Written by Jason Millward - http://www.sleepeatrun.co.uk/
I did a double take at the banner coming into the checkpoint. La Fouley I read again. There must be some kind of mistake my sleep deprived and sun battered brain concluded this was definitely Champex-Lax, I had already passed La Fouley sometime back.
My race had gone to shit and all I wanted was to see a friendly face or 2 presuming I was still going to be greeted by friendly faces and not really pissed off faces after keeping my wife and mother waiting quite a lot longer than planned in a small Swiss village somewhere in the vicinity of Mont Blanc with only Raclette to eat.
The sudden realisation hit me; it was La Fouley I had just arrived at and not Champex-Lax. I trudged into the checkpoint broken and picked up yet another bowl of noodle soup, some crusty French bread and a coffee then sat down dejected.
In a race full of low points this was the lowest of them all. If someone offered me a bullet to the back of the head there and then I would have taken it.
I hadn’t run more than 10 steps since leaving Courmayeur some 25 miles previously. My legs felt like lead, whenever I tried to run there was nothing there. A combination of dehydration, the heat, the altitude, a fall the previous evening and an upset stomach all conspired to put an end to my plans of a sub 30 time.
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry as they say.
So how did I end up in a tent full of broken runners and beaten runners hoping a trigger happy Swiss farmer with a shotgun would give me an easy way out? The answer is 4 little letters: UTMB.
I’m not sure where I first heard about the UTMB but I knew I wanted to do it as soon as I found out about it.
After starting running in January 2014 and finishing the London marathon that year I soon discovered trail running was much more enjoyable and suited to my strengths. The Ratrace Man v Mountain in September that year introduced me to running up and down mountains as fast as possible and I was hooked.
An introduction to ultras came in October 2014 with the Round Ripon Ultra and it must have been around that time I must have found out about the UTMB.
The UTMB starts and finishes in Chamonix and covers 170km with 10,000m of ascent and passes through 3 countries. It is considered one of the toughest single stage foot races in Europe, if not the world. It is the main race of 5 that make up UTMB week that takes places at the end of August each year in Chamonix.
To enter the UTMB you need to gain a certain number of points from a maximum of three other races that are graded based on length and elevation. Don’t ask me how many points you need now as they change the system every year.
The UTMB – 3 countries, 170km, 10,000m elevation, 46:30hours & 2500 runners
UTMB Course profile – Not for the faint hearted
TRAINING AND PREPARATION
To be honest I never expected to get a place in my first attempt at the UTMB ballot. It takes some people years to get a place. To say it came as a bit of a shock when I secured my place was an understatement.
After only just managing to drag myself round the White Rose Ultra 100 I knew to stand any chance of getting to the finish line there was some serious training to be done.
I started looking around for someone who could help me with a training plan but was struggling to find anyone local who not only could help me with the fitness aspect but also who knew what I was letting myself in for and had experience of these things so could offer advice as well.
Around this time Jayson Cavill announced he was starting coaching. I got in touch, arranged a meeting and after a couple of hours chatting about my goals and plans I knew I had found the right person to help me with the training.
A few days later my first training plan landed in my inbox.
The next 8 months were spent doing strength and conditioning exercises 4 times a week alongside club interval sessions, hill work and long runs at the weekend.
I’ve never done strength and conditioning work before but it wasn’t long before I could see a noticeable improvement in my running and I started getting faster and stronger. I think without a doubt this work had the biggest impact on my running in 2016. I worked on my core and upper body strength as well as building leg strength and working on proprioception.
At the Hardmoors 110 I finished 2nd, only about 20 minutes behind Ste Lord. I was over 2 mins a mile faster than at the White Rose Ultra just 5 months previously. I really started to believe I could not only cross the finish line in Chamonix but go over there and maybe get a decent result if I continued to improve.
Two more second places at Hardmoors Osmotherly Trail Marathon and The Lakes 10 Peaks (Actually 4th after a time penalty for accidentally going up the West Wall Traverse) in June really boosted my confidence and it after this race that I refocused my UTMB goals to a sub 30 hour finish and a top 100 placing.
I’ve said this in other posts but I really can’t recommend Jayson enough. Working with him helped me massively this year so if you’re serious about improving your running or have a goal to work to get in touch.
He’s running (no pun intended) an ultra-runners training camp in January 2017 along with his wife Kim that is designed to help you achieve your ultra-running goals. Go on sign up, you know you want to!
