Ultra Trail Mont Blanc TDS race

The TDS race is a 146km race on the more mountainous trails around Mont Blanc than the normal UTMB route, and has an ascent of 9,100 metres. For this reason it is widely regarded as a harder race than the UTMB, even though it is shorter, and usually has a forty percent DNF rate.

It was gaining points at a few Scottish and English ultras that gave me the idea of entering the UTMB CCC race in 2019. It was a tough 100km race with 6,000 metres ascent and it was great to finish such a fantastic event. The views were stunning and I was told they were just as good on the other side of the route around Mont Blanc by a race organiser. With this I really wanted to try the TDS as I had enough points to enter it and it went around the other side of Mont Blanc than the CCC, although off the normal UTMB route as mentioned.

I was due to run the TDS in 2020 but because of the lock-downs over this period it didn’t take place. I could have taken part in the 2021 TDS but because of travel issues still remaining I put it off till now. Tragically there was a fatality in 2021. A Czech runner fell coming down one of the more technical parts of the trail at Passeur de Pralognan (Highest point). The race was stopped to anybody who was behind his position of just 150, so over a 90 percent DNF rate.

After being lucky enough to get a place in the race and the years passing over this time, it always felt like something ages away. When the time came to get all my mandatory kit packed and generally getting ready for the trip I did over stress the race a bit knowing it was going to be a big challenge. I was very pleased to finally stuff everything I needed to take on the run in my Salomon 12 litre race vest, even though it was bulging at the seams. I don’t know how other runners can pack it all into such small packs?

I got an EasyJet flight to Geneva and got picked up by Mountain Dropoffs like I did in 2019. For the CCC race I stayed at a camp-site, but I booked a bed in a dorm in Chamonix Lodge this time. It was really great but not very good for getting any sleep. I tried to sleep the day before the race but this wasn’t possible. I’d never run a two nighter before and knew this would be an issue as the race started at midnight in Courmayeur in Italy. I had booked the 21:30 bus and there was some confusion about pick up points, but I finally managed to find out that the pick up for the race for later buses had been changed to Grepon car-park in Chamonix. It was quite a short drive to the start where we dropped off our bags for the one drop-back point in Beaufort, and the end in Chamonix. There was then a long wait at a roundabout in Courmayeur before setting off up to the start area.

At the start there was the usual lively music, Boney M’s Rasputin being the one I remember most, then a very long fun 1,600 runner Mexican wave down the full race start from the back to the front, then we were off! It was during the day I started the CCC in 2019. Starting at midnight was far more atmospheric running through the small streets and lanes of Courmayeur which still had a very large crowd support to cheer us off. After heading out of town we were right into a steep climb up Arete du Mont-Favre at 2,417 metres. The head torches looked great zig zagging up the mountain for miles. I remember reading that the second check point was quite tight for cut off time (first check point had no cut off time), so I kept going as fast as I could without burning myself out at the start. I had printed out a page showing the cut off times and right enough, it was going to be close for making CP2, but I got there and through with just a quick top up of water. We headed off into a valley, but it wasn’t long till the next big climb up Col Chavannes 2,592 metres. Although it was super steep, I quite enjoyed the fast trek up as we were still quite close together in a long line zig zagging up. We could hear a woman shouting “Bravo, bravo, woohoo, woohoo!” endlessly. At first I thought who has the energy to shout that so many times being a runner, but I soon realised it was a marshal cheering us on from the top at around 4:00am. A grumpy guy behind me said ‘Shut the f*** up”, I replied to him “ I want some of what she has had!”. When eventually passing her at the top, I gave her a thumbs up and said “Bravo!” I would normally have taken a photo of the trig point as they look great, but it was too busy. It was still very dark as we headed down this very runnable trail and I was very pleased with my new Alpkit Qark head torch. I now had to get to CP3 at Col du Petit St Bernard by 8:30. It was great seeing the dawn begin to break as I ran towards the next mountains. At CP3 I had a little food and topped up water, then headed off into the nicely cool valley. The forecast was to be very hot today at around 32 degrees or so. They had not triggered the hot weather kit list, but I had taken it anyway as it was going to be very hot for a Scottish runner. This was to be able to carry two litres of water and have a Sahara cap (baseball cap that has material down over your neck) and sunglasses.

