“The only way is up”, sang Yazz and the Plastic Population, and it certainly is if you’re attempting to go up the Col du Tourmalet. Except I wasn’t doing it the easy way, rather than drive up it or cycle up it, I was going to run up it.
Kev had suggested we have our Summer holiday in the Pyrenees, as it would be cooler than Italy the previous year. We found some accommodation and in Google Mapping its location in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, we discovered it was at the bottom of one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France. An idea was born.
The Col du Tourmalet is called l’incontournable in France, the unavoidable. It’s the only way to get through this part of the High Pyrenees, and it’s part of a natural line between Bagnères-de-Luchon and Pau that goes over the Col de Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet, and the Aubisque.
Both sides of the climb have been used a total of 87 times by the Tour de France (as of 2019), more than any other mountain pass. It was only after we’d booked our holiday that the Tour de France announced that in 2019 it was going up from Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Bonus! I can do a TV recce of the route.
The Tourmalet is an “Hors Categorie” climb, the most difficult of all, and a rare beast indeed. The Col is at 2,115 m, nearly 7000 feet, the second-highest in the Pyrenees and possibly the most difficult. From Luz-Saint-Sauveur (711m) the climb is 19km long and gains 4,606ft (1,404m), and I don’t mind admitting that despite the bravado and telling friends I was planning on running up the Tourmalet (depending on the weather and how bad the traffic was) I was having second thoughts as we drove down through France, some of the 5% and 6% hills we were driving up and down seemed really steep and I was wondering how on earth I was going to manage a hill that averaged 7%.
Training for running up the Tourmalet
It’s fair to say I hadn’t trained for the challenge of running up the Col du Tourmalet. I’m in the middle of training for the Chicago Marathon which is pancake-flat, and my running had only been around Milton Keynes which cannot be described as hilly, never mind mountainous. And as for a recce I Google Street Viewed the route to check there was space for me and traffic but that was it, the race coverage wasn’t that helpful when it came to recceing it, just a lot of grown men suffering near the top. There was going to be a lot of ‘winging it’ for this particular challenge.
We arrived in Luz on Saturday, after a parkrun, and on Sunday I had a long run to do so I took the opportunity to have a bit of a recce up the first couple of miles. It was steep but it was runnable and the traffic was giving me plenty of room – they are obviously used to daft people going up here. With the first few miles recced I carried on with my long run, although I cut it short due to getting tired so ended up with 12.5 miles in 2 hours rather than 16 miles in 2:30. In my defence, it was my first day in the Pyrenees and I’d covered over 1,500ft of elevation in those 12 miles.
As well as proving to myself I could run up the Tourmalet, the recce gave me an estimate of how long it would take. I was running up at about 10:30 min/mile pace, so add a bit on for breaks and 13 min/mile should do it. From our apartment below the start of the official climb it was nearly 13 miles to the top which gave me an estimate of 2 hours 46 mins. I decided to err on the side of caution and plan for three hours. It also highlighted that the earlier I could start the better, as then most of the way up to Bareges would be in the shade and cooler due to the steep-sided valley.
Running up the Tourmalet
Wednesday morning dawned bright and beautiful. I had a couple of cereal flapjack bar thingys with a coffee or two (not exactly a run a long way uphill breakfast, but I did mention that the strategy for this run was ‘winging it’) and then I was out the door by 8:30am.
I had about a mile of uphill to get to the start of the climb up to the Col du Tourmalet in Luz centre. The plan was to just enjoy (?) it, I was treating it as a long run, and even if I stopped to take photos, admire the view, etc I wasn’t going to stop my Garmin – I didn’t want to risk not remembering to start recording again.
It truly was a lovely day, and I was glad I was setting off early to stay in the shade as much as possible. The first few miles were uneventful, cyclists said things like “Bonjour” or “Bravo”, or gave me a thumbs-up as they passed. Kev and the girls passed me around three miles into my run, which was about two miles up the climb, with shouts of “Get a move on!” and “Faster!” And so onwards I plodded, running at around 10:30 min/mile pace, with stops to take gels and have a drink. And that was basically it until I reached Barèges.
Barèges gave me the opportunity to run on paths rather than on the road, until two-thirds of the way through the town when the path turned to a series of steps. “Sod that for a lark”, I thought and nipped on to the road for the remainder of the run through the town. Coming out of Barèges I stopped to take some photos and message Kev to say I was pretty much on time/pace at that point, but likely to slow down a bit. I got a response saying that was fine and they’d found some Llamas at the top of the Col, and so the random messages with llama puns from the three of them started. It was quite welcome as every time my phone pinged with a message it gave me the opportunity to walk while I read the message. I also started sharing photos on Facebook as well, which was another opportunity to stop and take in the views, a drink, and a gel.
