I had good intentions – notes to self every day, cogent reflection on my Alps ‘runcation’ experience in periodic posts to Facebook (FB) with photos of the day so everyone at home could vicariously experience the Alps with me. That lasted 2 days – maybe 3. I’ll tell you why: I found no words to describe the scale, grandeur, color, sounds, and tenor of my group – I guess “godsmacked” is the latest way to express my utter awe at witnessing the grandeur of the Alps up so close and personal. Being there is not like gazing at mountains in the distance or on the horizon. – no, they are right smack-dab in your face!!. I can’t recall how many photos I took of Mont Blanc – trust me – it was alot!. It was like looking into the eyes of your lover – you can’t get enough – and all the photos in the world just don’t capture the feelings overwhelming you at every turn. Also, many in my group were FB-ing and tagging so even if I put something out there, it seemed useless and repetitious to post what everyone else was sharing. Bottom line: I felt overwhelming awe pretty much the whole trip. Every day was a new perspective on awe. Our group bonded seemingly quickly. There were 3 of us that would periodically start crying at seeing the spectacular beauty of what was before us – in addition to trying to not freak out at what the next day’s climb would be like. Did I mention it‘s very STEEP there?!
After arriving in Chamonix, my first post on strava was a photo of an omelette at the Chalet de la Floria, sweet little terraced cafe about an hour’s jog from Chamonix up near the Petit Balcon Sud – well, yes, the French know omelettes. Looking at the photo now, I think I was in a daze brought on by jet lag and the excitement of finally being out there, acapella, to go on a 100 mile run with a group of total strangers for 10 days. I envisioned a group of maybe 10-12 comprised of 30 – 40 year old guys who ran like little mountain goats. Then day one of the trip arrived: we met and had dinner together and got acquainted. Turns out my group was all ladies, 5 RNs, 1 shrink , one other retiree and 1 personal trainer + 2 guys: an ortho surgeon and our guide, Bruno – a true prince of a man! We had medical emergencies covered!!
Our first run together was a “look:see” how everyone held up with our first steep climb up the Grand Balcon Sud. After almost 6 mi and 3,000 elevation gain, I bailed, eclipsing about 6 miles from Flegere to Brevant. I rode the Flegere tram down to Cham and ran another 2 miles back to the hotel, judging this was in my best interest to not totally wipe out on day one and I could live to run another day – like the very next day. Decision – I would try to ride up when possible so I can run the fun stuff instead of spending so much time trudging. It is really STEEP ….but stunning views, perfect weather, amazing scale of things I was feeling pretty darn lucky – what a gift to have ok knees and be able to still physically do this kind of thing. But….some trepidation – I bailed on our first run; everyone else kept running to finish 12 miles. And there weren’t a whole lot of additional trams going up leaving one to get to it and “power hike”.
We got down to business the next day – bus to Les Houches and the running start of the TMB. Three gals in the group – the hardiest/fastest of the group – ran up to the top of the Les Houches tram with our guide – the rest of us enjoyed a latte and then rode the tram up to meet our guide, Bruno, and he “gunners” and head to Le Contamine around 10 miles away. I was still feeling a little apprehensive but off we went, with me bringing up the rear. We wound our way down some really technical stuff, across a fun swinging bridge with rushing water below, then the climb began up and over the Col de Tricot and then down, down, down about 2 miles of the most expansive, jaw-dropping scenery to the Chalet de Miage for (what else) fresh blueberry tarts and more coffee. To digest, we ran along wonderful undulating (up and down and more up) single track past numerous cows with bells ringing, sheep with bells ringing, and little stone hamlets along the way to Les Contamines. At this point, it started raining so on with the rain gear. As I headed down to town with Bruno, I slipped on a wet root and landed on my rear. This maneuver I was told, was a TSD (technical sit-down) — no problem. Other than a little mud, I was fine and we made it into town for a shower, dinner and a comfortable night at our hotel.
The next day was a 16 miler from Les Contamines to the glorious, most memorable stay at the Refuge de Mottet at the base of the climb to the Col de la Seigne, gateway to Italy.
