Humani’trail is a series of races in the Swiss Alps raising funds for education projects in Nepal. There’s a 55k ultra, a 27k and a 15k option and a 2k kids race.
I signed up before Christmas last year and thought about it every day for more than 9 months. The distance was never a concern but the amount of climbing, the terrain and the altitude were all new experiences and genuinely scared me. 4 more UTMB points and some alpine experience were the goal.
I knew I had the endurance to run for 12hours plus from Race to the Stones back in July and between then and September I’d been racking up a lot of elevation gain with plenty of hiking using poles. I felt like I was as ready as I could be and even tapering, (which I usually hate), was going well…until a calf strain I had back in June returned. On an easy 5 miler, 4 days before the race my calf suddenly screamed- Sharp pain, instant stiffness. Shit!!! I walked home, convinced that the months of training had been for nothing. Last time I had this strain it took 2 weeks to heal enough to run on. Gutted! I had a massage the following day, iced and stretched and hoped for the best (but expected the worst).
I still packed all my race kit like I’d be running but mentally I was trying to deal with the fact that I’d probably wasted months hiking up and down my local mountains and wouldn’t be running. At least I’d have a nice holiday with Beth, Bec and Matt in Switzerland…looking at the mountains I was meant to be racing in.
We arrived on the Thursday before the race and were blown away by the beauty of the place. Les Diablerets is a stunning, quiet village surrounded on all sides by peaks. I picked out the peaks that the race covers. My calf wasn’t feeling as sore and tight…I dared to hope that this could be possible.
From 3000m, most of the course is visible in this shot.
The course consisted of two different loops starting and finishing in Les Diablerets. The race organisers changed the route about a week before due to landslides on part of the course. The new second loop was around 1km shorter but with 300m (984ft) of extra elevation gain, and took in two extra peaks with the highest point now at 2540m (8830ft) above sea level.
The course map. The red loop followed by the blue loop, both anticlockwise.
My Strava elevation data. My watch did a decent job after playing up for months!
Matt and I collected our race packs the night before. He was running the 15k version of the race and like me had never run anything as hilly or at altitude before. I felt like I was just going through the motions, I still didn’t really feel like I’d be doing the race, even when I laid all my kit out and went to bed that night.
My alarm went at 4:45am. Coffee, breakfast, shower, toilet, Imodium, kit on and out the door. We were staying about 400m from the race start and everyone came down to see me off. The 6:15am race start meant it was fully dark. 200 or so runners waiting quietly behind the start arch with headlamps on had an unusual feel to it. The announcer had everyone to crouch down, chanting and geeing up the crowd and runners. My French is not good enough to understand what he said but it was a pretty cool moment. Then a countdown, (my French at least covers numbers ten to one), and we were off!
The first mile or so was flattish along roads down to the village of Vers-l’Eglise where the first climb of the day began. My calf began to ache after 400m and continued to do so for around 8 hours, when it eventually went numb. I was careful to protect it through most of the race and it never really got any worse.
The first climb was on a grassy path through woodland. It was chilly with a thick mist in the air which clung to me. Sweat was dripping off my face within minutes. I concentrated on managing my effort, keeping an eye on my heart rate and settled into a rhythm. I think I was in the middle of the column of headlamps snaking through the mist. Some people overtook me, I overtook a few others. Generally though, it sounded like the people around me were working harder than I was, which was good. The ground was quite slippery in places but my shoes gripped well while others slid. I stopped to pee around 5k in and re-joined the snake. 57mins for 5k, I was flying! Only 50k to go.
I tried to remember to think of the hill as infinite and to manage my effort so I could keep going forever. It seemed to work and as I broke through the mist into clear air the trail began to level out. 2,500ft climbed in 2 miles. The sun was just about to rise above the peaks in the distance as I got to the first aid stop at Meilleret. It was absolutely stunning! I refilled one of my flasks with Tailwind and water, grabbed a handful of dried fruit and nuts and moved along the ridge at a jog.
Near the first aid station at the top of the first climb.
My legs felt good, as they should have with 30miles left to go, but I had just ascended the longest climb of my life, so I counted it as small victory. Plenty more climbing and descending to go but I was feeling amazing.
