Mountain miles are different. This is a phrase that my coach Maggie said to me a while ago, when I was route planning for this trip to the Alps. It’s something that I took in but didn’t really understand. How could I, the only experience I have is some shortish hikes a few years ago now and nothing quite like what was presented to me over the weekend.
Before I go into the full write up of how the weekend went, I think a little background is needed. In 2018 I was planning 2019, which you have to do as races sell out fast. I have talked about my desire to do the CCC many times and I thought booking the Eiger 51k, (3000m gain), would be a good warm up race with half the distance and half the elevation. Alas, I didn’t get my ballot place in the CCC, but I still have a mountain race this year to train for. My friend Lauren did get her spot though, which was super exciting. She is an excellent runner and way more experienced at this ultra lark than me, but like me has zero experience of big mountain running. We got talking in early April about what kind of training we were thinking about to get some kind of experience of what might lay ahead. I was also starting to realise that those 3000m would not be like anything else I had run.
A plan soon formed, dates were agreed. We would go to the Alps and get some serious elevation in. With both of us having families and busy jobs we only had a finite time to be there. Ideally I would have liked us to run the first 40km of the route but we just couldn’t work it logistically. The plan was to leave early Friday and return Sunday afternoon. Travel on the other side of the mountains back to Chamonix is near impossible or really expensive once you are 40km into the CCC route! This was gutting but there would be options, so we made a new plan.
Friday: Travel, then, short but decent vert, local Chamonix run
Saturday: Long run, lots of vert
Sunday: Short run/hike and travel back
Maggie planned routes for us for Friday and Sunday. I talked to Lauren about what she wanted to do the most for the long run and she said the first climb. This is a big one out of Courmayeur in Italy. So I jumped on Strava and mapped a route for the first 22km of the CCC route, which gets you close to refuge Bonnati, then I looped it down into a valley and back up and round and back. This would simulate as much as I could of the 2nd big climb and plenty of descent too.
37km with 2600m ascent. This was met with approval.
We had our flights booked and were just looking into accommodation when a really cool thing happened. Our friend Jana kindly offered us her apartment for the weekend as she would be coming to the UK for Lovetrails Festival. This was perfect, as I find staying somewhere like this much better for running trips as it allows you the space and feels more normal. Thank you again Jana, your place has the best views!
Everything was set, but then I had a bit of a disaster. Getting a hamstring injury a week before NDW50, then running the race on it put me out of running for pretty much 6 weeks. I rehabbed like a mo fo, and also did two stair machine sessions a week once it didn’t hurt to keep some fitness up. To be really honest, I was worried about this weekend massively. I knew it would be hard but on a lack of training who knows! I managed to get 3 run/walks of about 40-45 mins then 14km and 10km non stops in before heading out. Not ideal at all. Lauren was coming into the weekend off the back of a 65 miler at Endure 24 and a bit of a foot injury, but much better fitness than me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up or even just not be able to complete. Not mentally but physically.
Arriving in Chamonix after early wake ups, (Lauren 2am, me 3.45am), we were both pretty tired but the views of the mountains as the bus entered the valley just made us both smile, so much. We were in awe of the majestic mountains surrounding us; you feel so small. We collected the apartment key, and grabbed a salad at a local bar before heading up to the apartment. Said hello to Mr Cat, who we were to look after whilst there, then took an hour or so to chill before heading out on our first run.
12km with 700m of gain up to Merlet park.
It started on the road, which lead to a track, then to lush woodland trails. Soon the vert kicked in and it was climbing all the way. We pretty much power hiked our asses up to the park, stopping to look at views occasionally as we were both still so in awe of where we were to be honest. It was hard work but not too bad. Once up to the park, we decided to pay the entrance fee and have a little wonder around, spotting various animals along the way. At one point we hit a big open grass section and I commented that this was like being in a scene from Heidi, Lauren felt it was more Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, promptly burst into song and started dancing around. If you know me and my distaste for musicals you will understand the face I probably pulled, lol!
We finished our little tour of the park and headed back down, the descent was just as steep. I was being careful to save my quads for the main event the next day. Lauren was loving it and the speeding car sounds started, every bend had a sound. It was hard for me to keep up but I mostly did and before long we hit the flat of the river side. We had a nice gentle run back into town, spotting a kids Go-Ape, a cave and a large sheer rock face being used as a climbing wall. This place is awesome. Before long we were back at the apartment. A bit tired but now with a bit more of an understanding of what might lay ahead the next day. We went out for pizza, grabbed some food for the run and breakfast and got a reasonably early night as our bus was at 8.30am.
