It’s night four of the race. Winds are howling, it’s pitch black, Nicolas is at 2600 m on a ridge barely wider than his hips with a 200m drop either side. He’s slept 6 hours in the last four days… Nicolas and his friend Victor are the front runners of the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), an ultra-trail race around the Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, and one of the world’s most gruelling race.
Nicolas’ running journey started ten years ago. “Like most people, I started running to stay in shape and lose a few kilos.” One day, Pictet colleagues recruited Nicolas as the fourth runner ahead of a trail-running race in Annecy (40km from Geneva). “Unfortunately, the race got cancelled due to heavy snowfalls. But I’d caught the bug and was already looking for another race.”
A few weeks later, Nicolas was running his first mountain marathon. “It was a big step up from my usual 10 to 15 km training runs. I finished exhausted after 7 hours.” The next day he was already looking for his next challenge.
It usually takes amateur runners several years to prepare for their first ultra. For Nicolas, it took less than 12 months before he ran a 80 km race, nearly a double marathon with thousands of metres of elevation gain. “In retrospect, I increased my mileage too fast and I got hurt.” Runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, tendinitis, Nicolas went through many of the typical running injuries. “But every time I returned to the mountains, surrounded by spectacular landscapes, it was bliss.”
Through experience Nicolas learned about the importance of recovery, balancing his running training with strength training and nutrition. “I wake up early to run and I run in the evening instead of watching TV.” He complements his weekly training regimen with strength and core sessions at the gym and regularly visits an osteopath and performance physio. At weekends, he’ll jump on a bike, climb mountains (often with ropes, crampons and an ice ax) and go ski touring in winter. If he’s awake and not at work, he’s running.
Which brings us to 7:59 am on Monday 28 August. 100 teams, including Nicolas and Victor are waiting at the startline of the PTL (Petite Trotte à Léon, the long version of the famous UTMB) in Chamonix, already shivering in the violent rain and wind. 8 am and the teams set off. A few climbs in the duo reached unseasonally fresh snow and had to use crampons to avoid sliding down rock faces. On the third day, they could see the debris of avalanches.
For three days, they progressed steadily, sleeping 90 min every 24 hours as other teams progressively dropped out (only 57 crossed the finish line). During such a race, runners can burn over 10,000 calories, making it hard to replenish energy stores. “Caloric intake becomes a priority. I’ll eat anything aid stations offer, from bouillon to gummy bears or even raclette cheese.”
The crux came on the fourth night when the pair were out on an exposed ridge (Arête des Grandes Otanes). A call from the organisers came in on Nicolas’s phone (participants are required to carry their phone throughout the race). They warned to stay clear of the ridge, that they hadn’t yet set fixed rope. “But we were already there. And we had a 200-metre sheer drop on either side. Rocks were loose from all the rain and it was hard to stand still from the wind. We couldn’t wait.” So they kept going down the unmarked trail. With no room for error, Nicolas went ahead, sometimes circling back, trying to find the best path for him and his friend Victor who has less technical experience in such terrain. “The next day, they amended the itinerary so other runners could bypass the section.”
The finish line was approaching, but Nicolas and Victor were going… too fast! With 1200 m to go, the organisers asked them to slow down so that race officials and supporters would be there to welcome them. “We took a 30 min break and had a coffee at the Chamonix Tennis Club.” After a friendly chat with curious strangers, they savoured the last kilometre and were greeted by a roaring crowd. Nicolas and Victor finished 5 hours and 43 minutes ahead of the second team (with a time of 99 hours and 33 minutes for those who are counting).
Nicolas hasn’t stopped smiling since. It is possibly his best season yet. In addition to the PTL, he won the Eiger 250 km, a trail race around the famous Eiger mountain in central Switzerland, and the Ultra Tour du Mont Ventoux (170 km). He also finished second at the Ecotrail de Genève (80 km) and the Trail de Haute Provence (170 km).
Does he think about turning pro? “Professional athletes have constraints, from sponsoring and social media to tight race schedules. I’m lucky to run 100% for pleasure.” His next objective? A 660 km race around the Valais region in Switzerland, or the Diagonale des Fous race in Réunion or maybe an ultra-trail around Mt. Fuji in Japan. Nicolas has many dreams and hopes to chase them all.
I’ll be following him on Strava. If he can run 300 km, surely I can run a few myself.
When he’s not running, Nicolas is Domain Manager at Tech & Ops.
A brief definition of trail running
Ultra-trail-running, once a niche discipline, has seen a spectacular rise in popularity over recent years. Trail running occurs over various terrains, often in mountainous or wilderness areas and races can last several days. It’s called ultra-trail when the distance surpasses 80 km. Events like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) and vertigo-inducing videos shared by ‘sky runners’ like Kilian Jornet helped fuel the surge.
Nicolas’ 3 tips for endurance
- Set yourself intermediate goals during long races: the next pass, aid station, climb or descent. Endurance races are 50% physical and 50% mental.
- Eat enough. Dried fruits and nuts are a great snack.
- Pack light. Essentials for a trail run include water (and electrolytes for longer runs), a smartphone for safety, a flashlight and some high calorie snacks like a chestnut compote.