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My first Alps race: Running the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

Written by Fiona

July 16 2018

On Saturday, I took part in my first running race in the Alps, the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k. It was a race of many highs and quite a few lows.

Was I ready for 30k in the mountains?

Before signing up for the Gran Trail courmayeur 30k, I had mostly only run races up to about 10k. I have completed plenty of sprint triathlons and I once did a road marathon (aged 40). But Alps running is a very new experience.

I fancied the Gran Trail Courmayeur (GTC) because I wanted to a new racing experience (I like new challenges!) and I was going to be in the area while travelling back from Les Arcs 1800 to Chamonix on a “Summer in the Mountains” work-holiday.

I looked at the stats. Some 30k and 2000m of ascent (and therefore the same descent). I thought that would be manageable. (I had no idea really but it seemed like it would be manageable because it was the shortest of three races on the day!).

I did consider the 55k route (there is a 110km route for utter nutters as well) but since it was my first Alps race I decided to play it safe.

I am so pleased that I did because 30k was more than enough.

Racing on tired legs

Because I had been travelling around the Swiss, French and Italian mountains for almost two weeks, I have taken every opportunity to explore. This has seen me hiking, mountain biking and running almost every day in high mountains.

With views like this, how could I resist?

View of Mont Blanc from my Chamonix accommodation.

I did take a rest day the day before the race but I knew my legs were not on top form.

Racing at altitude

But because I had been in the mountains for a couple of weeks it meant my body had acclimatised a little to running at high altitudes. 

I was very grateful for this when it came to race day.The race start at Courmayeur  is at 1,224 m elevation and from there you climb up. I didn’t suffer so much at higher altitudes and I felt I could control my breathing far better than the first few days of the trip.

I had also completed a run of 27km on the first section of the Tour du Mont Blanc with Run the Wild last Saturday so I vaguely knew what I was going to face on race day.

Selfie at the start.

My feelings on race day

My brain switched between anxiety and nonchalance.  I was worried that I had no idea what I was doing but I also figured it would be an interesting – and scenic – experience so I should simply try to enjoy myself.

Throughout the race, my feelings switched in a similar way. At times I thought I was so broken I could hardly continue; at other times I was so wowed by the scenery and the fact I was taking part in an Alpine race that I felt hugely happy.

This woman’s sock combo amused me!

I was also slightly annoyed at the start line to see that some runners were not carrying all the mandatory kit. The list had included waterproof jacket, trousers, two head torches, at least a litre of water, identity card etc.  From the size of other people’s packs it was clear they had not bothered.

The rucksacks were not checked and so I was probably carrying a rucksack that was two to three times the weight of others. If only I had known…

Nerves before the race, mingled with excitement.

Running the GTC 30k race

From the start, I knew this race meant business. The route heads out of Courmayeur and immediately climbs. We climbed 700m on that first ascent!

I began with a jog uphill but then figured I would be better walking and conserving some energy.

Everyone I had spoken to told me to start within my comfort zone. I saw other people running ahead but even when I was walking they were not making much progress on me so I switched off my running head and walked fast.

I have long legs and I am capable of big strides and I focused on pushing forwards. As we headed on to a trail I found my running poles to be really useful, too.

I confess I am not a huge fan of poles for running but, again, everyone told me they would be a great aid. It turns out they really were. I used my poles on the ups and some sections of descent and I carried them in my hands while running on the flat.

The trail ascended steeply and felt unrelenting. It seemed so very strange to be in a “running” race yet to be walking so early on.

If there were people who could run this mountain slope I take my hat off to them. As far as I could see everyone was hiking and doing a wee jogging trot when the incline flattened. There were not many flat bits so mostly we were all hiking.

At times I got stuck behind someone going too slow on a narrow track. Rather than become frustrated I tried to see this as recovery and I then waited for a place to overtake.

Even the energy required for a mini overtake left me gasping for breath so I knew I didn’t want to go much faster generally. Taking regular sips of water, I simply kept going as best I could.

