As part of my training for Grand Raid Pyrenees Tour des Cirques, I’m trying to spend as many weekends as I can in the likes of the Brecon Beacons, Lake District and Snowdonia. However, there’s no substitute for the ‘real thing’ and we knew from our CCC training last year that one of the best things we did was head out to Chamonix and run the CCC route over 3 days.

Although to get first hand experience of the GRP course it would have been useful to go to the Pyrenees for a holiday, we’ve been to Chamonix and the Alps so many times that we’ve got flights, transfers and accommodation down to a tee, so for ease we decided to head to the Alps for 9 days, mainly basing ourselves in Chamonix for an ‘active holiday’.

I’ve said it umpteen times, but it really couldn’t be easier to get to Chamonix from where we live in Brighton. 30 minutes to Gatwick, just over an hour’s Easyjet flight to Geneva and then an hour’s transfer to Chamonix with Mountain Drop-Offs. It sounds ridiculous, but it probably took us less time to get to the Alps than it took us to get up to the Lake District the weekend previously.

As we’d recced the CCC course, and then run the race, we thought it would be useful to run the first 50 miles of the UTMB course from Chamonix – Courmayeur, as at this point I was still toying whether to run UTMB or Spartathlon next year.

With the UTMB gpx file on our watches, and with the relevant pages from the Cicerone Trail Running in the Alps book on my phone, we set off from Chamonix early on Sunday morning, heading in the direction of Les Houches.

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Recreating the full UTMB experience and starting in front of the church

The first few miles take you along the river to Les Houches – a lovely gentle warm-up and you can see why some people set off at their 10k pace! From Les Houches you hit the first climb of the race up to Delevret before the steep ski slope descent and then a more gradual descent to St Gervais. The trail is then mainly undulating with no significant climbs all the way to Les Contamines. I actually found this first stage pretty dull and uninspiring, there was nothing particularly alpine about it – it was useful to tick it off, but if I was coming back again in our UTMB year to run the route ahead of the race, I’d skip this first section in future.

As we were covering about 50 miles over 2 days, it would have made sense to split the days more evenly, however our recce coincided with the World Cup final, so we spent our first night in Les Contamines (about mile 20) as we knew we’d definitely be able to watch the football there, as opposed to if we were staying in some more remote refuge.

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Post-run recovery in Les Contamines waiting for the World Cup final to kick off

The second day from Les Contamines to Courmayeur was much more interesting and started with the long rocky climb up to Col de Bonhomme; there were actually still large patches of snow in places which added another dimension to the run!

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Sliding across the snow on the way up to Col de Bonhomme

The descent down to Les Chapieux is a mix of technical and runnable – I’ve been focusing on improving my technical downhilling over the summer, although I can’t imagine me ever bounding down this section in the race like a European mountain goat!

The next climb up to Col de la Seigne is a lovely series of steep switchbacks (it reminded us both a lot of the Grand Col Ferret climb in the second half) until you reach Italy.

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Leaving France and heading into Italy

It’s a good runnable descent to Lac Combal and then a shorter climb up to Arete Mount Favre. It’s then a lovely undulating run and descent into Courmayeur ski area, before a steeper final descent through the forest into Courmayeur town.

As we were just recce-ing the first half of the route on this occasion, once we reached Courmayeur it’s just a 15 euro bus fare from Courmayeur back to Chamonix. It had been a great start to our holiday. 2 days, 2 countries, 50 miles and 15,000 feet of ascent.

Back in Chamonix, we also did longer runs on the Vallorcine – Trient – Vallorcine section of the UTMB/CCC course – this is an easy section to recce from Chamonix as you can get a (free) train to Vallorcine from Chamonix which only takes 30 minutes. I’d loved this section on our recce, although it was a very different story on race day, with torrential rain turning the mountain into a mud bath, so it was lovely to be doing this section in sunshine and under blue skies again.

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Average morning run from France – Switzerland!

We also ran the Chamonix –  Tete aux Vents – Chamonix section of the UTMB/CCC course – this is the most technical section of the course so the run consisted of a lot of rocks, boulders and a bit of scrambling.

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Making friends with rocks

We also did some shorter recovery runs in the valley up to Argentiere and then up to Plan Aiguille and Montenvers by two different routes.

Overall, it was a brilliant week of training. Over 8 days we covered 120 miles and 39,000 feet elevation, and also got some good practice in on more technical terrain. Also, apart from the last day, every day was hot and sunny, so it was good to test out nutrition and hydration in hotter temperatures in case race day is a scorcher. Ultimately though, when training for a mountain race there’s no substitute for the real thing and getting out into the mountains, so it was a great confidence boost that things are well on track for GRP Tour des Cirques. Timing-wise, this also worked perfectly 5 weeks out from the race, which meant I could have a slightly easier week of training on our return, then pick up for two more big weeks, before a 2 week taper.

‘Active holidays’, you can’t beat them!