I’ve had a burning desire to run Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, Europe’s premier trail ultra, for some time. Each year, I dutifully entered the ballot; and each year, in short order, I received my rejection.
However, in 2020, my luck changed, and my name was chosen. I didn’t have enough points at the time to qualify for the full UTMB race, so I entered the longest one I could: the CCC.
Then came Covid, and with it, the cancellation of all races. I rolled my place over to 2021, and so began a whole year of stress and uncertainty, trying to navigate the Covid regulation minefield cooked up by the UK, French, Swiss and Italian governments. It’s the only occasion I’ve experienced where making the start line of an ultra was harder than making the finish.
Yet, through it all, I did make it to the start line. Then I pushed on through periods of self-doubt, through fatigue, through injury, and back to the UTMB arch in Chamonix, in a time of 16 hours 45 minutes 48 seconds, putting me in 227th place. For my first race in proper alpine mountains, I was satisfied with that – but it was the experience, and the memories that made it special.
I managed to get the video out promptly (see above), but I never managed to finish the race report I started. So here I am, half a year on, reliving my taste of the UTMB experience. I hope you may find it a useful insight into how one modest British flatlands runner, probably slightly underprepared, tackled one of the great alpine adventures.
It’s 10 days after the race, and I’m sat comfortably at home, my mind meandering along to the jazz piano whose notes float effortlessly from my speakers. A star anise tea is brewing. It’s one of my favourites, which I can only seem to find in France. I brought back a couple of boxes this time, and they’re bound to be empty within the month.
Approaching the race in summer 2021, as four separate countries adjusted their Covid freedom of movement restrictions on a weekly basis, my only objective was to tick all the Covid checkboxes so I’d be allowed into France in time for the race. Only when I successfully reached Chamonix in late August could my ambitions finally broaden to include a running-related objective. I decided I would target a sub-18 hour finish.
However, even on the ground in France, governmental Covid restrictions had complicated matters. I’d had to delay my outbound travel, booking a second flight to arrive on the Monday, just four days before race day. This didn’t give me nearly as much time in Chamonix valley to prepare and acclimatise as I’d intended.
It was against this backdrop that I tried to limit the risk of being impacted by any more rule changes, by removing dependencies on anything that was external to my control. So I hired a car, rather than rely on the usual minibus service. I rented an apartment with a kitchenette, rather than rely on restaurants. I was hopeful that nothing else would go wrong before race day.
En route to Chamonix, I stopped off in Sallanches to stock up on supplies.
In my experience, French supermarkets tend to have a superior selection of food compared to British supermarkets. There’s a greater focus on fresh, local, wholefood, organic produce. There’s also a wider range.
Take daikon, for example. This is not commonly found in British supermarkets or vegetable boxes. I was intrigued, and couldn’t resist buying one. I hadn’t the foggiest clue how to prepare it.
With a boot full of fresh fruit, veggies and pulses, including beluga lentils, red lentils, chickpeas, oats, pomelos, beans, courgettes, mushrooms, broccoli, peppers, carrots, chilies, potatoes, my mysterious daikon, and countless other goodies, including some dried whole bananas that looked like they’d make for awesome race food (I was right!), I felt well prepared for the week’s activities.
Driving into Chamonix valley, I felt that familiar sense of wonderment and excitement permeate my body. After unloading my unconventional vegetal haul into my fridge, I did what any self-respecting runner would do, and headed out for an exploratory bimble around the local area.
I was staying in Vallorcine this year, an area with which I had some passing familiarity. A couple of years ago, I’d run here from Chamonix, and stumbled across the finish line of the Trail des Aiguilles Rouge, before climbing up to Lac d’Emosson.
This time, my spontaneous run took me through La Villaz up to Barberine, and back around the other side of the Noire. It gave me a better feel for the area, and triggered some fond memories from last time. I could feel myself settling back into this beautiful alpine environment. It felt amazing to be back.
The following day, my plan permitted a 2 hour easy run, but only with minimal ascent. I had observed that a cablecar ran from near enough outside the door of my hotel, up the side of an adjacent mountain, which seemed like an ideal solution to minimise ascent whilst facilitating a life-affirming run at altitude. So off I went to the ticket office, stretching my French vocabulary to its very limits. “Un billet… aller simple… s’il vous plaît”.
The cablecar ride itself was a lot steeper – and wobblier – than it looked from ground level. I was deposited at 1900 metres, in a slight depression between the two peaks of Aiguillette des Posettes and Tête de Balme. Then commenced one of those delightful alpine mornings, exploring the mountaintops, running trails between peaks; stopping frequently to capture views on camera, or just soak in the moment.
I visited Col de Balme, Tête de Balme, and L’Arolette, before passing the Refuge du Col de Balme, wrapping around to Charamillon, and dropping down to Le Tour. Truth be told I forgot all about my 2 hour time limit; though, as luck would have it, if I disregarded my elapsed time, looked at Strava’s ‘moving time’, and squinted a bit, I wasn’t all that far over 2 hours. Perfect!
UTMB: Let’s Get Commercial!
So as not to deviate any further from my plan, I took a bus into Chamonix, and spent a while mooching around the UTMB village, where many of the major running clothing manufacturers, and a swathe of race organisers, were exhibiting their wares.
I immediately sought out the must-have purchase for UTMB runners: a 100x6cm self-adhesive elasticated bandage which can serve as a bandage or strapping: a very particular piece of mandatory kit that has evaded all UK pharmacies, Amazon, and the entirety of the Internet, only seeming to be available for purchase in Chamonix itself. No matter, I had found it – hallelujah!
After the profound excitement of my self-adhesive elasticated bandage purchase, I got caught up browsing the rest of the stalls. I tried on Inov-8’s latest ultra trail running shoe, the modestly named Trailfly Ultra G 300 Max. It boasted extremely springy soles for energy return and cushioning. I was impressed by how lightweight they were (compared to the Inov-8 RocLites I was sporting), along with their energy return, and the multi-dimensional flexibility of their soles. As tempted as I was to ditch the RocLites in favour of these new-fangled Trailflys for the CCC, I knew that wouldn’t be wise so close to the race.
However, this fact didn’t stop me from retracing my steps a little later on and picking up a pair of the Ultra G’s anyway. I had to try them on the trails. So I took the free train from Chamonix back to Le Buet, one stop before Vallorcine, where I tied the laces of my RocLites around the back of my pack, switched into my new Trailflys, and bounded along a trail running parallel to the railway tracks. I could really feel the spring in my step. I liked these Trailflys, a lot. Apart from the aesthetics, perhaps, which reminded me of a fashion statement trainer rather than a precision running shoe; but, who was I to argue with progress?
I’m hopeful that nobody else saw me on this run, with my RocLites bouncing around on my back and kicking me in the derrière on every step. They were a right pain in the arse.
Taking in the TDS
Wednesday brought with it a mixture of excitement, sorrow and trepidation. The first finishers of the UTMB TDS were due to arrive in Chamonix that morning, but developments overnight had brought the dreams of many hundreds of those runners to an abrupt halt. Details were scarce and conflicting at first, but it gradually emerged that a runner had fallen in the dark on a technical part of the course. Mountain rescue had rapidly intervened, but the runner’s injuries had proved to be fatal. I believe this amounted to the first death during a UTMB race. The mood on all the ultrarunning channels, Whatsapps and news feeds was sombre.
The consequences for the TDS were beginning to clarify too: around 1,200 runners behind the casualty (the vast majority of the field) had been redirected back to the previous checkpoint, where their race was terminated, and they were instructed to await transportation back to Chamonix. For all those concerned in this tragedy, especially the relatives of the deceased, one felt a profound sense of sorrow.
For the elites, who had been ahead of the casualty, the race continued, and so I headed to Chamonix to see them in.
The atmosphere at the finish line still felt electric to me (this being my first in-person experience of a UTMB finish), and I spent a while soaking in Erik Sebastian’s victory. But behind the celebrations there was a tangible air of dejection. As I began to move around Chamonix centre, I saw more and more runners arriving back into Chamonix on shuttles, bearing TDS race bibs, looking utterly crestfallen. After years of training, preparation, uncertainty, determination – their dreams of finishing the venerable TDS were dashed.
It was hard to stay in Chamonix amidst this atmosphere, so I set off on an impromptu quest to cheer on one of the lead TDS runners, Sophie Grant, who was approaching the final climb up Col du Tricot. She had overcome an early setback of her own; a suspected broken finger, but was nonetheless unflinchingly holding onto 5th position!
I planned to take the train to Les Houches and wait there. However, caught up in social media (yes, I know), I mistakenly disembarked a stop early at Taconnaz. This naturally precipitated a brief run to Les Houches. And; well, since I was running…
I decided to continue up the TDS course in reverse, and ascend Bellevue, some 800 metres of ascent (which definitely wasn’t part of the day’s original plan), where I was able to purchase some refreshment and await the arrival of Sophie. It wasn’t long before she arrived, at pace, beaming from ear-to-ear. It was hard to believe she’d run over 130km with 9k of ascent and a broken finger – she looked as though she was just warming up for a Parkrun. Quite incredible fortitude!
I was beginning to realise that I still had a lot of work to do to prepare myself for Friday, and I only had one day left to do it. So, Wednesday evening became a rather frantic affair, preparing my pack & mandatory kit, trying to memorise the route profile, and planning nutrition.
Kit selection turned into quite a fraught affair, with lots of choices still to be made. An ultra minimalist raincoat, or something heavier duty? Just one pair of waterproof gloves, or an extra pair for warmth? How many extra warm layers? Just how much food should I take, versus relying on the aid stations? My modest 5 litre pack was absolutely bulging with food and kit, and it weighed a tonne. I went to bed, concerned.
