Thursday, 13 October 2016


I’ve never been the speediest of bloggers but I have been fairly dragging my feet over this one. I guess it’s not so easy to write about what effectively is a total failure. But I suppose on the plus side I can say that I learned some lessons there, albeit hard ones, and I just hope they will translate into success in future races, On the other hand maybe I should just save myself the grief and just enter achievable things. With the race result being a DNF there really isnt too much of a storyline here, just an excuse for lots of gorgeous mountain pictures.

Having failed so spectacularly and despite having a sneaking suspicion about what went wrong I did a wee bit of research and had a look at what the experts say about these things. In fact, the information fell into my lap the week of my return to Aberdeen in the form of “Trail Running” magazine. Number one route to failure in the gospel according to that particular publication – not getting enough zzzzz’s. Hmmm….obviously going to have to start trying to fit less into my life? But I like baking, I like swimming, I like going to the gym, I like a social life and I love my one huge weakness – reading, I can easily read late into the night. Maybe there are some sacrifices to be made somewhere along the line. It’s a situation compounded by living with someone who seems to easily get by on 4 hours sleep a night whereas I need more than double that to be able to function as a normal human being. Add in the usual panic at work when people suddenly realise that you are off for a week or two I had no hope. I was knackered before I’d even reached the start line.

My travel plans were not that intelligent either. If I was to do this race again the day prior to the race would not start with a 3.30am alarm call and finally reaching the hotel at about 7pm at night with two flights and a long bus ride to get there. It was just too long a day. An additional problem that I have often found in similar situations is that I would not necessarily call myself a “people person” and I like to do my own thing rather than follow the crowd or do what someone else wants to do so that was an issue too. I find that exhausting. At times I just wanted to be detached from the race and all the dull running chat and do my own thing, especially to take in the surroundings, explore the villages and just enjoy the ambience and magnificent mountain scenery without constantly having to think about running through it.  On the flip side though it was good to meet up with Gerald again. Although he only lives in Keith we only ever seem to meet up in random mountainous countries. The bus journey to the race gave me time to listen to lots of Steve’s amazing mountaineering stories and I was also lucky to have great room mates in Laura and Kaz who were lovely and good humoured.
Steve points out the optimum route...

But anyway – on to the race, or the bits of it that I did complete…

This was the second edition of the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, a race along a section of the long distance trail circling the Monte Rosa Massif starting in Cervinia in Italy and finishing in Grachen Switzerland. This is not a complete circuit of the route and I believe it is the race director’s intent to add the section from Grachen back to Cervinia passing through Zermatt when the necessary permissions have been obtained. As it is the current route is 116km (72miles) and 8300m (27,230 ft) and the options are that you can run it as a long ultra race or split it over a 3 day stage race. I opted for the stage race as this is most certainly not an introductory ultra.
The race director for this race is 5 time winner of the UTMB Lizzy Hawker who prepared and trained for many of her ultra race wins on these trails and no wonder, it is a beautiful location and less accessible and therefore less busy than that trail running mecca of Chamonix. Being Lizzy Hawker’s creation this race was never going to be a walk in the park (or a park run for that matter) but I think many people were surprised at just how testing this route was. After the race many seasoned ultra runners seemed to have come to the conclusion that this was far harder that the UTMB so maybe the UTMB will have to start offering points for runners to qualify for the UTMR (controversial!!)
The results seem to reflect this with a drop out rate of 20% and 40% of the field in the stage race and ultra respectively and this was on a weekend were conditions were about as perfect for running as it’s possible to get in the mountains.

To be honest the first day is a bit of a blur…and that’s not because I was going too fast. Even lining up on Day 1 I did not feel good. Not getting enough sleep in the weeks leading up to the race along with a long day of travelling the day before took its toll on me both physically and mentally and so day 1 – the “short” day felt like a major effort and by the finish the thought of 2 more days which were both longer with more climb felt completely beyond me.

Pre-race dinner
On the start line
And we're off...
The initial climb seemed to last forever which is never a good sign until we reached the rocky moonscape of the summit pass – and then the descent seemed to last even longer... until yet again we were climbing and this second climb felt longer...although it was shorter. An unusual experience as time often seems to pass so quickly in mountain runs.
Day 1 course profile
Fortunately the weather was very good despite the less than promising forecast the previous week and the course was very well marked – although a couple of folk did miss turn offs but not disastrously so. The trail wound its way up and down for some 6300ft of climbing over the 17 miles and to put it bluntly I was knackered. To compound my difficulties I had found it nearly impossible to eat so I had failed to consume anything more than a couple of jelly babies until the checkpoint at a little chalet in the woods at about 11 miles. I couldn’t have been the only one who was a bit gaga at this point, I spoke to at least two runners who had left their trek poles sitting at the checkpoint and had to go back for them once they had realised.
Day 1 ascent
Lac de Goillet
A rocky moonscape
Reaching the col
Orange tape marked the course
Grassy meadow
Mountains as far as the eye could see
The final rocky ascent of Day 1
The final descent saw a stampede of folk coming past me and on crossing the finish line at Gressoney my mind was made up that I would not be starting the next day. It was well and truly game over. The next day I managed to blag a lift in the luggage lorry round to the next overnight stop and the Italian driver was a local who was very keen to give me a guided tour which was highly entertaining. The only downside was that his English was only marginally better than my Italian so he kept using google translate on his phone while he was driving along which was a little unnerving at times.
Descent to Gressoney (C Mark Warner)
An empty trail (C Mark Warner)
Stage 2 starts
Off into the darkness
Day 3 was the stage I had been desperately wanting to do as it looked spectacular and happily the race organisers are very accommodating and allow you to do this even if you hadn’t started or DNF’d any of the previous days so I was back on track for a nice day out in the mountains. A day off and a day to myself had left me feeling more relaxed and I had enjoyed hanging out with Debbie, another runner who like me had decided to skip day 2 so we sat in the square at Macugnaga drinking coffee eating pastries and watching the runners come in.
The stage race leader
During the night and as we lined up for the start of stage 3 in the pre-dawn darkness we had spotted the lights moving slowly up the hillside, sometimes one lone light and sometimes in pairs. These were the head torches of the ultra runners who during the night had caught up with the stage racers while we rested and had passed through the little Italian village of Macugnaga on their way to the finish line in Grachen. There was no doubt about it stage 3 was going to feature one heck of a long climb.
Day 3 course profile
We started before dawn from the village square and followed the path leading first of all through the sleepy village and then on to the forest covered mountain side and what the villagers made of the noise in these early hours of the morning is anyone’s guess! As I climbed upwards a couple of times I glanced back to look at the line of head torches following me up the hill and through a gap in the trees could see the beautiful pinky glow of Monte Rosa in the dawn light. The path twisted and turned through the dark forest then past the top ski lift station and then out on to the mountainside. This was the day when the course passed over the border from Italy into Switzerland and the border is located at the very summit of this climb at the stunning pass of Monte Moro at 2985m (9,793ft)

