Courmayeur to Champex-Lac, maybe…

Against my own experience and the advice I’ve been giving to others, knowing COVID can put you back in your place and kick you down if you try to do too much before full recovery, I decided I had to do this training day we had planned to do days earlier before we got sick. My symptoms had completely subsided and though I woke up a bit tired, it was not sick fatigue – just the feeling of waking up a wee earlier than you want to. But Mike is a taskmaster and has been great in keeping on schedule. If I didn’t go with him, I felt I would probably miss the opportunity to go altogether. The plan was sound and coordinated – we’d take the telepherique from Chamonix up to ride the Panoramic across to the Italian side and down funi, go for a nice and easy, em hem, 50K jaunt with 3000m of vert to meet Usha and Krissi at our extraction point (ok dinner and car ride). Mike had promised nice and easy, as he’s keeping an eye on a recurring injury and he’s coached by Koop, so I had to believe this couldn’t be worse for me right? I was skeptical until he offered a bailed out point at La Fouly for a more reasonable 30K/2500m day. The fact is, I really wanted to do the Panoramic “Disneyland” ride across the glacier to Italy and down. And so at 6:40am we rolled out of our chalet to the base station and caught the first ride up.

Mike and I had both done the Aiguille du Midi before so while the natural first stop is to enjoy the view from the observation deck, we b-lined it to the Panoramic. It was amazing…

We may have been the very first to ride it across this morning, even down the Italian side – the only two in the entire rotating funi to the bottom. How rare that must be I thought. The windows were spotless, and I was the first one to put my greasy fingers on them – whoops. Noticeably everything on the Italian side seem much more polished and stylish, the tram buildings something you might see in Architectural Digest.

Five different lifts, and an hour and half later, we took to our feet in Courmayeur to start our run. We decided not to get too creative and just found the most direct route to get onto the UTMB course – via the road and then up a trail we found that allowed us to bypass the town all together that would connect us to our first climb of the day up to Bertone. I kinda wanted to pass through town but figured we might be for longer day than anticipated.

Much dryer were the trails on this side and for the first hour, and on the lessor traveled trail we made a few wrong turns and had to refer to a combo of map apps to get us back on track – CalTopo, Gaia, and then on our Garmin Epix 2 watches. I joked with Mike that we probably had a bit of COVID brain still and that definitely needed to get off the COVID trail, literally…

“Mike, we have to get off the COVID trail. No really…”

And soon we were on track and on our way.

The climb to Bertone were quite a few TMB’ers. While we passed so many, it gave me a chance to practice my bonjours and buongiornos had the temptation to join them in stopping to take in the views, but also sort out my pack – in taking in the views on aerial ride over I didn’t bother to eat anything or make my nutrition accessible while wearing it. I knew I’d be ok as long as we got to Bertone soon enough for a latte. And it did. I averted sabotaging my day early with poor nutrition.

It was a familiar sight, though when I ran CCC I didn’t stop long enough to appreciate the refuge. Bertone is perched perfectly on a point, and provides nice steep first climb rewards – coffee and a nice deck with a view. As we walked inside a lovely girl helping customers caught my eye. She was wearing a UTMB shirt. I know we were on the route of the race itself, but I suddenly had this warm fuzzy feeling of support along with the sense that I was a part of something special. As we contemplated our order, she leans in with one arm on the counter and with a bit of sass says “Tell me everything.” It was unexpected and perfect.

I had no witty response (because that’s what happens when you haven’t any coffee yet) and all I could do was smile. As we grabbed out lattes, fruit juices, and ham and cheese sandwiches to go, and thanked her, I quipped “see you for UTMB?” Not that I didn’t expect her to say yes, but with sincere interest, she asked for our bib numbers and wrote them down. They’re fans. I’m now a big fan of theirs. If they make Bertone t-shirts or hats, I want one. And I’ll most definitely look forward to this aid station to provide an energy boost I’m sure I’ll need as I pass thru in the morning hours during the race.

“Tell me everything…”

The stop was about 25 minutes and according to Mike on schedule. From there we enjoyed of the most beautiful traverse overlooking and into the Aosta Valley. Memories of CCC and going way too fast in the section were in my mind. I was so stoked to be going easy enough to enjoy everything I missed the first time. I hadn’t really taken half of what I saw this time…

It was super mellow and we made up some time back so as we dropped into the valley at Arnouvaz we definitely deserved some ice cream – and we couldn’t pass up the locally made ice cream! And it was a nice pit stop to fuel before the Grand Col Ferret.

