Saturday, July 27, 2013

Eiger Ultra Trail - an adventure with a smile

"Switzerland is the most antifragile place on the planet."
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Eiger Ultra Trail: an ultra trail runner's dream come true!

When Eiger Ultra Trail was officially announced, I signed in for E101 at once. I've been looking for a race like this. Swiss National Team skier Marcel Marti is the creator of the idea and the designer of this fantastic course. Just one look at the map assured me it would elevate European trail running to another level.

The three race courses all start and finish in Grindelwald. Aid stations are marked on the map.

The counterclockwise loop course consists of two sections. They are separated by Burglauenen AS with your dropbag at halfway. The first part climbs to Faulhorn (2680m), the highest peak of the course. The second part contains the Eiger Trail, traversing the notorious North Face with a stunning 1800m tall rock wall.

The 101km course is divided into two sections by Burglauenen. Total elevation gain is 6700m.

Ueli Steck, a speed climber who set the 2h47min Eiger North Face record, is a member of the organising team. He has stated that Eiger Ultra Trail is harder than North Face solo. I'm not sure if he meant this as a joke, slogan or warning, but it works in all three ways! 

Grindelwald valley from an Eastern hill, looking towards Interlaken in the West.
At the race briefing on Friday evening the RD Ralph Näf warned us there might be a thunderstorm before 8pm. If see saw lightnings we were instructed to stay still and low, away from high objects or water. He also mentioned course changes were possible after that. As a professional mountain guide, he knows the mountains well.

[SPOILER ALERT: That's exactly what happened on Saturday. Still many claimed the storm came as a total surprise!]

My Swiss trail running friends Rita and Guido.
I calculated confidently that I should be able to run the Eiger Trail before the storm started. I should be there in 12 hours by 5pm, right? I packed my OMM Kamleika rainjacket in my backpack. It isn't waterproof anymore, but who cares, it's summer! Somehow I failed to toss my heavier 100% stormproof rainjacket in my dropbag. Uh-oh, that turned out to be an epic mistake!

Notice Guido's Trail Verbier StBernard 110km finisher t-shirt! It was only 3 weeks ago!
After a typical nervous night of semi-sleep I woke up 3am. It was dark, clear, warm and humid. An early breakfast was served for the competitors at the hotel. It would probably be a hot day, so I decided to race in short tights, t-shirt, cap, socks and Stinson Evos only. I'd also carry my trusty old Mountain King aluminum sticks as always. Poles are really helpful in steep slopes, just ask anyone.

Too tired to hike? In a hurry going someplace? No worries, take the Grindelwald Taxi!
At 5am RD Näf sent us off with a great piece of advice, "Take this race as an adventure and finish with a smile on your face." It was dark, but it would dawn soon. I took it easy and kept my two headlights in the pack.

Pasta party and Mättenberg. You see the cable car station Pfingstegg about halway up? That's our last challenge.
After 8km we were already up at Grosse Scheidegg (1959m) - a 1029m climb from the start. The first AS was there. I filled my two bottles. I grabbed a bit of everything on the table and loved it all.

The event was catered by Sponser, who have been dealing with sports nutrition for 25 years. They are the market leader in Switzerland, and obviously for a reason. They had a great variety of foods and products available. In addition to a sports drink with eight carbohydrates they offered a long energy drink with protein, beetroot and what not in it. They also provided plenty of gels and bars. The gel with caffeine, taurine and salt was the best gel ever.

The stations were never too far from each other, so there was no need to carry nothing but a small emergency reserve. In Swiss Alps there are plenty of drinking fountains as well as ice cold streams. Even on a hot day like this it was easy to compensate for the excessive sweating.

Sunrise at the top of the first 1000m climb Grosse Scheidegg (8km). Celebrating too early perhaps? :)
Our spirits rose higher with the sun and there was a lot of wild yodling going on. Soon I reached First, the first peak at over 2000m height. The course went straight down to Bort only to climb up again to First again - this time with an even more scenic route. At the top I had climbed a total of 2003m and felt fine. I thought I was going strong, but Rita told me Guido was far ahead of me. They are a nice Swiss trail running couple, but obviously too fast for me. She was his crew today.

