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Taming Tete aux Vents

by kirsty
Thursday 4th September 2014

Race report: Run247 columnist and Berghaus Trail Team member Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Run247 columnist and Berghaus Trail Team member Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: Julie with Kirsty before the start of the race

The problem with arriving in Chamonix is that you immediately feel a very strong urge to head out and do something strenuous involving mountains. But that had to wait. Legs had to be saved for the main event. Well, I have to admit to a little walk up the vertical kilometre but I saw sense and turned round.

I’d gone out to Chamonix with my husband and some awesome friends, who were keen to offer their support in any way they could and, as runners themselves, to experience the whole UTMB thing fully. Even though I’d tried to prepare them for how exciting it is, I couldn’t do it justice and they went round in a constant state of awe and over-excitement. Tartiflette, Lizzy Hawker, 3800m peaks, waterfalls, 84 different types of cheese… it was a lot to take in.

I spent the couple of days before the race agonising over such huge decisions as ‘black buff or blue buff’, ‘wear Brooks Cascadia and put the Berghaus Vapour Claws in the drop bag or vice versa’ and ‘sunglasses or no sunglasses’. Preparations complete I tried to get a bit of rest on the afternoon before the race started, but by then the nerves were getting the better of me.

It’s a scary thing, the prospect of two nights in the mountains. My fears included: sleep deprivation, hypothermia, falling off something steep, falling over and breaking something miles from civilisation, injuring myself in some major way. Not things you have to think about at your average 10k. Most of all of course, I worried that I just wouldn’t be able to complete it and that I would let down everybody who was supporting me, out there and at home.

Race day was lovely and sunny but an ominous black cloud loomed overhead about half an hour before the start. It started to rain a bit, then just got worse and worse. But heavy rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the race announcers and their playlist of ridiculously upbeat songs. I’d been at the start as a spectator before but it was something else again as a runner. I was desperate to get running and get some of the early more runnable miles under my belt, but I was secretly worried about that rain and its effect on my spirits if it carried on. But soon we were off and running through the very packed streets of Chamonix, which was a wall of cowbells and high fives.

Fortunately, four or five hours later the rain stopped and it was a massive relief. It was so heavy that you had to wear a waterproof but it was fairly muggy so you ended up sweating loads. I felt quite dehydrated early on and the other problem was that the wet, muddy conditions had already made my feet a bit sore. We were into the night now though and I was utterly focussed on getting to Courmayeur, where a big checkpoint, my drop bag, and most importantly my friends were waiting. Just a night of running and three ascents to about 2500m to negotiate first.

The first of those ascents, Col du Bonhomme was a bit of a low point for me. You started the ascent on a nice path by the river and it got gradually steeper and steeper. My legs and energy levels were ok but I just couldn’t stay awake! I couldn’t believe that, only about 9 hours into the race, I was already struggling with sleep deprivation and my most immediate worry was nodding off and falling off the path down the big drop into the river. One of the things about long races like this is that you can’t allow yourself to think ‘if things are this bad now, how bad will they be after 20/30/40 hours?’. It’s too overwhelming to get your head around and you just can’t get into that negative mindset. And anyway, it isn’t like one long race. It’s more like a series of different races and for some of them you’ll feel great, then for others you’ll feel awful. It’s just having that confidence, when you do feel awful, that you will come out of it and feel good again. Fortunately your deterioration isn’t linear. There are big peaks and troughs. I snapped out of my tired state when a nice man, who must have seen me staggering, slapped me on the back and asked me if I was awake. It was just enough to break the cycle of nodding and slobbering. Well it was that and the fact that I was following a man with a Nestle Crunch hanging out the back of his backpack, which was a bit like a carrot to me at that point because I really wanted it.

The night afforded some spectacular views of snaking head torches above and below me but I was very glad when dawn came. By around 8am I was in Courmayeur and incredibly happy to see my friends, eat and have a change of clothes. I’d waited until this point to sort my sore feet out which was a massive mistake. By now the damage was done and there was no way back. Blister plasters, tape and new socks and shoes were the best I could do, but I was pretty worried about them.

