Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.
Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.
It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else.
My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.
All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.
The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.
Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…
We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment.Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.
Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more.
Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference.
This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special.
** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.
They say getting to the start line is half the battle. In these pandemic times especially so as nothing could be taken for granted. Added to that about 10 days before I experienced back pain. I could walk but not run so it really played on me whether I could take part. Now think it was more of a sprain from over enthusiastic core exercises. It eventually healed a few days beforehand.
Night before had a fitful sleep and rose at 5am. Elisabeth was going to be my support driving me to Fort William and then seeing me at various points throughout the many hours that followed. Her effort was heroic in the circumstances and involved just as much endurance. Over the time she ended up running 31km and drove hundreds of kms to support me in this effort. As the official support due to restrictions was very limited it is a fact I could not have done it without her.
Had my usual breakfast and we left house at 7am for a pleasant trip north in good weather. Upon arrival in Fort William got registered at Claggan football ground, about 600m from the start. Dropped off my 7 ‘drop bags’ and a ‘safety rucksack’ (mentioned later). These would be taken to the checkpoints en route. So far so good. What was new was signing a disclaimer form.
There were 120 starting. In addition there were a handful of ‘crazy’ folks doing extreme things (more on that later). The rest of us were a mixture of ‘seasoned’, those completely new and those in between. Everyone probably a bit unbalanced.
Made our way to the rather inauspicious start sign for the West Highland Way (WHW) at the edge of a busy little roundabout. More commonly the finish as we were going in opposite direction. 11am was approaching but we were told that the 3 buses from Milngavie had arrived late so would start at 1110.
What was ahead was more of an odyssey than a journey. Such a kaleidoscope of feelings and thoughts experienced that no one thing could define it. It was (according to my watch) about 207,000 steps. Some of them easy and light and many hard. Live in the moment, don’t think of how far or how long you must endure. My thinking is if I can take the next step, time always passes with no effort required from me. According to the laws of physics time + steps = distance!
The adventure began as promised at 1110. The first few km followed the road beside the River Nevis. Just before we turned off into the trail and forest of Glen Nevis 13 of our number took a left. They were first going up Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, before later rejoining the West Highland Way.
Going up the edge of the Glen is a long climb. Not so steep but long enough that it’s a waste of precious energy trying to move too fast. It was only the start. My GPS watch on record would only do a max. of 10-12 hours so would only use for certain segments, if at all. Main concern was keeping my heart rate as low as possible. Preferably around 127bpm. It was nice at this time to exchange pleasantries with fellow participants. Some might say competitors but unless you are at an elite level everyone else is there to get to the finish and help each other as and when. I did of course have my usual personal challenge with spreadsheet of where I hoped to be and when.
Once over the initial climb out of the glen it was on to much more runnable undulations. Having run this route in opposite direction over the past 10 years it is amazing to see how the landscape has changed especially in this section to Lundavra (12.1km). There seems to have been a huge amount of ancient trees removed and can only assume it’s well managed. Anyhow after Lundavra the trail leads to the more open ‘big sky’ perspectives of the Lairig More. A long valley overseen by mountains which eventually leads to a long descent down to sea level again at Kinlochleven. I was feeling good. Noticed that the heat was proving more tiring than it had been on my recce run on this section 3 weeks ago. Then I had hailstones!
At one point I passed a man and woman and could see from their race no. that they were in the other category of extreme. Derek and Jo had set off from Aviemore on Friday afternoon on the East Highland Way and had now linked up with us on the WHW. It would be a whopping 288km. They were incredibly calm and collected, almost fresh, as if 150km was a warm up. These are unusual folks and for Derek this was ‘training’ for a 360km race in the Swiss Alps. Enjoyed a bit of chat and then moved ahead as they were moving at a highly disciplined but understandably slower rate. Heard later they made it to Milngavie in just under 55 hours.
Coming in to the Kinlochleven checkpoint (23.85km) it was great to see Elisabeth. I was on time, more or less to the minute, which was good. Others were not fairing so well. One poor man had broken his nose from an early fall and was bleeding a lot. He decided that he would carry on.
Due to pandemic situation all the checkpoints were in the open air. I think we were very fortunate that the hottest weather of the year had arrived.
Off now up a long, arduous climb. Most of us were still quite chatty but each was also adjusting to our own style of managing climbs and descents. This meant you kept seeing the same people many times as you passed them or were overtaken.
Finally arrived at the top of the disconcertingly named Devil’s Staircase where a fellow runner kindly offered to take a pic. of me with the imposing Glencoe valley in the background. Not sure if it was a smile or a grimace! In a strange coincidence in my recce here 3 weeks previously I had eaten a ‘Rocky Road’ biscuit in nearly same spot. Unbeknown to Elisabeth she had given me the exact same biscuit to take at Kinlochleven so I had the same thing again. Whimsically I began to wonder if ‘Rocky Road’ had a hidden layer of meaning as to what was in front of me.
