Valtournenche to Ollomont – 47.2 km (283.5 km total)
“There are no impossible obstacles; there are just stronger and weaker wills.” – Jules Verne
There were only 100 km left. Two thirds of the course was done. Heading out of the life base, I felt generally good but knew it would not last long. I was becoming quite familiar with this routine. I would feel completely spent upon entering a life base, mostly due to the steep and rocky descents and the toll they took on my knee, and then I would feel somewhat refreshed afterwards, knowing that a painless, uphill grind awaited me. Bruce and I were able to run some of the trails leading out-of-town but I knew that the real tests would come once darkness fell again and once we began the next descent.
The profile for this segment intrigued me. I loved the idea of having one big ascent and then staying up above 2500 m (8000 ft) for the next ~18 km, bagging peak after peak. Also, this segment held at least six mountain passes, leaving only two passes after Ollomont.
The climb took us up towards a dammed lake and we briefly stopped at Rifugio Barmasse to refuel and to chat with Pieter (Belgium) and Beat (USA) who we had been following for about 100km. At this rifugio, we saw our first ‘controller’ who was spot-checking racers to ensure that all mandatory gear was being carried, specifically the rain gear and the “long sleeve microfleece”. As we chatted with the controller for few minutes, I found out that my long sleeve, heavy weight wool, IceBreaker hoody would not have been permitted, had he bothered to check my gear. For quite a few kilometres afterwards, Bruce and I discussed the merits of microfleece over wool and the inconsistency of rules between the pre-race gear check (where my wool top was permitted) and the mid-race check (where my wool top would have been deemed inadequate). I am just relieved that I didn’t have to deal with a four hour penalty for carrying the wrong type of top, regardless of the fact that I was actually more prepared for foul weather.
As we made our way up in the warm and sunny afternoon, I began to recall some of my hallucinations from the previous night. As I stepped from rock to rock, I remembered how I had been seeing silly cartoonish faces in each rock and, as we hiked along now, I could still make out faces. I took some photos of rock faces to prove to others that I wasn’t actually losing my mind.
Once we reached the top of Fenetre de Tsan, we were faced with a double diamond scree descent of tight switchbacks. Here I put my massaged knee to the absolute test and, once again, it screamed with every step. But I was able to shuffle along and block out the pain to a certain degree.
Night fell sometime after rifugio Cuney and, once again, my memory draws a blank. The only memory in this night is of the tiny Bivouac Clermont, where the three volunteers were cooking up some of the most tasty pasta I had ever had (although Angela would laugh at that comment since the pasta was ‘re-gifted’ from one runner to the next).
In this section of high passes, there were very few places to rest or sleep. We pressed on, with the intent of grabbing a few hours sleep in Oyace-Close. But my brain protested mightily to this and I was, once again, awash in hallucinations and visions that kept me moving incredibly slowly.
This time, I was searching for somewhere to sleep. I could see that there were hundreds of tents set up right beside the trail and when I finally caught up to Bruce (or, more truthfully, he stopped and waited for me), I asked him why we couldn’t rest for a while in one of the tents. He patiently pointed out that there were no tents. Instead, I was looking at a boulder rockfall in a creek. Then I challenged him in a race to the next aid station and I felt like I was flying down the hill, giggling the whole way. The race probably only lasted a minute or two before I lost interest.
At another point, I found myself stopped and staring at a severed giraffe head. I desperately wanted to pick it up, drag it along to show Bruce but I knew that he would be unimpressed with the severed head because it would surely have caused me to move slower than usual. In hindsight, I’m quite sure it was a big branch that had been used to poke at a campfire and I am quite glad that I didn’t bother bringing it. (After the race was over, 2nd place finisher Nick Hollon made a video about runner hallucinations in which I recount my experiences in a wild-eyed, still sleep-deprived frenzy.)
I desperately wanted to sleep but the river valley we were descending had a constant cold breeze, forcing us to continue along. We finally we crossed over a bridge and began the final climb to Oyace-Close, but I just could not stay awake and I was moving in a series of staggering zigzags. At one point, Bruce said, “we can stop and rest here” and he indicated a mossy patch at the side of the trail. In an instant, I flopped down and fell asleep, still with my trekking pole straps on my wrists and my headlamp illuminated. Ten minutes later, I woke up because I was cold and because I had rocks poking into my chest but that brief pause was enough to get me into Oyace-Close. Bruce didn’t sleep at all on the mossy patch but instead stood guard and kept an eye on the clock.
Oyace-Close was perhaps the worst aid station of the entire course. The volunteers were all gossiping in one corner of a large, echoey hall and the food tables were empty of most foods. But worst of all, the sleeping area was in same room, bright with florescent lights glaring. There were only ten cots in total and most were occupied. I took the one empty cot and Bruce tried to sleep on the wire springs of a cot with no mattress. For two hours, I was dead to the world and, when Bruce woke me, I was writhing with the same whole-body pain that I had experienced at Saint-Jacques. We managed to find a helpful volunteer who brought us a huge portion of parmesan polenta to share, which was absolutely delicious. We headed back out onto the trail just as the sky was beginning to lighten.
As we headed up towards Col Brison, we were rewarded with our first views of Monte Bianco, a clear indication that the end of this adventure was drawing near.
We rolled into Ollomont at 10:45 am. I arranged to have a doctor work on my knee and, while waiting my turn, we both had a hot meal. We sat in a warm sunbeam, letting our feet dry out and getting rid of the morning chills. The doctor listened to my complaints about my knee and the treatments I had had at other life bases. Thinking that I would be given the same deep massage, I was shocked when he used his full body weight to quickly crush my knee into my chest. I guess this was an ‘active release’ method that I have heard about. It made me see stars and feel nauseous. Then he proceeded to tape my knee with that fancy muscle tape. With my new knee, we headed out of Ollomont and onto the final section at 12:48 pm on Friday.
Section 6 – 47.2 km in 22h 25m
Cummulative Total – 283.5 km in 120h 43m (+ 2h 4m in Ollomont LB)
Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 26h 28m
Total sleep = 13h 30m
The saga continues here – Section #7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur