Photo: Roby Ganassa
A monologue between Jacques Ricoux and his inner voice as he runs the 2018 Ultra Tour Monte Rosa.
The run traverses through the Italian and Swiss Alps along a high alpine trail that is tough and technical—challenging even the most seasoned trail runner.
I am rolling around in my bed, stress levels increasing as I know time is ticking away. There are just a few hours left until I stand on the starting line of the UTMR, for the very first time.
We’re all strangers at the starting line but all smiling at the challenge ahead. Prior to starting, we are given a briefing. There has been a change to the course due to a rock slide but we still get to take on the suspension bridge.
I meet ultra runner Seb Chaigneau at the starting line and exchange quick hellos. I allow space for his many fans who are striving for selfies.
6 a.m. on the dot and off we go! Only a few 100 meters into the village and we’re in the darkest depths of the forest. As a deer crosses the trail in front of me, I am reminded of how lucky I am to take on such an adventure.
We arrive at the small village of Randa, where we are greeted by school kids and we start climbing to the suspension bridge—reaching the bridge is both eventful and rewarding. After a long steep climb, you finally make the first step on the bridge and see a “no running” sign. It is at this moment that you realize this “bridge” is terrifyingly shaking! It is with my best attempt that I maintain balance as the wind blows the bridge.
Once we are finally back on solid ground, I begin to find my flow and happy place—surrounded by nature and beautiful 360-degree views. Sarah, my friend and future winner of this year's UTMR stage race, catches up to me and we get our first glance of the Matterhorn. Its beauty too great, we obviously have to stop and abide by the selfie ritual.
A little pause at the next aid station, myself, Sarah, Etienne hop back on the trails for the last stretch of the day. The expressions on each of our faces say it all—it's a beautiful day and we’re hyped by what the race has yet to unfold.
I meet my friend Mario at the hotel and exchange some impressions of the day. This is his second UTMR, so he’s very knowledgeable about the course and kindly shares tips and information on upcoming challenges I may face.
At dinner, I reunite with Seb and Vincent, his osteopath. I find myself lying on Vincent’s table for 30 minutes, as I am manipulated from head to toe with the hope of having some balance and hip issues fixed. I am optimistic that it will benefit me over the next few days.
Photo: Ultra Runner Sarah Staveley
Mario and I wake up slowly and go through our mental checklists. How do I feel? Ok. Did I sleep well? Yes, but not enough. How are the legs? Fine. Let’s go to breakfast! Roger that.
After a quiet breakfast, we head to the start line, drop our bags and regroup with the other runners. The camaraderie is kicking in and tales from the first day are being shared and laughed about…
As we’re climbing up, the daylight starts to project myriads of color on the mountains and some lucky first runners, like Seb, have the privilege to see herds of mountain goats running around in the fresh morning dew.
And then, there it is. The Matterhorn.
It’s massive even in the distance, yet humbling by its size. We can still see little sparks of lights on its face as mountaineers are climbing their way to the top. I cannot resist; I stop and ask one of the photographers to take a shot of me. I look at the shot only to realize that I have a very “stupid happy” smile across my face. What a day! I feel really blessed to be able to part take in this event.
The rest of the day is a succession of amazing landscapes. We are surrounded by river streams, gorgeous meadows and playful single track. For just a moment, I am right on Sarah’s tail but she’s in for the stage win today and keeping up with her is out of my league!
The second day is in the bank, we receive cheering at the finish line from the faster runners and stick around to congratulate the next finishers who are following close behind.
With my friends—Mario, Luc, Ramon—we head to the drop bag location where the 170km racers have their aid station. It is there that we enjoy a warm cup of soup as the rain starts pouring again. We spare a thought for our fellow runners still out there and selfishly enjoy having "beaten the rain."
At breakfast, there are many emotions in the room. Some runners are feeling worn out from a tough previous day, some have had a bad night, and some are struggling with motivation. As we all gather at the start line, we receive the daily briefing from Keith, confirming a challenging day ahead with 44km and 3,800m elevation gain. Today we are going to catch up on some of the 170km racers, so he encourages us to cheer for those brave runners during their non-stop journey. After the first extremely long climb, we are now cruising downhill in the middle of nowhere without any signs of civilization. The quietness of our surroundings—a few open pastures—gives us the energy to continue on. Amidst a “runners high” moment, I even think I can stop and make friends with a donkey who devotedly ignores my very existence.
