A few facts:
The race – ski mountaineering: walking up mountains on skis with synthetic skins, followed by skiing down. Also some sections on foot, with skis on your backpack, when it is too steep to skin or ski, known as bootpacking. This particular skimo race only takes place every two years and is organised by the Swiss Army. It is known as the toughest team race in the world. It has two race days, Wednesday and Friday, for security reasons.
The team – (From Wikipedia)
Each patrol consists of 3 members who, in order to compete, must
- have alpine experience which ensures their capability to independently master unexpected situations under extreme conditions in an inhospitable high-alpine environment
- train to meet the physical, mental and technical requirements of the competition
- be willing to live the ‘PDG spirit‘ towards their own team, all participants and organising staff by acting fair, with caution and solidarity recognizing their limits as well as respecting nature and the unique alpine world
- have excellent skiing skills, experience in skiing while being roped up to others, experience in alpine touring and mountaineering competitions
Date - 17th April 2018
Route – Zermatt to Verbier, Canton of Valais, Switzerland
Distance – 53km (Published distance. Actually 61km, with new start)
Vertical metres climbed - 3994m (actually over 4000m)
Km of effort - 110km. Used in mountain races to show the equivalent of a race without altitude difference – there is an equation for working it out, ask me if you want it!!
Time allowed – 17hrs
Race record (set 21st April 2018) – 5hrs 35 mins (mind blowing)
Pippa Middleton’s finishing time in 2016 – 14hrs 54mins (the relevance of this will come…)
Our finishing time – 14hrs 27mins 14seconds
Number of teams taking part – 1600
Number of all women’s teams finishing the full distance – 24
I have sat down several times to write this and have failed to get past the facts section. That’s the easy part. Describing my journey to race day and the race itself is massive. Graham seems to reel race reports off so matter of fact but it is crazily hard for me put these thing into words! I’m pretty sure Annabelle and Leysa will remember it differently, but here is my version!
Two years ago, after a brilliant winter’s training, Leysa and I had our attempt at the small PdG cancelled due to bad weather. Three nights before Annabelle and her team had started the big race but for various reasons had not been able to finish. A pretty disappointing end to an otherwise great season for all of us.
Leysa and I had spent that whole winter saying “I can’t imagine anything worse than training for the big PdG and then skinning all through the night” but about a couple of weeks after our aborted short course attempt, we both had the same crazy idea: “Let’s do it!”
Annabelle pretty immediately said she would be interested if we were looking for a third. She and Leysa didn’t know each other but I thought they would get on, so a year later I rounded them up and we started to make a plan. I entered the Half Marathon des Sables (I only do big races with French names it would appear) so that I would be fit enough to start the winter of massive training with a good level of fitness.
Our first hurdle was that Leysa, who had planned to spend the winter here, had decided with her husband to stay in the UK. She offered to pull out and let our replacement take her place, but we said no. I was confident that she would do her utmost to stay fit and be here as often as she could to train and Annabelle trusted my judgement.
The second hurdle came when I landed a job that took me away for two weeks over New Year, plus Tristan being in hospital for a week with appendicitis, plus all my skimo commentating commitments, which meant I basically did no training at all for almost a month. I came back at the end of January and I also was pretty much requesting to be replaced because I was so terrified of not being fit enough. Leysa immediately dragged me up a 2000m climb to prove to me that I was perfectly capable and after that the real work started.
When we first got together we had made a rough plan of how long we thought we would take and what our goals were. This was honed over the months but this is what it ended up as:
- Work together as a great team and finish as friends with incredible memories to share
- Best case: Under 14 Hours
- Next best scenario: Faster than Pippa Middleton in 2016 (14hrs 54mins)
- Final case: just finish in the 17hrs allowed
You might wonder about the finishing as friends thing, but I have seen innumerable team cross that line not even looking at each other, never mind talking and it was absolutely vital to all three of us that this would not happen to us.
The Pippa Middleton goal was, hilariously, one we all thought of individually so it became our mantra!
My own personal goal and motivation throughout the winter was to cross the line in Verbier with the kids running beside me. It was something I had seen so many other people do since I began watching the finish of this race in about 2008. It was what kept me going when I didn’t want to go training or wanted to come off the mountain early. “You will never be able to run through Verbier if you don’t do this last interval session!” was muttered to myself more than once!