With it now being early morning I started to get great views back up to the mountains we had come from and stopped to take a few photos while I got my jacket off. The views were really stunning and the runners were much more spread out now. As I headed towards St Germain and Seez before CP4 I started to feel the heat. When I got to Seez I thought it may be CP4, but realised I had a few miles to go. I passed a spring with a water trough and dunked my head in it, it was so good to cool down. Bourge St Maurice (CP4) was quite a big town and we went to a large hall to top up water and get a little food. I was quite worried about cut off times, so I didn’t stay long. It was now about 10:45 as we headed up another very steep climb towards Fort de la Platice. It was almost 45 degrees ascent which went on forever! I had to stop for breath quite regularly, but so had everybody else. The heat was hard but there was a good pay off with the totally spectacular views looking down to the town which was surrounded by massive mountains. I got a message on my phone from Jan which really helped on this very tough section. Eventually we got to the top. I had filled up my 2 litre bladder pack at Seez just before Bourge St Maurice, so thought I didn’t need to do it at CP4. I had however drank lots getting up the mountain in the heat! When we eventually got to the top, the aid station had ran out of water! This was really bad as we now had the highest point to get to at 2,567 metres at Passeur de Pralognan. I managed to get a little of the last of the water and had three cups of coke as they had lots of that.

It was now very hot and we set off down a very runnable trail. It wasn’t long till we were ascending Passeur de Pralognan though, and it took ages to get up to the top. I was quite worried about how little water I had, so was just taking small sips. There were runners crashed out all over this section, lying baking in the heat. I thought you really can’t crash out here as there’s no bus pick ups for ages, and they’ll have to get up and head on later when they are more dehydrated. Jan sent me a text to be careful coming down from the top as it looked really steep and it was the section the Czech runner had fallen at last year. There was lots of information about the course on the UTMB live site. We were greeted by a friendly woman handing out more coke at the top. I then got a message on my phone from Juliane giving me encouragement for the race which cheered me up after such a hard climb. We were now at the highest point of the race at Passeur de Pralognan. I took one look down and knew it was time to put away the running poles as I’d need both hands for gripping onto the chains and ropes placed there for descending. I really liked this section and found it a fun scramble down. It was quite a job getting past people on thin trails at points, especially when some runners were still using their running poles where it was too technical to be of any use and slowing them down.

At the bottom there were fantastic views up the valley with snow covered mountains in the distance. It took some time to get to CP5 from here, even though it was an easy trail. It was great to hear there would be proper provisions at Cormet de Roselend. I topped up my water fully here and had some noodle soup. I tried to get away again as quickly as possible and headed off at around 16:45ish. I remember a few river crossings next and it was obvious my feet were going to get a bit wet anyway, so I gave them a cold soak in the water which felt great. There was some further mountains to get over next but not quite as hard as the last few. There was a spectacular gorge later on with a fast flowing river. I thought I’d like to take a photo, but my phone was charging in my pocket, so I headed on just stopping for a quick look. There was an easy downhill section next before crossing another river to CP6 at La Gittaz. There were a lot of runners here topping up water and having something to eat before heading off up Entre Deux Nants at 2,100 metres. It was hear I had to get my jacket and gloves on again which I was quickly glad of as the top was a bit chilly. The route was fantastically marked by yellow reflective tape which our head torches picked up brilliantly. There was a group of runners having a rest at the top, but I kept on going into the dark.