After 22km and a 2000m uphill, a steep downhill for a change.
The scenery and weather were super-fantastic. You could see all the Alps around clearly. Upon arrival at Bachalpsee (2265m) I just went "wow" all the time! It was so wonderful, it was like unreal. Like running through a virtual dreamscape. This has to be one of the most beautiful trails in the world. I could see the shadow of Eiger North Face looming in the distance. It was still 50km ahead, I'd better speed up and try catching Guido!

Bachalpsee lake (2265m). Absolutely wonderful, but the shadow of Eiger looming behind me!
Oberläger Bussalp was the AS at 30km. From there it was 608m straight up to Faulhorn (2681m), the highest point on the course. The steep slope slowed everyone down, but I kept moving up as fast as I could. Fresh E51 runners, who had started two hours after us and took a shortcut here, were passing me left and right. Dang it, that was demoralizing!

Running through a fantastic dreamscape. It looked even better there than in this photo!
I conquered Faulhorn exactly 11am, six hours after the start. 33km done, with 2950m total gain and 1347m total loss. Jeez what a view opened up from there! I just had to stop and look around for a long time. You could see most of Switzerland simply by turning 360°. I wished I could have spent the whole weekend there. I was standing beside Mountain Lodge Faulhorn, which used to be Europe's highest hotel back in 1832. The rooms are said to be in original condition. Moving on!

Trailplodder's arrival at Oberläger Bussalp AS after 30km. [photo]
There were lots of snow fields on the way to Schynige Platte. It was fun to do some downhill skiing with Hokas. The snow didn't slow me down at all, but the groups and families hiking to opposite direction did. Some of them gave way and encouragement, some of them just didn't care. Maybe they were astonished by the amazing landscape.

Schynige Platte (1985m) 44km: great views! Lakes Brienz and Thun and Interlaken on the other side of this ridge. 
Schynige Platte (1985m) had large vertical rocks not unlike the Dolomites, and the view from the ridge over Brienz and Thun lakes was to die for. I spent a good 10 minutes staring at the brilliant scenery. I thought seeing this alone was well worth the trip here. Hello, wake up - you're in a race!

I arrived at Burglauenen AS (905m, the lowest point) around 2:30pm, 9:30 hours after start. 52.5 km done, with 3355m total elevation gain and 3494 loss. The E51 runners would go directly from here to the finish in Grindelwald, only 5km away. We E101 runners had a much bigger challenge ahead. I cleaned my feet, fixed the blisters and cuts, and put on dry clean socks and t-shirt.

It was hot and there was a shower for runners. To my delight they had watermelon! I was well ahead of the 6:30pm cutoff. Still I had better move on fast, while the weather held.

The climb up towards Wengen wasn't too easy. They had told us dangerous places were clearly marked with signs. Now these danger signs popped up every few minutes! The forest offered welcome protection from the scorching sun. There was a nice lady in front of a hut, offering a cup of water for weary runners. Finally the 768m climb was over and the rest of the way to Wengen was easy runnable downhill.

Wengen (1280m) is advertised as "the most beautiful village in the world". It's located in Lauterbrunnen valley aka Valley of 72 Waterfalls - one of the largest nature conservation areas in Switzerland. There are 400-metre high cliffs that draw basejumpers and wingsuits like flies. In summer they average 14 rainy days in a month.

J.R.R.Tolkien's watercolor painting of Rivendell. Looks like Lauterbrunnen to me.
Jungfrau Marathon goes from Interlaken to Kleine Scheidegg via Wengen. They claim it is "The world's most beautiful course." That was before Eiger Ultra Trail, which is obviously much more beautiful.

Goethe was a fan of Lauterbrunnen. He wrote the poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern there - which was then the basis for a composition by Schubert. Our soul is like water, our fate is like wind.

Seele des Menschen, 
Wie gleichst du dem Wasser! 
Shicksal des Menschen
Wie gleischt du dem Wind! 

19-year-old J.R.R.Tolkien hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen on a holiday in 1911. The wonderful valley provided the model for his imaginary valley of Rivendell. Tolkien then continued his journey to Kleine Scheidegg, Grindelwald, Grosse Scheidegg and all the way to Brig and Zermatt before returning home. You may have seen Rivendell in recent LOTR and Hobbit movies.

