After 40 miles of pushing hard over mountains, approaching yet another summit, the distinct tinkle and knocking of bells began to approach: lots of bells in fact, but I was miles away from any town where the majority of people had been congregating, greeting each runner with enthusiastic cheering. No, this was a gentle, random more scattered chime. Had I really pushed so much that I was hearing things? Would ghostly hallucinations soon follow? Rounding a bend, the beastly bell ringers came in to view. Oblivious to the hundreds of runners passing through their green carpeted home during the week, were of course a large herd of grazing cattle: not just any cattle – these were Bovine cows, at home in the mountains of the Alps.
Now well into my 8th hour of racing hard, I was in new territory here, like a fish out of water as I had been all day. My original game plan was thrown out of the window in the first mile, with what felt like a disastrous early 15 miles, but things had changed. Everyone was suffering now, everyone’s legs hurt, but now I was here, in the mountains and meadows populated with Bovine cows wearing huge bells. I was getting faster, feeling stronger, trying to retrieve what felt like a written off race only a few hours earlier….
Ok, rewinding a bit: the CCC eh, sounds like a glamorous race to do, stunning scenery through beautiful mountains, a grand start and finish with lots of people lining the streets, should be fun right? Well yes of course, but when it is all a bit new and you are suddenly there in the moment, reality kicks in, it can start to become quite intimidating. This is not a turn up and pay £7 on the day then run with 100 other friendly fellow fell racers. This was really serious, camera crews, elite athletes, helicopters at the start, exciting in a whole new way! The town of Chamonix was a buzz and completely focused on the whole UTMB week, it felt like a festival but for runners!
Arriving in Chamonix a couple of weeks before the race, we spent the first week acclimatizing, casually going round the route over 3 days, carrying minimal kit. We spent a couple of nights in mountain refuges which was a great way to see and just be present in the mountains, allowing us the time to take in the spectacular views of glaciers, vast meadows and the Mont Blanc ranges, so a great preparation week.
Unfortunately 5 days before race day my body had other ideas of good preparation. I pulled something in my neck, resulting in my back and right arm seizing up, any movement led to sharp pain. I called up my amazing physio Claire, who thought the problem was a partial disc bulge. The next few days consisted of hourly exercises, minimal anti-inflammatories and trying not to turn my head whenever Kim saw something interesting – which being in the mountains was quite a lot! Claire was great, talking to me every night checking progress and modifying exercises to suit. As the week progressed the immediate pain wore off, only leaving a very stiff back and shoulders to deal with. I consoled myself with the thought that even if I just got to the start line and ran 10 miles, at least I would get the experience (kind of knowing once I had done 10 miles I would be able to manage a few more!)
The day before my own was Kim`s event, the OCC. Covering the last 30 miles of the CCC and UTMB route, supporting Kim on this was a great opportunity for me to see her in action and try to help at the various stages allowed, not that she needed it much! I had such a great time seeing her progress through the field and come into each checkpoint with a huge smile on her face, obviously relishing the whole experience!
She moved from about 260th overall at the first CP through to 88th overall at the end, managing 10th lady. In a field of over 1600 runners this was a really fantastic result. Though probably more technical than she would have liked, I think her performance on the descents surprised even her, she looked so strong all the time and I felt immensely proud to see her cross the line in Chamonix, superb finish! – she is getting fast this girl!
In all the excitement I kind of neglected my own needs and really suffered in the sun. It sounds ridiculous that she was the one out running in the heat and I ended up getting dizzy and having to sit down in the shade at the end!! So not ideal the day before the biggest race of my life, but I was buzzing so much from Kim`s success I could have gone home happy there and then!
Excuses over, I knew what was done was done; I just had to get on with it. Feeling pretty good and relaxed on the start line all things considered, I tried to take in and enjoy the pre race shenanigans. Managing to position myself somewhere in the first 200 or so, it was not ideal but close enough to make some headroom. A helicopter came over us as we were counted down in Italian, quattro, tre, due, uno, go!! The start wasn’t too fast and I managed to get close enough to the front pack to settle into an even pace. The helicopter still overhead blasting us with downdraft and noise, drowning out the cheering and music blasting out, as we paraded around Courmayeur. Kim spotted me first giving me a nice loud shout and smile before I headed out on the first long 6.5 mile climb to 2500m.
What should have felt like a comfortable pace for me really started to become quite a serious effort. Thinking it maybe just down to a lack of warming up, I tried to push on, but things just didn’t seem to be getting any better. Everything in my chest and back was tight, my legs felt heavy, it was as though I was in one of those dreams where you can’t run, wading through treacle, not the feeling where I am usually holding back at the start of a long race. After a couple of miles I resigned myself to slowing right down, pushing this hard was not sustainable or right. This continued for longer than I wanted as people were streaming past, all I could do was shut everything out and try to focus on a rhythm and relax, take on some food early and press on. Maybe things would change once we started to descend, I just had to get to the top first…
I hit the summit after 1 hour 45 min of pretty much continuous climbing. 15 minutes behind the leaders and feeling much worse than I wanted to do at this stage, I was keen to get on the descent and try to start correcting things. This seemed to feel a little better but as soon as I hit a flat or slight incline I would go backwards again: not good. Ok time to change the game plan; this wasn’t working, I wasn’t having any fun, I wanted to stop, go home and not run until I felt ok again – definitely feeling sorry for myself.
I thought about things people had said in the buildup, why was I here, what it all meant to me, looking around to appreciate the mountains and views – things you need to dig into when times are hard. They usually come towards the end of a race, not within the first 15 miles! So my plan of damage limitation came to fruition. I decided to screw the climbs, they just weren’t happening today, if I carried on hurting this much so early I would be blown by 30 miles. So what felt good? The descents, passing people, the views were spectacular and people cheering you shouting your name (name and nationality was on your number – real nice touch) all gave me a positive feeling. So plan B, hang the climbs, take as long as I needed, go as fast as I could and have fun on the downhills, smile, wave, say “merci” to anyone who cheered and ask for none myself! A nice fast technical descent in Arnuva about 15 miles in confirmed that this was a good plan. I passed a few people here, before heading off on the long climb up to Grand col Ferret, around 19 miles, not feeling great but starting to level off.
At over 2500m this was the highest altitude climb, rewarding us with the most spectacular views from all sides. I pressed on over the pass, then begun a long 10 mile drop in altitude, beginning as a smooth high mountain trail. You could see for miles; the vastness of these mountains really struck home here, with the trail developing into steep technical woody single track, interspersed with a few short rolling climbs. Unsure if running the down hills hard would take its toll, I threw caution to the wind and let it go, determined to get some fun out of this at least! Now catching people quickly, reminiscing of racing friends down the mountains of Wales, I was starting to feel human again and really enjoying myself.
Briefly re-fuelling at the La Fouly CP, before continuing along the still gradual downhill section, I managed a couple of faster 7 ish minute miles, feeling better, feeding energy off anyone cheering in the small Swiss out of the way towns. I still had no idea of my position thinking it would be a miracle if I was close to the top 100. I just wanted to get to Champex where I would see Kim for the first time, knowing this would give me a lift and opportunity to regroup. After a cheeky climb up to Champex there was a huge crowd and long line of cheering supporters, mentally lifting me into the refreshment tent where Kim was waiting.
I spurted out everything going on in my head to Kim, whilst struggling to hold back the emotions. She was great, nice and calm, had everything laid out for me ready and gave the exact information and words I needed: I was in 56th! Having moved up from 88th position at the top of the first climb! What? I couldn’t comprehend this, convinced I had been further back, but I knew to trust her – she explained people had dropped out, were suffering, even the guy in second place had dropped out at Champex! That I was doing great. This lifted me back in race mode now, still a long way to go and further down the field than I originally wanted, it sounded like the front pace had been fast and people were suffering for it. Could I be hurting less than others? Time to see…
Spurred on by lots of cheering “Bravo” “Allez”, I left Champex, running nicely now. This was how I should have felt at the start! Settling into a nice comfy rhythm, I figured out that there were three big climbs and ascents to go. If I could pass 5 people in each of those sections then I may be able to squeeze into the top 30. Now running climbs I would have had to walk earlier, I made up some more places before the summit, then thinking who`s next, looking for them – like targets focusing my mind. Having possibly hit the climb a little hard, my legs took a while to get going on the next long descent, still waiting for the burning quads so many had warned me of from the long descents. Still I thought, I will deal with that when it comes, this is still fun and a fantastic fast rough descent awaited.
Kim`s smile welcomed me into Trient where I grabbed some bits and pieces. The noodle soup, oranges and raisins were working really well for me. I only felt a little sick at times but overall my stomach was doing really well and remained good for the whole race, so happy days there. While in the tent, I had started waffling some rubbish to the commentator about Yorkshire puddings! Luckily an Aussie guy heard me rambling and told me to move off my arse and get on with it! Realizing this was a good point, I moved on! Though not before telling Kim I felt tired! She then told me I had moved up from 56th to 36th position! “Whatever you are doing just keep doing it!” she said. I think it was more the look of pride in her eyes, but it’s amazing how these things make you feel emotional, sticking in your mind and spurring you on.
A big cheer from Simon Ellis as I left the tent set me off on the second to last leg in good spirits. Everyone was spread out now; the main company coming from cows ringing their bells, providing a false sense of comfort, after all the only real comfort would be at the end in Chamonix. Reaching the summit, again straight into a fast smooth descent. My feet were hurting a little now, starting to feel the need to hold back a little on the fast descents, then a really nice technical section switched my mind back into fell mode and I was off, again enjoying the buzz of my subconscious working faster than my mind, throwing myself into drops and turns laughing away as I passed a few startled walkers: so much fun.
The last CP at Vallorcine greeted me with slight drizzle and fading light. The final CP and only 10ish miles to go, Kim quickly got me sorted, though the tracking had gone down and she wasn’t sure of my position. I was maybe 29th by now and had become more focused on my time. The sub 14 hours was looking good and I felt closer to 13 ½ was do-able. I wanted to conquer this beast, get it done, only 10 miles left, just 1 1/2 laps of the Wainstones route right?
Head torches now on, I followed the gradual climb out of Vallorcine, feeling comfortable running on this. But then into the final nasty steep ascent to Tete aux vents, I was amazed how quickly the environment changed around me, going from warm sunshine, cooling off at the odd stream, to now pouring rain, darkness, fog and cold: you were suddenly aware of being alone in the mountains. With my legs feeling heavy, the steep climb became a battle, made worse by the stream now rushing down against me. Teaming up with another guy to help keep the track in view as visibility was very poor, we reached what we assumed to be the summit, smiled and shook hands, only to realize it was a false summit – not there yet! Eventually a solitary guy appeared out of the mist marking the real summit. The traverse from here to the last CP seemed to last for ages, with lots of rocky drops, turns and bogs hiding behind a wall of fog leaving only 5 feet of visibility: blasting down here wasn’t a option. Feeling the cold now I was trying to move as quickly as I could, so lost the guy I had ascended with, then all of a sudden, salvation – the last CP, La Flegere! It was all downhill from here!
We were soon into another technical sweeping descent, with lots of switch backs, roots and rocks. This was immense fun in the daylight, but in the fog and rain became a real test of focus. Not sure if it was the coffee I had necked at the top, but I was absolutely buzzing down here, forgetting the burning quads and catching a couple more, before passing a third as the track opened up into fire road again. Coming into Chamonix town now, feeling pretty happy and quite relieved to be back into civilization, I could hear the guy I had just passed (Nick Boyd GB) catching me and we agreed to run in together, which was pretty gracious as I think we both knew he would have had me on the flat!
Pounding through the streets of Chamonix, I thought that all the rain would have washed everyone away, but these are hardy supporters and the finish line welcome felt as though I was the first one in! I crossed the line with Kim waiting, a huge hug, cameras, shaking of hands and bright lights! I asked Kim if I could stop running now, she gave me a look, smiled and told me I was joint 20th ! 13 hours 54 minutes – mint! That set me off a bit! Such a fantastic feeling, I was buzzing, so, so happy from the whole experience. I only slept for about 4 hours that night, I was too excited!
Looking back, this was such a fantastic experience, not just the race, but the whole time in Chamonix. It felt like a real place where runners are welcomed and accepted, not viewed as crazy obsessive outsiders! The achievement of finishing and placing feels really special, but the experience, amount I have learned and taken away from this and other peoples’ achievements, feels very rich and wholesome. Running for that long and feeling the way I did in the second half has given me such a boost, re-affirming the training is working, yet given me ideas for more things to work on. I feel so proud and privileged to have been a part of the UTMB festivities. The British performances out there this year were superb. I have total respect for anyone who has done any of these races, especially the UTMB. To do what I did plus another 40 miles and in a lot of cases keep going after two full nights of being awake! That is some level of toughness.
A great big thank you to anyone who spared the time to give me their advice leading up to this, and encouraged me to do it in the first place! Everyone who supported Kim and I during the events and week. It seems crazy that people were tracking it on-line and some even managed to spot us on TV at the finish! Huge thanks to Claire at Pocklington Physio for going out of her way to get me sorted. Everyone’s support all means a great deal and I can’t wait until next time!! Bring on the Lake District 3×3000 Ultra!