CHAMONIX UTMB WEEK
We arrived in Chamonix on the Sunday before the race and checked into our hotel for the duration of our stay. Hotel Gourmets Italy was close to the town centre and although I think they gave us the smallest room in the place it was pleasant enough plus we got views of Mont Blanc from the window.
For one week a year in late August Chamonix turns into a trail running mecca. Everybody seems to be walking or running around with a hydration pack or wearing trail shoes and the shops are full of UTMB related goodies and exotic running gear that could easily lighten your wallet considerably given half the chance.
Monday I had arranged to do a recce of the final bump with Jayson and Kim Cavill and their friends Tom Payn and Rachel Bonner.
I recognised the big climb up from Col des Montets from the Nike Trail Running Team 2015 CCC & UTMB film where David Laney talks about developing apathy towards pain and suffering. The video had become part of my daily routine and it was exciting to finally be there in Chamonix ready to put the months of preparation into practice.
It was my first taste of Alpine running and I loved it. The views, the terrain and being in the mountains are the perfect antidote to modern living and working in a big city where there is a huge disconnect with nature.
On the final descent from La Flegere into Chamonix I had to really hold myself back from chasing Tom and Jayson who were flying down the trail. I kept reminding myself that I had to run 105 miles later in the week and a fall here could put all that at risk. The trail was a mixture of steep open piste, tight switchbacks, roots and rocks down through a forest; you even pass through a cafe at one point which suddenly appears out of the trees.
Tuesday was our 11th wedding anniversary so we took the cable car up to Brevant in the morning and had a walk round followed by a nice lunch in one of the local cafes and then an afternoon in a spa. It was great to spend some time away from the madness, even if it was just for a day. In hindsight I should maybe have booked another day or 2 in the spa to help me relax as I was getting a bit touchy and difficult with the start looming just days away.
Clockwise from top left: Hameau Albert Spa, Start and finish, Good luck message from Victoria, Mont Blanc from Brevant
Wednesday and Thursday was spent trying to relax but it’s very difficult to do this when you have such an enormous task constantly in your mind. I was also trying to eat really healthily in the lead up to the race, something which turned out to be far more difficult than it should have been. There was a distinct lack of healthy restaurants in Chamonix. If you like pizza, pasta, cheese, cheese and more cheese then Chamonix would be heaven. Wednesday morning included a short run with Robbie Britton and the TrainAsOne crew.
Thursday afternoon was spent registering, getting kit checked and collecting numbers. This was done at the sports centre and despite a big queue but it wasn’t too long before we were through and I had my wristband on and my number. Shit definitely got real here!
Number 586 – also the name of my favourite New Order song. Must be fate!
My mum arrived on Thursday evening as she was going to help Victoria support me at the last three checkpoints. We went out and got some tea but my mind was on other things. I’ve been told I was a right pain in the arse during our time in Chamonix leading up to the race and I have to agree but I was about to attempt to run 105 miles around Mont Blanc so it was probably to be expected.
CHAMONIX – LES CONTAMINES
By the time I got to the start pretty much everyone else was already there but one of the marshals directed me and a couple of others into the front of the pack so I pushed through a crowd of runners trying not to get the end of a cheat stick up my nose and managed to get a decent place not too far from the front. According to my Fenix 3 the temperature was 90°F in the centre of Chamonix. Not my ideal running conditions
The start of the UTMB is like nothing else I’ve experienced. 2000+ runners all bunched together in front of Chamonix’s iconic church ready to get started on a journey that they have been preparing for most of the year. It’s a mixture of fear, excitement and nervousness with everyone preparing for the off in their own way.
After the build up from the race organiser that included some really bizarre dance for peace just before 6pm Vangalis – Conquest of Paradise blasted out of the speakers. Fuck, it’s time to put all my training and preparation into practice. People around me were really getting into the atmosphere and were clapping, cheering and waving. I was just focused on the job in hand.
Then 5…4…3…2…1…go and we were off just 105miles and 10,000m of ascent in front of us.
As expected loads of people shot off like they were in a 10k race but I resisted the urge to chase after them and settled into a fairly relaxed pace trying not to push too hard.
After a mile or so the crowds started to thin out, the road widened and the field started to spread out a bit. I recognised Nicky Spinks just in front of me and I slowly made my way past her. This can’t be good I thought to myself, am I going too fast?
