Tuesday, 20th February 2018
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The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

by Britta Sendlhofer
Sunday 1st November 2009
Chamonix – Coumayeur – Champex – Chamonix      
166km/9400m, August 2008

“So you are doing the Ultra Trail?” asked the woman handing me the press pack. I nodded and smiled. She said: “You don’t look like the others!” The smile froze on my face. It was as obvious to everyone else as it was to me then, that I wasn’t the same skinny, athletic and hollow-cheeked breed of ultra runner as the other competitors who had come to Chamonix in their thousands for this week’s events?

I had convinced myself that the twenty odd hours this race would take me beyond anything I had ever attempted before would be endured mostly through strength of mind. I needed to believe I could do this – even though the statistics were intimidating! 166 kilometres of trail with 9400 metres of ascent and a time limit of 46 hours. The confidence crisis resulting from this casual comment, “You don’t look like the others”, was therefore quite a big deal!

Training’s all about preparing for what you will experience though and knowing how to deal with it. I’ve had bouts of self doubt ever since I signed up for the event in January and had learnt how to cope – just push these negative thoughts to the back of the mind and keep my fingers crossed for a miracle...

I knew a few people taking part in the race, but to all intends and purposes I was on my own when I got to the start on Friday evening. Resting and keeping out of the sun were priorities as I waited, so I squeezed myself between the locals who were sat by the church wall, watching the two thousand plus runners with much interest. I speak no French and they spoke nothing else. Yet, when I finally had to get up and line up for the off, we’d made friends and they had taken over as my supporters and were waving me off, kissing me goodbye and wishing me luck! “Bon courage!” This, coupled with the emotional theme tune blaring out of the speakers and the sheer terror of what lay ahead, brought tears to my eyes as I crossed the starting line.

The first few miles were calm. I had started at the very back and was slowly reeling in other competitors. I felt strong and was curious of what was to come. Support at the side of the trail was incredibly generous and there was a good atmosphere amongst the runners. Here at the back we were tightly packed for the first four to six hours but it was possible to get into a steady rhythm and with a hundred miles ahead starting off steady seemed like a good idea.

I passed by the first feed stop – I had plenty of fuel and water with me and it seemed a little too busy but the cheering crowds provided an extra spring in my step! From here we started the first ascent. The trekking poles came out in force and the resulting ‘click-clacking sound’ would remain with us until the finish. I too had brought along poles – they had proven their worth on previous adventures and would be a huge help on the long, steep climbs that followed.

We had set off at 6.30pm, so as we climbed out of the trees we were treated to a spectacular sunset, the evening light colouring the snow capped peaks of the Mont Blanc massif in pastel pink. It got pleasantly cooler too as it got darker and I was feeling good.

As we started the first decent the head torches came on. No views now, but the trails demanded full concentration and the miles appeared to fly by. Arriving in the village of Saint-Gervais, bustling with supporters who lined the route three to four deep in places was exciting after the quiet of the long decent through the woods. The feed station was quite something too! I had some soup and bread, enjoyed some nice cheese and tested the cakes. I did however stay clear of the tables loaded with plates of salami and cured meats!

Then I was cheered back out into the night. The miles that followed are a bit of a blur, but I vividly remember my first low patch as I approached the next rest stop – only 31km into the race. Overcome by self doubt I succumbed to the temptation of the tables and benches, and sat down for a while, took on plenty of food and fluids and studied the profile of the route to the next check point. Mind over matter - I just got up to carry on after a few minutes.

As the trails got rockier and steeper the breathing got heavier and I was glad of the cool of the night! I was already dreading the heat of the next day. The longer we climbed, the more often competitors could be found sitting by the side of the path. Many were sick. ‘Maybe they’d tried the salami’ I thought! By the time I finally reached Croix du Bonhomme (2479m) I was feeling a little queasy myself though. Could it be the altitude? I certainly felt better as we descended but one hill relentlessly follows the next in this race.

