It was an unfamiliar road, but the journey was already known. It was this eternal hunger for what’s out there and that fulfillment of conquering a new territory that would always drive me to face new challenges. It was a strange place, and yet a common ground.
After two years of planning and accumulating points, I made it to TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie), a 114km ultra trail race passing through the countryside of Mont Blanc with numerous elevations at more than 2500 meters. Originally I was qualified to join the much longer race, UTMB (160km), but at the last minute I just thought I still have years ahead of me and I’d rather save it for later. A lot of people are saying that even if TDS is shorter than UTMB, they considered it harder because of the terrain and it was far more technical, and these opinions would be later confirmed by me during the race itself.
I can pretty much say I was well prepared for this race. Training has been very natural for me to include in my routine. After doing a lot of races in the Philippines, I could safely say I already knew what I was doing, everything except for a really bad weather, but more on that later. I was ready, I was made for this.
We arrived in Chamonix three days before the race and the weather was really good. It was showing good signs of a good weather condition on the mountain. But come Wednesday, the day before the race, it started drizzling. Their weather forecast for the race got pretty bad. It was very accurate and yet it would still present a lot of drastic changes. We received race updates that would scare me to death:
The conditions are wintery! Very cold, high winds and wet.
There will be snow at high points from 1800m to 2000m.
Beware of the wind chill facture, it will feel very cold! The temperatures will feel as if they have dropped to –10° C.
Due to this it is necessary to manage the conditions by taking:
- 4 layers of clothing (and not 3 as stated in the list of obligatory equipment)
- The most waterproof jacket possible.
- Thicker under garments.
- Really warm gloves, and waterproof.
- Bandana/scarf which covers the ears and part of the face, as well as a warm hat.
Clothing which respects the requirements to the minimum will be uncomfortable and very probably lead to hypothermia and a drop in your performance level.
Please remember, in these difficult conditions, the solidarity between runners is extremely important.
Also, remember that to finish such challenge it is necessary to manage the conditions and know how to adapt to them.
I think I died at the first sentence. WINTERY conditions? Oh great! I knew it would be cold and I had the proper gears with me, but I’ve never really experienced winter, and I was hoping my first sighting of snow would be lovely, but instead I was anticipating hell. I tried to look back on my races before where it got pretty bad, I have ran through a storm, but that’s just rain and wind, the temperature doesn’t drop to negative. According to the latest forecast, there would be rainfall the whole day and night, with a little snow, but I guess it was an underestimation. Levi (my main support for the whole race, thank you very much) gave me a pep talk that I was ready for the race and to just enjoy it. I was thinking too much and it hasn’t even started yet.
The Journey Begins.
From Chamonix, we were shuttled to our starting line in Courmayeur which was on the Italian side. The race would start at 7am, and we arrived there at 6am. It was very chilly I had to wear my bonnet and 3 layers of clothing for my top. It was a nice thing that there were some coffee shops open at that hour but I could not think of food anymore, my heart was just beating fast. It’s the usual panic that I feel every race. It never goes away and this time, it was worse.
30 minutes before the start and I was feeling all the possible sensation one can feel in a short period. Excited, nervous, anxious, sickly, and just completely scared to death. As fearful as I was, I was very emotional on how I even landed there surrounded by all these like-minded runners who are passionate for the mountains and are at peace with the trails. These are not your ordinary runners, they’re mountain people. I belong here. I can do this. The race begins; as I ran, the anxiety diminishes. I was doing exactly what I knew. I started with 3 layers of clothing, but after maybe a kilometer, I started generating heat and took out my layers and just kept my base layer on. The first 2km was a meek ascent on road, it was a good warm-up for all of us I guess and then we hit the trails, or the foot of the mountain and people started compressing and a lot started walking. In my races at home, people don’t start walking this early, but I felt like I should do what these veterans are doing, I thought to myself, they probably knew what they were doing. Along with these true mountain people, I started trekking, and that’s when I felt that it was the start of the first uphill. I still didn’t have an idea on how to gauge my time as it was all untried to me, I just knew that even if I was walking, I shouldn’t stop to rest or catch my breath. I was too paranoid with the cut-off time. In an hour and a half, I reached Col Checrouit (7km, 2000meters), not bad I said.