I would like to say this was the last time I saw her but I did see her again somewhere just before Refuge Bonatti as I was sat at the side of the trail trying to force some food down my throat staring at the Italian side of Mont Blanc feeling well and truly broken as she came trotting past looking fresh as a daisy.
The first 8km to Les Houches is slightly downhill with on a nice undulating trail with a few little climbs. I caught Shelli Gordon on this section and after a brief chat I carried on my way.
Coming into Les Houches we were greeted with cheering crowds lining the streets and kids wanting high 5’s. It was incredible to experience. The crowds throughout were just the best and really helped to make the experience.
Les Houches marks the start of the first real climb on the route. My plan on the climbs was just to be consistent and keep a nice steady rhythm without pushing myself too hard. Not far into the climb I saw the familiar face of Kirk Hardwick, we had a quick chat and I was on my way.
The first climb of the day looking fresh as a daisy: Les Houches – Le Delevret
I settled into a comfortable pace and was really surprised to find myself passing quite a few people. Was I pushing too hard too soon I thought but the pace felt good and easily manageable so I pushed on taking things relatively easily.
I became aware of a helicopter nearby but couldn’t see it in the sky but as I approached the top of the hill just past Le Delevret it suddenly appeared in front of me just to the left from the other side of the hill just like you see in the films.
On the flat plateau I started running again and it started tracking me, I gave it a wave thinking I might be on the big screen in the centre of Chamonix for a few seconds. Better make the most of my 15 minutes. It was a pretty cool experience and another thing that makes you realise the scale of the UTMB. It’s not every race you get camera helicopters following you.
The next stretch was straight and level so of course it was here where I tripped and fell. It was quite a heavy fall and I rolled a few times. I picked myself up and there was blood pouring from both knees, my palms, index finger on my right hand and my left elbow. Thankfully nothing serious so I dusted myself down and set off again hoping I hadn’t been filmed by the helicopter and the centre of Chamonix weren’t all pissing themselves at a blue and yellow idiot falling arse over tit on the big screen.
The downhill section in Saint Gervais went by fairly quickly, it wasn’t very technical being mostly smooth and grassy but there were a few steep sections. I didn’t want to blow my quads early on in the race so I tried to keep a fairly easy pace down the hill letting my legs run and not breaking too much.
I became aware that my shorts were soaking wet so I stopped to check my hydration pack in Saint Gervais and found that I had managed to wrench the screw top from its fixing so I forced it back into place, refilled the bladder and picked up fresh orange pieces from the checkpoint and set off again. I’m not normally a fan of oranges but these were delicious and refreshing in the heat. I decided there and then oranges were now my favourite food.
The centre of Saint Gervais was like a concert with bands playing and people out lining the streets cheering you on. Everyone you ran past shouted “allez allez allez” or “bon courage” and kids were holding their hands out for high fives. Given that blood was still dripping from my hands I thought it was probably best not to reciprocate with the high fives.
Les Contamines is the first aid station that you can have assistance at but as it was so early into the race we decided it probably wasn’t worth the trip out to for Victoria and my mum.
It had the same carnival vibe as Saint Gervais and the streets were lined with people cheering you on. The support you had around the course was incredible and really made the UTMB something special.
So far, so good. I was feeling pretty good at this point. I had shaken off the fall and thankfully hadn’t knocked myself up too badly apart from the flesh wounds. Certainly, nothing that was going to stop me from finishing.
LES CONTAMINES – COURMAYEUR
My bladder was still leaking down my back so I took a few minutes to pull it out and see if I could fix it once and for all. It was here I saw the rip in it so no wonder I was still getting wet. I did my best to patch it up but made a mental note to make sure I sent Victoria a text to bring a spare when she met me in Champex-Lax. That wouldn’t be until the next day though so I was stuck with a leaky pack until then.
Leaving Les Contamines (I think) a bit bloodied despite cleaning myself up earlier
From Les Contamines it was a steady road climb up to Notre Dame de la Gorge. This was all runnable but I held myself back and made a concerted effort to walk this section and take the time to get myself hydrated and get some fuel on board. I was making good time and I knew the next day with the heat was going to be tough so I wanted to save something for my planned big push from Courmayeur to the finish.
It was now fully dark and up in front there was a line of head torching winding their way into the darkness up way above me. It was a magical sight to see hundreds of head torches stretching out into the distance both in front and behind me as their owners marched on up into the mountains.
