The Trail des Aiguilles Rouges
Article by Kingsley Jones, Icicle Chamonix head UIMLA guide
In Chamonix the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges has achieved an almost legendary status, despite only running for three years. It is famed for tough cut off times, huge height gains, and technical running conditions with very rough terrain to negotiate. About one fifth of those who start the race do not reach the end.

In terms of the length of the race, it is 51km, so falls into the ultra-marathon category. Then you add in the height gain of 3300m, and a height loss of 3500m, and you start to get an idea of what the race is really like. Less than a kilometer of the race is on roads, and the rest is on single tracks and for a good while over bare rock and scree slopes. It may come as a surprise, but each edition of this race is becoming filled with competitors earlier each year, so for the 2009 race nearly 700 racers had signed up.

This mountain ultra-marathon had to be semi-autonomous, due to the terrain and lack of access for supply or rescue vehicles, so there were only a few drinks and food supply stations along the route. All runners had to carry compulsory safety gear including fluids, snacks, waterproof jacket, head torch, survival blanket, whistle, strapping tape, mobile phone, and trekking poles.

I'd done enough training through the summer, and my guiding work had ensured that I was well acclimatised, but even so it was the end of season and I was concerned about the effects of cumulative fatigue, especially in my legs. Still, enough of the excuses, I was looking forward to this race as neither the distance or height gain was a real concern, just the effects of combining both! On the day before the race I travelled to les Houches to get my race number and to have the kit checks and race briefing. The briefing was important as the majority of the race route was through national parks, where the key focus of on preserving nature and not littering. Clearly some people didn't heed the briefing too much as I saw several energy gel wrappers dropped on the ground, which was a shame, and totally against the whole ethos and ambitions of the race organisers.
On the morning of the race, I got up at 03:00am to quickly get dressed and to walk across town to catch the free bus to the start of the race at Vallorcine near the Swiss border. While on my way to the bus, I saw other runners leaving buildings on their way too, and soon a procession of us walked across town. We passed some confused looking people who were on their way home after a big night on the town. It pretty much summed up what Chamonix is like; a wierd mix of those passionate about their sport, and those equally passionate about their beer. There's only a few people I know who manage to live both lives simultaneously, and the majority of them aren't especially good at either. Still it was amusing to get cheered on by drunks, when we hadn't even started yet.

The race bus was full of some sleepy runners, and some hyperactive runners who had clearly eaten their museli that morning. At Vallorcine we were treated to a breakfast, then it was time to get warmed up a bit and drop off the warm clothes and get tagged on the way to the start line. The start was scheduled for 05:00am, so it was still pitch black and all runners had a head torch on to see where they were going. There was the usual dubious choice of music blaring through the speakers, and a MC who hadn't got a job on a radio station to 'get us going'. It was a relief when we started and left it all behind. Off into the dark we went, and soon left the village behind and headed into the woods and onto the trails. The photo above shows the visibility - pretty much nothing apart from a pool of light in front of you. I'd never done any night racing before, so this experience was quite exciting. It started raining a little bit, which was fine as it kept me cool, but it made the rocks and grass very slippery.
Kingsley second in this pack We threaded our way through Barberine on the Swiss border, then back to Vallorcine, where we crossed a road for the last time until a few kilometers from the end of the race. Then it was a steep uphill section through the forests to the tiny hamlet of Les Granges. I can't count the number of times I have walked, snowshoed, or skied through the chalets there, but in the dark it was slightly unfamiliar and ghostly. Then back into thick forests on the traverse past the Val de Tré Les Eaux to the Berard valley. As I climbed upwards the race pack was spreading out a little, and I managed to get my pace a bit better. Eventually I climbed above the treeline, and entered the upper Berard valley.

I could pretty much walk this upper valley blindfold, but when running you look at the familiar through different eyes, and whilst I recognised it all, it seemed to pass in a blur. No I wasn't running that fast, but I was going quicker than I had expected. Soon I crossed the final bridge over the stream and made my way up the steep zig-zags towards the hut. As I neared the hut I saw the guardians on the terrace and when they spotted me they run the cow bells they held, and cheered me on. This was a great boost, and welcome support.
At the Pierre à Bérard refuge, it was the first drinks station, and another key feature of this trail race was that each runner had to carry their own cups for drinks to avoid the huge wastage that you see at road races. This was a great idea, and didn't hold the runners up at all really. Hopefully this is the way of things to come, and will be adopted at other races. After a quick drink I took off my headtorch as it was light enough to see now, and headed up the steep hillside behind the hut, towards the high point of the race at the watershed of the Col du Salenton, at 2526m.

This section of the race was always going to be very tough on the legs, as it is brutally uphill, gaining over 600m in about 1km. The first part is up steep rocky tracks, which were quite slippery with mud, then the paths gave way to bare rock. This is where I was more confident that my climbing background would help power me through. Marker flags showed the way up through the rocks, and I overtook several people. A few runners went off route, which I knew from guiding work, would loose them time. Then the fog came in, with a little bit of sleet mixed in from time to time. The temperature was around freezing.
Kingsley second in this pack
It was raining lightly, and the fog became denser and denser. The photo above shows me making the final steps across the traverse to Col du Salenton, which was only visible from less than 10m away through the fog. There was a medic there to assist runners with problems. I stopped for a second at the col to put on a jacket, as the next section was a long descent past the Chalets de Villy. The first part from the col was steep loose rock. Screes of slates, shales and limestone, which were tricky to run on, as with each step my feet sank in to deep wet muddy scree. Finally the screes gave way to nice spongy grass on the alpages above the valley floor.
My next objective was the Moede Anterne refuge, which at a regular walking pace would be 2 hours away. It was quite hard to look after the ankles and legs on the descent, whilst still pushing on the pace. I could feel my legs suffering a bit after the ascent to Salenton, and it was good to get supported as I ran through the small collection of farm buildings at the Chalets de Villy. After the farm was a nice flat track, which then turned the corner past the ruined buidings, then headed upwards up the long rock ramp to award the first views of the Moede Anterne refuge. After the corner the track rises and falls, crossing several streams, before the final approach to the hut. Here was a food and drinks station, and I made a point of eating to replenish my energy levels, as I was nearly half way.

In terms of timings, I had built up a good margin above the cut offs, of over an hour and a quarter. This was great news so early in the race, but I had a feeling that I'd be calling on that margin in the closing stages. I set off from the hut towards the Pont de Arlevé, which marked the half way point in the race, and also the start of the largest single height gain, the huge ascent up to Brevent. The descent to the bridge was muddy, and I wanted to try and keep my feet dry to avoid blisters. Just before the bridge I swallowed an energy gel, to provide a boost on the climb. At the half way point a runner limped up the hill towards me, having clearly twisted his ankle and abandoning. As the climb started I past the half way at just over 5 hours, so one and a half hours ahead of the cut off margin now.
Kingsley  resting at the finish with Maximus
Directly above the bridge the track zig-zags steeply upwards through rhododendron bushes with big drop off back down to the river gorge. I set my pace and tried to keep a good pace on the way up the hill. In my head I had set the ruins of the Chalets d'Arlevé as the next objective to focus on, as this was a good 300m above the bridge. After I reached the ruins, I knew the path flattened out for a while, which was good to slightly rest the legs a bit.
It had planned to eat another energy gel at this point, but perhaps mistakenly I felt fine so carried on until I could see the steep zig-zags above me stretching on up to the Col du Brevent. Suddenly the legs were feeling it more, and so I grabbed an energy gel. It tasted disgusting, but did the trick, and soon I got my rhythm back and was powering upwards again. The ascent was long and it was quite hard to keep up the pace, but I knew that the col was approaching. Here in the photo on the right is the final approach to the Col du Brevent.

Here there is a traverse across to Le Brevent itself, and it goes on for quite a while. At the end of the traverse the track was crossing quite steep ground on solid rock, and at the far end of the traverse was a series of ladders leading up to the cliffs. This caused a bit of a bottleneck, as you can see from the photo below, but after the ladders the runners spread out more on the final haul up to Brevent. There were a fair few well wishers who had hiked up to Brevent from Chamonix, and they cheered everyone onwards. The ground underfoot was very broken rock. Finally I rounded the final corner, and the Brevent was right in front of me. I got my race number tagged and went to the drinks station.
Kingsley running into Vallorcine
I stopped at the Brevent for a couple of minutes, as I had built up my margin ahead of the cut offs to just over two hours. Also a couple of my toes were rubbing, so I taped them up. The mists had descended again, as you can see from the photo below, the amazing views you usually get across to Mont Blanc were sadly missing. The quick break was much welcomed, but it was time to go again, and I knew the next part of the race was potentially where I was going to lose the most time, due to the steep descent towards Servoz. I got going again, and headed down towards the Aiguillette des Houches. The legs were definately feeling it at this stage, but I had to press on.

