A return to running regularly after spending the month of April initially injuring myself, then recovering from that injury. Conditions in the valley have been mixed — days of blazing sun, others of blizzards and rain. Just spring in the mountains, I suppose. With six weeks until I leave for Ontario (for a wedding) and eight until the Mont Blanc 80K, I feel poised to tackle some pretty dense training over the following month while remaining cautious not to overdo it, either. I’d like to think the base fitness is there for me to slog endlessly through the hills; the best results will now come from sharpening a few particular skills. Six weeks of premature summer is the perfect amount of time to do that.
Weekly total: 9h53m/78km/4339m
04/27/15 – Tunnel – 35min/6km/300m Up and down Tunnel from home, then downtown for sushi. Aiming to push hard and get a fast time, at least on the ascent: 23m48s to summit, 14min to Sushi Bistro.
04/28/15 – Tunnel – 43min/7km/340m Up and down Tunnel from home. Wasn’t aiming to go fast but rather to feel effortless and comfortable. That being said, I’m not sure if I felt any more comfortable than yesterday although I was exerting myself less. I think my legs still felt the impact from yesterday’s sprint. Not much slower than yesterday, though: 25min to summit, 19min to home.
04/30/15 – Ha Ling – 2h53m/19km/1311m
Took me a while to figure out what to do this morning. Took the bus to Canmore and ran up Ha Ling from town. Not a particularly notable trip except that I felt pretty good and never felt like I was pushing too hard — compare with my previous ascent of Ha Ling, last Thursday. I tentatively planned on doing a Ha Ling/East-Rundle double-bag but it looked like a sheet of bad weather was heading toward me and I wasn’t keen on getting hammered by rain whilst in the alpine (some days I’m down for that sort of thing). Ran back to town via the Grassi Lakes and powerline cut-line trails.
05/01/15 – Sulphur Loop – 2h38m/20km/1077m
Up the back, down the front, from home. I don’t remember the last time I ran every step up the back of this mountain (if I ever have) but today I did. Tagged the Ray Station on Sanson’s Peak then descended down the front, which is drying out nicely. One could probably get away without Microspikes nowadays. Descended through forest to the Fairmont castle then took some sort of horse trail (I hate horse trails) which spat me out at Middle Springs. Continued to link up trail rather than run on the road, descending quickly down the forested back of Middle Springs to Cave Ave. and thence to my apartment.
Sidenote: One thing I’ve learned about myself from running is that I don’t interpret my fueling needs accurately and often associate the need for fuel with uncertainty of challenge or exertion or stressful conditions, as opposed to actual nutritional demand. That is, if I’m not sure how far I’m going to have to go, how hard I’m going to have to push, the challenges I’ll face, I’ll often feel the need to fuel which I genuinely interpret as hungriness. The moment I return to a place of psychological comfort or certainty, the feeling that I need to fuel, am hungry or am even about to bonk all fade and I am left feeling either actually hungry irrespective of my mental state (“Who cares? I’m home”) or not actually hungry or depleted at all.
02/05/15 – Tunnel + Sulphur Loop – 3h04m/26km/1311m A decent-sized run, longer than originally planned, that illustrates well the deranged manner in which my psyche operates when it comes to motivation in the mountains. I left the house intending to do the exact same trip as yesterday but upon arriving at the Cave and Basin (~1km from my apartment), I stopped and marvelled at a wall of snow squall rushing over the top of Sulphur and up the Bow Valley toward me. As I was carrying almost nothing, I wasn’t in the mood to get hammered by flurries for an hour in shorts and a t-shirt on the exposed western side of Sulphur. I turned around and decided to stick closer to home and do something creative on Tunnel instead.
I headed up Tunnel and (of course) as I neared the top I saw the snowstorm beginning to clear over Sulphur. I felt so tricked and deceived by the weather that I decided that I would go bag Sulphur anyway, just out of spite. So I chomped half a Builder Bar on the top of Tunnel and swiftly descended back down to town, across the river, up behind the Fairmont castle and up the Sulphur Mountain trail. The run was pretty cruisy and in fact almost entirely running — err, jogging anyway — as opposed to the slogging I expected to resort to after a series of vertical-heavy days.
I scarfed the second half of my Builder Bar in the upper gondola terminal while warming my hands on my glutes, then sprinted out, tagged the Ray Station on Sanson’s Peak, descended the back of the mountain to the Cave and Basin, then to my apartment. When I returned to the Cave and Basin, I stopped and looked back up the valley just like three hours prior — this time with sunny skies — and asked, “What the hell just happened?” A Sulphur loop of logic.
This week saw a return to running comfortably again as well as slogging some big vert after avoiding that specific activity for the past couple weeks. This week was fun and the warm, summer-like temperatures made the notion of getting outside pretty seductive. The latter part of my last long run reintroduced me to the delectably miserable side of ultrarunning. Me and it should get together more often; it’s been too long. Weekly total: 53km/3440m.
04/20/15 – Tunnel – 51min/7km/340m Up and down Tunnel from home after work. Summer weather. Felt strong on my uphills though a perceptible tightness in my left knee. Leaning into the first hills after crossing the bridge felt delicious and brought a smile to my face. Spent a few minutes taking pics at the top then descended with usual reckless abandon. Good to feel “back”. Considered doing a loop around Tunnel but as I’d brought no water and was already sweaty and parched, decided to run home. 27 mins to summit; 24 mins home.
04/21/15 – Tunnel x2 – 9km/500m? (watch wasn’t charged) Another glorious summer day in April. Powerhiked Tunnel with Glenn, descended fast to lower trailhead, then parted ways and ran back up fairly quickly. Spent zero time at the summit, simply tagged the top and descended again in freefall mode knowing the descent would be interesting because I was out of breath and tired. Ran back down most of the trail until I caught up with my buddy Bre-dog and her friend and I strolled with them back to the lower trailhead. Fast splits on my second run. A bit of tightness across my left knee but more of a superficial sensation and unlike what I was dealing with a couple weeks ago.
04/23/15 – Lady Mac + Ha Ling – 6h13m/37km/2613m
A long day out, very tiring. Did a “rim to rim” of Canmore, parking my car at Elevation Place then running up Lady Mac on one side of the valley, then Ha Ling on the other. The ascent of Lady Mac was pretty strong and streamlined given I haven’t climbed anything other than Tunnel for a couple weeks. The whole experience on Lady Mac was incredibly smooth, including the awkward scramble up the final stretch to the summit ridge (one of my least favourite bits of mountain, anywhere). I just stuck to solid rock ribs and was on the ridge in less time than I remember. No true summit for me today; the knife-edge ridge was way too gusty for my liking. The descent back down Lady Mac was as quick and streamlined as the climb, save for losing my phone for five minutes and spending another five talking to a local mountain-running dude.
Taking on Ha Ling was a labored effort. The jaunt across town wasn’t so bad; and while jogging up to Grassi Lakes and slogging through the climbing area, I was tired, but still game to take on the mountain. Once I started heading up Ha Ling, however, I felt the effort: my breathing and pulse were much higher than normal, my muscles burned, and I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it to the top. I kept telling myself I wouldn’t make it to the top as I continued to slog, passing people, and soon broke out of treeline and gained the col. No turning back now. I tagged the top, took some pictures, then rigidly stumbled back down the mountain. Running back to my car from the Ha Ling trailhead was a death march. I was probably slightly bonked but too stubborn to take my pack off and eat another boring bar. Glad I pulled off the true “Rim to Rim”. Also probably my single biggest vert day this year on the heels of a few weeks of little vert.
A relatively unfruitful set of weeks spent nursing a slowly recovering left knee. The “water on my knee” I first noticed evolved into a definite tenderness and lack of strength after continuing to slog on it with Sean; then a couple days blasting up and down Tunnel last week didn’t do it any favors, either. In my short career, I’ve been fairly injury-free, save for the occasional tweaked muscle which tends to recover on the order of days. When stairs in my apartment and standing on one leg became a challenge, I assumed the worst: probably a torn meniscus. A visit to Banff Physical Therapy determined that wasn’t the case and by the end of this two week block I began running up hills again confidently. I’m looking forward to easing back into the routine toward the end of April, allowing me start training concertedly again beginning in May.
04/07/15 – Tunnel – 46m13s/7km/339m
Ran up and down Tunnel from home. This run was a test of my knee, which didn’t render an obvious result. At first I felt nothing, then a definite tightness in my kneecap during the uphill jog from the lower trailhead/parking lot. I tagged the top, then bombed back down with a very apparent clumsiness to my usually spot-on eye-foot coordination. My brain felt unable or unwilling to keep up with processing the terrain at the speed I wanted to run or am used to running on my downhills (breakneck, that is). Lots of “cuties” on the trail (as @Ridgegoat would say) probably ensured my downhill split was snappier than it otherwise might’ve been. Ran the flats back home at a decent pace, pain-free. A confusing result of my knee test.
04/08/15 – AM – Allan attempt – 1h54m/13km/757m Had plans to climb Allan from the Canmore side but was profoundly aggravated by the presence of fresh powder snow — about three or four inches of it. I know, I’ve been bagging peaks in “winter conditions” for months, but in reality it’s been closer to spring and now that it’s actually April, it seems I lack the patience to put up with slogging through icing sugar, postholing, wet shoes, and any of the other tediousness that goes with winter peak-bagging. It was obvious I wasn’t going to bag a summit long before I reached the base of the climb proper and ditched the frustrating winter slogging conditions to go find fast summer running somewhere else, lower in the valley.