The climb up to Croix du Bonhomme gets a bit steeper at Notre Dame de la Gorge where people dancing around bonfires, singing and partying the night away. The long climb to Col du Bonhomme really started here and the trail was a mixture of rock slabs, and hard packed sandy trail. I had already decided to walk early and walk often so I settled into a nice comfortable pace and pushed on into the darkness.
A cool breeze was blowing at the top which after the heat of the day was lovely but I was surprised to see a lot of people stopping to put layers on. I just set off down the long and winding descent into Les Chapieux and the first and only kit check of the race.
After a brief stop to replenish at the aid station for a bowl of noodle soup and I was off into the darkness up the next climb to Col del la Seigne. It was on this climb when I started noticing a lack of power in my legs once we reached a certain altitude. I was climbing well and passing people of the climbs and then as if a switch had been flicked which reduced the power in my legs I kept getting passed. I knew this could be a problem so always had in the back of my mind to push on as best I could in the higher altitude sections of the course.
The climb up to Col de Pyramids Calcaires featured the one and only bog on the UTMB. It was more like an UK fell race this section and I was starting to tire. I found it tough going picking a path up through the mud, we even passed through some sections of snow where I remember thinking how odd it was to be walking on snow 2500m up in The Alps in the dark in shorts and a t-shirt and still being too hot.
A rather interesting descent full of boulders that reminded me of The lake District took us down to Lac Combal. I rolled a few onto my ankle in the darkness but nothing serious so I pushed on. I was really getting tired at this point and thoughts of getting some fresh supplies and a good breakfast down me at Courmayeur crossed my mind and kept me going up the climb to Aret du Mont Fevre. Just one more descent before Courmayeur and the half way stage of the race.
It was starting to get light now and as the sun rose we were greeted by the most spectacular cloud inversion hanging over the valley below. Sunrise in the mountains is the most magical sight and something everyone should experience.
The descent into Courmayeur was steep and dusty with lots of steep steps through the trees. I lost a few places but in general was making good progress. As day broke the heat started to rise and by the time I reached Courmayeur the temperature was almost hitting the 80F and it was starting to really affect me. I wasn’t looking forward to a day in it at all.
After being in the mountains hitting Courmayeur sports centre was a massive shock to the system. I took my drop bag and found somewhere to change into a fresh t-shirt and socks and replenish my food in my bag. I changed into my Scott Kinabalu Supertracs but after a few steps decided to change back into my The North Face Ultra Endurance MT’s as they felt a bit tight on my swollen feet. The North Face shoes had performed brilliantly up until now and I didn’t have any blisters so it wasn’t an issue.
I got myself a bowl of noodle soup and few bits of bread and cheese and a cup of coffee and sat down for breakfast.
80km done and I were in position 159 so I wasn’t going too badly at this stage in the race. The second half however didn’t go quite as well as I would have liked.
COURMAYEUR – CHAMPEX-LAX
I was in the Courmayeur aid station for almost 30mins, far longer than I had planned but I set off through town refreshed and ready to go. My new found enthusiasm didn’t last long though and on the climb up to Refuge Bertone I started to struggle and lose places.
The temperature had started to rise and was now in the early 80s. The climb was long and steep and a night running through the mountains started to take its toll. My stomach was starting to give me problems and I started to feel like shit. Just as well I only had 50 miles to go.
I took some time in Refuge Bertone to take on dome fluids and some food but I was struggling to get food down. The heat was now unbearable. Thankfully I had switched my cap to my Ultimate Direction desert cap to try and keep the sun off me. I took every opportunity to dunk it in a stream or trough in a vain attempt to keep me cool.
The plateau from refuge Bertone through Refuge Bertoni to Arnouvaz was a nice and easy flowing trail and I should have been able to keep a steady pace for the next 21km but I was struggling to run. All I could manage was a walk. I knew it was going to be a battle to get myself sorted out and back into a fit state to push on harder. My stomach was getting more painful by the minute. I tried to make myself sick and get it cleared out but nothing would come out.
I decided to take 5 minutes at the side of the trail to get some fluids and food inside me as best I could but my body didn’t want to know. Just as I was about to haul myself to my feet and push on Nicky Sphinx came trotting past looking fresh. Everybody passing me now looked fresh and here was me beaten and only just past the halfway stage.
Somewhere between Refuge Bertone and Arnouvaz after my race had gone to shit
In Arnouvaz I had some noodle soup and a coffee and got myself to my feet and set off up the climb to the highest point in the race at Grand col Ferret. I wasn’t the only one struggling at this stage. At Arnouvaz bodies were strewn all over the place battered and broken. At least I wasn’t the only one suffering.