I left this enchanted valley somewhat reluctantly. But big clouds were gathering up in the sky. I knew what that meant. Or at least I thought I knew what that meant.

This was the only big climb left before the finish. The next AS was only 6.5km away, but it wouldn't be easy to get there. The steep trail to Männlichen with over 1000m elevation gain is called Gemsentest (Chamois Test) and you need to run it in 90 minutes to get ranked on the website.

Gemsentest = Chamois Test. Run Wengen-Männlich in under 90 mins and win!

I made good progress, but not quite fast enough. With maybe about a third left, the thunderstorm began at 6:30pm. Balancing on the ledge, it took some time to put my rainjacket on. In minutes I was soaked in the pouring rain. There was thunder and lightning. It was dark as night inside the cloud. Except when a lightning lit the landscape. I was exposed here, so I kept going up full speed on.

Running up to the top of Männlich the Chamois route in heavy rain, thunder and lightning.
There was a brave or mad laughing race photographer taking photos. He had a strong flash installed on the mountainside, which he kept on flashing as runners hurried by. The rain made the trail slippery, but I finally got to the top. It was a 600-meter dash downhill to the Berghaus. They had sent out a rescue team to ensure everyone got safely up to Männlichen or back down to Wengen. The race was stopped until the storm subsided. It was all very well organized, there wasn't any chance of getting lost or panic.

In the Männlichen Berghaus AS we were given food, drinks and blankets. It was about 7pm. I had done 68km with 5163m total gain and 3988m loss. Soon a course change was announced. Eiger Trail was declared off limits. There might be another storm coming soon. Competitors were now required to descent directly to Kleine Scheidegg and Alpiglen. From there the rest of the course would remain the same as before. Runners waiting in Wengen were lifted up in the cable car. The Chamois slope I had climbed had become too dangerous in the rain.

I felt low motivation for this alternative shortened course. I run for new experiences and adventures, not for finisher t-shirts and medals. I wanted to experience the Eiger Trail. That's what I came here for. So after some mental gymnastics, I decided to call it a day at 7:20pm (14:20 after start) and take the cable car to Grindelwald. The cable car station happened to be very conveniently located, right next to the Berghaus.

The town bus didn't run anymore so late. Fortunately a friendly local guy gave me a lift to my hotel in his car. Soon I was chillaxing in the hotel sauna and jacuzzi. Perhaps I could run Eiger Trail and the the rest of the race course on my own next morning. The road to the finish went right beside my hotel, and I could hear the announcer through my open window every time someone finished.

Now the weather was better and I felt slightly guilty for dropping. But there was no way of knowing if continuing would be safe, and safety is my first priority. I don't take unnecessary risks. I had fun and enjoyed the race today. The trail won't be going anywhere. Now I have a good excuse to come back and try again.

An alternative mountain transportation.

I woke up 7am. After a breakfast I returned my chip to the race HQ and got my dropbag. Then I climbed back up to the mountains. The weather was great again. My legs were not sore. I was feeling very strong, perhaps even stronger than the day before.

It was great to see Alpiglen, Kleine Scheidegg, Lake Fallbodenseea, and Eigergletscher Station. Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks seemed to be close.

A drinking fountain with crystal clear ice cold mountain water.
The highlight of the day was running through the 6km long Eiger Trail. It wasn't as challenging I had imagined it would be. Nevertheless it was spectacular in full daylight. There was a tourist woman crying, as she was too scared to go on. The North Face of Eiger was huge and looked impressive. Beware the Ogre!

A sign showing Eiger Trail is open again.
The rest of the race course was easy and nice. It went through a forest to Gletscherschlucht (Glacier Gorge) bridge and restaurant. Not far away is Marmorbruch (Marble Quarry) and a Guest House. I visited the quarry, which is not in use anymore. They used to get a lot of marble out from there for the Swiss Parliament building in Bern for instance. Instead of marble, I collected some wild strawberries in the nearby forest.

A mountain stream along the Eiger Trail.
The little climb up to Pfingstegg was actually pretty hard for the tired legs. Up there was a restaurant and a luge, neither of which I visited this time. There was another thunderstorm forming in the sky!

An unknown tourist probably trying to get a lift back to Grindelwald.
Then there was just the road down the hill and the last little uphill to the finish in Grindelwald. Of course this wasn't the same as finishing the race. I just wanted to see what the rest of the course looked like. Recon for next year. And most importantly, I was smiling!