Training and Challenges
If you read my race report from Half Marathon des Sables or you have known me for more than 6 years, you will know that I have not been sporty for very long. Taking on these massive challenges without a lifetime of fitness is a whole different ball game to someone who has built up physical and mental strength over the years.
Thanks to Graham and his love of sport and coaching others in things he is passionate about, I had a pretty comprehensive training plan to follow, which I duly did as much as I could with kids and life to juggle. So physically I trotted along quite nicely, getting fitter and fitter.
My biggest challenge was in my head. Whenever someone would ask me who my team mates were they would take a sharp intake of breath and say “wow, they are really fit/strong/machine like/incredible”. This really really started to get to me, especially as there actually was a bit of a gap between their fitness and mine.
Annabelle is nearly 10 years younger and Leysa is about 13kg lighter than me, (which, when hauling yourself up a hill, makes a big difference). I was pretty sure I didn’t need to make those excuses for myself and so I worked harder physically, but I could not shake the “you are not strong enough, you are going to let them down”. My rational head knew that a. it was nonsense and that b. they didn’t think like that, but demons will pop up whenever you let them in.
I decided that if I had put this much effort into my body, I wasn’t about to let my mind ruin it for me and went to see Domenique Forsberg for some hypnotherapy. Even I was a bit unsure it would make a difference so I didn’t tell anyone but it was one of the best decisions I made. She was amazing and her calm and kind manner and subsequent recording for me to listen to made the most enormous difference. I finally truly believed I was an equal member of the team.
The last thing to set a cat amongst the pigeons was Graham’s exceptionally kind offer of full on race kit. Lightweight, ridiculous looking skis and boots, which while pretty much closing the remaining gap in our team’s physical abilities (I went faster once I was carrying less weight up the hill), meant that I had 5 weeks to break in new boots before the biggest race of my life.
I knew it was potentially a mistake but I ploughed on regardless and surprise, surprise my pathetic princess feet freaked out and I ended up with a badly bruised inner left ankle bone. So bad that I had to pull out of our final training race before the big race. Annoying doesn’t cover it. I am truly lucky that the girls didn’t throw a massive hissy fit at me and that they were able to race as a two.
So I took two weeks as a taper, had my boots blown out again, and got on my bike to stay in shape for the big day. My ankle recovered enough to think it would be pretty much ok on the big day.
Finally we arrived at race day. We all felt a bit nauseous with nerves, then excited, then wobbly - in turns. We all had physical niggles, but overall I think we were all pretty confident, although fairly daunted by the task ahead. Well-meaning people kept saying “oof, the big race? Wow! That’s enormous!” D’ya think???
All along, as chef de patrouille, I had been the one to enter the races, organise the accommodation, do the kit lists, ask the questions that needed answered, remind the girls to bring their passports, remember the mandatory kit list etc. I loved it and I think the girls were happy to let me get on with it, gently taking the micky out of my sometimes OTT organisation. So it was with great squeals of joy that they realised that I was the one person who had forgotten something on the way to the station that morning. One quick stop in H&M to pick up a sports bra and we were on our merry way to Zermatt!!
We had had all our mandatory kit checked and stickered two days before so we skipped right through ID check and went to our hotel, which was two minutes from where the briefing would be later on. During lunch we went though our race plan one more time and then we went back to the hotel to lie down and get some rest. We all slept, remarkably, despite the growing nerves, and got up again at 4 to go to the briefing.
The PdG briefing in Zermatt is unlike any briefing I have ever been to before. It is as mythical as the race itself. It is in a church, there are speeches by the President of the Canton, the President of the Commune of Zermatt and following the actual race briefing we are led in a mountain prayer by the local priest.
It was very, very emotional. The speeches were in several languages (a multi lingual country demands a lot of its politicians!) and they were funny, touching and very genuinely passionate about what a huge undertaking we had ahead of us. Tears and knee squeezing were the order of the day between the three of us.
