Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) at UTMB – report 2012

The “beautiful” UTMB race by all accounts……

‘A race in open country along the ‘Grande Randonnée’ paths crossing though the Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and Aosta valley countryside.

….sounds like a stroll. Although doesn’t look it:

BRUTAL is how I’d describe it. Don’t let the pitiful 2 qualifying points or the fact it’s ‘only 70+ miles’ give you the impression that this is the ‘easy one’. Nothing at UTMB is easy.

I had arrived in Chamonix the weekend before the race, with Moxy (@johnnnny_m), Louie (@dingdongrun)  and Himalaya (@runner786). John had a place on UTMB and the rest of us on TDS. Weather was stunning when we arrived and a few days before the race we decided to stretch our legs with a run up Brevent. The mountains were stunning and it was difficult not getting carried away and spending the whole day running across them. 16 miles and a fair few thousand metres of ascent / descent was probably pushing it a little but it seemed too good an opportunity to waste.

By the Wednesday things weren’t exactly going to plan:

– I seemed to have picked up a muscle pain / strain in my backside

– I discovered my brand new race shoes were a size too small

– The sole of my well-used spares was starting to come off

– The weather turned dramatically

Race day

I set the alarm for 3.44 am.

Due to the unexpected dope / blood testing at registration I ended up on a different coach from Davie and Mark – picking up at 4.45 am and leaving at 5.00. They had an extra 15 mins and some company on the coach. It had rained all night. Thunder and lightening too. We had also received a number of texts from race organisers….

I left the apartment with all my kit having eaten as much as I could for breakfast. It was dark, it was cold and it was wet. I think it’s probably been the first time I was genuinely scared before a race. I had reviewed the route profile several times – I knew it would be tough but just didn’t  know what reserves I’d need to tap into or the level of suffering I’d need to embrace.

As we drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel towards Courmayeur I thought about my family, my friends and the mandatory kit I hope I had in my bag.

Courmayeur was strange. It was still pretty dark and any light only showed just how heavy and imposing the cloud cover was. I sat outside the Sports Centre and watched people – each with their own nervous habits and rituals.

I eventually spotted Mark & Davie and spoke to them for a bit as it started to get lighter.

With 25 mins to go I couldn’t stand the waiting about so made my way to the front of the start-line. Was already busy but I was here to race and as entitled to be there as all the other (much more seasoned looking) Salomon-clad runners.

The build-up was incredible. So much tension in the air but I was happy now that I was in position and it wouldn’t be long to the off. I sucked it up, the noise, the music, the cameras, the wind from the helicopter rotors. The nervousness all but disappeared. A unique experience.

After a countdown from 10 we were off. Within minutes we were on the first climb and I settled in, trying really hard not to get carried away.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the ‘I ate this, slipped on that, passed whoever, had to walk here’ – and leave you a short summary instead.

A Summary

– It rained hard and heavily almost the whole time

– The aid stations take some getting used to but all-in-all were pretty good

– The UTMB organisers know how to mark a course!

– Some runners carry poles that wouldn’t be out-of-place on a Venetian barge

– Climbs really are climbs, it got to the point of laughable on occasion – where exactly is the top?

– The helicopter pilots were crazy (see me – purple pack)

– The support from locals in all the villages was really touching. Whole families out in the middle of the night (I thanked every one of them)

– My friends were fantastic (staying up very late to welcome me home)

– My family are crazy, staying up to the early hours to see a glimpse of me finish on the webcam

The Learnings

– The Europeans generally don’t like banter (in a race at least)

– They also don’t like to be passed on hills by people without poles

– Noodle soup is some serious ultra race food (I didn’t ask what was in it for fear of the answer – don’t think they do vegan)

– Mont Blanc is stunning even in awful weather

– Seeing runners (who had support crews) changing into dry gear before heading back out onto the next climb doesn’t give you an extra spring in your stride (when you’ve nothing left that’s anywhere near dry in your bag)

– When your head-torch batteries go, it’s often worth taking the time change them

– It’s often easier not to see the trail in front of you so be thankful when your head-torch batteries go

– Those wee cups they make you carry become a lifeline “More please”

– No matter what the manufacturer claims, waterproof is not water proof

I finished in 25th with a French guy I’d run a lot of the race with. Around 18hrs 30 with the extra few Km’s they threw in. 1st Brit home by all accounts.

One thing is absolutely certain – I did not conquer that route. I felt honoured to be there and was lucky enough not to be chewed up and spat out like many others (with only 44% finishing). Mark had to pull out after 2 huge climbs and descents with the on-going injury he was trying to carry – it was never going to be a race for a damaged knee. I’m not sure how he managed to get as far as he did. Davie after making it up the longest climb of the day was forced to withdraw with early signs of hypothermia. It’s a serious race in conditions that can be very dangerous and we were all relieved when he was finally returned to Chamonix around 4.00am.

John went on to run an amazing race at UTMB, which had to be re-routed as the weather had only worsened overnight. He battled some serious conditions and thoroughly deserved his high placing. Seemed like a stroll in the park to the hill-machine.

Overall I had a fantastic experience – thanks to Mark, Davie, John and Katie.  Thanks for letting me tag along.

I’ll leave you with this – recorded from the live web-cam from a living room in Scotland 🙂

Images courtesy of

9 responses

  1. Jo

    Made me cry again watching you finish. Well done but I still ask “why” x

    October 15, 2012 at 9:37 am

    • Cry? I’ve warned you before about Gin before breakfast 🙂


      October 15, 2012 at 10:05 am

  2. Mark

    Brilliant 🙂 it was a mission !! You were a soldier !! Respect to your endurance and indomiability mate 🙂

    October 15, 2012 at 11:05 am

  3. Andy Cole

    Brilliant. Superb performance and the write-up was worth waiting for!

    October 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm

  4. Totally Awesome effort, Paul

    October 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm

  5. Lilacswizzle

    Incredible achievement Paul. Words cannot even begin to describe what you went through or the scale of your achievement. Unbelievable. Must have hurt reliving some of the memories/nightmares but. Don’t think half of twitter got any work done that day!

    October 16, 2012 at 8:03 am

  6. Fantastique! Et congratulations a votre blog et votre course incroyable dans les montagnes.

    October 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm

  7. paul brown

    Paul I’m thinking about trying for a place in next year’s T.D.S and I would appreciate any advice you could give me.I only started running ultra’s this year.I’m also hoping to run the WHW race next year if I get a place.Is this too ambitious?

    November 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    • Hi Paul, have sent you an email 🙂

      November 14, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s