A great cold free shower here if you need one!
This Sunday outing took me 7 hours. Because my Suunto Ambit had managed to stop itself for some odd reason (stop button wasn't pushed and the time was still ticking, but no distance/altitude) while I was on the move, I don't have complete data. My best estimate is that it was 32km with a little over 2000m total vertical gain. Thus my total for this and the race combined would be about 100km with over 7000m gain. Not a bad weekend!

Eiger Trail cairns.
On Saturday evening also Guido had been listed among DNF. Later I heard the good news: he had finished in 17h and change after all. He didn't get to run the Eiger Trail, as the storm had began before he got there. On his way down a lightning had hit the earth beside him. It had been a scary close call, but fortunately he was ok.

Eiger Trail view towards Grindelwald.

Out of 449 registered E101 competitors, 370 showed up at the start line. 257 (69%) of them finished, on the 101km course or the shorter course. 113 (31%) had a DNF.

Eiger Trail, Lauberhorn and Tschuggen on the right.

Despite these difficulties, I think most of the participants would agree that Eiger Ultra Trail was a hugely successful event. It was tough, but nobody expected it to be easy.

Eiger Trail view to Grindelwald.

I'm not familiar with all the ultra trail running events, but Eiger Ultra Trail has to be one of the most scenic and beautiful courses in the world. It's certainly the best race I've participated in. Nothing else comes even close. Also the race management and organisation is absolutely superb. And I've already mentioned that the nutrition services at the aid stations were top-notch.

Eiger Trail and Eiger North Face.

Iker Karrera (Spain) and Francesca Canepa (Italy) will go down in history books as the first winners of Eiger Ultra Trail. These youngsters were really fast: 11:38 and 16:18 respectively. However let's not forget the true mountain King and Queen: Christoph Geiger (71) and Monika Dewald (70) who both finished in 20:47!

A sign showing the route up on the North Face.

RD Ralph Näf commented the thunderstorm this way: "We actually got off fairly lightly. The second thunderstorm, which ultimately passed a few kilometres to the north of us, was clearly much more serious. Our partners at the cable car station as well as the local rescue organisations reacted absolutely correctly."

Eiger Trail and Fallbodensee reservoir.

A certain race in Chamonix has become hugely popular in recent years. A bit like a holy grail for trail heads. They require you to collect a certain number of points before you can participate in their lottery. Then if you win you have to send your medical certificate. On race day you will share a crowded trail with thousands of runners.

Kleine Scheidegg and Lauberhorn, the site of world's longest downhill ski course.

At the breakfast table of my hotel I mentioned that I planned to apply for UTMB in 2014. Another runner asked me, "What's so special about UTMB?" I said, "Come on, it's the UTMB, everyone knows Mont Blanc right?" While I said that, I realized it's all just hype. UTMB has nothing to offer that would compare with Eiger Ultra Trail - except distance of course. 168km is a lot more than 101km. But perhaps 101km is more enjoyable to run?

Eiger Trail.

The second Eiger Ultra Trail will be on 19.-20. July 2014. I'll definitely try to be there. Now that the word is out, those places will sell out really fast though. Probably in a few days, or even hours. So one has to be quick to get a bib for next summer!

Thank you organizers for showing us the future of ultra trail running. Eiger Ultra Trail 2013 was a huge success. The race was already nearly perfect, and I'm sure it will be even better next year!

Fallbodensee reservoir.
Thank you fellow competitors for great fun attitude and friendliness along the course.

Hotel Bellevue, Kleine Scheidegg.

Thank you volunteers, you did a good job and made the race very efficient and enjoyable.

A nice trail between Alpiglen and Kleine Scheidegg.
Thank you for all the supporters along the way - your encouragement helped us keep moving on!

The last tiny climb to Pfingstegg.
Thank you Grindelwald - see you again next year and let's keep on smiling!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

80km du Mont Blanc 2013 race report

To me and thousands of trailrunners Chamonix, France is That Place. The Alpine town by the Mont Blanc massif. The travel destination to go for mountain trail running in the summer.

