Monday, April 4, 2016

Day 4: Ultra-Running Madness!

August 29: I first woke up a few hours before sunrise when I notice a light bouncing along the hillside above me. A headlamp. Behind it was another. And another. And another. Ultra-runners. I hadn't known exactly where they would be running once it split off from the main TMB, but I knew now--they were along the ridge above me, perhaps no more than 100 feet up the mountain. They were far enough way that they didn't bother me any, and I went back to sleep. I'd wake up periodically and look up the hillside to see if they were still there. They were.

Sunrise from camp at the valley bottom.

By sunrise, I lounged around camp and twiddled my thumbs. The runners were still passing by up the slope, and I knew they would soon merge back onto the main TMB. I was hoping the last of them would pass before I had to hit the trail again. Also, I hadn't realized it when I cowboy camped under the stars during the night, but condensation in the morning was quite bad. It hadn't rained during the night, but all of my gear was wet with dew. I didn't mind sitting around for a couple of hours letting it dry out in the warming sunlight.

So I twiddled my thumbs and killed time. I read my Kindle. I studied some Polish flashcards on my smartphone. Then I read my Kindle some more.

By 9:00, the runners were still passing upslope in large numbers and I was getting restless. I'd been set up in this camp for about 14 hours now, and sitting that long doing nothing makes me restless. My gear had largely dried out and it was time to start hiking--runners or not.

The trail followed a dirt road--utterly flat and easy along the valley bottom. It didn't take more than a half hour of walking, however, before the ultra runners rejoined the main TMB and I was back in the thick of them.

At least this time, however, they were traveling in the same direction as me. I didn't have to actually pass every single one of them--I just joined the flow and continued on.

Actually, calling them "runners" is something of a misnomer because almost none of them were actually running. Where their detour rejoined the TMB at the road, another aid station had been set up. This one was much larger and better supplied and staffed than the other ones I'd seen at mountain passes since this one was along a road easily accessible by support vehicles. When I passed by it, it looked like there were a hundred people sitting down or laid out, resting. A small tent city!

For those on their feet, they were generally walking. Along the wide road, there was plenty of space for everyone. I counted a whopping three people actually jogging--but none of them sustained their jogging--barely fast enough to pass a few walkers, then after passing a few people, would go back to walking. Show offs. =)

A helicopter would fly around a bit, then leave, then come back. It flew low, over the course, and the noise was annoying. I wish they'd just go away!

Ahead, I knew the main TMB would veer up the hillside along a much smaller trail, but I hoped the ultra-runners would be directed to continue forward on the road taking the much larger alternative route and keeping well away from me.

It was not, however, meant to be. With some disappointment, I saw the runners taking the side trail up the mountain's steep slopes, and I fell into line with them. I was half tempted to take the alternate, but the best views, I knew, were along the main TMB. I wanted the best views, runners be damned!

What I had not realized, however, was that the "walkers" would immediately turn into the "crawlers." I don't mean that in the literal sense--but their reasonable walking speed plunged into something I was certain a fast turtle could beat. To be honest, they looked whipped and exhausted--many seemingly on the verge of giving up. I had no idea where they started from or how far into this 110-mile race they were, but it was certainly many hours ago, and I considered every one of them certifiably insane for even wanting to try running 110 miles around steep terrain in one fell swoop. Crazy SOBs. *shaking head*

I started passing them left and right heading up the trail. The trail was narrow--not really enough to pass people in a single-file line--and often times I had to step off the trail to get around the slow-moving runners.

The ultra runners would soon rejoin me on the main TMB path along this dirt road.

Occasionally, I'd come up to a runner ahead of me who'd soon speed up, not wanting me to pass them. At best, they could keep it up for maybe five minutes before I found a place where I could get past. They just couldn't maintain their speed like I could--despite my heavy, 30-pound pack. Other runners, seeing me closing in behind them, seemed to use me as an excuse to stop. They'd stop to let me pass, but I knew they just wanted to stop and letting me pass was a convenient excuse to do so for a few precious seconds.

I wished all of them a happy "Buongiorno!" and moved on. I stopped trying to great people in their location language. Now that they were running in the same direction as me, I couldn't see their nationalities pinned to their fronts anymore. I didn't dare greet everyone--way too many people for that!--so I saved my greetings for those who let me pass them without complaint. =)

I lost count of the numbers of runners I passed somewhere in the 50s. The highlight--without a doubt--were the increasingly dramatic views of the mountains back over there on the European plate. I could see the giant glaciers carving their way down the slopes in incredible detail.

