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.
From Saint-Gervais (approximately a half marathon – 21 km – into the race), we would climb for most of the following 23 km. The sun set, I switched on my headlamp, and the gradual ascent for the first half gave way to a steep final 10 km up towards Croix du Bonhomme. It was particularly wet throughout this section, and I vividly recall my headlamp falling upon a frog swimming across the stream that our trail had become. A marathon down we descended into Les Chapieux, the first of the three major aid stations that offer hot meals in addition to the food and drink available at other stations.
After a long gradual road climb through a valley the route turns into a switchback trail, climbing towards Col de la Seigne. Looking back down the road were kilometres of headlamps twinkling as if they were streetlights leading back to Les Chapieux.
Benvenuti in Italia / Welcome to Italy
After summiting the peak I commenced my descent into Italy, and thought that I should possibly switch my thanks towards the aid station staff from “Merci” to “Grazie”, until my first few interactions with the wonderful volunteers led me to realise that I was still in a French-speaking part of Italy.
I was trying to eat solid foods early in the race, but my stomach was not feeling well so I started taking in soup at aid stations that offered it. I struggled on the final climb before Courmayeur at kilometre 77, and by the time I caught my first glimpse of the town below me I knew that I would need to carefully consider my nutrition plan as I would soon decide which items to restock from my one and only drop bag of the race. The descent into Courmayeur was a nasty, steep set of very tight switchbacks before reaching the edge of town and continuing to the large complex housing the aid station, where I was finally able to say grazie when I was handed the drop bag for my bib number duecento quarantanove (249).
I collected my drop bag and made the decision to change into fresh socks, something I had never previously done during a race as I am generally wary of seeing the condition of my feet. It turned out to be a wonderful decision, and my feet were feeling great as I walked up to the food hall. I took in soup and plenty of food, thinking that it would give me a good nutritional base if I struggled to take in any further solids. After a long stop of 18 minutes in Courmayeur I exited the aid station, and proceeded to make my way out of town on what was surprisingly the most difficult section of the course to follow in terms of course markings.
I was feeling better than I had for a few hours as I strongly climbed out of Courmayeur, and first light appeared as I reached the ridge line above town, providing amazing and unforgettable views of Mont Blanc. I continued to run strongly as I passed the refuges of Bertone and Bonatti, but started to weaken as I descended off the ridge.
By the time I commenced the ascent of Grand Col Ferret, which would take me from Italy into Switzerland, I was struggling once again. I encountered many hikers on this section of the trail but took a rest stop of a few seconds, which allowed me to enjoy the stunning views, but is something I rarely do on any climb regardless of difficulty.
Bienvenue en Suisse / Benvenuti in Svizzera / Willkommen in der Schweiz / Welcome to Switzerland
Once over the top of the climb I entered Switzerland and could look forward to the longest downhill of the course which would last for around 20 km.
I was feeling fine on the descent and as I neared the aid station of La Fouly I was running just behind a competitor from Austria. On a particularly steep and muddy section he suddenly emitted a surprised gasp and started to slide. I was soon in an out-of-control slide behind him, jumping off the muddy trail onto the uneven grass alongside it in an attempt to regain balance. I managed to maintain my centre of gravity, bring my speed back within control, and relaxed as I had saved myself from a muddy spill. Then my feet slid out from under me and I fell, muddy and slightly scraped up but otherwise unhurt.
Shortly after leaving La Fouly and running the easy descending trail I jumped the two steps up to a wooden bridge, caught a foot and went down on one knee to inflict another war wound in the form of a scraped knee. After more than 100 km of error-free running through an entire night I had now fallen twice within a period of approximately 3 kilometres.