The long and dusty climb up to Grand col Ferret was a real slog. My legs were hurting now and my stomach wasn’t getting any better. The heat was unbearable and along with the altitude it was battering me. Still at least the views were spectacular and a slight distraction from the pain.
In La Fouley the temperature reached its highest point at 95. I couldn’t stay cool and was dehydrated. I sat down and had some noodle soup with some bread and cheese which had become my food of choice at the aid stations. The mistake I made thinking this was Champex-Lax took me to a real dark place, perhaps the darkest in my short ultra-running career and the thought of pulling out briefly crossed my mind. I was mentally and physically done in and I still had a long way to go which included three 1000m+ climbs.
The checkpoints had now become more like field stations than checkpoints, battered and beaten bodies were everywhere. Some lay on their backs, some head in hands and others just stared into the distance no doubt recounting the horrors that they had experienced since setting off from Chamonix all those hours ago. To say it was tough is an understatement.
Sipping down my bowl of soup the thought of giving up played heavily on my mind but Don’t back down I said to myself, got up, filled my bladder and then I was out into the blazing sun again. I hadn’t done all that training and preparation just to give up now. I was going to finish even if I had to crawl into Chamonix. Besides I would have got the mother of all bollockings if I did.
Next stop Champex-Lax and my support crew who I had kept waiting long enough. Time to get it done.
It was a steady downhill that should have been easily runnable but every time I tried to run my legs just didn’t have anything in them. It was like my muscles had been replaced by jelly. It was very frustrating for me but despite all my preparation I just couldn’t do anything about the heat.
Through Praz-de-Fort and then the next stop was Champex-Lax. That was after the not insignificant 300m climb up through the woods to the checkpoint and my long suffering support crew.
After crossing the main road to Champex-Lax, or at least what I thought was Champex-Lax, looked so close so when I asked a marshal how far to go I was a little taken aback when he responded with ‘about an hour’ but it looked so close I thought to myself.
Dig in and push on. I might not have been going as fast as I wanted but I was still moving. Up the steep root filled climb and then I heard it, music and the sounds of an announcer up above me and then 20 mins later I came out of the forest and into Champex-Lax battered and beaten but still moving.
My original instructions to Victoria were get me in and out of the checkpoints within 5 mins but that was when I was running my A-race so I was a bit more relaxed given this was now my z-race.
I had a rice pudding and something off the platter I was presented with by Victoria. She stuffed my pack with all sorts of food so I had something to eat. I changed my t-shirt and shoes and hauled myself to my feet and left the tent, next stop Trient. Just 16km and 600m of climbing in my way
CHAMPEX-LAX – TRIENT
Leaving the checkpoint at Champex-Lax Victoria walked with me past the lake to the outskirts of town giving me a pep talk. Just as I left her to go get the bus to Trient (Victoria, not me!) Carol Morgan came past looking strong. She went on to finish in a fantastic time of 34:39
It was starting to drop dark and I became aware of thunder in the distance. The rain started just before I hit Plan de l’Au and it was biblical.
A group of us huddled under an out building getting our wet weather gear on. It was the first time I have ever worn waterproof trousers whilst running but I knew that with my slow pace I had to try and keep myself warm and dry. I put everything I had on, even my UTMB approved marigold gloves. The temperature had dropped significantly and I had no idea how long the storm was going to last and I wanted to stay as a dry and warm as I could.
Within minutes the tracks turned from dry and dusty to full on rivers. It was that bad, it was almost like running a Hardmoors marathon.
Up ahead I caught up with a group of Spanish runners who were struggling in the rapidly changing conditions and asked me if I had the organiser’s telephone number so they could see if the race was going to be stopped at the next checkpoint because of the weather. For a split second the thought of the race being stopped at Trient put a big smile on my face. The punishment would be over and I could say that it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t finish. Happy days!
That thought lasted for about a second before I cast it from my mind. There was no way a little bit of drizzle was going to stop me from getting to Chamonix. I hadn’t made it this far to give up now or use something as an excuse to quit. Don’t back down I repeated to myself. Time to stop doubting and start believing.
