“We are not supposed to be here,” squeaks Gary as our puny Renault emerges from the tunnel into the midst of a massive gravel-extracting operation. A giant, steampunk contraption of pipes and conveyor belts churns away, blocking our forward path, while behind a sign blatantly reminds us that we’ve entered via a one-way route.
A burly man in an orange jumpsuit notices our arrival, turns, then just stares at us with disapproving eyes that seem to say: “Eee-diots!” I fear at any moment a James Bond villain will rappel from the cliff above, drag us out of the vehicle, then beat us.
Gary instinctively rolls down the window while I plan my escape. The man’s glare turns to a smile when he realizes how hopelessly foreign we are, then he proceeds to motion directions toward the hidden exit. Relieved we haven’t yet been arrested, Gary and I return to the highway. “Want to check out Martigny?” “Sure why not?!”
I suppose mutual curiosity makes for good partners-in-exploration; after all, we have managed to scope most of the climbs on the UTMB course in just four days, but our conspicuous American-ness (or, in Gary’s case, Canadian-ness) continues to surrender us for what we really are: damn tourists.
In addition to keeping me busy, our week’s reconnaissance left me much better apprised of the trails and terrain surrounding Mont Blanc. It’s tough to toe the line at any race completely blind of course knowledge — particularly one as immense as UTMB — so I’m extremely grateful Gary was up for some aimless exploration. I suspect he appreciated the company and extra confidence as well.
The nine (or ten, depending on how you count them) climbs are shown in the elevation profile below:
After arriving Friday and spending the day adjusting to my surroundings, Gary and I set out Saturday morning for the first climb, Delevret (also called Col du Voza), which begins right here in Les Houches. Up until now my perception of the UTMB course was based solely on my experience on the Hardrock course, which features a similar amount of total climbing and descending with many long, steep, rocky, off-trail climbs at high elevation.
Thankfully, UTMB appears very different.
Traction is, in general, very good and the trail well-traveled and easy to follow. Signs indicate the way (in our case follow the “TMB” placards) as well as the distance (in hiking time) to nearby destinations. I quickly found that when a sign indicates 1 hour 30 minutes to a particular destination, a runner can safely assume it will take about one-third to one-quarter the time. Makes you feel fast!
In addition to the signage, springs resembling stone bathtubs with their faucets left running are scattered throughout the Alps and provide an ample supply of water. Hungry? Stop at a hut and drop a few Euro for a snack. Or a full meal. It’s no wonder Kilian can run all day through these mountains without carrying a single item.
Our second outing takes Gary and I over the Swiss border to the tiny town of Trient, located some 86 miles into the race — the other end! The climb from Trient is short and steep, quickly gaining treeline then rolling through gorgeous pastures while skirting around the Col de Balme. On this soggy, English day we surprise a shepherd and his flock — who are these two, wiry figures in red hooded jackets bounding through our field?
We put our faith in the signage, allowing it to guide us through misty trails on a loop that leads us down a series of steep switchbacks, back into the fog, and ultimately back to a still drizzly Trient. It takes a while for me to realize that the constant clang of cowbells I’ve been hearing all day is actually coming from the cows, not some trail-side spectator a bit premature with his UTMB enthusiasm.
On day three the skies break and the sun rises, its rays adding warmth to a chilly morning. We pick up Gary’s Aussie friend Gretel and proceed beyond Les Contamines (mile 19) to the Notre Dame de la Gorge chapel in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the route’s longest climb, the Col du Bonhomme. I exercise tremendous restraint opting for a “strong hike” to Refuge Balme rather than a careless romp like both days prior. My quadriceps applaud this decision.
The climb begins in St. Gervais (mile 13) immediately following the initial descent from Delevret, but tops out some 14 miles later after climbing nearly 6,000 vertical feet. Again, I find the non-technical surface of the trail a pleasant surprise having trained on such brutal scree back home. From our turnaround at Refuge Balme, Gary and I return to a trail-side chalet a mile down where we join Gretel for cafe noire, some conversation and a quick bask in the sun.
With France and Switzerland fresh in our minds, we rally a crew for one final mission: a voyage through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur for a glimpse of the Italian side of things. This time with a Kiwi named Callum (introduced to us through Gretel) and some guy named Mike Foote, the four of us split the 51 Euro toll and take the 12 km journey through the mountain.
When we emerged on the self-proclaimed “sunny side” of Mont Bianco (no French over here) we stop for espresso, admire the steep drop and climb we’ll encounter as we pass through Courmayeur, then proceed up the Val Ferret toward Arnuva to ogle the Gran Col Ferret, the highest point on the entire UTMB route.
Being a weasel, I immediately feel at home in Val Ferret. The sights prove gorgeous, the weather cooperative and the Italians gregarious. After a few photos from the Refuge Elena, we temper our enthusiasm and jog back to the car, like tapering runners ought to.
There are segments of the UTMB course I will see in daylight, and others that will be hidden by the dark of night. Though in reality my reconnaissance covered just a small fraction of the full route, I feel much more confident about my capability of completing (and possibly performing well at) this race than I did upon arrival. Time well spent.
The final variable is weather. In four days we experienced a mixed bag — sunny and gorgeous half the time, rainy and miserable the rest. While the current forecast appears promising, I refuse to expect good weather until I’m actually out on the course enjoying it. Thus my strategy hasn’t changed; I intend to run carefully and conservatively like a good weasel should.
Tomorrow I’ll take it easy. Thursday the nerves begin…