The mist and early morning sun.
The feeling didn’t last long. The next section was along a narrow ridge which wasn’t runable (for me at least). A lot of steep scrabbling up and down over rocks and around trees slowed me right down. I had to keep letting people pass me as I felt like I was holding them up. In hindsight I should have put my poles away but I didn’t want to stop. The drop on each side was steep and long. All I could think was that one slip and I’d probably have been severely injured or dead. Less than 10k in and I felt entirely out of my depth. I realised that it hadn’t mattered how many hill reps I’d run or how fit I was, I was entirely unprepared for the terrain. My confidence was shattered and I wanted to quit. Like a f***ing coward.
The amazing vista before the ridge that I hated.
After the ridge was a technical downhill section where yet more people flew past me. I’d had enough. I was mentally beaten and planning where and when I could drop. I realised it would be another 10miles at least until I got back to the village. I decided I would quit there, that I was not cut out for this terrain and that there’s no way I should enter the UTMB CCC anyway, so I didn’t need any more points. Woe was me. I’d try to enjoy the views, get to the halfway point, then throw in the towel. Sorted.
I bet none of these runners were thinking of quitting so early on.
I stopped at 8.7miles to take some photos, munch a Chia Charge flapjack and text Beth. I didn’t tell her I was quitting, just “f*** me, this is brutal”. Some words of encouragement and a couple of photos of cows later and I felt a bit better. I was still going to quit but my mood was less foul.
Moo-d enhancing views
There was short steep climb up a ridge toward another ski lift and then a fast descent down a piste between the snow cannons. I imagined how much more fun it would be on my snowboard.
On the piste, looking ecstatic.
At the bottom of the slope was the 2nd aid station. A kind marshal helped me refill my flasks and I ate some chocolate cake and a piece of cheese and set off.
The next section was on a track and was very runable. We’d dropped back down into the mist and visibility was down to about 50m or so. Runners appeared ahead out of the fog and I caught them and passed them. I must have gained around 20 places over the next couple of miles. I heard some runners having a conversation in English and ran with them a while. Two guys from Scotland who had run a few alpine ultras before. I pulled away from them on a short uphill and decided to crack on at my own pace.
There was a 5mile downhill back into the village to the end of the first lap and where I’d planned to quit…I was feeling a lot better and wondered if I should hang on and start the second loop. By the time I hit the 15mile point I’d decided not to quit at halfway. I’d carry on to 22miles, where there’d be another chance to wimp out.
A gently undulating out and back section along either side of the Dar river was a welcomed relief from the up and downhill. I felt like I was making good time along there and enjoyed the wobbly rope bridge crossing. I arrived back into the village feeling strong. I stopped for quick chat with Beth, Bec and Matt. I was glad I got to see Matt for he set off on his race at noon. At the aid station I refilled my flasks with Tailwind and randomly ate a few pieces of banana. (Those of you who know me well will know how I feel about bananas!)
The end of the first loop. Looking well fed.
Before heading out on the second loop I had to run a lap of the village and found myself in the middle of the 2k kids race. I couldn’t help but laugh and was careful not to overtake any of them. I was over half way in distance, but still had more than half of the climbing and descent to come.
Next was a steep wooded climb with lots of switchbacks. 1800ft of gain up to an undulating trail along the face of the mountain. The climb was quite pleasant. The ground was relatively dry and it was cool in the shade of the trees. I could hear the announcer for the 15k race in the village below and thought of Matt setting off.
I reached the top feeling great. A few runners who’d passed me on the climb were resting after working hard. I carried straight on past them, feeling pleased with how I’d managed my effort.
Les Diablerets from the wooded climb.
The next trail was a nightmare. I hadn’t expected it to be so technical and muddy. There was one exposed section on a path around a foot wide with a massive drop into the valley. Slippery rock cambered towards the abyss really unnerved me. When I looked ahead and couldn’t work out where the trail went panic properly set in. I froze. The runners I’d overtaken at the top of the climb were backing up behind me. I can’t remember the last time I felt that scared and pathetic. They squeezed past me and carried on. The trail ahead went directly up a wall of rock into the woods. They hauled themselves up in turn using the chain fastened to the rock.
