During the Weidman family July Alps adventure, I was on the lookout for a difficult race that would be good training for UTMB but not use too much of my mental / physical energy before the big day. I decided to head back to Trail Verbier for the shorter distance race. The Traversee joins the course of the X-Alpine (which I ran in 2015) in La Fouly. From there you have 38.5 miles and 13,500 feet of vertical in some of the most beautiful mountains in Switzerland. I was excited to get back to these mountains and see a big chunk of the course that I did in the dark last time.
I drove to Verbier and caught the shuttle over to La Fouly for the highly civilized 10am start. It was a full on Euro race scene with almost 1,000 people. The music was blaring at the start and helicopters were buzzing overhead. I lined up towards the front, and we started up the 4,000 foot climb to Col Fenetre.
Not a bad place to start running a race
Start line and some pretty awesome mountains / glaciers
Big field with almost 900 people starting
Now we had a cold rolling through the family, and it hit me 2 days before the race. I’d hoped I’d get a few good nights of sleep and be mostly over it, but I was seriously wrong. I slept terribly both nights and felt awful on the race morning. As I starting climbing, I had just no energy and felt totally wiped out. Not a great way to start.
I stayed conservative and snapped some pictures as we ascended through these ridiculously beautiful mountains. But as we got to higher altitude, the congestion in my head and ears become a big problem. Energy levels plummeted, and I felt truly terrible. This wasn’t the usual early race jitters, and I quickly started working through when I would drop from the race.
We crested Col Fenetre (awesome views abounded), and I continued feeling abysmal on the 1,000 foot decent. Not a great sign. After the short climb up to first aid station at Grand Saint Bernard, I planned to stop for a while and regroup. Much to my chagrin that wasn’t really possible. The aid station was packed given the size of the field, and there were no chairs or anywhere to regroup. It was all I could do to get a refill of water / Coke, and then I somehow found myself on the climb back up to 9,000 feet and Col Saint Bernard. Wait a minute guys, can’t I take a break? The plan was to get up this climb, run down 4,000 to Bourg St Pierre, and get the hell out of this race.
Ascending into paradise
Looking back towards the start on the climb
Some of the finest single track on earth
This particular stretch of mountains is stunning. I vividly remember this from 2015, and it did not disappoint this year!
Look at all these fools climbing this mountain
I remember in 2015 being disappointed by a rather unimpressive alpine lake on my left as we crested the Col. This year I looked to my right and saw this staggering view. Apparently I was so tired in 2015 I could not even manage to look right!
Looking out over Italy after cresting Col Fenetre and crossing the border
View on the climb up the Grand St Pierre
Looking way better than I feel on the top of this climb
I kept hoping people would pass me on the climb, but somehow I got locked in with a group and dragged up to the Col. I figured the least I could do when we got there was stop for a minute and take a few pictures. Despite feeling generally terrible, I was looking forward to the first part of this descent. 2 years ago I was still very slow on the super steep descents and was curious if I’d gotten any better. Turn out I had! I pass a few people, tucked in behind someone else, and didn’t get passed again for the rest of the steep section.
I got to the gradual part of the descent and started to do some soul searching. Yes, I was sick. Yes, I didn’t feel good. But I thought through a few things:
- I always feel worst in these races at high altitude passes and was exponentially worse at high altitude with the cold. While there were two more high passes, they were both lower than the first two, so hopefully it wouldn’t be quite so bad.
- I was still running a very solid pace even though my energy levels were in the gutter. I could slow down a lot and still have a respectable finish, if not the time I was hoping for (12 hours).
- I love the Alps. I love running in the Alps. This was my shot while here to get in a long, epic run.
So stubbornness kicked in. As Hamilton says, “I’m not throwing away my shot.” I would have to swallow my pride, run slower than I wanted, and finish after dark. But barring the worst, I’d somehow make it happen.
I was fading as I finished the long descent into Bourg Saint Pierre and then the short, steep climb up to town. We were at low altitude again and it was HOT. I stopped in the town fountain to cool off and resolved to take my time in Bourg Saint Pierre to pull myself back together.
I arrived at BSP 4:10 into the race and set to work on Coke, Water, and Soup. Oh, and Swiss chocolate. By the way, I’ve never had chocolate as good I’ve had during this race. Possibly because I am very tired and hungry, but I also think it is local chocolate that is outstanding. I grabbed a mysterious cake that tasted like it had ginger in it and was awesome. Then I tried to bum some Tylenol because my legs felt terrible, and I was worried I had a fever. They sent me to the medical section who ultimately were unwilling to give my Tylenol without a better reason than “my legs hurt.” Fine, you win Europeans. Off I went.
