French Taper - Page 2
The course runs alongside the Weisse Lutschine River as it heads into Lauterbrunnen. Photo by Chris Hunter.
I took myself back to a little less than a week earlier, sitting in the front seat of an airport van headed from Geneva, Switzerland, to Chamonix, France, taking liberties with the driver’s iPod until I found something familiar—the Arctic Monkeys. I cranked up the volume so we could hear the music over the rolled-down windows that let in cool, humid air. Gina was slumped down in the backseat, nearly asleep.
“How’d you end up in Chamonix? What do you do? Where are you from? How did you get roped into picking us up at the airport?” Rather than casual small-talk, I interrogated our driver.
The Berkshire, England, native was wearing baggy pants, an old sweat-stained T-shirt and a black beanie, haphazardly thrown on sideways over a growing-out, flopped-over Mohawk.
To his benefit, my ability to converse quickly waned and jet lag took over. I rested my head on my seat-belt shoulder strap and peered out the window. Lush farmland and thick foliage extended up the green, sloping fields. Valley walls rose nearly vertical. As we neared Chamonix (at just over 3000 feet), Mont Blanc came into view and my vision tunneled.
Mont Blanc, known as “the rooftop of Europe,” is the highest mountain in the Alps, rising to 15,782 feet. I was instantly mesmerized by the sharp, dagger-like granite spires—the Chamonix Aiguilles—that stood juxtaposed against the enormous Mont Blanc glacier that spilled in apron folds down the mountain. Pillow clouds congregated near the summit, adding to the mystique.
I was here to crew Rory Bosio, 28, of Truckee, California, during her first-ever international ultra—the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), arguably the most competitive and challenging footrace in Europe. The 166-kilometer course circumnavigates Mont Blanc and climbs a staggering 32,000 feet. To add to the race’s difficulty, it always starts in the evening, meaning everyone has to run technical mountain terrain in the dark.
Rory works nights as a nurse and seemed fine with pulling an all-nighter on the trails. “I’m used to staying up all night so it didn’t bother me,” she said. “It was weird, though, to lie around all day and then go race. … Too much time to kill … I was going stir crazy.”
This year alone, which served as the race’s 10th anniversary, “There were 50 people who could have finished in the top five based on their international racing experience and over 200 people who could have come in the top 20,” said race director Katherine Correra.
Problem was, since our arrival the weather had progressively deteriorated. What started as mist had turned to dense fog in the valley and deep snow and high winds on the mountain passes. Race morning, unsafe weather forced organizers to come up with a plan B for a third consecutive year. The premiere European event had been reduced to a 100K.
The race, which normally goes through Italy, France and Switzerland, would be run solely in France. For the leaders, that meant a race run entirely in the dark, through a cold, steady, miserable rain. Some runners seemed OK, taking the change in stride because of past years, while others complained they’d trained too long and hard for 166 kilometers to be forced to run a shorter distance. Others dropped out entirely.
“We all know we need to respect the weather conditions. Our ultimate goal, of course, is to get around the mountain and stay safe,” Jezz Brag of the UK, winner of the 2010 UTMB, said before the race. This was important to remember as I contemplated my job as crew in such inclement conditions. My task was to give Rory fresh gels and food at every crew-accessible checkpoint and, above all else, keep her spirits high.
At 6 p.m., I waded into the packed streets of Chamonix to cheer Rory off. Spectators crammed between late 18th- and early 19th-century buildings nestled aside cobbled walks and narrow lanes sandwiched between towering Mont Blanc and the opposing Aiguilles Rouges, a ridge of reddish, rocky peaks. The smell of baking cheese and eggs and buttery breads wafted out of ubiquitous pâtisseries.
Dozens of dark bars had their doors open wide; the stale smell of beer and cigarette smoke seeped onto the streets. The start was lined for a half mile with people holding their iPhones high, filming and snapping photos of the giant start arch.
Fog settled low in the valley, drifting into dark alleys as if the organizers had used a fog machine to evoke a sense of doom. Adding to the ambiance, the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans blasted around town. While some runners might have found this motivational, it made me laugh. “I feel like we’re here sending these people off to war,” I yelled over the crowd to Chris Hunter, a photographer friend of mine who was along to document the trip.
“This is insane!” Chris responded, from his perch on some nearby scaffolding. Chris wasn’t actually on the platform, though, as it was crammed with people. Instead, he hung by one arm over the crowd in the hopes of a clear view of the race start.
A three, two, one countdown … and the field took off. A giant wave of runners started with the front of the pack moving along at a sub 6:30-per-mile clip while the back of the packers were already walking.
I met up with my crewmates and we hurried off to the first checkpoint. It was dark and cold, and I was already tired when the frontrunners began to funnel through. A long espresso-filled, sleepless night awaited.