Ultra Trail Mont Blanc TDS Race 2023.
From Courmayour in Italy to Chamonix in France.
Normally 145km (90 miles) but extended with bad weather route to 153km (95 miles).
9,300 metres ascent (30,512 feet).
Finishing time: 43 hours 55 minutes and 52 seconds.
Runners: 1649. DNFs: 651. Finishers: 998.
There’s quite a lot to organise before heading to Chamonix, accommodation being the main priority as it’s a very expensive town, and if you’re not quick, affordable places will be impossible to find. I ran the TDS race last year and the CCC in 2019, so knew I had to get things booked quickly. Even with this I missed out on getting the Chamonix Lodge hostel I stayed in last year. I was however just in time to get one of the last beds in Chalet-Gite Chamoniard Volant Hostel. This was a big relief as you can cook your own meals in these hostels and they are very friendly with lots of good chat with runners and travellers from all around the word.
I had great weather for the CCC in 2019 and managed to finish. It was the stunning Alpine views that made me come back for more. The reason I went back to run the TDS is because I had a DNF last year. It was a combination of it being 31 degrees during the day, and the forecast for it to be even hotter the next day. I also felt nauseous two thirds of the way round at 2:00am in the woods before check point 7 at Beaufort. I had my first hallucination while running there on the second night. When somebody is running behind you in the dark with a stronger head torch, you see your silhouette in front of you. This particular time I also saw silhouettes of dragons, one on each of my shoulders! There were runners resting looking scorched in the mid day sun up the mountains earlier in the day, and I didn’t want to be in that state in the middle of nowhere with no bus transport back. I had given it a good shot and had covered 100K out of the 145K and around 6,000 metres ascent out of the 9,100 metres (Normal route, bad weather route is longer and a bit more elevation). I thought it safer to take the bus back to Chamonix from the main check point at Beaufort.
My flight out from Edinburgh was a very early 7:00am, so I had to be there for 5:00am to get through security etc. I didn’t sleep too great through the week, so I was quite tired when I arrived in Chamonix. I had booked Mountain Drop Offs to take me in a shared mini van from Geneva airport to my accommodation. This worked like clockwork. A brilliant firm I’d highly recommend.
I arrived on the Sunday, which gave me time to go down to the event village and pick up my race bib that was booked between 2:00 and 4:00. My running bag was that big they didn’t do a kit check. I found from previous races I just can’t fit what I need in a small running vest without it bursting at the seams, I’m much better running with a bigger running pack I can get access to everything quickly. This worked well for me at the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 100K race earlier in the summer, so I was okay with this.
Chalet-Gite Chamoniard Volant Hostel was a lot more basic than Chamonix Lodge that I stayed in last year. It didn’t have the USB ports for charging my phone, I just expected them to have this as Chamonix Lodge had them in your room. I looked round Chamonix for a French adapter when I went into town for water, but had no luck finding one. I had taken two battery charger packs, so wasn’t too worried about having no phone battery on the trails.
I was sharing the room with an Indian guy, an Australian girl and a guy I’m not sure where he was from as he didn’t speak English, he was in the bunk below. I tried to get an early night to top up my sleep before the race, but knew this would be a challenge in a hostel. I however did expect to get some sleep with ear plugs during the night. Unfortunately the guy in the bunk below kept juddering the bed throughout the hole night, waking me up about three times, I eventually realised I was going to get next to no sleep before a mountain race involving running through two nights! I did eventually ask the guy to stop shaking the bed, but it was too late for proper sleep by then. I headed down to have my porridge in the kitchen dinning room area. I felt even more tired than I did before going to bed the previous night. I was worried this could result in a DNF through not being able to stay awake on the run. I spoke with a Swedish guy who said there was a lot of snoring in his dorm, but as he was the closest to the guy snoring he said, it was his responsibility to wake him and tell him to stop snoring. I then felt very British about me just putting up with the guy juddering the bed all night long.