04/08/15 – PM – Tunnel – 1h53m/8km/400m
Up and down Tunnel from home; up main trail, down south shoulder. Needed to get out and run in the sun on some dry trails, dressed for summer, carrying little and moving quickly. Deliberated for ages about the condition of my knee (really hard to gauge it) but decided I needed to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather for its own sake. Felt pretty good throughout most of the run; both aerobic performance and my mental sharpness were better than the previous day. Came down the south shoulder “goatpath” — lollygagged for a while taking pictures and scoping out 4th class scrambling terrain. Booted back home in the warm sun and cool breeze, my favourite combo. A beautiful day; felt great physically.
*Then a week of nothing, after it became obvious the previous couple days didn’t help my knee at all.
04/15/15 – Physio @ Banff Physical Therapy
After a week off my left knee, I finally bit the bullet and saw a physiotherapist for the first time in my life. The knee had improved steadily throughout the week but strength and stability still seemed fundamentally compromised and I was tired of its back-and-forth condition, the sluggishness of my recovery and general uncertainty as to what the injury is. My guess was a torn meniscus; luckily the diagnosis was a “blister” under my kneecap — rawness and irritation rather than the carnage I’d envisaged. She gave me ultrasound and stuck some needles in my knee to break it up and showed me a couple resistance-band exercises to strengthen my hip on that side. She also remarked that the rest of my body (i.e. hips and legs) were remarkably balanced and flexible given my chosen hobby… One of the reasons I feared ever going to physio was the expectation of shock and scolding over the state of my body. The doc gave me a bill of good running health, save for my knee. I’ve just gotta take care of that.
04/16/15 – Tunnel – 7km/340m
My first run of any consequence since last Wednesday the 8th. Ran up and down Tunnel from home. Took a switchbacking route through town and up through the Banff Centre to maximize the amount of gently-graded running terrain before hitting the trailhead proper. Stashed my shirt in some shrubs then jogged to the top; took some pics along the broad, open saddle and then ran back down. “No apparent detriment”. I can tell there is something in my knee (hopefully just scar tissue) but it doesn’t feel raw or inflamed. A beautifully warm day running around town partially clothed.
04/17/15 – Stoney Squaw – 1h57m/~15km?/500m
I considered driving to Canmore to bag a more alpine-style summit but decided to enjoy the sunny morning out and back from my apartment instead. Jogged across town, got cat called by Glenn testdriving a car, then started slogging up the old Norquay ski-out which starts at the Juniper. This is a more direct way of reaching the Norquay ski area trailheads than running up the endlessly switchbacking road. I continued to the “summit” of Stoney Squaw (lacking views worthy of being called a “summit”) and then down the backside to the ski area. Here I spotted fresh cougar tracks heading in the opposite direction. I jogged out through the ski area and chatted with a Parks Canada dude who’d just seen a cougar heading up the mountain shortly after I did. I know cougars frequent this little promonitory but didn’t think my jaunt would bring me within such close proximity (or at least, knowledge of proximity — I’ve surely been spied on by a cougar or two before). The slippery slide back down the muddy no-track of the ski-out was epic fun, fell-running style.
I have evolved into a mountain runner from a scrambler; a scrambler from a hiker; and into a hiker from a precocious kid set loose in the wilderness. Though relatively few have heard of mountain running, the idea usually suggests sprinting up a craggy summit and racing back down again as fast as possible. Although this is occasionally the case, mountain running is often a more casual affair that might include a long subalpine traverse on buff singletrack or a lazy jog up a tame, local summit. But if you ask me what characterizes the coolest, most exciting form of mountain running, I would have to say it is summed up by “Skyrunning” — and Skyrunning is characterized by curiosity, the same kind that comes naturally to a precocious kid.
Although Skyrunning is now a brand name for a particularly alpine style of mountain racing born in Europe, its genesis and central concept is simple. Looking up at a great mountain (the bigger, the better) from down in the valley or the center of town, one asks: How fast can I reach the summit and return here again? What is the most aesthetic line I can draw? How can I exalt the majesty of this mountain through the motions of my body? How can I merge myself in this movement so that no movement exists, no mountain and no me? Skyrunning is birthed from the collision of big mountains, alpine trail running skills and a huge heap of curiosity.
In Skyrunning, the town or valley is as important as the mountain summit — it provides context and contrast. The epic thing about Skyrunning isn’t just the alpine running, it’s how the remote, bleak and brash quality of the alpine is bookended between the comforts of civilization within a matter of hours. Kilian’s FKTs on the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc wouldn’t be what they are without his starts or triumphant returns to Cervinia or Chamonix. When I returned to my car at Moraine Lake parking lot after summiting Temple (a trip that takes most people all day) and it wasn’t 10am yet, I cried.