The summit of the pass is marked by a very large golden statue of the virgin Mary which looked as though it was leaning at a weird angle although that may just have been due to the direction we had approached it. How they got it up there and when is a mystery to me and even good ol’ Google has been no help with this one. By now I was feeling slightly chilled so was glad to reach the mountain checkpoint, pull on some clothes and eat.
The line of runners making their way up the hill, Monte Rosa in the background (C Mark Warner)
Dawn light over Monte Rosa
The mountainside still in early morning shade
Monte Moro pass
The Italian/Swiss border at Monte Moro (C Mark Warner)
Descending from Monte Moro
Heading to Stausse Mattmark
Glaciers on the mountain
This has been the stage of the race I was desperate to do, this was a climb to a mountain pass not to be missed and by the time I had reached the summit I wasn’t feeling too bad and had enjoyed the climb I didn’t really enjoy the long rocky descent a great deal which at times seemed steeper than the climb and Caroline had skipped past me at that point with the words “don’t take this the wrong way but I hope I won’t see you again before the end” We wished each other luck and I did my best to keep her in sight but soon lost her. The next section along the lakeside and the trail to Saas Fee was nice and for the most part runnable and as this played to my strengths I made decent time there and eventually caught up with Caroline again at the next checkpoint... which made me chuckle in an evil kind of way.
A patch of ice high on the mountain (C Mark Warner)
The view as I headed to Saas Fee
The checkpoint at Saas Fee was a very welcome sight as my stomach was actually rumbling with hunger by the time I got there, not something I have often experienced in a race, and so I got stuck in about the goodies laid out for us, cake, crisps, fruit, chocolate and of course that life saving elixir Coca Cola. I also discovered a new race favourite - cheese - of which I ate a considerable amount. I refilled my water bottles and food supplies and was about to set off when I saw Steve and Linda also about to set off. They were both doing the ultra but seemed to be moving along ok considering the distance, climbing and terrain that they had covered.  I refrained from saying something inane like “not far to go” as I suspect that really wouldn’t be the sort of thing anyone wants to hear with 12 or 13 miles to go in an ultra and I headed out of the checkpoint with Caroline. Saas Fee looked like a gorgeous little place and so I put that on my list of places to go back to visit. To be honest I could have quite happily stopped at a little pavement cafĂ© for a wee beer at that point but sadly that was not an option, the last few miles of the race lay ahead. Terrain wise it wasn’t overly tricky, a narrow path that tightly hugged the hillside that it contoured round giving you what was at times a slightly unnerving view of the valley floor far below. At some points a little scrambling was needed by either hanging off wire/chains fixed to the rocks to assist you or by clambering over some boulders that had at some point come crashing down the mountain side – in fact the wearing of headphones was forbidden in this race the reason given being so that you can listen for rock fall. Presumably so you can hear what is about to hit you?
The trail on the final section (C Mark Warner)
Chains and ropes to hang on to
Crossing the boulder fields and rock fall
High up above the valley below
I had just been coasting along in my own wee world until there was a comparatively gentle descent to the last checkpoint at another ski lift station. This check point was manned by non-other than Lizzy Hawker's parents who did concede that they thought their daughter was slightly mad. This aid station was a mere 2k from the finish and instead of coke it was stocked with Fanta which did just as good a job in fuelling me to the finish in the village square in Grachen which I reached comfortably enough but with the hollow feeling that despite the 28  miles and 8800ft I had just covered this was still a DNF. I picked up a t-shirt (I’m a sucker for a race t-shirt - is it wrong to wear a t-shirt from a race you have DNF'd?) and a few other wee goodies such as a prayer flag but declined the medal although I was intrigued to see that one of the other runners who had also skipped Day 2 did collect the medal. I guess that’s fine if he was proud of what he had achieved over the 3 days but I most certainly was not. In a weird sort of way though the DNF didn’t seem as shameful as the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience of Day 1. It seemed so wrong to be in the shadow of such mighty peaks and spectacular scenery and to not be enjoying it.
The finish in Grachen with Chris and Caroline.