My hands were shaking. Partly through fear and partly through the anger I had at myself for being so bloody pathetic. The other runners seemed completely unfazed by the terrain and disappeared from sight. I needed to give myself a stern talking to but this wasn’t the place. I dragged myself up the rocks holding the chain in one hand and my running poles in the other. Again, I should have put the poles away but couldn’t manage it without the fear of dropping them or falling. A lesson learned for the future.
The rest of the section was less difficult but my confidence was in tatters. I couldn’t bring myself to run any of the rough downhill trail for fear of tripping.
After a while I saw the cable car we’d ridden the day before. The route descended to the road at its base and it didn’t look that far away. It was quite hot by now and crossing the glacier stream gave me a chance to dunk my hat in the cold water and wash my face.
There was a muddy descent where I stopped to pee, then a path across some grassland down to the road and across to the bottom of the cable car at Col du Pillon.
Beth and Bec were waiting for me there. I had a good rant about the horror of the last 4 miles and felt a bit better. If they hadn’t been there I’d have been walking up the hill to the next aid station to quit. It stayed there for 10mins or so chatting and drinking the cold water from a mountain tap. I slapped on some sun cream and topped up my Tailwind and Beth walked with me a little way up the next trail. 7 hours in, 22.5miles done. 3 more climbs to go.
Loving life at Col du Pillon.
For the first time in my running career I had to worry about cut off times. I felt like I was pretty much at the back of the race and was a little concerned about the overall 13.5hr time cap.
The next aid station at Lac Retaud was the last place I could feasibly drop out of the race without having to complete the entire course. That wasn’t going to happen. I was going to finish the damn thing even if it took me longer than the cutoff. 1.Col du Pillon.
2. Lac Retaud
3. La Palette (2170m)
4. La Chaux (2261m)
5. La Para (2540m)
Photo from Glacier 3000 shows the last 3 climbs of the route.
I grabbed a cup of Coke at the aid station and pushed on. An anti-clockwise lap of Lac Retaud and then a flattish runable section toward the ascent of La Palette. What a climb! Steep doesn’t really describe it. The course description said that the upper part of it ascended 300m in a distance of 500m, so a 60% gradient. I assumed it was a misprint…I was wrong. I didn’t stop during climb and the Strava segment data shows I averaged 72min/mile pace with an average heart rate of 150. Crazy!
The summit of La Palette looking back towards Les Diablerets.
There was a short descent through a drink station where I made up some more Tailwind and set off to tackle the last 2 peaks. The next climb up La Chaux was fairly gentle and not too much trouble. I glanced at my watch and saw I’d covered 26.2miles. Exactly a marathon. It had taken me 9hours 5mins. I actually laughed out loud.
After the penultimate peak the route dropped into a small valley full of sheep, past a little hut and along a narrow path across the face of another mountain. More descent than I expected meant that there’d be even more climbing to the last peak, La Para.
The bottom of the final climb. My best fake smile for the camera, I couldn’t wait to be done.
A man came jogging down the hill towards me, for a moment I thought I’d finally reached the short out-and-back section of the route to the summit, but he stopped and took a photo of me. I still had around 400m (1300ft) left to climb according to my watch.
The trail passed through a boulder field, turned left onto a very steep grass slope and then levelled out a bit. At last I could see the summit in the distance. I really started to feel the altitude.
People were finally running towards me so I knew I’d reached the last part of the climb. I stopped for a couple of minutes to put my jacket on as it was overcast and windy by now and my hands were going numb. I rang Beth to say I’d be descending soon, ate a Chia Charge flapjack and pressed on. It wasn’t far to the top. My head started to ache a little. I don’t know if it was the altitude or just psychosomatic, but the air was noticeably thinner at 2500m.
I reached the summit got my race chip scanned and took a few photos. I didn’t hang about as it was cold and I wanted to get it over with.
On the summit of La Para.
The finish line. Nearly 5000ft below.