I’m not really into night running as it’s the views that keep me going. I had taken my gels which were good for perking me up along the way. The next mountain was Pas d’Outray at 2,181 metres. It took ages to get to the top and the only point in the route where I had to search a bit for the trail markings in one section. This was the roughest ground at the top, lots of big stones like a Munro, but easy to get over. I could see the head torches going up and over the hills in front which looked great. I was still in quite positive spirits as we started the descent and was pleased to see CP6 at Beaufort below. It however took two hours to get down and the trail was a relentless zig zag down the mountain which was fine at first. It then however went into the forest section where it turned into an endless black route style mountain bike trail which was no fun to run on. With seeing Beaufort looking close I had put off having an energy bar or gel for a while as I was thinking of the main meal there which was the only point on the race there was one. This was my undoing as with it taking ages to get down this really steep section of around 1,440 metres, I started to really feel tired and zoned out a bit, I quickly come back thinking I’ve been here before! I instantly remembered a race report from an ultra running friend who had this feeling while doing the Spine Race. With his sleep deprivation he ended up having an argument with someone who wasn’t there, before heading off in the wrong direction as he was sure he knew the way when he didn’t. His race did not end well! It was good to have a warning about this and I headed on. My watch ran out of battery shortly after, quickly proceeded by my head torch which had a very dramatic cut out with no dimming beforehand. I knew where my second torch was, so I quickly changed the battery in my new one. I remember thinking how did I get through the CCC race with this old head torch, it was very dim in comparison. This section really was a chore and I went from positive to negative quite quickly. When a runner is behind you with a head torch pointing towards you in front, you see their glow and your own silhouette in front of you. This had obviously happened a lot through the night. What made me think I was going to have to be careful was at one point I saw two demand dragon silhouettes flying above each of my shoulders! Okay then, a bit trippy! I just carried on knowing I just needed some sleep. Unfortunately I had gone right off my electrolytes which had caffeine in them early in the race and was also right off sweet food which I’ve never had before. I was just having strait water and a few gels.

When I finally got into Beaufort I felt really knackered and on a bit of a downer. I sat down to have the pasta I had been looking forward to and could hardly keep it down. With me never having this happen before, it was a real shock and I just thought, if I can’t eat I’ll not be able to finish the next 30 miles. This was the first time in the race I had added CP distances together as I always try to avoid doing this to stay positive. I was into Beaufort CP7 with over an hour to spare, so I should have just rested a bit. Unfortunately I went to ask if there was buses back to Chamonix as I had heard there was from there, and just went through with it there and then, without waiting to see if I’d feel any better later. I went to crash out on one of the plastic covered mattresses and got woken for the 4:30am bus back to Chamonix.

Although I am disappointed about not finishing I knew it would be a very tough race. I’m pleased to have done two thirds of it and I’ll have better idea of what to expect if I get the chance to do it again. I’d still love to finish the other side of Mont Blanc from the CCC race. The views are really outstanding.

After getting back to Chamonix Lodge I had a long sleep and then went down to the centre to cheer the runners in. It was hard to see a couple of people I recognised from the course coming in, knowing if I had stayed in I would be passing the finish line now. On the positive side, with not doing the last 30 miles, my legs were great for climbing the Grand Balcon Nord above Chamonix the next day. This was a spectacular trail up 5,400 metre ascent over 15 miles, which took you high above Chamonix and right next to the glaciers. I had a chat with another few hikers on route and then had a beer at the Aiguille du Midi cable car stop. There was a fantastic shop with tables below the glaciers. It took some time to get down but the views were brilliant and it was an easy trail.

DNF at Beaufort CP7. 60 miles and 22,400 metres ascent (73,491 feet). 25 hours 49 minutes.
Had an extra hour and ten minutes before cut off time at that CP and my legs were fine.

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2 comments on Ultra Trail Mont Blanc TDS race

  1. Jan says:

    Well done on an epic attempt at an incredibly tough race! I think if I’d been seeing dragons I’d have called it a day too! It was the right decision at the time, and you got another epic trek out of the trip you’d not have been able to do otherwise. Very proud of you.

  2. David Cairns says:

    Mark, what an epic description of your adventure and the photos are magnificent. Hands up, I can’t relate to how you guys cope with these events, both huysically and pschologically. I did accompany Tim Doyle on his “Southern Upland” run (quite a few years ago now I hasten to add) and have witnessed the effects of sleep deprivation you describe with associated halucination and confusion, a ime out would no doubt have helped but Tim did have a back-up team which in the race you didn’t have the benefit of. Notwithstanding the dissapointment you willhopefully realise the enormity of the challenge you undertook and feel proud of your endeavours. Well done young man.

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