Featured in Like the Wind #1. Words by Reuben Tabner – Photography courtesy of Roy Belchamber.
I dream. I dream about running in the mountains. Running free, with great vistas before me. I run strong on the uphills, powering through each rise and turn. I dream of running fast and free on the descents, skipping from corner to corner, feet barely touching the ground as I weave this way and that… I dream of running all day, under perfect skies and a glowing sun that isn’t too hot… I dream of a breeze, which doesn’t slow me but keeps me cool. I dream of running with legs that never tire; of a bottle that is always cold and refreshing.
I dream of running in the Alps, alone and free and pushing myself against giants of mountains with snow-topped peaks.
“I’m ready to quit. I convince myself that nothing would be lost by turning back downhill…”
I had to free this dream and allow it to become real; to live it out and experience the mountains in all their glory. And now I’m alone; my legs are tired and I slow to a crawl on the unrelenting ascents that never seem to end. I shuffle only a little faster on the descents. My bottle is almost empty, but I can’t drink it anyway – my throat is hot and sticky. The sun is beating down, slowly cooking me. I struggle to lift my head and long for a cooling breeze.
I follow feet in front of me, while footsteps follow my own. When I look up, I see a stream of runners grinding slowly uphill. When I look back, I see shadows of my former self following each broken step. I’m ready to quit. I convince myself that nothing would be lost by turning back downhill.
There would be no shame; I have done well to come so far. Indeed, many runners pass me, going down to rest and refuel with food and water. Yet all around me, the views seem to grasp at what little breath I have. As my mind wanders and my energy dwindles, I look up and the mountains lift me, ever higher. I keep on running; I will not stop.
I’m alone, yet in a meandering chain of more than 2,000 runners, as we slowly grind out the 70 miles from Courmayeur in Italy around Mont Blanc and into Chamonix in France. I’m running (at least, I tell myself I’m running) the UTMB-TDS, or the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie, to give its full title. There are few races – indeed, few challenges – for runners that command as much awe and respect as the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, and for one who dreams of running in the mountains, well… need I say any more?
Turning a corner in the path, I long to see the summit: to see the top and an end to the climbing. But the path continues to rise up into the clouds and tricks me into thinking I am nearly there. The side of the trail is heavily populated with runners – sitting, squatting or splayed out on the grass – gasping for breath and sweating in the endless sun… I dare not join them. I dare not stop moving my legs as I’m afraid I won’t start again. So I keep my eyes forward and march ever onwards…
There is little or no flat, just relentless up and down. When comfort comes, it takes the form of slightly less up or slightly easier down, but it is always one or the other. This is the dream. Miles and kilometres become blurred and confused, checkpoints drift past; distance remaining versus distance covered becomes a jumbled mess in my mind. Minutes become hours, and soon the hours become lost in each other. Day sinks into night as the blistering sun is replaced by a bitter wind.
Hours later, I’m alone again. Alone in an unknown valley. It’s pitch dark – darker than I’ve seen in a long time. I’m alone with a hundred thousand stars. I stop moving and lie on my back, staring up at the most amazing spectacle known to man. Despite the tiredness, the sore legs and the exhausted mind after running for more than 20 hours, I’m momentarily lost in some kind of parallel universe. As I lie there on the cold, damp earth, I imagine myself staring back at my broken self from above. This is the dream; this is what I search for. Here, in this moment of exhaustion, I find total sense of freedom as I stare at this privileged view, lost in awe at the sight of the Milky Way. Maybe I lay there for only a moment; maybe it was longer. I have no way of knowing. I watched planes and satellites sailing overhead among the stars. I realised that this dream was real.
I slowly rise, stretching my legs painfully, and begin climbing uphill again. It’s dark, with just the glow of my head torch to show the way – one among a hundred flickering lights snaking their way up the train in front of me. I run lighter now, over the Col and down the other side. I’m back in my dream, running free and strong, even if my body responds differently. I shut out the pain and focus instead on the thrill of running downhill. Now I know I can finish this beast; in a few hours I will be able to stop and rest, maybe even sleep. But I still have several miles to cover – I’m not home yet. I pass through trees and over rivers. The ground is easier now but, after miles of climbing and descending, the running is just faster, not simpler.
I’ve passed this way before; moons ago, with friends. We were fresh then and ran hard. Now I’m beaten and I ache in places I didn’t know could ache, but stopping is worse than moving. I keep on dreaming. I keep on running.
“I look up and the mountains lift me, even higher”
The last hill looms, rising out of the ground vertically in front of me. It takes every ounce of energy left in my tired and exhausted body to keep me moving; I’m gasping as I climb. But the hard-won metres are quickly forgotten as the Col is reached and passed. Down the far side I race, single-track, twisting and turning, leaping from corner to corner. The brakes are off as I run for free in the mountains. The dreams are alive again; the body is nimble. All pain is temporarily forgotten.
The final checkpoint is passed. Dirt turns to asphalt and trail to road. The trees become houses; memories of loved ones in my mind become screaming and excited realities by my side. The sound of mountain torrents is replaced by the noise of thousands of passers-by, chanting and clapping in the daylight as I race by. My legs are light, my lungs fill with air and my eyes weep. My dream is complete. I run the streets of Chamonix for the same crowds as my heroes. My dream is over, but the finish line is just the start of another dream and many more to come.
Reuben Tabner is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Inverness. Using his surroundings and passion for travel, running and adventure, Tabner creates exceptional engaging images for a wide range of clients. www.reubentabner.co.uk // @ReubenTabner