It’s Monday and I just woke up at over 1900m of altitude on the floor of a small room in a mountain hut. I just walked out the door and was immeditaly greeted by the cold and view so wide they it won’t fit on any panoramic photo. And I love it.
Just yesterday I drove over 850k, meanwhile making arrangements for evening diner and a stay near or in the hut where my friends have been staying for a few days now. Late for the evening diner, the final walk (about 4k with 700m of positive altitude to bridge) was a sprint rather than a hike, with little time to take in the environment. Still late for diner, the resident lady of the house was only little excited to prep me something and it didn’t get better when I mentioned the word “vegetarian” (I have to admit I ended up being spoiled, although I blame it solely to my undaunted enthusiasm. And my good looks). But all that is about to be compensated for with a walk to the next hut today. Another 700m of positive altitude (although with the ups & down in between it’d turn out to be more like 1000m+). The hike is amazing. The path more or less follows the Tré la Tête glacier, which is a treat to see from above. We run into narrow passages, ropes provided for safe traversing. We run into a 60m long suspension bridge. We run into some startled marmots. And finally, we run into the second hut.
After enjoying lunch, we head back, and where we’d hardly seen any living creatures (not counting some fellow hikers), we are now spotting chamoises everywhere. They allow us to come quite close, as long as they have the height advantage, or know that they can climb up the almost vertical mountain flank behind them by the time we set 2 steps. And when they do, they stop and stand there, watching us from above. Curious. Provoking maybe. Amazing for sure. They’d win UTMB every time.
It’s 4 past 5 when the alarm goes and I’m awake immediately. I close the tent behind me and have a quick breakfast with some fellow early birds. All CCC runners I suppose, but none very talkative. So I freshen up, put on the clothes I’d laid out the night before and drive to the bus stop. After reading a bit (I can recommend Bill Bryson’s “A walk in the woods” to anyone. Rest assured, it’s not running related) and chatting with my Catalan (not Spanish!) neighbor on the bus, we reach Courmayeur. It’s a 40 minute drive through Mt. Blanc, but the way back will lead us around it and take quite a bit longer.
I go through my backpack one last time and decide to leave some stuff behind. Light and agile are the keywords today! I head for the first starting grid, where the atmosphere seems to be a bit more tense than in the back. I, for one, just can’t stop staring at the mountains around us. I can’t even imagine ever getting bored with a view like this. But enough daydreaming! It’s time for the Italian, Swiss & French national hymns, a short countdown and off we go!
The first 2k lead us through the streets of Courmanyeur and are quite wide, so I use them to position myself before we hit the single track that leads up to the first, but also highest, summit of the day: the Tête de la Tronche. A climb of over 1300m! All goes well though. I feel strong, catch up with some folks and still have the time and breath to enjoy the view and take some pictures. I feel at home. I reach the top in 121st position and pause a moment to take another picture, apparently to the surprise of some spectators. They’re right: it’s a long way to Chamonix so I better get going!
The descent is incredible. I dart over the track and make up for the lost time & positions. I think about Jan Knippenberg, whose book taught me about “galloping”, and thank him by jumping in between two runners at full speed. I’m having the time of my life. And then the knee decides the time has come to let me know it’s not amused with all this. A light bolt of pain, nothing much, but a warning none the less. It goes as fast as it comes, but I decide to slow down. Still, after just over 3 hours I reach Refuge Bonatti, checkpoint 3 at 22k, in 119th position and well ahead of any schedule I had in mind.
We descend some more and Proximus sends me a text message to let me know about the roaming charges in Switzerland. No thanks Proximus, I’ll just take some pictures then. I reach Arnuva without any serious issue. But then comes the climb to the Grand Col Ferret which will lead us above 2500 again. And the knee gives in. Serious bolt of pain now, and it doesn’t go away anymore. I have to take smaller steps and put less force into it. I’m slowing down a lot now, and even during the descent to La Fouly I have to let a lot of runners pass by. Not something I’m used to in a descent.