The race was to start at 23:50 on Monday, so I had a lot of time to spare. I had to go back into town for more water as the hostel water was disgusting. It was a pity the UTMB village wasn’t up and running yet, they were still constructing it. It was all set up by this time last year. I took a long walk down to the car park where I would get my booked bus to the start line in Courmayour. I wanted to know how long it would take me to walk down there that evening. I didn’t hang around after as I wanted to at least rest my legs before the race in bed.
I headed down for my booked time of 21:45 for the bus. There had been a landslide on a major road in the area which resulted in extra traffic being diverted through the main road to Courmayour. UTMB buses had priority but it still held things up. This caused a long wait at the start line. We put our drop bags in for the main Beaufort check point pick up on arrival at Courmayour. It was quite the festival atmosphere at the start, but it soon became quite a drag as we waited about an hour past the official start time. After sitting on the road for ages, the time had finally come to start heading off.
It’s quite chaotic at the start as everybody tries to make good time early on to avoid the bottlenecks before the first couple of check points. The locals and runners’ friends and family were all out cheering us on and it’s quite an experience, especially at night with it now being almost 1:00am. I got quite a fright when a woman came running back the way she had come! I had to put my arms out to avoid a full collision. She must have dropped something? A suicidal decision when everybody is moving quite quickly and so tightly packed through the little streets.
I was quite pleased with my pace, not fast but a bit better than last year I thought, and I didn’t feel too tired from lack of sleep. It took a while to get out of town and then we were right into a big climb up to the first check point at Checrouit – Maison Vieille. The cold weather running kit had been made mandatory the day before the race, so I had started the race in my running tights and full waterproof jacket and trousers. I soon had to stop and get my gloves on, then stop again to put on the glove liners too as it was really cold and lashing with rain! I was very pleased I had packed everything I needed and could not believe how small most of the runners bags were. There’s no way full kit requirements could fit in many of them.
The temperature around Chamonix the week before had been 36 degrees! I was very worried about this, so I was pleased to run in proper Scottish weather for the first night and day, and not bake like last year! I got all the views over the first 100K last year and the great thing was the weather was to be good on Wednesday, covering the area I didn’t do.
Onwards and upwards in the lashing rain. We were soon in snow…… snow in France in August! So glad I had good gloves and proper waterproof mitt liners. I found out later from the UTMB site that it was -5 up the mountains. I passed the first check point which is very busy and hard to get anything as so many runners stop here. I was glad I didn’t need anything and made a dash for check point 2 which had the first cut off time of 3:30, now 4:30. With the delay to the race all the times were added to by one hour. I remembered from last year that this was a tight cut off and I’d best keep going as quick as possible. The route was muddy with so many runners churning it up. Not bad to run on at this stage though. My polls kept getting trod on my other runners passing here and there. I was glad I’d taken my mountain trail ones, rather than my slightly lighter running ones. The reason was that I had a problem with one of the polls which needed some WD-40 to sometimes get it to work, something I wasn’t going to pack in my back pack. Anyway, they were more sturdy for the mountains. The next few hours were quite harsh in the cold rain, but I was well wrapped up and feeling good. I remember lots of zig zagging up and down trails in the night here. The hundreds of head torches looking great in the dark all the way up the mountains ahead. It was great when we were climbing up to Col Chavannes at 2,591 metres elevation. I heard the very enthusiastic “Allez allez!” over and over again that I remembered from last year. This is a proper mountain with a great trig point. I got my bib scanned here and then quickly headed down towards the valley. With the race being delayed by an hour, dawn had arrived earlier on route than last year, and I was treated to a stunning Alpine view to my left of massive mountain peaks covered in snow, and to my right, mountain peaks poking up through the thick mist bellow them. I wanted to stop and take a photograph, but my camera was in my bag and I was worried about check point 3’s cut off time at Col du Petit St Bernard. This long stretch of trail was quite runnable and we had all opened out a bit after Col Chavannes. When I arrived at check point 3 they had some great meat and biscuits here, the only check point that I thought the food was any good at. I think a lot of the better food had been scoffed by the faster runners later on in the course. There was mostly just soup made from stock cubes and really terrible thin noodles left with some okay biscuits and little cubes of cheese. Very poor selection for such a big race. I was glad I’d taken a lot of gels and my energy bars.
