In January this year my name was drawn in the lottery for UTMB. That lottery draw set the focus for the entire 2014 running year. I filled out my calendar with other running events, but everything else was a sideshow, with UTMB the main event.
Bienvenue en France / Welcome to France
Prior to departing Chamonix at 17:30 on August 29th the furthest I had run was approximately 164 km and the longest I had run for was 23 hours 9 minutes. I would eclipse both of those figures during my circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif.
Just 10 or 15 minutes before the race started the intermittent showers that had sprinkled down for the previous half hour finally broke, but not into clear blue or even overcast skies; rather they broke into rain. Hence I shuffled amidst a throng of other runners across the start line wearing my waterproof jacket. The first kilometre involved a combination of jogging and walking as the 2,300 runners funnelled through a lively crowd encroaching on the roads of Chamonix.
We left the town and started along the trail towards Les Houches, a flat first 8 km following the valley, and my jacket came back off in the humidity caused by the rain. The first climb and descent (almost 900 metres up and 1,000 metres down) to reach Saint-Gervais managed to spread the field, although I almost expected to arrive at a finish line rather than an aid station based on the speed at which many people flew down the hill.
Shortly after finishing my first 100-mile race in Leadville I decided that I would run a few more, and so I put together a bucket list by adding three more races. Last year I was able to check Western States off the list, and this year it will be Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
UTMB is a 168-km race that follows the long-distance Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail through the Alps. As a hike it takes 7-10 days, while as a race it has a cutoff of 46 hours. The route starts and finishes in the town of Chamonix in France, crossing into Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix. It features 9,600 metres of ascent.
I ran the You Yangs 50 km trail race back in 2011, securing my first ever podium by finishing in third although I had arrived to complete a training run. Setting off easily I slowly picked up the pace as I went, gaining places and eventually realising that a podium position was a real possibility.
I returned to the race in 2014, once again as a training run. However this time I was arriving on the final day of my 6-day running week with 154 km already completed. As I had been doing with all of my trail runs over the previous month I would carry the full mandatory gear list for my upcoming race at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). While I would be unlikely to require the two torches I was carrying along with spare batteries for a race starting at 8:30 AM that I would complete around lunchtime, it was about helping me get used to carrying the pack and would assist in determining the best places for carrying certain items.
While I should be used to it by now, I was still surprised by how many people shot off in front of me from the start. Even at a training pace it was unlikely that 20-odd people within a small field would finish ahead of me.
Pre-Race (photo courtesy of Tara White)
Running the Flat (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Running Downhill (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Course Markings (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Running Uphill (photo courtesy of Brett Saxon)
I set my own pace, passing a number of people on the first notable climb when I continued running as most slowed to a walk, and then passing more on the second major climb. The course follows a clover leaf pattern, passing back through the start/finish area a few times throughout the race. With 15-km, 30-km, 50-mile and 100-mile races also taking place you would often encounter other runners either heading in the same direction or occasionally in the opposite direction, which I really enjoyed. Despite the potentially confusing nature of the route, it was brilliantly marked and extremely simple to follow.
The thought of running a fast time for a 100 km road race has popped into my mind over the past couple of years. As a target it rates a lower priority than my trail running goals but it persistently remains in the periphery.
When I realised that I would be in Australia during the running of the Gold Coast 100, a 100-km road race held in Queensland the peripheral target returned into focus. But luckily reality stepped in before I got carried away. Whilst I have run great times over the marathon and half marathon this year my mileage has been too low to allow me to convert that speed into a good time over ultra marathon distances. In the end I decided to attend the race, but without big targets in mind.
When the race started with first light I took off at my target pace of 4:48 min/km. That is the pace required to achieve a sub-8 hour 100-km time, and the target I would like to conquer at some point. I had decided to use the race as a gauge of my ultra marathon fitness, setting my starting pace and seeing how long I could maintain it.
It isn’t really possible for me to write the race report of someone else’s race when I wasn’t even present. This is actually an acknowledgement of an amazing performance by a great running mate. Kirsten will not brag about his own performance, so I will do it on his behalf.
I started running with Kirsten just after mid-year of 2011 while living in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were both members of Fourways Road Runners. In addition to Thursday time trials at our own club we would meet up on Tuesday afternoon for a warmup run prior to the time trial at the Rand Athletic Club (RAC). We started adding in weekend runs and races, and then Wednesday became our mid-week long run with routes such as the Bryanston Half and later the Four Peaks Challenge. The runs and the mileage continued to build up.
All in all I have run literally thousands of kilometres alongside, and often behind, Kirsten. His impressive pace meant that I was often running hard to keep up, and I can credit much of my vast running improvement since 2011 to Kirsten and our other running mates in Lindsey and Campbell.
Mielie Marathon – Fourways Runners
Golden Gate Challenge – Day 3 Post-Race (photo courtesy of Caroline Lee)
Pick n Pay Half Marathon – Approaching the Finish
Golden Gate Challenge – Day 3 Start (photo courtesy of Caroline Lee)
Mielie Marathon – the Fourways boys at the finish
Kirsten has also been present at some of my best running moments. In 2013 he ran alongside me for a new best time over the half marathon distance, and the finish-line photo shows that he was as happy at the result as I was. A couple of months ago we ran together down Avenue Foch as I completed a new marathon best in Paris.
McCarthy Half Marathon – Approaching the finish line
When I passed through the 10-km marker during my race at the Paris Marathon a couple of months ago I noted that it was the third-fastest I had ever run the distance. When I passed through the 10-km marker during the Como Landing Half Marathon it was the fastest I had ever run the distance by a full minute, with a plan to repeat that performance once more and then hopefully to put everything remaining into the final 1.1 km. But first let me rewind.
As I neared the end of my 12-month journey around the world I started looking at races taking place in Australia. When I finalised my return date for the middle of May the Como Landing Half Marathon taking place a week later was the perfect fit. I had run my best time over the distance in early 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa on a course that my Johannesburg running crew would call flat, but that most road runners would call monstrously hilly. In that race I had comfortably achieved my target of completing the race quicker than 4:00 min/km pace by recording a time of 1:22:30. This time I would target a time of under 80 minutes.
I arrived early for the race, and during my warmup run I noted that the course wasn’t perfectly flat as I had expected but featured a couple of small hills, including one in the final kilometre. As a person who enjoys hills I decided to take that as a positive since it would provide a slight change in the muscles that would be engaged.
It started to drizzle as race time approached and by the time we ran across the start line it had clearly increased beyond drizzle to a fairly heavy rain. I settled directly into my intended pace and tried to determine the number of people ahead of me, but with 7-km and 14-km races starting at the same time it was not possible to tell which of the runners ahead of me were in my race. Shortly after 2 km the rain had ceased but one of my shoe laces had came undone. I was interested to note when reviewing my GPS watch data after the race that I had managed to stop from race pace, tie my shoelace and return to race pace in under 15 seconds.
I passed through the 10-km marker in approximately 37:50 minutes, and after 12 km we passed the start/finish line to commence an out-and-back section of the course. When I noted one of the runners ahead of me turn around to complete the 14-km course I thought that I was possibly in 5th or 6th place. I could see the next runner ahead of me, with a gap of possibly 200 metres.
My running targets for 2014 are based around two races, with the first of those being the Paris Marathon, where I would attempt a new best time for the marathon.
I arrived in Paris a couple of days before the race and met up with Kirsten, who was part of my Johannesburg running crew. We headed to the expo to collect our race packets and spent some time wandering fairly aimlessly around Paris in the lead up to the race.
My target was to run a time under 2:50, although in the back of my mind I did have a stretch target of completing the race at a pace under 4:00 min/km, which would require a time approximately 75 seconds faster. Requiring an average pace of just under 4:02 min/km to achieve a sub-2:50 time I planned to set out at exactly that pace from the start. Kirsten has his main race for the year at the Comrades Marathon in June, so he was planning for an easy day out by sneaking in under 3 hours.
An easy train ride to the start and a not-too-early start time allowed an uncomplicated start to the day. Kirsten and I were also joined by Fiona, another member of our Johannesburg running club who stayed at the same hotel. We caught the train to the Arc de Triomphe, dropped off a tog bag, and headed to the start area. We were standing on the Champs Élysées with Napoleon’s monumental arch of triumph behind us and a gentle downhill leading towards the glittering gold-topped obelisk on the Place de la Concorde.
The gun went off and despite the 10 traffic lanes being occupied by runners the 50,000-strong field made for some early challenges in maintaining a steady pace. I separated from Kirsten but after a kilometre or so we were running together again and crossed the Place de la Concorde and started along Rue de Rivoli. The early pace was perfectly on schedule, ticking off each kilometre at just over 4:00 minutes.
One of the guys staying with me at the HATC in Iten was a Canadian who happened to be the sponsor for the Rift Valley Marathon. Therefore I found myself heading out to the race to run a half marathon on my final running day in Iten. I had the course profile described to me as being relatively flat but with a dip and then climb at about the halfway point, and I decided that I would attempt a fast time. On arrival we found out that the route had been changed from the previous year, featuring a single lap rather than two loops of 10.5 km.
After a lot of speeches and talking, little clear communication and great patience the race eventually started. I am not sure exactly how late it commenced since it was never clear at what time it was scheduled to start.
I set out at a pace of around 4:10 min/km, which in most countries would result in a finishing position within the top 2% of the field. After 500 metres there were only two people behind me, both of them also foreigners. After a few days of heavy rain the dirt roads and paths we followed were muddy and slippery, and some times it felt closer to a trail race than a road marathon. On a fairly rocky downhill path I used my trail experience to overtake the race sponsor and continued to push the pace.
Approaching the halfway mark the course started a significant downhill. When it continued for more than two kilometres I realised that I would be facing a very severe climb in the second half, and it didn’t keep me waiting. It appeared that the course changes might have reduced the boredom of running two laps, but adding some significant climbing. Just after the halfway point we bottomed out of the descent and started a steep ascent. I quickly realised that any targets I had in mind prior to the race were clearly no longer valid.
For my fourth and final week in Iten I would start to drop my mileage in preparation for my race at the Paris Marathon, but would include three quality sessions. I had included three consecutive days of double sessions the previous week but returned to running single sessions.
After an easy Monday run I headed to the track on Tuesday. I would run 15 x 1000 metres at marathon pace with a 200 metre recovery. I managed to get into a good rhythm, and after checking my split at the 400 metre mark of each interval managed to run confidently at the required pace. The intervals started to feel more strained towards the end but for the final 1000 metres I still managed to increase the pace to complete the interval 14 seconds faster than marathon pace. It was another great confidence-boosting run.
I had planned to run on Wednesday morning but was feeling quite stiff. Therefore I decided to shift my run to the afternoon, but getting caught up on some travel planning I only headed out late in the evening with limited light remaining. However I knew that the decision to delay the run was the correct one from the first step. My legs felt great and I enjoyed a wonderful 18 km, running through the failing light and arriving back after the sun had dropped below the horizon.
My last track session took take place on Thursday morning with a 16 x 400 metre workout. I had planned four sets of four laps, increasing the pace with each set, but my pacing was a disaster from the first lap. In a case of total mental failure I ran the first lap too fast while thinking that it had been too slow. It was only halfway through the second lap that I realised I was running the wrong pace. Consciously slowing down for the third lap I slowed too much. From there I ran almost every lap either too fast or too slow, finding myself unable to hit my intended pacing. But it was still a tough workout, and therefore a valuable one.
Iten is a place where you shouldn’t boast. Do all of your friends tell you how amazingly fast you are? Do you compete at regional or even national level? Well, unless you possess an Olympic or World Championship medal, or have seen WR (World Record) beside one of your race times, then you are possibly a below-standard runner in Iten.
Turn up at the old dirt track on a Tuesday and you are almost guaranteed to see a runner who has won a big-city marathon (think London, Boston, New York or Berlin), an Olympic or World Championship medallist, or a world-record holder. I remember watching Asbel Kiprop, holder of one Olympic and two World Championship gold medals in the 1500 metres, lead a group through a track session on my first week in Iten.
The Thursday fartlek session is often lead by Wilson Kipsang, current world record holder for the marathon. But these celebrities do not run alone. They fly along the roads or track in Iten surrounded by runners who may also be known, may not yet be known, or may never be known. There are many fast Kenyans training in Iten.