Skyrunning is about creativity and aesthetic, about exploring not just what’s obvious, but what the mountains have to offer. Skyrunning differs from mountain trail running at the outset as it doesn’t concern itself with preexisting trails but naturally occurring routes chosen for their own value, often to achieve a balance between technicality and runnability. Gazing at a map or at mountain ranges for a few hours will cause a complacent mountain runner to start dreaming of circumambulating; entraining; zigzagging; traversing; crossing over the top, then back again; scrambling shit never intended to be climbed in sneakers and short shorts; and last but not least, blasting up and down a mountain in as fast and direct a manner as possible, that’s Skyrunning too.
Lastly, Skyrunning is about alpine character. Skyrunning is defined as inclined running above 2000m but that doesn’t mean jogging up a dirt road in Leadville, CO. Skyrunning is about steep, technical singletrack; ridge running; scree skiing; snowfields; ridge running; hands-on-rock scrambling; via ferrata; boulder-hopping; and definitely lots of ridge running. Many forested trails will take you up to and beyond 2000m, but to me, it isn’t Skyrunning until I burst out above treeline and race across some ridge where the earth meets the sky.
I once saw Skyrunning as the Olympics (or better yet, the X-Games) of this grueling niche sport I happened to fall in love with, with races in exotic locations, in majestic landscapes, which I would never be a part of. Now the Skyrunning Federation exists in Canada, I have already run Canadian Skyrunning events and am presently registered to participate in a Skyrunning race in an exotic location, in a majestic landscape, which typifies its genre entirely. All of this is much for me to be proud and grateful for but this is not what Skyrunning means to me. Skyrunning isn’t about a particular organization or brand, as much as I love what that organization does, and it isn’t about a particular race series in any location in particular. Skyrunning is grassroots, DIY. Skyrunning is about curiosity and discovery. Skyrunning is about some dirtbag kid in short shorts and sneakers looking up at the mountains asking, “How much? How fast? How far?”
I’m proud to be able to call myself a mountain runner, but on my greatest days, I am a Skyrunner.
“No apparent detriment”? Oh, you mean like a sac-full of fluid sloshing around on my kneecap? This week was marked by the appearance of mild knee effusion, probably not so much from running, but from powerslogging thousands of metres vertically with my hands death-gripping my thighs. A strategic recovery was first tempered by denial and not wanting to rest (skills I’m actually getting better at over time), then a visit from Mountain Stride Fitness athlete Sean from Edmonton who was eager to do some peakbagging. He really had to twist my arm on that one. Although there’s zero pain associated with this inflamed knee, it’s obvious I can’t expect to go hard on it without a strong potential for further injury. A couple days sitting around with a bag of ice on my knee and tearing apart my quads and ITBs with a lacrosse ball has already shown improvement and I’m looking forward to givin’ ‘er a test-drive next Wednesday.
Weekly total: 9h36m/43km/3548m
03/30/15 – Sulphur then home – 2h21m/16km/810m
Ran up Sulphur after work, then back home. The fact that I was able to go up Sulphur after work, shirtless, just wearing sneakers and a pair of shorts, while not impossible at any other point, somehow signifies to me that spring is here!
03/31/15 – Ha Ling via Grassi Lakes – 2h19m/13km/1132m
Planned to go up Mount Allan on the last day before the three-month seasonal trail closure but by the time I got to Canmore, the initially crisp, bluebird morning had begun to deteriorate and it seemed I wasn’t going to get very far up Allan before the rain came. I decided to race up Ha Ling Peak via Grassi Lakes (a route I love), with the added spice of assuming I was going to get pummelled by the weather at some point, probably while on the summit. Ran shirtless up to treeline, then donned a light shirt for the final grunt to the top. Watched the dark, fuzzy rainstorm oozing up the valley toward me, devouring the Sundance Range, then Sulphur, then the true summit of Rundle… I free-fell back down the mountain; blahhhhht-ted at some sheep; slid on my ass on ice or slush or something. Narrowly dodged families walking peacefully on the Grassi trail while bounding back to the car at breakneck speed. Made it back to parking lot and started editing an Instagram pic before the first few raindrops landed on my windshield. Fuck yeah.
04/01/15 – Mount Lawrence Grassi – 3h48m/9.8km/1330m
Met up with Sean and his buddy Stu at the Goat Creek parking lot for a trek up Grassi. Moved at a slow but consistent pace to a point just above treeline, then Sean and I made a break for the top despite gale-force winds and stormy weather brooding all around us. Slogged hard for about ten minutes and climbed some great, hard snow on all fours. Almost made the top but comfort dictated we turn back. Gorged ourselves on pizza and beer at the Bear Street Tavern afterwards.