And up and up and up the path went. I wondered how my legs would be at the top and whether I was going too fast.

I was worried because my hydration bladder seemed to be blocked (it unblocked itself later on but there were several times when the tube failed and stopped me from properly hydrating.)

I was concerned I was not eating enough and so I munched on jelly sweets the best I could.

Note to self: Jelly babies are far easier to eat while on the move than other kinds of jelly sweets, which require too much chewing.

This stunning view along the valley kept me smiling.

Every time I thought we might be at the top of the first climb, we turned a corner to see yet more trail ahead. There was a long line of people ahead and behind and I while my legs were begging me to stop for a rest my brain was telling me it was a race so I should keep going.

I found I was overtaking more people the higher I went and there were many women that I passed and I never saw again.

Towards the top – well, what I thought might be the top – I managed to force down half an energy bar. It took an age to chew and swallow.

Over the top and the first descent

Finally, after a false top at the Refuge Bertone for a check point,  the top was finally there and I could see I would be expected to run. I understood this because everyone else had broken into a trot, although my legs didn’t feel like it.

However, I thought I should run too. My legs felt like those of a baby giraffe and it reminded me of the transition from bike to run in a triathlon. For a while I felt like I was only just shuffling along.

I managed to eat a coupe of sweets and drink some water and then my legs began to feel more like mine again. I felt I was able to stride out and I started to overtake people.

This was the part of the race, from Refuge Bertone and Refuge Bonatti along the high balcony route of Val Ferret,  that I most enjoyed. The track was flattish and the views as we traversed high up the valley were truly mind-blowing. I wanted to stop to take photos but I was worried that if I did my legs wouldn’t work again.

I wish I had taken more photos but somehow my race head didn’t let me stop to do so.

But how can we only be at 11k?

After about an hour and a half I thought I would take a look at my watch. I imagined I must be at least half way. But I saw I had completed just 11k in 1hr 40ins. It must be my slowest time ever for this distance and I worried the GPS wasn’t working.

There was still almost two-thirds of the route to go and already I was feeling a bit knackered.

Again I questioned whether I’d set out too fast but I had felt like I was hiking uphill within myself so I put my feelings down to a lack of food and water.

I forced down the rest of the energy bar and carried on.

I also had a salt capsule (Precision Hydration) because I felt a twinge of cramp in my hamstrings. The sweat had been pouring off me on the first ascent.

This much dust and dirt!

The second half of the race

At about 15k or so, and just after a food station, I became sandwiched between two other women. One (Isabelle from Annecy, France) was running at about the same pace as me. While she was a little faster on the ups, I was a little faster on the downs.

Behind me was a woman who was huffing and puffing so loudly it became annoying and off-putting. I think I might have been on a wee energy low at the point because her loud breathing started to annoy me! We all know that “hangry” feeling.

In the end, she pushed past me and puffed her way onwards. She was certainly a strong runner but I have no idea why she needed to be so loud about it!

I stayed close to Isabelle for almost the rest of the race. As we swapped between leader and follower we chatted a bit and that helped the kilometres to go by.

By now I was both physically and mentally drained. After the short section of flattish traverse there were several more long climbs to make. These took their toll on my thighs and in the last 10k of the race I could hardly move uphill.

I felt like I had nothing left in my muscles and despite using my poles to good effect, my body felt like it was done in.

Isabelle seemed to be coping much better on the ups and I let her go ahead for a bit. I ate a few more energy snacks and at the final food station I downed a cup of cola and sucked on about six segments of juicy orange. Oranges have never tasted so good!

The Salomon Speedcross 4s served me well but they look a little tired after only a couple of weeks of wear in the Alps!

The long, long descent

We had already done a lot of climbing so I figured there must be a lot of descending. Which there was, except the descent came with a lot of nasty wee ups.

There were two scree slopes, both with tricky snow crossings (the poles helped enormously) and more mini bumps than I ever want to encounter again.