Danger! This summer there really could have been snowfalls from the roof in Chamonix.
Last fall they announced a new race '80km du Mont Blanc'. So I signed in immediately to be one of the 700 starters on June 28, 2013. After my medical check papers were accepted in November, I was set to go. I'd already finished a 123km race, so how hard could an 80K be? Bring it on!

Col des Posettes in April 2013 - lots of snow on the running course.
What I didn't know is that I would fall and bruise my ribcage in the spring. So I didn't do any long training or run a marathon or a 50K this year like I normally would do. Mont Blanc 80K would be my first race and long run in 2013!

Nobody knew this would be 'the summer that never came' in the Alps. In Chamonix they haven't had this much snow in ten years. And then they got even more snow in June, when the snow was supposed to have been melting away.

A typical misty summer morning at Mont Blanc massif.

It was obvious the race course would have to be changed, but they announced the new course only a week before the start. It was said to be 78km with 6044m of elevation gain.

  • Col des Corbeaux (2602m) and Col de la Terrasse (2648m) were out due to dangerous snow fields. 
  • Instead we would do a figure of eight, the new counterclockwise loop at the top beingVallorcine (1260m) - Col du Passet (1950m) - Refuge de Loriaz (2020m) - Vallorcine.
  • Also after Montenvers, we would do a lower detour to Blaitiere instead of going over Signal Forbes (2198m).
  • To keep the elevation gain above 6000 meters, we had to climb Chalets de la Pendant (1778m) between Argentiere and Le Lavancher.
  • There would be seven aid stations: Planpraz, Flegere, Vallorcine I, Vallorcine II (we would run through the same aid station twice), Argentiere, Les Bois and Montenvers.

The new safer course of 80km du Mont Blanc 2013.
625 starters showed up at the familiar start area in front of the church on early Friday morning. The weather was cloudy, foggy and misty and relatively warm, not cold and windy as the organisers had warned us the night before. The announcer predicted it would rain before sending us up towards the highest point of the course: Le Brevent (2525m). It would be dark until the sunrise at 5:40am, so headlights were turned on.

Le Brevent (2525m, left, light) and Planpraz (2000m, right, dark): our first 80K waypoints
My humble goal was to finish before midnight, which left me four hours to play with just in case. As always happens, some slow plodders sprinted away from the first line at the start and then hit the brakes when the single trail with some minor stream crossings started. I actually thought this forced slow pace was a blessing in disguise. The most common mistake in ultrarunning is starting out way too fast. Everyone knows it, but everyone does it.

However for an impatient dude behind me all that waiting was too much, and he suddenly pushed his way past everyone - until his foot slipped and he silently fell into darkness. Then someone spotted two hands clinging on the trailside, and we dragged his sorry ass back up on the trail again.

Thick clouds can make it hard to see too much even in full daylight.
At the top we ran through many snow fields. It was a bit chilly and cloudy, but there was no wind at all. We caught beautiful glimpses of the sun rising over Mont Blanc massif, while descending towards Planpraz aid station (2000m). My Hoka One One Rapa Nui shoes had a good tight grip on the steep rough snow, but those wearing Salomons and other shoes were slipping all around the glacier uncontrollably. My Mountain King Trail Blaze poles helped me to stay balanced too.

The trails were in excellent running condition on race day. Just a drop of water/snow here and there.
I had a good breakfast at Planpraz, except they didn't have any coffee. We were now at the finish area of the Mont Blanc Marathon to be held on Sunday, and we continued going down the marathon course in reverse along Grand Balcon Sud to Flegere (1877m) , Col des Montets (1461m), Le Buet (1337m) and Vallorcine (1260m). It wasn't all downhill though, there was a lot of climbing as well.

There is a paradise for climbing fools.
The Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve was absolutely wonderful. There were many tourists all around, and when I saw a crowd gathered to look at something, I stopped too. For example, I saw an Alpine ibex couple on a cliff.

I also managed to get lost once in this area, or more specifically the dude I was following missed the inadequately marked U-turn to the right. He went straight left and down a steep slope. I noticed soon there were no course markings and stopped, but the other guy just kept going. Then a head appeared on top of the rock above me and shouted: "Wrong way! Come back!" The front guy missed all this shouting and was just about to disappear behind bushes a couple hundred meters down the scree when I whistled. He stopped and turned, and I waved him to climb back up.