In conversation with Bruno, I opted to ride with the baggage to the Refuge, given it was a long day that included scaling 2 cols – Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and Col du Bonhomme. However, that ride was something else! I was wishing along the way that I had just said to hell with it and slogged the Cols. The baggage driver was a nice guy and we conversed a bit in my halting French. But…he was a smoker, off gassing stale cigarette smoke the whole way, he was (I guess) a typical French driver, i.e., in a hurry on winding up and down hilly NARROW roads full of other cars and pods of bicyclists that he tailgated then repeatedly swerved out and around to gain a car length or two on an ongoing basis. Thank heavens, no one was hit! With all the swerviing, braking, tailgaiting, more swerving and faint cigarette smoke, I was getting really car sick. I was about to chuck breakfast when we finally skidded into the Refuge. I wobbled out of the car with a feeble “merci” and found I was too early to check in, so I started running down the trail to where I thought I would run in to the group. I have to say that getting out into the fresh air perfumed with essence of cow felt really good. I found my group about 4 miles down the road, just in time to stop at a little family run shop that made and sold fresh Beaufort cheese. We bought some and immediately ate it…It was really good stuff!!
Dinner at the Refuge was so memorable: family style with great bread, hearty soup and stew and then the music started – a hand-cranked mechanical organ using paper music rolls playing what sounded like German folk music and polkas. All the Germans in the room started singing, a few were dancing – an international party was going on and everyone was having a blast!
The next morning, Bruno and I started off early – up, up and ever up to breach the Col de la Seigne heading for Courmayeur. It was windy and very foggy, i.e., cold. We got to the top and waited for the rest of the group. Sheep were wanderiing around, baa-ing, their bells riinging and there was a guy sitting on the windward side of the Col monument playing the flute with the fog swirling madly around him!! The rest of our group made it up a few minutes later and we started down into Italy with a stop at a little Refugio for minnestrone, more blueberry tarts and coffee. With one more climb, we were in Courmayeur. – It was Friday, 8/31.
The UTMB started at 6pm that evening so some of us got up at 2:30 am the next morning to see the front runners come through town. Around 9am, the owner of Run the Alps, Doug Mayer, came through (we later heard he had finished around #450 out of 2,300 starters). It was our day off, so a few of us went to QC Terme spa for a massage, and enjoyed the local hot springs followed by healthy fare in our robes at the spa bistro. Felt decadent.
The next day was a long day, from Courmayeur to La Fouly and into Switzerland This was probably my favorite day and the longest for me – dramatic mountains surrounding us as we ran along beautiful single track with the sound of water falls coming off the glaciers mixed with more cow bells. We tackled the Grand Col Ferret, one of the highest points on our journey, then down, down, down the most gorgeous rolling single track that just went on and on. A herd of sheep leisurely heading up the mountain let us pass almost unnoticed as we finally got to town, our hotel, shower, great dinner and bed.
The next day was another really long one – about 20 miles so, again in discussion with Bruno, I opted to rest up and took busses and trains to Cold de la Forclaz, had lunch and went for a hike while my compadres climbed to Champex then over to Col de la Forclaz. We exchanged tales of the day, had dinner and hit the sack for our last day of running – from Forclaz to Chamonix.
Our final day was a long climb to the Col du Balme. From the top we could see Chamonix below and it sunk in that, suddenly, our adventurous excursion was coming to an end. We had a wonderful run down great single track through the ski area near Argentiere and through the valley back to Chamonix. One of our tribe had a “Go-Pro”. Instead of wearing it on her head, she carried it along in her hand and captured little snippets of the day, each and every day. She then put them together, dated them, added music and posted on FB. What a gift that was for all of us. Looking at those videos now brings back each day so vividly and I find they are the best way for me to relive and remember the experience of the TMB, better than looking at my photos although, I do love looking at my photos – all of them. And I absolutely loved everyone in my group. Bruno was a sweet heart – he stuck with me every day to make sure I was ok then ran ahead to make sure the rest of the group also had his attention, i.e., the guy ran himself ragged making sure we were all OK and having the time of our lives. It was hard to say so long to everyone. I asked them all to come to Truckee – sign up for Broken Arrow,; sign up for Castle Peak; come ski at Squaw. There seemed to be some solid interest in doing so.
A couple stats: TMB = 106 miles; ~33,000 vertical
As best I can tell, I ran about 70 miles; 20,000 vert
One of our group sent out a note of thanks to everyone in our group after she returned home that pretty much captures this trip and says it all:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (The Little Prince)
So, many friends have asked me if this was a “once in a lifetime” experience and I would have to unequivocally say “yes”! This trip was a 75th birthday present to myself. I thought “if I don’t do it now, when the heck am I going to do it” – I’m not getting any younger! As noted, I feel so blessed to still be able to do this crazy-ass thing called trail running that we all love so much. But getting back to that “once in a life time” idea, Run the Alps has 8 or 9 other trips throughout the Alps ….maybe, just maybe. I could go again, like maybe next year. I hear the Bernese Oberland has some great trails. I mean “why not?!!” Still not getting any younger……