04/02/15 – Tunnel– 1h08m/4.1km/276m
Walked up Tunnel with Sean and Stu. Sean and I are both nursing frail knees so a short jaunt was more than enough. Dressed to run fast and froze my ass off, otherwise a great time all-round.
Continuing with drastic increases in mileage and vert this week to no apparent detriment. I obviously don’t understand the concept of gradually increasing one’s volume; my strategy is rather to panic about a race and start slogging my face off like there’s no tomorrow. So much for the 20km/1000m “rut” I found myself in a couple weeks back; the last few outings have proven that I haven’t lost much of the skill or strength I had going into CCC last summer, and in retrospect I was extremely well prepared for that event, despite my laissez-faire approach. A co-worker and I were discussing the value of things like VO2max and lactate threshold and concluded that it’s easy to make running too complicated for oneself. Running can be as simple or complicated as one wishes — as minimalist as striking out in a pair of sneakers — however, I’ve spent several seasons doing just that and am now looking to get the best performance possible out of this scrawny slogging machine.
Weekly total: 13h53m/94km/5284m
03/22/15 – Tunnel/Hoodoos loop – 2h41m/16km/484m
My easy day. Met Glenn at the Tunnel TH and slogged it to the top. Took a few pics, descended and looped around back then booted out to the Hoodoos viewpoint. Ran back, dropped down towards the river and completed a loop around Tunnel with our headlamps on. Ran to The Banff Centre, fist bumped, then went our respective ways.
03/25/15 – Sulphur x2 + Tunnel/Hoodoos/Tunnel -7h13m/49km/2400m
Had plans to hit up the false peak of Cascade Mountain this morning but the weather remained in a gray, misty state which didn’t make me feel like spending much time above 2500m. I opted to slog up the backside of Sulphur to the top then descended the frontside down to the trailhead where I filled up water at the Hot Springs and headed back the way I came. Ran back up the frontside of Sulphur to the top where I was greeted by a rescue helicopter evacuating even more people who had strayed from the icy trail and gotten lost and cold (this is becoming a weekly occurance on this mountain). I pounded a Builder Bar and sprinted back down the soft yet sufficiently packed snow on the back of the mountain, then home to my apartment.
I switched my sneakers then headed out towards Tunnel, ascending the main trail to the top and descending the precariously steep and forested north shoulder past Tunnel Mountain Rd. to Otter St., then booted out to the Hoodoos viewpoint. Although feeling surprisingly fresh, I was aware of a lack of food in my stomach (or in my bag, for that matter), so I turned around and descended into the Bow River valley, caught the start of the loose goatpath up the SW shoulder of Tunnel, slogged to the top once again, and now definitively famished, stumbled down the main trail with a headlamp on and raced home to make a grilled cheese.
03/27/15 – Sulphur “Tick Tock” – 3h59m/29km/1850m
Ran up to the Sulphur TH, dropped off work clothes at the Hot Springs then jogged up the frontside and tagged Sanson’s Peak. Dropped down the back of the mountain, careening through soft, deep snow with overgrown shrubs snapping at me, to the Sundance Canyon junction, then turned around and reascended slightly softer snow to the top and descended the frontside to work. A beautiful day — the warmest yet this year 🙂
Turning up the volume and reducing the velocity: that’s been the theme of this week. My mindset has shifted to training more concertedly for the demands of the Mont Blanc 80K which is three months away. Lately I’d been stuck in a rut – of only running ~20km and climbing ~1000m during my “long runs” – which I’m glad I broke free from this week with a sufferfest up Rundle followed by Sulphur. Conditions remain unseasonably mild and relatively dry and springlike, save for a recent powder day which made my ascent of Rundle a little more tiring than usual. Weekly total: 83km/4889m vert
03/12/15 – Sulphur – 1h54m/18.4km/870m
Super fast splits; quickish to TH (24m); then, didn’t seem fast but must have been steady and consistent to summit (44m); then a fairly short break on top (4m); then a steady sprint down the trail and back to my apartment (42m). Felt great pre-run as I’d taken the previous couple days off to rest tight ITBs and felt elated afterwards.
03/13/15 – Grotto – 2h11m/6.6km/860m
Should have done nothing, or cross-trained, but took the opportunity to drive to Canmore and scope out the direct trail up Grotto Mountain, which I’ve never done before. It felt cold leaving the car in my short shorts but was soon slogging shirtless up the steep singletrack. The lower part of the trail was good, the upper part was very loose and braided and a combination of factors sent me the signal that today wasn’t the day to bag the summit. I cut my losses and headed down. Loose subalpine terrain like that is fun (or whatever) but not very conducive for race training purposes as I don’t expect to encounter trail (or lack thereof) like that in Chamonix this summer or anywhere else.