At one point, a helicopter flew over the trail, seemingly hovering no more than 50 feet above us, circling around. It looked dramatic against the background, and followed the trail down slope to a point where it hovered below my viewpoint near the trail, then landed softly a couple of minutes later. I stopped and watched, wondering what was up. Did one of the runners need to be evacuated?

The runners around me seemed to want to know the same thing--one of whom even stopped for about 30 seconds to watch the events unfold with me. "What's going on?" he asked me. "Is someone hurt or being evacuated?"

"I have no idea," I told him. He watched for another 15 seconds or so, but then continued his running. He was in a race, after all.

I didn't see anyone loaded into the helicopter, and it took off again a few minutes later. I still have no idea what that was about, but it was pretty awesome to see the helicopter landing out here with such a remarkable backdrop. Those helicopter pilots had one awesome job!

Absolutely fabulous views! (You can see some of the ultra runners at the edge of the far side of the lake.)

The trail finally rose to a pass where another aid station was set up. This one was much smaller than the first one I'd seen since there were no roads to it and the supplies had appeared to be helicoptered in earlier. In fact, from a distance, I had watched a helicopter land a short ways away from the aid station, maybe 300 feet away, where it had been shut down and was resting--presumably on call in case of an emergency.

I stopped for a few minutes at the top to admire the views, but I felt claustrophobic with the several dozen runners resting at the top and moved on quickly. Heading down the mountain, I became the runners' main obstacle. Downhill, almost all of them jogged and moved much faster than me. They were light and nimble on their feet carrying little more on their backs than a snack or two and a small bottle of water. With a 30-pound pack on my back, I was most certainly not feeling light and nimble. All of the people I passed going up the hillside now returned the favor by passing me going down the hillside. I tried to move over at any wide points in the trail to let them pass and wait for a small gap before continuing, and it was just as annoying for me as when I tried passing them all earlier.

Occasionally, through the morning, I'd pass the occasional regular person such as myself along the trail--people who clearly were not one of the runners. One guy, going in the opposite direction, was pushing a bicycle.

"Wow," I commented to him sympathetically. "You picked a really bad day for a bike ride!"

"Yes," he agreed. "This was not quite what I expected."

I knew he wouldn't be able to ride that bike again until he was back on that dirt road. This trail was far too narrow for a bike with all of the runners. And it was going against the grain. I had people passing me, but at least I was moving with the flow. Against the flow, he'd be passing far more people.

Then the trail moved off the dirt road uphill onto this narrow path where I started passing people left and right. I was kind of proud that I could move so much faster than the runners despite my heavy pack--although admittedly they'd probably been running all night long and I'd barely been on the trail for an hour or so!

Another couple I saw approaching from the opposite direction, who were on foot, I said, "Have you ever seen so many crazy people in your life?!"

The girl looked around, considering my words, and her eyes opened wider. "No! I haven't!" She obviously knew the ultra run was going on, but until I pointed it out, I don't think she considered them "crazy" people. It was like a light went on in her head when I referred to them as crazy people. The wheels turning in her brain thinking, the runners are crazy people. YES! They ARE crazy! And they're EVERYWHERE!

The guy didn't seem to understand me, and I assumed he must not have spoke English. The girl spoke with an accent so I knew English wasn't her first language, although she obviously knew it well enough to understand me, but if they were together, they were probably both from the same non-English-speaking country.

The trail eventually dumped up out at the Refuge Maison Vielle, which was set up as an enormous aid and rest station for the runners. It was in a ski area with plenty of dirt roads and it seemed like a hundred runners were laid out and resting, along with a live band playing music.

I found the scene loud and disorienting and just wanted to get away. I was tired of the runners. Too many runners....

Looking through my guidebook, it listed an alternative route off the main TMB. I could see runners continuing on the main TMB, so I considered that option out. I needed to get away from them. My guidebook described the alternative as more "spectacular"--always a plus in my book!--but required a good deal of road walking in the last half. I hate road walks, and this one sounded like it was a real road. Not some little-used dirt road. I'd have taken the less scenic (but still spectacular!) route to avoid the road walk under normal conditions, but at this point, I considered the road the lesser of two evils.