Neither of us slept well. I never do the first few nights not in my own bed. Anyway Mr Cat was waiting for me when I opened my door. I was up early and followed my usual routine, almost like it was a race. I wanted to make sure I had everything with me. I have had enough experience in the wilds of the UK to know that the weather can change at any point. You need to be sensible even more so in unfamiliar territory.
Here is a guide to the kit I took:
12L Salomon pack with Quiver for poles
Black Diamond Poles
Water proof jacket
Wind proof jacket
First aid kit, blister plasters, paracetamol, anti chafe
SiS Gels, banana, nuts, energy bars, tailwind and some new endurance fuel I will talk about later
3 x 500ml soft flasks. 2 for water and 1 for tailwind
The weather was forecast to be dry and hot, but as I said, you can never be too careful. Plus, it’s a good idea to practice carrying similar kit to mandatory so you can get used to the weight. I had breakfast then chilled out while Lauren got ready. We headed off to get the bus, which was at 8.30am. This is the earlier earliest one to Courmayeur, we would arrive about 9.20am. This meant, realistically we would start the run just before 10am and the last bus back was 7.35pm giving us 9 and half hours to get it done. I was quietly confident we would easily do this.
After a toilet stop and some coffee for Lauren, we headed up to the starting road and got going. The first 3.5km are up windy roads. This is probably good for the race as it will help spread the pack out a bit, I have heard it’s pretty congested. We were both really wanting to get on the trails though and soon the road ended and we entered the woodland. The climbing started easy but soon became a hike and I suggested we get our poles out, this proved to be a wise choice as it started to get a bit steeper. Then there were the many fallen branches to negotiate and even a huge bloody tree blocking the path. All good fun as we negotiated these hazards with a bit of comedy climbing from me. At about 5 and a bit Km in, we got to our first high clearing. There were a couple of buildings and a beautiful view. We stopped to refuel and take photos. At this point spirits were pretty good, we refilled our water at one of the many water stations you can find. You need them to be honest as I had already drank 500ml on this part of the climb. The mountain water was so fresh as well.
The next part of the climb took us to new places mentally. It was steep, rugged and just bloody hard, like nothing I had ever experienced. We crossed slippy slate sections, gully’s, the paths got small and the drop offs became greater. My vertigo kicked in a couple of times and I had to focus my mind on going up. I did have a little moment crossing one gully, where I was pretty nervous and basically slid across on my ass! Lauren, was very supportive of my slowness in these sections though, thank you. At one point during this section I remember looking at my watch and noticing we were at 666m of elevation gain and I did find this kind of ironic, we were also starting to hate our life choices as well. Lauren was wondering how the hell she would go another 93km of this, I was also thinking the same. I started to think about just not applying for the ballot for 2020. Breathing became laboured as the elevation started to get to us. We took mini breaks of 30secs or so quite often to catch our breath. We wanted the views though! Soonish we reached the A Pass before the final climb. By this time we were 2.5 hours into the climb and still had another 300m to go. Jeeze! After catching our breaths again, we headed off for the last push,which would take about 30 minutes. All I remember of this part was just getting up the last section as quickly as possible so I could take my reward of the view and what a view it was. A 360 degree views to die for. We had climbed about 1200m in 12km to Tete De La Tronche (2400m). To put this into perspective, Ben Nevis is 1345m and this was a small mountain, compared to all that surrounded us.
I was getting hungry by this point so I decided to break into a packed of Longhaul Sweet Potato and Quinoa paste. I had kindly been gifted some packets to test as I’ve been looking for some new nutrition to try. Initially the texture was weird but I really like the taste, I guess it’s that throwback to baby food but for adults, lol. It kind of reminded me of sweet potato mash, so that’s a good thing. It definitely kept the hunger at bay.