I had a packet of Shot Bloks and left the group huddled under a tree then pushed on through the streams running down the hill and up towards the next checkpoint at La Giete cursing myself for being clever and packing a pair of marigolds instead of some proper waterproof gloves. To be fair my lightweight kit performed surprisingly well given the ferocity of the rain. I packed my lightweight summer gear in the form of The North Face Storm Stow jacket and trousers which aren’t meant for such extreme conditions but I was warm and fairly dry so couldn’t complain. Given the conditions they performed far better than I expected given how light they are.
To be on an exposed mountain top in a thunder and lightning storm was pretty terrifying but at the same time it was an incredible sight to witness. The lightening was lighting up the mountains in all directions. It felt like we were right in the middle of the storm.
The rain had stopped by the time I reached La Giete but the trails had become very muddy. A fire was going at the checkpoint and I took a minute to warm myself up before heading off towards Trient. I was still struggling to run so just walked as quickly as I could towards Trient knowing that a lovingly prepared trail platter of cheese, bread, soup and a coffee would be waiting for me.
TRIENT – VALLORCINE
I had been moving for around 31 hours at this time, it was cold and I was wet and miserable, I just wanted to go to bed. On the climb up to Catogne from Trient was where the hallucinations started.
Rocks on the side of the path turned into all sorts of animals, cats, dogs, tigers, elephants – you name it I saw it. I think a miniature version of the titanic sailed past me at one point.
I was struggling to keep my eyes open at this point and was weaving across the path half asleep. I popped a few caffeine tablets but these had virtually no effect. I must cut down of the coffee before big races in the future.
It was then when I heard voices up ahead speaking in English so needing a distraction from the menagerie I was seeing either side of the trail I sparked up a conversation with them, I can’t remember their names but it was an American girl and a guy from the UK who had been together for a while. Turns out I wasn’t the only one to have their hopes of a sub 30hour time dashed by the heat. The conversation was a welcome distraction from the hallucinations and kept me focused on the climb.
The path was steep and rocky and up above there was the ever present procession of headlamps weaving their way up the side of the mountain. The conversation took my mind off the climb and we slowly made our way to the top.
The steady procession of head torches reached high above and it was difficult to see where the torches stopped and the stars started. The hallucinations no doubt adding a little bit of extra magic to what I was seeing.
Catogne signalled the top of this climb and below me was Vallorcine and the final aid station. People were passing me at a steady rate but it was many miles earlier when my race tactic had changed from fighting for position to just getting to the end. I wasn’t bothered about positioning now just keep plodding on, every step takes you closer to finish.
Eventually, the lights of Vallorcine came into view and I was treated to another platter of food. Victoria and my mum must have been cursing me for taking so long to get here. I’m sure they would have much rather have been in bed than be sat waiting for me at another aid station where in the early hours of the morning the temperature had dropped significantly and it was pretty cold.
VALLORCINE – CHAMONIX
The last push! The next time I would see Victoria and my mum would be in the centre of Chamonix at the finish.
I set off walking up the path to Col de Montets and was finally able to clear my stomach. Normally when I’m sick I get a second wind but not today. Today I was done. All I could do was push on at my best death march. Left foot, right foot and repeat. Don’t stop now I kept telling myself, you might not have had the race you had thought about for the last 8 months but there was nothing that was going to stop you from finishing.
The climb up to Tete aux Vents is a steep with some big rocks steps and lots of switchbacks as it makes its way up the mountainside. On the recce, with fresh legs and a good night’s sleep, it seemed to take no time at all to reach the top but today it just went on forever. At one point I had convinced myself that the route had changed and they had added some extra few hundred metres of ascent as a sting in the tail.
One of the upsides of sucking at your race – sunrise over Mont Blanc on Sunday morning
As we slowly trudged upwards the first rays of dawn started to break over the mountains which lifted my spirits. Never underestimate the power of the breaking dawn in an ultra-marathon. They seem to have rejuvenating properties. One at the top off in the distance I could see La Flagere – the final checkpoint before the final 5 mile 1000+m descent into Chamonix that had been so much fun less than a week before.
As the first rays of sun hit the top of Mont Blanc I remember thinking to myself if I had finished when I planned I wouldn’t have seen this so I guess sucking at your big race does have some benefits after all. I stopped for a few minutes and just admired the view. It was truly breath-taking and something I will never forget.
First view of Chamonix – a welcome sight after 2 nights in the mountains
Along the plateau I got my first glimpse of Chamonix over a kilometre below us, just a tiny climb up to La Flagere and then downhill all the way into Chamonix and the finish line. Some people I had been with stopped in the tent to refuel and take a moment before the final push into town. Not me though I walked straight in one side, got my number scanned and went straight out of the other side of the checkpoint. All I could think about was getting to the finish and to bed.