Kit choices threw up certain problems. I guess maybe I’d been panicked into buying new stuff partly due to turning up at the race in Transylvania last May looking like I shouldn’t be there, the only runner in the world who did not own one item of Salomon kit!. After all every picture you see of races in the Alps feature runners in nice matching Salomon kit (generally white or pale blue - they obviously don't do much running through peat bogs) elegantly wielding trek poles and there was a lot of pre-race chat about kit so its easy to be intimidated by the vast array of flash kit now on offer for the discerning mountain runner. The new Salomon shoes, although nice and comfy on soft Scottish bog and heather and short rocky descents (and yes when compared to the Alps the run off Lochnagar is “short”) massacred my feet and I swapped to the old worn out Scott Kinabalus for Day 3. Those Salomons had felt fine on my 25 mile training run around Lochnagar so it wasn’t that they had been tested however they mashed my toes to bits on the 6000ft descent in Italy. I still havent succumbed to buying a running dress or a skort...yet.
The trek poles I had bought, although I hadn’t tried them before, I did find were of great use on the descents but were not compatible with the Salomon race vest for stowing them so I went “old skool” and back to the rucksack. Not trying out kit before you go is a bit of a schoolgirl error but at the same time there is nowhere here where the race conditions can be truly mimicked and due to cost items were purchased at intervals according to importance – shoes first, race vest next, poles last. Trekking poles have been popular in Europe for some time but haven’t really caught on here, probably because we don’t have quite the lengths of single climbs or descents so information seems to be hard to come by. The only real tip I can give if you are thinking of buying them then carefully research how you stow them in your rucksack or race vest. The Salomon race vest I have has storage designed for telescopic poles whereas I went and bought “Z” poles. On the plus side though they are lovely and light.
As usual there is the compulsory kit to be carried, waterproofs with taped seams, thermals, hat, gloves, head torch, passport/id, water, emergency food, survival blanket, first aid, a cup as plastic cups were not used at aid stations for environmental reasons. I think my most notable pre-race kit purchase is my lovely fold away lightweight Salomon cup (Salomon branded yet again!)

 Route map/directions
You didn’t need a map as the route was very well marked both as a well-known long distance walking trail and as the race. The race organiser texted the competitors through the GPS info the night before the race which would have been fine….if I’d had the faintest idea what to do with it. I logged into itunes, installed an app on my phone, switched my garmin on, pressed a few buttons…. and then gave up and threw a paper map into my rucksack. Apparently GPS co-ordinates don’t come with instructions.

Race tattoos - dont worry, nail varnish remover gets rid of them
A big weakness I found was my short distance runner mentality – the tendency to race right from the gun as you would in marathons and 10ks, the people with a climbing background seemed to fare very well in this race, possibly due to better pacing and their training being long hill days which were closer to this race experience rather than my shorter faster preparation of running marathons. 12 hours walking in the mountains bagging Munros would be far better preparation than say, the relatively flat Fort William marathon. The UTMR is a very undulating and often technical trail so relatively flat “trail” marathons are of bugger all use in training. Even the West Highland Way would be classed as “flat” compared with this. A few weekends in the Mamores or around Ben Nevis/ Snowdonia are probably the best way to train for it if  you can’t wangle a week away training in the Alps beforehand as I know a few people managed to do. Oh well, live and learn.
I knew Steve, Linda, Elaine Sean and Caroline would be fit but Chris did remarkably well considering he now works offshore and is limited to the gym and a treadmill for substantial periods of time

Accommodation and food
This was actually a bit of a luxury. The race organisation fed us well and put us up in some very nice hotels during the course of the race. We got a 2 course meal at night and a self service buffet breakfast it the morning although I sometimes struggle to consume much at 4am. On the third day when I decided I was going to have another go at the race a substantial amount of buffet breakfast disappeared into my rucksack to be consumed during the race. Competitors have to organise their own accommodation pre and post race and our pre race hotel was very luxurious whereas our post race hotel was distinctly non- luxurious – complete with bathroom that was impossible to get into without dragging the door along the side of a closely placed bunkbed which was not the best seeing as there were 4 of us sharing the room at that point! However the hotel could almost be forgiven for this as it had a superb view of the mountains from the bedroom balcony window.
Dinner in Gressoney
Nice hotel
The race organisation was very good and efficient
Post race dinner, beers and prize giving.
The view from the worst hotel in Grachen!
The race route and checkpoints
The race route was well marked at least for the stage race, the ultra runners who ran through the night may have a different view on this. There were actually very few checkpoints and aid stations so worth carrying a reasonable amount and variety of food in case you start to feel picky through nausea. With it being warm carrying chocolate was possibly not the brightest of my ideas, not without a straw to drink it through anyway. Neither was filling one of my soft flasks with coca cola – it swelled to an alarming size and nearly blew my head off when I tried to sip the fizzy contents.