On Aug. 25, Canadian Running reported that a Czech runner, whose identity remains private, fell to his death during TDS, the 145-km race that’s part of the Festival UTMB. The race was stopped while a desperate helicopter rescue was attempted, but it was too late. David Orr, one of four Canadians racing that day, shared his experience in a personal essay; John Pockler was one of 20 runners who were allowed to continue after the accident.
TDS is widely considered to be considerably more dangerous than UTMB; Orr describes it as UTMB’s “savage sibling.” It stands for “sur les traces des ducs de Savoie” (in the tracks of the dukes of Savoie), and starts in Courmayeur, taking runners from Italy’s Aosta Valley to the Savoie, through the villages scattered among the foothills of Mont-Blanc and ending in Chamonix. The race involves more than 9,000m of elevation gain. Col des Chavannes, the first big climb of the race, is a very high mountain pass, 2,600m above sea level. “On one side – Italy, the Pyramides Calcaires, Mont Fortin,” writes Orr. “On the other side, a 20-km long downhill bowling lane to France.” As dangerous as the terrain is, this was the first fatality in the history of the Festival UTMB.
The race starts at 3 p.m. local time, and by the time the frontrunners reached the site of the accident, about 60 km in, it was nighttime. Orr, a mid-packer, says the 2,000-metre climb to Passeur de Pralognan, where the runner fell, was “full of … runners vomiting, labouring, gasping for air.” Humidity and approaching rain meant runners were sweating hard; Orr knew that at the higher elevations, his wet clothes would freeze, and he had been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to dry off at aid stations since early in the race. Now, when he stopped moving, he started to shiver. He drank a Coke and warmed himself briefly at a fire, then moved on.
“I moved again with new resolve, but realized we were now descending,” Orr writes. “Something was wrong. I asked a French runner next to me, motioning that we were going the wrong direction. ‘Race is cancelled,’ he told me. ‘Major accident on the pass above. A runner slipped. He may have died.’
Orr was shocked. “I’ve fallen many times on trails,” he writes. “We all have. I’ve had small tweaks where my ankle has been slapped by the trail, and fantastic crashes where I’ve missiled downward on a 30 per cent steep grade while javelining my trekking poles to the moon.” But with the race stopped in the middle of a cold, wet night, he started to worry for his own safety and that of his fellow runners.
Pockler, meanwhile, was among the first to reach the area where the runner had fallen. He’s an accomplished trail runner, having set the FKT on Ontario’s 900-km Bruce Trail in 2020 (since broken twice, first by Kip Arlidge and then by Karen Holland). “I was the ninth or 10th man up there on the mountain,” he told us. “A man was warming up by the fire. I jokingly said ‘Are you guys tired, or what?’ I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. I changed into warmer clothes, since it was only a few degrees above 0 C. There was a helicopter, and officials kept saying ’10 more minutes and we will resume the race.’ But after an hour, there were hundreds of people at the top. People kept pouring up to the top of the climb in the middle of the night. Everyone was snuggled up in groups to keep each other warm in the emergency blankets. It was freezing cold up there. I was on top of the mountain for two hours.”
Pockler says he doesn’t fault the race organization, who were focused on the rescue, and who obviously could not let the race continue as if nothing had happened. Finally, a race official waved through the first 20 people (including Pockler), who resumed their race. The rest – approximately 300 runners, Orr among them – were sent back down the mountain to the previous aid station, at Bourg St-Maurice, where shuttle buses were sent to pick them up.
“I continued with one other guy from France, who lured me in by saying how awesome the next sunrise would be in Bellevue,” Pockler says. “We were the last two people remaining in the race.
“I spoke to a guy who had to turn around. It took them 12 hours to get back to the town by shuttle. Everyone was trying to help each other out to try and get back.”
Orr describes the experience of going back down the mountain as being “what a 1,000-person DNF feels like.”
“Runners were now talking to each other, chatting,” he writes. “At the base, the organizers put on brave faces. Food was plentiful … I got on the bus to Chamonix, muscles seizing up against muddied gear. Two hours later the bus parked in Chamonix, and we all got out and re-entered our lives. We were the same, yet different.
“Mountain running has risks,” he continues. “As Reinhold Messner says, mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous. We watch Kilian[Jornet] dance across ridges in Norway, or François [D’Haene] crush high elevation in the Savoy, and we understand they are different, but in key ways, we are also the same. Before being sponsored, before strapping on a bib with a single digit on it, every elite had the same dream as us middle-of-the-pack steamboats: to try to understand something bigger.
“When someone falls, we collectively shudder because while we may not know anything about them, we intimately understand the part of them that dreamed to get there.
“I didn’t know the runner’s name, but I knew the energy, the presence that was there that night – a reminder for us all to celebrate life with vigor, love and elevated heartbeats.”