‘Slow and steady on the climb, light feet, never expect it to end…and have a blast! Enjoy every beautiful and brutal moment!’
– pre race advice from my great friend Kaz Williams, Chamonix resident and world class ultra mountain runner and coach – mettle running.com
Anyone who knows me in the club knows I love my mountain running and try to race once or twice a year in Chamonix, the home of the sport in The French Alps and a mecca for mountain trailers from around the world. You will have heard of the iconic UTMB (Ultra trail de Mont Blanc – 170k with a 6,000m climb – which world numero uno Killian Jornet won in record time in August and Irishman Eoin Keith performed so well in). It ranks in the top handful of ultra mountain races globally as does The Marathon du Mont Blanc which happens there in June for the ‘shorter’ distance. The Trail des Aiguilles Rouges which I raced in late September closes out the mountain running season in Chamonix before the first snows fall on the higher trails.
Les Aiguilles Rouges is the most incredible national park on the Northern side of the Chamonix valley beneath Mont Blanc and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to run its trails. This year was extra special for me as my wife Orla and two daughters, Kate and Leah joined me in the challenge. Good training was done on the slopes of Maulin and Djouce and up and down repeats from Kilmashogue to Fairy Castle but that doesn’t prepare you for the continuous climbs and of course the higher altitude levels you are racing at in The Alps. Our race started in the centre of Chamonix which already sits at 1,035m (same as the top of Carrantouhill) above sea level, climbed to 2,150m and descended back into the town, The total distance was 16k and the height gain 1,340m.
A feature of trail racing in The Alps is the use of poles or batons. Their use is generally permitted unlike In IMRA race here in Ireland. To be honest I couldn’t imagine racing without them given the steepness and continuity and technical aspects of some of the climbs. The rule though is if you start with them you must finish the race with them and they can get in the way on the descents! We all used them and had practised with them on the Wicklow hills.
The local weather turned for the worse on the weekend leading into the Sunday morning race time. While the rain (light snowflakes at the highest point) kept us cool on the ascent it made for a very difficult and hairy descent. This was reflected in the fact that the steep descent took almost the same time for most of the field as the 17% average climb for the equivalent ascent distance. I would say I hiked 90% of the climb and I don’t think I could have maintained the race pace around me without the poles. 75% of competitors were using them on the climb and carrying or packing them away for the main descent. After the hard march up the mountain in mostly single file, muddy single trail sections and wet rocks meant that even with the best trail runners you had to hold your nerve and trust your footing and instincts to keep racing the downhill. Yours truly had two tumbles on the way down, the second of which was a touch nasty. I was a little stunned at the time but recovered and pushed on only realising after the finish that as well as the obvious cuts and scrapes, my left shoulder and ribs had taken quite a bruising. Kate also had a spill while Orla and Leah managed to stay on their feet.
Kaz put it perfectly. The race was beautiful but brutal and needed as much mental as physical determination. We all survived the brutal bits and thrived as the race progressed and reached the beautiful finish back down in Chamonix town. For the record, I finished 75th out of 400 competitors in 2h25, Kate and Leah crossed the line in 2h48 and Orla in 3h17. We were all real pleased with our results and the race is in the diary for 2023!