I didn't really mean to enter this. I applied hoping that I would not get in so that I could do it next year and leave a sensible gap between Badwater and the Spartathlon. However I put my name in anyway as it's harder and harder to get into these things. The qualifying for next year is even harder and it was 40% over-subscribed this time. I'm running out of time to get the big races done before they become lotteries even harder than the national lottery. I reckon I'll win the national lottery before I win the Western States one.
I had not really done any "training" for this. This is not unusual as I tend to just bounce between different events. Only the ONER and a hungover Davos race really counted as hill work before this. The latter was going to be more useful than I thought.
The Ultra Tour De Mont Blanc despite only being in it's 8th year is already considered one of the "classic" ultramarathons and appears on the "must do" lists of most ultrarunners I have come across, from the plodders to the worlds best. 166km, over 9000m of elevation and 46 hours to complete. It is held in high regard across the world and is considered one of the toughest off road events there is. The stats are impressive, here are some more; 1700 volunteers, 33 refreshment posts, 48 control points, 20000 cereal bars, 7500 bananas, 8000 route markers, 180 medics, 400KG of salami, 2600kg of cheese, 10000 litres of coke and 4800 cans of beer. I was going to have my work cut out making the most of this.
On friday morning around 8 hours before the race was due to start (6pm) I was woken up by what sounded like a car crash right outside my bedroom window. I looked to assess the wreck and saw that it was raining heavily and that it was thunder that I heard. This was going to make it hard going later and I hoped it would stop in time for the race. I wasn't too worried about the ground, mountains are made of rock, right?
It did stop raining while we lined up at the start. Conquest of Paradise was played constantly for an hour as the masses squeezed together and watched the large screen of the front of the pack. There were quite a few elites here which shows how important this race is. Kilian Jornet was here to win for the 3rd time in a row. Scott Jurek was back in action having not been around for a while. Geoff Roes had won the Western States 100 a few months back and perhaps was looking to do the same here? The UK's best chance was Jez Bragg, who had been injured for much of the year but was back in form and here to race.
I started near the back and had no plan as such but was going for somewhere in the region of 40 hours, perhaps with a sleep. Soon after the 27th (and loudest) rendition of the Vangelis classic were were on our way, stop-starting through the town as we enjoyed the massive crowds and around 8k of fairly flat road. Not long later we were heading along the trails into the sunset. It was beautiful, till it pissed it down.
The rain came down heavy again as runners dived to the sides to get their rain clothes out. There is a lot of compulsary clothing to carry in this race and with good reason, we were still low down and everyone was getting cold. I bumped into Drew Sheffield who like me was not changing out of our original kit yet. We ran in hope of the rain stopping and not long later it did, just as we started the ascent of the first peak. It was not quite dark and the path was gravel so getting up was not too difficult. On reaching the top I bumped into James Elson who I had not seen since our semi-conscious conversation at the end of Badwater.
The downhill was very difficult and very muddy. I did not think I would be contesting with mud in the alps but the path was like a flume. People were falling over left and right and it was hard to see where it was slippy. I was not using my head torch, instead I had a little hand held thing. I've become more acustomed to not using light at night though with a cloudy sky and tree cover there was no natural light to draw on.
After more than 3 hours we descended down a very steep road into St Gervais where the first major checkpoint was. I was really looking forward to this, eating cheese and meat in a race, it's all I thought about for weeks. It's what kept my mind of the mountains. Shortly before arriving at the CP there was a rather subdued applause as we came down some steps and then headed into town. We saw some runners heading back the other way? Then another runner just shouted at us "Don't bother, race is over". I assumed he was joking and did not want to believe it though when we arrived at the checkpoint there was no movement, just a mass of runners and organisers stood about. The race had indeed been cancelled.
I did not really have a reaction or an opinion on the whole thing. I sensed within myself more disappointment than when the Luton Marathon was called off while we were all at the start line. The reason we'd been given was mudslides up ahead. We headed over to a sports centre and considered our options (over some cheese). We could run back or wait for the transport out of there. We started to run back but were called back so we ran to the nearest train station and made it back to Chamonix pretty soon.