Thursday was the day I had to return to Chamonix to collect my race bib. As part of this process, we had to import our NHS vaccination certificates into the French TousAntiCovid mobile app, to obtain the so-called “sanitary pass”. This represented the final Covid regulatory hurdle, after which, the race was on.
As I pottered around Chamonix awaiting the next train back to Vallorcine, my phone vibrated, alerting me to a new text message from UTMB. It reassured me that the race was going ahead as per the original schedule tomorrow morning, and… on page 2 of the text… that they were activating the ‘cold weather kit’.
The UTMB mandatory kit requirements come in three parts. There’s the main bulk of mandatory kit which is always required, and then there are two extension sets: hot kit and cold kit, either of which the UTMB committee can decide to ‘activate’, contingent on the weather forecast prior to the race.
We’d been informed a couple of days prior that neither the hot nor cold kits were being activated. However, with less than 20 hours to go, they’d changed their mind – the cold kit was now activated.
The advice given to UTMB runners is to assume that either of the kit extensions might be needed, and to have everything ready in case. I hadn’t done that. I’d never seriously imagined that the cold kit would be required (the forecast looked good to me), and it had come back to bite me on the derrière.
At first glance, it seemed that I had all the kit I strictly needed back at the apartment, and probably already had enough packed in my race vest to pass kit check; but I was a bit concerned about the vague description of the third warm layer, and whether what I had planned strictly fitted the brief.
To cut a lot of procrastination short, I popped into Intersports (which was fortuitously staring me in my face as I read the text message), and purchased a Compress Sport UTMB branded warm layer. I thought this would work better as the second warm layer, allowing me to relegate my original second warm layer to the role of third warm layer. I’d still take an additional thinner warm layer to provide options. I was confident I was more than meeting the brief, whilst maintaining the flexibility I wanted in my layering system; but the downside was I’d need to fit yet another jacket in my pack. At this rate I’d need a wheelbarrow.
Back at the apartment in Vallorcine, it was yet another rush to repack my pack (by the time I was done, I could safely say that 5 litre pack was “full”), and to prepare my final dinner before the race. My hasty meal preparation proved to be neither appetising, nor all that filling as it happened; but I was more interested in getting to bed by 8pm as scheduled. As I’d expected, my brain refused to settle down for a good couple of hours, but thankfully my alarms still woke me as planned at 4am, in good time for my 06:25 departure. 6 hours sleep: not ideal, but much better than it might have been.
A quick breakfast of porridge and banana, and I headed down to the UTMB coach meeting point in central Vallorcine. The coach left on time, then stopped at various points on the way to the tunnel to pick up other runners. At the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel, we were waved through the border post, and started through into the bowels of the mountain.
Around halfway, there were cries from the back of the coach. “Malaise! Malaise!”, I thought I heard. A small crowd was gathered in the central walkway, bending over to assist someone. The driver acknowledged the commotion, but there was precious little he could do in the middle of the tunnel. As soon as we emerged at the Italian border post, he pulled over – but the commotion had subsided. Since my French leaves rather a lot to be desired, I never found out exactly what happened, beyond the obvious fact that one runner clearly came close to a DNS. The coach continued, snaking down the mountain pass into Courmayeur, where the CCC begins.
The Start Line
Courmayeur was a hive of activity. Outside the sports centre was a sea of bodies, and I struggled to work out where on earth I needed to go to deposit my drop bag.
I reasoned it would be inside, and forged a path to the nearest entrance. People were laid out over every spare centimetre of floor space. I fought my way through another set of doors, only to find an ice rink. No self-respecting drop bag point organiser would locate their post in these arctic conditions. I eventually found the drop bag point back outside, right next to where the coach dropped us off. Feeling foolish, I deposited my bag, then promptly realised I was still wearing an extra warm jacket that I’d intended to leave in my bag. Sheepishly, I asked the volunteer to locate and unseal my bag, so I could stow my jacket. No sooner had I done this, I remembered I’d put some extra food in my drop bag to eat before the start of the race. I was too embarrassed to ask for my bag back a second time. I just hoped my ridiculous drop bag bungling didn’t foreshadow events to come.
Back in the sports centre, I found a spot to perch in a stairwell, and pointlessly fumbled around with some of my kit to kill some time. I couldn’t sit still, so I headed back outside again, into the general excitement & hubbub, backed by the sounds of a DJ spinning his tunes, and snapped some photos. I’d never stood on such an expectant start line, flanked by glorious mountains – there was a lot to take in.
I was trying to work out how the bib numbers were arranged (I had a 38xx bib) when we were asked to make our way into our respective pens for the start. The DJ pumped out a bassy version of Rasputin, whilst I craned my neck to see the start line over the heads of a few hundred runners in front of me.
