I attended the UTMB races for the first time this year, as an elite field entrant in the TDS race. TDS stands for “Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie” and it traverses some of the trails of UTMB, but also some additional regions in the southern area of the Mont Blanc massif.
If you’re looking for a race report, you’ll find my recap of the first 58 miles below. I DNF’d after being forced by the race organization to stop for multiple hours in the middle of the night. I was never able to get moving again after freezing on a mountain pass for 2 hours, but I tried for an additional 8 hours.
If you’re looking for a gear list, I provide my gear list at the end.
The difficulty of TDS
The UTMB organization rates TDS (as of 2021) as a more difficult race than both CCC and UTMB. According to the race organization, the following facts about the “terrain” factor into the rating:
- unclearly marked paths
- very long ascents and descents
- exposed passages secured with a rope
- use of hands necessary to balance oneself
- remote itinerary
- altitude 2700m
- few refreshment points
The race organization also has a short description of “requirements”:
Elementary experience of the mountains: capable of being autonomous for 5 or 6 hours; the knowhow for confronting difficult conditions (rain, wind, cold (< 0°C), snow) day and night
The race certainly lived up to the expectations set by the organization. It was, by far, the hardest event I have ever attempted.
Tragedy on the course
The 2021 edition had a tragic event occur during the race. A runner died on the course in the middle of the night. It happened not far in front of me - I was one of the first 10 runners halted at the Passeur Pralognan in the middle of the night to await the helicopter rescue. At the time, we were told there had been an accident, but there were no more details. I was unaware that the runner had died until many hours later.
I share more details about my personal experience below, but I think it’s important to point out that the runner death occurred at a section where we had experienced many of the difficulties described above: it was after a very long ascent; it was at an exposed passage secured with a rope; it was a section that required use of hands for balance; it was a remote area; it was the 2nd-highest altitude point of the course, the temperature was below freezing, and the terrain was wet from rain earlier in the evening.
Training for TDS
My peak training saw a couple of weeks with 13-14 hours of running, including long runs of 5-6 hours that contained 8,000+ ft of vertical gain. On these runs I would carry my full race kit, including poles and extra layers. I ran mostly in San Francisco and the Marin Headlands, including the trails on and around Mt. Tam.
I also spent two big days in the high Sierras - I attempted the Desolation 7 Summits route and I ran the Rae Lakes Loop in a day. I think these types of training runs were great for confidence-building and for exposing me to mountain conditions… but they were still relatively tame compared to the TDS course.
If I were to change things about my training for future attempts at any of the UTMB races, I’d put more of an emphasis on steep downhill running and on plyometric strength training. I maintained 15,000+ vertical feet of running in my final weeks of training, but I feel like this wasn’t enough. These UTMB races have climbs and descents that continue for thousands of vertical feet on grades of 25-30%. Training on this kind of terrain is a double-edge sword because while it is the most specific preparation that you can do, it also introduces the biggest chance of injury. Nevertheless, my quads were absolutely destroyed by the time I was 18-20 hours into the race.
My gear for TDS was adequate, but barely so. I used every single piece of equipment that I carried except for the ace bandage and the extra headlamp and batteries. Yes, I even used the emergency heat blanket while being forced to stop in sub-freezing temps in the middle of the night while the helicopter rescue was ongoing at the Passeur Pralognan. There’s good reason for everything that the race forces runners to carry.
I split the race up into several sections, which makes sense geographically and from an execution standpoint.
- Start to Col Chavanne
- Col Chavanne to Bourg Saint-Maurice
- Bourg Saint-Maurice to Passeur Pralognan
- Passeur Pralognan to Beaufort
Start to Col Chavanne
The start was awesome - there are thousands of spectators in Courmayeur and it feels like a world-class event stage. I took some videos to capture a bit of the experience. There are plenty of places to hang out before getting into the corrals - I ducked into the Sports Center to wait out the rain. There were bathrooms in many places, and very few lines. It was very relaxed for being such a big athletic event.
There had been no gear check at race check-in because of protocol changes during the COVID-19 era, but I was randomly selected to have all my gear checked in the start corral. I had to pull out everything on the required gear list (rain equipment, extra layers, headlamps) and the gear-check volunteer put a special sticker on my bib after I passed. Most of the runners were sitting down as the start festivities were occurring. There was light rain for a bit, and the start was delayed for an hour because of traffic in the Mont Blanc tunnel.
I feel like it’s common knowledge that the European trail races go out hard. It’s true. I tried to hold back at the beginning, but I still got caught up in the excitement and found myself going at more of a 50k effort for the first mile. I swallowed my pride, slowed down, and let tons of people pass me. By the time we got to Bourg St-Maurice, 30 miles into the race, I had moved up more than 100 spots in the field to settle into the top 150.
I focused on maintaining my nutrition and hydration strategy for the first few hours. The climb to the Arete du Mont-Favre was long, beautiful, and very steep.
Most the people around me were exerting far too much energy. I could hear extremely heavy breathing, and I didn’t observe many people taking time to eat and drink in those first few hours.
By the time we got to Col Chavanne, many runners were clearly hurting. The climb seemed to have broken a lot of people.
Looking back on this section, I realize that the climbs and descents in the first third of the course were incredibly easy compared to those in the second third of the course. I did a great job maintaining my nutrition and hydration strategy early on, and it certainly paid off later in the night.
Col Chavannes to Bourg Saint-Maurice
The course after Col Chavannes took us on a steady, beautiful descent down a dirt road. This descent probably hurt me a lot more than I realized at the time because it was more than an hour of continuous downhill running. My effort was easy, but an hour of continuous downhill running is incredibly hard on the quads at any effort level (especially with a 10+ lb pack).
After the descent, there was some winding through high-alpine territory to get to La Thuile - Petit Saint Bernard. It was relatively easy, with just a few short sections of off-trail bushwhacking.
I know my videos aren’t the best quality (I was running a race, after all!) but you can see the weather start to turn as cloudcover rolled in for the evening.
We encountered a thunderstorm on this section of the course, and once it started getting wet I pulled out my rain jacket and put my phone away for a few hours. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos or videos from here on. The thunderstorm was a wake-up call to many. I saw elites DNF’ing at the aid. The descent to Bourg Saint-Maurice was gradual for the first few miles, but then got technical. The wet terrain made the technical sections even slower. The one benefit was that Bourg Saint-Maurice was noticeably warmer compared to when the thunderstorm had started up high.
Running into Bourg Saint-Maurice was very cool - there were spectators cheering from their dinner tables as we ran through the city.
Bourg Saint-Maurice to Passeur Pralognan
There are few places in the world that could prepare a runner for the climb from Bourg Saint-Maurice to Col de la Fort and Passeur Pralognan. The net gain is around 6,000 ft and much of the climb is at 25-30% grade. You climb 1200+ vertical feet for multiple miles in a row, on muddy and rocky terrain.
I wish I had taken some photos of the view behind us as we climbed. The city of Bourg Saint-Maurice was visible below a thin layer of wispy clouds. The clouds reflected a bit of moonlight, and the moon and stars were visible above. It was incredible. It was one of those scenes that really can’t be captured by a phone camera, so I didn’t even try… but it made me feel extremely grateful to be out there and to have pushed through the thunderstorm a few hours earlier.
After the Col de la Fort, the terrain became very technical and slow-moving. The final climb to the Passeur Pralognan is extremely steep, technical, and dangerous. When I arrived at the Passeur, they scanned my bib and told me to stand off the trail. There were a few runners sitting at the pass. We were told that there was an accident ahead, that we could not go on, and that it was unknown how much time would pass until we could continue.
At this point, we had been on the course for 9 hours and it was nearly 1am. I knew that I was going to get extremely cold, very quickly, by stopping at that altitude. I pulled out my additional clothing layers and put them on. We saw the helicopter approach and we heard it land in the valley on the other side of the pass, and it seemed to be an eternity.
We kept waiting, and waiting. I started doing push-ups to stay warm. I finally removed my emergency heat blanket from it’s pouch and wrapped myself in it. We kept waiting. The helicopter started again, and left, and there was a lot of back-and-forth communication going on between the medical team and the race organization.
Eventually, around 3am, we were allowed to continue. We were closely supervised as we descended the fixed-rope section. I was freezing and my body was stiff after spending the prior 2 hours huddled and shivering. I never really got moving again after that, but I tried my best.
Passeur Pralognan to Beaufort
The descent from the Passeur Pralognan was incredibly technical, but the rest of the trail to Cormet de Roselund was largely runnable. Unfortunately, my body was not willing to run again. My legs, especially my ankles, never really loosened up again after freezing up.
The following section from Cormet de Roselund to La Gittaz involved a steep ascent that seemed largely off-trail (or at least the trail was very rarely used), followed by a descent that was mixed hard-pack dirt and boulders. This section broke me. I was not nimble enough to move quickly across boulders, and I was slowed to a crawl until I got to La Gittaz.
I wanted to quit at La Gittaz, but the sun was about to rise and I knew that the next section, climbing to and traversing the Pas d’Outray, was going to be beautiful. I decided at that point that I was going to quit at Beaufort because there was no way I would be able to continue for another 15+ hours at the rate that I was moving. However, I was motivated to enjoy the mountains a bit more at sunrise, and I had nowhere better to be.
The section leading up to and including the Pas d’Outray was just as beautiful as I thought it was going to be. I was glad that I chose to stay out on the course a few more hours to experience it. The climb from La Gittaz topped out at the Col Ouest de La Gittaz, then the trail stayed high as it traversed to the Pas d’Outray.
The Pas d’Outray was stunning - definitely a worthwhile hike or run on it’s own.
The final descent into Beaufort was extremely steep, sending us straight down grassy slopes between homes. The town was very cute. I was happy to say I made it to Beaufort, but also confident that turning my bib in here was the right decision.
After nearly 20 hours on the course (including 2 hours at a frozen standstill in the middle of the night), 58+ miles and 18,000+ feet of climbing, I quit. I was forced to wait about 5 hours for a shuttle, because all the shuttle schedules had been messed up. It was here that I learned of the runner’s death, which resulted in the race halt at Bourg Saint-Maurice and forced DNF of roughly 1100 of the 1500 runners. I had a little bit of regret start to stir in me as I realized that I was one of the few runners allowed to continue the race, but I also knew that I had little-to-no chance of a successful finish, and that it would be dangerous for me to continue with my legs in their current state.
I also think that, had I been told that a runner died on the descent from Passeur Pralognan, that I likely would have opted not to continue at that point. However, we were under the impression that the helicopter rescue had been successful (though, looking back, nobody ever told us that it was successful).
The gear that I used, which I found adequate and absolutely necessary, is:
- Salomon S-Lab 5L pack
- Altra lone peak shoes & injinji trail socks
- emergency heat blanket & other required first-aid gear
- a couple waterproof stuff sacks, 3-4L
- 1.5L bladder
- 2 500ml soft flasks
- Inov-8 trail pant (waterproof)
- Z-packs vertice rain mitts (waterproof)
- Burton liner gloves
- Rabbit short tights and 3/4 tights
- CEP calf sleeves
- Rabbit short- and long-sleeve shirts
- Rabbit wind jacket
- The North Face Hyperair Gore-Tex rain jacket
- Zpacks fleece beanie
- Buff hat and neck gaiter (for sun protection)
- arm sleeves (for sun protection)
- Petzl NAO+ headlamp and spare battery
- Petzl zipka (backup headlamp) and spare AAA batteries
- Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles
- Salomon pole quiver
- iPhone in a waterproof pouch
The Salomon pack that I used was barely big enought to hold all of this and it required some thought for packing, but it worked. I’d probably take the exact same gear again for another UTMB race.
I have mixed feelings about my experience at TDS. First and foremost, the race had a tragic story and I feel so sorry for the friends and family of the runner that lost his life on the course. Personally, I won’t be running any more races that require the use of fixed ropes for safety. No event is worth the life of a runner.
If and when I run a race with as steep of terrain, I’m more knowledgeable about what kind of training will be appropriate.
As for the entire experience of being at a UTMB event - it was incredible and I hope to go back many times in the future. I should have picked OCC or CCC as my first race to try out here. TDS was a poor choice, in retrospect, but I learned more from TDS than I would have in another race. As someone who has a lifelong goal to run Hardrock, I feel like TDS gave me a taste of what I can expect from a similarly remote and difficult big-mountain race.
Thanks for reading!