One of the first things that hit me as we walked back to the apartment 35 hours before I thought I would was that I'd eaten so much food over the past few days I'd need to do some running over the weekend to burn it off. I also thought about all the cheese I was missing out on, nowI'd have to pay for it in Chamonix. Then, at about midnight and no word from the event organisers about whether the race would be restarted and wide awake we did the only thing we could to get to sleep, we got smashed.
Oli, Jany and I headed to a bar and started to drink along with others who had been disappointed by the cancellation. The gloom lifted as our alcohol intake increased. The runners were strewn over the pubs/bars and even kebab houses of Chamonix, drowning our sorrows and replacing the few calories that we managed to burn. The air of disappointment was very noticable, particularly those who had trained all year to do this or those here for the first time.
Sure it was disappointing but I understood why it happened and that these things are inevitable when doing such extreme events. I looked forward to a weekend of shorter runs with friends instead. I was braced for staying awake for 48 hours, the only way to get to sleep was to paralyse myself with drink. That is what we did. Until we got a text message.
"Be at the sportshall in Chamonix at 6.30 for a re-start in Courmayeux". As this wasa read the bottle of beer that was touching my lips was put down on the table. We have 4 hours to sober up, sleep and get ready to start running again.
I was not too sure why my alarm was set to 5.30 on saturday morning and I struggled to find the button to switch it off. Then I remembered the mountain climb last night, the train ride home and the Jaegerbombs. Then I looked at the pile of wet clothes in the corner that I had to put on. So with a hangover, wet and stinky clothes, tired and a bit confused we left the apartment to get to the coach.
We were treated to a similar start to that of the previous night. The people of Coumayeux seemed to know there was a race on this morning, which is more than can be said for half of the runners. Even as we started there were coaches of people dropping off half dressed runners at the back of the pack. Some had not found out about the re-start at all. In fact if I was not with Oli and Rob I would not have found out either as the phone number I gave them was no longer in use. The funny thing was that the people who went out and got pissed were the first to find out. Those who went to bed to get some rest woke up too late for the news. There is a lesson there....
The sun was blazing as we set off through the town and up a hill a lot sooner than we did yesterday. The walking poles were clattering on the tarmac and the path got much more narrow before turning into a very narrow trail. The whole field stopped and queued to get onto it and for about an hour we climbed a hill stopping and starting and generally going very slowly. Drew and I made no subtletey of our comments about poles. They were really getting in the way.
5 reasons why walking poles spoil it for the others;
1 - Pole users use twice the width of a normal runner. When the path is narrow it's obviously single file all the way, but then when the path widens the pole users stupidly widen their pole placing making it impossible to pass
2 - Pole users use thrice the length of normal runners. It was crowded on that trail, it does not help that it could only fit one third of the usual number of people on it because of people being stupid with their poles
3- When the poles are not in use the pole users stupidly hold them such that you get poked in the eye if you are behind them and beneath them
4 - When a pole user looks at his/her watch they slow down then stupidly thrust the pole out to the side. If you are passing them at the time you get your eye poked out
5 - Pole users can easliy overtake you, they just selfishly and stupidly stab at your heels with the poles. I would stand aside and let someone quicker pass. Do they reciprocate when you want to pass them? Do they fuck.
It was very frustrating getting up the first pass but the views at the top were spectacular. There was a coke stop near the top and then a few miles of gorgeous running in full view of Mont Blanc (so I'm told, they all look the same). There was more space to overtake the pole using spoilers. Drew commented that we should not really consider ourselves in the same race as these people. Anyway there was some really enjoyable running in this part and into the first major checkpoint. With cheese.
I was only wearing a vest here and was told by the marshal to put something warmer on as the top of the next pass was very cold and windy. I took their advice and changed and lost Drew at this stage. After some cheese I started ascending La Grand Ferret which is the highest point of the whole UTMB.