And then – we were off! As I crossed the start line, with spectators piled in on both sides, cheering and waving, I felt a huge sense of relief. After all the stress of dealing with Covid regulations, I’d made it to the start, and I was running. Racing around Mont Blanc – this would be a piece of cake.
The first climb began well within Courmayeur itself, and few runners wasted any time in getting out their poles. I maintained a healthy starting pace, passing plenty of runners, up to the point when we hit the base of the trail up Tête de la Tronche – the first of six major climbs on the course.
This was single track, and a long chain of runners had developed, snaking their way up the mountainside. I paid close attention to how those ahead of me handled their poles. This was my first time using poles in a race, and I learnt a lot about technique during this first climb. Meanwhile, various groups of people were huddled at points along the path, each with different tasks. One group consisted of a chap observing each runner’s shoes, and calling out the shoe brand to a helper, who wrote it down. I wondered how many hours the caller had spent staring at photos of running shoes, memorising each one.
There were few opportunities for overtaking, aside from the occasional switchback or short stretch of parallel path. I took these opportunities whenever I could: I simply wasn’t accustomed to spending an hour or so hiking up a mountain in a race! That said, there were plenty of interesting distractions: the mountain views were simply stunning, and all the while helicopters hovered around us filming proceedings.
I was surprised by how long the climb lasted. Around 2/3 of the way up, more sections of parallel path emerged, and by putting on spurts of speed I was gradually able to advance my way up the chain, one by one. Reflecting on it now, I’m rather sceptical as to whether this was worth the effort – repeated sprints up a mountain are a sure way to needlessly tire one out at the start of an endurance race like this.
On this first ascent, I learnt just how difficult it is to climb up the side of a mountain with poles in both hands, and eat at the same time. I was well behind on my planned caloric intake.
Summiting Tête de la Tronche felt great, and gave me a benchmark as to how much climbing there’d be. This race was going to be unlike anything I’d attempted before. As I hurtled myself down the gradual descent along the ridge, a drone buzzed around my head, no doubt streaming footage back to a nearby operator. This stretch of terrain reminded me of the Peak District; and as I neared Bertone aid station, I began to pass leisure hikers. What must they have made of us lunatics shooting past them?
There was a sharp descent into Bertone aid station, where I ought to have forced down some serious calories, having eaten so little on the first ascent. However, I hadn’t made a plan what I was going to do; and, directionless, all I did was grab half an Overstim bar, before rushing through the aid station and out the other side. I immediately reproached myself for my haste, but it was done.
The trail to Arnouvaz was fantastic; highly runnable, flowing, Peak District-esque terrain, surrounded by majestic views. This was a glorious section.
It finished with a sharp descent into the valley, and into the second aid station, where I tried to make up for my earlier error and take in some proper food. I was overjoyed to find some fruit – I had a banana and some watermelon – and, for some reason, I drank some coke.
I don’t drink coke. I never drink coke. Why did I drink coke?
I set off, and straight off the bat, my stomach didn’t feel right. Lesson learned: don’t drink random black liquid in the middle of a major race. Nothing transpired; but the experience threw me a little, just as I approached the second major climb, up Grand Col Ferret.
Foundering on Ferret
As I began climbing out of the valley, I realised how fatigued I felt, and how broken my legs were. I’d only made one of the six ascents, and I was struggling at the bottom of the second. How was I going to make it up the other four?
My poles came back out, and I tried my best to settle into the climb. I could see the Italian valley laid out beneath me. Compared to Chamonix valley, this was undeveloped; still forested in places, and really beautiful. The view over Mont Blanc from this vantage point was stunning.
As I climbed, I pulled alongside a Swiss runner with Italian roots who lived nearby, and we got talking. This conversation helped distract me from my mounting fatigue, and before I knew it, we were nearing the summit. I found some energy from somewhere, and pulled away to lay down a strong final ascent.
At the top, I was forced to acknowledge that my quads were really hurting; but in the middle of a race, and especially amidst such beautiful surroundings, there was no place for self pity.
I’d passed from Italy into Switzerland, and the path now broke off to the east, veering away from Mont Blanc and dropping down into another valley. A change of scenery, and a return to a stable running pace – the race felt like it was progressing into another phase.
It was properly exciting to pass through La Fouly. This was the first town along the route, whose streets were again lined with supporters. I played to the crowd by clapping my hands over my head and cheering, and they responded enthusiastically, making one heck of a racket! It was thus amidst an exuberant atmosphere that I sprinted through this delightful town. I noted there were a couple of runners around me who looked miserable & broken; who looked like they’d rather fade into the background than face the energy of the crowd. That was lost on me: why not leverage the support? I was feeling bedraggled too; but I was grinning from ear to ear, and eeking out every ounce of enthusiasm that I could.