That first uphill though gave me an idea on how technical and steep the ascents would be in the coming stages. It’s similar to Sto. Tomas in Baguio, only steeper and longer. There was a bit of rain the whole time, but at this time it was still okay, it was not cold (yet). It was my first time to tackle a scree (accumulation of broken rock fragments usually on a mountain cliff) ascent. I was at the foot of that area, and I saw how steep it was, it was like a wall and people were all lined up. Because of too much eagerness to get to the next station, I would overtake some of the racers and deviate from the trail and scramble my way along the scree. As I was doing this, some rocks would fall and I almost fell. I noticed that I was the only one doing this and I didn’t know if what I was doing was unethical or very unlikely for Europeans to do. I was too impatient to stay with the pack. Was I being such a typical roadie racer? Someone who always wants to be ahead of everyone? Oh no. A French guy was calling my attention, and of course I could not understand what he was saying, until a nice Swiss guy translated it for me. He said “Stay in the line, that’s dangerous not just for you, but for the other runners as well” Oops, okay, my bad!
First Stop: La Thuille (21km)
The first cut-off and refreshment station was at La Thuille, a 10km descent from one of the highest peak of the course, Col de la Youlaz (2661m, 11km from start). I reached La Thuille at 11:10am; the cut-off time was 12:30pm. “Kayang-kaya, basta tuloy-tuloy lang” I told myself, I was happy with my time.
Inside the refreshment tent, it was like a prison canteen (not that I’ve been to one), there were a hundred runners all trying to get food from the “buffet area”, I must say there was no room for being prim and proper. People will be eating with their hands, filling their mouths with biscuits while spooning some soup and drinking coke, it was not fine dining! You eat and you go! The volunteers at the refreshment stations served their local cheese, which I tried once and avoided after afraid it would ruin my tummy because it tasted too fresh and it was like meat. They also had dark chocolates, fruits—apricots, bananas, berries—chicken noodle soup, coke, biscuits, cookies and bread. If not for the time, which Simon (a fellow PUR who did UTMB) advised me to be conscious about, I would have stayed a little longer and enjoyed the local servings, but he said the time would keep on running even if you’re inside the station, so it would be ideal to just grab the food and get out of the tent and start walking while munching. Hence, I did that, I don’t think I had to be proper anyway. I filled my cup with soup, filled my mouth with bread, grabbed fruits with my hands, I don’t know exactly how I managed, but I was able to pull it, and before you know it, I was heading out.
A second climb (700m) to Col Petit St.Bernard (30km from start, 2188m) took me 2 and half hours. Then it was followed by a trip in the Hatie Tarentaise with a very long descent along the roman road, passing through Seez and then to the second refreshment station at Bourg Saint-Maurice. This long descent can be painful but the trekking poles were a gift from Heaven! It can indeed make you more stable and distribute your weight and lessen the impact on the knees. On my last week in Baguio before leaving for Europe, I practiced a lot of downhill running with the trekking poles, and it paid off.
I passed a lot of isolated quaint houses and the people inside would peek through their window and cheer the runners passing. It was very heartwarming and it can give you some energy boost knowing that these people go out of their way to cheer you. Even if I studied the map, I still couldn’t tell if I’m on the French side or Italian side. Whenever I would be cheered with “Bravo”, I’d assume I was still in Italy. But correct me if I’m wrong. The Italians were very hyper when it comes to cheering; I’m in love with them.