It was all downhill to the finish. The first mile or so was runable in parts. I passed a couple of runners still climbing who I’d spoken to earlier in the race and I wished them well. I stopped a couple of times to take my jacket off and then to pee. Not making as quick progress as I’d have liked.
There were a few huge spots of rain but they didn’t come to anything. The trail got very steep and loose and there were ropes to use. Again, I felt pathetic as I negotiated the technical section at a snails pace. Anger rising as I was handed another reminder that I have no business being in the Alps. Another runner caught up to me and I let him pass. He scurried over the steep rocks and onto a grassy trail. I eventually got onto the trail and ran, catching him up easily. At least I can still run, I thought.
The final aid station was at a small farmhouse. The marshals said there was only 5k to go! Music to my ears. Still 600m of descent according to my watch, but a mere parkrun nonetheless.
I had a cup of Coke, filled one flask with just water (I figured I wouldn’t need any more Tailwind and my mouth was craving cool water). I turned to the other runners sat on a bench: a Finnish guy and a British guy, and said “Let’s get this done!”. I shouted “Merci! Au revoir!” to the marshals, pushed hard on my poles and set off at a run towards some pine trees.
Most of the last 5k was runable, thankfully. It gave me a real boost. My quads and knees ached and my left calf was numb but my legs were still working well. There was some nice single track through the forest that was fairly smooth and I darted down the switchbacks feeling amazing. I had this in the bag.
I passed one of the Scottish runners I’d spoken to 7-8 hours earlier. He didn’t seem to be having a good day and was walking. I knew he hadn’t passed me and must have dropped out, skipping the last peak.
I came out of the trees and into a field. Below me I saw some people waving and realised it was Beth, Bec and Matt. They’d driven up to a farm to see me. I thundered down the slope towards them, grinning. I turned onto the farm track and stopped for a couple of seconds for a chat. Then we challenged each other to a race to the finish. They jumped in the car and I pushed on through another patch of woodland.
Less than 2 miles to go.
After a short uphill section, which I found I could still run, the trail came out on the edge of Les Diablerets. I could see the church just up the road from the apartment we were staying in. I wasn’t much higher than the spire. I was nearly there.
Down a couple of flights of stairs (painful) and across a couple of roads and I was on the tarmac in the village. I floored it. My legs still worked and I ran the last half mile as hard as I could. I passed the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before and got a cheer from the people outside. “Allez! Allez!” I was beaming! Around the last right hand bend and across the river and into the finish area. I ran hard to the finish arch and jumped across the line. I look like a bellend but apparently this is how I finish ultras now.
What a bellend, but job done.
Beth, Bec and Matt had made it to the finish in time and I was so happy to see them. The announcer interviewed me at the finish. He must have been bored. The winner had finished nearly 6 hours previously! I said it was a hard race and that I needed a beer. Amazingly there was a beer tap in the finish funnel so I did get an awesomely refreshing paper cupful of cold beer.
I should have prepared some French.
I earned that little cup of beer!
I came 134th out of 189 starters in a time of 12hrs 18mins 40secs. 29 people DNF’d. Undoubtedly my poorest race result of all time. I trained hard for this race and I just scraped a finish. It was a humbling experience. The terrain was harder than I’d expected. I am very weak at technical downhill running. I feel that using poles on the downhills hindered me. I’m not used to the altitude. I wanted to quit after 5 miles. Then again after 20. In the week before the race I’d convinced myself I’d be unable to run because of my calf l, so perhaps I wasn’t fully up for the challenge mentally.
However, I still completed the race within the cutoff. I was strong enough to run hard and enjoy the last 5k. I didn’t quit when I felt like shit and my nutrition strategy was flawless.
I clearly need to work on my downhill before heading to the Alps again. Which I will do. I have 8 UTMB points now. I can enter the CCC ballot. That was the goal for this year and I have achieved it. I should focus on that.
The race itself was excellent. It’s a fundraising event but everything you need as a participant is provided. The course was impeccably marked. No need for navigation at all. The aid stations were well spaced and well stocked without being over the top. The support was fantastic and the atmosphere in Les Diablerets was very special. It’s bloody tough though!