I have been dreaming of running the Gran Trail Courmayeur Mountain Ultra since our last visit to the Alps two years ago in 2017. Thankfully my buddy talked me out of signing up for the 105k race that year, as our travel dates didn’t really line up and I did not have enough experience to tackle that as one of my first long distance runs. This year was different however – I had two more years of running and base miles under my belt, we would be in the mountains for a week before the race, and I was able to log a nice training block in May and June around the East Bay hills (including a night-time Mount Diablo exploration). Things were set up nicely for one of my “A” races of the year, the Gran Trail Courmayeur 105k.
We arrived in Paris toward the end of June and had a wonderful week as always, even catching the amazing France v. US Women’s World Cup soccer game at the Parc des Princes. I maintained some mileage and some shakeout runs, despite an oppressive heat wave that had all of Europe in its grip. Our next stop was down to the Dordogne, a region that we had not explored in our biennial trips. Our goal there was to check out the rivers and prehistoric cave art of the region. I kept running, again despite the record heat and humidity, and of course we kept eating. Croissants, bread, saucisson, delicious cheese, and yes, even some Foie Gras.
And then, on the Friday morning eight days before the race, and three days before our launch for a family backpack in the Alps, I woke up with intense pain in all of the joints in my body. My toes, ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, and fingers all felt like someone was jabbing them with ice-picks. I literally could barely walk around, much less get out of bed. I freaked out, staying up into the wee hours of the morning on Google searching for my symptoms (never a good idea) and desperately asking for advice on Facebook (also maybe not a good idea, but hey I do know some doctors and nurses!) The general consensus was that I likely had gout – even though it wasn’t fitting the usual description (big toe pain after a binge of drinking) it did seem to fit the bill pretty well. While I haven’t drank in years, and the pain was all over my body and not just in my toe, I had transitioned rapidly from a mostly vegetarian organic diet in Berkeley to all the meat, cheese, bread, and goose liver I could stuff in my mouth in France. That coupled with being slightly dehydrated since getting off the plane (and yes, continuing to run) seemed to point in the gout direction.
The pain was so intense that I really did start to freak out, especially when we were heading out on a five day backpack with my wife’s sister’s family on the following Monday. I did what any sane ultra-runner would do – I drank as much water as I could handle, swore off the meat, cheese, bread, and dairy, and started an infusion of 400mg of Ibuprofen every six hours. I was worried about the backpack but more importantly I was worried about my targeted race.
I’m not going to lie, I was a wreck for most of the next week as we hiked through the Alps near Chamonix, completing a strenuous version of the trek known as the Tour des Fiz. I was hoping it was gout and that it would all get better, but was also struggling with the possibility that it was something like Rheumatoid Arthritis that I would be battling for a long time. The first few days I was in so much pain that I was literally crying on the descents, dreading every single time my foot came in contact with a slightly pointed rock. On Wednesday morning I could barely climb out of the refuge bunk bed, but I did, and I dragged myself to the nearby Chapel built into the rock for a come-to-Higher-Power moment. Perhaps I had under-estimated these mountains once again. Perhaps it was my hubris thinking that I could power through the pain, that I could “conquer” the peaks and passes of Mont Blanc. Perhaps I needed to surrender fully to the powers at work and hope that I could indeed recover for an epic run in Italy just a few days away.
Wednesday was my low point and the Mountain Gods must have taken a bit of pity on me as I felt a bit better in the following days. We finished our “family backpack” with a bit of a harrowing descent down the Col de Salenton, where we were glad we had a bit of rope and a couple sets of crampons. My wife and I drove into Courmayeur, as planned, and in her infinite wisdom she convinced me that the next day was not the day to test my kidneys and set out on what would likely be a 24 hour 105k effort around the mountains that I barely knew, in a language that I couldn’t speak at all. I tried to switch my entry when we picked up our bibs, but the Italians weren’t having it, and so I decided I would officially start the 105k race as planned but miss the first turnoff and run the 55k with my wife. It would be her second ultra ever, and honestly spending a day in the mountains with her sounded like a whole lot more fun than slogging through the night solo on trails that I didn’t know.
