Late November. High above Romania on my way to Bangkok, wielding a glass of delicious red wine, I contemplate about TRTC season number three. And all the things to look forward to in the upcoming season number four. Suddenly I realize that I never finalized my blog article on the Ultra Tour des 4 Massifs (Ut4M) from last August. Injustice! Being one of the most demanding trails in its category and one of the highlights of this season this one deserves a proper write-up. And nothing less will do.
The time is August; I enjoy the spectacular views during the train ride between Valence and Grenoble. A couple of hours ago, my wife and kids dropped me off at the Lille railway station. In the meantime, it already feels like days ago. A different kind of world, that’s what I am in. Impressive cliffs towering high above the railway track: on my right the Vercors, to the left La Chartreuse. Two of the massifs to be conquered later this week.
Dragging my 30-kg bag from the Gare de Grenoble to the OKO Hotel, I realize what a lucky guy I am. For 5 days, I will be residing close to the nerve centre of the Ut4M on the other side of the Parc Paul Mistral. Entering the hotel, I quickly find out this must be the closest thing to heaven I will stumble upon in the near or distant future. Stunning modern interiors, sauna included, free drinks around the clock and more important, a daily happy hour with local food specialties and top range wines and beers to taste. Ask again about the price. Not dreaming. It’s true.
The day before the race
A strange day, this is. Fear, uncertainty and doubt. I wonder about whether it is a good idea to tackle this race on running sandals. Will the race directors allow me to do so? Or will they think I am just an inexperienced Ch’ti fool from the lowlands? I decide to print my modest ITRA track record, just in case. And what about the Challenge formula? Will it be some kiddie version of the Ut4M? But then again, Ut4M is considered as one of the toughest races in its kind. A worthy alternative to the UTMB. Is it technically possible to enter this type of tracks on Luna Sandals? Although being familiar with Chartreuse and Vercors, the massifs of Oisans/ Taillefer and Belledonne are certainly no child’s play neither. And nothing but bad weather being announced for the next days. One’s mind can start playing tricks at such moments.
Finally, it is time to go and fetch my race bib. Everywhere on the streets, there are billboards announcing the upcoming race. Arriving at the Palais des Sports, where once some of the big cycling names used like Eddy Merckx and others used to race decades ago, the professionalism of the organizers immediately strikes me. Strict controls at the entrance, immense billboards with instructions, streamlined operations inside. The Ut4M Challenge participants receive an obligatory shirt with printed number and name on it, containing a built-in chip for time registration. Turns out there will be daily rankings for the fastest climbers and sprinters, just like in the Tour de France. And of course, there will be plenty of checkpoints along the tracks. Interesting. By the time the race briefing starts by means of a slick PowerPoint presentation, the hall is fully loaded. Bad weather is announced, and the organizers disclose several alternative routes in case the shit hits the fan. Safety is a must here in the mountains, strict material inspections are to be expected. The obligatory materials list becomes immense for a summer race. At the hotel, I enjoy a local Mandrin beer, take the delicious tapas – round after round – and ask if it is possible to serve breakfast at 4 AM. Surprisingly it is. Customer centric is a reality here. Time to prepare the drop bag for tomorrow Wednesday at the finish. And to strap my Legends Tracker onto my running vest. As a favour for my Legends friends, I will chart tracking coverage for this race. And those at home can follow. A win/win situation.
Day 1 – Oisans/ Taillefer
After a very short night, marching to through the park way before dawn, I discover a bunch of runners sitting on the stairs in front of the Palais des Sports. Lots of confusion about the obligatory materials. I recognize the Challenge participants by their white T-shirts. There are also some one day race participants wearing their characteristic yellow bibs. On the shuttle bus, I talk to Paul, a guy from the north of France, used to training in the Belgian Ardennes.
A typical characteristic of the Ut4M Challenge is that each day starts with about 2000 m+ ascent and ends with a 1500 m- descent. As a minimum. Four massifs means 4 valleys.
Long before morning light we are on our way. At the start in Vif, I stay in the shadows as a matter of not drawing too much attention on my sandals. One never knows.
The Oisans lives up to the expectations. Stunning beauty. Tough ascents. After a short stint on the wrong track with a large group of runners, I meet a guy from my region of birth. Nice company. Turns out there are two of them. My fears about Ut4M Challenge being the kiddie version are completely unfounded. Plenty of participants already did the full version and decided to come back to enjoy the stunning scenery during daylight. And even spread over 4 days, a 170 km with 11000 vertical meters of ascent and descent bites hard. At the end of the afternoon, a thunderstorm looms around the next mountain range and a gruelling alternative descent is put into place as an alternative. Almost broken I arrive at Rioupéroux, where tomorrow’s race will start. This is the end of a 47-km section with almost 3500 m of accumulated height.