The third aid station was on the far side of the town, where I made a slightly better fist of sorting myself out than at the first two. I ate plenty of watermelon, forced down one of my homemade energy bars, and spent a while rearranging the food in my race vest. All the food I hadn’t eaten was taking its vengeance, digging into my torso and causing considerable discomfort.
The next stage, from La Fouly to Champex Lac, is easygoing on paper. It’s a gradual descent on relatively simple terrain. But with two mountains in my legs, it felt anything but easy. Frankly, I was struggling, disappointed with my pace, and finding it difficult to keep my spirits up.
Just outside Champex, I hit climb number three. This was a the smallest of the six climbs, and for the last 5k or so I’d been hoping that it would prove to be little more than a hillock. I summited what I thought was the climb, and breathed a sigh of relief. Round a corner I went, and alas, there I was faced with the ascent proper: it was time to dig in. This short climb didn’t seem so short after all.
The Low Point
Reaching Champex-Lac was a major milestone. It was the second ‘C’ in the ‘CCC’, and the halfway point both in terms of ascent and distance. It was probably the first point, I reasoned, where one could respectably DNF. “I ran the ‘CC’ bit of the CCC”, I mused, testing the line on myself.
I busied myself with charging my watch and taking in some food.
I was pretty intimidated by the thought of what remained: another three mountains, much of which would be in the dark. For the first time ever, I fired up an impromptu Facebook Live stream with my running club, and filled them in on my progress. “Pretty tough” was the phrase I chose.
I shouldn’t be feeling this broken by Champex. It wasn’t going at all well. I perched on a bench, chewing forlornly on one of my homemade energy bars. There was nothing more to do but head back out.
I hoped I’d feel rejuvenated after the short break, but the opposite was true: now I was experiencing cramps. I slowed down to take on electrolytes. This was a perfectly runnable stretch of pathway alongside the river, and yet here I was run-walking, grasping my side. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse.
After a little while, I’d mostly sorted out the cramps, and with that the trail veered off to the left, and started its ascent up the fourth climb of the race, La Giète. I mentally closed the book on this difficult chapter of my race, and turned the page to the climb that awaited me.
Finding My Feet
It was ascending La Giète that I finally started to get the hang of these mountain ascents. I allowed myself to fall into the natural rhythm of the climb; pushing where it made sense, but otherwise accepting a slow & steady rate of ascent. I was starting to work out how and when to eat, and I was making a much more efficient use of my poles than at the outset.
This climb in particular I remember for its false summits. So many times I thought it was over, only to find more ascent around the next bend. The sole topic of conversation, as I passed other runners, was how far remained to the actual summit. When the descent finally came, I flew down it, enjoying both the speed I was able to achieve from my improved nutrition strategy, and the exciting technicality of the trail. There may not be much of a view on this northern side of the mountain, but it didn’t seem to matter. I was fully engrossed with the task at hand.
Pulling into Trient felt like a massive milestone. For one, the aid station was expansive, bearing more resemblance to a race village, which had somehow taken on a life of its own and engulfed half the town. Inside the main tent, music was blaring (a little bit of Lou Bega, from what I recall), and it seemed like a party was in full flow. Yet there was a strange clash of energies: exuberance among the volunteers, and exhaustion among the runners.
Had I stumbled into a quirky nightclub, or a M*A*S*H ward? The atmosphere was bizarre: I soaked it in. I recorded a short piece to camera, most eloquently explaining that “my legs are f**ked”, and acknowledging that I still wasn’t eating enough. Consequently, I began to force down a series of my homemade energy bars; after all, they’d been both weighing me down and digging into me from the start. I ate as many as I could stomach.
Emerging from Trient, I took the time to acknowledge how different I felt compared to the previous aid station. My energy levels were higher, my self-confidence was improved, I’d ascended 4 of the 6 mountains, and I was getting the hang of pole technique. Significantly, I was only one climb away from Vallorcine, before that final ascent & descent into Chamonix that I’d been waiting for. These were encouraging times.
Les Tseppes was another big, endless climb; but being in the dark now, it felt a bit special. Night-time running always does. There were the false summits again, but I was used to that by now, and it didn’t phase me as much.
When I summited, I had some difficulty collapsing my poles – one of the buttons simply wouldn’t budge. In the end I adopted the precision approach of whacking it with a large rock. This worked like a charm. Though I expect the pair of runners passing me at that moment probably thought I’d gone doolally, smashing my kit up in some sort of primitive Neanderthal-esque exhibition of frustration.
Atop this mountain, I passed some sights I’d seen on my excursion up Tête de Balme earlier in the week. It felt amazing to be wrapping back around to familiar trails.
The Race Was On
My phone vibrated, as it had been doing throughout the day. I’d ignored all the messages thus far, but for some reason I stole a moment to glance at the latest text, which was surprisingly from the UTMB. It was informing me of my placing in the race. I was somewhere in the 300s.
