hours and my tiredness hadn’t helped and both of these things led to me becoming a bit confused. While it sounds funny now, it could actually have been the early stages of hypothermia and it just shows how things can turn bad very suddenly on races like this. We carry mandatory kit for a reason and while I’d hate for something like this to happen to other runners it does just take one instance where you frighten yourself a bit to never scrimp on that kit again.

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: When the going gets tough... © Pete Aylward

After a small rest, some hot soup and tea I was off again and feeling much brighter. The sun rose again which made everything seem a lot better and I kept thinking how lucky I was to have seen the sun rise round Mont Blanc twice in one race. How many people get to see that twice in their lifetime, let alone in one run? Just as well as they had a sting in the tail in store for the last sections, in the form of, you guessed it, a massive climb. There was a not too bad one of 600m, which lulled you into that false sense of security again, then a horrible, steep, straight up climb of another 400m, which took all the last energy reserves you had.

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: Finishing strong - and with a big smile!© Pete Aylward

But from here on in we were on the home stretch. It really shows you how important the mental side of races like this is when you’ve been running for 28 hours, your legs have completely gone, you’re tired beyond belief and you’ve felt that you can’t go on so many times, and yet you get a second (or perhaps twentieth) wind in the last few kilometres. The feeling as I ran into Chamonix towards the finish was indescribable. Every single person in the street cheered you, wanted to high five you, gave you a look of admiration and it felt like they were all there for you. The enormity of what you had just achieved, the feeling of pride that you did not quit when everything in your body and mind was telling you to, the utter beauty of everything you’d witnessed, from the sun rising, to the incredibly clear night sky and uncannily bright stars, and just the sheer relief of actually getting to the finish, made it one of the most emotional experiences of my life. A quivering wreck, I was greeted at the finish line by my husband and Britta, Run247’s editor and former finisher of the UTMB, so she understood exactly what I’d been through. Huge thanks to Britta and Pete for being at the finish and to Julie at home, who sent messages of support all through the night and followed with such commitment that she may as well have run it with me. It made a big difference to know that friends at home were following. I was determined to finish so that all the employers’ time they wasted wasn’t in vain!

Lastly, I feel like there’s one person I need to acknowledge as a huge inspiration to me in doing this race in the first place, and in helping me to complete it and that’s Lizzy Hawker. Lizzy was due to run the UTMB but had to withdraw at the last minute due to injury. On her Facebook page Lizzy wrote about how special the UTMB is and how ‘the shared passion and dedication makes this much more than just a race, more a journey we share together’. She urged runners to ‘keep aware, stay in the moment and enjoy’. I had these words in my head the whole way round and I kept telling myself not to think about how long or far I had to go, or how much it hurt; only to think about how lucky I was to be there, to be experiencing what I was experiencing and to enjoy each moment, to enjoy the journey. Thank you Lizzy, and I and all at Run247 wish you a speedy recovery from injury.

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: Britta and Kirsty with the inspirational Lizzy Hawker. Kirsty with race organiser Catherine Poletti © Pete Aylward

Click here for results from the 2013 The North Face® Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc®, including all GBR runners!


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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