Ultra Tour du Mole 2017

The drive to Marignier from home is pretty spectacular, avoiding the google maps promoted routes via Evian or Chamonix, instead taking in the cambered curves of the Pas de Morgins, the sheep fields on the Col de Corbier and the Portes des Soleil ski towns ski towns of Chatel, Morzine and Les Gets.  The route is riddled with memories for me: ski holidays from decades gone by, lay-bys once stopped in  to marvel at autumn colours in the Val d’Abondance, hairpin bends where I have watched pro cycling greats ply their trade.

The ‘Mole’ appears  before dropping into the town of Taninges, its grassy summit poking about above the tree line. We’ll have to go over that twice in the race.

There seem to be a lot more people around than last year, over 300 starters for the main race, and I worry that my aim of sub 5 hours will no longer be good enough for a top 10. Trail running is a fast growing sport, and here is the evidence. More pressing concerns are finding a parking space, the size of the queue for race numbers, and the need to both warm up and find the nearest toilet with  15 minutes to go until the race starts.

We line up, and it’s off up the road out of town. The ‘warm-up’ loop. This is the first 5km of the race, first on road and then trail, climbing more gently than the later efforts. We drop down a little, passing the spot I rolled my ankle last year, and I allow myself a smug grin that I am 100% fighting fit.

The first climb is an absolute beast: 1,200m of vertical gain in just 6km. There is not a lot of running going on, except for the brief road section half-way up, so it’s poles to the ready and working out if long strides or a fast cadence is more efficient. I end up doing a bit of both. Eventually the summit comes, and a race volunteer shouts that I am in 24th place- this surprises me- at the same point last year I was significantly slower yet in 18th place, curse all those other people like me getting into the sport.

I fly down the long descent, making up five places quite quickly. I can’t seem to put a foot wrong, and gracefully skip through the technical sections and glide over the many loose, rocky sections. Just as I am mentally congratulating myself for the improvements made in descending, I catch my left foot on a rock, and wipe out in dramatic fashion. Both knees smash into rocks, as do my left elbow and shoulder. I quickly get up, blood from gashes in my knees is already trashing my brilliant white compression calf-guards, and my shoulder hurts like hell. I wobble a bit, and test everything to see if it is broken, dislocated or just bruised. Two runners stop and look worried, there is a fair bit of blood, but I wave them on. I head on down, my knees hurting with each stride at first, but then the adrenaline and rhythm take over and in just a few minutes I am at the bottom of the climb.

At the half-way mark in La Tour, bottles are filled, and its back up again, a full vertical kilometre. By the top I’m flagging a bit, and the start of the middle descent is initially slow and painful, however confidence and the speed it brings return, and things look up. Again, just as I’m caught thinking that things aren’t so bad and sub- 5 hours is still possible, I fall for the second time, a carbon copy of the first, but with a less rocky landing. Nevertheless, the missing skin on my left palm loses another layer at the exact same point, my right knee bleeds some more, and I release an awful lot of expletives.  Runners start passing me as a once again gather myself, not too many, but enough to let morale sink a bit. As I set off again, one, and then two tiny ladies pass me, light-footed and effortless on the down. I envy their small frames and efficiency.

The final climb is shorter, but we are into the midday heat now and it takes a toll. I pass a couple of people, including one of the girls, and settle into a sustainable pace. I pass a few British walkers chatting near the summit, and feel comfortable in my euro-runner disguise, surprising them with a cheery hello as I move through. The summit breathes fresh wind, but then my least favourite part of the race comes: the long drop.

The descent loses 1300m in under 5km, averaging -27%. My knees are trashed, and everything hurts. I pass somebody suffering with cramp, and then  get passed myself by a group of four. I play a game of leap-frog with another runner, both of us briefly stopping to rest quads alternately, but as we reach the end I pull away, knowing there is just a kilometre to go. The second place girl passes me once again with her smooth descending, and I am unable to catch her as we approach the line.