At the start of July I’d run the stretch from Courmayeur to Trient with the Trail Running Team so it felt good to be on that familiar ground. Though that did mean that I knew what was coming and that was Grand Col Ferret – the highest point on the course with a monstrous climb to get up to it. We had also stopped for a hot chocolate halfway up with the Trail Team, which made it slightly less horrific, and I knew there would be no mid-way hot chocolate this time. I just gritted my teeth to get it done and was rewarded with a huge, runnable downhill section all the way to Praz de Fort and some lovely Swiss villages. All was going well, but my feet were really sore. I’d planned to take a longer stop at the checkpoint at Champex to sort them out again but I couldn’t make it that far. I sat on the grass just before the climb to Champex and re-taped and re-blister-plastered.

Run247 columnist and Berghaus Trail Team member Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: Refuelling at Coumayeur and catching up with the support team at Champex

The climb to Champex looks like a tiny pimple on the course profile but it’s pretty exhausting. I got talking to a couple of guys from England at this point and it was just fantastic to chat and take our minds off the climb. I knew my friends were at Champex so despite very painful feet and not feeling great at this point I was in good spirits. It made such a massive difference to me to have friends supporting.  I also knew that there was a long stretch of flat and downhill from here.

Lots of hugs, soup and biscuits later I was off and as I headed off down the road, chatting to my friend Tom, I bumped into Gemma Bragg, fellow Run247 contributor, and we ended up running the rest of the race together. It made a big difference to run with somebody else through that difficult second night. The tiredness was very strange and both of us experienced some hallucinations. We both saw animals instead of trees and rocks at the side of the path, I kept seeing words on rocks, and most worryingly (and I didn’t tell Gemma this at the time in case she had me humanely put down) at one point I saw a centaur with the face of George Michael on a rock. Best to gloss over that but suffice to say we were both exhausted and suffering at that point.

There were ‘just’ three climbs of about 1000 metres to go now. The first was horrible and rocky and seemed to go on forever, the second wasn’t too bad and the third was like being in the depths of hell. Tete aux Vents – I hate you. It was a steep, very rocky ascent and it required you to take big steps up on the rocks on very shaky legs. It went on forever and had a couple of false summits, then when you finally got to the top you had to negotiate a boulder field. Why were they doing this to us?

There were two things that also made it worse. Firstly, we’d been absolutely gagging for the sun to rise as this lifts your spirits so much. We worked out that it would rise when we were at the top of the mountain. What a sight it was going to be! We were so lucky! Except it was so misty that we couldn’t even tell when the sun came up! Tete aux Vents is evil. Secondly, a runner came past us at this point blasting Iron Maiden from his phone. Can you imagine being in that misery but consoling yourself with the peace you can only get from the summit of a mountain, only to find some total bastard making you feel like you were on a bad bus journey? I’m not sure if I mentioned how much I hated Tete aux Vents.

Now it was a gradual descent to Flegere, which involved some bouldery bits which were too big for my tiny and shaky legs, resulting in a muddy and sore bum as I had to descend the inelegant way, then a final checkpoint, and finally an 8k descent down into Chamonix. It was a beautiful moment when Chamonix came into view, but that was a painful descent.

Run247 columnist and Berghaus Trail Team member Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: Each finisher is welcomed back to Chamonix as though they are the winner - Kirsty and Gemma at the finish

Once we came out onto the road in Chamonix we were one kilometre from the finish and I finally allowed myself to feel that I had truly done it! The feeling was indescribable. The harder the challenge, the bigger the sense of achievement and this was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done. Coming into town I saw my friends Julie and Simon from Like the Wind Magazine and started to feel a bit emotional. Running through the streets everybody spectating or just eating at cafes treated you like you were the winner, going crazy with cowbells and cheering like lunatics. I was just about keeping it together and then I saw my friends just before the finish line - Julie, Eileen, Lucy, Tracey and Tom - and I was a total goner. Eight months of training and preparation, 40 hours of running and the realisation of a massive ambition I’d had for years all spilled over and I had something in my eye.

Gemma and I were greeted by our husbands on the line, then we picked up our coveted finishers’ gilets. My best friend handed me a fizzy orange (it definitely pays to have somebody who knows you so well at these sort of events) and I had a beer and a cup of tea (I did say I was dehydrated?) and chatted to lots of the most awesome people I know. I couldn’t have been any happier than I was at that moment and I can’t stop grinning 4 days later. What I may lack in toenails I now possess in happy memories.

Thank you UTMB, Chamonix, friends and as for Tete aux Vents – nice try but you will never break me!

Run247 columnist and Berghaus Trail Team member Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: That prescious finisher's gillet - Kirsty and her friends in Chamonix


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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