Sometimes I get the crazy feeling that I'm being followed.
I was at Vallorcine aid station already at 9:23am - well ahead of my schedule. The steep challenging uphill to Loriaz (2020m) was the highlight of the course for me. This loop will not be part of the normal 80km course, so this was perhaps a unique chance. I climbed slowly up, a waterfall on my right and an ibex on my left. At Col du Passet (1950m) there was a dam and Lac de Barberine Emosson behind it.

Trailrunning doesn't get any better than this.
The course traversed across Montagne de Barberine to Loriaz on a technical route involving chains to and tiny metal steps to aid our slow passage. I was feeling strong, so I enjoyed it all. A helicopter accompanied some of the runners, probably filming for the live webTV.

It was now warm with lots of sunshine, so I stopped often to cool my head in the mountain streams. Wearing an ice-cold Buff around your neck helps keep you core temps in control. This whole loop took me about 3.5 hours to complete. After resting for a while, I left Vallorcine for the second and final time slightly before 1pm. There were no km-signs anywhere, but I must have covered about 44km at that point. I can certainly run more than a marathon in nine hours, even when there are steep hills involved.

Best weather ever!
Next came the big climb to Col des Posettes (2201m) - the same mountain that was the greatest challenge of the Mont Blanc Marathon. In our 80km race it was just another hill. The path up felt actually quite easy compared to the previous badass climb.

The view from the top was really nice. The path down with old wooden steps was quite difficult for me. I descended carefully because rolling down the hill didn't seem like a fun option. It took forever to reach Le Tour and a couple km more before the next aid station Argentiere. It was a welcome sight.

Arriving in one of the Alpine villages.
I left Argentiere 3:45pm. A lady there had told me it was about 20km to the finish. The route went straight up to Plan Joran cable car station and via Chalets de la Pendant (1778m) back down to the outskirts of Le Lavancher and Les Bois (1080m). This was the last full service aid station. All of this was part of the Grand Balcon Nord trail. After having raced for 14 hours, I left Les Bois at 6pm for the final uphill.

During the tricky climb to Montenvers (1913m) I suddenly felt like I had absolutely nothing left. The climb was easy enough at first, but close to the famous Mer de Glace glacier the going got tougher. There were huge boulders, and I struggled climbing over them, even with the metal ladders in some places. I often found myself standing still like a lost hobo, and people passing me asked if I was ok. I always lied that I was super fine and grinned, but I was starting to get really worried as even slow walking was not going too well.  

Step by step towards Chamonix.
I recalled something I read recently in 'Running on Empty' by Marshall Ulrich. He was attempting the first ever Badwater Quad: running the infamous Death Valley course 4x for a total of about 940km. He was going through a difficult state about half-way through: "...that's where ultrarunners live, in that place where you feel as if there's nothing left, no more energy, no more reason, no more sanity, no more will to go farther. Then you push forward anyway, step after step, even though every cell in your body tells you to stop. And you discover that you can go on."

A great quote from Running on Empty by Marshall Ulrich.
I realized that I was much like Marshall Ulrich now, in That Place. The only thing that mattered was the next step. If Marshall had been able to push forward and finish his enormous challenge in the grueling desert, certainly I could finish this 50-miler in ideal conditions.

Wait a minute, hadn't Ulrich also stressed how essential caffeine was for his performances? Now I must have tossed a couple of Clif Shot Turbo Double Expresso gels in my backpack - my secret weapon for emergencies! With new hope in my eyes, I dug them up asap. These monsters are normally strong enough to wake up the dead, and make their socks roll up and down too.

After the first shot I felt nothing. I took the other one, and after a while I felt better, and my legs starting slowly to move again.

I finally arrived at the Montenvers aid station by the Grand Hotel at 8pm. I had been racing for 16 hours, and I had 8 hours for the final easy-ish traverse to Blaitiere Dessous and then the final downhill to Chamonix.

There was a big red sign on a tree along the way with a picture of falling rocks and the text: "NE PAS STATIONNER DANS LE COULOIR - DON'T STAY IN THE COULOIR." I started to run again.
I came to the last timing post at Blaitiere, which was just a guy with a red tent just before 9pm. There was a standard trail sign saying "Chamonix 1h50". Almost there!