The top was in the clouds and the clouds were grey. I struggle up hills at the best of times and recently I had another chest cough and was still more wheezy than normal. I had my inhaler with me and I used it to death. The mountain was muddier than anything I have ever climbed before. The rain started again, the visibility was awful. I really struggled to breath and even stay on my feet as I slipped and fell all over the place. The air was full of water and I'd stop every couple of minutes to sit down and puff on the inhaler. The others plodding up the hill would look at me concerned and make sure I was alright. I knew I was going to be fine as soon as I got to the top La Grand Col Ferret.
It rained and rained and I struggled even to move forwards even when I wasn't coughing. Often I'd slide back down or onto my hands and knees. Several times I'd just say under my breath (what breath I had) "for fuck sake". I wanted for someone to be to blame for all this but there was obviously no one. Eventually I made it to the top, the visibility was practically zero and it was very cold. My jellied legs spluttered back into life and I ran down the muddy slide of a path. I fell over a few times but managed to gain some ground and felt much better about finishing the race.
Though I always knew I was going to get to the top of that hill I did spend a lot of time wondering whether certain events are out of my reach. I really want to do Leadville one day and figure if I struggle to breathe at 2500m up I may as well not bother going to 4000m. I need to sort my lungs out.
The rain eased a bit but it had done it's work on the path and the mud was making people slide about all over the place. I saw a man in front of me slip comically onto his arse, then I did the same thing in the same spot and then the guy behind me did the same again. It was as if it was a candid camera show, whoever had a camera on that was going to make a fortune out of Harry Hill.
The net 20k or so were almost all downhill though the offroad was hard work with all the sliding. I felt at home here, rolling around in the mud. There was a long section through some town on road which was quite welcome as it was really easy running. Here I bumped into Rhodri Darch who I met 2 years ago at the Moose ultra and I don't think I have seen him since. We chatted briefly about what we'd been up to in the past 2 years, he didn't need to ask me as all the details on my life are on facebook.
I get the piss taken out of me quite a lot for living my life on facebook, but it has it's advantages. Whenever I talk to people in races I don't really have to talk much because everything has already been said. I get a chance to listen to others about what they have been doing. Rhodri told me he got into triathlon recently and did an Ironman but realised it's not for him. Apparently its full of anti-social competitive types who are more concerned with split times and gadgets than fun and socialising. I'd never have guessed.
I got to the checkpoint in La Fouly in about 6 hours and got a text from Gemma to say that everyone else was going really fast. Rob had got there in around 4.40, Dan and Oli were not far behind and Drew was about 30 mins ahead of me. The big misty muddy hill had slowed me down somewhat but I was not too worried, I had some more cheese.
Soon after while contining into the town I saw Jany and Cyril who seemed releived to see me. They had been waiting long enough. I was about 7 hours into the run and was pretty sure I had not done more than a marathon yet. I had no watch, no gps and did not even know how long the race was or what country I was in. It was brilliant.
Campex is just over half way and I have no idea when I got there but I recall being about 6 hours ahead of the cut offs. I looked at a map on the wall and saw that I had 3 large hills to come, starting with Bovine.
It was getting darker and I was keen to get up this one before the sun set. Bovine is another tough climb and is really rocky, the rocks just too big to comfortably step over. I was struggling again and having to stop and breathe. I really did hope that this was a hangover from my illness rather than my vertical limit. I started to get cold as I was laying down in the wet grass. I was frustrated at the prospect of not getting over this before the sun was out as I new the rocks on the other side were going to be hard.
The down was hard and steep and made harder by the darkness. I was pleased that my downhill running was not as lame as it usually is. It's still lame but not as lame. This pleased me and enabled me to run further over a section that was quite plesant running, apart from the pole walkers getting in the way. and reach the next checkpoint at Trient. 2 more hills to go.
Each checkpoint would look the same, a spread of tables and chairs with people surving coke, soup, cheese, ham, bread, cake and all sorts. There were drums in the middle for filling up water bladders and medics on hand. As the race progressed these looked more like refuges that picnics, people hunched over or even asleep on benches. Sometimes it was hard to get space on the seats and it was even harder to sit down on them.