I finished in 5 hours 9 minutes, a lot better than last year, but short of the goal. As the first aiders patch me up at the finish (for the second year in a row), I rue my lapses in concentration and over-confidence on the technical descents. Back at home, cold beer in hand and ice pack in full rotation around my body, things feel a little better: 50 minutes is a big improvement over this distance, and there is still time to lose more weight and train for the downs!


Défis du Jublié Ultra

Last weekend I lined up for the fourth and final race of my first ultra season, the ‘Défis du Jublié‘, on paper the easiest of three UTMB qualifying races that I had targeted. At 60km and with an advertised 3000m of vertical ascent it looked like a walk in the park compared to the epic Trail Verbier St Bernard earlier in the summer.

The course starts in a small Swiss town called St. Maurice, famous for it’s 6th century Abbey, and indeed the race is held on the ‘Chemins bibliques‘ a series of footpaths in the district that the race aims to promote.

My condition going into it was not great; work had been taking it’s toll with many weekend commitments, and I was nursing a few injuries. The first is what I suspect to be tendonitis on the inside of my right ankle, perhaps a niggle from a sprain earlier in the season. The second was that both big toe nails finally gave up on me in September and fell off; where the left one had been re-growing there was significant pain as it decided whether it wanted to to grow inwards or outwards.

To manage the tendonitis I took a week of total rest and then a tried a period of cross training on the road bike after a failed attempt to ramp training back up, and this was probably just what my body needed after cranking out a couple of big summer ultras. For the toenail problem, I read that soaking it in warm water several times a day helped the nail and skin to separate, and thankfully this worked wonders, with the pain finally subsiding two days before the race. They still don’t look very pretty though.

The hard facts (well, Strava) showed that I had only managed one run over 3 hours in the 8 week period since the Super trail du Barlatay, and I was averaging just a few hours a week of training. The hope was that by putting in a good early season of work, and in completing the long summer races, I had a good enough base to fall back on- avoiding total burnout was now the priority.

In terms of kit, I had opted for the Inov-8 Race Ultra 270 shoes to cope with the mix of trail and road, and compared to the new Inov-8 Trail Talon 275s I had recently bought and my other go-to ultra shoe, the Salomon sense pro,  the 270s had the most generous toe box for my recovering toenails to wriggle around in. The Salomon sense 3 vest has just about lasted the season although will need replacing as it has lost most of it’s stretch, and I once again opted for the S-lab exo twin skin shorts having had zero issues in the big races so far. I opted for poles and was glad I had them on some of the uphill, but to be honest this was one race that I could have done without them.

Race day arrived, with a 7am start in the shady side of the Rhone Valley. Having got used to sunrise in my south-facing mountain home, the darkness for the first hour of racing caught me off guard and I looked on with envy at those runners who had thought to start with a headtorch. Given the shorter length of the race I had decided to go faster than usual and try to hang on to a good position throughout. I couldn’t quite tell how many were ahead of me in the dark, but I had a feeling I was on for a top 10 after the first climb to Vérossaz. Here the trail tucked up under the Cime de l’est of the Dents du Midi before popping out into Mex and the long, technical down hill back to the valley below. Three runners came past me here (I still have work to do on the downs…), but never got much of a lead as we hit the flat, and by the time we began the endless switchbacks up towards Salvan I had made my way back through them, leading a small pack up to the village at the top.

Here my strategy of not really stopping at the aid stations worked well- I filled my bottles in fast flowing water fountains in every village and had taken stacks of food with me- so where I breezed through, others were re-fuelling and stopping for a few minutes longer.

I was surprised by how much running was on road higher up on the course, where we kept on climbing to Les Marécottes before a long but fairly gentle fire track ascent to Finhaut. It was after Finhaut that the route took a dramatic turn towards the technical, plummeting down into the steep-sided valley of the Trient river on a rocky trail, before heading straight back up the other side on steep trails and steps towards the main road linking this part of Switzerland to France. We covered 1km on this road with no pavement, doing battle with fast cars and indeed in my case a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre that nearly wiped out the runner in front of me.