Can the views get any better?!!!!!

I veered off downhill to the left and minutes left the noise of the runners and band behind. Within five minutes, I felt like I was the only person in the forest again. It was... wonderful!

The trail lead downhill towards another ski lift, then followed a ski run further down the mountain. At the base of the ski run, the route intersected with a paved road where the road walk began.

At first it wasn't too bad. There were some dramatic views along the way, and the road wasn't particularly busy. But at the bottom of the valley, it intersected with another paved road--a much busier one although still very narrow and at that point, the road walk became absolutely awful. At times, uncomfortably large vehicles passed me in the narrow road and I wondered how dangerous walking on this road really was. The runners might have annoyed me, but I never felt like my safety was an issue. In fact, if I had somehow gotten hurt, there were plenty of people around to call for help and helicopters on standby near by! If I had to pick a place to get hurt, that would actually be the best time for it!

I walked along the narrow road as quickly as possible, wanting to get it down and over with as quickly as possible.

The road curved and wound its way towards Courmayeur--my next resupply point of the trail and the first Italian town I'd visit. From the road, I could see one end of the famous Mont Blanc Tunnel, which fascinated me. The tunnel is among one of the longest highway tunnels in the world--over 7 miles (11 km) long. The south of it is here in Courmayeur, Italy. The tunnel goes directly under Mont Blanc and exits in Chamonix, France--just a few miles away from where I started my hike. I watched the cars coming out of the tunnel and thinking that mere minutes ago, they were exactly where I started this hike three days earlier. But to be fair, I definitely had much better views.

As I approached the outskirts of Courmayeur, I sometimes had trouble figuring out which direction to go. This route wasn't exactly marked for hikers because hikers really didn't use it much. There was no reason a hiker would want to avoid the main TMB. Except today. During the ultra-run.

So I tended to veer on what looked like the "main street" whenever I reached an intersection and followed any signs that pointed to "Courmayeur." I could a couple of educated guesses and eventually made it into town--cautiously and slow, but without ever taking a wrong turn which I patted myself on the shoulder for. =)

Helicopters flew over the line of ultra runners all day long!

My first order of business--actually, my only order of business--was to resupply food for the next stage of the hike. I walked into a "supermercato," somewhat underwhelmed with it. I felt the "super" part was more wishful thinking than fact, but it was sufficient to get the job done. I also treated myself to a good lunch with a sandwich, a couple of cold drinks, and fruits like bananas that don't pack well.

I spent maybe 90 minutes outside of the market eating my lunch and re-packing my food for the next few days. I was in no rush. I knew the ultra runners would be going through town and I'd have to merge back on the same trail they were using. My detour was done and I was hoping the end of them would have already passed through and I wouldn't actually have to share the trail with them anymore. The longer I delayed in town, the more of them would have passed.

I reconnected with the main TMB pleased to see absolutely no runners whatsoever. I was finally behind the race! I could see signs of the runners. Markers taped to poles marking the route, the barricades used to control runners and spectators alike, but they all appeared abandoned. The race had finally passed me by.

From town, the trail headed uphill rapidly but efficiently, zig-zagging back and forth on switchbacks. I saw several runners walking slowly back down the mountain in the opposite direction. I knew they were runners--their clothes were a dead giveaway, but some of them still had their numbers pinned to them as well. None of them were moving swiftly, and all of them were going in the wrong direction. I wasn't sure if they had simply quit (having had enough of it) or if they didn't reach the next checkpoint in time (and were disqualified from continuing or something). I suspected it was the latter. It would have made more sense to quit in town before running uphill thousands of feet and several miles just to retrace one's steps back down to town. I wanted to ask them about the race and why they were clearly no longer in it, but it seemed rude to ask so I merely told them "hello" in Italian as we passed each other.

This helicopter landed near the trail for a couple of minutes, but I never did find out why.

The next refuge on the trail, Refugio Bertone, I stopped for a quick break and water and to admire the commanding views back down towards Courmayeur. I would have liked to stop here, but camping wasn't allowed at this refuge so I continued up the slope to the top of the ridge which absolutely blew my mind!