In the evening, I meet the other Challenge runner I met at breakfast in the hotel. While enjoying our Mandrin beers, he receives a call from the organizers: my WAA sponsored colleague will wear the “best sprinter” jersey tomorrow. I will be glad to finish the next stage.
Day 2 – Belledonne
Today is the toughest massif. Straight-up is the word while we climb a strenuous section in the Belledonne massif up to 2400 meters. Vertigo, you better leave it at home today. In the meantime, rain starts pouring down. Summer or not, at this heights rain means cold. Finally, we reach the ski station of Croix de Chamrousse. Marvellous ravito, I like the food. Free Buffs are being handed out. But this is only the start of a very tough day. I run some section with a couple of Belgians from the southern part. They cannot believe I am doing this barefooted in sandals. Yet I do. Enjoying it. And I am slightly famous as the minimalist from Belgium, the race speaker even mentioned my name this morning.
The descent is as ugly as the day before, and I wonder if I will make it the next day in the Vercors. Being bored by the long flat section, I run like crazy on the last stretch to Saint-Nazaire-les-Eymes. This was a long day. My fast WAA buddy from the Jura region is already present at the hotel and we gladly take the complementary beer before going to sleep early.
Day 3 – Vercors
Starting from the Parc Paul Mistral, together with our friends from the Ut4M Xtrem, we cross the city and attack the Vercors. I am in awe. The Vercors is one of my long-time favourite areas and I know what to expect (see Unfinished Business and Correctified and Lunafied). But strangely, I seem to be in top condition. And will remain for the rest of the day.
The Moucherotte summit doesn’t come that easily. But the weather is fantastic and the scenery is amazing.
After passing through upper Lans-en-Vercors, the Pic Saint Michel is the next landmark and challenge. Amazing scenery, but the descent towards Vif is again long and tough as ever. In the meantime, the Challenge runners are becoming a tight-knit bunch. Meeting those white-clad peers day after day at the start, at the finish and at countless check-points in between creates some bond. That’s for sure. In my speed category -the finishers- a handful of Belgians, French and Germans are meeting each other over and over.
Finally, we arrive at Vif. My TRTC Frank buddy calls to congratulate me. Has been following me on the internet. We should have been here together. However, things worked out differently. He realizes I will make it and sounds happy for me.
Tomorrow, the worst weather forecast of the week…
Day 4 – Chartreuse
The last day. And the worst day. While the Chartreuse is still distinguishable in eerie morning light from Saint-Nazaire-les-Eymes, I worry what the highest peaks will bring. Chatting with my Belgian fellow runners, I am far from certain this day will work out fine.
Finally, we set off to the Chamechaude, signature peak of La Chartreuse. Straight up for more than 1250 meter. Along the exhausting climb, I meet my Maratouriste-from-Dreux buddies another time. Philippe explains he carries a bottle of white wine in his backpack. Huh, that’s crazy, no? Well, last year running the full Ut4M, he came up to the Habert-de-Chamechaude ravito and complained he expected at least a couple of oysters after such climb. The responsible must have said, if you come back next year there will be oysters for us both. And Philippe committed to bringing the wine.
Having this chat, the weather turns around and rain starts pouring down. These slippery vertiginous paths are crazy terrain for sandals. The track towards Habert-de-Chamechaude is a real challenge, but to my surprise if receive a cup of white wine and a fresh oyster upon arrival at the check point. We are high and exposed and I wonder how this will end. The original track winds up to the Chamechaude summit, a very exposed and slippery place. Crazy. I decide to push on.
Two kilometres down the track, we receive word that we must take the lower alternative route. Not that this makes things less complicated. All tracks changed into mud streams and it is hard to stay upright. But at least this is the safe alternative.
On the plateau in Le Sappey, I take some soup and set off towards Fort Saint-Eynard, one of the typical fortresses high on the cliffs surrounding Grenoble. The rain keeps on pouring down and my legs hurt.
After hours, I reach the signature landmark citadel right above Grenoble. A difficult descent, but I smell the finish. While I don’t seem able to move any faster, I receive a jolt of energy noticing a funny billboard nearing the city centre: “Chuck Norris never ran the Ut4M” it reads. I did. I laugh out loud and manage to crank up my speed to unknown 2-digit levels.
Upon arrival, I meet up with that funny bunch of colleagues met over the past days. Six hours later I move towards my hotel. Feet still dirty, having enjoyed more than plenty of local beers and an excellent racer’s meal. The Ut4M Challenge is a perfectly organized race of stunning beauty. A perfect stage race, featuring 4 challenging stages, each with their own beauty. Strongly recommended. Reminiscing on the train home, I decide that one day I will finish the Xtrem version. Tougher than the UTMB, it seems. After getting rid of this strange headache, that is. What would they put in those local beers? The French are getting better and better at brewing, but Belgians are still king. Or maybe it was the quantity after all…