The TDS ( Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) – is part of the UTMB series of races and is 119km long, with 7,200m of ascent. The route runs along the Grande Randonnée trails that cross Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and the Aosta valleys which were once part of the Savoie State, before they were annexed into France and Italy.
I had traveled out a couple of days before the race to take in the pre-race atmosphere and relax before the race, although relaxing in Chamonix during UTMB week is difficult. This year seemed even busier than previous years, with the town centre full of elite athletes strutting about in Salomon compression race gear.
The race starts at 6.00am, and the organisers lay on a fleet of 30+ coaches to get runners from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc Tunnel for the start in Courmayeur. The forecast was as good as it gets at this time of year, dry, light winds although temperatures were forecast to peak around 28C in the valleys.
The first 50Km of the race route to Bourg Saint-Maurice was on good tracks and paths, and made for fast running. With 1,800 runners the trail was initially congested, with a few shoves and whacks from poles (the running sticks, not people from Poland). After the second climb, to the highest point on the route at Col Chavannes (alt. 2,603m), the field thinned out, and for much of the rest of the race I was running on my own. We headed into remote quiet valleys populated only by herds of cattle grazing on the high alpine meadows, a contrast to the UTMB where you are sharing the trails with hundreds of TMB trekkers.
The eight aid stations en route were manned by enthusiastic volunteers and stocked with an incredible array of food from energy bars, coke and water through to cold meats, cheeses, biscuits and pastries. I stopped only briefly at each point, enough time to refill my bottles and grab some food.
Reaching Bourg Saint-Maurice (50km), at 1.00pm, the day was now hot, and the biggest climb of the race lay ahead of nearly 2,000m. The first 5km to Fort de la Platte (alt.1,992m) was truly brutal and took 2 over hours of slow plodding. At bends in the track or under small trees, runners were sitting or lying down, with many having drunk their water supplies from Bourg. I had taken 2 litres of fluid for the climb and was trying to ration it. No amount of supping was quenching my thirst. At the Fort I found some shade to sit in, and try to cool down before beginning the final section of the climb to Passeur de Pralognan (alt. 2,567m). From this point the route became more technical. The descent is described as the one of most exposed and steepest in any commercial trail running race. The organisers had fixed ropes in place, with extra guides and medical staff on standby. Once in the valley we descended to Cormet de Roseland (66km), a large aid station where we were re-united with our one drop bag.
At the start of the Passage du Curé there were more guides to warn of the steep drop. This amazing path is hewn out of vertical rock above a gorge, where 3 miners lost their lives. Legend has it that their ghosts haunt the trail at night, and as it was now dusk, I quickly made my way through.
The next aid station was at Col de Joly (85km), where hopefully Nicola would be waiting, having made a 13 hour journey from home, involving taxi/plane/mini-bus/train/bus and finally a hair raising landrover lift to the col. Darkness had now descended, and a few drops of rain warning of a change in the weather. Nicola arrived at the col just 15 minutes before my arrival, and I felt slightly guilty for staying for only 3 minutes before beginning the fast 10km descent to Les Contamines (95km), 900m below, leaving her to find her landrover lift back down.
Nicola was waiting at the town centre aid station, and I stayed a couple of minutes longer this time, before she made her way back to the finish at Chamonix, courtesy of the organisers’ buses. There remained just one final big climb to Col de Tricot (2,120m), which seemed to be vertically above our heads. Once at the col I was eager to get to the finish as the rain showers were becoming more frequent. At Les Houches (111km) aid station I didn’t stop, and made quick progress along the river path to Chamonix, arriving at just before 3.30am for a finish time of 21 hours 27 minutes and 144th place.
After an emotional reunion with Nicola, I collected my finisher’s gilet and headed for a few hours sleep. We spent the next few days seeing the finishers of the TDS, OCC and CCC races, and then the start of the UTMB itself. The race week is a masterclass in organisation, logistics, commercialism, and brand development, and I recommend going out for any of the races, either as a runner, or supporter.
From the results I could only see two other Carnethies: Fergus Johnston finished the TDS in 23 hours 4 minutes, and Fredelina Yong finished the CCC in 25 hours 26 minutes.
In the PTL (290Km, 26,500 ascent) there was only one British team (out of 116 teams starting) this year, but unfortunately they were not to be one of the 61 teams that finished.
All 5 UTMB Races Results here: https://utmb.livetrail.net/