After the photo and refuelling break, we kicked off on a downhill section with a bit of ridge running. Again my vertigo kicked in a little bit here so I was slower than Lauren but actually really enjoyed this section. I have got better at the downhills and just keep focused on what’s in front of me, which works. We did have fun with the Go-Pro during this section as the panoramic views were just wicked. The craving for some lunch soon kicked in though and the promise of alpine food was getting us excited. I had planned on us getting to a cafe further on the route but I clearly had massively misjudged the mountain miles! Luckily we soon came across a refuge and with a quick check of the map we realised it was the first check point of the CCC, refuge Bertone. Yay!!!
As we approached we heard singing, it appeared there was a choir group or something performing up here, which was pretty strange but food was more important, so we headed down, grabbed a table and ordered some ham and cheese platters, with plenty of bread. Weirdly we were starting to hate the experience much less but a realisation had dawned on me. I was worried we wouldn’t make it back to the bus in time with another big climb to take on later as it was now gone 3pm. I suggested we discuss this when we get closer to the place where we could opt out and run it back in from a valley, Lauren agreed.
After filling up our bottles with more delicious mountain water, we headed back up to the route and off on a lovely and very runnable section towards the 2nd CP, Bonatti. Initially we put in a quick Km, then realised on full bellies, this wouldn’t be the best idea, so took it a bit easier. We stopped at streams to keep up hydration and just enjoyed the mountain running life. We did take a couple of wrong turns though because of a crossover in the route I had planned. On the 2nd mistake, we made the decision that we just wouldn’t have time to do the whole route, which was a shame but at that point the right choice as missing the bus and getting an expensive taxi back would not have been cool because Mr Cat would be hungry! I was also not really match fit so to speak. I felt really bad for Lauren as I wanted to make this an event simulation of 1/3 of the course.
We then carried on towards Bonatti, playing a strange game of back and forth with a German family hiking as we kept stopping for water or photos. It became a joke really, which all found funny as we kept running past them. The scenery was of course still stunning and before long we reached our turn off to head down into the valley by Bonatti. This was a super fun descent, which tested out the quads massively as the path twisted and turned, with some very rocky sections too. All good practice for this type of running. Before long we hit the bottom and began our run/walk back into town. It was weird looking back up at the ridge line wondering what would have been if we had time to go back up. I was tired though. In good spirits but tired. We talked about race strategy, what Lauren would do in the next 8 weeks to get herself ready. I stopped my watch at about 35km with 1750m. The time was mostly irrelevant but it took 7hrs 34mins. Not counting the hour we stopped for lunch. Lauren ideally wants to hit CCC in 24 hours as the cutoff is 26. Even taking into account the hour stopping, if she can keep this pace up then she will bloody smash it.
Once we stopped, we headed to a bar opposite the bus station for a well deserved beer/wine. Talked about the adventure and how awesome it was. We received a text from the bus company saying it was going to be 45mins late. This was annoying but not as annoying as the fact it ended up being over 2 hours late. We both had been dreaming of burgers but this didn’t happen as we just had to grab some take-away pizza and rush home to feed a hungry Mr Cat.
We didn’t sleep well again and I woke with very tired legs. I made the sensible option for me of taking the cable car up the mountain, while Lauren took on the climb. It was 1000m of ascent, no chance for me. The views up on Le Brevent were just stunning as of course they had to be! Lauren made it up 2/3 of the climb before coming back down, which is pretty amazing tbh. I took some time to think for myself up there about the potential for next year, how hard the race would be, especially the night section but also what a personal achievement it would be to complete.
We had a late breakfast, packed our bags and headed off to the bus back to Geneva, both sad to be leaving but also looking forward to seeing our families.
The mountains had our hearts and would now be with us forever. I would be back in the Swiss Alps in less than two weeks for my 51k race, Lauren would be back in 8 for her 100k. We would both be returning with our families who we hope will fall just as much in love with these majestic rocks as we had.
I am so happy I decided to do this. I think turning up to the Eiger race with only local training would have been a massive shock to the system, especially with being on the injury bench for 6 weeks. Yes my fitness wasn’t great but I still did 47km with 2450m over the two days. I drink way more on the ascents than I thought I would and keeping across nutrition was really hard, I need to be mindful of in the future. Lauren is a fantastic runner and great company, she was very supportive and funny, which helps when you are nervous. If I get a spot in the CC for 2020, I will def have to come back to run some more of the route and build confidence some more because it’s going to be a long ass 100km run.
I have a new respect for the term “Mountain Miles”. They took me way out of my comfort zone with vertigo but also showed me how beautiful they can be.