It was roughly mid day now and it was raining heavy again. Some of the official race photos are quite comical how drenched we all were. I couldn’t download them though as I wasn’t in them. After filling up my water bottles and eating a little I headed off on a very undulating section. It started to get more muddy as we went over various hills and some very nice small bridges. At many points there were very noisy cows with the Swiss style massive bells on them. We weren’t in Switzerland though, the TDS coveres just Italy and France on the west side of Mont Blanc. At one pont a few of us ended up stuck in amongst a massive herd of cows. They were mooing very loudly but didn’t appear to be annoyed by us. The noise of the bells was quite brilliant! I was quite pleased to get away from them though as the memory of being surrounded by cows in Yorkshire on my longest training run after doing the Three Peaks there was not so relaxed. I had to dash out of the field on a section of the Ribble Way during the night. Shortly after these Yorkshire cows I got charged by a bull in a field about a mile down river from them, he was quickly joined by another three or four bulls who appeared out of the dark making tremendous angry mooing noises just after I was able to jump up onto higher ground away from the first bull! It was about 1:00am after my long three peak run during the day, so quite a scary return journey. I’ll be avoiding the Yorkshire Ribble Way from now on.
Back to the TDS. It was a very heathery steep climb out of the valley and it took longer to get to than I remembered from last year. It was great to get out of the very muddy trail below and I eventually set off down a much firmer under foot section. There was however a very steep descent down towards the woods before crossing a river which was also very muddy and slippery. There are some fantastic views of the hills we had just come down from here. I took a quick photo before heading up into the woods. I could tell I was getting quite tired, my legs were fine though. I remember getting a shock when I was getting a gel from my bag as I was running past a guy. I suddenly noticed a massive ditch to the left of me which would have been a bad fall. It was important to keep focussed as it can be very dangerous in parts. There were fantastic views of the valley and mountains on our left as we gradually made our descent down this great open trail section towards Seez, just before one of the main towns, Bourg St Maurice at CP4.
We passed an old water wheel before going past a water trough that was fantastic to dip my head in to cool down. Now it was daytime, it wasn’t cold, just very wet. I quickly got some water at Seez and knew I had to be quick to make it to CP4 before the cut off time. From here it was running from one side of Bourg St Maurice to the other, through parks and streets. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. By the time I got some water and had some of the soup, I left with one minute to spare. That was too close! I spent a few minutes getting my bag sorted out, then headed down through the town for a bit till the next hilly section. This was very steep and hard going. Quite a beautiful wooded section with some great views. This part of the route had a diversion away from the highest point of the race at Passeur de Pralognan, which is at 2,563 metres elevation. This was because of the bad weather warning. Unfortunately in 2020 a Czech runner fell from the scrambling down rocky section there in bad weather and died from his injuries. I did this section last year in good weather and it was one of my favourite parts of the race, but I wasn’t too disappointed about this as I saw it in great sunshine last year and we were seeing a different stretch of trail now. There was a little bit we ran along a road section but it still had stunning mountains on each side of us. I don’t think any elevation was lost with the diversion route, I think 200 metres extra. There was a large aid station at CP5 at Cormet de Roselend. I stopped here for a little while to get a coffee, filled up water bottles and had some of the quite horrible soup. I was pleased the check point was still quite full when I left, which meant I had made up some time over other runners. It was very steep from here on in up to Col de la Sauce at 2,311 metres elevation.
Soon there was a lot of snow around again and it was quite boggy in some parts. I stopped to take a photo of a couple of runners on their phone and they took one of me on my phone at the trig point. It was quite impressive in the snow and mist. At that point other runners stopped and wanted me to take their photo, but started to take ages, so I just had to say I’m off. It was very slippery in the thick mud on the descent and I was very pleased to finally get to the bottom of the mountain as I was falling all over the place and covered in mud and got very annoying with quite a lot of swearing! There was a large river here that we crossed before going along it and up a very rocky section. I was very pleased that the huge gorge section with the very steep drop to the right into the river below was not one of the parts lost in the bad weather diversion. Picture below looking back.