What with all the difficulties I’d experienced, I hadn’t thought about times and places since the start of the race, but this text was my wake-up call. I didn’t want to finish in the 300s. So I set myself a goal: finish in the low 200s. To achieve this, I’d need to overtake about 100 runners between here and Chamonix. I had my work cut out, and it began right now, on this descent to Vallorcine.
The descent was awesome fun! It began on the wide gravel tracks I’d seen a couple of days earlier, and I overtook one runner after another, ticking each off of my tally as I went. The route then veered off into steep forested trails riddled with tight switchbacks. Between the trees, I could hear the Noire river gushing through the valley down below me. Like some invisible force, that intriguing sound seemed to pull me through the void of darkness, into the warm embrace of Vallorcine.
The route through Vallorcine actually took me past my hotel, from where I’d watched the OCC runners pass a couple of days prior. I’d seen how many had walked the gradual incline beside the river, up toward Vallorcine aid station. I had resolved at the time not to walk that section myself, and indeed, I was certainly not walking. I rocketed past my hotel, through the underpass, and around into the aid station. Even better, I had devised a plan of action: this was going to be a fast turnaround.
It wasn’t, in the end. I ate some watermelon, forced down some more of my energy bars, and made another Facebook live stream to my club. I’m not really sure why, I didn’t need the motivation at that point.
It must have been late in the UK, but a surprising number of people joined, and we chatted for a while before I thanked them and called it to a close. Since the temperature was dropping, I donned a mid layer over my base. I took one last look around this last UTMB aid station before the finish. I reflected that I mightn’t have this experience again for some years, and found myself pottering around the tent a bit, for no other reason than to soak in the atmosphere. I really ought to have been getting going.
I had made up a lot of places on the descent to Vallorcine, but my unhurried and arguably frivolous hiatus in the aid station had undone some of that good work. The trail out from Vallorcine was undulating, wide and passable, and so I set out to reign those places in again. I made good progress along this stretch.
The route took us briefly alongside a road, where what I can only describe as a party van was parked up. It was fully equipped with club lighting and a rocking soundsystem. I gave them a whoop and pumped the air as I passed, and the supporters responded in kind.
The Final Ascent
Energy was high as I approached the base of la Tête aux Vents. As I started up it, I began to appreciate this would be a fairly technical, rocky climb. It was, though, massively atmospheric. As I looked up, I could see a few headlamps dotted here and there across the infinite darkness, pointing this way and that, vaguely illustrating the switchback route up Tête aux Vents. This time around, the climb that lay ahead wasn’t intimidating. It was thrilling.
Despite it being nighttime, the odd supporter could be found along the path. The location of the climb was quite accessible for those staying in Chamonix valley, so it made sense that family, friends and locals would hike partway up to participate in the closing stages of the race. “Allez, Allez!” they cried.
Like Giète earlier, Tête aux Vents was riddled with false summits. First it was Col des Montets, and then another significant climb to the summit. I put my poles away, ready for a fast descent: but no, somehow, the climb went on, and on, and on. It finally levelled out, but then it climbed again. I was perplexed – where on earth was the top of this bloody thing?
An endless uphill it might have been, but I was still pushing, and reeling in as many people as I could. Over the flatter summit, the path was indistinct over a vast angled rocky expanse, and it was down to reflective markers to guide us through the darkness.
Finally, the trail started to descend to La Flégère. This was rocky, technical trail, and one had to keep one’s wits about oneself. I was pushing as hard as I dared, making up places as I went. I shot past a runner bent over double, and called out to check he was OK. “No. My torch has died, and my spare battery isn’t working”, he shouted back, with some urgency.
I scooted to a stop. I’d never encountered anything like this before in a race, but the only appropriate course of action was to assist the stricken runner, surely? So I retraced my steps back to him, where he asked if I had a spare Nao+ battery. “Yes, I do”, I replied, hesitantly. Was he really asking me to give him my spare battery? If I gave him my spare, then I wouldn’t have one myself, which – given the burn time on my own lamp – I was half expecting to need before the finish. After all, this is why all runners are required to carry a fully charged, working spare. Furthermore, if I gave him mine, I’d fail a kit check myself, risking DQ! Nonetheless, I concluded that I couldn’t just leave him here without light. I felt I had no option but to risk my own race, and give him mine.
My spare battery was packed right at the bottom of my bulging pack. As I unpacked all my kit, distributing it all over the trail, all the runners I’d been overtaking for the past 5 minutes cruised past, one by one. Despite there being two downed runners and an ocean of kit strewn all over the path, none of them slowed or said a word. I was rather surprised.
All of a sudden, the runner I was helping leapt to his feet. He proudly exclaimed “I’ve got it working!”, similar to how I imagined Archimedes screamed “Eureka!”. Before I’d managed to get a word out, he’d vaulted over my sea of kit, and was gone. I was left alone, with the contents of my pack strewn all over the place.