When your legs are trashed every little ascent feels like torture. I ran what I could and walked when I had to and I thought I must be going so very slowly.

As we headed into the final 5km, Isabelle and I were still neck-and-neck. She had to stop briefly to stretch out some leg cramp and I kept going.

The trail markers, which until this point had been pretty excellent, became a bit vague.

As we headed down a woodland trail, with numerous mini junctions, I lost sight of the marker flags for about 300m. I was worried I’d taken a wrong turn and would need to climb back uphill (I couldn’t imagine how I would do that but I knew I would force myself if needed).

I breathed again with relief when I suddenly spotted another marker and I knew I was on the right route.

I pushed on with gritted teeth knowing now that I would make it to the end. (Even at 22k I had thought I might not finish!)

The final few kms

As the race came to the end of the wooded trail I found I was running on my own. I could see no one ahead or behind and I ran on to the road following green arrows.

I was sure I was going the right way but then suddenly i could see no more arrows. I was at a road junction and I had no idea whether to turn left or right.

I felt really frustrated and angry. I had come so far only to be lost in the final couple of kilometres. I asked a couple of kids playing in a nearby garden which way to go but of course they couldn’t understand what I was saying. (They must have thought I was a ridiculous demented old bird!)

In the end I managed to get a car to stop and the driver told me the direction of Courmayeur. But still I didn’t know if I was heading to the right part of the town.

I asked a couple of people walking by the road and they told me the finish as not far. So I trusted they were right and I ran on.

I’d lost quite a few minutes and I think because I was hungry and exhausted this felt so horribly cruel. But I was also very relieved to hear the sounds of the end of the race and I quickly forgot my irritations.

The run back through the town was great. People were cheering and clapping and I could see the finish arch. 

I crossed the finish line only to find that Isabelle had got there ahead of me. When I got lost I’d obviously run further than I needed to and she had managed to follow a lady in front and found the right way. She even overtook a woman just before the finish line.

I have to say I felt a little cheated but we were so close and there were just minutes between our finish times so it didn’t matter too much.

I met a few people after the finish line who share friends with me in Scotland and we chatted and laughed. A friend who lives in the area spotted me and even bought me an ice cream. (I didn’t feel like eating much but an ice cream felt like exactly what I could stomach.)

It surprised me how quickly I had forgotten the pain of the race. I felt a few jolts of cramp in my feet so I took another Precision Hydration salt capsule. I think that was my fifth of the day.

At the finish line with my new running pal Isabelle.

An up-lifting first race result

Despite getting lost towards the end of the race I ended up in third place in my age group (50 to 59). My new friend Isabelle was second. I am absolutely thrilled! My time was 4hrs 33mins.

I was ninth out of all the women, while Isabelle was seventh (she overtook someone close to the line). Again I am delighted! 

I feel little sad that I got lost but like the recent TrailFest race, when I ended up third and a woman just ahead who missed a turning finished fourth, it’s all part of the race. 

When chatting to a few people after the event they said they also lost their way in the final part of the race. 

My thoughts on Alps races

During the race I felt both love and hate for the event. In the final 10k I felt a lot of pain. In the final few kilometres I became annoyed but elated. At the finish line I felt a rush of happiness.

The night and dat afterwards I was high, but unsure as to whether I would do such a race again.

Now I have seen the results I feel like the pain and anxiety were worth it. With no experience or proper training I had run into the top three in my age group and inside the top 10 of all women.

Of course, I now want to do another!

Questions for more experienced runners

I want to know:

I felt sick for about an hour after halfway. Was it too much sweet stuff, dehydration or the heat of the sun?

My muscles seemed to go into shut down after about half-way. Was that poor hydration or nutrition?

I found it hard to stay on the move and eat. It felt like too much effort at some points to get snacks from my rucksack. How can I improve this?

How on earth do people do 55k or 110k races? The mind boggles!

Enter next year?

See Gran Trail Courmayeur to find out more about the 30k, 55k and 110k races.

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