Trail des Aiguilles Rouges

So what is it about Chamonix races ? Everything has to be extreme and difficult – well, that’s how we like it here!

This weekend I volunteered to help out at the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. This is a 54.4km trail race (mountain race, actually), which has 3674m of positive height gain and 3624m of descent with an official time limit of 13 hours (winners were expected to complete the course in around 7 hours).

The winner this year overall was Dawa Sherpa of Nepal (now living in Switzerland), who did not disappoint the organizers after finishing in 6′ 47″. He also was 2nd place in this year’s North Face Ultra Trail, held only one month earlier. Obviously he had a very good recovery. The 2nd place finisher was well known French runner Vincent Delebarre in 7′ 18″ (the two men finished in reverse order the prior year with Delebarre winning and Sherpa coming in 2nd).

Women trail runners were not quite as well represented in the race, with no very big name women enrolling and the top woman finishing a bit slower by percentage of the winner’s time than one generally finds women finishing in trail races these days. The winner of the woman’s category in 9:35 was Sylvie Negro (prior year’s winner of the female category), and she was 58th overall. Last year, only 39 women enrolled, and this year the number increased to 73 so that is a very good increase at least in overall participation. But a somewhat disappointing turnout of top women athletes compared to the men’s representation, in my opinion.

The majority of the field indeed was made up of French runners – probably owing to two factors. First the race is only marketed in French on their website, and secondly the race is only 2 years old. This year enrollment was down compared to last year, although in the end more people started this year’s race (less than 400 started last year due to very bad weather and snow on the course). A small handful of Swiss, Italians, Brits and Americans (most of the Brits and Americans being locals anyhow) made up the rest of the field.

This year, 573 runners started in Les Houches at 5am (the course is limited to 600 runners due to passing through the nature reserve so this was a good turn out at the start line). At the end of the day, 458 runners finished the course, with the last one coming in at nearly 8pm – a good 2 hours after the official course cut off time. Only 384 runners finished within the original cut off time of 13 hours.

In miles and feet that is 33.8 miles and 12,054 feet of height gain. So it’s a bit longer than a marathon but a lot tougher in terms of climbing – not to mention that this is done on rough mountain trails. It counts for 2 points towards earning the 3 points required to enter yourself in the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc trail race (166km 9400m uphill), or it alone will gain you an entry into the North Face Ultra Trail CCC race (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix), which is a 98km race with 5600m uphill. Both races are held the same weekend at the end of August each year starting in Courmayeur and Chamonix. Both races now require pre-qualification due to their popularity.

By all accounts the start of the Aiguilles Rouges race is tough for the climbs – the majority of height gain is done within the first half of the race ( 2420 of 3674m). This made many in the race choose to continue on when reaching Plan Praz, even though they were close to the cut off time. This leaves only 1254 metres of height gain for the 2nd half of the race.

  Départ – Les Houches 0.00 Km 0 m
Refuge de Moede Anterne 17.20 Km 1535 m
  Brèche du Brevent 25.80 Km 2420 m
  Planpraz 34.80 Km 2951 m
  L’Index 40.40 Km 3522 m
  La Flégère 47.70 Km 3674 m
  Chamonix – Arrivée 54.40 Km 3674 m

However … this is a bit deceptive if you think the last bit is a piece of cake! The 2nd half of the race has by far the more technical parts of the trails to conquer and traverses for quite some time above 2000m, making altitude a factor to deal with for many runners who were not acclimatized. Some parts of the trail are over scree piles, next to sharp drop offs or contain even mild boulder scrambling as you cross several ridges in the nature reserve of the Aiguilles Rouges. The scenery it must be said is magnificent, but the going will not be as fast as you might imagine for ‘only’ just over 1200m of height gain.

The majority of runners seemed to drop out between the Brevent and the Index … it seemed that most who made it to the Index in time went on to complete the course. I know this because myself and my partner cut off most of the numbers in between the two points.

I decided to volunteer to help the race this year as my local running club is responsible for the race, and because I did not want to enter it myself, coming only 4 weeks after the CCC race. I also have signed up for another ultra marathon at the end of October, and as I am not a running professional it seemed a bit much to have such a hard race each month. I am glad of my decision. I think that running the 30km I did should be a good training day for the upcoming Templiers, and was about enough to remind my body about long mountain days.

Volunteers on these trail races are indeed asked to do quite a lot for ‘the love of it’ and I truly always appreciated their effort on the CCC and UTMB in year’s past – but now know how much these people do give of their free time to help others complete their dream of competing in a race like this. Some people were up from 3am until the race tents were taken down at 8:30pm. Myself, I left Chamonix at 10am and ran/climbed the 600m to reach the Plan de Lachat by 11am. I stayed there until 12:45pm (official cut off time), cheering on runners and helping people who decided they’d wanted to drop out find the right path back down to the valley.

At about 13:00 my partner for the day and I left to follow the last runners to all the other points. Behind us were another couple collecting the course trail markings and rubbish. Our job was to close the course and ensure all runners were accounted for, theirs was to clean it up until the control point at the Index chair lift. Closing the course meant at times retiring runners who clearly were too far from the next check point to make it on time, and then ensuring they either felt comfortable enough to make it down themselves from where we were, or ensuring the couple behind us would see them through to the next point where they could get help. It was not a nice task to have to cut dossards but by the time we reached the runners we had to retire, they were well aware they were spent and did not object as some of the runners cut off at Plan de Lachat had done. As it turned out, the cut off time at Plan de Lachat perhaps should have been tighter – we ended up retiring all the runners who’d come past in the last 1/2 hour we’d been there before we reached La Flegere. Basically it seems allowing only 5.5 hours to get between Lachat and the end of the race was a bit tight for anyone not moving quickly anymore.

At each point of control we let the volunteers know they could close the course down once the people taking in the trail markers arrived and the last runners were accounted for. From the Flegere, we ran the rest of the course back to Chamonix doing a dual job of closing and cleaning the course – carrying bamboo pole trail markers in our backpacks and collecting ribbons tied to trees as well as garbage. The race was overall a ‘cleaner’ race than the CCC and UTMB, where I came across countless spent gel tubes, energy bar wrappers etc. as I ran (and I was in the top 1/3 of runners in that race, so imagine how bad it got towards the end!). The main ‘garbage’ we dealt with was toilet paper – disgusting but more likely left by evil tourists than the runners to be honest. We cleaned it anyhow.

Both the girl I was with and myself were trail runners, so we were able to complete the last 1/2 of the course in just under 7 hours, even with the constant stops to talk to runners, cut their numbers, help them out, speak to volunteers at tables, arrange transport for injured runners and then from the Flegere to continue to stop and speak to hurt runners, lost hikers (yes!), take down the course markers and collect garbage. Many of the last course markers were bits of plastic tape tied around tree branches in tight knots, requiring getting out a knife to take off without damaging the trees. We also came across some interesting odd garbage along the trail through the woods (giant plastic sheets, metal bars) and took those out as well. It made running ‘interesting’ carrying a 100 litre plastic sac with me.

So this took us a good deal longer than the 5.5 hours allowed to the racers to cross between these 2 points – but given all our tasks and the fact that I carried a backpack at least twice as heavy and bulky as I would have done if I were racing, I believe I could have actually finished the race in the time alloted. In several sections due to the fact that we could not pass any runners actively trying to complete the course in the alloted time meant that we went much slower than we could have gone (until the cut off time of the next point was past, in which case we could retire their numbers and move on if we were sure they could get to the next control point for help getting down w/o our assistance ) … but seeing how my legs feel today I am glad I did not enter it to race, as I think I would not recover properly before the Course des Templiers next month. Instead it was a good long training day in the mountains (11 hours total of time on feet from Chamonix to Chamonix) and at the same time I was able to help our organization put on this race. And I got in over 2000m of height gain and loss.

In future I hope the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges race stays true to its spirit – it seems the majority of runners had great respect for the mountains in this race, not leaving behind much garbage, and most of them were in general well trained (a few who dropped out had done the CCC or UTMB and simply had not recovered well enough to complete this trail). I imagine I could say ‘I wish the race was translated into English to allow more runners’ but on the other hand, I think it’s quite nice to keep the very ‘Frenchy-ness’ of the race as a local race for many in Chamonix to have ‘as their own’ – especially coming a month after the international ‘invasion’ of runners that is the UTMB weekend.

So if you know some French, are a trail runner and want to enter the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges, I encourage it – it is a shorter (compared to some I guess) but very tough trail race requiring a generally fast pace to complete on time, with lots of climbing, traverses at over 2000m of altitude, technical narrow trails, scrambling over scree and boulders, and some amazing amazing mountain views. We also saw some baby Ibex while running down from Lac Blanc and heard marmottes (but did not stop to try to spot them) whistling as we passed. If there is a year that I do not manage to get into the CCC (the race fills up very quickly each year) I will find the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges a good substitute. And I imagine if I do get into the CCC again, I will be happy to again volunteer to help close the course of the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges.

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