I now had to make it 15 miles before the next bail point, as at Cabane Mille it was helivac only (no thank you). So I started heading up the mountain and realized that I somehow actually felt good! I passed a few people at the start of the climb. Then I really started feeling good and started passing A LOT of people. It was motivating, and I got some good words of encouragement in French. It was full on beast mode. In the 7.5 miles from Bourg St Pierre I passed 76 people, moving from 177th to 101st. Once you do most of the climbing to Cabane Mille you then have the long stretch of PUDs (pointless up and downs, in the words of Keith Knipling). You think you are there but then drop 500 feet only to climb 500 feet. This goes on for miles. I remembered 2 years ago when I was stumbling in the dark on this section and working hard not to fall off the mountain. It certainly made this time feel easier, and I was glad to run a bunch of this section.
Views climbing towards Mille. On the right you can see Catogne, which you climb early in the X-Alpine version. I promise you it is much more fearsome than it looks here.
The single track up to Mille circles around the right and then cuts up and across this picture towards the high point on the left. You could see point climbing as we went up.
Not so bad. It rained a bit around this time, but the cool was welcome and the views were still good.
Looking back up the climb to Mille. The town in the valley is Bourg St Pierre, where we climbed from.
We started on the far right trail you can see in this picture and cut over and up the mountain.
I got to Cabane Mille in 2 hours and 5 minutes and was fired up for the big descent to Lourtier. After a mellow stretch there was a super steep descent through forest where I again got to prove my much improved descending skills and passed a bunch more people. As I plowed down the 4,500 descent, I started doing the math. With a really strong finish, I could probably squeak under 11 hours, which would be miraculous given my initial 12 hour goal.
Top of Mille. It's a bit far in the distance, but upper middle right is the top of Le Chaux and upper middle left is the finish in Verbier. It was a bit of an imposing view of what you still had to accomplish (it was dark when I was here in 2015).
But the margin was slim so I pushed hard on the descent. My quads were getting pounded, but I made good time coming into Lourtier. It was like an oven down there at 3,800 feet (by the way, we’re in a heat wave here with unusual, scorching temperatures). I cooled off at another town fountain and regrouped at Lourtier before La Chaux. The beast. The thunderdome. Over 4,000 feet of climbing in about 3.5 miles. At the end of the race it is just a killer, but it is also part of what makes Trail Verbier the race it is.
The big effort of the long stretch from Bourg St Pierre to Lourtier caught up with me, and I was beat and feeling sick again. It was very hot still, and the grade was punishing. But I kept a steady, determined pace up and continued to pass a lot of runners. I finally popped out above treeline and realized the math for sub-11 was getting super tight. I thought I could maybe do the 4 mile steep descent in 50 minutes but figured I’d need some room to spare to be safe. I had also drained my bottles going up La Chaux and was dehydrated, so I figured I’d need to arrive at 8pm to finish sub-11.
View of the Grand Combin while dying on the climb up Le Chaux.
This accurately captures how I felt on this big beast of a climb. Stick a fork in me.
I pushed hard on the rolling section above treeline and the last part of the ascent to La Chaux. I got there at 7:59, which was awesome. I took time to get fueled up and started the descent at 8:04pm. I walked for a minute stuffing more food in my face and then got down to business. I kicked my legs back into gear to run fast on the flatter section.
Then we hit the steep descent through the trees. My quads were fried, but I ran hard and kept making good time. As each mile ticked off, sub 11 was looking good. There is one last uphill and then it is all gravy from there with a last mellow descent. We popped out into town for the last half mile. Tons of people were out and it was a great scene. Music was blaring, people were cheering, kids were high-fiving. I sprinted in to finish in 10:53!
I was so pumped. To have felt so bad at the start, any finish would have been a victory. But I somehow kicked it into gear, passed 100 people after Bourg St Pierre, and finished 76th out of 885 starters. I think it just came down to my fitness being so good that even being way off my A-game I could still put up a solid run. The run gave me lots of confidence going into UTMB, whereas dropping would have I’m sure left doubts in my mind even given the circumstances. Both my uphill running and more importantly my downhill running are much improved. My fitness and endurance are rock solid.
But that said, I still have a healthy and large amount of fear of UTMB. 39 miles in the Alps was still a tough run. Over 2.5x the distance and another 20K of vertical will be a big beast. So I’m on track but not underestimating it!