After the briefing we chatted to lots of friends who were also going that night. We were all anxious about how warm it was likely to be the following day as temperatures were unseasonably high and we have had insane amounts of snow this year. So avalanche danger was on everyone’s mind. We knew that the army would not let us out on to the course if they were in any way worried about our safety, but that was almost worse. The thought of not starting, or starting and being pulled off the course was horrendous after all the prep!
We had to wait until 7:30pm to know for sure whether it would all be going ahead as planned. Back to the hotel, kit laid out and off to dinner with our amazing support crew of Kate, Rachael, Jane and Leysa’s mum, Maggie. We ate but were soon twitching to be back “in the team bubble” – our mantra for keeping our heads when all around us was chatter and other people’s opinions/thoughts/experiences.
Once back in the room, it seemed to take no time at all until we needed to leave. Big deep breaths, final check of each other’s kit, tying Annabelle into the rope (as the youngest, we had made her the rope carrier!) and leaving the safety of our hotel for the start line.
It is hard to put into words how I felt just then. Other than slicing my finger open on my expertly sharpened edges (thanks Tracie) and bleeding all over the place, I wavered between absolute confidence that we could do this and abject fear about the challenge ahead. Graham, who has had his fair share of sporting challenges had said that this was by far the hardest thing he had ever done, so I was understandably daunted. However, an interesting sensation was the overwhelming knowledge that, all being well, we could absolutely do this. I had never felt this before and I tried to let it wash over me and drown out the “stop being so cocky” voice that was vying for attention.
The girls were all waiting for us at the start line, where we left our civvy bags to be loaded on to the lorry to be delivered the easy way to Verbier! We were then funnelled down into an underground room where our avalanche transceivers and head torches were checked before they let us into “the pen”. Lots of chatter from the girls, the 5 minute call and a last minute hug for me from Rachael when I sobbed my heart out with the fear and tension and anticipation. I had been nervous about them being there at the start, not wanting to deviate or distract from our “bubble” but I was so so glad they were. I needed that hug like a lifeline and she just repeated over and over “I’m so proud of you, this is so huge, you’re going to be fine.” Crying again, just thinking about it.
10:45pm is a bloody weird time to be starting a race. It feels surreal, standing about in your kit, adrenaline pumping when I would normally have been in bed for about an hour already! The familiar voice of Silvano Gadin (a commentator colleague of mine and The Voice of Skimo) counted us down and we were off! We started at the bottom of the main street in Zermatt, skis on our backpacks and we ran/route marched up the street to the most incredible and unforgettable cheering and cow bells. People came out of bars and restaurants and lined the streets and it felt so magical.
We were doing it. All this time thinking and prepping and training and here we were, heading out of Zermatt for a night on a mountain range! The biggest cheers were reserved for Zermatt locals and right then I knew that although they would leave with the most support that every single step was taking us home to where our applause would deafen us.
The traditional start of the PdG was altered this year (due to too much snow) to mean that we put our skins on probably about 45 minutes earlier than usual. Aficionados of the “real start” were disappointed to not be running up the mountain in their trainers and then changing into ski boots in the dark. We, on the other hand, were delighted! We had never planned to run anyway and given my ankle worries, it was a better start for us.
We put our skins on and off we went. The first section is pretty flat and fortunately I had asked Graham what average speed we should be maintaining (in order to meet the first cut off) rather than judge by how many metres of vertical we had clocked off, because it took a very long time to gain any altitude at all.
One of my roles in the team was to set the pace and to keep an eye on time in order to keep us fed regularly. I am a stats geek so it suits me to be aware of all of that – it also distracts me, gives me something to think about and helps that teeny tiny demon voice because I feel important doing that job. (You gotta get your motivation any which way you can!)
We kept the pace deliberately easy for the first while. Not slow or lazy, but it was to be a long night ahead and we needed to not let the adrenaline get the better of us. At the first hour when I said we needed to eat and drink, we all groaned a bit but managed to chuck some food in. When I say food, I mean sugar laden bars, gels and jellies. It’s a crap and disgusting diet but it works if you manage it properly. We knew if we wanted to make it, we would have to be absolutely religious about this. The girls had many more “natural” options than me, but from the first bite of a healthy bar, I knew I would be in trouble all night. I couldn’t eat it and had to go straight to something easier to chew and swallow. It was too “big”. This was the start of a nutrition and hydration slippery slope for me…
It was a beautiful night with stars all around us. Head torches dancing in front and behind us. Strangely, I hadn’t actually thought about being surrounded by other people. So much had I repeated “stay in the bubble” that I had forgotten that there would be other people trudging along beside us, breathing hard and facing their own demons. It wasn’t cold to start with, but I soon regretted my decision not to bring my medium weight gloves as my thumbs got colder and colder.