03/18/15 – Rundle + Sulphur – 7h14m/39km/2400m
Ran up Rundle trail from home and postholed up the Dragon’s Back to the summit. Snapped a few pics, slammed my knee on a rock buried under deep snow, then stumbled back down the ridge and headed home. Switched into dry shoes and headed up Sulphur. Sulphur slog was labored to say the least. My longest run and most vertical yet this year. Peep the Movescount data for this trip here.
03/20/15 – Tunnel/Hoodoos/Tunnel – 2h29m/19km/759m
Ran up Tunnel via main trail, descended and swung around back and ran rolling singletrack along the bench to Hoodoos viewpoint. Then ran back, dropped down toward the river and caught the start of the loose, steep goatpath that ascends Tunnel’s southwest shoulder. Pounded it hands-on-knees to the top, then descended via the main trail back to town and thence to my apartment.
In August of 2014, I ran and completed CCC, a 101km ultramarathon through the mountains of Italy, Switzerland and France. This race is part of the week-long Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, one of the most popular and prestigious long distance trail-running series in the world. This is my report.
I come rushing in from the dripping rain, grab a bowl of chicken soup and slump onto a wooden bench. I’m cold and wet, tired as shit, and mud is smeared all over the place. It’s been raining for several hours and the trails have turned into little brown creeks burbling down the hillsides. Cows graze silently sentinel to hundreds of headlamped coureurs traversing the ridges surrounding Chamonix, its warmth and comfort radiating upwards from the valley below. I really don’t feel like going back out there, but I’m so close to being done.
“One more climb, eight hundred metres. Then 10K down into town. How hard could it be?”
Race day started August 29, 2014 at 7:30am with a flurry of organized transport: first I took a city bus from Taconnaz — a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Chamonix where I was staying — downtown, then a coach to Courmayeur, Italy. The ride was short and mostly spent inside a tunnel beneath the Mont Blanc massive, this being the primary thoroughfare between these two mountain villages. The bus emerged into the Italian dawn and switchbacked down the hill as I peered around wide-eyed and unthinking, just taking in the enormity of my experience. “You’re here, at CCC, the big race,” I said to myself. “You should be so proud. All that preparation. All that training…”
“Holy fuck. 100 kilometres? 6000 metres of climbing? What the hell did I get myself into?”
I was genuinely concerned with this most fundamental realization as the bus stopped and I got up like everyone else and marched toward the starting area. The energy was intense — more like some kind of dance music festival than the start of a footrace — with booming loudspeakers; announcers and spectators chattering in various languages; news helicopters high in the air and little quadcopters hovering over our heads. The starting line was supposed to be organized by bib number, but there were so many runners and so much activity, I picked a spot halfway in the pack and snuck in. Since my confidence had apparently evaporated during the busride from Chamonix to Courmayeur, my strategy for the present was to run conservatively, run my own race, and not worry about my position or that of anyone around me.
Once the UTMB themesong, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, started to play, a warm feeling welled up inside. I lowered my shades and tried to hide the little tears in my eyes. The stoke was so high it was electric.
Three, two, one…
I trotted through the streets of Courmayeur amid an international array of fifteen-hundred ultramarathoners, my aim being generally not to run too fast. It was inspiring to see so many locals out lining the streets, shouting, “Venga, venga! Bravo!”, clanging cattlebells of all sizes and even old bakery ladies slapping breadknives against their cutting boards. We didn’t spend long in town, however, before departing cozy Courmayeur and beginning the first climb of the day up to Tete de la Tronche.
Here I was rather rudely awakened as over a thousand runners attempted to bottleneck onto the first bits of singletrack trail that this race utilizes in great quantity. “Procession” is the word which characterized the first part of this race as we slowly plodded or sometimes stood at a standstill in a long queue switchbacking up the hill. Though confused, I was equally content to trickle up the first climb of the day at this snail’s pace while, looking back, what took us over two hours should have taken less than half that time and only resulted in me being out there longer, at nighttime, when I was tired and when it was raining. Lesson learned.
Once we reached the top of Tete de la Tronche, the procession opened up and we skirted across wide open ridges with the Italian Aosta Valley falling away to our lefts and a storm-shrouded Mont Blanc brooding to our rights. This is what UTMB was all about. This is why I wanted to run this race in the first place. This is why I came here, to run some motherfuckin’ singletrack on some motherfuckin’ ridge in the sky with some bigass motherfuckin’ mountains in the background.
We descended into Refuge Bertone where I was pleased to discover that what’s called an “aid station” in Europe is actually what we refer to as an “all-you-can-eat buffet” in North America. Cheese, crackers, fresh bread, cookies, nutrition bars, dried meat, soup, chocolate, coffee, tea and more were all for the taking by the hungry runner. Thus, I generally spent way too long in these absurdly comfortable aid stations. Second lesson learned: don’t get distracted by the munchies, Tom!
