As I sit here with the view of Mont Blanc in the background I reflect on yesterdays event where I followed the TDS race.
Experiencing first hand the struggle, beauty, persistence and eventual euphoria of finishing this epic race in the mountains.
For those of you not familiar
The TDS is an Ultramarathon race which is part of the UTMB Festival.
It covers a distance of 119km and a healthy 7250m of ascent.
Starting at 6 am on the 24th of August 2016, in the town of Courmayeur Italy, 1700 runners took to the line to race across the mountains.
All hoping to finish in the heart of the UTMB in Chamonix in France.
The winners were estimated to arrive in around 14hours 30min and the cutoff for the last runner was 33hours.
With the temperatures set to be in the high 20s and with little shade along the way, this event was sure to take some casualties.
Sure enough by the end, at least 25% of all the runners who started did not make the finish line.
This is a race that will test even the hardiest of runners.
For us though, we would wind our way through the mountains, following the race and capturing some moments along the way.
As a relative new comer to this side of the tape, coming to one of the worlds most prestigious trail events and following the race through the eye of a lens has been an absolute treat
We set off at 4.45am from Chamonix for a 40min drive across the border to the start line in Courmayeur, Italy.
As soon as we entered the town the quiet atmosphere of early morning was soon replaced with the rumbling of a mass migration of ultra runners all congregating in the town centre.
Their destination was under the UTMB banner
Where they were welcomed to the event from the towns Mayor.
And for there, the start of an adventure of a lifetime.
It is quite a site to see 1700 runners all ready to run 119km.
You could tell there was a real sense of anticipation in the crowd.
One of the runners was a Majell Backenhausn, a laid-back Aussie Ultrarunner.
I had interviewed Majell a couple of days before the race, which you can watch below, and hoped to follow his progress throughout the day
As he moved to the front of the starting line, I managed to capture a quick moment and wish him well.
And they are off
Soon enough the race had begun and 1700 runners rushed past me to the roar of the crowd and the crack of flash photography.
As soon as the stream of runners had disappeared we also were off and started our onward journey to meet up with the leaders at the first aid station in Le Lac Combal some 13km into the race.
As I was to find out, Italians love corners.
So much so they have decided not build any straight roads at all and for the rest of the day, our journeys between stops was a wacky races type of event as we chased the runners through the mountains.
An hour or so later we had found ourselves at the Aid station at
Le Lac Combal
The sun was just rising and the backdrop was superb.
The runners entered via a flat gravel road but towering before them were glacial peaks and a steep winding trail up into the mountains.
The morning sun had just begun to rise as the runners too rose up into the mountains
For them that could be the last shade they would see for a while.
Here are a few moments captured of the runners and landscape.
Due to the leaders being ahead of time we quickly stopped at The Col De Petit Saint Bernard for a few minutes then back on the rocket van to try and catch the leaders coming though the next aid station at the 50km mark
Bourg Saint- Maurice (50.7km)
We were welcomed into town by a festival atmosphere
The town aligned with flags and the centre transformed into an aid station for the runners.
Soon enough the lead runners started to appear and for the first of only two times in the race they able to have their crew assist them.
At that point the leaders (race time of 4hrs 53mins) were
Yeray Duran Lopex for Spain in first
closely followed by fellow countryman Pau Capell
And to make up the trio of Spaniards Jessed Hernandez Gispert.
The temperature was now sizzling the runners.
They made most of the water trough, which was a welcome refreshment to be enjoyed as was the support from the crowd and their crew.
It wasn’t too long before Majell appeared in a small group, crossing the timing mat in 17th place, around 30 minutes behind the leaders.
With a call for his Taco and restocking for the race ahead, he looked focused and eager to continue.
As with all the elite runners, they don’t stop too long at aid stations
and soon they and us were back on the trail
Next stop was Fort De La Platte
We wound out way up the country roads until we reached Fort De La Platte.
This is around 3/4 of the way up one of the main climbs of the TDS course.
As you can see when the runners left Bourg Saint Maurice to the summit at Prasseur Pralogan they will have ascended around 2000m over 10km of distance
In the midday sun, this is a brutal climb and will be sure to stretch the field and really test the endurance of all the runners.
