Day 6: Trient to Chamonix

Breakfast in Trient. If you go, take your own. The lodge there provided cardboard sliced bread and corn flakes (I am not kidding and I did not even know corn flakes even still existed). I started the day hangry, which is not a good way to start the day even if you don’t have 19 miles and 6500 feet to climb.

But you know what? I trained SO HARD for this. I really wanted to have a smooth last day. And I did, feeling pretty good as we circled around the mountain in perfect weather, surrounded by impeccable and irreplaceable views.

But then I fell. I fell hard. I had one of those falls where I don’t move for a second because I need to know what’s broken.

Luckily nothing was, but I was scared, shaken, and sore, and I still had half the run to go. I keep thinking back to the whole trip and wondering how that last day would have been different if I hadn’t bit it. Maybe I would have been worn out and cranky anyway. I’m not sure. But I was sore, tired, grumpy, and just wanted to be done. I even threatened to quit, though I don’t think the group would have let me.

Soon enough, we were rolling into Chamonix, where Simon had set up a finish line for us. We had some champagne, took massive amounts of photos, and then headed back to the hotel for a shower. That evening was a lovely dinner at Munchies.

I can’t even begin to explain what an accomplishment this trip was for me.

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Day 5: La Fouly to Trient

We started the morning with a breakfast that might have killed a weaker woman. To get a slice of bread I had to tackle a Chinese tourist. To get a cup of coffee I had to put a German cyclist in a headlock. Let’s just say thank goodness Simon brought us some peanut butter and bananas to supplement breakfast, because it was a crowded free-for-all with about 50% of the food the Auberge needed for all of the people crammed into the dining room. I finally gave up and left.

I am not going to lie. It is exhausting to climb over 1000 feet in a mile. And we were about to do it again on Day 5. The good news is that (and be sure to look at the Strava elevation map) our first 10k on Day 5 was fast and furious! I even managed to clock my fastest mile of the entire trek, despite four hard days on the trail already.

I was so happy to have an easy hour to start the day. It was beautiful running along a river bed through pine forests and smooth trails. If every day had been like those first 6 miles we would have been finished with the TMB by now. We enjoyed the great trail conditions and we picked up the speed. It was wonderful to look at our watches at 9:30 AM and know we only had 13 more miles to go!

Soon we were forced to slow a little as we climbed up a hill towards Champex Lac, where Simon and Hugh met us with lots of goodies. We had some snacks then started off on the trail again. We stopped at a refuge for soup (delicious) and views. We could see down into the valley that was our destination. It was super steep with lots of rough footing. But soon we arrived into the tiny hamlet of Trient. Dinner here was a heaping bowl of pasta, which we ate happily before crashing in our beds. One more night on the trail! And we were all still going strong.

Total distance: 31256 m
Max elevation: 2024 m
Min elevation: 1052 m
Total climbing: 2229 m
Total descent: -2546 m
Total Time: 06:41:35

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Day 4: Courmayer to La Fouly

Day 4 had a lot in store for us. And by a lot I mean 20.1 miles and 7,170 feet elevation gain. In addition to that, I was really terrified of climbing Grand Col Ferret. I’m not sure why out of all our many climbs (11 to be exact) I was most scared of it. Perhaps because it was on the longest day with the most elevation gain? Or maybe at Day 4 I thought I might be too tired to do it? Or maybe because it gained 2183 feet over 3 miles over a third of the way into an already long day?

We woke up in Courmayer and again I was not sore. I was tired (Thanks Italy), but my muscles were all still fine. Knees fine, feet fine, shoes fine. I felt so lucky that I didn’t have even one little issue.

John and I were awakened by our early morning alarm. Existing on very little sleep for the fourth day in a row, we were groggy as we carefully assembled our running kits and packed up our traveling luggage to give to Simon downstairs. He had been arriving each day and filling his car with our bags to shuttle them to our next lodging location. I highly recommend this arrangement if you’re planning to run or hike the TMB.

