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Peak Transfer | Trail des Aiguilles Rouges: A Race Report
27th September 2016

Trail des Aiguilles Rouges: A Race Report

On Sunday the Chamonix Valley again played host to the the notorious Aiguilles Rouges trail running event for the 10th year in a row. Taking place in the second half of September every year in the Chamonix Valley the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges as the name suggests is a guaranteed trip through the magnificent red spires and beautiful nature reserve.

Noted as one of the most beautiful and technical trails in Europe it is very popular with keen trail running enthusiasts on the continent. What adds to the appeal of this semi-autonomous race is that each year a new course route is set making the race even more of a challenge than it already is. Not many trail races can boast such legendary status and be held in such high esteem by so many in the trail running community in such a short period of time. This year 650 candidates took on the TAR and a further 350 set themselves against the P’tit TAR and for the first time in my life I was to be joining them.Peak Transfer recommend the TAR running event in Chamonix

Those of you interested in qualifying ITRA or UTMB points may have noticed that this unassuming race at first glance gives you the most bang for your buck (i.e. the most points available for a race of this distance). But don’t be fooled there is a reason why the TAR has the same number of points associated with it than many races up to double its distance and that’s due to the outrageous vertical gain and drop in combination with the extremely challenging technical terrain covered and tough cut off times to boot.

This year the TAR route encompassed a gruelling 4,032m of elevation and 3,807m of descent over 51 km starting in Chamonix centre itself. On route to Vallorcine mountain summits such as Aiguillette des Houches, Brévent, and Aiguillette des Posettes will be succumbed and high altitude mountain cols passed including Brevent, Cornu, Gliere and Col des Posettes in less than 13 and a half hours. The P’tit TAR this year is comprised of a 15 km loop from Vallorcine taking in views of the Emosson Dam and 1,200m  of elevation on the way to be completed in less than 4 hours.

Race Day

I can’t say the 3am alarm call was the highlight of the day but something a mountain trail runner needs to get used to with the rather typical ultra trail race start time of 4:30am. After forcing down some breakfast and doing some last minute preparations I jumped in the car and started to make my way to Chamonix. It was so peaceful in the quiet wilderness of the Chamonix valley with the stars glistening brightly and crescent moon taking centre stage in the clear night skies illuminating and silhouetting the surrounding mountain spires…some of which in a few hours time I would be attempting to climb. The clear sky was a good sign of the weather to come confirming the latest weather report I had read stating “Weather: Excellent. Cool temperature in the morning, fresh that day. Sunshine close to 100%.” PERFECT!!!

The Trail des Aiguilles Rouges start line was electricThe first surprise of the day was the amount of people (much more environmentally friendly than me) that were running to the start line, some as far as 5km out! I thought we had enough km’s to run that day without adding insult to injury!!! The next was the eclectic mix of morning audience, a concoction of head torch donning ultra runners, dedicated supportive family and friends in combination with the (rather drunk) party going stragglers scattered around just leaving the bars and about to make their way home. A combination that struck me to be unique to Chamonix. That said once the race had started and the start line applause had died out it was rather amusing to see the initial shock on slightly intoxicated wanderers faces followed by entertaining encouragement.

I had never raced at nighttime before and on the start line it was electric with the ominous accumulated glow of 650 head torches of runners waiting to get going in combination with the MC and a rocky Muse tune. This year the first 1.5km of the race took us through the Chamonix high street and along the road towards Gaillands where we made our way into the woods and onto the dark trails up to the Merlet animal parc. This would be the last time we saw a road until km 35 when we passed the Argentiere aid station and again for the last 100m to the finish in Vallorcine. The other 49km of the race would be covering unmaintained single track, bare rock and gigantic boulder fields.

Spectacular scenery and beautiful morning sun at Brevent on the TAR courseWe threaded our way past the animal park where a gaggle of bright eyed and bushy tailed supporters armed with wolf whistles, cow bells and good humour cheered all the competitors on as they passed. We then traversed to Plan de la Cry (9 km) to the first of just 4 aid stations before descending down to Samoteux (9,5 km). In a steady stream of blight lights runners zig-zagged their way up the Pierre Blanche (14 km) but the sun started to rise spectacularly as many of the runners made their way along the Aiguillette des Houches arete (16.1km) and finally to the summit of Brévent (19 km) where the second aid station boasted good food, perfect respite and a beautiful morning view of the Mont Blanc Massif.