Champex is halfway up the next climb. I catch up with the American Maria, who points out a big rainbow across the valley. I decide to take a picture and while I do I realize how long it’s been since I did such a thing. The joy has made place for irritation. The climb, however, is not super steep and this is actually the only part where I can still keep a good pace, so I leave Maria behind. Not for long though. Minutes later I hear her yell: “Turn back! You’re going the wrong way!” Great, 102k instead of 101… just what I needed. I briefly translate for the poor French guy who followed me and catch up with her just before Champex.
Next post is 16.5k away, so I take some time and some extra food & water and then continue climbing up to the summit of La Glète. I’m suffering, and it doesn’t get any better during the descent to Trient. The fun I usually have during descents is nowhere to be seen. And since fun is pretty much the biggest & only reason I run, I’m starting to question what I’m doing here and consider stopping. But even if I do that, I still have to get to the next post. After 11h20, I reach Trient, just when it starts raining.
I take my time. I grab my phone and read the text messages I got from friends & family at home. Heartwarming. I put on my jacket and headlamp and go out, into the rain, all this on automatic pilot. It takes me a full kilometer to realize that I’m actually running again. Another one to regret the decision. The climb to Catogne is about as steep as they come and I have to take breaks all the time now. I curse the pain that goes through my knee on every step, and my breathing is not going anywhere either (because of the pain? who knows?). I have no clue how much more I have to climb to the top. I consider turning back. A Brit catches up with me and pushes me on. “Less than a mile”, he says. I tell him I can do that, but no way I can do two more climbs like this one. He corrects: “One more, you mean.” I stand perplexed. Really? I don’t really believe it. I’m actually quite sure he’s wrong. In fact, I’m scared to believe him, because if he does turn out to be wrong, It’ll be the worst disappointment ever when I discover so.
I reach Catogne about 2 hours later and the Brit was right. When, on top of that good news, the soup turns out to be vegetarian, I get a huge boost in morale. I head out into the darkness and push on. The descent is an assault on my knee, but for the first time in quite some time, I actually want to finish again. I reach Vallorcine, optimism dented severely. The climb to la Tête aux vents looks ferocious, and my knee is in really bad shape. I decide to look up the first aid post and ask for some inflammatory gel, but they offer me to tape the knee as well. Why not, it’s not going to get any worse I guess.
The moment I stand up from the bunk bed and take a few steps, I feel the difference. Could it be? I thank the guys, pick up my stuff and head out, a different man! I charge the climb at full speed, catching up with runners as I do. The pain is gone and energy to spare. I’m flying here. I catch up with Tonio, a Spanish guy who decides to tag along. Turns out he knows the route and informs me of what’s coming. We reach the summit together and immediately push on to the next and last supply station. I’m having a bit of a hard time now, but Tonio is now taking the lead and pulling me forward. I’m suffering.
Night changes everything. The whole world disappears and all that’s left are the few square meters captured in the beam of your headlight. It’s a pity I hardly see anything, but hearing things before you see them has a certain charm to it as well. When I hear some vivid water, I turn my head to the left and am face to face with an impressive waterfall. I’m still suffering, but at the same time, I’m enjoying every second, every step.
La Flégère. It’s all downhill from here. Literally. We have some fun with the friendly people at the supply station and then push on. I almost thrown myself down the ski slope and Tonio falls behind immediately. I realize Jan Knippenberg’s book hasn’t been translated and think about how someone should do so asap! I let him catch up and he tells me he is having some knee issues. We decide to stick together. Just a few hours of running in the dark has made us companions and companions don’t let behind one another! We get passed by, but I couldn’t care less. We’re having a good time here, I don’t mind if it lasts 10 minutes longer.
I see the streets first. I yell to Tonio who has fallen behind a few meters. It lightens his spirits and he catches up. We hit the streets and speed up more and more. We’re running marathon pace here. His girlfriend joins us for the last passage through the town and we have her break out a sweat by speeding up some more. The last straight and across the line! A day and a night to remember forever!
More to come later, but now I really need to pack for Trømso. Flight leaving in 6 hours!