The Hunter becomes the Hunted….the Logistics Director becomes the Client!
A week ago, I woke up bright and early as usual, but this time with a sense of apprehension. No matter how many times we tell clients that it is not a race, so there is no need for pre-race nerves, here I found myself about to set off around the Tour du Mont Blanc, and yep… I felt nervous! A unique opportunity had presented itself, whereby a fairly late cancellation, and small group meant that I could join one of our trips as a client, leaving Si to support on his own. I usually am required as support crew, and the fact that the full TMB isn’t always suitable for canine companions (exposure, wildlife, national parks and livestock being the main reasons), meant that to date, I had never actually covered the whole route myself. The apprehension may have been at the thought of leaving my beloved Bailey and Lottie in Si’s capable, but often busy and distracted hands, or it may have been the thought of running over 100 miles with nearly 10,000m cumulative ascent with a group of strangers.
I won’t describe the route, as frankly there is a vast amount of information available, not least on our own website, where we fully describe the trip in detail. However, now from having seen it from ‘the other side’ I thought I would share some takeaways.
- Don’t get caught up in the numbers. All the other members of the group were from the UK, and as such, were very interested in knowing the daily distance statistics. Myself, training mostly in the mountains over summer, I was very focussed on the daily ascent and descent number. Regardless of this, neither of these numbers really matters at all. The purpose of taking on a trip like the TMB is to enjoy the journey. All of our group comfortably managed the distance and the climbs, and we always reached our base for the night in plenty of time to refresh before dinner each night. How long we were out for each day, and our speed, quickly became very irrelevant. Neither be put off, nor dismissive of the overall statistics. It is a long way, there are a lot of climbs, but its all very manageable, and the consistent rewards make it well worth it.
- Embrace where you are. Each day, and each overnight stop brought different highlights. I loved the quiet of Chapieux, where a lack of mobile reception meant that after the days running, a gentle walk to stretch off my legs, listening to cow bells, followed by a glass of wine (ok fine, it was 2, but don’t tell Si), watching the sun set over the mountains, followed by a social dinner shared with fellow TMBers from Canada, the Caribbean and Denmark, all without any interruption from social media. This contrasted to Courmayeur where we sat on the street having dinner as a group as the buzz of this Italian village, hummed around us. Passing through 3 different countries, and going through both remote, and more populated villages means there is a surprise around every corner.
- The Guides are invaluable. My group was guided by Alister Bignell who I consider a good friend as well as one of our highly skilled guides at Run the Wild. Alister is a fantastic runner, who is inspirational and motivational in his ability and knowledge of running alone, but being with a guide offers so much more. Throughout the 6 days we learned about the rocks, the flowers, the types of cows, the land use, the territorial history, the climbing history, the food, the local wildlife, local races, running techniques, pole techniques, and even a bit of first aid. We learnt which glaciers used to have their ice ‘mined’ to take to the southern coast to become ice cubes in the drinks of the rich and famous. Guides are not simply mobile GPS units who show you the route, they truly show you so much more. As one of my fellow runners exclaimed, ‘its so much more magical when you understand something about who has walked these exact paths before’. I couldn’t agree more.
- Use the time to learn about yourself. Each of us on the trip had different motivations for being there, and different things that we are going on to do afterwards. For me personally I have a few longer distance races coming up over the next 12 months both flat, and very hilly. I wanted to use this trip to help work out: My nutrition strategy (I personally am much better taking on food before an uphill climb rather than downhill, where I quickly felt sick); My pole technique seems fairly effective, but getting the poles in and out the bag meant a good 5 minutes of negotiating and repacking my bag each time. In race scenario this would drive me mad, so I need to think of a better way of storing the poles; I have a decent low hill gradient jog, but my walking pace is pretty pathetic. For the hillier races I clearly need to put more training into fast walking pace on the steeper terrain. Others in my group benefitted from working on their stride length, navigating technical terrain, and pole technique in particular
- You walk a lot….and you run a lot. Now this may seem a bit stupid, but I don’t think I had fully appreciated quite how far the whole route is. The nature of the terrain, means you inevitably have to walk a fair amount. Initially I found it a little frustrating that after some steep climbs, they were then followed by more gradual climbs, by which point the fatigue in my legs had accumulated to such a point that I couldn’t even run them. So even on some of the ‘runnable’ terrain, I had to walk. Similarly, on the downs, some of the paths are quite technical underfoot, whether tree roots, or rocks, or simply the steepness, which means you can’t even tick off the kilometres quickly on the descents. All that being said, I come to the second part of my statement, you also run a lot! 160km over 6 days means that even with big climbs and tough descents, there are long stretches of very runnable, beautiful underfoot, pathways. It is worth pushing yourself and running these as best you can. Stretching out seemed to use different muscles, which gave the climbing and descending muscles, some much needed relief. There is also some satisfaction to seeing the watch tick off kilometre after kilometre.
- Don’t be worried about going hungry! Gone are the days when refuges and hotels only serve hearty mountain local produce, typically a combination of cheese, potatoes and lardons in one format or another. The food was exceptional, and served with a finesse and with pride. On one night the dishes were even served with edible flowers to enhance the appearance of an already beautiful plate. In our group we had meat eaters, vegetarians and pescatarians, and I think it's fair to say we all were very well catered for. If anything, I possibly missed the chance to have a raclette, or fondue which you see in many of the local restaurants, and is not something I can normally justify eating based on my output on a regular day! I have to give a special mention to Si, as seeing the Run the Wild spread from the other side of the table, really is a joy to behold. The local cheeses, fruit, bakery products and range of drinks are a real pick me up.
- Play around with your kit! May seem an obvious point, but I think packs in particular come into their own on a trip like this. You need big enough for all you may need each day, whilst not too big to bounce around or cause rubs. You need enough pockets to be able divide and spread the load of your things, but not so many that you can’t find where you put things. With water, I’ve personally moved from bladder to bottles, as refilling bladders are a real pain when you have a full pack. One in our group also brought a flexible cup which was clipped to the front of her pack, and made grabbing a quick drink at a stream or a water trough super quick and easy. Something I would carry next time. Even playing around with how you lace your shoes can make a real difference. I showed the group the heel lock technique (shown to me by a fellow canicross runner, as being pulled by a dog tends to pull you into the front of your shoes even on the flats), and it turns out this was a real toenail saver. As I’ve already mentioned, I definitely didn’t get it right with my poles, and I want to look into a more effective way of quickly storing them ready for use. Sewing kit and bungee cords at the ready!
I am so glad I had the chance to run on this trip, share the trails with my fellow TMBers, and all those we met along the way. Circumnavigating a route like this using only one’s own power, gives immense satisfaction, and is something I will cherish for a long time to come. Will I try and enter the UTMB now? Probably not as having taken 6 days, the idea of doing the route non-stop seems unfathomable, but I am inspired to try and work out some other big mountain routes, perhaps ones that are dog friendly. If you are thinking about coming out to the Alps…do it. The views, the food, the people, the satisfaction, the history, all make for a fantastic playground.
How lucky we are!