I remembered this from last year. I had my phone in my bag then and I was wanting to get a photo of it this year. One of the best parts of the route! It wasn’t as great as last year in the very hot sunshine, but much better to run in and still brilliant. After taking a few shots I headed along and looked down to the valley below where CP6 was at La Gittaz. This was also a big food station and I still felt fine here.
I could still stomach the soup a bit and had some bread before heading off up the mountain into the start of the next night. I got speaking to a French guy for a short stretch but it really wasn’t that easy to chat with people with the language barrier on such an international race. It was quite cold again but I was well wrapped up. The nights are the hardest to run through as there’s no views to keep you going and it seams to take for ever to run through it. I knew that if I kept going, all would be fine when I eventually saw the dawn again.
My head torch was still good after last night and I clambered up the mountain. This was a long rugged section up Pas d’ Outray at 2,178 metres elevation. I was very worried by the thick mist that came down over this high section as the weather was still bad. It made seeing the markers very hard as my torch wasn’t picking them up. It was easy last year in good weather. Most of the other runners had stronger head torches and I found myself having to go with where I saw a head torch ahead of me. Not the best as I knew I didn’t have enough spare time to take a wrong turn. I was really having to move fast to keep up with some runners with better torches but knew everything was fine as I saw the markers as I passed. This went on for quite some time. My torch suddenly cut out, going from on to nothing as the battery had run out. I stopped to get my second torch out which should have been fine but it was really dim and hard to see. I definitely charged it before the trip, so didn’t know why this had happened. I was running with it in my hand and keeping it low to the ground to see. This was ridiculous and I was so pleased I did take a third torch. It turned out my old torch which I had to take to show I had spare batteries for one was really not that bad and all was fine again. Quite a relief! After forever running about in the dark in the mist I was finally descending towards CP7 at Beaufort. There’s a 1,370 metre descent to it though and it takes ages in the dark woods. Since I could see the town lights from high up last year it gave me a false sense of getting there soon and I forgot to fuel up as I went down the endless forest trail which was like a black route bike track and very hard going. Just like last year here I started to feel nauseous. Thinking about last year I thought I just needed an energy bar. Just after finishing it though I retched and was horrified to do a massive projectile vomit! I retched again and the same happened, then again!!! This has never happened to me before and it was quite shocking. I did however feel a bit better after and managed to have a gel. I set off down the creepy woods. There was a very strange sight ahead of me. I was sure I was seeing it and it wasn’t a hallucination like last year. As I got a bit closer it was a runner who had luminous lights on his back which made him look like a big spider as his arms and legs moved…… brilliant! A bit further on and there was the figure of a woman just standing at the side of the trail. She had a cloth over her head and it looked like two slits cut in it which looked like creepy eyes. I quickly passed her as she was freaking me out a bit, sure she was just a runner having a rest though. Those woods are not right! I eventually made it down to the Beaufort CP7. My stomach was quite sore from the violent retching and I managed to get some milk which helped a little. I had an hour before cut off here which was great after the mist in the mountain above. I however felt very rough. I picked up my drop bag which was dropped off at the start to be picked up here. It was great as I had lots of caffeine gels in it. I thought I’ll rest for half an hour and have some pasta, the only aid station with a main meal. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to eat hardly any of it. I used up the full hour there in the end, but was determined to carry on and not duck out here as I’d regret it so much later.
I headed out at the last moment and was off again into the night. I was now worried about cut off times again, so made an effort to pass a few runners as the route went up a long wooded trail and quite quickly to the next aid station at CP8 at Hauteluce. The four miles up through the forest went very quickly, so I must have been really motivated after cutting it fine leaving Beaufort. I didn’t hang around long at Hauteluce but there were a lot of runners there when I left. It was now dawn and I was looking forward to all the views as the weather had taken a dramatic turn for the better. There was a long slog up Mont de Vores at 2,062 metres elevation. I passed a field full of cows with huge mountains in the background. There was a large trig point at the top and an aid station was a little further along. There was some bread, cheese and soup. My stomach was still quite sore, so I had very little to eat, but enjoyed a tea. The marshals were totally brilliant like they had been all along the race. I headed off towards Col Du Joly which was 5 miles along the mountain tops from here. This section was churned up mud that had quite a bit of cow poo mixed in and went on for ever!