It was at this point in the race that I started to feel some niggles: fatigue from the steep climb but more worryingly cramp in my right calf muscles- perhaps compensating for the tendon issues and almost certainly because of my poor training period ahead of the event. I had to stop and stretch it a little, but soon the course changed to a most welcome descent along a fire track that saw the pace rise to below 5 minutes per km on the gentle gradient. This was the pattern of the next portion of the race: fast downs all the way alongside the Trient river valley with a bit of lovely undulating footpath in the middle of it.

We came out of the woods just above Vernayaz sooner than I expected, and made the final descent to the Rhone Valley floor. I was very much on my own now, and the long road straights to come revealed nobody in front of me, and nobody behind, so I braced myself for 13km of flat road running knowing that I was unlikely to gain or lose position. I had thought that this would be an easy end to a 60km race, but in truth it was hellish. the combination of the hard surface, a headwind and cramping calf muscles meant that the fast finish I had been dreaming of never really materialised, and was replaced with several forced stops to stretch.

The road did eventually end, and after a very pretty detour through some maize fields on the outskirts of St. Maurice I found myself coming down into the town behind the train station, and across the finish line next to the Abbey. My time was 6 hours 54 minutes, good enough for 9th place overall, my first top-10 in an ultra. According to my geeky excel percentage calculator, this was also a big improvement on how close I was to the winning time, showing that either I’m progressing well or that the competition was worse!

This race wraps up the season for me, a season where I have loved the challenge of a new project, asking my body to respond once again to new and different training stimuli. I have the points to put in a UTMB entry and now enter the lottery for next year’s race, and I’ve also entered the Trail Verbier St Bernard again- it was so well run and had such an epic route! If I don’t get the UTMB place then this becomes the ‘A’ goal for the 2017 season: to see if I can knock a couple off hours off my 2016 time.

The next chapter is to go beyond just finishing ultras to push on towards faster times, but right now it’s all about enjoying a late autumn with a few cold beers, some trails on the mountain bike and before long a winter of cross country skiing and ski-mountaineering…

Ultra trail du Barlatay

The quest for UTMB qualification points continues, with 4 ‘new’ points available for completing the Ultra Trail du Barlatay, an 87km course featuring 5400m of ascent and a few mountain summits. This race is relatively local to me, starting and finishing in the small hamlet of L’Etivaz- to some home of a fine Swiss Cheese (“L’Etivaz is a classic alpine cheese, with a smooth, creamy texture and a strong taste with hints of fruit and hazelnut. It is prized by cheese lovers everywhere”), to others nothing much more than a road bend between the Col des Mosses and Chateau d’Oex. I was not running alone in this one, with work colleague and more experienced ultra-runner Thom joining me on the 11pm start line.

Starting so late was a weird one, Friday involved a lot of sitting around, trying to nap and keeping the feet up- the Olympics helped here- until finally we scooted across a couple of cols in the car to get to L’Etivaz. As the night drew in, we duly faffed with kit, and nervously watched to see how many of the 100 or so participants had opted for the earlier 9pm start to give themselves a better chance of beating the time cut- quite a lot it turned out. This was an interesting choice to have to make: run for 2 more hours in darkness and potentially avoid wetter weather on the following afternoon, or go for more daylight running, possibly soaked through. When we lined up at 11pm, it seemed to be the minority of us who had gone for the later start.

As the ‘elites’ (as we were kindly called by the announcer) headed off, Thom and I quickly realised that we could not match the pace of the fastest runners, letting them slip away in the first couple of kilometres, watching head torch after head torch disappear around the bends, never to be seen again. Behind us was one runner, and the threatening “dindindindindindin” sound of a following motorbike- kudos to the rider, he must have liked the technical trails!