John and I had our running gear locked down, and today we even managed to shed a few items from our running kits thanks to really beautiful weather. As you’ll see, that turned out to be a good thing since today would be a very, very long day.

Breakfast included some fresh-baked croissants, so it wasn’t as sad as the previous day had been. I still would have murdered someone for a egg. If you know me, you know I like a egg for breakfast.

After we finished our meal, the kind waiter pointed to our HamandCheese on the table behind us. These were new! Instead of one sandwich the size of my head, today we got two small sandwiches. These smaller HamandCheese were voted a favorite by several members of the group, though I still preferred the one on the Col de la Seigne. The vegans got salads. In plastic containers. Because. That’s easy to carry on a run? None of them ended up carrying the salads. So, overall, there had been some kinks with breakfast and lunch. But we were still trucking.

Straight out of the hotel room we gained 2573 feet over three miles. Seriously. That was really, seriously, very hard.

But a theme emerged that would keep me going for the day. That theme would be the “Italian Dog.” Leap-frogging me on the trail was a jaunty Puli, a four-legged rastafarian who would stop and look at me out from under his dreadlocks as if to say, “Don’ Worry.” He would let me get about 100 feet ahead, then he would bound past me like a drive-in car wash. I was so smitten with this mop I almost forgot to realize that we had come two and a half miles and we were still climbing.

Before I knew it, we were stopping at the first refuge of the day. It wasn’t even open yet because we had made such good time. We took some selfies and ate some bars. We were all drenched in sweat but still smiling.

Then we kept climbing.

The distance between the two big ups was a rolling, grist trail along the side of the mountain with a stunning view of the valley and the glaciers and the peaks and the aguilles. Frankly, who could complain? Honestly I was running on fumes that were pure adrenaline because every single time I looked around it was paradise. We kept a steady pace until we dropped steeply (and we resented every lost foot) into the valley, where we would then hoof it up the target in my crosshairs: I’m gonna get you Grand Col Ferret!

We hiked and hiked, then stopped at a refuge for a cappuccino, our last in Italy, because once we reached the top of the Col and dropped down, we’d spend the next two nights in Switzerland. I was the last to take off from the refuge. I stared up at the trail, not even trying to do the math for how long it would take me to get to the top. Suddenly I saw something that would keep me smiling for the next 45 minutes: two absolutely gorgeous Gordon Setters, brother and sister it turns out, who were running 100 steps for every 1 step their owners took. They were clearly hunting: trying to flush small game from the grassy mountainside.

After about 20 minutes of up I passed their owners. We chatted for a minute while the Setters cooled off in a stream. Their silky black coatsScreen Shot 2015-07-30 at 8.23.23 PM were so beautiful. I started hiking again and they continued leap-frogging me on the trail, running ahead then waiting as I caught them. Their carefree romping took my mind off the relentlessness of the climb.

Finally, I made it to the top. The view was stunning, and we even got a special treat–a clear view of the Matterhorn. In fact, our entire run down the next mile gave us panoramic views of it. I would look down quickly to “pick my line” and then gaze up, staring at that glorious peak.

It was a lot of down until we reached another refuge, where we had a cold drink, then prepared for the rest of the descent into the valley. We met a group who was doing the trip as a tour through REI. They were taking 11 days and would use some alternate transportation as well–a few buses, a cable car, a train. We said good luck and goodbye, and it was a stunning but narrow trial down through wildflowers and grasses and rocks and tree roots, and it was tough going. We also had to navigate through a full field of cows cordoned off by an electric fence.

I had expected a 19 mile day, so I kept checking my watch and when it passed 20 miles I was a little surprised. At that point I must have “seen the barn” because I picked it up and ran hard, or I guess as hard as I could run, considering. I was pretty proud for knocking out an 11 minute pace on the last mile of the day after such an exhausting and comprehensive effort.

