The preparation for this race began almost 2 years earlier. It’s always been at the back of my mind to do a big race in the Alps, and the CCC seemed like a logical choice. Like its bigger sister the UTMB, you have to have qualifying points for the CCC, gathered in races over the previous 2 years. In 2015 I’d got 2 old points (4 in the new system) from the Highland Fling in April and 3 old points (5 new) from the Ultimate trails 110 in June. I needed 3 old points (7 new), so I’d got more than enough for the CCC and the TDS but not enough for the UTMB, which requires 9 (15 new), reflecting its reputation.
The CCC (billed as ‘the way in’) is 101k/6100m vertical, the TDS (‘the wild alternative’) 119k/7250m and the UTMB (‘the queen of the course’) 170k/10,000m. The idea of entering was firmly crystalised in my mind after reading Lizzy Hawker’s book ‘Runner’ while on holiday last year. Lizzy is an astonishing athlete. She has a record of 6 podium places for the UTMB, including 5 wins, yet remains incredibly humble and laid back. Her book paints a vivid picture of participating in this iconic event, and my mind was made up.
December 2015, and I submitted my entry. An anxious wait over Christmas and in mid January I got an email saying I was in! If I hadn’t been successful, I was planning to enter Lizzy’s Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), which had its zero edition in 2015 and its first edition planned for 1-3 Sept 2016. At 116k/8300m vertical it would be a challenge, and could be run either as an ultra or as a 3-stage event. One for another year.
Regular email updates from the organisers kept me up to speed with next steps, such as submitting a doctor’s medical form. I also had to make sure I’d got the mandatory kit, which was pretty extensive and precise: mobile phone, beaker, water reservoir, 2 headtorches plus spare batteries, survival blanket 1.4mx2m, whistle, self adhesive bandage 100cmx6cm, food reserve, jacket with specific waterproof and breathability specifications, leggings, cap or bandana, warm hat, waterproof gloves, waterproof overtrousers and an additional warm midlayer weighing a minimum of 180g! I got a text from the organisers in the week leading up to the race warning of hot temperatures and a mandatory water reservoir of at least 2L!
We flew out 2 days before the race, with legendary runner Nicky Spinks on the same plane, other runners casting furtive glances in her direction. Our hotel was a 5 minute walk from the centre of Chamonix, with an amazing view of Mont Blanc from the room. We wandered into town for food, watched a stunning sunset turn the mountains a golden orange and cheered home the winners of the TDS who had set off from Courmayuer at 6am that morning.
Thursday was registration day and we’d been told to get there half an hour before it opened at 10am to beat the queue. Good advice, as we waited in the hot sun watching the paragliders lazily float and pirouette in the clear blue sky. Registration was friendly and efficient, and I picked up my number 4444 – pretty hard to forget that! After looking round the UTMB show picking up leaflets for other races all over the planet, we spent the day on the cable cars from Chamonix up to Aiguille du midi and then 5k across to Helbronner in Italy, where I looked down on Courmayeur in the valley, where I’d be starting my race the next day. It was nice to be in cooler air but hard to breathe in the thin air at over 3500m, and I was glad we’d be going up to ‘only’ 2500m in the race.
Got my kit packed back at the hotel, packed a drop bag for Andrée to bring to a half way checkpoint at Champex, and out for a big plate of lasagne. I had a Mountain Fuel night fuel before turning in and, as usual before a big event, slept fitfully until the alarm at 5.45am. A quick breakfast of black coffee, a porridge pot and Mountain Fuel morning fuel, a liberal application of factor 50 sun block, Gurney Goo on my feet and back, I hefted my pack and off we went to the shuttle bus to take me from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the start at Courmayeur. The bus pulled away at 7.15 and I waved to Andrée. Everyone on bus was wrapped up in their own thoughts, I tried to empty my mind. As I swigged my bottle of Mountain Fuel Xtreme energy fuel, there was no point worrying about whether I’d prepared enough or how I would cope – just be in the moment, give in to the experience and enjoy the journey. And never, ever, give up, just keep moving forward. I’d looked at the race split calculators on Climbers.net (http://climbers.net/race/) and had made a note of checkpoint timings for a 22, 24 and 26.5 hour schedule, alongside the timings in the UTMB guide. There were cut –offs for 6 checkpoints and a 26h 45 min time limit, which seemed pretty generous to me.