The first part of the descent is towards the Bel Lachat refuge, which is perched on the ridgeline far above the Chamonix valley. The track is good, but it is rock steps, and so quite tough on the knees. My legs weren't too keen on running at this stage, but I pressed on and passed a couple of the flashpoint photographer points. I remember feeling quite sorry for the paps as the Brevent cable car was closed, and so they had all hiked up from the valley to take their shots for the runners, so a good effort from them! Soon I past the Bel Lachat after the section with handrails, then run across my favourite section of the course, the lakes of the Aiguillette des Houches.
I had often walked my dog on this section during the summer months, so knew every twist and turn, but by this stage I was approaching a full marathon distance, and so the footwork wasn't too good, and I wasn't gaining time any more. As the waypoint of the Aiguillette des Houches approached, I knew that I had run the last sector in exactly the minimum required time. No I hadn't eaten into my two hour time margin, but it still was a shock to see that I had gone from gaining a margin to maintaining a margin, and the realisation spurred me on to push towards the small summit ahead. On the way I ran past several hikers, who had chosen to walk the same route as this part of the race. They looked a bit depressed to be overtaken by yet more runners, but cheered us on.

On this section I was running with someone with a Basque flag wrapped around their head, who was suffering too. This didn't help much, but it was good to see I wasn't the only one. Below is a photo of me on the way to Aiguillette des Houches, and you can see from the look on my face that it wasn't a feel good moment! Anyway the top was reached and then ahead lay the 1500m descent to Servoz. This was the section we had been warned about in the race briefing, but fortunately it was dry on the upper section, and so the mammoth descent began!
Runners approaching the Aiguillette des Possettes 2200m
As I ran across the top narrow ridge I passed a group cheering runners on by ringing cow bells, then as I rounded the corner I saw the ridge dropping away in front of me. I slowed down as it was loose underfoot, and several runners overtook me, but I was concentrating on the ground under my feet, so happily let them by. I looked at my altimeter and saw that the rate of descent was about 20 to 25m per minute, that meant 5 minutes per 100m, so 50 minutes per thousand so about 1 hour 20 for the total descent. That was a bit slower than I'd been hoping for, but I was keen to finish without a twisted ankle. It took what seemed like ages to reach the treeline, then again ages to reach the 1500m contour. My mind was working against me, as I compared big mountain descents to sections of this route, so knew that from 1500m to Servoz was still the same as descending Mont Blanc du Tacul to the Col du Midi.

It also didn't help that as I descended that the ground turned from rock and dry track to wet and muddy grass. I slipped around a fair bit, and just ahead of me one runner took about a 10m fall, before bouncing up onto his feet and carrying on. After what seemed like an age, I finally reached the upper chalets in the forests above Servoz, and the ground dried up a little but was now covered with a good coating of autumn leaves.
Running the section to Flegere At the halmet of Montvaultier the route twisted around a fair bit, and then it dropped steeply onto the track leading into Servoz. The photo on the left is on one of the last sections of the forest track. About 100m above the village I got onto the road. Here there were lots of people cheering the runners on which was a good boost to the morale. I turned into the village, and crossed the main road to enter the old village centre. Here was the final drinks and food station of the race. By this stage I had already run over a marathon distance, and so the energy levels were running a bit low. Several other runners sat at the drinks station, totally spent and some pulling out.