Our lodging for the night was the cute Auberge des Glaciers, which had a patio with a view that looked completely fake. We were famished, so we went and got some pizza before dinner and I’m glad we did because the meal at the Auberge was crowded, slow, and strange. Pickles. Potatoes. And a slice of cheese. And bread. I wished I had ordered the vegan meal, because their plates were gorgeous and colorful and tasty.

John and I slept really well. It was nice and cool in La Fouly. We were also pretty tired from being on our feet for nearly seven hours.

I was so, so proud of myself that I made it through Day 4. I felt great. I felt ready to tackle Day 5.

Total distance: 32919 m
Max elevation: 2532 m
Min elevation: 1215 m
Total climbing: 2926 m
Total descent: -2550 m
Total Time: 08:06:58

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Day 3: Les Chapieux to Courmayer

While training for TMB, about the best I could do to replicate the elevation we would experience in the Alps was to run up Pyramid trail over and over again. It was the steepest, highest hill in South Mountain Park that was accessible quickly. Even then, Pyramid gains only about 680 feet of elevation over a mile, and I knew we would have segments along TMB where we were steadily gaining over 1000 feet each mile for almost three miles.

Day 3 on the TMB would be long (over 19 miles) with lots of climbing (almost 5500 feet) but it wasn’t the day I feared most: that would be Day 4, or Sunday, the day for which some folks in Phoenix had organized a “Prayer Circle” after they saw the elevation chart.

Day 3? Easy in comparison. I wasn’t so nervous about it, and I was still feeling great. Not sore, but tired.

We woke after another restless night. I think I was averaging six hours, when I do best on nine. That was putting me squarely into grumpster territory.

Was it the sleep deprivation that made me kind of angry at what we called our “prison breakfast”? It was again a buffet, but it featured, realistically, only bread and butter. We took trays (what for?) and loaded them up with bread, and, well, butter.

After we “ate,” we started our run with a steady uphill on a paved road. In fact, there was a shuttle taking hikers and dropping them off at the top of the road, and they waved through the windows as they passed us. I wondered for a moment if I should have hopped on the bus to cut out three miles of our trek. Would I have what I needed to finish such a tough day, after two tough ones prior and three tough ones to come? I wasn’t sure. But I was proud of myself and determined to do every bit of the trail on foot.

Once the road ended we started up a delightful, smooth, steady uphill that afforded ridiculous views of the valley, the cows, and the aguilles that towered into the clear blue sky before us.

Our first big up on Day 3 was the Col de la Seigne, and this is where something funny happened–a French woman stopped me and asked (in French) if we were runners. When I said oui she told me we were going the wrong way. At first I thought I was not understanding her French. After a long conversation, with its classic sitcom pratfalls, we learned that there was a trail race up ahead and the woman thought we were participants in the race. I assured her we were not with the race, that we were runners, but that we were running with a private guide, and we laughed and moved along.

Up to this point in my recounting of our TMB time I have failed to mention the HamandCheese Situation. The Situation existed thusly: every morning before we hit the trail we were given a sack lunch that included exactly three items: a bar, a piece of fruit, and a HamandCheese Sandwich. (Since three of our seven runners were vegan, I guess you could say we were given four HamandCheese sandwiches and three ????? sandwiches each morning.) We had begun to remember each day as much for the scenery as for the exact shape and variety of HamandCheese.

Day three was by far my favorite HamandCheese. It was the size of my head, first of all, and it was essentially a whole big baguette with a slice of ham and a slice of cheese. Almost as much fun as crunching into the crusty thing was holding it up to see whether my little bites had made any dent in its size. It was at the top of the Col de la Seigne, wind blowing, our jackets on, that I sat and did as much damage as I could to that glorious, life-affirming HamandCheese.

After snacking, we started our first descent and this is where we met the real runners. The race was being staged out of Courmayer Italy and the runners were super fast and super fit. Even though we did not have numbers, people mistook us for racers and hopped easily out of our way and also cheered us on and even took our pictures. It made me think of getting a race number to wear for the last three days of the trip!