When the going gets tough…
From the ski station just above Barèges it became tough, from here it’s 8kms to go and it’s where the switchbacks start. It was just past here I passed my first cyclist.
I had planned to take photos of the names of cyclists painted on the road, but in putting the effort into running I didn’t see them – any of them. They were there the day before when we’d driven down the road and they were there in the afternoon when we returned to Luz by car, but if you’d have asked me if names were painted on the road while I ran up the road today I would have sworn they weren’t any. I wonder if the cyclists in the pro teams on the Tour see them, or are they so focused on the effort and racing that they don’t spot them either?
It’s also around the 6-7kms to go point that my brain loses the ability to calculate what time I’m likely to get to the top. I think three hours will be a challenge and I message Kev to say so. He responds with a llama pun.
I reach the 5km to go sign, so I stop to take a photo of the hill that’s left, which I post on Facebook with the caption, ‘Just a parkrun to go!’ but to be honest I’m looking at where I’ve got to get to and I’m convinced it must be more than 5k. The signs must be wrong.
I start running again and on the steep section past Super-Barèges for a couple of hundred metres I’m keeping pace with a cyclist. He rides alongside me, neither of us speaking because this is hurting both of us. We’re both suffering together, but separately, at the same time. It’s nice, but he eventually pulls away on what feels like a slightly flatter section.
By now I’m running when I can and walking when I need to. I message Kev to say he’s got plenty of time as I think it’s going to take me three and a half hours to get to the top. It’s hard work, but I am enjoying it. I never once thought I couldn’t do this, it was just a question of how long it would take me. Perhaps if I’d looked at my watch I would have realised I wasn’t taking as long as I now thought I was.
I approach the 2kms to go sign and the hill flattened out, “Whoopee!” I thought and speeded up a bit. It’s a sign of how skewed my view of hills had become because looking back at the map this wasn’t a flat bit like I thought, it was still going up. It was just flatter than the previous bit.
Round the hairpin where all the cars were parked for people have a look at the view or using it as a base for walking, and onto another steep bit. It’s between here and the 1km to go mark that I pass another two cyclists. To be fair, far more cyclists are passing me but they are very supportive with words like “bravo” and “allez”. Despite how much they are hurting and suffering, every single cyclist who passes me has words of encouragement and I do my best to encourage them. I laugh out loud when just after the 1km to go sign a British rider comes past me and says, “Chris Froome eat your heart out!”
I stop to take a photo of the 1km to go sign, but I don’t really look at what it’s saying. I’m glad I didn’t because if I’d noticed it said that the average gradient of the next kilometre was 10% then there might have been a lot of swearing. Instead, I message Kev to say I’ve got 1km to go and will be there in 10 to 15 minutes minutes.
A few hundred metres to go and the finish is right above me, one more hairpin and I’m there. I’ve decided to run to the hairpin and have a walk around the ‘flatter’ outside before running as much as I can up the final bit. Unfortunately, there’s a photographer on the hairpin (they were a little surprised to see me running) and there’s no way I’m walking while they take a photo so I run past them. Of course, my brain also tells me that I can’t stop and walk as soon as I’ve passed them so I continue on for another 20 or so metres.
As I stop to walk I notice I feel a bit weird, a bit wonky. My brain rationalises this, ‘it must be the altitude’. It then carries on, ‘well, you didn’t feel weird when running, it was only when you stopped to walk that you didn’t feel right, so you’d better start running’. And so I did all the way to the top without stopping again.
Getting to the top was amazing, it felt a bit like winning the Olympics (not that I know what that actually feels like). I got cheers and handshakes from the cyclists already there, and I also shared some hugs with other cyclists who had passed me on the way up.
I know I should have been doing the whole ‘recovery’ thing, making sure I was eating and drinking, changing into compression leggings, putting on clean, dry clothes, etc but all of that went out the window. I hung around, took some selfies with the statues and chatted to some Welsh bikers. Together we had a laugh at a cream coloured Citroen 2CV that seemed to be having to work as hard as the rest of us to get up the hill.
I eventually got changed while waiting for Kev and the girls to return from their walk. The arrived back bang on schedule for my estimate of taking three and a half hours and we went for pastries and coffee at the cafe on the top, although there was only one pain au chocolat left so Kev and I had to share that.
My brain had obviously turned into complete mush on the run up the Col, because it had only taken me 2 hours 46 minutes since leaving our accommodation to get to the top of the Col du Tourmalet – including stops to text, take photos, post on Facebook, etc. My moving time on Garmin Connect says 2 hours 36 minutes, but how long the actual official climb took I don’t know and I haven’t tried to find out. In some ways I don’t care how long it took, I only care that what started out as a bit of a mad, bonkers idea was achievable. And I achieved it!