Across the road from the drinks station is a small bar, where the locals were sitting outside, to watch the runners. On the speakers I remember they were playing Hallelujah sung by Jeff Buckley. It was far too relaxed a mood, and far too soft and emotional a song to hang around. Everything was telling me to stop, but I knew I had to keep pushing onwards or I would stop. On the descent I had lost nearly half an hour from my margin, which was not a surprise, but it still gave me a good hour and a half margin before the cut off time. My legs felt like lead, but I soon got running again and headed off from the drinks station. The weather was good now, and some sun was shining through.
As I approached the Servoz bridge, I saw my wife Sarah ahead with our dog Max. It was brilliant to see them, but equally quite hard. I wanted to stop, and seeing them didn't help those feelings, but it did spur me on to finish as they had come to support me. As the track turned off from the road, they ran with me for a couple of hundred metres, then promised to see me at the end. As I left them behind I had no doubt that I would reach the finish, but I had no idea how much I would eat into my time margin. I crossed the bridge at Chatelard and headed upwards again. The uphill was agonising, as there was nothing left in my legs. The track headed straight up a very steep hill through the trees, and I remember looking upwards to a runner about 100m above me, but it felt like they were a mountain above me. Finally the ground flattened off a little, but it was a false top and the route continued upwards. I reached some ruins, which I knew meant that the route then traversed towards Vaudagne. My legs weren't capable of much, but I tottered along the traverse, and got to the roads of the village.

Here I reached a real low in the energy levels, but all the locals I passed cheered me on, pointing out the way on. Clearly I wasn't looking too good. I stopped for a drink at a water trough, then climbed up and out of the village on a steep track. The energy wasn't getting any better, and I felt like I wanted to stop again. Runners overtook me, and on a signpost I saw it was marked as nearly two hours to Les Houches centre, so didn't feel much better for it. By this stage I was running with a guy from Luxembourg, and we passed through the alpage or Charousse. I knew that Les Houches and the finish was just ahead, perhaps only 2km away. I could vaguely hear the speakers of the finish announcers, and I picked up the pace a little. As I reached the edge of the village people were lining the roads, and offering encouragements saying that the end was only about 10 minutes to go. The route then took a little track to cut a few corners of the road, and then suddenly I emerged onto the road again. A policeman was ahead holding up the traffic, and I knew that I was a few hundred metres from the finish. I picked up the pace again, and ran across the road and made the final turn towards the lake. Hundreds of people were gathered there to see the racers home and I ran around the edge of the lake totally forgetting the pain I had been in for the last couple of hours.
Ahead I could see the finish line and arch, and as I approached the line I saw Sarah and Max waiting for me. As I ran past them I grabbed the dog lead, so I could run over the line with Max, as you can see from the photo on the right. As I crossed the line, I could hear the commentator shout out my name, and knew it was all over. I got my race number tagged and my finish time was 11 hours 25 minutes. The winners had crossed the line five hours before me, but I was happy. I recovered my clothes bag, and then walked back to the car that Sarah had driven to collect me. It was all over, but I felt no endorphin high. I felt empty and finished, yet remarkably proud. I knew good runners who had failed to finish this race, and I loved the region I had run through. It had been a very different experience to race through familiar terrain.

As Sarah politely noted a couple of days later, "you've got to be a bit wierd to run for eleven and a half hours", but it wasn't the time or the physical effort required that I remember at all for this race. It was the mental games that your mind plays with you over that timescale, and the games you play with it, that create a unique experience. Sometimes you are at the top of the world, and at other times, you explore the lows. The emotional journey is tougher than the race itself, but it makes this race exceptionally hard.
Crossing the finish line
I remember telling people afterwards that I wouldn't ever do this race again, and I definately hurt my feet a bit, but a few days later felt great again, and went walking and running in the hills above Lake Maggiore in north Italy. The memories of the pain had faded to be replaced by a real sense of satisfaction, and a perverse feeling of having won over my brain telling me to stop. It was the hardest race I've ever done, and perhaps because it was so tough at the time the 'high' wasn't immediate, but spread out over time as you glance up at sections of the route, and remember running along it. The Trail des Aiguilles Rouges was an amazing and remarkably personal experience, and one that I would now love to do again. It's just too soon and too raw in my mind to even consider signing up for yet.

A huge thanks to all the nameless people I shared this amazing experience with, an even bigger thanks to all the supporters who cheered us all along on the route, especially the guardians of the Bérard hut, to the organisers for dreaming up such a brilliant event. Above all I remember feeling like I was running in my mountains. I knew every inch of the route so well that by exerting myself to such an extent in my mountains, that I felt closer to them than ever before. You cannot fail to be after such an experience. Thank you the Aiguilles Rouges. The final thanks must go to Sarah for putting up with my wierd training regime and love of strange mountain races!

See you out in the mountains soon,
Kingsley
LINKS---Icicle Trail Running Main Page---Icicle Trail Running Courses---Icicle Trail Running Advice Page
Waiting for starters orders in Chamonix centre
 
 
 
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