The moment I knew I could complete the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), I didn’t want to finish it any more. Knowing I could physically finish meant that I had nothing to prove. I wasn’t doing this for anyone in particular. I’d set out with 2 simple objectives: to finish and to enjoy it. To be successful both objectives needed to be completed.
I had been going for more than a day. It was approaching nightfall on Saturday, August 29 and I hadn’t been enjoying myself for most of the last 24 hours. My stomach had been giving me issues starting somewhere around midnight Friday and there was no sign of this abating. It would occasionally improve a bit and occasionally get worse. As a consequence I didn’t eat much at the checkpoints.
Saturday evening I was on my way from the La Fouly checkpoint to the Champex Lac checkpoint, a 13km section, something I could on fresh legs do in 90 min, even on the narrower trails that some of this posed and with the 300m ascent to Champex Lac. I didn’t during the preceding descent realise how bad that climb up to Champex Lac would be. It was only 300m of ascent but in the dark it seemed to go up 2 steps and come down one, zigzagging around. From the valley bottom it had looked straight forward. We’d be in Champex Lac in 15 min. It took nearly 1 hour and with that nearly 3.5 hours from La Fouly – for 13km!
Yes, I had now completed 120 km since departing Chamonix at 6pm the previous evening but I was still moving pretty well. Climbing up to Champex Lac seemed to be the crux of the UTMB for many a runner. Looking back it was either going to be where I’d end this race or of I exited that checkpoint I’d finish.
Around 10pm I exited the Champex Lac checkpoint to start a hideous climb which on fresh legs and by daylight would probably have been fun. I had though for the first time wolfed down a bowl of pasta and my stomach was probably feeling notably better than it had for the previous 24 hours or so. Even though I still wasn’t enjoying the experience, reaching the finish line now wasn’t in doubt. The climb I was on was scrambly in places, had river crossings and was occasionally very narrow meaning that our little group of runners would regularly have to stop as those ahead of us struggled through pinch points.
More than once during this race did I curse the organisers as I became convinced that they had just put random markers up in the forest for us to follow and what we were on had nothing to do with the official long distance walking path known as the TMB (Tour du Mont Blanc). It felt cruel and disheartening. Fingers crossed for a good descent.
For the entire race I tried to make my mark on the descents and use those as a place to make up time and places. This may be a surprise to many ultra runners as it is more common and advisable to save your quads instead of thrashing them so that you don’t have to walk long stretches later on.
My more recent experiences have shown me that I can keep my descending legs in good nick even if putting some effort into the descents from early on. If you look at my splits between climbing and descending then you’ll realise that I regularly was gaining places on the descents and losing them on the climbs. I was losing less on the climbs than I was gaining on the descents though which was a real bonus. All of this was proof that I had the hill, mountain and descent training to cope with this challenge.
One of the few descents I didn’t tackle very well was coming off the Col des P. Calcaires. I got to the top of this Col just after dawn broke after the first night. I was very tired and had already fallen asleep once on the way up crossing the boulder field, which apparently was new to this year’s UTMB. The descent was more of the same boulder field and I fell asleep again whilst still on the move. As this didn’t feel particularly safe I sat down on a rock to take on some energy in the form of some Jelly Babies hoping that this would help keep me awake until I got to the Lac Combal checkpoint which was several hundred metres below. At least it kind of gave me a few moments to take in the stunning scenery as daylight was pushing out the night. Lac Combal was covered in a fine layer of mist and I was trying to make out where the checkpoint was. The sun was gradually drawing lines round the mountains but hadn’t made its way over their tops yet. As we’d topped the col a chilly morning wind had made an appearance making for the coldest moment since we’d left the start in Chamonix the previous evening. The chill wouldn’t last long as the sun rose.
I’d been running with just a t-shirt, shorts and calf guards up until this point. Even at 2500m above sea level at 4am it wasn’t cold. The temperatures had been steadily increasing in the days leading up to the race with the weekend forecast suggesting around 30 degrees in the valleys and a cloudless sky for the whole weekend. In this respect the weather did not disappoint. It made for a stunning night. As much as I didn’t like the 2nd night, the first night was magical. Our first big climb was the Croix du Col du Bonhomme which tops out at just over 2500m and depending on what you regard as it’s starting point either rises from under 900m at St Gervais or from around 1100m at Les Contamines. But to be honest it starts properly from La Balme which although already at 1700m was where we’d enter single track climbing for the first time.
