Monday, August 22, 2016

Beat's jaunt around Mont Blanc

 On Monday morning, Beat lined up in downtown Chamonix for his fifth Petite Trotte à Léon. I'm still in disbelief that he's volunteered for five of these, in spite of my best efforts to talk him out of it for the past three. Friends know I am no fan of the PTL, mainly because I believe the safety margins are not acceptable. It's 180 miles with 87,000 feet of climbing, but numbers do little to describe how difficult this race can be. Much of the course is highly technical terrain from a runner's perspective — rooty off-camber singletrack, steep scree, miles of chaotic boulders, slippery grass slopes, loose dirt, exposed ridges, and class-four scrambling. Runners travel at all hours of the night in all weather, self-navigating, with limited support, and the time cut-offs prompt extreme sleep deprivation. I raced 200 kilometers of a PTL course in 2013, and still consider it one of my more traumatic life experiences. Any physical malady I've sustained has nothing on the mental devastation of four days with almost no sleep, constant stress, anxiety, and the fatigue of working at one's cardiovascular limit for 23 hours a day. Before I timed out, I had a psychotic break and lost control off my actions for several minutes, made extremely poor decisions like running through dark road tunnels with no shoulder, and for the next five months I had to wear reading glasses because my vision went blurry. There's a longer story of course, but the result is that I now *hate* PTL, and Beat kinda sorta likes it, or at least can't quit it, so there's an interesting dynamic when we return each year.

Beat and his Belgian teammate, Pieter, at the start in Chamonix. Now that Beat has finished this four times, I trust him to make good decisions, so there's less fretting these days. He and Pieter raced together in 2015 and work well together. The race organization also moved up the start time, and between that and finish time adjustments, they have 15.5 more hours than we were given in 2013. I'm hoping that removes some of that cut-off stress in a race where the finishing rate has been less than 30 percent, and 80 percent of the finishers reach Chamonix within four hours of the final cut-off. This year's course is also harder than any other year, so it may be a wash.

I didn't grab a good spot to watch the start. I still thought this photo was interesting, with the phone screens as the only thing in focus.

In 2014, I tried to make peace with my PTL demons by hiking pieces of the course while Beat raced. This proved to be an enjoyable activity — as it turns out, the PTL course in small doses is beautiful and lots of fun, even if travel remains very slow (yup, even being rested doesn't improve my moving average of 2 mph.) On Monday I linked the first few miles of the 2015 PTL route with a segment from this year so I could hike backward on the course and watch teams pass. The initial climb ascended tight switchbacks beneath a tram, gaining 2,600 feet in 1.6 miles. Then there was a chossy scramble with cables, which didn't surprise me at all, as there's usually a fair amount of that in PTL. It was a fun ascent, but not something I'd like to do after several days of one-hour sleeps with 150 miles on my legs.

Traverse from Planpraz to the ridge. As far as I know this trail was not part of any recent PTL route, which makes sense because it's too enjoyable.

Opposing peaks.

Lac Cornu.

Cute little chamois.

Lac Noir d'en Haut.

This guy wanted to pose.

Working my way down from Col de la Gliere on the cables.

Shortly after that, I encountered the leading PTL team — two Swiss guys. The first guy became excited about the Tecnica buff I was wearing and began chattering in French about the Tor des Geants. It's so embarrassing that I don't speak another language. Yet I haven't taken initiative to learn one.

From there the PTL course veered straight down Combe Lachenal on this talus slope that was steeper than the photograph portrays.

I decided I didn't want to do that, so I took the long way around on a nice trail.

These guys seemed pretty sick of the scree as well. This was the third PTL team.

They got up again quickly, though.

Down in the forest I crossed paths with Beat and Pieter, looking pretty good after making their way around the glacier moraines of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley. After my 13-mile hike with 5,600 feet of climbing, I could almost understand again this strange pull PTL seems to have on a select few crazies who try it more than once. But tonight I received this text message from Beat, referring to the talus slope I skipped and the traverse around Lac Cornu:

"Brutal 40K. The scree sucked and the descent was a mess too. Food and beer and we'll push on. 37th team at the moment. Too fast."

I texted back: "SLEEP!" I doubt he'll listen.

It might be a nail-biter of a week after all.


  1. Is this the same route that people backpack? I'd like to do that someday. Maybe 2018. A lot slower than Beat.

    1. People backpack the Tour du Mont Blanc, the established ~100-mile route that is run as a race in UTMB. Not that I've excelled on either course, but the TMB is a cakewalk comparatively. There are a lot of steep climbs and descents, but everything is on trail and there's little that would even qualify as class two.

  2. Urgh...the things some people do for fun...I'm with you Jill...I'd MUCH rather hike it at my leisure than to do it under a military-style pace with time-pressure cutoffs...just can't see how THAT would be fun. But to each his own...hope Beat and Pieter stay safe (and you too)!


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