Report by Tim Jones
A week on from the X-Alpine race at Trail Verbier St-Bernard by UTMB I thought it was time to share some photos and a few reflections on a great weekend.
I often think that the best 2 races are the last race that I ran and the next race that I am due to run but I think this one will stick as my best race for quite some time.
As we stood on the start line the organisers claimed that this was the most alpine race in the World Series and that just to reach the finish would be an achievement, I think that I can agree with both of those statements.
Starting at 10pm on Friday, we climbed to the ridge above Verbier and then traversed the ridge high above the lights of the town on some excellent, undulating singletrack trails.
After passing the first aid station a short rocky section along the ridge lead to a long fast descent to the first cut-off at Sembrancher which I beat by about 50 minutes before embarking on the first long climb through Champex Lac and up to the Cabane d’Orny.
As dawn broke there was a rainstorm and we moved onto more technical ground, fortunately the rain stopped as we crossed Col Breya and traversed to the final climb to the Cabane at an altitude of 2818m.
Pausing briefly for a snack and to replenish fluids it was then on to a long 1400m descent to the valley. Initially on moraine and open mountain, this turned treacherous as we entered the woods and encountered rocks and tree roots that had been wet by the dawn rainfall. Good fortune was on my side and a bit of care ensured that I emerged unscathed on the valley floor for the short sunny climb up to the next aid station at La Fouly.
Arriving at 11:30AM 2 hours inside the cut off I was able to pause for 40 minutes to eat well, drink plenty and rearrange my kit for the long hot climb to Col Fenetre. This ascended 1100m over 12km and whilst it was very scenic it was also very hot with little shade. Nearing the top at 2690m I started to fade and resorted to ascending 50m and then pausing for 20 breaths to recover and drink a little.
As I crossed the col after almost 3 hours of fighting up the hill I was struggling and the short easy 3km descent to the next ravito at Gd St Bernard took over an hour.
Fortunately, the volunteers were kind and kept passing me water, coca cola and sirop whilst I sat in a draught for 50 minutes and cooled down. In theory I cooled down too much as I was shivering as I left for the next climb, but it seemed to do me more good than harm. I was able to race up the next climb to Col des Chevaux and even gained a few places as I romped down the glorious technical descent on the other side. I even learned a new French phrase as one runner remarked “ah monsieur est en forme” as he stepped aside to let me pass. I suspect it was sarcasm but I was happy to take it as a compliment and store it for future use.
The long steady descent to the next aid station and the welcome sight of my drop bag at Bourg St Pierre passed uneventfully apart from one moment where I almost stabbed an adder with my pole fortunately he took fright and slithered off at great speed so no harm was done.
At Bourg St Pierre I opted not to sleep but took 1 hour 50 minutes to eat and pamper myself with a good wash, change of clothes and made good use of the toothbrush that I like to put in my drop bag as my “one luxury item”.
Leaving soon after 10pm just over 24 hours into my race the next section to Cabane de Mille was glorious with a stiff climb leading to a long undulating traverse of about 8km on superb single-track paths around a series of valleys. Beyond Cabane de Mile the ground turned rockier and the trail got more technical but by then the hallucinations had started to provide a welcome distraction and I grabbed a quick 5 minute snooze between 2 boulders before reaching Cabane Brunet where I spent half an hour drinking bouillon and coffee before embarking on the next climb to Col De Avouillons at an altitude of 2646m. My second and final attempt at a 5 minute nap behind a boulder was rudely interrupted when the wind changed direction and blew right up my shorts so I decided that with less than 30km to go I should just get on and get it done.
Cresting the col at dawn we were greeted by a long glorious technical descent to cross the glacier on a long suspension bridge before a stiff climb up a rocky moraine to reach Cabane de Panosierre where I enjoyed some more coffee.
We were now faced with a descent of 1600m over the next 11km to reach Lourtier. Due to either excellent route choice by the organisers or the fact that tiredness was now numbing any pain, this seemed to fly by.
After a 20 minute break we departed with over 6 hours in hand to cover the last 12km and although the organisers gleefully refer to the final 1200m climb as the wall I was feeling confident. As we started the climb the woods provided much needed shade and I was up on my toes and pushing hard to get the climb done when my right knee started to let me know that all was not well. I was soon sat by the path strapping it up in order to keep moving. Progress was now slow but I eventually broke out of the trees and was able to speed up as the climb eased for the last few km to the final aid station at La Chaux.
As we approached the aid station our addled brains noticed that there appeared to be some sort of race going on and we realised that we were to share the final 7km descent into Verbier with the 26km Verbier XPlore race that had started that morning. This kept us on our toes as we alternated between running as best we could and diving into the trees to let the faster runners on the shorter race pass.
The extra interest passed the time quite nicely and we soon emerged on the streets of Verbier for the final run into the finish.
Despite trying to play it cool and let the runners on the shorter race do their own thing a red mist soon descended and I was rather pleased to be able to muster a “sprint” finish and pass over a dozen XPlore runners in the final 500m.
My final finishing time was 39 hours 40 minutes and 45 seconds for the 140km race with 9203m of ascent and my finishing position of 194th out of 208 finishers doesn’t feel quite so bad when I consider the fact that 350 runners crossed the start line.
Overall a great race almost 2 years to the day since my first European mountain race. I have learned a lot over 5 alpine races during those two years and I still have a lot more to learn. I’m very much looking forward to more races over the next few years and hopefully, the best is yet to come.