After Bertone, we began the long, undulating traverse along the Italian flank of Mont Blanc east towards 2500m Grand Col Ferret, Italy’s border with Switzerland. Without any sustained climbs, it was pleasant to cruise along and enjoy the improving scenery and weather. There were lots of enthusiastic spectators throughout every part of this fairly remote course, but as I descended toward Arnuva I passed one who stood out. A little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, with blond ringlets cheered, “Allez! Allez, Tom!” and nonchalantly gave me a high-five as I passed. This moment infused me with emotion — for little kids getting stoked about mountain, even endurance, sports is inspiring — and I continued to milk it for motivation throughout the rest of the race.
Leaving Arnuva, we began the long slog up to 2500m Grand Col Ferret, one of the highest points in the race. I sprinted along the river flats and soon encountered people struggling to ascend the (only) second climb of the day. I trotted up the moderate grade at a pace I might employ on Tunnel or Sulphur Mountains in Banff — hills I run in entirety — then put hands to knees and powerhiked, passing a couple hundred resentful runners along the way. The masochistic quantities of vert I’d put into my body over the summer had prepared me, and standing on top of the high pass overlooking Italian Val d’Aoste on one side and Swiss Valais on the other, I felt fresh and unfazed.
Surprised as I was to see people struggling up the col, I was equally surprised to see others hesitant to move quickly down its extremely runnable backside toward La Fouly. It was here that I experienced my only bout of stomach upset, bolting down a hard-packed gravel trail with me and everything inside me (including a lot of gel) being repeatedly hammered by freefall and then impact. I clasped my fingers and pleaded; looked skywards to the ultrarunning gods and prayed for them to save me. Then as fast as it came, my nausea retreated and it was back to snapping pics and putting one foot in front of the other, in that order.
Leaving Champex, it began to get dark. The temperature was warm but it was drizzling so I made the (perhaps absurd) decision to remove my damp singlet and wear my Gore-Tex shell with no shirt underneath. I did this to preserve my still dry midlayer shirt which I would surely need later when it became colder and wetter. As can be imagined, soon I was damp on the outside with rain and literally dripping with sweat inside my shell, so the waterproof quality of my ~$500 jacket was more or less nullified. Since the race, I’ve reflected on this decision which made me very uncomfortable for the next few hours but ensured I wouldn’t be hypothermic and unable to finish later on.
The sun set as we started the march up to Bovine. No one who has not run a UTMB race — or at least run around these hills after dark — can understand the horror inherent in greeting enormous, munching cow faces grotesquely illuminated by one’s headlamp. The mood was spooky, like some sort of zombie film, with thick mist hanging over the damp soil which hundreds of trail-running sneakers tilled with squishy fart sounds each footstep.
The trail was profoundly wet and rivulets of muddy water followed the path of least resistance wherever it could be found. My descent into Trient thus took on a form of locomotion closer to downhill skiing, or sliding into home-base, than running by any means.
My shoes hit cobblestone and I jogged toward the aid station when I heard someone shout my name. On this side of the world, there was only one person who knew me or my name and I was stoked to see him. Louis Marino, in whose flat I was staying in Chamonix, had been leading a multiday tour around Mont Blanc, and after his clients had wined and dined he waited around in the rain to catch me without knowing for sure that he would.
I stopped and talked with Louis and some drunken farmer (for these aid-stations were lively social events for locals who lived in the semi-remote pastures) while simultaneously toweling dry the inside of my jacket and donning the midlayer shirt I’d preserved until now.
Louis asked how I was feeling and I had to admit I was feeling fine. “Fine?” he said with some skepticism. Not even a little tweak? Strain? Sore spot? He surely wondered which form of hard drug I’d been abusing to get me through this race. Meth? Maybe crack. It was uncanny, and I recognized this, but I felt okay. I was cold, wet, mentally tired and, sure, physically fatigued but for all intents and purposes I felt fine.
“DO WE HAVE A TOM AMARAL IN THE CROWD?” I then heard over the loudspeakers.
For the second time in twenty minutes, my head perked up like a deer in highbeams. Apparently, two people in Europe knew my name. I lifted my hand sheepishly.
“HEY TOM, THIS ONE IS FOR YOU!” said the announcer, then this came on:
The aid tent at Vallorcine was total and utter carnage, with runners sprawled everywhere… Some were slumped head down on the tables surrounded by food from the checkpoint, clearly having lost the battle against tiredness. — Hong Kong Trail Runner
Around 1:30am, I ripped down into Vallorcine like some sort of crazed mountain-running automaton, grabbed a bowl of chicken soup and slumped down onto a wooden bench. I crushed one bowl of soup, then another, shivering, still dressed in shorts. There was only a comparatively small amount left in the race. From here, I had an 850m climb to the top of Tete aux Vents on the Aiguilles Rouges then an eleven kilometre descent into downtown Chamonix. Eight-hundred metres is nothing, I reasoned. I can climb eight-hundred metres in my sleep. In the peak of summer, if I only climb eight hundred metres in a day, I come home all depressed and bummed because I only climbed eight-hundred metres that day. But this climb was the CLIMB FROM HELL.