There then followed a nice, runnable section downhill to Altnafeadh. Passed one guy who was suffering from cramp so gave him some salted liquorice. Then along the valley to the Glencoe Ski lodge (40km) and next checkpoint. Great to see Elisabeth who had been patiently waiting. Here race rules were to pick up a ‘safety rucksack’ consisting of a sleeping bag and survival bag. My already heavy rucksack now was 1 kg or so heavier and much bigger. However the reasoning for this was sound. As race was autonomous between checkpoints if you broke a leg or something during the night the drill was to use these to keep warm till you got rescued.
The other thing I took was running poles. I am sometimes ambivalent about them but find when you are very fatigued they are a help esp. on climbs. Not being a Scottish Athletics race their use is OK.
Managed a pot noodle. Fluid intake and carbohydrates are essential but I was eating very gingerly. I feared my old problem, nausea, was starting to appear.
Leaving Glencoe a bit refreshed I said goodbye to Elisabeth. She was going to head home for some much needed rest. Plan was she would meet me Loch Lomond side in the morning. It was not easy for her as she had to drive, try and cheer me up for a few moments at checkpoints and then wonder how I was doing through the night. Had agreed that I would text when I left certain places. There were a number of people who wanted to know how I would be doing so she had set up a temporary WhatsApp group to keep them in the loop. It simplified things for her just using one point of communication.
It was now on to the old, cobbled military road and Rannoch Moor. A place of stark beauty in the early evening.
The day had been hot, in fact the hottest so far this year, so was not used to it. The field was well stretched out now but there were several people that I passed or was passed by and had chats with. Otherwise was getting very quiet as walkers or campers on the WHW had arrived where they were going to be for the night. My legs and feet were fine but was starting to get that familiar feeling of nausea and dizziness building up. I could only trust that it would not get worse.
Arrived in Inveroran (54km), a peaceful hamlet, and on to a tarmac road for a while. Confess to being a bit jealous of all the happy campers relaxing in the evening sunshine. I was starting to struggle. Left the road and then on over the hill and down to Bridge of Orchy (58.35km), the next checkpoint. As mentioned previously I had drop bags for each checkpoint, filled with foods I thought I might like. Unfortunately even the thought of eating was making me sick. That combined with the midges coming out in their millions. A small insect famous in West of Scotland for their bite and their abundance. All credit to those valiant volunteers sitting outside for many hours waiting for bedraggled runners to come in. I did manage before I left to wash my face in the toilets. If I couldn’t have any joy from food or drink at least cold water could be refreshing. It would be fair to say I was glad to leave at 2120. Only 5 mins later than my predicted time so despite how I was feeling progress had thus far been according to plan.
As I turned into the railway station underpass what should confront me but a swathe of luxury train carriages above. The well heeled occupants of “The Royal Scotsman and the Flying Scotsman” seemed to be settling down for the night in Bridge of Orchy station with accordion music. A surreal contrast to my circumstances as I set off.
It was now into the gathering shadows and time for using my torch. From previous experience the bobbing of the head torch would not help my dizziness or sickness. However little choice. My next milestone would be Tyndrum and got there about 2325. Few people around as I negotiated the route through the village, only a few late night revellers. I did meet another race participant who had got lost so was good to help. It was about 5km to the next checkpoint at Auchtertyre farm. Shortly out of Tyndrum and my turn to get lost, twice. At same time I had a bout of retching. Needed to keep sipping water as it was the only thing I could keep down. Clothing-wise I had now layered up. Despite the general mugginess of the night I knew in my condition that I could not keep my body temp. up with exercise alone. The volunteers on arrival at Auchtertyre (72.85km) were very attentive so had a very welcome sit down and tried sipping some hot tea and soup proferred. The next checkpoint was 21km away, at least 4 hours at my speed so main thing was to carry water. I was now 28mins behind my scheduled time. Not much in scheme of things.
It took an age to get to Glen Bogle above Crianlarich and by that time was experiencing micro sleeps as I moved. Was craving rest. In normal circumstances I would not do this on my own outside in middle of the night but thankfully ambient temp was warm. My strategy was to lie down in a prominent place so any fellow participants would see me, layer up with all the clothing I had and take max 10mins. The picnic bench at top of Bogle Glen came into sight, bliss. I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening. Strangely a guy then passed by and all he said was one word ‘hello’, nothing else. He looked like he was going through his own struggles.
Time to move on, still dog tired, but a little less dizzy. Keep sipping that water. The next checkpoint was Beinglas farm, north of Loch Lomond. By about 3am signs of a new day were appearing. Usually it is a harbinger of new energy and hope, the sun giving light and heat. However I still was feeling miserable and just focussed on staying awake and taking the next step. What I did sense was the overwhelming beauty at God’s creation of a new day. Practicalities were also pressing in. My mobile phone battery was low. Time to use my mobile battery charger.
A new day awakes.
