My TDS 2022 at UTMB began at midnight. The gun went off and hundreds of runners began shuffling towards the start gantry, each harbouring their own dreams, desires, fears and fantasies for what was about to unfold.
The Italian town of Courmayeur was alive with the sound of clanging cowbells, cheering, applause and the unmistakable voice of Eoin Flynn over the PA system, whipping runners and spectators into a frenzy of excitement under the dazzling lights.
And then, silence, save for the tip tap of hiking poles on the concrete path beneath our feet and the early breath of bodies adjusting to the incline of the first hill.
A Grand Title For a Grand Race
‘In the footsteps of the Dukes of Savoy’, is a grand title for a grand race. In French it’s ‘ Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie’, or TDS. She is the evil queen to the king of all trail races, the famous UTMB. With 9000m of elevation gain over more aggressive terrain, TDS has a reputation that invokes fear and trepidation in trail runners such that many will gladly sacrifice themselves at the foot of the king than attempt to pacify the evil queen.
I was beaten into submission on my first attempt and forced to turn around on my second, after a runner ahead of me was killed. A sobering reminder, that these things we do have inherent and very real danger. Eyes on the floor, brain engaged. Focus.
Noodles in the Dark
Past Lac Combal and up to Col de Chavannes, head torches lighting the way. I was fuelling on noodle soup and dark chocolate at the checkpoints. The sun was up by 7am. The green and yellow washing up sponge/scourer on my forehead had helped prevent the usual head torch red mark at the expense of me looking slightly odd for most of the night.
The second long downhill of the day took us to Bourg Saint-Maurice. 50km down 100km to go. I was nervous. The next section is tough and becomes technical. It’s where a runner fell last year. I climbed slowly in the early morning heat. €5 for a can of Orangina at Fort de la Platte.
Chains and Ropes
Le Passeur de Pralognan is a chained and roped section requiring full concentration and careful footing. There’s little danger as long as you’re not over-confident or foolish. I made it to Cormet de Roselend unscathed, but fatigued. Race time 15 hours with the sun gradually fading.
Bread and cheese is standard at French checkpoints. It’s a bonus that I am a fan. A couple of cups of Coke and I am on my way again. I’m not moving fast. Neither is anyone else around me. The fast runners are way ahead by now. We are the mid pack. The worker bees. We are the ‘get it done’ brigade.
Beaufort at 10pm. The section through the forest was never-ending. I led a train of weary runners, left and right, winding down and round, following luminous flags in the ground for what felt like hours. I slept on a mat at Beaufort for 30 minutes. Foot care. Food. Filming. I have a lot of footage.
It is 6 in the morning by the time I complete the next half marathon to Col de Joly. By which time I had fallen through a hole in a wooden-slatted bridge, requiring the application of my emergency bandage. There is a bleeding gash in my leg as the sun comes up. I phone my wife and send her a photo of where I am. There’s no denying the views.
A day in the life of an ultra runner, can easily become two days and another night without sleep. We are often left asking ourselves why. Contemplating this generally keeps us occupied until the end of the race.
Milk Before Sunscreen
We descend to Les Contamines as the sun starts to burn my neck. I forget to apply sunscreen. But I do buy milk. Coffee and tea are generally served black at the checkpoints. Much to my own chagrin, I seem to live off full fat milk and the opportunity to purchase some is irresistible. However, none of the two litres is sullied with tea or coffee and it is all consumed with 30 minutes of purchase, ice cold on the ascent to Col de Tricot.
Filling my bottles from a stream half way up in the baking sun, is nectar from heaven. So cold, so fresh. My neck is burning. I remember about the sunscreen. It’s too late though. In my head, we are nearly finished when we reach Col de tricot. But we are not done by a long way. The trek to Bellevue is a drag on very technical terrain and over a scary but exciting suspension bridge at Bionnassay.
TDS is Not Your Friend
I purchase another fizzy drink from the cafe at Bellevue before the final descent. My legs have given up now. I can only shuffle down the hill. There’s still 10 miles to go. TDS is not your friend. At every opportunity, she throws something in your way. Something unexpected. Something painful.
At Les Houche 8km remain. ‘It’s flat’ they said. ‘It’s all along the river’ they said. It’s not flat. Nor is it along the river. It’s a particularly undulating path through the forest. On fresh legs, no problem. In my state, it was a series of continuous false summits, where you think you’re done, but, oh no, you’re not. Here’s another incline for you. A man asks if it’s ok to practise his English on me. We chat walking up the road.
The End of a Three Year Journey
Eventually, the outskirts of the town come into view. Passers-by applauding. ‘Bravo!’, ‘Courage!’, ‘Alle, alle!’ I begin passing the bars and restaurants. The main pedestrian route into Chamonix is filled with tourists, shoppers and ultra running fans. Cheers ring out. One or two people shout my name, or ‘Film My Run!’
I feel myself starting to well up. It’s been a 3 year journey to finish this race. At times I wondered if I would ever get it done. I have only ever crossed the UTMB finish line once when there was hardly anyone there to cheer me home, at the end of the 100km CCC race.
This was it. My moment. After 40 hours and 20 minutes, I ran up the finishing straight to the famous arch with the crowds cheering, high-fiving people and bursting with pride. TDS? Completed it mate. I jumped across the finish line and sat down next to my friend Eoin. ‘I don’t know how you guys do it’, he says. Sometimes, neither do we. But we do, and now it’s done.