As I approach Alagna, midway of the stage, we cross some small traditional hamlet where the locals look at us with an explicit “what the hell are those guys up to?” look on their face. Inside the aid station, there are a few 170km racers, they look destroyed, trying to remember why they started this, the look in their eyes is empty, somewhat scary.
I leave the aid station with two 170km racers. Their spirits are lifted by the moments spent in the aid station. It’s impressive how a little bit of human contact and some food can keep you going for miles… (literally)!
Off we go to the second looooong climb of the day.
“Loooooong” does not do this ascent justice. Infinite, whilst not scientifically accurate, is a better definition. This climb is known as the climb that keeps on climbing.
Finally, I hit the top of it. My watch tells me I’ve covered 39kms for the day, yet as I look down on the other side of the valley, I cannot see any signs of civilization. This means Macugnaga is not 5kms away…
I head down and after a few kms, I stumble upon a lone hiker with his dog. I stop, determined to get information and make a call on water refill and the need for saving energy. Once we figure out which language to use between Italian, German and French, we actually start to get chatty. He explains that since retiring, every year he hikes a valley of the old Walser region with his dog. As I explain what I’m up to, he tells me stories about when he used to do races in Nepal and Katmandu… who said trail running hasn’t been around for years?
I leave him with not much more information than before, but I’m inspired by his character and I let go of the useless stress about mileage. I finally reach the bottom of the valley a little dehydrated as I’ve been running on empty for a few kms, but I refill my flask quickly as I want to get the last 5km over with.
At the finish line, Seb and I decide to take a dip in the village fountain for an ice-cold water leg recovery. Runners and locals look at us bemused.
Once at the hotel, I meet Sergio, who’s a little under the weather. He sprained his ankle and it’s very unlikely he’s going to make the last stage. I give him some space and we both pack quietly and collapse quickly into deep sleep.
Photo: Vincent Place
As I walk to the start line on the last day, I realize my body is actually still in good shape. I feel the miles have piled up, but I don’t feel like my running legs are useless. All those days, weeks, and months of non-stop running must be paying off. I have conditioned my body to make running the most natural thing to do.
Today starts with another very steep and long climb to the Monte Mauro pass.
The pack is silent this morning. This climb is very steep and today might not be as tough as yesterday. However, it’s still no joke until the finish line.
At the top of the climb, runners are welcomed by the On Running crew. They graciously set up the aid station with warm drinks, a massive diverse buffet and a huge amount of cheering! This makes the finish of the ascent quite joyful and lifts the spirits before the technical downhill.
We had been warned that after the pass, the downhill section would be technical, but nothing can prepare you for both the magnificence of nature’s work and that level of sketchiness. Imagine swimming pool sized blocks of granite with a thin crusty layer of fresh ice—that’s exactly what we had to scramble down to reach the actual trails. Later on, I would hear from Seb that in this very section is where he took off and gained a further lead in the race. Personally, I am just glad I made it down alive!
I am welcomed in Saas-Fe by a group of tourists. They can’t help but snap a couple of shots like I am some sort of superhero. Which I’m not, let’s just agree on this. ;)
Francis, Sarah, Oscar and Katrin catch up to me as I fill up my water bottles in a stream. We’re cruising along like a little train through beautiful mountains and I think we are all anticipating getting closer to the finish line.
As I reach the last aid station, my little train has split in pieces, but I’m still very happy with my pace and the energy I have left. I bump into the volunteers, hand over my cup and seek out some soda.
Photo: Rune Falch
I force myself to stay focused but goose bumps, tummy butterflies and tears are difficult to hold back. Today, I am becoming an Ultra Tour Monte Rosa finisher!
More turns. I hear the sound of Keith’s voice. The “500m to the finish line” sign. Entering Grachen. I high five with Seb and Vincent sitting at a terrace having lunch. The arch. Finally, the finish line!
Lizzy greets and congratulates me with a Nepalese scarf and my finisher medal.
The same bunch—Sarah, Oscar, Luc, Mario, Florian and Francis over the last 4 days—are at the finish line. A lot of hugs and high five are shared, everyone is content and smiling.
I’m being handed a beer.
About Jacques Ricoux
Born in France, Jacques Ricoux is an amateur trail runner with a deep passion for mountain sports, since he started skiing at the age of 2. Running has allowed him to stay in shape for the winter season. Moreover, it allows him to enjoy the peace of being surrounded by nature, as well as explore new places—from his home of Switzerland, to neighboring countries or wherever his adventures take him. He has discovered a warm and welcoming community within trail running that is driven by sharing experiences and preserving our unique playground and our planet.
Follow Jacques' adventures on Instagram.
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Photo: Roby Ganassa