We rounded a curve and were greeted by an unbelievable view of Mont Blanc. Again, the weather could not have been more perfect. We told our Lead Runner Emily that now we were ruined, since we would never even be able to imagine the Alps without a massive blue sky.

We started a steady descent with a view so gorgeous it was nearly painful (painful in that way when you experience a moment you hope will never end, knowing full well that it will soon be ending) until we got to a mountain refuge where a man was being evacuated by helicopter. We had all purchased our own helicopter evacuation insurance, and oh how we hoped we would not have to use it. At the refuge there was an aid station set up for the trail runners and we enjoyed watching them swing in to get snacks and water.

From the refuge it was a super, super steep drop on a dusty and root-covered path down to the Italian town of Courmayer. By this time several of us were overheated–it was a hot day and we perhaps didn’t hydrate as we should have. So it was a relief to arrive at our inn for the night, Hotel Edelweiss. It featured hotel-style accommodations with great storage and a bathroom in each of our rooms. We checked in, showered, then hit the town for some snacking and shopping.

Dinner at the hotel was delicious in the most Italian way. Can you say pasta? Pasta! We enjoyed a delicious meal and headed to bed to pass out.

However, the entire Italian nation seemed to have different plans for us. At one AM, what sounded like EVERY ITALIAN PERSON EVER could be heard screeching, laughing, slamming doors, and running down the hallway in front of our room. John and I exchanged “oh my gods” and thought about calling the front desk but assumed it would end soon enough. It lasted for hours. We were so groggy when we got up we did not even have the energy to mimic the bad behavior down the hallway in front of all of the offending sleepers’ doorways. Too bad. I think we could have taught Italy a real lesson.

Total distance: 31425 m
Max elevation: 2508 m
Min elevation: 1171 m
Total climbing: 2054 m
Total descent: -2384 m
Total Time: 07:10:26

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Day 2: Les Contamines to Les Chapieux

The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of Europe’s most popular hiking routes, and there are outfitters all over the world who offer guided coverage of the trails. Just one example is REI, who offers a 13 day trek that features several forms of alternate transportation along the way such as cable cars, buses and trains, so that the trekkers don’t have to walk all 105 miles. Even the guidebooks break the whole trail into 11 parts, so for our group to complete the whole thing in six days we needed to cover two segments a day for all but one day of our journey.

Day Two happened to be the only day when we covered just one segment of the trail, which meant only one big ascent and a lot less mileage.

We woke in our Auberge, Hotel Gai du Soleil, at around 7:30 am so that we would have time to eat, pack up, and hit the road by 9. John and I did not sleep well. It seems we had a touch of jet lag–a lot of tossing and turning in the night. Still, come morning, our bodies felt surprisingly good after having covered so many miles on Day 1. I did not feel muscle-sore (though I did feel tired) so I was really looking forward to hitting the trail again. I felt so relieved that my training seemed to have paid off.

Honestly, I had wanted to do about 75% more training than I accomplished before we headed to Europe. My main excuses for not training more were, John and I moved away from South Mountain April 27 and no longer could run straight from our house to trails and hills. So a lot of my miles ended up being flat (and frankly, boring). Also, I got a really bad asthma flare when we moved (probably the dust!) so I was on Prednisone for a week in May and had a hard time getting my lungs back in running shape. I’m proud of the training I did do though, which involved as many miles and as much climbing as I could get in.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 10.26.10 AMOnly time would tell if it would be enough to get me all the way around Mont Blanc.

On Day 2, breakfast was a buffet of simple breads, pastries, cereals, and yogurt and some delicious local apricots. After some coffee and calories we were ready to head out.

Our outfitter Simon James and his girlfriend Karin were kind enough to bring the Canine Support team to see us off. Since everyone in our group has beloved dogs at home, we especially appreciated being able to get some snuggles and pats before starting off.

