Ice Trail Tarentaise And Four Gratitudes

It’s 3:59 a.m., a minute before the start of the 2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise, in the Alp resort of Val D’Isère, France. As with most major European trail races, the organizers are blasting a soaring, inspirational instrumental for the final countdown. On cue, hundreds of phones appear to capture the moment. I am torn at these occasions. One side of me wants to document the start of this remarkable, quirky trail race. The other side of me wants to just be… here… now. I snap a photo and shove the phone into a vest pocket. It’s part of the matériel obligatoire for this race, so it’s along for the 65-kilometer ride.

Doug Mayer - 2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise 1

The author’s guilty pleasure, a snap of the 2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise start scene. Photo: Doug Mayer

I almost wasn’t here. Four weeks earlier, dancing down technical terrain on Mount Madison in my home range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I lost it. Hard. The result was two broken ribs and internal bleeding. In one missed landing, carefully-laid summer plans were thrown to the wind. Life can be like that.

The announcer’s hyper-enthusiast countdown brings me back to the moment. Ice Trail Tarentaise is about to roll out of Place de la Dolomite in this tourist resort. The race bills itself as, “Le Plus Haute Trail D’Europe”—the highest trail race in Europe—and it’s hard to dispute the claim. There are three climbs that push over 10,000 feet elevation, and the race tops out at just under 12,000 feet, on the summit of the Grande Motte, complete with ladders to cross a gaping glacial crevasse. Traction is required—without it, racers would quickly plummet down steep, still rock-hard snow in those early morning hours. And throughout the course, there’s no shortage of gut-wrenching exposure. Ropes add security, but I can’t help but think I could easily slip under them in a fall, and the last moment of my life would be spent thinking, “Damn. So, how’d that happen?”

2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise 1

Photo: Photossports/Ice Trail Tarentaise

As the run starts, I take my time. I haven’t trained enough, and I feel the achiness that feels like the start of a cold. My legs take a while to loosen up. It might be a very long day, with lots of type 2 fun—fun… only in retrospect.

Then I look up. A river of headlamps wend their way to the top of our first climb. They weave and bob against the night sky. All these runners—there are 500 of them, in fact. Each has a story I will never know. Injuries and personal challenges overcome, medical problems, money issues. Life. Not everyone can be here on this gentle, early morning high above Val D’Isère. We’re lucky. We’re the selected ones, testing ourselves against a tough course, and part of a bigger story.

We descend 1,000 feet from the first climb, passing through the village of Tignes. Almost everyone here is still asleep, but a few enthusiastic residents are out ringing cow bells and yelling, “Allez, Allez!” This is Europe, after all, and no self-respecting village would be remiss in their chance to cheer for trail runners. In a few minutes, the pre-dawn partying recedes and we are left alone to climb 6,500 feet to the summit of Grande Motte.

2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise 2

Photo: Photossports/Ice Trail Tarentaise

I can’t shake the thought I had earlier. I am so fortunate to be here. I follow the thread back—a universal truth for all of us that leads to starting lines across the U.S. and, in my case, to Europe, too.

First, the dare. None of us starts running and then enters a race like Ice Trail Tarentaise, or any major trail race, without imagining it. We build the mental and physical ability over years—but we also dream. First in secret, then out loud to friends and loved ones who support us. We find a way to open our thinking to the very possibility of it happening at all. I am grateful for this openness to explore my capabilities.

Second, we meet the challenge of the mundane challenges of life. Work obligations, injuries, family challenges, finances to make it happen. Those stars align all too infrequently. These lives of ours are short, too. If our names aren’t Kilian or Emilie, we might not get many chances.

Third, we face our fears. It’s been a while since I’ve had to manage my fear about a trail race, but it’s happening today. Ice-covered slopes, attention-getting in their incline, loom ahead. A crevasse that’s been fixed with ladders. High on Grande Motte, the race stalls at the deep gash in the ice and minutes tick by as a bottleneck develops. I take in the crazy, high-elevation scene, but am suddenly interrupted by my phone. Planning to take a photo anyway, I reach in my vest pocket and see a message from U.S. Mountain Running team member Max King, “Good luck at Ice Trail. I hear it’s brutal.” Poof! I laugh. What confidence I was gaining up here just under 12,000 feet, is briefly vaporized by a text from 5,000 miles away. I put the phone away, gingerly cross the crevasse, climb a gully, and move towards the summit.

Doug Mayer - 2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise 2

The air up there. The author’s shot from high on the course. Photo: Doug Mayer

We run through snowfields, up high passes, along dicey, airy ridges. For each race, I try to make a plan. And just as inevitably, I throw it out, as the course, my body, and weather all throw curveballs. But not today. Everything is going exactly as planned. I fast-hike the climbs, and run the flats and downs. I keep passing runners. In 65k, and I don’t trip once. My stars are aligned. How often does a big race go exactly as planned? A few times in a lifetime? A fourth gratitude.

I blast down the final 2,000 feet, hoping to finish under 13 hours, but it’s 13:01, courtesy of a final turn. I arrive as the elite men and women are about to get on stage for their awards. My time nets me third in my age group. There’s a bronze metal in my bag. I worked hard. I’ll take it. It’s a final moment of gratefulness, and I savor it. Be… here… now, I think. It won’t always be like this. Maybe never again. Eventually, the noise of the finish line party gets the best of me. I crave quiet. I take a final look around, turn, and head to my hotel room to wash off the day’s mud and sweat.

2015 Ice Trail Tarentaise 3

Photo: Photossports/Ice Trail Tarentaise

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you had your version of a perfect race? How did it go for you? What stars aligned? How did you feel?
  • Did you run this year’s Ice Trail Tarentaise? What did you think of the race?

There are 8 comments

  1. kjz

    I love this. How rarely the stars align indeed, especially when you choose races and adventures that are lofty and outside your comfort zone.

    1. runthealps

      Traction is a required item for the race– in fact, Yak Trax is one of the race sponsors! I used the new, lightweight Katoolas for trail running shoes, and really like them for this event.

  2. hughygbifter

    Nice piece. The stars do only very rarely align unfortunately – but maybe that's what makes it so special? Love the type 2 fun comment- it's sometimes only fun when you're safely in the pub.

  3. hughygbifter

    Cheers for the info re traction. My recent episode of type 2 fun was brought about by a lack thereof. Why is it that it's only when you're halfway up the snow field that you think "should I have spikes on?!"

  4. Andy

    Beautiful piece and stunning pics. Alas, my stars never seem to align, but I can at least get a taste of it vicariously by reading reports like this!

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