The stumble up Tete aux Vents/Flegere was hideous. There was a lot of cursing; that last hill is sadistic and makes anything else I’ve ever done in a race pale in comparison of difficulty. – Anton Krupicka
By this point, it was three in the morning. Rain had been falling for over six hours. I’d been awake for nearly twenty-four and running for eighteen. This last climb of CCC — and UTMB — was some of the steepest and rockiest slogging (that isn’t technically “scrambling”) I’ve ever encountered, a borderline third-class staircase of jagged stone steps meandering steeply up the mountain and into the dark.
Once we topped out and passed the Tete aux Vents checkpoint (two guys wandering around with a barcode scanner in the dark), I incorrectly assumed (wishfully thought?) that we were on our way back to Chamonix. In reality, we still had yet to hit the final aid-station, Flegere. The long, slippery traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges was taking so much longer than expected that I’d lost track of where I was or how close I was to being done. I simply kept my eyes locked on the trail, knees high and feet moving. The tediousness of watching the ground was tempered by sublimity in the sky, however: an temperature inversion caused the cloud cover to descend into the valley, revealing the lofty, white summit of Mont Blanc standing guard beneath a canopy of stars.
Finally we hit Flegere and I sat there silently, nursing a final bowl of soup. “Okay, that climb was a little harder than expected,” I said. “But now it’s only 10K down into town. How hard can it be?”
Those cruel and sadistic UTMB course designers, they knew what they were doing when they picked this route. They knew the CCC runners would be suffering: cold, wet, tired and hungry, lacking coordination and wanting desperately to finish. UTMB runners would be the same, only worse. They might have selected some soft, cruisy, runnable trail for the last ten kilometres of this race, something like any number of other trails utilized during UTMB. But no, they singularly opted for the most frustratingly rooty, rocky, almost-runnable trail possible.
Back home in Banff, my girlfriend and others followed along online: “Ten kilometres to go, how hard can it be?” they wondered. As painful as the last ten kilometres were for me stumbling down from the top of Flegere, they were surely as painful for my friends staring at my progress halted on their computer screens. When things began to take longer than expected, they speculated that I was injured or walking, which is precisely what I was doing though I wanted nothing more than to be bounding along gracefully like some agile Chamois.
After what felt like an eternity of downhill hiking (something I hate on a good day), the trail mellowed, grew a little wider and allowed me to stretch out my legs and actually run. When I finally spotted the texture of drab concrete lit by the dull, orange glow of a streetlamp, I thought it was a mirage. “Finally!” I gasped cathartically as the rubber on my sneakers left the dirt and met the road. Running on pavement had never felt so good before.
Once off the trail, I had only a few kilometres left to run through the familiar streets of downtown Chamonix. I jogged along, nearing the centre of town. It was six in the morning and everything was quiet. I’d been on the move for twenty-one hours and awake for over a full day. The glow of a new morning was beginning to appear, I was somewhat disoriented and wasn’t really sure what day it was. But here I was at the finale of an event I’d variably lusted after and dreaded; anticipated and trained for; cursed and reviled – the whole spectrum of every emotion – and now it was all over.
Most important to me was the feeling of many years of hard work being examined and me passing the test. I’ve always considered the mountains an arena for challenging oneself, but here I’d travelled to a strange place and set my blend of Canadian Rockies mountain-running against an altogether different grindstone. Summers spent wandering aimlessly in the Yukon, then scrambling in the Rockies in a perpetually lighter and faster manner, had developed into a mature state. The feedback loop I had nurtured between me and my home mountains — the lessons I`d learnt and the machine that had been chiseled out of continual contact with them — was proven to be something that could be exported and successfully applied to epic mountain ranges elsewhere in the world.
I crossed the finish line looking like the embodiment of good running form, then hobbled over to collect my finisher vest – a teal Polartec fleece vest I’ll probably never wear, but of which I’m goddamn proud. I looked back wistfully at the finishing area and iconic UTMB arch like a final glance to a lover one will never see again, then shuffled off alone. Sidewalks normally inundated were vacant and void, save for me in my filthy trail-running garb. I couldn’t wait to brew up some Lavazza, hop in the shower and hit some of that hash I got off that English kid, but I was going to have to find a way home first.
I guess I could run home; it’s only ten kilometres. How hard could it be?
Gear: The following is a list of gear that I wore or carried during the race. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc races, including CCC, require several items of mandatory equipment be carried at all times.
Arcteryx wool cap
Mountain Stride Fitness singlet
Arcteryx Phase base upper (utilized as a midlayer shirt)