For the first time in almost 50 miles I managed a bit of a run and for the first time in a long time I started passing people. Not for position, just because I wanted to get to bed. I was still half asleep on my feet but thankfully the hallucinations seemed to have stopped.
I was still struggling with keeping my legs moving, they weren’t particularly tired but they just didn’t have any power in them but I pushed on a best I could. I had to keep stopping for a walking break but I was making faster progress than I had done for a while.
Occasionally there was a break in the trees and slowly but surely Chamonix kept getting closer and closer. Then I was through the little mountainside cafe that had took me by surprise on the recce and then onto the final fire road that leads into town.
It was a strange feeling breaking onto the tarmac road after spending so much time in the mountains and being surrounded by buildings. Even my legs were feeling ok now and I was running pretty well, it’s just a shame they wouldn’t work like this at any point in the past 50 miles. I guess the altitude kicked my arse more than I thought it would.
Nearly there – running through the streets of Chamonix 39 hours after setting off
Running past the expo area people started shouting bravo and kids were wanting high 5’s again which really lifted the spirits. Just a short stretch at the side of the river and then into the centre, past the supermarket and then you make a right turn and it’s there in front of you, the final goal. The UTMB finish line.
The first things I muttered as I crossed the line to Jayson was something along the lines of ‘I did shit’ but at the end of the day I had finished and somewhere in the region of 44% of starters had dropped out.
The sense of relief to have finished and see Victoria, my mum, Jayson and Kim at the finish was immense, I just wished I had been a bit more with it to savour the atmosphere. It felt like a lifetime since I left Chamonix on Friday evening.
I picked up my finishers bin bag, had a beer which just about put me to sleep on the spot then and hobbled off to bed.
With my beautiful wife Victoria at the finish
I’m not going to lie, I’m very disappointed with my performance and placing. On one hand, I’m very proud to say I finished the UTMB, so proud I have no problem being seen in public wearing my official finishers bin bag. The problem is that I didn’t go to Chamonix just to finish, I went to test myself against some of the best ultra-runners in the world and I got my arse kicked. I trained so hard and was feeling so confident that I could finish sub 30 and get a top 100 place but there were some things I just couldn’t train, mainly the heat, that put a stop to my plans.
I also have to remind myself how far my running has come in a few short years so I should be happy with myself. In 2014 I was 15.5 stone and hadn’t run since school and here I am just over 2 years later a UTMB finisher. I suppose I’ve come a long way in a few short years. Just goes to show you can do something if you want it badly enough.
Despite some real low points, I had a fantastic time trudging round Mont Blanc for a stupid amount of hours. The mountains put things into perspective, they are jaw dropping to look at and to experience them in this way where it is you against them is very humbling.
In a time when everyone is connected to a computer screen 24/7 it’s liberating to leave all of it behind, except for the Garmin of course, and just enjoy the world and nature. I guess this is one of the main reasons I love being in the hills and mountains.
The big question is would I do it again? Absolutely I would. I have some unfinished business with the UTMB and I hope to return someday to try agai but it won’t be 2017.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
I think it’s important to evaluate performance after a race so you can learn for the future. I’ve thought long and hard about why things didn’t go to plan and this is what I’ve come up with. Without further ado here’s my big list of excuses.
Heat always slays me so when the temperatures started to rise on Saturday morning my performance started to suffer. On Saturday when the temperature was over 80 degrees it destroyed me. Staying cool was a battle and I got dehydrated. This was something I couldn’t train for and heat played the biggest part in my drop inperformance. I lost the majority of places on the climb up to Refuge Bertoni to La Fouley when the sun was at its most intense.
In hindsight changing to a bladder over my usual bottles was a big mistake. I couldn’t judge how much I was drinking and the split in the bladder from my fall meant I thought I was drinking more than I was because it was constantly leaking. When the temperatures started to rise in the morning, a night of not taking on enough fluids to prepare me for the heat of the day really took it’s toll.
It’s an important lesson to learn for anyone looking to run an ultra-marathon, don’t change your equipment so close to the race unless you have time to test it so you know you are happy with it.