Today’s segment started fast and gentle uphill. It was beautiful scenery in the trees, passing a lovely historic church, a gorge and waterfall, then winding uphill and above the tree-line towards the day’s ultimate test, the Col du Bonhomme.

I’m not certain exactly how he did it, but our biking team member stayed with us all day, even through some ragged and tough patches of trail. We all regrouped for a picture at the top of the Col, then we met again at a refuge at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, where we had some coffee (or beer) and snacks.

From there, as you can see from the map, it was a downhill journey to the Auberge de la Nova, our lodging place for night two of our adventure. We got in pretty early and had some snacks on the lawn while waiting for dinner. Our rooms at this small inn were very basic–a bed, a chair, and a sink. The shared shower and toilet were in the hallway, and were very tiny.

Once again John and I had some jet lag and didn’t sleep perfectly. I was worried about how that might affect us on Day 3, which based on the numbers would prove to be doubly challenging.

 

Total distance: 20555 m
Max elevation: 2472 m
Min elevation: 1153 m
Total climbing: 1737 m
Total descent: -1348 m
Total Time: 06:04:04

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Day 1: Chamonix to Les Contamines

What do you do when you get an idea for a trip? Do you write it down? Tell a friend? Start planning on your lunch break? For me, it varies. Sometimes I let it linger in the back of my mind, not sure I’ll have the energy. Or the courage. Sometimes I start digging in right away–researching locations, checking flights, inviting friends. And that’s what happened with the Tour du Mont Blanc.

It’s a testament to how awesome your friends are when you ask them to go to Europe to run 105 miles and they say, “Sure!” pretty much immediately. Kaylee Barton, Brian Barton, Ed Carter, Lori Cowin, and Joe Cowin, you are all ROCK STARS. Thank you so much for saying yes.

Our first need was an outfitter. I looked at many companies and corresponded with two. I ended up choosing Run the Wild UK because I liked the personal correspondence and enthusiastic attitude of owner Simon James. They advertised a five day route, and I’m so glad our friend Joe suggested we try for six. Simon was really wonderful and accommodating through the entire planning process. He was very patient and British and kind. I really recommend his company for your next running adventure. One perk they don’t advertise online is the canine support. Their two dogs Bailey and Lottie provided essential snuggle therapy at all the right moments.

Simon hired Emily Andrew as our Lead Runner and we could not be happier that he did. I was already excited when I read her bio since she teaches English (my field) and Geography (John’s field). I thought, well we’ll have something to talk about. I wasn’t wrong, but beyond that, I enjoyed every minute I spent with Emily, who we came to call “Lady Emily,” because, well, we loved her. Emily was so sensitive to every runner’s needs. She knew the route with nearly photographic detail. She supported us through steep climbs, melt-downs, and long days. And she was so fun to hang out with!

Since most people do the Tour du Mont Blanc in 11 days, our thoughtful and wise Lady Emily planned our route with five “double days” (that had two big climbs each) plus one easier day that only covered a normal stretch of the trail. This turned out to be a great way to run and hike the route.

Our Day One therefore had two big ups. We started in Chamonix, an absolutely lovely French Alpine town. We ran through an urban path until our first big climb, where we met some mountain bikers who turned out to be World Cup riders. We had lunch with Simon and his girlfriend Karin and the pups, then headed out to finish the run, whose highlights were a stop at Les Chalets du Miage, rambling with cows and cowbells, and endless gorgeous views. Here is an interactive map, though it’s in meters (we got a crash course in the metric system).

Total distance: 27776 m
Max elevation: 1745 m
Min elevation: 976 m
Total climbing: 2098 m
Total descent: -1964 m
Total Time: 06:17:19

 

Here are the full stats for Day One: 17 miles, 5113 ft elevation gain. That was harder than my hardest day of training. But what more could I have done? Sadly, I don’t have the Alps in my backyard.

Overall I felt strong on Day One. Not sore. Tired. I felt I could have used a bit more down time. But overall, I finished the day excited for the next.

Day One Stats

<Day One Splits and Elevation