At the Col de la Seigne (2516m), maybe 65km into the race, my stomach was churning. I was very worried. It was too early for problems with my digestion. I’ve suffered with this during other events and knew I would struggle to finish if this problem persisted. Maybe it was mind over matter again, maybe it was luck, or even because I had started to drink Coke at the rest stops, but I got through this minor setback.

Dawn broke and I managed a good stretch of running over the alpine meadows whilst enjoying the return of spectacular mountain views and the cool, fresh morning air. Then, as we climbed yet again it got hot.  I had to succumb to another little rest at the next summit. I felt very light headed and forced down some food and drink whilst packing away the long sleeved top.  Maybe it was the altitude again? The descent was tougher than I expected. I’ve never been very good at running downhill and by now the legs were a little stiff. To top it all, I could feel a blister and the pain was agonising.

We descended into Courmayeur from here though, so the spirits were high. This was a big mile stone! We’d receive the kit bags we sent ahead from Chamonix and I’d allowed for a ‘proper’ stop.

When I took off my socks, to clean and pamper my feet I expected the worst, but in fact the blister that caused so much pain was easily dealt with. After a change of clothes, plenty of food, a quick massage (!) and a good covering of sun cream I felt ready to continue.  

The heat was brutal as I entered the streets, but we soon headed into the trees and some welcome shade. The next climb, as those before, was steep and long, but I was distracted for a short while by some small talk with a fellow competitor – a Parisian who speaks good English – a rare find indeed. He explained that, due to a lack of hills around Paris, he’d been training for this event by pulling tyres along a dirt track. I considered myself very lucky to have the fells of the Lake District as my local training patch or as I call it ‘playground’!

The next rest stop was reached – these stops were now eagerly awaited as they provided a chance to take on some water, cool off and rest in the shade for a minute or two. When we continued my Parisian friend, pointed out the route ahead. It seemed impossible. The checkpoint on the Grand col Ferret (2537m) is just about visible – a tiny dot on a far mountaintop – before that big climb we’d first  have to drop into the valley below us though and descending was getting quite painful now.

The ascent to the Grand col Ferret was as tough as it looked. The sun was beating down and the path wound uphill without shade. I was getting a sore throat from over-breathing, and wondered whether this was actually a very ‘sensible’ thing to be doing. Most people I told about this race didn’t think it a very ‘sensible’ thing to do (“You’re mad! Why?”), and now I was starting to question it myself. The distance and the hills I had trained for reasonably well, but the heat was something I’d not been able to prepare for during the wet, miserable summer back home. Heat stroke seemed a likely outcome, even as I popped yet another electrolyte tablet into my water.

I arrived at the top though and a cooling breeze rewarded the effort. I sat down to empty the sand from my shoes and to give my lungs a chance to recover but soon set off on the next long descent. I tried to jog parts of it, but my legs weren’t keen to co-operate.

At La Fouly I decided to continue with Alex, who I’d met up with occasionally since we left Courmayeur, and another British runner. We were heading into the second night, so it was a sensible thing to do, but most of all it was so much fun! We had all started with plans to finish in well under 40 hours but had come to the conclusion that it was best now to let go of target times and to concentrate on finishing instead.  To finally have some banter and be distracted from the pain of it all made me realise just how lonely the previous twenty odd hours had been. We moved at an easy pace and the miles passed seemingly effortless as we happily chatted away.

During the first hours of the night the hallucinations started and it was comforting to be able to share the experience! Yet another topic to make the miles pass…

“What could possibly go wrong now?” Alex and I groaned in disbelief at our friend. He’d gone and done it, he’d jinxed it! 50 kilometres to go, three huge climbs left to do and he asks what could possibly go wrong!?

We reached Champex soon after. It was another milestone, another kit bag from Chamonix and a chance to prepare for the ‘last push’. We split up to do our own thing and agreed to meet again in thirty minutes, but thirty minutes later I fail to find my new found friends. I tried in vain for twenty minutes before reluctantly setting off into the night by myself. This was a real blow – an  unexpected and unpleasant turn of events! I felt low on confidence and struggled to make out the route markers on the dimly lit street and dark trails that followed. I was torn between wanting to try and race ahead to see whether my friends were in front of me and wanting to sit down and wait for them coming from behind. In the end I tagged on to a couple of French guys who moved briskly and seemed to know the route well.

