"A solo adventure" - Oli Stenning

A solo adventure

Words: Oliver Stenning
Images: Oliver Stenning

This summer was destined to be a great one. Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June and TDS (one of the UTMB races) in August and I was so excited to build on my performance following a strong race at Transgrancanaria in March. Like many runners across the world, back in April, I was full of hope that summer races would go ahead as planned, so I continued to train in the flatlands of London. I worked with my running coach on building some speed in the legs in my one-a-day exercise coupled with some indoor cycling on Zwift. Fitness felt good, but with the closure of gyms in the UK and unable to see a physio or receive sports massage, my body started to feel the effects of pounding concrete and the lack of maintenance contributed to some minor niggles. I’ve been working with a specialist S&C coach and it’s definitely strengthened my weak areas and helped to keep me injury free ever since.


 
Keen to fill the void of a race-less summer and benefit from the training stimulus of a big effort in the legs, I decided to move to Chamonix in early July, whilst working my London job remotely. I have been so grateful for the amazing trails and mountains around the Mont Blanc massif. What better way to replicate the training benefits of an ultra than to attempt a solo UTMB? So, I planned with my coach to run the 171km loop in the middle of August. Whilst I had a few 18hr training weeks in my legs at this point, we decided on the date 3 weeks beforehand as it coincided with my dad being in Chamonix and (very kindly) crewing me with food and drink refills at a few points along the route.
 
The route is incredibly well marked so it’s difficult to get lost – somehow, I managed to, as some sections of the trail were blocked and I added an extra 6 or 7km in detours. I wanted to enjoy the experience without the pressure from the racing environment, although the competitive side of me (which is pretty dominant) wanted to go around sub 30 hours – a time goal which I quickly dropped after rolling my ankle on the first small descent in to Saint-Gervais! Fortunately, I had packed some pre-cut strapping in my medical kit so I was able to tape up my ankle and continue on.
 
I was also battling with some stomach issues for the first 6 hours although I was still able to digest food. I stuck to the same pre-race nutrition as I ways do for long runs so it came as a surprise to feel discomfort, possibly caused by stashing poles across the back of a tight running belt, so I decided to remove it for the first long climb up Col du Bonhomme – a wise decision as suddenly the issue seemed to subside. 

 
As I ascended Bonhomme, daylight began to close in. My pack weighed heavy; the next opportunity I'd have to restock on food would be in Courmayeur, around 50km and 3000m of climbing to go, without any aid. I knew this section was going to be tough – physically and mentally.
 
I crested Croix du Bonhomme before midnight, alone, or so I thought. The sky was clear and full of stars and you'd be mistaken to think the lower stars were headlamps. As my torch lit the trail ahead, I saw a group of people wild camping – until I got closer and realised it was a group of Ibex with their bright glowing eyes appearing as though headlamps shining back. 
 
The next section ahead was the infamous Pyramided des Cyclades. Often the race organisers re-route runners to avoid this section, typically due to bad weather as the summit is exposed, snow-covered and extremely technical. My pace dropped to below 3k per hour for this section and I started to get cold quickly. I'd packed a technical hoody, waterproof, gloves and a buff, although I didn't expect to get them out my pack - it worked a treat and kept my body temperature up. I kept telling myself that sunrise was in a few hours and this was going to be the toughest section of trail.


 
The descent down into Courmayeur was long, I was hungry and I was starting to get cold again, even with the 3 layers on. The sunrise was beautiful though. This time I could definitely see headlamps - a couple of rock climbers on the granite slabs next to the Miage glacier – I think they were on Mont Rouge de Peuterey. I was reminded of how ultra-running can bring with it such big highs only moments after a state of desperation.
 
The next checkpoint was in sight and I was looking forward to a cup of coffee. My dad made a fierce espresso with a mini mokapot and a portable stove. I took on a lot of food – boiled potatoes with salt and tomatoes in a tortilla, some sticky sweet rice and an orange. Refilled my pack with more food and off I went. I spent the next 15 minutes running shuttles up and down Via Roma in Courmayeur, getting lost (again) as my gpx file sent me in the wrong direction.
 
At this point I was feeling pretty good, I’d forgotten about my ankle and my stomach had settled. Whilst I was running alone, I felt more connected than ever and exchanged many “Ciaos” and “Buongiornos” with local hikers, being on the Italian side it had changed from the classic “Bonjour” or the occasional “allez/bravo/bon courage” in France.
 
The next big climb of Grand Col Ferret provided some spectacular views of the Italian valley and probably my favourite part of the route. A long descent (about 20km!!) and I was firmly in Switzerland, in a tiny village called Praz de Fort. I’d planned to meet my dad here for another bite to eat and restock of food – it was very special to share this experience with my Dad and not something I’ll be forgetting anytime soon. It was at Praz de Fort we both realised we were about to run out of food – I had only a couple of pieces of fruit to carry with me to get to Champex-Lac. Unfortunately, the supermarkets were closed in Switzerland – it was the Assumption of Mary day and we were out of options. Other than the obvious sleep deprivation having been moving for 27+ hours at this point, my legs felt really good.
 
It felt a bit stupid to continue on without carrying any food and with the knowledge that I was putting myself and others at risk if I needed aid whilst I was up a mountain. I’d been eating something every 30-40 minutes like clockwork and I know from my long training runs this works for me. Trient, the next possible meeting point, was almost 20km away up and over the Bovine climb. I reminded myself that this was training, my legs felt great and that I’d recover quickly if I stopped at Champex-Lac. The idea of running for another few hours without food seemed reckless, as frustrating as it was for the adventure to end abruptly around 40km short of reaching Chamonix.
 
In hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision and it was great to be able to go cycling the next day with my dad and reflect on what was an extremely memorable run around the UTMB course. I’m full of motivation for my next loop of Mont Blanc and in awe of anyone going unsupported for the super long FKTs – running solo with limited or no support is tough, especially through the mountains at night..

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