Who the heck would trek over 300 km through the Alps?

Posted by Kirsten on 2023 Aug 23rd

Who the heck would trek over 300 km through the Alps?

Since 2008, an event like no other has occurred annually as part of the UTMB events in Chamonix, France. It is an alpine adventure that takes participants through the Mont-Blanc range in France, Italy and Switzerland. The event brings 100 teams of 2-3 from around the world and is called La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) which translates to “Léon’s Little Walk” but that name is filled with irony. The PTL is roughly 300 kilometres with a simple objective: finish it.

We know him!

This year, Tim McDonough is among the athletes traveling to France to take on this epic event. Tim’s name is likely familiar to you as he has completed ten 100 mile races and several other ultra races to date. When he isn’t running, he works at River & Trail. Tim lives in Saint John (and loves it) but he also loves the mountains. Most people who partake in the same events as Tim live in the mountains and are surprised when they learn that a guy from the East Coast of Canada is running as well.

Last year, Tim raced in the UTMB 100 miler which was his most challenging race to date. The UTMB is an iconic race that spans 171 kilometres and 10,000 meters of elevation gain. The PTL takes things to a whole new level by doubling those stats. When his teammates (who we will meet soon) first approached him back in December 2022 about participating in the PTL - he did not hesitate to say yes. Although, unlike his thoughts before his first 100 mile race, he thought the PTL sounded insane. He could easily envision himself running 100 miles - but the PTL is a different beast.

About La Petite Trotte à Léon

The PTL is under the same umbrella as UTMB but unlike the other events, it is not a race. There are no rankings and no incentives for crossing the finish line first. Each year, the route varies and takes teams to remote locations. The route is partially supported but largely, the teams are left to their own devices to complete the trek. Some sections will have clear trails but by and large, teams must circumnavigate the route on their own. At over 300 kilometres with an elevation gain of 25,000 metres, Tim and his team will be tackling the challenge over 6 days. Teams must remain together at all times. All interested teams must apply and preference is given to teams of 3 so if 1 person can not continue, the team will still have a chance to finish.

The Team from Canada

Dawson Mossman from Fredericton and Eric Côté from Montreal are the other ⅔ of the team. The 3 men are friends but have never participated in an event like this together. They each bring their own strengths and experiences.

Dawson is well rounded when it comes to athletic events. They tease him that he runs like a Granny but he can go forever. He’s an Immortal Granny, if you will. He is the guy with the big smile who will help keep the team’s camaraderie up.

Eric is the most experienced adventurer and brings the most mountain smarts to the team. Tim described him as a ‘rugged little stubborn French man’ who will be confidently tackling mountain ridges as Tim clings on for safety.

As we know, Tim is an Ultra Runner. He does not consider himself a mountaineer but believes his other life experiences will help get him and his team to the finish line. He’s been affectionately called an ‘Irish Peasant’ by his partner, Heather, since he’s “hard to kill”.

Exactly how their team dynamic will play out is yet to be determined but it’s safe to say that this team from Canada is bringing a lot of experience, grit and good attitude to Mont-Blanc.

From Left to Right: Tim McDonough, Dawson Mossman and Eric Côté in Chamonix, France

The Plan

They will arrive 3 days early to stay in a Mountain Hut before the event as a way to acclimatize, rest and review their gear. Tim is only traveling with a carry-on but anticipates needing to fill in the gaps once in France. Since they have to carry their own gear, throughout the route, there is a fine balance between remaining light and well equipped for the PTL.

In addition to some safety and navigation items that they are provided with, there is a list of required gear that each teammate must have on their person, at all times. The required gear includes a survival blanket, First Aid items, waterproof clothing, a whistle and more. Additionally, Tim plans to have a helmet and harness for safety. UTMB makes it clear with this event that it’s up to the teams to plan their gear accordingly. While a rescue is never something you want to need, teams are also required to get insurance that covers a Helicopter in all three countries.

As far as food and nutrition is concerned, they will have dehydrated meals and Skratch Labs products to keep them fulfilled on the trail. There are some Mountain Refuges (aka Huts) along the course with warm meals available as well.

Naturally, if you are participating in a week-long event, you’ll need to sleep. Although the PTL is not a race, teams are expected to push themselves and keep momentum going. For this reason, they cannot stop to get a full night’s sleep but instead must rest and nap for short periods when possible, before continuing on.

Why would someone do this?

“Why the heck not?” Tim quickly responded, and then followed up with “If I was smarter, I’d probably do something else.”

Tim doesn’t feel like he is doing anything exceptional by participating in the PTL. It’s simply what he has chosen to focus on. Endurance events are ‘his thing’. He’s not embarking on this adventure to prove anything to others but perhaps to prove to himself that he is capable. He enjoys the challenge and he always surprises himself when he completes a long event. Running ultras has taken him to some pretty cool places and the PTL will add to the growing list of remote landscapes that he used to dream of visiting.

We need more cowbell

As fun and exciting as this upcoming adventure is, Tim shared that he is a bit worried and nervous. This event is unlike anything he’s ever done and he’s distinctly aware of the risks involved. Since he can’t visualize the route the way he’s been able to with past races, he is approaching it with an open mind. The idea is “just to finish” and they’ll be happy if they can accomplish that goal. He is telling himself that it will all be over in a couple weeks and then all that’s left to do is celebrate. They have reservations to enjoy a large buffet meal following the event and are also looking forward to ringing their finisher cowbells.

How to Follow Along

The PTL begins at 8am on Monday, August 28th - which is 3am Atlantic Time for those of us in the Maritimes. Their team name is Boréal and bib number is 20150. You’ll be able to follow the team’s progress from this link: https://live.utmb.world/utmb/2023/runners/20150

Good luck to Tim, Dawson and Eric!