The wild alternative to the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) starting in Courmayeur, Italy heading towards Bourg St Maurice, Cormet de Roseland, Contamines-Montjoie, Les Houches and finishing in Chamonix.
122km ~7000m +/- Wednesday 29th August 2018
Just before 01:00 on Thursday morning I shuffle into the quiet streets of Chamonix with just a few late night revellers, Robbie Britton and Sam Hill (my support crew) to witness my arrival at the finish line. I ‘m neither elated nor disappointed but have an inner glow which beams across my face. With two years of disappointment and failure (CCC 2016 and UTMB 2017), it means a lot to collect the prized finishers gilet which will represent all the memories of an unforgettable arduous adventure.
What is it about the UTMB festival that captures my imagination and brings me back year after year?
- The European hype and razzmatazz which builds you up for the journey to be taken. Music, announcers, cheering residents, cameras, helicopters and passionate spectators.
- The huge amounts of time you spend in isolation in the alpine wilderness with majestic views of mountain peaks, diminishing glaciers, walls of rock, lush green valleys and miles of trails.
- The level of competition across the events with top class athletes from across the globe all with lofty ambitions of what success looks like.
- Challenges in the form of many obstacles to overcome, plenty of time for highs and lows.
Ambition and competitiveness combined with the altitude, unpredictable weather, terrain, ascent, descent and duration make the chance of failure high; if you make the finish line you know you have had an adventure which will make you smile.
My race plan is a play on Damian Hall’s ambition to be the ‘Fastest Tortoise’; apparently smiling will help you to overcome challenges (I’m very good at this). The plan is split into three parts and reflect my reputation of going off too fast at the start.
- Happy Tortoise
- Happy Tortoise
- Grimace Tortoise
The evening before the race a notification was received; “TDS tough weather. Decision: Start 08 00 normal route except Passeur de Pralognan”. The positives were I get a lie in and may avoid getting struck by lightening. However on the negative, based on a 16 hours schedule, Chamonix will be quiet for the finish (unless I win) and I miss the only part I have recced; on balance, the positives do outweigh the negatives.
After breakfast I’m off to Courmayeur on the 06:00 bus for the start; trying to remember to be a happy tortoise. I love the anticipation of the fight ahead and, however calm I try to remain, the organisers do their best to build my adrenaline before the gun goes, and how am I suppose to remain a tortoise? Finally the music starts and then 5,4,3,2,1 Allez.
I try to use my HR monitor to gauge my pace on the first climb and I think I’m doing a good job and the plan is working. As I look up the views of Mont Blanc hit me and I even took a photo (I never take photos while racing); I feel the plan is working. Somewhere on the way to Mont Farve I switch from happy tortoise to a happy hare and this continues to Lac Combal and over Col Chavannes. I then hit a long runnable track, and find myself pushing too hard but the heart is telling me to run fast. I start the climb to Col Petit St Bernard and begin to feel the pace, the happy tortoise is now grimacing early into the race. I know this is not good and I need to slow down so my focus moves to trying to eat more and regulate my pace so hopefully I will come good again. At the top I get a huge lift from enthusiastic cheering from Clare Archbold and family, then one minute later I catch my toe and I fall down on my front like a ton of bricks, this certainly silences the cheering crowd. I get up and going again as, luckily, the bloody knee is only superficial but my running gait has tightened.
On the descent down to Bourg St. Maurice I’m surprised to see Tom Owens having a tough day (Tom rallied and survived a hard day to finish). I run in to aid station felling like the plan is blown but I have Chamonix in my sights. It is awesome to see my support crew as they give me the morale boost I need. I focus on getting savoury food in at the aid station, together with changing bottles and picking up more more food for the trail. Something a little different, which I find works well ,is taking a bottle of Mountain Fuel Chocolate Recovery with me for the next section; thanks to Rupert for this tip. I leave the comfort of the aid station to start the crawl up the alternative route towards the Comet de Roseland via Les Chapieux. This is the dullest part of the course with too much road, especially in such nice weather, but I force myself to run and keep my head up.
Although my race plan is now focused on finishing rather than racing, I’m still pushing myself, eating well and trying to be efficient through aid stations. The section between Comet de Roseland and Contamines-Montjoie proves to be my favourite part of the race. It is rougher and wilder, with amazing views and a stunning gorge; I also have a fleeting chat with Rory Bosio as she powers past. It starts to hail and thunder, and a lightening storm started as I pass over exposed ground before Col Joly, reminding me of why the route changed with safety in mind. I keep moving, glad of the decision made by the organisers. Descending down to Notre Dame des Gorges my quads are starting to go and light is fading fast through the trees with darkness closing in (my good torch waiting for me at the next aid station).
I’m so happy to see Brian Melia cheering me on in Contamines followed by an upbeat Sam in the aid station. I’m clearly suffering but focus on the goal to get to Chamonix. My Altra Superior had done a fine job to this point with with no foot issues but it is time for them to go to shoe heaven with the course having taken its toll. Leaving Contamines I’m cheered on by an old work colleague Bruno, which is a nice surprise.
The last climb is steady to Chalet Truc, I’m starting to go backwards rather than holding firm and can see a bright star in the sky; except it is not a star but the checkpoint at Col Tricot! My lungs are feeling the effects of the altitude and legs powerless, but I just keep plugging away. Eventually after zig zag after zig zag the light gets brighter until I arrive at the checkpoint From the look of the checkpoint station I must not be looking very fresh! I enjoyed using my new Raidlight poles on the climbs but know my quads are going as I started using them on the descents. The descent is rough, tough and slippery, and normally I love this type of downhill, but not tonight as every time I try to push on I soon slip back into a shuffle.
Reaching Le Houches is a relief with some flatter terrain. Although I know the run to Chamonix would drag, the ever positive Dan Lawson tries to give me a target of catching the runner ahead but I know he is going better than me. I do set myself a new goal of sub 17 hours to keep me pushing all the way to Chamonix. I cross under the finish line in 16 hours 55 mins and 31st place.
Although I had dreamed of a sub 16 hour finish and a top 20 place more importantly I had reached the finish and given it my best on the day. The smile has grown as I reflect on the race but the ambition is burning bigger than ever and there is no doubt I will be back next year.
Thank you to my support crew, Mountain Fuel for easy to consume jellies and the recovery drink, Raidlight for the most comfortable clothing, packs and poles, and Northern Runner for the Altra shoes.