One two buckle my shoe, three four knock on the door, five six pickup sticks” I chanted away to my daughters favourite song the only thing I knew to help keep some rhythm as I trudged along, the distinct crunch of snow under foot and the cold burn of thin air in my lungs…here it was…the “Death March”…the one that Ice Trail Tarentaise is known to induce. Now 42km and some 4000+ vertical meters into the race and I was concerned about one thing…legitimately concerned…. only about one thing..….survival!
The Ice Trail Tarentaise is a 65km/5000m+ Sky race set in the stunning mountain town of Valdisere France. It is billeted as one of the hardest Sky races, kilometre for kilometre, around and for good reason! Combining extreme altitude with anywhere between 40-60% of ice and snow covered trail, 60 of the 65km held at above 2000m, 2 mountain summits above 3300m, temperatures that can range anywhere between 20deg and -15 and a mandatory kit that includes CRAMPON’s (albeit running ones). It’s a complete monster!
Valdisere itself is surrounded by sheer walls of vertical rock and high alpine forest, it is one hell of an inspiring place to stay. As soon as we drove into the town it put a smile on my face and made Chamonix even look a little douche grade!
After a few days hiking and “jogging” the town came alive and it was race weekend. I got the pleasure of watching my wife Tymeka push the limit on the vertical km, so steep was its terrain that Tymeka (despite not taking poles) was forced to pick up a stick and half a discarded broken ski pole to help haul herself up the slippery, wet and steep slopes that made up the VK course! It was INSANE!
Before long it was race morning and I was lucky enough to have another awesome crew of ANZAC’s (Aussie and NZLers) to stand shoulder to shoulder with against the Europeans again. This time I was joined by Matt Cooper, Vlad Ixel and Scott Hawker.
The weather was dubious on the day and we had been warned of rain, low cloud and maybe snow on the summits. I donned my usual race kit but opted for a buff instead of the visor and headed for the start line.
Before long the crowd assembled and we were off! The start was fast, I mean real fast for this type of race clocking off sub 4min/km’s for the only few flat km’s we would see that day. I settled in somewhere in the top 10 with Vlad and Scott close behind and Matt just ahead.
It was here in the opening few kilometres of the race that I nearly lost my life!! We ran along some tight single trail and in the light of my headlamp I noticed some horses in a paddock just meters away, I thought nothing of it and kept running. However about 100m down the trail I heard some very heavy footsteps coming up from behind….I had thought it was just someone sprinting up to take positions early but when Vlad behind me screamed “WATCH OUT” I knew something was terribly wrong.
I spun around and just as I did caught the eyes of a stampeding scared horse in my head lamp, he was right there less than half a meter from me and he was on track to take me out!!! I froze in complete shock (and little bit of fear) and at the last second he darted off to the right of me and into the bushes I assume scared by my bright light!! My heart was racing…but there was a race to run so I spun back around tripping and wobbly trying to process what just happened and took back off after Matt.
The course basically climbs straight up from Valdiere to the summit of the Grand Motte Glacier at 3600m covering 1850 vertical meters in about 15km. For much of the initial climb I was running with Matt and Vlad with Scott not too far behind and I was feeling good. I had a goal of finishing top 10 and if I was holding no fatigue from Worlds then top 5 was maybe on the cards. The field at Ice Trail was deep however and included both Luis Alberto Hernado (Sky running world champ) and François d’Haene (2nd Sky champs) as well as IAU Trail Champion Tom Owens amongst a swag of other elite Europeans.
Before long the landscape started to change as we pushed further and further upwards into the sky. Softer trails studded with trees quickly gave way to rocky treeless alpine access roads and then finally to snow, ice and blue alpine sky. A quick stop for crampons and a jacket and I was back off through the 1st check point and still running…well kind of…towards the summit .
Its here that the full force of the first and biggest climb is felt as we turned up on the final kick to the summit. The course took us directly up a ski run that would have had to be 40-50% as we broke through the 3300m altitude barrier. I was bent over like a pocket knife hands on knees, breathing like a pack a day asthmatic and with a cadence that resembled a drunk stagger as opposed to a running race.
Matt was right beside me and we worked together to push further upwards chasing the leaders that we could now see further up the icey slope, but I was starting to falter. I could feel the deep fatigue in my legs from the sky champs and my hamstrings and glutes where working overtime, thankfully some encouragement from Matt helped me crest the summit with my dignity in tact.
The view from atop the Grande Motte can really only be likened to that of the summit of Everest. Cloud hung low below us like a sea of white with just a few 4000m mountain peaks breaking though in the distance, we were certainly on top of the world!