In Beinglas (88.85km) I told the marshall my need to lie down for a bit. As we were outside he obligingly offered the passenger seat of his car where I had 10 mins. Managed to ingest a cup of diluted orange juice and it was off again. Some time after I caught up with Paddy whom I’d talked to earlier in the race. He was of similar age and experience of ultras as myself so we had been comparing notes.
He was also suffering from sickness but could only retch. Bizarrely we had this conversation about the merits of being sick as opposed to retching. For me being sick gave me a boost of energy and dizziness subsided. However after a time the fatigue always crept back with a vengeance. Enough of this for you the reader.
The bluebells in the hillsides both north and south of Inversnaid were glorious in the early light.
There is a very technical section of about 4km before you reach Inversnaid. Rocks and boulders taking up reserves of concentration and at times needing to use both hands and legs to traverse.
Arriving Inversnaid (98.85km) just before 0800 I lay down on the benches outside the hotel. Paddy was still with me but left early while I contended with, yet again, another bout of sickness. Eventually caught up with him and passed. Started to get messages from Elisabeth who said she was leaving home and going to head to Milarrochy, about 2km north of Balmaha and would run to meet me. However this was still some hours away and there was the checkpoint at Rowardennan to pass first. Before arrival Rowardennan caught up with another guy Kristopher whom I’d met earlier. Younger and suffering from foot blisters he was upbeat. My time in Rowardennan (109.85km) was short. I had given up on food and had not eaten anything that I could hold down for last 12 hours. I managed to nibble tiny amounts of crisps which gave some salt intake. Keep regularly sipping, not gulping, water. Planned target times were now slipping. It was no longer speed that was the challenge but plan B, just keep moving.
Being a Bank Holiday weekend as the day progressed it was getting busier with day trippers. What a contrast to the earlier sanctuary at the head of the loch!
Elisabeth accompanied me to Balmaha where she left and I started to climb Conic Hill. A strenuous 300m climb at any time. After 122km in 26 degrees heat and with no wind it became absolutely brutal. Was concerned that dehydration would mean I just did not have it in me to climb. Most of time I was leaning on my sticks to stop from falling and then move feet for a bit and then stop. Repeat. Slowly, ever so slowly, got to the top. Other competitors were equally shattered by the experience. All the while day trippers striding past us wondering what kind of race we were in.
Then a welcome decline coming off the hill. Had a nice cool down with stream water at the end of it. At this point I met another type of participant. A husband-wife team who were walking. They had started at 9am on the Saturday and were trying to maintain a constant pace. I was really impressed – to do that you virtually cannot stop at all. Don’t know if they made it but they were not aiming for a time, just to complete in their own time. I lay down on the trail for 5mins of instant sleep and felt refreshed.
After several km of the Garabhan forest the next checkpoint was at Drymen (133.85km). Only now could I entertain the thought of finishing. The race director, Jim, was there and asked me how was doing. Giving him my woes he said short term memory loss would occur Monday morning. Leaving at 1710 there was 20km to go and about 4 hours if I kept the pace. 2210 was cut off time.
Concerned for my condition Elisabeth had determined to try and meet me as much as possible this last stretch. She drove and ran to various points at Gartness, Beech Tree Inn and Carbeth to meet up with me for a few mins.
AT 8:56pm, 33 hours 46 mins. after leaving Fort William I arrived outside Milngavie town hall (approx. 153.85km) on a quiet Sunday evening. For once I was a ‘first’ as the oldest finisher! 64th out of 76 finishers (120 started).
Presented with a crystal goblet by marshall my main thought was at last I could sit down without thinking about moving. About an hour later my appetite started to recover and on my way to regaining the 2.5kg lost.
It is now 11 years since first taking up ultra running. As far as ultra races go I may or may not continue. Some reading this might wonder why put yourself through what seems painful and unnecessary suffering. I like my creature comforts as much as anyone and can assure you I try everything to make it easier. However after 20 such races my experience is that in every one the ‘wheels come off’ in different ways. You are left with one thing, endure. Through all these races Elisabeth has been, in one way or another, involved in supporting. She has encouraged me when assailed by self doubt. Thanks for being with me on both the inner and outer journeys.
Psalm 139 verse 14 declares we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made. Fearful in that our lives are fragile, a gift and can be over in a moment. Wonderful in that we have been uniquely given physical, mental and spiritual resources beyond our understanding. The memory of pain or struggle fades away. It’s the finishing that enhances life, real life. Like the odyssey of our own lives we are each on a journey, but often caught up with present struggles. For me I live in hope of the ‘well done’ at the finish from Jesus, the Master endurer.
STARFISH ASIAFor a number of years I have chosen to do such challenges in aid of Starfish Asia. This run is no different. Specifically it is for the raising of scholarship funds for children of poor and marginalised Christian families in Pakistan who have completed school (16). Scholarships give the opportunity to gain vocational and educational qualifications. This gives the potential of better jobs so they and their family can escape the cycle of poverty. I have been greatly encouraged by the support and if you wish to donate please go to my fund-raising page here. It will remain open till end of June 2021. Thereafter you can go direct to Starfish Asia and find out more of their wonderful work.