The Little Boy
At Bourg Saint-Maurice (46km from the start), I was greeted by more cheerers; it was similar to how spectators respond in Tour de France, the feeling was completely beyond words. It was also heartening to see a familiar face every now and then; it makes you feel safe and hopeful. Levi was there just outside the tent (the support cannot go inside the tents) and signaled to me that I should relax and that my time was good. I got there at 3:54pm, the cut-off was 5:30pm, and was doing okay. In this station, I tried to load up as much as I can since the next station will be the hardest section of the whole race, it was the steepest and most technical terrain. And so I grabbed some noodle soup (you’re lucky if you get noodles, a lot usually end with just the broth), sat down and for some reason, I think the other runners thought I was a little boy, a lost boy. Look at the picture, and please disagree with them, although I can’t blame you.
Before leaving the station, they check on your headlamps as they were already anticipating people getting caught up in the dark in the middle of the trail.
As per the course time chart, the next cut-off would be at 11:15pm, at Cormet de Roselend (63km from start).
The Hardest Ascent
Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice, I was faced with a 12km ascent, the steepest among the rest as some may say. The answer to this was a POWERHIKE! Just keep on walking, that was the trick, even the veteran runners cannot run this steep, but they sure do hike really fast. They scrambled. I divided that 12km ascent in my mind, targeting the first 5.5km to Fort de la Platte (1997m), and got there at 6:28pm. I was in shock, that was almost 2 and half hours from the time I left Bourg Saint-Maurice, which was really steep! From here, I started seeing other racers falling on the side of the trails, resting and looking dazed. I wanted to sit down, but I knew it would be harder to get up, plus I might cramp and fall asleep as I’ve seen happened to the others.
I was hiking with old-looking people, by old, I mean grand-pa old, and they were of course hiking up faster than me. These guys may not be good runners on the flat area or descents, but hiking is very natural to them and I admire them for that. They’re always smiling and not once did I hear them complain, they were just at peace being there. The next 6km to Passeur de Pralognan (2567m) was even worse. It was getting steeper and colder. Even though there was rainfall the whole day, there was no wind chill factor until this section. I noticed a lot of the runners stopping to wear more waterproof gears, but I could not move that much. My hands were starting to tremble. I could not even pee or take out my food because I didn’t want to take my hands out.
By this time I had already worn 2 layers of gloves (A wool inner-lining and waterproof gloves similar to the one we use for dishwashing). The sun was still out, but gauging my pace, I knew it would be dark before I reach the next refreshment station, so I had to stop to take my headlamp out. It was a terrible hike; people were starting to move like zombies. I started losing a clear visibility because of the wind and snow. It was my first time to see snow, and as much as I was enthusiastic with my first time to see snow, I felt trepidation instead. It was a nice valley with snow caps, I would have wanted to take photos, but like I said, taking my gloves out was too much stress and I was starting to get scared, because the weather was becoming really unfriendly. I was starting to dream about hot chocolate, sinangag and tuyo, I needed some comfort food, and I felt like I was part of an apocalypse. The last 2km before reaching Passeur de Pralognan was very technical. You needed to scramble and it was really slippery. A lot of racers were falling off, but unlike other uber competitive sports, racers here help out each other. It’s a journey and not about time splits. The racers started assisting each other in slippery sections, and even though I could not understand the language most of the time, and even if I looked like a boy, their gestures were very comforting. I was alone in that race but I never felt alone. It was past 8:30 in the evening when I reached that peak, but there was no time to be emotional about it, I was about to get hungry and it was dark; I needed to get to Cormet de Roseland (refreshment station) immediately.
A 4km descent, very steep at the beginning, less cruel thereafter, leads us to Beaufort at the Cormet de Roselend. It would have been an easy feat, if not for the icy and slimy rocks. Everyone slowed down, careful not to slip. I swear if somebody fell from that descent, it’s possible not to see them because of the poor visibility from the weather. It would be stupid to run and scramble in this section as one may very likely get injured. I fell a dozen times, but we all assisted each other and since we were all too careful, we seemed as if huddled together the whole time. It was very moving how the human spirit can be felt despite of the language barrier and the weather conditions.