I had to work hard to keep up. It was still a very warm night. My throat was sore again from too much over-breathing. As I took a suck of the tube from my bladder pack to relieve my throat i realised with horror that I was out of water, having failed to refill it at the last rest stop in the panic of finding my pals.  What now? I told myself that it had never been more than an hour or an hour and a half between water stops – I’d be ok. We climbed, or better scrambled, up the steep track – big rocks and tree roots were tricky to navigate in the night. My lungs were burning. I kept checking my watch. 20 minutes passed. Then 40 minutes, one hour, an hour and a half, two hours – surely we were just round the corner from the next stop!

The two French guys stopped and explained that it was time to put on some layers as we’d be on some exposed ground and in the wind soon. They only spoke French, but I picked up what they meant. In turn I tried to explain that I’m over heating and out of water. Their reply almost made me cry! It was another hour to the next stop (and they didn’t offer any of their precious water)!

There wasn’t much point in crying though, so I continued with them up the steep track, stubbornly refusing to take their advice regarding the extra clothes. They were right of course though and I soon had to stop to get out a jacket. I figured that they were probably right about the distance to the next stop too so I let them go on ahead and decided to take action. I could hear a fast flowing stream nearby, searched it out and filled up my water reserves. It tasted so good!

I took on more water at the next stop, enjoyed a strong, black coffee to keep me awake through the night and set off in a similarly paced group on the next decent. The trails were slippy and steep. The six kilometres seemed to go on forever and when we reached the next rest stop in Trient I was struggling to motivate myself to carry on.

Mind over matter. I dragged myself back onto the course. As I shuffeled up the penultimate big climb the hallucinations started to get tiresome. Others were struggling too though, which was strangely comforting. Nobody talked, but a strange bond seemed to develop between us. We were all battling similar demons. Self doubt amidst exhaustion and pain. The finish was still too far away to comprehend.  

Another summit checkpoint and another painful decent later we arrived at Vallorcine. The course had been changed for this years’ race to include yet another big climb from here - but at least it was the last climb and it was light again and overcast, so things could have been worse!

The climb was tough, the rocky terrain at the top was tough and the last decent even tougher. My feet were very sore and my ankle had swollen up and wouldn’t flex anymore – just an inflamed tendon, but it made ‘running’ impossible, even with the finish in sight. I felt like I somehow no longer deserved the encouragement of the many supporters out on the route, and the constant flow of competitors coming past was hard to take.

As I – finally – entered the streets of Chamonix I forced myself into a trot. It was tough at first, but as the crowds increased I forgot all about pain. It was over at last! The people lining the streets were screaming and clapping. I felt like crying again. Mostly out of relief, but also cause it still felt ‘lonely’! I’d been on my own for most of the previous 43 hours and there would be no-one to see me finish…

The tears turned into a broad grin though, when I heard someone call my name – Catherine was cheering for me, then my fellow journalists shouted encouragement as I neared the finish. Over the line! Patricia from the North Face was giving me a big hug and then there were Stuart, John, Alison, Ben and Garry - and even my Parisian friend Jerome – all waiting to welcome me back.

It was amazing. Finally, it was all over! Never again! (not until next year anyway!)


About The Author

Britta Sendlhofer

Britta, originally from Austria, came to live in the Lake District in 1990.

Always in love with the mountains, the local hills and fells have since been her favourite ‘playground’. She spends much of her spare time exploring the hills – no matter what the season or the weather – always accompanied by her two Border Collies.

While the fells and trails are her first love, Britta has also completed 10 road marathons, before moving up to ultra events. Her biggest achievements are a Bob Graham Round, the Himalayan 100 mile stage race,the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race and the Lakeland 100.

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