We where still in the top 10 at this stage and was I really looking forward to the 1000m+ descent that was about to come. However the down hill was a wolf in sheep’s clothing! We had to return back down the 50% Ice slope! The slope was about 800m long and had recently had a grooming machine over it so there was not a soft spot to be found. Pounding down the icy ground feet slapping everywhere was a horribly painful jarring experience. There was no were to hide on this section, no rock to bound off no berm or twist to change your gait….just pure painful pounding and I would compare it exactly to running down a 50% grade of concrete for 800m at full tilt.
It was no surprise then that soon after this punishing section of the descent my quads had packed their bags and headed home and it was only 20km in! The rest of the descent was much nicer but I was unable to really enjoy it for what it was on my shaking quivering mess of legs.
We rolled down maintaining our positions towards the 30km checkpoint. I had arranged for Tymeka to crew me so was looking forward to seeing her and Indie and picking up some much needed energy and spirit. As we came in Tymeka was nowhere to be found, dam it I thought. I stood there for a second to think about my options but realised there was only one. Push on without fuel.
The next section was more runnable than I had thought with a few ups and down before a long climb up towards the Co de lIseran. I was out of fuel and starting to bonk having to walk sections I sure my mum could run up. However all despair aside I somehow crept away from Matt (turns out his back packed it in on the descent too) and started to reel in a couple of Euros who where using poles in front.
Basically for the next 15km a YoYo battle would ensue between myself and these two other runners. On the runnable uphill I would reel them in and then on the super steep stuff they would power away with their poles, on the down hill I would reel them in and then we would do it all over again.
Finally the course burst out onto the only road section for the 2km run up to the restaurant on the Co de lIseran. I was in full walk/run mode unable to go more than 200m running without a break and making goals out of the Altispeed runners who had joined the course a few kms back.
At last I hit the restaurant at the Co de lIseran and to my utter surprise Tymeka was there! And just in time as well. I grabbed some much needed gels, water and punched as much Red Bull into me as I could. I learnt that Vlad was just ahead and Matt and Scott where both a way back with issues.
I set out of the checkpoint to what would be the hardest few hours of my running life. Although I felt better than before my legs were now nothing but unresponsive lumps of meat dangling from my hips. As soon as the steep upward grind kicked in I slowed to a despicable pace. My mind started to wonder thinking about all kinds of random things and begging for escape… and it began, the Ice Trail Death March.
I blocked out everything around me and focused on only survival, a genuine concern about my ability to make it to the finish had crept into my mind and for the next few hours my world was reduced to the next 30cm in front of my feet and a horribly catchy children’s rhyming song.
The climb up to the summit of the Co de lIseran was far harder than I could have imagined. It was filled with false summits, loose scree rock, snow, ice and the thin air of 3300m..again. It sapped all energy from me and turned the screws of fatigue so deep I doubted I would ever run again.
I finally made it to the summit and didn’t dwell, knowing full well there was nothing but cold death waiting for me if I stopped up there. I began the ginger descent and it took 10 or more minutes for my legs to come around and start working.
I burst into the checkpoint at 55km, exhausted, ruined but above all still alive. I learnt from Tymeka that Luis Alberto had dropped and some of the front runners where looking very rough. I was now in about 17th after losing many places on the shuffle up the last summit. Tymeka gave me a kiss and promptly kicked my ass back out onto the course….got to love a supportive wife.
There was just one more up hill to go and as I shuffled upwards again on loose scree and snow I heard the familiar voice of Ian Coreless as he snapped away some pictures of me well and truly inside the hurt locker. Maybe it was this little pick me up from Ian or the 8km of down hill that now lay before me, but a smile cracked across my weary face, my eyes brightened a little and I shouted….. “This is Sky RUNNING”!!! Then threw myself down the mountain like a racehorse with my jockeys whip cracking behind me.
I ran…no I flew down that descent faster than I have ever moved before and left many other runners in my wake. It had everything fast twisting single-track, deep snow, technical forest trail, scree the lot…. it was a down hill runners dream!
I ran myself from 17th to 13th in those last few km’s including another finish line sprint, I closed the gap on Vlad who I hadn’t seen for hours from 10min to just 60sec! I was done and I loved it!
Ice Trail really was a beautifully punishing race that will grind you into dust if you show but the slightest weakness. For me I had my lowest of lows and my highest of highs at Ice Trail, it was far from my perfect race but it taught me a lot about myself and racing in the mountains. While perhaps my worse result on paper it is for me among my greatest achievements and I can’t wait to do it again!
Shoes: La Sportiva Anakonda
Top: Compressport Trail Singlet + Compressport Arm Warmers
Bottom: Ron Hill Advanced Racer shorts
Compression: Compressport Trail Quads and R2 Calf Sleeves