The other thing that people always go on about is how cold it is on Tete Blanche. At 3600m high, it’s a pretty daunting place to be in the middle of the night, but we were blessed with reasonably clement weather. It was cold but not the mythical cold that everyone talks about. Part of me was a bit disappointed not to be able to pass on the “bloody hell, it’s cold at the top” stories. But only a tiny part!
One of the things we had trained to do was how to skin roped up, how to put the rope onto our harnesses and carry on with minimum fuss. After 2hrs and 40minutes it was such an exciting milestone when for real I had to shout “I see the lights” (of the next checkpoint) and we stopped and went through our routine, like we were seasoned pros! We had also reached our first cut off point with 40 minutes to spare, which was a great boost.
We also had to put on a layer then because I was chilly. The pace to this point was good, I think we all felt good – I certainly did, despite being a bit cold and already hating my gels. The wind was getting up and we knew that what lay ahead was going to be our first big challenge. A steep climb with one of the only technical sections of the course. And ice. And altitude.
Once you start climbing above 3000m, little voices start telling you it’s too hard. They start to tell you that you can’t do it and if you are not ready for that, you can easily believe them. I felt ready for those voices and started to treat it a bit like when I am tired and think to myself “just get some sleep and it’ll be better in the morning”. Only here I kept saying to myself “it’s the altitude talking, just keep going and soon you’ll be over the top and be able to breath easier and the voices will go away.”
What I had not anticipated at all was how much route finding I would have to do as the person at the front. I think that had I known that I would have worried about it, but just being presented with it as a challenge was a godsend for me. It is easy to get bored trudging along with nothing but your breathing and your pounding heart for company. By this stage no one is really talking so having to find the least icy tracks for the team and having to weave all three of us in and out of other roped up teams all around us without getting stuck or cross was actually quite fun.
I felt really strong on that climb. We were overtaking all men teams left, right and centre and it felt so good! The night was beautiful and if I lifted my head my torch picked out the mountains around us. It was hard going but glorious.
Then we hit the first section when I realised we had potentially made a team error. None of us had couteaux with us. These are ski crampons that help when it is really icy. Annabelle doesn’t like them and I had never used them so we had agreed not to take them. BIG mistake.
The next section of kick turns built into the mountain was spectacularly icy. I was ok because I had super grippy, brand new skins on but the girls were starting to struggle behind me. They went down a few times, Annabelle’s ski came off and Leysa was not happy at all. It was really hard going, even with the help of a mountain guide who grabbed hold of the rope and pulled Leysa and Annabelle up one of the worst parts.
Once we had come out of the worst part, Leysa called for a breather and I think that was the lowest point of her whole race. It is rare for her to show how hard she is finding it, so when she asks for a stop it really means stop.
Slowly but surely we made it to the top. My memory of the order of the sections of that climb are blurred to say the least, but suffice to say that the summit of Tete Blanche was one of the best sights ever. Other than feeling a bit sick, I hadn’t really found it too challenging. I smiled and shouted to the soldiers and guides as we ploughed through and at that point in the race I truly thought to myself “well, this isn’t as hard as everyone said would be! Is that all you’ve got Tete Blanche?” 2000m out of 3994m were done and I mistakenly, as it turned out, began to think the second half wouldn’t be so bad either…
Skins off, heels clicked into bindings and we took on one of the other unique aspects of this race – skiing roped up together, in the dark, from 3600m on a glacier. Luckily the snow was amazing, powdery and grippy and at the front I quickly got into my “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 turn” rhythm.