From here the terrain progressively got harder starting with the steep iron ladders at the Col des Brevent on the descent down to Planpraz (22.6 km) before hitting the tricky high altitude boulder fields of the Aiguilles Rouges including the climb up and over the Cols des Cornu and Gliere passing the alpine lakes of Lac Noir and Cornu too. You can’t help but notice that what you’re running on are rocks the size of small cars and bigger precariously balanced against and on top of one another. Thus leaving you to find the most appropriate path through as you see fit making this section of the trail not only physically taxing but mentally too.

A profeshional at work showing us how it should be done

As the day progressed and the sun got higher in the sky the temperatures rose sharply which was accentuated on the exposed south facing Aiguilles Rouges acting as a sun trap. Finally, as we scrambled and climbed up a tight alpine pass where the glorious view of the Flegere ski resort presented itself below us. We could see the morale lifting sight of the Index spires meaning that the 3rd aid station (27,5 km) was just over the brow of the nearby hill and that reassuringly we had passed the halfway mark.

Having refuelled and recomposed at l’Index we embarked on a beautiful and rather enjoyable traverse towards the notorious Lac Blanc before tackling the unrelenting technical and rocky descent all the way to the Chamonix Valley floor to the final aid station in Argentière village (34,6 km). It was almost impossible to look after your knees, ankles and toes on the descent without loosing too much pace, so inevitably this is where they took a good thrashing. I was concentrating so much on the descent down to Argentière that I lost focus on hydrating and fuelling properly which I paid the price for when I got to Argentière.

The TAR is challenging mentally as well as techically and physically demanding

Argentière was full to the brim of cheering supporters and interested parties, probably due to being the most accessible section of the TAR route. This was a great boost, and welcome support. When filling up my bladder in the final aid station I realised that I had only drunk half of what I should have and still had many energy gels in my pack side compartments.

Having noticed my weariness, lack of hydration and indications of fatigue my one-man-band support crew (i.e. the other half) walked with me for a km whilst I struggled up a rather pathetic incline in comparison to the final climb waiting imposingly around the next bend just 5km down the trail at Le Tour. My legs felt heavy as if made of lead, my breathing getting deeper and morale slowly dwindling. He gave me sound advice telling me to drink lots and eats whenever I could which as simple and as sensible and common sense as it sounds, I desperately needed. It worked!

I sipped water every time I passed a course marker and regularly shoved a piece of dark chocolate in my mouth. I couldn’t stomach another energy gel at this point the thought of it made me feel ill. But the quick rehydration and chocolate fueled energy boast soon kicked in and about halfway up the long but final climb of the race to the Aiguillette des Posettes arête. I found my rhythm, helped by a well timed favorite guilty pleasure “tune” in my headphones. I started powering upwards with the arete getting closer and closer every step I took. Overtaking a few fellow competitors on my way.

Aiguillette des Possetts was the final climb of the TAR 2016

It was reassuring to see I was not the only one struggling at the final stages of the race and we shared a wry knowing smile between us. Suddenly I found myself on top of the Posettes and making my way across to the Col des Posettes, the final timing gate before the finish. Here there were a handful of very welcome well wishers cheering all the runners that passed.

Now it was time for the final descent to Vallorcine itself. My legs were not keen on running at this stage, but the initial non technical cat track was so runnable it would be rude not too, especially to make up time before hitting the slippery muddy (and sometimes swampy) trails lower in the valley. The route took us the long way to Vallorcine which at first glance seems cruel but having already ran over 46km by this stage the knees were thankful as it made the course a little less steep.

Finally I rounded the final corner past a hamlet of beautiful chalets and it was then I knew I was only minutes from the finish. Suddenly, crowds of cheering spectators appeared, the sound of ringing cow bells filled the air and then the joyful sight of the finishing line came into view. I heard familiar voices calling my name before great friends, my boyfriend and my Australian Shepherd puppy ‘Jess’ ran with me into the finish encouraging me to sprint. As I crossed the line, relief took over, my medal was placed over my head and I knew it was all over. It started to sink in the enormity (for me) of what I had just accomplished, only my second ever ultra distance trail race…. And the fact that I had well and truly earnt my huge portion of tartiflette waiting just outside the finishing pen.

The Aiguilles Rouges in all its glory I will admit like any ultra distance and even trail race there were definitely huge highs, major lows, trials and tribulations on the way. However, despite having run longer distances in the past the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges will without doubt go down as the most beautiful, challenging (physically, technically and mentally) and enjoyable races I’ve completed to date. I would recommend the experience to anyone that thinks their physically fit and mentally tough enough to take on the mighty TAR!

To find out more about the TAR and P’tit TAR or see the results visit the official website here. We look forward to seeing you on the trails and in the mountains next summer!

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