After a brief separation, Thom and I ran together for the first 20km or so, across moonlit cols and past still lakes, the only clue that water was there a feeling of blackness and the odd torch reflection. After the Col du Pillon, we started climbing what had looked like a nice contouring path to above Les Diablerets, and I lost Thom as he changed batteries in his lamp. Now alone, I worked on my rhythm and ticked along the actually viciously undulating path, muddy sections of which were a hint of things to come. The night was glorious: clear and inspiring, and as I looked across the valley I could see the head torches of the 9pm starters beginning the ascent of La Palette, some 2 hours ahead of me.

The drop down into Les Diablerets was brutal on the legs, but nothing a restorative slurp of coke at the first aid station couldn’t fix, and soon it was on to the longest climb of the race from the heart of the town to the summit of La Palette. The first section went well enough, and before long I was at the top of the Isenau gondola; what then followed was a wall-like ridge with a precipitous drop either side, with the wind picking up on the summit.

As I dropped down the other side, my Petzl Nao torch started blinking three times at me- a sign that the battery was going to die. This was surprising as I had set it to last 10 hours, and here I was only 6 hours into the night… After a muddle to change batteries (or not as it turned out- my 2 AA spare batteries were not much good in a torch that needs 4 AAA ones…) the lamp switched to a reserve mode I had no idea even existed, giving me just enough light to make it to dawn. I did have a Petzl e-light in reserve, so it would not have been a total disaster, but perhaps cost me 10-15 minutes of stoppage time.

The long night was coming to an end, but the next phase of the race was deeply confusing; as I looked across the ridge there were head torches sprayed everywhere- I knew I had to climb  La Pare, but had somehow miscalculated the scale of the climb in the middle of the ridge- the Cape au Moine. Oh well, one foot in front of the other and soon we were rewarded with a truly stunning sunrise to the East- this was a spectacular place to witness this and it lifted the spirits immensely as the route took a sadistic turn up incredibly steep grass slopes away from the footpath.

I hurtled back down to Isenau in daylight for an aid station stop, being rewarded with my drop bag and a fresh pair of trainers. The weather was due to take a turn for the worse, and had I had them, this was the perfect place to switch to mud shoes. Alas, my current trainer rotation is big, but in my quest to find the perfect ultra shoe, I had neglected to diversify into shoes that can excel in the mud- something like the Inov-8 Mudclaw or Salomon Speedcross.

There was a good bit of running to be had around the contour to the foot of the Pic Chaussy climb, and then it was up again, this time through the huge metal avalanche barriers above the hamlets below. Making my way through some of the 9pm starters was heartening, and as we dropped down the other side I had the faster runners from the 46km race coming through to push the pace on a bit.

As we descended into Les Mosses, the heavens opened and the story for the final third of the race began to unfold. The trails soon turned to a sloppy mix of mud and cow poo, with bogs galore and descents greasier than a fry up in a truck stop cafe. As the grip disappeared, so did my chance of a sub-15 hour time, and the final circuitous tour of Mont Chevreuils became a painful slog up and down undulations that would have been a doddle in the dry.

The final aid station deep in the woods was a huge morale booster. Having been on my own for some time, just seeing other people was somehow comforting, but these volunteers went above and beyond- one guy held my poles, another filled my bottles and I was being served coke by someone else. As I turned to climb the mud away from them, they erupted into a roar of: “allez allez Steven” along with applause and whoops, driving me to the edge of an emotional breakdown before I quickly pulled myself together and got my head down for the last bit of climbing.

Mud, mud and more mud later, and I entered the muddiest section of the course dropping from the main road just below La Lecherette into the river valley heading back up to L’Etivaz. About 300 people had already been that way in all of the race formats that day, turning the trail into a 3 metre wide strip of churned up slop. There was little point trying to hop around the worst of it, better just to plough on through the middle, the mud trying to suck my shoes off every other step. As I turned right for the last kilometre to L’Etivaz, the trail improved, and it was finishing sprint time only to find Thom waiting at the finish, who I learned had pulled out at Les Mosses due to knee pain.

My final time was 15 hours 21 minutes, nearly 4 hours behind the winner. Being a bit of a data geek, I calculated that I was 34% slower than 1st place, actually a 2% improvement on my 36% behind the winner in the TVSB16- I’ll take that! It was 16th place overall, 13th in category.

Final thoughts: This was actually a great course, any mountain race is going to get sloppy in the wet, I just need to improve on running in it and to get some new mud trainers. The night start is a novelty and leads to serious sleep depravation, but the sunrise up high was epic. Having completed two alpine ultras this summer, I’m still highly motivated by the ‘project’ and the game now is about chipping away at those times- I’m sure that kit alone (trainers and the head torch issue) could have saved me 45minutes to an hour, the rest might come from improving the descents on tired legs. Not now though, now is for a week of solid eating and gearing up for the start of the next academic year at work.

Apologies for the lack of images, I thought about getting the phone out a few times, but decided to just savour the moment instead and push on. So far there are some pics of the event here.

Trail Verbier St-Bernard X-Alpine 2016

The Trail Verbier St-Bernard (TVSB) X-Alpine was set to be my first ever ultra-marathon, a decent enough challenge at 111km with 8400m of climbing and descending. This came about as part of a longer term project to qualify and run the Ultra-trail Mont Blanc, but also as a goal in itself for 2016. The ultra dream began in Autumn 2015 having run a low-key charity mountain marathon from Gstaad to Villars, where the infectious enthusiasm of the students I did this with egged me on to try bigger things…

I put in a good winter and spring of training, culminating in the ‘Ultra Tour du Mole’ in May, confusingly not actually an ultra at 35km, but with a hefty 3200m of climbing this was the perfect tune up for what was to come in the summer. The Tour du Mole was tough- not least the constant steep up and down nature of the course, but also the fact that I sprained my ankle badly after just 5km. Perhaps foolishly, I finished the race, but the downhills were almost unbearable given the compensation I was having to make to keep weight off my right ankle.

After the injury, there was a trip to the doc for some x-rays and 3 weeks of rest, trying to get some road cycling and a few light runs in, but finding the sprain constantly aggravated. It took a repeat visit to the doctor 4 weeks out from the TVSB to ask his frank advice- was running an ultra a realistic goal? He was confident that the sprain would heal, and that I should try and ramp up my training again- one easy week to build back up and then a full high mileage week three weeks out from the event. The ankle would feel stiff, but the loading would help the blood flow and healing to occur. I followed the advice, putting in a big 115km/7000m vertical training week with 3 weeks to go until the big one, and finally it felt like the ankle would hold up.

Fast forward to mid-July, and it was off to Verbier, renting an apartment with my family close to the start/finish- good planning given the 4am start time. I went in with three goals: bronze, finish the race; silver, finish in under 30 hours; my personal gold was to finish in under 24 hours. This sort of effort was unprecedented for me, so I had no idea if the three goals were unachievable, or too easy…

Sleep on the Friday night was OK, and I felt surprisingly alert when the alarm went off at 3am, although forcing down some oats and putting on suncream (The forecast was superb: sunny, hot and dry) in the pitch black felt weird. My wife woke up as well so I took the chance to ask her to slap a load of bodyglide on my back.

The start of an ultra was an interesting experience; I seemed to have timed it to perfection: drop bag duly dropped, portaloo visited and then just a five minute wait for the start. What followed was a rock concert build up- fanfares (put your hands is the air!) and a cheesy blast of the Final Countdown by Europe. After such grandeur, what followed was a hilarious slow shuffle across the line, with half the field not even breaking into a jog- we all knew what was to come. In spite of my British reluctance to whoop, it was a fitting start to an epic event.