I am the slowest skier of the three, something that had been worrying me in the lead up so it was with total joy that I heard from behind me “slow down, Catie!” A real moment of pride for me – I wasn’t slowing us down! Half way down the roped up section, a cry from behind “Allez les filles!” as the leading (and eventually winning) women’s team shot past us. Emily Vaudan is a local girl who is not just a phenomenal athlete but really lovely. She had wished us luck beforehand and was quick to congratulate us afterwards, knowing that it was us she had passed at high speed!!
At the bottom of the 10 minute roped up ski we put our skins on and skinned round and up to Col de Bertol. I had taken a gel at the top so that combined with my overall feeling of wellbeing and pride at skiing so well put me in a great mood. I shouted back “I’m having a really great time!!!” and Annabelle replied “Have you just had a gel??” Peals of laughter from us all as we battered up the last roped up climb.
At the top a very nice guide/soldier/volunteer (who knows) stowed the rope in Annabelle’s bag while we took our skins off. What a sense of achievement we felt, knowing that the rope wouldn’t be in use again for the rest of the race!
Now the craziest ski of the race began. Downhill, mostly on ice, in the dark, lit only by head torches, side slipping at great speed (the noise all around us was something else), over bumps, skirting rocks, trying to keep Annabelle in sight, while Leysa stayed behind me (never put your weakest skier at the back). On and on we went, just aching to see Arolla and our support crew. The mental high was intense, but physically I was beginning to feel really sick.
I hadn’t been able to eat any of my “natural” options (bars made with dates etc) because they felt too big and I couldn’t chew them. So I was relying on gels and jellies to give me instant sugar boosts. I was having to remind us to eat every hour but by this point, I think (tiredness makes you really stupid), my camelback wasn’t letting out any water. I thought it was frozen, so kept drinking sports drink from a soft bottle stashed in my race top but it was making me feel sicker.
When we finally saw the lights of Arolla and found the girls, I was really struggling to think what I could eat. We were so lucky that we each had individual help and Rachael was amazing. “What do you need?” is the best question you can be asked in this situation. I drank 2 cups of homemade sweet potato soup, one cup of homemade bone broth, but I could not put in anything solid. I switched out my sports drink but failed to tell anyone my camelback wasn’t working. At this point I thought it was frozen from the descent so I just shrugged it off. In hindsight, though it had been a good while since I had drunk any water.
We left Arolla in good spirits and into the darkest part of my race. We had made a team decision (against all advice) to not necessarily stay together on “the wall of death”. It is an insanely steep climb and it was so so slippy and cold. People were sliding all over the place and we had agreed that if we lost each other we would just regroup at the top (some nearly 1000m later). This, as is turns out, is a long, long way to go on your own.
I got cold, having left a vital windproof jacket with Rachael, thinking I wouldn’t need it again as we were heading into the day (it was 5:30am when we left Arolla). So I stopped to put my big jacket on. We had all set off at quite a speed and as soon as I was not the pace setter any more, it got too much for me to maintain, added to the fact that I was slipping all over the place and I fell behind.
I could see them ahead, chatting and going together. They turned round and I held up my hands and shouted “Wait!” I could see that they understood my hand signal to mean “go on” as they turned back and carried on. This happened twice and eventually a sad, little voice rose up out of me and I actually wailed “please wait!” To no avail. They ploughed on as my demons roared out, laughing and shouting “we knew it, you’re too slow, you’re not fit enough, look at them having a nice chat together while you are puffing up here, you’re so embarrassing, you can’t keep up with your own team.”
All around us, fresh legged starters from the Arolla race were racing past me, adding to the downturn in my humour. I was never once angry with them. I knew they misunderstood me and I knew what the plan was, but I was so so low and so cold. When they finally did understand and wait for me, there was a nano second of huffing from me and mortification from them and then we carried on. Annabelle kept going, because she was cold and Leysa stopped to put on a jacket. We force fed ourselves more sugary crap and ploughed on.
Eventually we reached the bottom of Col de Riedmatten and Annabelle said, kindly “do you want to go on the tow?” This was a big moment for her, reaching this point as it was where her team had had to abandon two years previously, so I think she was feeling strong and buoyed by beating her own demons. The tow is an elastic bungee that allows stronger team mates to pull their struggling buddy, making the effort more even between the two. We were not long from our first bootpack of the race, so I said no.