This is a spectacular spot with vast views overlooking the town below.
Once again it was a whistle-stop tour and we just missed Majell by minutes
Who had at that point moved into 12th place overall.
For us though there was no stopping
We got back on the rocket ship and headed to our next stop.
Cornet de Roseland (66km)
Now nearly 9 hours in the race, things were heating up.
With the sun virtually overhead the shade was at a minimum and the runners needed to traverse some technical tight trails.
While, as is the way at the TDS, trying not to get too distracted by the staggeringly beautiful scenery around them.
We had a couple of hours stop here and I took the opportunity to hike up the course and try and capture a few moments within this beautiful landscape.
On my way I passed, yes you guessed it a one Majell Backhausen.
As he ran past he looked completely focused on the job at hand, passing the timing point with a race time of 8hrs 42mins which was around 1 hour behind the leader Pau Capell.
Majell was now in the Top 10 and looked strong.
With more than half the course now complete this is truely when the real race starts.
At this point, you start to see if you have gone out too hard, managed your nutrition correctly and left enough in the tank to finish strong.
Here are a few moments captured in the Aid Station of Cornet de Roseland.
But as you can see from this picture there was a genuine respect and support for each other.
From there the race headed off in the mountains.
We caught back up with them at the 95km mark at Les Contamines.
Les Contamines is another spectacular location
And the setting for the second crewed mountain aid station.
With rolling green but rocky trails surround by huge jagged mountains this area screams trail running nirvana but with a race at the 95km mark, there is no time for the runners to stop and enjoy the scenery.
I, however, had a few moments to take in this beautiful location.
We caught a moment of a few of the lead runners coming into the aid station but by this point, they were starting to spread out.
Just as we head off I see Majell running into this timing point.
At that point of the race, Pau Capell is extending his lead and passed Les Contamines at 11hrs 21min with 2nd place Yeray Duran Lopex 26 mins behind.
Majell was holding 10th positions 1hr 27mins behind at 12hrs 48mins.
From there the race headed to up another 1000m climb to Col de Tricot
And we headed back to Chamonix to try and catch the winner cross the finish line.
By the time we arrived back in Chamonix it was coming close to 8pm and a large crowd had gathered at the finish line to welcome in the runners.
The scene was set and it became clear that Pau Capell was far enough ahead now that barring any unforeseen event he would cross the line to take the title of TDS Champion 2016 Ultra Trail De Mont Blanc.
As we wait for him to appear they provided an introduction to the man that tamed the mountains.
He was described as a humble man, who was dedicated to his sport and his to his family
For Pau Capell, this would be the biggest win of his career.
So as he came into the Place Triangle de L’amitie the crowd erupted in applause and as he crossed the line he took his bow as their new champion.
Coming in 30mins later in second place was Yeray Duran Lopez
And to complete the podium in third place was Franco Colle.
So after that was a wait to see where Majell would come in.
On last update, he was in 7th place and around an hour away.
But just 35mins later the announcer proclaims that next to arrive in 6th place was Majell.
Soon enough he came around the corner flanked by a group of young kids running by his side.
The crowd cheered him home and he stood on the finish line obviously exhausted and near delirious with the race that had unfolded.
Summoning one last bit of energy he ran out along the barriers and high fived the crowd on either side, stopping to be congratulated by some friends along the way.
On his way back the announcer starts a cheer for Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi Oi Oi!
In the post race interview he was asked what his expectations were going into the race.
and simply replied
“I just wanted to take it easy and enjoy the ride.“
He dedicate the race to his best mate who passed away at the start of the year and as is his way he humbly applauded the crowd, enjoyed the moment before stepping away.
The End of the TDS
As I write these runners are still crossing the finish line for the TDS.
Each having their own story of the race and a lifetime experience to cherish.
They took on the might of the TDS and for that day they were victorious.
It is a brutally beautiful course that is organised in such a way that you feel support throughout the race.
From Pau Capell taking the ultimate victory today to the final runners crossing that line some 20 hours later this was a day to cherish and a truly wild day in the mountains.