Technical descending (www.photossports.net)

Off we set through the streets of Verbier, picking up speed on the tarmac, and then it was the warm-up climb above the town, before dropping down to Sembrancher as the sun rose. The valley cruise was lovely, what felt like free kilometres with all the climbing and descending to come.

As it got light, I found myself on the lower slopes of La Catogne, a fearsome beast to start  the race with (if you can call 1 hour 30 mins into a run the ‘start’): 2000 metres of vertical ascent into increasingly technical terrain. I felt good, pacing my heart rate to no more than 150bpm. The decision to wear a heart rate strap was taken to gain useful data, the cost was potential chafe, I put my faith into bodyglide to save me. A real highlight of the race occurred as I made the ridge, a Helicopter flew close alongside me for several minutes, causing a huge adrenaline surge to carry me towards the summit. Sadly there is no footage of me in the cool little clips the organisers have been pumping out, but they are still included here to help bring my worlds to life a bit.

The descent was bonkers, a steep rocky gully with scree and loose material everywhere. It felt like dropping off a cliff. Eventually the terrain mellowed and I dropped into Champex for a short pit stop to empty debris out of the shoes, refill water and sample the soup. Mmm, salty.

The next few kilometres out of Champex were stunning; streams and a path along the very Valasian ‘Bisse’- ancient canals that contour the hillsides. Sadly the contouring didn’t last long and we turned left up a steep footpath towards the Orny glacier way above us.

This was another huge climb, on steep terrain that went from forest, to very blocky scree, to ice and snow. A quick bottle fill and a handful of raisins at the Cabane saw me turn and head back down, with the first kilometre running back through those still climbing- a fun exercise with poles waving everywhere and limited places to plant your feet.

Descending the snow fields was entertaining; there seemed to be three methods: Firstly, abandon all hope of running, sit down and let gravity do the work- the snowy descents were marked by several backside shaped luge tracks! Method two was to slide on both feet, with established tram tracks appearing after the first runners had been through. The final method was to try and run down digging heels in,I opted for this but ended up with some sort of hybrid of method one and two, almost sending myself down to the Orny glacier rather than back onto the footpath…

Climbing to the Fenetre de Ferret (www.photossports.net)

The steep downhill took us alongside many waterfalls under the imposing spire on the Clochers du Portalet, and with the Saleina Glacier beyond this it was worth looking up every now and again to take it all in, what magnificent terrain to race through. As I dropped to the valley, the heat became more and more oppressive, with clear skies and the middle of the day approaching. The cruise up to La Fouly was hot, but welcome after the two steep efforts behind us, and it was a real treat to see my family a few hundred metres before the aid station, although my daughter Charlotte soon turned and ran the other way when she got a whiff of me after 10 hours of running.

After a short food and drink stop, it was off again, firstly an easy double track ascent followed by undulating footpaths, and then steeper trails up towards the Lacs de Fenetre, which when we reached them were still full of ice, with the corrie itself still covered in a thick layer of snow. I couldn’t seem to get my heart rate up anymore on the climbs, now topping out at 140bpm even though I felt like it was hard work.

We passed briefly through Italy, climbing up the Grand St Bernard monastery for an aid stop, before heading up a lovely path to the Col des Chavaux and then a glorious downhill all the way to Bourg St Pierre. I was more on my own than before though this section, and I truly appreciated the calm and space to think. Throughout the race I tried to focus my thoughts on several positive things. Early on I decided to try and recall every run and bike ride I had ever done, in an effort to convince myself I had the endurance base necessary to survive! The one that kept coming to mind was when my brother and I attempted to walk/run from Rochester to Canterbury, along the North Downs Way in the South-East of the UK. I must have been about 14, him 16, and although we didn’t finish, stopping at around the 45km mark (I just measured it, happily the phone box we used to call mum for a rescue is still marked on the map!) it was an early lesson in the need to prepare better for endurance. Later in the race I thought more and more about my family, and how supportive they were of these ultimately pretty selfish ventures.

