My main focus race this year is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 167 km race around the Mont Blanc Mountains in the French Alps. In order to familiarize myself with the route, I decided to run the course over three days whilst in Europe in mid-July. The plan was to stay in refuges at night, which was a new experience for me as we don't get refuges on the mountains in South Africa. When Ryno Griesel—a Salomon athlete from South Africa—and I recce’d (created pace notes of) the Drakensberg Mountains before our FKT attempt in 2014, we camped out at night and had to carry quite a lot of gear. The refuges on Mont Blanc meant I could run the entire 167 km course with minimal gear and food. I could re-stock with water and nutrition at the various refuges or towns I ran through and, at night, the refuges provide a hot dinner, shower and a bed. Ha! This was a luxury compared to spooning with Ryno in a tent or cave in the Drakensberg.
On day one I set off from Chamonix and the plan was to get to Refuge Bertone just past Courmayeur. This was over 80 kms away and was going to be my longest day. I set off early in the morning, but after an hour or so I saw a pastry shop open in Les Houches and had to stop for a coffee and croissant. After a quick stop I dragged myself out of the shop and was on my way again. It was an absolute prefect day with clear skies and I got some insane views of the Alps. I couldn't help myself and stopped to take one too many photo’s but it was just that good. At Les Contamines, only 30 km or so into my run, I stopped to get some cheese and cold meats. I had never run the next 40 kms and I didn't know what to expect but I wanted make sure I had enough food. About 5 km past the Les Contamines I stopped to snack on some cheese and ended up just about eating all my supplies. For some reason, I was really hungry. It was now time to pick up the pace; at this rate I was not going to make it to my planed destination for the day.
I kept a steady pace for the rest of the day and really enjoyed myself in epic running conditions. I passed loads of hikers and even a few crazy mountain bikers before making my descent into Courmayeur. The descent seemed to last forever and I could start to feel my legs were a little tired and refuge Bertone felt like it was a very long way away. I finally made it down to Courmayeur at about 7:30 p.m. and, to be honest, I was tempted to try and find a place there to spend the night. I knew refuge Bertone stopped serving dinner at 8:30 p.m. so if I was going to continue I had to hurry. I decided to try and make refuge Bertone for dinner. It was a mad scramble up the steep climb and sweat was pouring off my face. Yes, I made it in time for dinner and just before sunset. I walked into the dining room all sweaty (and I am sure very smelly) and got a few ‘looks’ from some of the other guests, but I wasn't too phased. It had been a great day for me with over 80km’s in the bank and about 4500 meters of ascent and descent. Life was good. I drank a beer, ate dinner, had a shower and then went to sleep.
I woke up on day two to a bit of a thunderstorm and rain. I was feeling a little lazy, but had run over 80kms the day before. I grabbed breakfast and headed out onto the course aiming to get just past Champex. Day two was just over 40kms with lots of downhill. I started off a bit slowly, so at the first refuge I passed, I decided to stop for a coffee. It did the trick and even the rain stopped. I made it down into the town La Fouly and did a mandatory stop at the local supermarket for some cheese and more cheese. Not long after leaving La Fouly I made it to my refuge just past Champex. I made it with lots of time before dinner this time so I could enjoy a shower and a big beer before dinner.
I awoke on the morning of Day three and was looking forward to making it back to Chamonix today. It had been an awesome few days and I really just enjoyed cruising the route alone, in my own time and with not too much to worry about except getting lost. My body was tired but most importantly my mind was clear. There is something very refreshing and pure about running a long way. It is hard to explain, but if you have done it you will know what I mean. Day three involved epic views, a few chamois and a couple of stops at the refuges along the way for ice cream and Red Bull. Yeah, I made it to Chamonix and by this stage I was dreaming of a giant hamburger. I won’t lie I was feeling a little tired, but pretty stoked with myself for completing the loop around the Mont Blanc. They are some crazy big mountains and very humbling.
I met up with my friend and professional photographer Kelvin Trautman (who took the amazing photos that accompany this blog post) at the first burger restaurant I could find. They must have seen I was hungry as my burger had two patties in it! For the next few days Kelvin and stayed up in a few of the refuges to take some photos. The weather conditions were perfect and we were spoilt with some majestic sunrises and sunsets on the mountain. It was not all that easy though as Kelvin made me do my fair share of running to get the ‘perfect shot’ and he even convinced me to jump into a frozen lake (Lac Blanc). It took him a fair amount of convincing and he actually had to jump in first before I agreed—anything to get the shot. Jokes aside, Kelvin is a master with a camera in hand. The one lowlight of the trip was the snoring that went on at night in the communal sleeping dorms. I woke up once or twice thinking there was a giant elephant in the bed above me. Ear plugs did not block out this roar!
It was an epic week of playing in the Alps and I cannot wait to get back to Chamonix. There is something really special about the Mont Blanc mountains.
Photos: Kelvin Trautman and Red Bull Content Pool
Author: Ryan Sandes is a highly decorated trail runner with victories in some of the most gruelling races on the planet. In 2016, he finished 3rd at the Tarawera Ultra Marathon and 4th at Ultra Trail Australia.