We got to the bottom of the bootpack, put our skis on our backs and started walking up the very large steps. Normally they are small, allowing you to move quite quickly without having to haul your entire body weight up on each leg every step, but these were huge and deep and tiring. However, the good thing about a bootpack is that you use a different set of muscles and the change in rhythm is as good as a rest.
At the top, the Italian guides who had been allocated to looking after the climb, helped us put our poles down the back of our packs and showed us how to hold the rope, lean backwards and walk with our feet higher than our hips, holding on to the rope and downclimb. Adrenaline spikes all over the place as the skis on our packs started to catch on the snow and rocks in the narrow couloir. Cramp in my forearms from holding the rope so tight – my life and those below me really did depend on it!
It served to wake me up and it was fun despite the nervy descent, slipping on rocks and hoping no one above let go. We arrived at the bottom and other guides took our skins off (they had been left on when we started climbing) and then we skied down some sheet ice and over to start the trek round Lac de Dix.
By the stage it was about 8am, the sun was up and it was starting to get warm. I had still not managed to sort out my camelbak and was probably starting to be seriously dehydrated. But I also was not thinking straight, so I hadn’t told anyone yet. I felt so sick as I bullied us all into eating again. More sugary crap and on we went.
We put our skins on and started the trudge round the lake. Lots of people “skate” this but we had decided as a team to skin it. Thankfully it was left foot up and right foot down as we skated round the side of the lake as by this stage, unbeknownst to the girls, my feet were in a dreadful state. This direction of travel was at least to my advantage. My left leg is shorter than my right, so I was perfectly suited to this slightly tilted angle.
On our last big training session, I had been suffering from a poisoned toe, which was bandaged up. Without me realising for a very long time, the bandage had slipped off my toe and gone under my foot, causing the most enormous blister under a large section of my right foot. I thought it had healed enough in the intervening two weeks, but apparently not.
It had come back with a vengeance, from about two hours into the race and by this point it felt like I had on a second, slippy, painful sock. My ankle had hurt from the minute I put my boot on in Zermatt, so a reasonable amount of painkillers had been consumed by this point. In the only short section of the race when we skinned round a bowl that had the mountain on our right, the pain in my ankle nearly made me pass out.
The slog round the lake is long and hot. Again I had to say “I’m really sorry, but it’s an hour since we last ate”. Groans and begrudging compliance made me feel terrible for being the food bully, especially as I was beginning to take on less and less myself. As I say, tiredness makes you stupid.
Eventually we got to the next checkpoint at La Barma. It was a marvellous sight, not least because we were all desperate for a pee, and there were portaloos there. A longer transition with pee stop and a big glass of coke was needed. I was really, really struggling by this point. Leysa felt sick but better after fruit, a coke and a gel. I still couldn’t face eating but when Annabelle said she had had a banana I thought I could handle that, only to be told there were none left in the whole food station. Talk about crushed…
The girls ate quite a lot there but I still only managed the coke, but a big coke burp made me feel much better so once again we trundled out of transition into the last big climb of the race. I finally had the brilliant idea to jiggle my pack and lo and behold my camelback came back to life so I tried to drink as much water as I could, but it was effectively too late and I slowed to a crawl. The heat was insane.
When people have done this before I have asked, “when did you know you had made it?” and the reply is very often, when I got to the top of Rosablanche. This was the climb we started now, but I think in my head I had known from the start that we would make it (barring a disaster). However, the significance of climbing this last big mountain before heading home was not lost on me.
The girls were soon ahead of me, but despite turning round to check on me regularly and occasionally waiting, I was happy to let them go at their own pace. I was deliberately keeping myself at a pace that I knew I could manage for the next few hours and despite being physically near the end of my tether, I knew every single step was taking me home. All I wanted to do at this point was see Graham and the kids.
I started counting. I knew it was quite early for this tactic, but it was the only thing I could do to distract me from the sheer fatigue. I count to 60, then I allow myself a big deep breath a two slow paces. Then I count to 70 and do the same. Then 80 and so on until 110. Then I start again at 60. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, but it works for me. Sometimes I set up a jukebox in my head and sing songs in a made up playlist, but I couldn’t summon anything apart from Kylie “Love at first sight” so when I was fed up with her I counted again. I was mentally in good shape, despite the tiredness.