Back in the real world, I noticed that I had ski toured in the bowl we descended into, giving me a certain familiarity with terrain and distance, so I opened up a bit although was occasionally stopped by river crossings, one of which was quite deep and fast flowing. Before this crossing I had thought I wouldn’t bother changing shoes in Bourg St-Pierre, afterwards my feet started to go pretty soggy, so entering the sports hall and finding my bag stashed with grub, dry socks and a fresh pair of trainers was most welcome.

It was now just after 8pm, and I didn’t hang about too long at the aid station, taking just a small plate of pasta, and headed on into the evening up towards the Col de Mille. The first section was a long drag, but the reward was a contouring path heading towards the setting sun; seeing runners ahead silhouetted above the Dents du Midi I know so well from another angle was a special memory.

The head torch soon went on, and rounding the col at La Vaurdette the Cabane du Col de Mille was in sight with low lights glowing away. I soon found out that the night plays tricks with distance perception, because the Cabane looked about 100 metres away, when it was in fact over 2 kilometres with some tricky terrain in between! The final run into the hut was however flat and less technical, much needed by then.

The volunteers in this aid station seemed especially on the ball, I felt them look hard at me to see if I was going to survive, so I gave a cheery ‘bonsoir’ (It was now approaching midnight) and duly filled up my bottles. Down I went, initially well on the easier gradient, but more slowly where others seemed to just let it go on the steeper slopes in the middle. The bottom levelled out again and finally I was in Lourtier.

The finish that followed was pure evil. Strava tells me that the next 4km averaged a 22% gradient, with sections much steeper than this. It took over 2 hours to ascend to the La Chaux ski station and now my heart rate was unable to go above 125bpm although perceived exertion was still high, perhaps this is normal in an ultra?

I was by now totally consumed by the 24 hour ‘gold’ goal, having spent a large amount of mental energy calculating kilometres, vertical speed and time, eventually figuring that if I could get to La Chaux in 23 hours, I should be able to cover the last six kilometres in under an hour…

By now my legs were however toast, and the descent was tricky in places, although mercifully I managed to get some speed up on a brief section of ‘Bisse’ trail, before plunging into the forest once more. The technical down eventually gave way to a dirt track, so on went the afterburners (well, that might be a bit strong, more like the lawnmower engine by then) and before I knew it I was at the Medran lift, crossing the bike park trails with the final sprint down the road into the centre of Verbier.

Crossing the line was emotional, and fairly solitary, with the big crowds having stayed away for 3am in the morning, but hey ho, it was amazing to have pulled it off, and to have met the ‘gold’ goal I had set. I ended up 32nd overall, with 203 finishers and 270 dropping out at various points along the way.

The aftermath was just a couple of hours kip before the kids woke me up, such is life these days, however my wife was spectacularly supportive in taking them out for the morning, and nursing me in general for the day.

I was unprepared for the swelling in feet and ankles a day after finishing, but this didn’t last long, and at the time of writing 3 days after crossing the line, I’m feeling remarkable well recovered, although staying away from the trainers for a little while longer.

I would like to thank the organisers, the amazing volunteers and all the runners around me for chats, smiles and ‘Bravos’. Most of all I thank my ever supportive family for their encouragement in all the training and during the event itself. The TVSB X-Alpine is a very special race indeed, and if you are seeking a big challenge in the Alps I can heartily recommend it. 

What next? I will now be chasing points for UTMB, with the Ultratrail du Barlatay, a very local race to me next in the diary…

Kit reviews:

Inov8 Race Ultra 270 shoes

I had been using the Race Ultra 290s all year (more drop, cushioning and a slightly wider toe box in my opinion) but felt that the 270 might be the perfect ultra shoe for me. I was not disappointed, with it’s healthy toe box, good tread and 4mm drop leaving me supported enough, but also able to connect with the technical terrain in a way that the 290s lacked.