I had to just fast trek it as I was slipping all the time and fell over twice! With this it took ages to get to Col du Joly and even got stuck behind a cow on a very thin part of the trail with bushes on each side. I had trouble running at this point as my stomach was sore when I tried. I got speaking to a guy from Bradford later in this section. After all this we had however got to the check point with plenty time to spare. I looked at my watch though and realised the last section had taken an age to get through, with all the mud and lack of proper running, so I started to worry it may not be as easy to make cut offs if I got hit with further sections like that. I had a coffee at the Col de Joly CP9 and headed towards Notre Dame de la Gorge. This turned out to be quite an undertaking to get down, but I was quite pleased with my footwork hopping from rock to tree route etc. as I went. It took a while but I was then off to Les Contamines at CP10.
This section was very runnable through an urban area taking me along to the large town which was quite beautiful. I got scanned automatically as I entered the large tent. The marshals were great and wanted me to stay longer to eat more. I said I was worried about time and just grabbed a couple of bits of cake which was very good and filled a water bottle. I had to ask directions from a marshal as I left who was very helpful. I was off up a very steep suburban small road passing lots of modern wooden large houses built in the traditional Alpine style. It was quite hot now as it was after mid day. I had to stop and take off my waterproof trousers and jacket. The weather was really good now which made for fantastic views. This steep section went on for a very long time, I was soon out of the town and in the woods. It then got quite rocky as the route descended down Chakets du Truc. I saw a lot of runners coming back past me, so I thought we had to get to a check point and turn back and head somewhere else along the trail. This worried me a lot as the descent was very steep and I didn’t think I’d have time to get back out in time for the next cut off time. Thankfully I spoke with an Italian runner who pointed up to this really high ridge and said we’re heading up there and down the other side.
This was great we didn’t have to head out the way we came as the other runners I saw must not have been part of the race. However it looked like quite a climb and I wasn’t any more confident about being up there in time. I also realised I hadn’t filled up enough of my water bottles as it was quite hot now and it was quite a stretch to the next check point. I was very pleased to notice a small trickle of very clean looking water coming out from the mountain, so filled up two bottles half way up the tough climb to Col de Tricot. When I reached the top there was a great French guy who was a marshal. He said to me as we all had our names on our bib numbers “Mark, if you want to finish, don’t stop!”, then repeated it with some urgency. This actually picked me up really well as I thought there still must be hope to make it. I followed the markers along this quite thin ridge, I had to take a few seconds to look at the view as I dashed along the top as the views were fantastic, looking down on both sides at beautiful Alpine scenery in the sun. I was running with a few other people on this section which made it good to keep motivated. I was really surprised my footwork was reasonably quick as I dashed from stone to stone on the very steep descent. There was then a massive waterfall crashing down on the right of this thin cable bridge with wooden slats. The guy in front was going really slow here and I wished he’d get a move on.
After getting to the other side there was a lot of undulating hills before making it to Bellevue before the new 18:30 cut off. I made it and thought now things may be okay! Off down to the final check point at Les Houches. The trail was now open grassland trails before heading down through some more woods. I got to Les Houches along with some very happy French women runners who said it’s only 8km to go. They were in high spirits as it was very likely we’d make it now. I had all the check point cut off times on my sheet with kilometres converted to miles. I knew from this that it was just 4.8 miles to go. I made myself stick to no slower than a 15 minute mile as I had roughly quickly worked out that this would get me to Chamonix on time. I know that’s slow but I had done 90 miles at that point already with the bad weather route additional 5 miles added, and had next to no sleep for three nights, including the troublesome guy juddering the bunk bed all night the night before the race.