Gelato Break

On the way up, as water flowed and cascaded down the mountain alongside the trail next to us, I spotted a nice little pool and told Mike half jokingly that if I need to cool myself in the race I’m going to stop to sit in in. (after all, I jumped into Warren Lake during Castle Peak 100k and it totally cooled and revived me).

One more stop at Refugio Elena to eat our sandwiches and top off our bottles and we were on our way up what I think is among the tougher race segments. The Grand Col Ferret was as stiff and steep of a climb as I remember it, but didn’t seem as long this time. Maybe because last time it was wind and rain/snow. Today it was absolutely gorgeous.

Mike with less than 200m to the Grand Col Ferret

Over the top and down to La Fouly felt good descending. The ankle was good though was taking it easy to be cautious. After a really fast section, the trail turned more technical. This is where I needed to be careful not to re-roll my ankle. I didn’t remember this section from CCC and perhaps it was slightly different course, but I was a bit bummed that to know it won’t be as fast (or easy) of a section as I thought. Keeping things fun, we stopped for a little berry break. I wonder if you actually burn more calories picking the blueberries than you consume. The yield is small but tasty.

Picking blueberries on trail to La Fouly

I have fond memories of La Fouly from CCC of running with another American who I caught up to in the flat section. The USA flag on bib attached to his pack was rare to see as few Americans were participating back then. We made a quick bond. I remember how evenly matched we were. Like teammates we would endure and push each other running the rest of the race together to the finish.

Once again, at a more leisure pace and with more coherency I was able to open my eyes to more of the beauty I missed last time.

Wow, I love trailrunning here.

After another ice cream and refreshment break and we made the quick decision to keep going. We were on schedule and feeling good enough to finish the last 12K and climb up to Champex-Lac.

Approaching the final climb to Champex-Lac

We arrived into Champex-Lac close to 7pm to meet Usha and Krissi for a change of clothes and beers right as we entered town, the sunsetting and then a nice dinner. It was perfect. Such a beautiful day. I must have taken well over 200 pictures. Hopefully I’m posting enough of the good ones here! Most importantly, I felt great with no complications from COVID or my ankle. It was a huge confidence booster to complete the day feeling like I had a lot left in the tank.

It took us about 10h15 to cover this part of the course with about an hour in total stoppage. Mike had anticipated a 10hr day. Amazing how close he was. Even when I geek out on spreadsheets and take into consideration pace, grade, elevation, heat, etc. I seem to be way off. I guess that’s also why I had to go with him. I’m still learning.

Tech Notes

We tested our Garmin Epix 2 watches capabilities with Mike using a single GPS system along with many other optimizations for battery life, while I use all of the GPS systems and had everything on (WiFi, Bluetooth, PulseOx, touch screen, notifications, etc). Mike ended up using up about 30% of his battery, while I burning through about 75%.

It was clear that using all GPS systems is significantly better than one as Mike would find out. He would get the “of course” alert often while I would only experience it on occasion but mostly due to bad route mapping from the GPX file we loaded. He actually switched it shortly after leaving Bertone, or about 1/3 the way. Even with nav on he’s looking to get close to 30hrs of battery life.

The race course will be well marked but we want to take advantage or the Epix’s feature of showing you distances to your next waypoints. I’ve personally have the aid stations and key points like the Cols mapped. Some people don’t want to know but I do.

For me, I’ll want to turn off wifi and pulseox which are pretty useless during the race. I’ll likely keep bluetooth on as if I get any text messages from my crew or the race, it will be more convenient to glance at my watch then pulling out my phone. I’ll likely create a few custom responses as well. I’ll keep WhatsApp and FB Messenger on as well. There are ton of other notifications to eliminate from other apps on my phone including alerts from my smart home devices. And for sure, turn by turn alerts will be turned off! I don’t need to hear beeping alerts twice for every switchback. I imagine that is the #1 battery drainer.

One additional item I had was wearing the Garmin HRM Pro chest strap which is paired to my Epix. Though I have not tested it yet, supposedly turning off the wrist sensor and using the chest strap is more economical.

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