There was also a picture of the profile ahead, with total ascent and decent. The next climb was not as bad as the previous one and unlike most the next checkpoint was fairly high up. It only really occured to me how far I was running. It was only about 90k in the end, short of the 98k I thought I was going to do. An initial loop of the CCC had been left out.
It was now pitch black and with no lights around it was hard to see how far I had to go up. I just made sure I did tiny little steps so I could try to keep moving but not get out of breath. It seemed to work better up Catogne than on all previous hills. I was moving slowly but still moving forward. There were not a lot of people around now. In the dark you never really know whether you are on top of the pass, especially in the woods. Sometimes the ground flattens out and you start running, releived that you have knocked off another one but then it shoots up again.
There was a lot more to run on here than I expected or was told. I was expecting nothing but sharp and tortuous uphills and bone breaking downs. There were plenty of each of these but there was also a lot of nice shallow downhill running. There was no more rain after dark which made it much more pleasant. I was amazing that my knee was not hurting at all and my quads were not too sore. I thought about being able to do Sangra's Pass in the Spartathlon.
The last major checkpoint seemed to come in no time and I was suprised to see Cyril there helping out. It was great to see him and he leapt around fetching food while I sat down and ate. This was the last opportunity for cheese so I was making the most of it. There was some more nice downhill to run and then a tricky uphill, the last one.
There are a few miles of road from which in the distance you can see the intimidating sight of what you have to climb to finish of the UTMB. On my right was a mountain with switchbacks and a stream of little lights zigzaging right up into the sky. The night was now clear and it was hard to seperate the lights from the stars. I could not tell how far into the sky I had to go. At this point I was feeling really good again and ready to attack it.
Because it was the last one I chose not to think about the top too much. In fact I didn't really want it to come. I was comparing how I was feeling now to how I felt struggling up Bovine and near the start of the day struggling in the mud up La Grand Ferret and really wanted to make the most of this. The pass was really hard and never ending but when you don't want it to end that's not a problem. My asthma had gone and though I was on my hands and knees a lot scrambling over some of the rocks that were bigger than cars I was really enjoying it.
The top never came and the people around me were cursing as I was 10 hours ago in the mud and rain but I was laughing as after each switchback there was more to go up. It was amazing. It did eventually flatten out but the terrain was harsh, it was still rocky with the occasional invisible mud pool. I fell into a couple and was only really concerned about breaking my phone. After a bit of flat scrambling there was yet more up. I loved it, I could see a town down below and assumed it to be Chamonix. Surrounded by tired runners falling about all over the place I staggered into one of the minor checkpoints, just 7km from the end.
It was around 5am, still dark and I sat down to have a cup of tea. Running into sun-rise is an amazing thing and I was not sure that I'd get a chance to here, I was hoping to do it twice this weekend but the mudslides took that away from me. However the sun came up quicker than expected and while descending the shallow path into Chamonix the sun came up. There were not that many people out in the town to cheer me in but that was fine. I cantered into the finish, overtaking someone who was walking and who grumbled at me a bit. Not sure why but I wasn't going to walk over the line. The finish was very muted, I didn't really expect much, I think half the town decided not to participate just as half the runners decided not to restart. My time was 20 something hours (like I said I didn't have a watch so don't know).
I collected my "finishers" gillet which claims I have done the UTMB. I know this is not true and I am going to have to come back and do this again. I finished what I was given and I really enjoyed doing it but I know I need to finish a full UTMB. I still felt good at the finish. If I had to do another 20 hours of that I could of, assuming there was more cheese. There was none at the finish and hence there was no reason for me to stay, I headed back to the appartment and had a beer. 6.30am isn't too early is it?
Luckily this was not one of my "A" races for the year. They are Badwater and Spartathlon. I loved running 66% of the UTMB and would definitely come back to do the whole lot, but I can't see this being the race I come back to again and again. But certainly I'll clock up a few finishes before my legs retire, the views and cheese are spectacular. Who knows, one day they might just ban those f*****g poles.