Salomon Sense pro shoes

I took these to shove in my drop bag, and I was not planning to use them as if anything the narrower toe box would be a problem with swollen feet. The river crossing and sweat however made a change essential, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good they felt for the final 35km. The extra toe protection might have saved my bacon at night as well as I stumbled a few times.

Suunto Ambit 3 Peak (and portable charger)

I bought this watch for battery life and accuracy, and have been totally impressed with it over the past 6 months. I took a light and small charger to to put in the descent into Bourg St-Pierre, and it lasted a treat. The course was so well marked I had no need for the navigation, but it was nice to know it was there in case of a wrong turn in the dark.

Salomon s-lab Sense Ultra Vest (size m/l)

Although only a 3 litre vest, having watched this video, I was confident I could pack everything I needed. A 5 litre drybag in the large rear pocket housed kit I hoped not to see- long sleeve layer, ¾ length tights and foil blanket. This did bounce a little during the race and probably contributed to the chafe on my back- nothing too bad! I also found I could easily take 3 500ml soft flasks with one in a side pocket- essential on this hot weekend. I’m not sure the vest is supposed to stretch quite so much to take all this kit…

Archmax pro belt

This seemed like a neat solution to carrying poles on long descents and flats, although to be honest holding them was not much trouble either. The pockets were useful for spare gels and a small first aid/blister kit. Overall this and the compressport number belt probably contributed to a little more chafe above the waist than I would have liked!

Black Diamond Distance Carbon poles

Light, and easily collapsed to fit on the Archmax belt, and were essential kit. No issues whatsoever; I was careful to switch my grip around to avoid hand blisters.

Drymax trail socks

The ultimate sock! Enough said.

Inov 8 RaceUltra socks

Only because I lacked a second pair of drymax… but cheaper and most welcome in the drop bag. No blisters

Salomon s-lab EXO twin skin shorts

Expensive, but gel pockets handy (my belts made these obsolete though!). The main thing is that these were totally chafe free and comfortable throughout- I didn’t change at my drop bag. Highly recommended.

Salomon s-lab EXO T-shirt

Tight, comfortable, and coped with the night/day temperature changes very well. I also used some old lycra arm warmers- superb for the nights.

Compressport UR2 Calf guards

Worn to get around the full leg mandatory kit requirement, but very comfortable throughout. Did they help? Who knows, the jury is out on compression kit, they certainly didn’t hinder me! I was however left with a hilarious tanned stripe between short line and just below the knee.

Petzl Nao head torch

The new reactik+ looks like the perfect head torch for ultra running, but hadn’t come out when I bought the Nao. Never mind, although a bit heavier it has superb performance, with customisable profiles to balance brightness and burn time- I tweaked and played to get it perfect ahead of the race, with no need to use the spare batteries I took.

Petzl e-lite

Backup teeny tiny head torch, not used.

Inov8 Race Ultra visor

Super light, good at absorbing sweat and kept me a it safer from the sun. It’s only problem was poor performance when turning it to facing backwards (I do this a lot on steep climbs).


Used only during the final night as a headband above the ear, essential and versatile kit!

Inov8 Race Ultra Mitts

Unused. Light, waterproof, mandatory.


About as essential as it gets.

Succeed S!Caps

I had tried these in training to make sure they didn’t disagree with my stomach, and found them to be an amazing way to maintain some sort of electrolyte balance whilst sweating buckets and chugging litres of water from mountain streams. I took 1 every hour with food.

SIS and MyProtein gels/bars, MyProtein tricarb drink

Tried and tested over years of riding and running, no stomach issues.

Home made rice cakes

A good move. I made some bacon and egg rice cakes to offset the sweet bars and gels, and found this recipe as a free sample from the ‘feedzone’ book. They were excellent! Thanks to my colleague Ivor for the inspiration and taste tests.