And so we walked down to the 7:00 AM start from our hotel on Saturday July 13th, joining the steady stream of European trail runners that looked more like they were heading into battle than out to enjoy a fun run. K-tape liberally applied across their legs, trekking poles slung across their backs like arrows in a quiver – we were shocked at how seriously it seemed like the predominately male crowd was taking this event. We weren’t in Auburn any more.
After waiting in the crowded starting chute and trying to catch a few words in Italian we were off, running through the ancient cobbled streets of Courmayeur and desecending down to Pre-Saint-Didier. The bottlenecks I had heard about on podcasts were real, and we waited 10 minutes during the first transition from road to trail as the 600+ runners funneled into the first bit of singletrack. We were approaching this race as one of endurance, as the initial climb was miles and miles long. I had a goal in my head to finish without a headlight and to try to dip under 12 hours if we could keep moving along quickly enough. My real goal was to get the taste of a European mountain ultra, and start working on that uber low gear that I would need for my upcoming 100 mile bid in October in Tahoe as well as when I eventually run UTMB.
The climb was long and gradual and the views kept getting better and better. There were conga lines for sure, and we passed a bit here and there on the descents. We were hanging out in rear-mid pack but were climbing a bit faster than most and definitely descending faster on the technical stuff. The route was glorious, and we followed parts of the Tor des Geants route backwards, eventually connecting with the TMB at the Col de la Seigne, the border between Italy and France. My wife and I have a TMB fastpack attempt scheduled for August so this was also a reconnaissance trip for us to check out the Italian side of the trail.
Crampons were part of the mandatory gear list, but we never actually put ours on as by the time we got to the snow fields there were nice steps kicked into the crossings. There were definitely a few points along the way where it would have been bad to slip, but we took our time and used our poles and felt reasonably safe. The trail was brilliant in that every time you thought you were getting to a col and topping out, it somehow kept meandering up as you gained a ridge and kept on climbing. We were relieved to meet up with a Glacierologist from England (just speaking English for a bit was nice!) who was out for a day hike on his off day. Unfortunately, as he was describing the different deaths of the nearby glaciers, he assured us that we really were as fucked as a society as we imagined.
I had some concerns about the aid stations hearing that sometimes they literally only served meat and cheese. While these were definitely items on the menu (and high quality ones at that!) they were not the only things, and I thankfully discovered some sort of Nutella-filled waffle cookie that powered me around the mountains, gout be damned. I tapped into the Euro electrolyte tonic of flat Coca Cola and kept one of my bottles full of that at all times. We kept moving, we kept climbing, and eventually we passed through Maison Veille and knew we were finally getting close. We were on track for a sub 12 hour finish but of course had one more serious climb up and around the ski-slope before hitting the steep, dusty switchback descent into Courmayeur. We crossed the line in 11 hours 37 minutes, my wife super proud of her second ultra ever (no one will ever say she picked an easy one!) I might never be so happy to see Courmayeur again until I do the UTMB.
Post race we enjoyed the cafeteria grade pasta, melon, and prosciutto (US take note: a post-race pasta buffet is a much better idea than a pre-race pasta buffet!) and waited at the refreshment point in Courmayeur watching the 105k runners come through to meet their crew and get a meal before heading out for the long night that lay ahead of them. I had a tiny bit of FOMO for not doing the longer race, especially as my body felt pretty good the entire day, but I absolutely know that it was the best decision. I would love to return and do the 105k some day but definitely think it would be a good idea to bring an English speaking partner and just plan on sticking together for the whole push through the night.
In the end we got exactly what we set out for in the beginning – an epic, beautiful day in the mountains. The Euro trail scene is quite a bit different than in the States, and I learned a lot about what to expect and how everything unfolds throughout a race. This knowledge will serve me well when I do get lucky enough to come over for UTMB one year. We ended with a total pace of around 22 min / mile, which is the low gear I have been looking for to move a long distance through the mountains in a single push. I feel like this gear will really come in useful when I toe the line at the Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe 100 Miler in October. Finally, we got a feel for the Italian section of the TMB and know a bit what we are in for when we attempt our fastpack in August.
Gran Trail Courmayeur – 5/5, would run again. I highly recommend this for folks looking for a European Mountain Ultra without a qualifier or crazy lottery to get in!