The views from the top were some of the very best views I've ever seen in my life. Across the valley stood the Mont Blanc Massif, a giant wall of granite, snow, ice and glaciers that looked so close you could almost reach out and touch. By now, it was nearing sunset and I scoped out a place to cowboy camp. The views would be awesome! Although I was slightly concerned about the complete lack of protection from the elements. There were no trees, no rocks, no nothing at the top. If it started to rain or got windy, I'd be very exposed with no way to secure my tarp. I'd pretty well be screwed. The weather forecast I saw two days earlier did show a possibly of rain tonight, but by dusk, the sky still looked good. Nothing that looked like rain clouds to me, but I was on the flanks of a mountain that could make its own weather.

The trail would follow the ridge for a few more miles, and nothing in my guidebook or that I could see ahead hinted anyplace better to camp than right here. So I set up camp, crossed my fingers, and hoped no bad weather would strike during the night.

I cooked dinner, and watched the sunset--a magnificent sunset with streaks of light shining brightly through the clouds and between the mountain peaks. And across the valley, I'd occasionally hear a rumble. I had no doubt I was hearing avalanches as the glaciers slowly teared down the beautiful mountains across the valley. Before it got dark, I tried looking for where the avalanche occurred--perhaps a puff of dirt and dust at the edge of a shrinking glacier, but I could never spot it. Once the sun set, I gave up on looking for them. I'd never spot them in the dark.

I stayed away for a couple of hours after sunset, reading my Kindle and admiring the beautiful starry night. A nearly full moon lit up the snow, ice and glaciers across the valley. And every couple of hours, I'd hear that faint, distance rumble of an avalanche. It was one of the best nights of my life. =)

Although the runners generally go in my way (uphill) and I got in their way (downhill) and I'd have been much happier if they weren't around at all, I did make use of them from time to time to give my photos perspective. =) I sometimes had to wait for several minutes before I could get a single runner in my photo instead of a long line of them, though! (This photo probably looks like one runner, but if you look very closely, you'll see the head of a second one popping out just behind that curve in the trail. Even here I couldn't quite get all of the other runners cropped out of my photo.)

This glacier was mostly covered with rocks and debris so you couldn't see the snow and ice except near the top. But it still has that obvious "river-like" appearance--like a river of rocks flowing down the mountains.

And on the downhills, the runners actually started running and passing me. I recognized a lot of them as the same runners I passed while we were going uphill.

Don't borrow shortcuts! You can take them, but by golly, you better not borrow them! =) (I have a strong suspicious this is a "Google Translate" gone bad scenario.)

As amazing as these photos are, they really don't do the actual views justice. It's so much bigger and more spectacular in real life!

This particular section of the trail is quite steep, but I'm not sure it's a good idea to follow their recommended practice of descending it head first. =) (Yes, I know, the sign is really a warning to not fall down the nearby cliffs, but it doesn't say that, now does it?)

This must be a spectacular place to ski on a clear winter day! =)
Another aid station at the Refugio Maison Vielle. This one even had a live band playing! The main TMB goes off on that road near the right side of the photo (you can see a few runners on it), but I'd veer off to the left through the meadow in the foreground. (I did not follow that road that leads off to the left--my trail was smaller and hidden at the far side of the meadow.)

Hiking down the ski slopes!

The road walk was miserable. It was busy and narrow. You might think this lane looks plenty wide but remember, this is a two-way road without even a shoulder to walk on!

This is the southern end of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Over 7 miles away, the other end of the tunnel exits into France.

I thought the "supermercato" wasn't particularly "super," but it got the job done! =)

Streets of Courmayeur.

These plants had a silvery sheen to them that I absolutely loved, but it totally didn't come out in any of my photos. *sigh*

Looking back down on Courmayeur from where I left I couple of hours earlier.
Refugio Giorgio Bertone

I think these structures are to help prevent avalanches during the winter--perhaps to protect the refugio down below. I don't for for certain, though. It's just a guess on my part. =)

It's gonna be a beautiful sunset! I need to find a place to camp!
...but there's not really any protected area to camp. Everything is so exposed up here!

Well, I guess this will have to do. No protection from the elements if bad weather strikes overnight, but at least I'll have some great views from camp!

And I can watch the sunset from camp too! =)

I... can't.... stop.... taking.... photos.....

Once the sun set, it started getting cold rapidly! Time for a double-layer of buffs on my head! =)

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