There was a most stunning sunset around 9:30pm, and it got dark gradually. I put on my headlight after running into a volunteer in a dark forest, who suggested me to do so. There sure were a lot of roots and rocks to catch your toes, and the last thing I wanted was a faceplant.

After 18 hours of racing, back in Chamonix around 10pm.
The last kilometers through Chamonix were great. People were in the middle of enjoying their dinners, but they all got up and rushed to the street to encourage and applaud for me. It is truly fantastic how the folks in that corner of the world appreciate modest trail runners. With this fabulous support, I felt great and running was easy again.

I finished a little after 10pm, in 18:08. I'm really happy with that, almost two hours faster than my goal. There was nothing much to eat or drink when I arrived, so I just asked for a glass of water and strolled to my hotel about five minutes away. Even on my way there enthusiastic strangers congratulated me and asked questions like: "Did you really just finish 80km in one day?"
"Yes, I did."
"Was it hard?"
"Yes, very hard."
And so on.

The 80km bling, 80km T-Shirt, 80km shoulder bag, and Marathon plastic cup. 
Miraculously it never rained during the race, although clouds were all over the valley most of the time. I've never seen such a perfect running weather in Chamonix and the trails were in great condition. The next day it rained cats and dogs the whole day though, so we ultratrailers were lucky.

Later I learned that I was 206th of 470 finishers. Francois D'Haene and Michel Lanne had won (yes they ran and finished together, both in Salomon Team) in 9:45 - wow that's fast! Monsieur Fabien Loup took the DFL (Dead F***ing Last) Award in 24:19.

The spectacular start/finish area in downtown Chamonix with live commentators and a video screen. 
Several runners with a GPS have confirmed that the course was certainly at least 80km, and very likely 82-84km. The official elevation gain estimate of 6044m sounds like being in the right ballpark. Anyway nearly 20,000ft climbing is not bad for a 50-miler - for example, the prestigious Western States 100-miler offers only about 18,000ft total gain.

If you are looking for the world's toughest 50-miler, this might fit the bill! The race organisation seemed surprisingly clueless, considering Mont Blanc Marathon has been going on for years. Of course that only helped to make the race even tougher, so thank you! For example:
  • The bib pickup/obligatory gear checking was possibly the worst I've seen in my 30 years of racing: it should have opened earlier than 14:00 on Thursday, provide different lanes for the 2000 Marathon and 700 80km runners, the volunteers should know what they are doing (now they gave wrong/conflicting information), etc.  
  • Food: please have some pasta/rice party for 80km runners before the race, provide coffee and edible fruits at aid stations (the oranges were ok, but the raw green bananas were inedible), and provide something to eat/drink for the finishers (those in the top 100 told me they were given plenty of various foods/drinks, so maybe they just need to make sure to have enough for all).
  • More time should be allowed for the competitors to upload their medical certificates (there is no need to send a strict email in early November for a late June race, demanding the document by the end of the week - and there's absolutely no need to threaten throwing those out of the race who fail to comply).
  • It would be nice to have km-signs every 5-10 km along the course - even when the course has been changed.
  • Race website should be updated properly, now there was incomplete/confusing information (posting stuff on Facebook is not enough, since everyone is not on FB, and the English website should be updated like the French pages). 
  • The possibility to have a drop bag half-way (in Vallorcine) would have been really nice. 
  • Tip: please go learn how it's done from UTMB in August - it's also in Chamonix! 

To be fair this was the first edition of the 80km race, so let's forgive the organisation. All's well that ends well, and I feel very grateful for all the wonderful volunteers and supporters along the course. And thanks for the excellent course markings, perfect trails and wonderful weather!

PS. Final verdict about Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail running shoes: My toes were still bleeding two days after the race, when I took a shower. That's not good. For this reason alone, I can't recommend these shoes for mountain races. The toebox is too tight, and it will make a mess of your toes in downhills. The fact that the quick lacing system won't keep tight enough exacerbates the problem. This could possibly be avoided by taping your toes before or during the race, but I would rather use shoes with a roomier toebox in the future. I must have wasted good 15 minutes tightening my quick-laces, so it might be a good idea to change to normal laces if you want to save precious race time.

[My original Hoka Rapa Nui review.]