I was right down from the hills now and the last stretch was quite flat. It was fantastic to get a lot of warm words of encouragement from everybody I passed from here on in towards Chamonix. I remembered the special Chamonix finish from my 2019 CCC. That’s a 100K race that goes from Courmayour to Chamonix too, but on the east side of Mont Blanc and is 6,000 metres ascent). The TDS also starts in Courmayour, but takes the west side around Mont Blanc and is also quite a different, wilder route from the normal full UTMB’s west side of the race, where as the CCC is the same route as the east side of the full UTMB.
I had to work hard to keep to 15 mile an hour pace when there were any parts that were a bit hilly. I passed a couple of runners and they said they thought we’d make it on time. With the race starting late because of the landslide disrupting traffic in the area, it was starting to get darker. This made it a little more atmospheric when I eventually got into Chamonix. It got more and more lively as I started getting closer to the centre with people from the bars and restaurants cheering everybody in….. “Allez allez! Bravo!” A few guys from balconies shouted down how many minutes there were to go, which made we worried as I still had a little bit to run. They were however just joking to make me worried and I did have enough time. It was quite chaotic just before the end stretch and I almost took a left when somebody passed in front of me, I was quickly corrected by being pointed in the right direction by lots of people there. I was now running down towards the famous UTMB arch and over the line!
There were a lot of people at the end cheering and slapping the side of the UTMB railing boards as I passed. There was a photographer right at the finish line. I asked where I could pick up my finisher gilet and I was pointed to a small tent quite far away. No wonder some people missed picking their one up. I got it and then picked up my free beer which I was pleased to see was a full pint and not a half pint like at the end of the CCC. At this point a Strava friend came over to congratulate me. He had been tracking me all the way and he was there with his family for the full UTMB race. He’s mega fast and was asking me how the race went. I was cutting it very fine at a few points. Being ill at Beaufort had set me back quite a bit and especially having to just fast trek for a few hours too with my stomach being sore. Thankfully I managed to pull things together after CP9, just before Notre Dame de la Gorge!
Jan called shortly after I had finished and it was great to chat a bit about the race and how I had somehow finished the 95 miles and 9,300 metres ascent with some very short times to play with at cut off points! Salim (Strava friend) knew where the finisher free meal restaurant was and it was on the way back to his hotel, so I walked along the street chatting with him and his family on the way. It was the same restaurant as the 2019 CCC finisher meal. This was proper food and a lot of selection, unlike the check point food which was mostly terrible. I had some chicken and strangely picked fish too. Didn’t really go normally but both looked good. I had to pace myself eating it though as my stomach was still not right. The restaurant staff were fantastic and got me a red wine too. They were all so enthusiastic about the races.
It was properly dark now and I had to put my gilet on over my sweaty T-shirt as it was a bit cold. With going to the restaurant at the finish, I had missed any likelihood of picking up my drop bag which was at the other side of town. I headed down the streets towards my hostel with my quite heavy race bag. A Scottish guy congratulated me in the street as I had my gilet on. He had been running the TDS too but had dropped out at CP6 at La Gittaz. He said he’d take my bag for me as I went back to the hostel which was great. Had a good chat about his race and others he had done, including Lakeland 100 he had finished this year! When I got back fairly late I definitively needed a shower. I was disgusted by my feet which were engrained with the mud and cow poo mix from parts of the trail! I spend ages washing them but they still stank in the morning after just five hours sleep. I had to set my alarm as I had to sort out my bags for airport security and be ready in time for the taxi picking me up to take me there. Thankfully I had allowed a quick dash into Chamonix into this time scale and I went down to the expo to get a TDS hoody, cotton T-shirt and a few other momentos. I also asked a couple of other runners to take a photo at the main stand area and UTMB arch with my finisher gilet on, a nice momento to quickly get before having to dash home as I couldn’t get one more nights accommodation when I booked the hostel.
When I got to the airport my flight was delayed and I was really worried about falling asleep and missing it. I ordered a fantastic pizza and a large coffee which helped for staying awake to the new boarding time.
It was an epic adventure and four years in the making. COVID holding it up by two years, then a DNF last year. It was all about just finishing as I knew my time wouldn’t be fast. It seamed like ages ago that I was at the first few check points early on Tuesday morning up the mountains in -5 cold rain. Thankfully the weather was so much better on the Wednesday and I got the views.