It took a while to repack my vest, and in my haste I didn’t manage to make a very good job of it. Things were bulging out every which way. I hurriedly pulled it back on, and in so doing I must have stuck my arm through the wrong hole, because that was it – I couldn’t do the pack up properly after that. The front straps were completely askew, and I couldn’t work out what’d happened. I had to set off with my pack only half affixed, bouncing up and down, with bits and bobs protruding most uncomfortably into my torso. It was a mess.
I’d lost a decent chunk of time, and quite a number of places, each of which had been hard-won over technical singletrack. To make matters worse, it had all been for nothing – the stricken runner had sorted himself out, whilst not being terribly appreciative, or even realising how significantly he’d impacted my race. I ran even faster than before, determined to overtake everyone again, and make up the time I’d lost. I didn’t know what I could have done differently, but the result was a profound sense of frustration.
Descending into Disaster
Large jagged rocks hemmed in the narrow path that lie ahead. I’d reclaimed a few places, and was now behind the fastest chap I’d previously overtaken. He saw me coming and stopped on the trail, shifting his bodyweight to one side to make room for me to squeeze through this narrow pass. I nodded at him, called out “Thanks!”, maintained my pace, and planned my foot landing precisely to allow me to manoeuvre through the tiny gap without breaking stride. Just as I went to land that crucial foot, and as I was watching him watching me, he shifted his body weight and rotated his body, blocking my path.
There was absolutely nothing I could do. My foot landing was committed at that point. I could only observe in horror as my landing leg was forced straight into the jagged rock. The saving grace was that I managed to land my second foot shortly afterwards and avoid an even worse fate.
I cried out in pain, stumbled to a halt (somehow remaining upright), and stared around at the other runner in disbelief. He’d literally been watching me. Why on earth had he done such a stupid, reckless thing? I couldn’t comprehend it. For a fleeting moment, I wondered whether he had intended to injure me.
If I was looking for an explanation, one wasn’t forthcoming. He just stared back at me blankly as if nothing had happened. For a moment, I felt sympathy toward him, reasoning that fatigue may have been affecting his mental functions, and that perhaps at that moment he wasn’t really all there. That moment of compassion faded as rapidly as it had arrived, as I turned away and the pain set in. I gingerly tried stepping forwards on my injured leg. It worked; but the tidal wave of sensory feedback that shot up my leg made me seriously question whether I should take another.
I had successfully completed all six ascents of the CCC. It was only after I’d stopped to offer assistance, risking my own race, that everything had begun to unravel. I was feeling crestfallen. I’d been anticipating this race for years. To bow out on my own terms, that I could probably have accepted. But to DNF in the final furlong, after being brought down unjustly by one’s competitors… that would be an impossibly bitter pill to swallow.
I placed one foot in front of the other, trying to blank out the sensory feedback. I forced myself into a delicate jog, and gradually into something resembling a run. This didn’t feel like a good idea. I zoomed out from my tunnel vision, and realised that the guilty party was right on my tail. I beckoned him past me. “My leg’s injured”, I explained, in a gruff voice; just in case he hadn’t grasped what had occurred. To my amazement, he responded in a jubilant tone: “No worries! You keep going – this pace is perfect for me!”
Just spiffing. Not only did he appear to be blissfully unaware of what he’d done, but he was pushing me to keep going at this pace, regardless of the damage I was wreaking on my injured leg. Meanwhile, my pain-addled brain was, for some bizarre reason, feeling guilty that I was holding him up.
After a few minutes of enduring these mental gymnastics, I reached an incline up a wide gravel path. I immediately pulled over to one side and slowed to a walk, in an attempt to force my seemingly oblivious sidekick to overtake. To my surprise, he matched me, also slowing to a walk. I slowed my pace further, until I was barely moving; still, he sat on my tail for what seemed like an eternity, before finally drawing alongside me, and then taking the lead.
Had his reluctance to overtake been an act of self-punishment to appease a guilty conscience? Was fatigue affecting his judgement? Whatever, I didn’t care. I was just relieved to be by myself once more. I needed the headspace to assess my situation and take stock.
The point of impact was quite small, I observed; so I wasn’t at risk of bleeding out, and there was no need to apply the UTMB’s infamous 100x6cm self-adhesive elasticated bandage which can serve as a bandage or strapping. Given the degree of pain, I had clearly impacted my left tibia quite substantially. I reckoned a lateral force involving the majority of my body weight must have travelled through that single point of contact as it had been driven into the rock. Whatever damage had been done to the tibia, given it could still support my body weight, it couldn’t be too serious. I assessed the situation. There was nothing I could physically do to improve things. And I wasn’t going to stop. With that decided, I resolved to do my best to ignore the throbbing and shooting pains, screw my head back on, and get back to the plan: overtake, overtake, overtake, to place in the low 200s. But my first priority was to get myself back past Mr. Calamity ahead of me, and to put as much distance between us as I could – I certainly didn’t want a repeat of this episode on the descent.