The relatively short climb up to Champex-Lac passed relatively quickly and I soon entered the final of the major aid stations. It was feeling particularly hot under sunny conditions so I put my buff around my neck and started to wet it periodically. I took plenty of solid food at the station but as I made my way around the lake that provides the aid station with its name my stomach started to feel uncomfortable again. I was now faced with three climbs that I had dubbed the “rolling hills” section, entailing three climbs featuring between 840 and 950 metres of ascent, each with a descent slightly greater than its ascent. The low points of each would take me into the towns of Trient, Vallorcine, and finally Chamonix.
The first climb was challenging, and I stopped a couple of times to rest. Eventually I spotted a competitor ahead of me, and as I caught up we started conversing. Dan was from Brighton in England and I decided to slow my pace for company on the climb. As we peaked the ascent and completed the first section of descent to a remote checkpoint at La Glète I set what I thought was a good pace as I was feeling good on the downhill. Then Dan pulled ahead on the remainder of the descent and we picked up the pace considerably as we enjoyed a great descent.
We arrived in Trient where Dan was met by his crew. He shared some grapes, which provided nice variety, and soon we were off for the second hill, which started immediately at the edge of town. Dan had stated that the final climb didn’t count since the top of it would mean that we would only be left with the descent to the finish line, therefore making this the final climb based on that thought. I let Dan set the pace, which was slight slower than I would have set myself but knowing that he would push the pace on the downhill. Hiking together we didn’t stop at all on the climb, which felt brutal. As we commenced the descent I found that I could keep up with Dan on the technical sections but he would pull ahead when the trail opened up. We crossed back into France on the descent and I arrived into Vallorcine not far behind.
Le Retour en France / Return to France
The first three kilometres out of Vallorcine are a cruel, gradual ascent that you know is runnable but Dan and I agreed to walk most of it except for the very flat sections. We were both still managing the descents well but were really struggling on the ascents and flats. I had tried to hold something back on the previous descent to ensure that my quads would still be strong enough for the final descent into Chamonix.
Once the serious climbing began I started to really struggle, watching the gap ahead of me to Dan slowly open up. At one point I yelled out to him that I wasn’t sure that the climb didn’t count. Near the top I started to feel dizzy so I stopped briefly and took in some food, since my nutritional intake had been minimal for the past few hours and I suspected that low blood-sugar levels could be to blame. As we reached the ridge line I added a few brief runs to catch up with Dan, and our climb became more gradual as we traversed towards Chamonix. When we reached Tête aux Vents we were gifted with a beautiful view down the valley to Chamonix as we approached the last light of the day. We had hoped to get off the mountain prior to sunset but as we descended towards the final aid station at La Flégère I realised that we would loose all light at about the time we arrived there.
I was feeling extremely drowsy, as I had been on my feet for well over 26 hours, and was starting to stumble as I lost concentration on a section of trail that was amongst the most technical of the entire race. When we reached La Flégère I downed a couple of glasses of Pepsi, hopping the caffeine and sugar would get me down off the mountain safely. We retrieved headlamps as we exited the aid station and started down in the dark.
The trail was extremely technical with uneven tree roots and rocks, and I found myself going extremely slowly as Dan flew ahead down the trail. I set my own pace, walking a lot and running where possible, until eventually I realised that the amount of running was increasing. The trail gradually opened up to a broad gravel trail and I started to push the pace faster and faster. By the time I reached the outskirts of Chamonix I felt as if I was sprinting through the town. I weaved through the town, crossed the river twice, and was soon staring at the finish line ahead of me.
After 168 km, 9600 metres of ascent, and 28 hours 17 minutes 49 seconds I returned to where I had started on Friday afternoon. It had been an extremely challenging race, pushing my body to its very limits. But the smile as I crossed the line was genuine. It had been an amazing race, with stunning views and a just reward.
After a pizza and some rest on Saturday night I awoke on Sunday morning to enjoy a day of relaxation. Between a series of delicious French meals (bread and a croissant for breakfast, a galette [buckwheat crepe] and salad for lunch, pastry for afternoon tea, and 3-course meal with Bordeaux wine for dinner) I wondered through town and watched runners return to Chamonix.