My legs were still feeling okay, it was not that great but there was no pain anywhere. My muscles were feeling tight but I could still run, and I had to run to generate heat. It was freezing and still I was thinking maybe this is normal. By this time, I was an official zombie; I was not as animated as the last refreshment stations. I have a typical psychological phase whenever I do ultras. I’d start out panicky and paranoid, then the paranoia diminishes and I start to feel right about the moment but come night time, I start to clear my head up and imagine a lot of things, and I mean A LOT of should’a-would’a-could’as, then I’d become silent in my head, moving like a robot, then I’d start talking to myself, chanting, then there’s hatred wherein I’d hate myself for being there “why-am-I-here?” and the worst and last part is, when I would start composing songs in my head and actually singing it. At 63km, I was only at the robot and silent stage. I just kept on moving without realizing the whole situation.
It was uplifting to see Levi at Cormet de Roseland. It was 10pm and I needed a familiar face, because I was really just a robot.
The air at the station was very different from the previous refreshment stations, it was not lively and you can sense that something was not right. I was too exhausted to eat, but good thing Levi was able to sneak inside and he forced me to eat. I was getting tired of the noodle soup but I had to eat. Levi looked at me and asked me if I was still okay and if I would still push through and of course I gave a big YES.
I never thought of quitting unless I get an injury. And then I started noticing all the racers that were abandoning the race, they were all lined up to surrender their time chips. What was happening? The girl, just a few minutes behind me said that the weather condition outside the tent was really bad, it was already a snow storm and temperature was dropping. So that’s why my gloves were covered in white frost! I have to be smart and strategic about this. Am I going to push through, knowing that the next refreshment station is after 19km, considering that it was already freezing outside?
I changed into dry clothes and went out a few meters from the tent to see if I could manage. But the minute I set my foot outside, I felt the surge of strong chilly winds up to my spine. I was shaking and went back inside. Think! Think! I looked around, and saw the racers in emergency blankets shaking and thought to myself that I must be really crazy to do this.
These guys are used to freezing, and they’re abandoning the race? They probably knew what they were doing, and hence the biggest and hardest decision of my life. A UPM co-member responded to my TDS post that some people would rather eat shattered glasses than quit, and I totally agree with her. At that point, I didn’t want to think, I had to finish this, but was it worth the risk—the risk of hypothermia and an accident? It was not my day; I cannot do it today, NOT TODAY. I had to eat my pride and realize that sometimes you just have to raise the white flag. I humbly walked to the station where I would surrender my time chip, and just like that, they tore it from me and took my heart out. As they took my number, I felt like a part of me died.
More than 500 racers abandoned the race at Cormet de Roseland, and I was part of it. In TDS (other UTMB events as well), everything is unpredictable.
According to their newsletter, in 2010, racers were either cancelled or interrupted due to bad weather and landslides. In 2011, they were forced to modify the route at the last minute due to the bad weather. This year, they managed to run TDS with the original course and distance but with a very high rate of runners abandoning the race. Around 1400 of us started the race, and only 631 finished. The UTMB saw its route shortened to 103km from 160km.
My Trail Ends
There are a lot of things that we cannot control no matter how we would have wanted everything to be the way we expect them to be. We cannot win all the time, and once in a while we see ourselves facing decisions we wish we didn’t have to make. But it is how we deal with these situations that count. It is in accepting these changes that we appreciate ourselves, and it humbles us and gives us lessons on how to be stronger. These make us humans. This may have broken my heart, but it made me fall in love with running and the mountains more. It’s purely inexplicable, how the trail can both smash and shelter me. When I’m running (or just trekking), in the mountains, all I have to do is gaze at the scenery passing by and experience the sunset and sunrise in solemnity. I love running.
Thank you everyone for all your support and for following our journey!
*Thank you so much to Sharon and Ruby of R.O.X, to Jundell of TNF and to Janice of Salomon! We will forever be grateful for everything!
* To Levi, for supporting me from the very beginning and believing in me,thank you
*Photographs: Levi Nayahangan