By the time I reached Refuge Bonetti my stomach was doing somersaults and I was struggling to get anything down. It was bloated and sore to the point where I couldn’t stand the straps on my pack across it so I had to keep them undone. It did get better later in the day and I found that I was able to eat most things put in front of me at the last three checkpoints. I ate noodle soup at the checkpoints with some bread but not enough to keep me going in the conditions. My rice balls that I’ve come to rely on became a soggy sticky mess in the heat and I couldn’t face them during Saturday.
I’m still looking for the perfect ultra food so if you have any suggestions please feel free to post them in the comments. Before you suggest Mountain Fuel or Tailwind, I’ve tried both and don’t think either of them works for me.
This is a difficult one to know what effects it had on my running. Certainly in the higher altitude sections of the race I felt my performance suffered but not massively. It would be all too easy to blame the altitude and my lack of acclimatization but I don’t think this played a huge part in my lack of performance.
Something else that would be too easy to blame this for my poor performance and I did for a time but in all honesty it was a few scrapes and nothing serious. This is not the scapegoat I’m looking for.
The only thing I did of am of any signifance in my fall was tear my bladder so it could have contributed slightly to my dehydration.
DID I NOT TRAIN HARD ENOUGH?
I don’t think this was the case, I had trained my bollocks off for 8 months in preperation. The training had gone well and in my final few visits to Scotland I was flying up and down the hills. I purposely made these days as tough as possible and ran them under what I considered to be race conditions. The strength and conditioning exercises that Jayson had me doing also noticeably improved my running.
It wasn’t through lack of training and preperation that I suffered.
DID I JUST NOT TRY HARD ENOUGH?
Quite possibly! With the exception of the Calderdale Way Fell Relays, there’s not a single race I’ve done this year where I can say I couldn’t have given it any more.
In the UTMB once I realised things weren’t going to plan I almost confined myself to walking to Chamonix. I could have pushed myself harder throughout the day but with the other issues I was having this was. I feel the second night time section could have been an area where I could have dug deeper and pushed a bit harder but it’s easy to say in hindsight. At teh time I was going as fast as I could.
I certainly think there was an element of not trying hard enough to my lack of performance. Mental strength is something for me to work on for next season. I might not be doing the UTMB again in 2017 but I don’t want to finish another race without being able to say I couldn’t have tried any harder.
- My beautiful wife Victoria for putting up with me for 8 month and not killing me. Also for doing exactly the right thing at the checkpoints and getting me through a very tough second night.
- My mum for coming out to Chamonix to support the support crew
- Jayson Cavill for preparing me physically and mentally for the UTMB. If you’re thinking of doing an ultra-distance race or any race for that matter go speak to him. Seriously I can’t recommend him enough as a coach.
- Martyn Price from Harrogate Harriers for all the invaluable advice in the months leading up to the race
- Martyn and Helen Price, Simon Franklin, Carol Morgan, Emma and Dave for kindly letting me cook some rice in the apartment.
- Ben Shacklock for the Hardmoors Time to Stop Doubting and Strt believign bracelet. certainly helped in the dark times
- Everyone from Harrogate Harriers who wished me well on Facebook and watched my slow progress on teh tracker
I spent a long time researching and testing equipment before deciding on what to use in the UTMB. The kit below is what I used and all of it performed flawlessly throughout. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the kit below to anyone.
- The North Face Ultra Endurance Trail Shoes – Top marks for these shoes from The North Face. Performed flawlessly throughout
- New Balance Leadville V3 Trail Shoes – Like big comfortable slippers that were perfect for the last 30 miles when my feet had swollen to twice their normal size.
- Injinji toe socks – Have to say I’m a convert after years of taking the piss out of Injinji’s. No blisters at all over 105miles
- The North Face Flight Series Vent Shorts
- The North Face Flight Series T-shirt
- Oakley Half jacket 2.0 Sunglasses
- The North Face Flight Series Cap
- The North Face Motus Tights
- The North Face Storm Stow Jacket
- The North Face Storm Stow Trousers
- The North Face Harpster Base Layer
- Montane Fang 5 Hydration Pack
- Petzl Nao Headtorch – Comfortable, bright with a good battery life. What else do you need in a head torch?
- Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles – Lightweight cheat sticks that took everything that was thrown at them without issues. Can’t fault them
- Injinji toe socks
- Chia Charge Flapjacks
- Homemade jam and peanut butter rice cakes
- Clif Shot Bloks
- Precision hydration tablets
- Gu gels
- Noodle soup, bread, cheese, orange slices amd copious amounts of coffee at teh checkpoints