Over the incline, I picked up pace once more, and overtook Mr. Calamity for the third and final time, ensuring it was on a safe, wide stretch with no nearby rocks. The final water stop loomed ahead, and I threaded a path straight through the tent, without so much as glancing at what was on offer. My understanding was that, from here, it was just a fire track straight down to Chamonix; so now was the time to barrel down to the finish. This descent to Chamonix was what I’d been waiting for for years. No matter the state I was in, I was sure of one thing: I was bloody well going to enjoy it!
The start of the descent was, indeed, a wide gravel track, exactly as promised. Just as I was settling into speeding down this steep, slippery decline, the route signage directed me off to the left, down a tiny opening in the undergrowth. Could that really be right?
It was right. From here on down, most of the route was root-ridden narrow switchback trail, snaking its way down the side of the mountain. “Don’t trip over the roots, don’t trip over the roots”, I repeated to myself, like a Buddhist mantra. I did trip, of course – many times – but I stayed upright. It wasn’t long before I found myself stuck behind a party of two, and that was where I stayed for some time, unable to pass. It wasn’t until we neared Petit Balcon Sud that I managed to delicately skirt around them and push on. The path re-emerged back onto the fire track every now and again, until it emerged one last time for the final descent, which I recalled running earlier in the week.
Here, I was able to really open up and give it full beans. The sense of satisfaction to find oneself emerging back into Chamonix was indescribable. There was one temporary scaffold bridge to navigate (slightly surreal after all those hours in the mountains), before I dropped down into central Cham, to track the footpath alongside the river Arve.
The last few days, I’d spent quite a while hanging around the finish line at Place du Triangle de l’Amitié. I’d cheered the winner of the TDS as he crossed the line, and I’d followed some of the faster OCC finishers on their final few hundred metres. The atmosphere had been indescribable; but all that had been during the daytime. I didn’t expect anyone to be out, braving the cold at 2am in the morning, to see in some slow-ish CCC finishers.
I was wrong. Along the Arve, there were countless people lining the streets, waving their beers and cheering me on. It wasn’t just exciting – it was electric. The noise and energy flipped up a notch as I approached downtown, and I increased my pace in response.
At the end of a race like this, when nobody’s on your tail, one has the choice of treating it like a victory lap by simply jogging it in and soaking up the atmosphere; or by buckling up, and putting on a sprint finish. I weighed the two options briefly, but it was never in doubt. I was going for the sprint finish.
Passing over the Avenue de Mont Blanc, I temporarily lost direction as a crowd of cheering revellers unwittingly obscured the poor race volunteer attempting to point me toward Rue Joseph Vallot. Realising the problem, the whole crowd joined in and redirected me toward the finish, waving their beers in celebration.
From the darkness, into the light; the UTMB flags, the cheering, the bottles clinking, the smell of hops wafting into my nostrils, the bass sounds of commentary from an unseen finish line. There was an almost tangible feeling of magic in the air, from so many people from so many different backgrounds, who’d all come together, at 2am in the morning, huddled around in the cold, in this little town nestled cosily in an alpine valley, for the sole purpose of sharing in this remarkable exhibition of endurance running. It was intoxicating, and it drove me on as fast as my legs would carry me.
As I rounded the final corner and came face to face with the UTMB arch, an excited group of revellers broke free from the sidelines and ran alongside me, taking videos and selfies. The contrast from the solitary mountain trails couldn’t have been starker. Overwhelmed and appreciative, I passed under the famous UTMB arch.
It was surreal. It was over.
How Does It Feel?
No sooner had I come to a stop, one of the group enthusiastically blurted out “how does it feel?”, and stood there, wide-eyed, awaiting my response.
I sat myself down on something behind the arch, unclipped my skew-whiff pack, turned off my headtorch, and stared back along the finishing stretch. With all the adrenaline flooding my system, I couldn’t feel my injured leg, which would go on to develop a permanent scar to mark the occasion.
I ran through the race in my head. The climb up Tête de la Tronche that set the scene for this mountainous adventure. The incredible scenery around the eastern side of Mont Blanc. The smiling faces of the supporters at La Fouly. The moments of self-doubt at Champex. The on-the-fly improvements I made to my pole technique and ascent nutrition strategy up La Giète. The rapid, free-flowing descent to Vallorcine where I made up so many places. The lost time, and near-disaster approaching La Flégère. The sketchy yet exhilarating final descent over root carpet switchbacks. And that glorious run through Chamonix to the finish.
I kept replaying that Chamonix sprint finish in my mind. What a finish. ‘Memorable’ didn’t begin to cover it.
How did it feel, I asked myself? I sat there for a good five minutes. I couldn’t put into words how it felt. I was too preoccupied feeling it.