All around me, people were trudging. It was quiet in the blazing sunshine, nothing but the sound of skins in the snow and breathing. And then we could start to hear the sound of people at the top of Rosablanche and see the infamous 250m bootpack, with over 1300 steps. It is a mythical part of a mythical race and I was so excited to get there. I was imagining it would be like a Tour de France summit.
As we got to the base of the bootpack, we met Millie, Maev and Ellen, who had started in Arolla earlier. Millie saved Annabelle and I with what felt like gallons of water. I have never been so grateful – we swigged and swigged, with her permission – gave them a wave and off we set.
The girls pushed me hard up that bootpack, but I could hear the cowbells and the Alpenhorn and I knew that my best mate’s husband, Duncan, (also Graham’s team mate) was at the top with a bottle of coke. You can hear people hollering and cheering and encouraging long before you can see them. The sun was brutal and the climb was hard. I was feeling very emotional at this point, knowing that seeing friendly faces would be so good but so hard at the same time.
It was incredible coming up there and I burst into tears when I saw Duncan. Still the girls kept pushing and wouldn’t allow us to stop, apart from a quick bite of fondue that someone offered us!
Skis on and we set off down Rosablanche. My legs were absolutely done from the climb so I jelly legged it down the hill and to this day cannot remember a single thing about that descent.
Skins on and round a bit more. Ski down to the bottom of Col de la Chaux and skin up the last climb of the day. It seemed like an insurmountable climb and my feet were, by this time, in exquisite agony. We made it to the top of the skin and boot pack and then, after a quick stash of our kit into our packs, so we looked good as we arrived in Verbier (a lot of kit gets stuffed down your top in these races, making you look like a pot bellied pig!), we headed off to join our home pistes.
We shot down past Cabane Mont Fort, I was whooping despite the utter exhaustion and over to La Chaux. Now, traditionally, the race has always made you skate round from La Chaux to Ruinettes (2km on the flat and utterly brutal) but two years ago they changed it to skip that part. We stupidly assumed it would be the same but when I got to La Chaux and caught up with Leysa, the look on her face told me my worst fear had come true.
That skate round was the lowest and most miserable part of the race. I was so slow, I had absolutely nothing in the tank. I was cursing the organisers, I hated them, I wanted to take my ice axe to them but somehow I got to Ruinettes and we blasted down our familiar pistes. It was so surreal skiing into Medran, thinking “I just came here from Zermatt”. I was desperate not to fall as my legs were so weak I had to use the front of my ski boots to just hold me up and hope for the best.
Arriving in Medran and being met by Tristan as well as Leysa’s two youngest boys and her husband Andrew (Graham’s other team mate) was amazing but I was on fumes, I could barely even take my skis off. Poor Andrew offered twice to carry them and I snapped at him “No!” I couldn’t imagine anything worse than getting this far and having someone else take my skis for the final kilometre run through Verbier.
This was it. This was the moment I had been dreaming about for nearly 10 years. It was here and the girls made me run the whole thing! I was exhausted, I had not an ounce of energy left, my feet were agony and I just wanted to lie down and stop.
But we ran and we ran and every single person I knew seemed to be lining the streets, cheering and roaring and smiling and waving. I alternated between smiling like a crazy woman and bawling and crying, howling my head off. It was everything and nothing like I imagined. It was 1000 times better and more overwhelming than I could have dreamed of. Amelie joined us and we crossed the line, exactly as I had planned all those years ago, feeling like a rock star, like the Queen, like someone who had taken on and thrashed the pants off the biggest challenge of my life.
As long as I live, I will never forget that run. It was so overwhelming and so emotional. We had made it home and our homecoming was incredible.
When I finally did see Graham I collapsed into his arms and sobbed my heart out. Standard practice for me, but so needed. It had been so hard and so so long. My team mates are the most incredible women. We finished that race stronger and firmer friends than before. They pushed me when I needed it and they inspired me with their rock solid attitude to everything the race threw at us. I could not have asked for a better team and we are rightly proud of ourselves.
And we beat Pippa Middleton’s time! Job done.