We got to Courmayeur at 8am and walked the 10 min to the start in the middle of town after last minute loo breaks. The atmosphere at the start was electric. There were 1900 runners in three waves depending on predicted finish time. I was in the middle pen. The national anthems of Italy and France rang out, Vangelis ‘Conquest of Paradise’ swelled, the helicopter hovered to video us and the countdown started ‘cinque...quattro...tre...due...uno’, and the first wave were off! Nervous shuffling for the next 15 minutes as we waited our turn, then we were counted down and I was off, 9.17am. We wound our way slowly through the streets of Courmayeur, people cheering and clapping along the way. The day was already starting to warm up as we climbed steadily out of town and eventually the tarmac ended, the views opened up and we were on trails. “Oh you’re a Spartan!” said one of the Brits I was chatting to who had done the Lakeland 50 and 100 when I mentioned Mardale – our reputation travels far and wide! The trail wound up through trees, single file, slow going, people taking on water at a small settlement of Suche. Sometimes the procession stopped when the trail narrowed or got technical. There was 1350m of climbing in this first 10k and as we emerged from the trees the views were amazing but we were now in full sun. “Do you want to see into the future?” said one women near me, and pointed upwards to a line of figures in red, green, blue, black, white, making their way up the mountain. Time to get the sticks out. I had my first S-Cap 2 hours in, and made sure I took one every hour with plenty of water.
I eventually reached Tete de la Tronche (2584m) at 12.26, and the next 5k section was a beautifully runnable steady downhill. I wanted to keep looking up at the stunning scenery but needed to keep an eye on my feet as it was quite technical going to Refuge Bertone, reached at 13.18. Time to take on more water and refill my soft flask with Mountain Fuel. To run the 7k to the next checkpoint meant overtaking people who were walking, which I couldn’t understand as it was a pretty flat terrace path along the side of the valley. I was also getting concerned about timings as I was only about 45 min inside the slowest schedule which didn’t leave much cushion for later. I reached the checkpoint at Refuge Bonatti at 14.41 – over 5 hours to do a half marathon! Still, I felt good, was now nearly an hour inside the slowest schedule and had gained over 150 places. Time for a couple of photos, some Mountain Fuel and Chia Charge and off we go!
More lovely runnable trails and a whoop whoop descent into Arnouvaz at 15.37, over an hour inside the 16.45 cut off. Still a bit close for comfort, but the field was thinning out now and I’d gained more places. As I came into the checkpoint I recognised a familiar face – Andrée had got one of the shuttle buses to come and see me, which was fantastic. This checkpoint was the first, at 27k, with proper food so I had some noodle soup, bread, cheese, salami and marzipan and was through in 15 min.
It was really hot here in the valley, about 30 degrees, and I knew the next big climb up to the Swiss border at Grand Col Ferret was next. My pace dropped off up the 4.5k 750m slog up the mountain, but the views back down the valley and across to the Grande Jorasses were also breath taking! Another great descent off the Col, passing a guy looking after his mate collapsed and vomiting at the side of the trail. I was cracking on now, shouting “A gauche” or “A droite” as I passed people. I was aware of someone running behind me, keeping pace, not wanting to overtake. After a few minutes he said something in French, and then again, so I had to look over my shoulder and say that I didn’t understand. He then got talking in English, and we continued together down through the mini-checkpoint at La Peule, descending quickly down to La Fouly, chatting all the while. His name was Emmanuel, a little younger than me perhaps but we agreed to run together. After the 10k descent we got into La Fouly, the marathon distance point, just before 19.00, an hour and a half inside the cut off, so we were making up time and more places. More noodle soup, coke, cheese and chocolate and we ran steadily through beautiful tiny Swiss villages as the daylight faded.
The next checkpoint was at Champex-Lac where I’d planned to meet Andrée and Emmanuel had planned to meet his mate Will and his kids. We were now playing head torch chicken and half way up the 3k climb to Champex we had to stop, it was too dark. Just as I opened my pack to get my torch, my phone rang, the first time all day. It was Andrée explaining that there were bus problems so she wouldn’t get to Champex by the time I was through. No worries, we planned to meet at a checkpoint further along called Trient, I was still feeling strong, I had enough reserves in my pack and Champex was the checkpoint with hot food. We got there at 21.25, two hours inside the 23.30 cut off, and were greeted with a fug of sweat and steam in a huge marquee. A British woman who was supporting a rather dejected and tired looking runner asked if she could get me anything. I knew I had to take on food here, but not immediately, so I had some orange slices, water and coffee to stimulate my appetite before attempting the small bowl of pasta and Bolognese. It still took a while to eat, and all the while runners were coming in, some looking fine, others collapsing on the ground, and some retching in the corner. I didn’t let this put me off, had more coffee, apple purée and some amazing blueberry pie and changed into my lightweight Icebreaker midlayer, ready for the off. We’d been there about 45 minutes, time to head off into the night.
Emmanuel’s kids walked with us for the first few hundred meters alongside the lake. I’d given his mate Andrée’s phone number to make sure she was OK getting to Trient and back to Chamonix, and I was looking forward to seeing her. Boosted by the food and good banter, the next section was a few kms of steady running, then about 800m climb to a col at La Glète at about 2000m. We plodded steadily up, click click with the poles, passing people, the head torches winding up into the night sky and blending in with the stars. Another sharp descent, through the boisterous medical checkpoint at La Glète with its campfire and singing. I would have liked to have picked up the pace more here, but had agreed to stick with Emmanuel who wanted to take it easier on the descents. Probably sensible in the middle of the night, on technical rocky and rooty trails after 70k! Besides, we had made up a good time cushion and were scalping people. He had also developed a nose bleed which he didn’t want to make worse.
We got into Trient at 1.50am, and sure enough Andrée had made it on the bus. Great to see her, and she needed the checkpoint food more than me, as she hadn’t eaten all day, running between buses and the hotel and get my drop bag! More noodle soup, crackers and cheese for us both, Emmanuel got a piece of cotton wool shoved up his nose and after a 40 min pit stop we were off again. I didn’t change into the clean socks Andrée had brought and probably should have, but didn’t feel like the rigmarole of taking off my Injinji socks, lubing up my feet and putting fresh socks on. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea.
There followed another 800m up and down in 11k to Vallorcine. We fell into our rhythm of a steady walk winding up the mountain, glugging on more Mountain Fuel, cowbells ringing in the dark from unseen herds. It took us about 90 min to reach the top and another 90 min to get to the bottom, through the steep descent into Vallorcine. The little toes of both feet were now quite sore, and Emmanuel was struggling with a blister on his heel. We reached Vallorcine at 5.30am, the usual noodle soup and cheese, fresh apple slices and coke. Emmanuel got his blister patched up and we were both gob smacked to see people sleeping on the beds in the medic’s tent! Why, when you’ve only got about 20k to go?!
We were able to take our torches off about 20 min after leaving Vallorcine and could see the first rays of sun turning the summit of Mont Blanc pink – sublime. These happy thoughts soon evaporated though on the steep and never-ending last big climb, 850m to Tete aux Ventes. It started steep, and then got steeper – think Frodsham hills in one take after you’ve been moving for 85k. We got to what I thought was the summit, slurped more Mountain Fuel, more Chia Charge, but no, there was still a little bit more to go – aargh! At last the summit, Emmanuel looking stronger now as we ran where we could on a 3k rocky technical terrace path across to the final checkpoint at the refuge and ski lift at La Flégère, high up above the Chamonix valley. The sun was up now too and it was getting hot.
It was only 7k to the finish from here, but over 800m descent, looking down on the paragliders below, and my feet were really feeling it. We trotted downhill, through woods as the paths got wider and less technical, and we started to meet more people coming up from Chamonix. I told Emmanuel to run on if he wanted to, as I was having to walk sections, but someone I passed said I still had “good legs” – I’ll take I thought, thanks mate.
The buildings of Chamonix were getting closer and closer through the trees until the trail gave way to tarmac, and I was in the final kilometre. I ignored the pain in my feet, and found the energy to run this last section along the river, through the streets, filled with people lining the route, cheering people on, what an amazing feeling! Some people cross the line waving flags, but I got my Spartan buff out and waved it in the air as ran the last 50m and across the finish line – 25 hours 25 min and 20 sec.
I was absolutely thrilled to have completed this iconic, amazing, beautiful event. I finished 1081 out of 1386 finishers, 87th in my age group, sixth in my age group from the UK. I had gained places right from the start and maintained a pretty consistent pace, averaging about 4 kph. http://utmb.livetrail.net/coureur.php
After a brief lie down back at the hotel, where I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sleep or eat (in the end I had some crisps, yogurt and fanta, then a quick doze), we headed out for burger and beers and to watch the winners of the UTMB come through in the late afternoon – respect! That evening we sat in a great bar for a pitcher of mojitos, and watched a spectacular thunder storm, ran across the road to an even better bar (Boogie Woogie) for homemade steak pie, chips and gravy, more beer and vodka shots. The recovery had started!
So, reflections. Although a challenge, it was very do-able. Pacing was key, as was hydration and I’m sure taking an S-Cap every hour helped stave off cramp. Between checkpoints I used Mountain fuel Xtreme energy fuel, Chia Charge and Cadbury’s brunch bars. Legs were fine, which I attribute to Hoka Mafate Speed and extensive use of poles. Running with someone of similar ability with the same goal simply to complete really helped. And it was a real boost to see Andrée at a couple of checkpoints.
Things I’d do differently would be stop and take care of feet earlier. Although not major, sore feet did slow me down for the last 20k or so. I’d also try and push the pace more on some of the later descents.
It was quite a journey. Would I do another one? Absolutely!