Monday, August 29, 2011

The 2011 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

So goes the cliched saying: A picture is worth a thousand words. And it definitely stands true for a race of epic proportions where the atmosphere, the scenery and the pain leave you speechless.

The 2011 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is a race that cannot be defined by characters on a page. The sheer scale of the mountains, the emotions felt when seeing the sunrise after 8 hours of racing, the taste of chicken noodle soup after 30 hours of non-stop moving cannot be quantified. In this spirit then, I will be brief with words and leave you to look at the pictures!

1 hour pre-race, I am making final adjustments to my race pack. Outside it is pouring with rain:

The Centre Sportif where we had to drop off our drop-bags. In the background you can see almost 2300 yellow bags:

On the streets of Chamonix, on the way to the race start. In the background imagine drums beating and the faint tunes of Vangelis' "Conquest of Paradise" song to inspire the runners:

Behind the start line, runners waiting in the rain:

Dawn breaking in the mountains, bringing into view the hundreds of runners along the trail:

Mountain views on the trail to Col du Bonhomme at 43km:

I survived the first big climb of the race, the Refuge Croix du bonhomme behind me:

Descending from the mountain pass, the snow recedes leaving green alpine grass. The trails are rolling and technical and from memory this was a really beautiful section to run!

The top of the second big climb of the race, 2516m at the Col de la Seigne, the conditions akin to the Arctic:

A green valley and Lac Combal barely visible through the mist:

The checkpoint at Lac Combal (1970m) behind me, the weather sunny and warm, lifting my spirits:

Courmayeur below me, the "half-way" point of sorts were I would stop for 20 minutes to change my socks and shirt and enjoy a good bowl of pasta:

Climbing up to Refuge Bertoni at 1989m:

Climbing up to the Grand Col Ferret (2537m), the highest point of the race arriving at 99km into the race! My legs at this point were beginning to resemble flat batteries, and yet step after step I climbed higher!

The tiny yellow North Face tent in the mountain pass. Here the wind was icy and my fingers turned bright red and swollen like Italian sausages:

At the aid station in Trient, one more big badass climb ahead of me:

Enjoying a big bowl of chicken noodle soup:

"Do I really have to climb 800m more after already having covered 140km?"

Last climb done, extremely relieved, and descending to Vallorcine from where I had 17km left:

Leaving Vallorcine:

Final 1km to run through the town of Chamonix, the hardest 1km of my life!
Photo courtesy of Runar Gilberg.

Finish line:

Sheer contentment!
Photo Courtesy of Lars Gilberg.

Margaretha! Welcome! Australia!” Catherine Poletti, the Race Director, stood with arms wide open and gave me a warm embrace. I crossed the line in 10th place female and well under my dream time of 36 hours. I was also the first Australian female to enter the top 10 since the race started in 1993. More importantly though, I crossed the line a stronger person, a woman that had been tested by the brutal wilderness of the Alps and survived with a huge smile on her face.

A huge thanks to the support of my parents for never faltering in their belief in me, My coach Jen Segger for preparing me, pushing me and giving me the tools to "crush" the trails, North Shore Athletics for their amazing product knowlege and support, and to all my friends across the world who never left my side on the trails!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chamonix and Mont Blanc!

Arriving in Chamonix 10 days before the starting in the 2011 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the town is already preparing for what is considered the Tour de France of running. Banners are hanging, flags are waving crazily at tourists who are as excited as the actual runners, and finally the start and finish line is standing in anticipation.

The town itself is a bustling hive of tourists, mountaineers, and nature-enthusiasts. Ever present though is the blinding face of Mont Blanc. Looking up, I start to get pre-race nerves at the sheer scale of the mountains around me and of the huge challenge ahead. In the words of the event organisers:

"It is, indeed, an adventure; by understanding that it is difficult and takes place in the middle of nowhere infers the notion of respect. Respect for its beauty, for its fragility, but also for the uncertainty of its environment...the mountains allow us to pass, we can on no account force this passage..."

Hike to La Flegere 1877m

I accessed the trail from the western side of Argentiere, climbing up to La Flegere (a gondola site perched above Chamonix). The whole way I had uninterrupted, amazing views towards the Mont Blanc Massif. I found the best time to go is in the late afternoon, when the sun's full attention is upon the range.

View towards the Argentiere Glacier receding back from the Valley of Chamonix:

Below La Flegere is a high altitude reservoir. It was built in 2007 to hold water for production of artificial snow in winter. In summer though, it's glassy surface perfectly mirrors the majestic peaks of Aig. Verte (4122m) and Les Drus (3754m), seen on the left:

Mont Blanc (4809m), on the far right:

The encroaching shadows of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley:

Hike to La Croix de Lognan (1972m) and the Argentiere Glacier

I started this hike from the eastern side of the town of Argentiere and climbed steadily on a non-technical, shaded forest path:

Once above the tree-line I arrived at La Croix de Lognan, a plateau where the dominant feature is the huge cable-car infrastructure used mostly by sightseers wanting to avoid the uphill hike:

The Chalet Militaire de Lognan surrounded by some impressive views:

On the trail to the Argentiere Glacier:

Argentiere Glacier, its presence felt in the cold micro-climate surrounding it. It is a dirty mass of prehistoric, rumbling, rock-crunching ice; a force of nature shaping the earth beneath it:

Passing through the Ecuries de la Pendant 1778m, a little pocket of alpine meadow with a stable, goats, guard dog and donkey: