Trail du Besso - A true mountain race
The night before a race is usually not great, especially when there is an early start. My head is filled with the pressure of needing to sleep, while my mind keeps urging me to check that I have packed my collapsable cup in the right pocket. Then after a few hours of broken sleep my alarm goes off at 3.15. This process is never fun, but the few races that I have done around Zinal have been especially bad due to waking up and trying to get ready in a very cold tent. This was the situation that I found myself in again before the start of the Trail du Besso race last weekend. The race briefing was at 4.45, and I had a 15 minute walk and some faffing to do first, so at 4.20 I eventually got up the courage to leave the tent. Waiting in the dark with about 40 other people (there was a 3.30 start as well) I really did wonder about the phrase “be bold, start cold”, and whether that meant a basic shivering cold, or borderline hypothermic cold. Either way at 5.00 the gun went off, and we were away. As a side note I have never understood the way most people start ultras. With 56kms to go, not to mention the cold, I do not feel any desire to start with a sprint. Maybe in some of the super crowded Chamonix races it makes sense, but here there were only about 40 people so the dangers of being stuck in queues on the climbs were pretty small.
Anyway the first section of the race was a fairly steady climb in the dark up to the ridge above Zinal. Once on the ridge things got more technical, with a few bits of scrambling, and some rather slippery rock due to the dew. After we reached the summit of Garde de Bordon we started to descend down to Lac de Châteaupré. Initially the descent was on scree, but as we got lower we got onto some quite steep open pastures and without a set trail it started to feel more like traditional British fell running rather than trail running. After passing by the lac we climbed again to cross the Moiry glacier, and then on up to the Cabane de Moiry where there was an aid station. As another side note it was after leaving this aid station that I learned that mixing grenadine syrup with bouillon is not a great idea (the jug looked like it contained plain water). We then crossed over the Col du Pigne before a loose and technical rock and scree descent on the other side. By the time I reached Cabane du Petit Mountet I was very ready to swap my grenadine / bouillon concoction for something more palatable. By now the heat of the day was definitely on us, but fortunately the climb after the cabane was fairly gentle. The descent onto the Glacier de Zinal was very insecure, and I had to slow down after a couple of stumbles in a situation where a fall would not have been clever, but then came the second glacial section.
The earlier section on the Moiry glacier was a simple glacial crossing, which in itself is quite rare in a running race, but the section on the Zinal glacier was definitely more serious as you followed a route that climbed and wound its way up the glacier. The route was well marked, but you certainly needed to be careful. A short climb off the glacier got you to cabane number 3 (of 5), and then a long descending traverse took you back to just below the Cabane du Petit Mountet. At this point I had the joy of seeing my support team (my wife and 2 daughters) for a very quick, but very appreciated, hug. Now we were into what was effectively the last section, a loop that included a fair amount of climbing, 2 cabanes, a small col, and a long descent to Zinal. I was not long into the climb when a shower of rain spoilt the otherwise perfect conditions. Fortunately it did not last long, and the amazing views of the surrounding glaciers and mountains kept me engaged.
The next cabane was Arpitettaz where the people helping were wonderfully kind. Firstly they gave me some very helpful advice about the conditions after the rain, but then they also gave me an extra bottle as one of my soft flasks had split. On the climb from the cabane to the Col de Milon I was mentally very tired. I was moving well, but after concentrating in such technical terrain all day I was mentally ready for a rest. The descent after the col was one of the most slippery sections of scrambling that I have ever done. Throughout the race the organisers and volunteers had been fantastic, and perfectly placed, and this was a prime example as they had 2 people on the col ensuring that everybody was ok. Now the final cabane was in sight, and after that there was just a long descent to the finish. The climb up to Cabane de Tracuit was fairly short, and then the start of the long descent. Due to a pre-existing foot issue I was quite worried about this descent, but thankfully the path was fairly smooth and my foot behaved until the final road section into the village, and by then I was so close that I knew that I could endure the pain. The support of the villagers who were out was fantastic, and then I could see the finish and my family waiting there for me, and 13th place was mine. At 56kms and 5400m of vertical this is not a long ultra, but that does not tell the whole story. In the past I have done trail races, and sky races, but I do not think that Trail du Besso really fits into either of these categories. I think that the only way to describe it is as a true mountain race, and I mean that as a huge compliment. This is a race that is made up of scrambling, glacier travel, very technical terrain both on and off trail, 3 sections over 3000m and some truly fantastic mountain scenery (and relatively little smooth, easily runnable trail) and as such I cannot think of any race that I have done that comes close to giving you such a complete mountain experience. If you enjoy mountain running this is the race for you, and for my part I really hope it grows and becomes an established and well known race among those people who like this kind of terrain, as it really does deserve to have a reputation as a special race. The day before I arrived in Zinal for the race I had needed to pop into Chamonix, and it happened to be a couple of hours before the start of UTMB, and it was so, so hectic, like a circus was sweeping through town. Now whether you love or hate the UTMB something that cannot be disputed is that it is a big corporate brand. Arriving in Zinal a few hours later the peace and tranquility was a real contrast. In fact because so much of the race was not easily accessible I think that most of the people offering the runners support seemed to have climbing kit, and be on their way to their route for the day. This brings me onto the last thing that I would like to say about this race, and that is how fantastic the people of Zinal were. This was the first year of a relatively small race, but the support the runners received from everybody, whether climbers, volunteers, locals, or the few spectators was amazing. Clearly there were a number of volunteers who had given up a day of their time to help the race to run, and to make sure that the runners were looked after, and kept safe. I think that all the best races I have done are the ones that have that sense of community at their core.
For more information, and to sign up for next year, visit www.traildubesso.com.