Along with the clear night we also had a full moon which lit up the mountains around us and when we crossed the Col the night views were something to behold. At the same time if you looked back down the valley you could see the long line of head torches snaking its way up the mountain. This also gave me an idea that I was in a decent enough position in the race. Although that probably still meant just inside the top half.
In Chamonix I’d chosen a starting point which felt like it was at the back of the field but was probably inside the top half. Ashok and myself decided to wait in the Cheval Rouge Bar until the last minute before lining up watching the elites take their positions and relaxing with the rest of the Scottish contingent who’d come down to watch.
The start of the UTMB is one of the incredible experiences of the race. Accompanied by Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise and univocal countdown we are off through the streets of Chamonix. These streets are lined with supporters at least 5 deep on both sides cheering us on, wishing us good luck and high fiving us. We are heroes before we have even covered the first km. It must be at least 2 km before we cover any ground were we only have some trees for support. The crowds soon return. Video of the start here.
Les Houches, our first checkpoint town, is heaving as are the lower slopes going up the climb to the Col de Voza out of Les Houches. I’d dubbed this the Spanish corner as most of the shouts from the crowd were ‘Venga, Venga’. I thought we were in France?! This illustrates the international nature of this event. In every checkpoint and town we would go through the support was immense with huge crowds even if we’d arrive sometime during the night. At the mountain tops we’d have support from the Mountain Rescue guys. I tried to keep myself occupied trying to work out which language to respond in as I came out with a mixture of ‘merci, ‘thank you’, ‘grazie’ and ‘gracias’ with the occasional ‘danke’ thrown in.
When the crowds had ebbed away on the climb up the Col de Voza which we had started just over 1 hour into the run I started noticing something else. A substantial number of runners appeared to be sick or vomiting. Were they struggling with the heat? Already? After such a short time? Although my initial feeling was that I’d have preferred to start in the morning as I do with all races the hot temperatures made an evening start and thus a night run for essentially the first 12 hours very welcome.
I’d arrived in Chamonix a week before the race started. This was to acclimatise and get used to the surroundings. Admittedly I hadn’t expected to be acclimatising to heat but it came as an added bonus. I had instead planned to get a couple of runs in at altitude which I did with the Grand Balcon and a run from La Flegere to Chamonix which covered the last 10km of the UTMB. Even though the temperatures had dipped on Sun/Mon I had spent nearly a week in conditions above 25 degrees which I believe helped me cope with the heat during the race. On the Friday before the start I spent most of the day indoors in the coldest room I had in the apartment and only ventured into the heat when it was time to deposit my half way drop bag and go to the start.
The hottest part of the race (for me) was departing Courmayeur – roughly the half way point – climbing up to the Refugio Bertone and Bonatti which are at a plateau at around 2000m. From those we’d drop down to the Arnuva checkpoint to start a long ascent up to the Grand Col Ferret at 2537m. I’d left Courmayeur just before midday and it was baking hot and only going to get hotter. In the first 2km out of Courmayeur I’d already stopped at 2 water fountains. I was expecting many more on the way up to the Refugio. But on what was quite a barren climb there were no more water points. I was carrying enough water but it would have been good to douse head arms and legs and with that cap and arm covers in water to keep cool. Numerous runners were taking regular stops in the shade to cool off a bit.
It was around here that I started to question why I was doing this. I was told that this was to be the most beautiful section of the route with stunning views of the east side of the Mont Blanc massif. It was too hot to enjoy this, my stomach was too achy and my energy levels not right due to the lack of food I was taking on. I had also decided it was a bit hypocritical to call this a run and wasn’t prepared to call those around me runners anymore. We were faster walkers with smaller packs than those sensible enough to carry bigger packs and take a few days to do this route.
If things had gone to plan then I’d have left Courmayeur 2-3 hours earlier. My stomach issue had slowed me down from daybreak onwards. I’d taken the stop on the boulder field, hung around a long time at Lac Combal hoping that some food and coffee would help. And to add insult to injury I’d left my running poles that the last checkpoint before getting to Courmayeur. I’d descended nearly 1km towards Courmayeur before I realised. After a short debate with myself I decided to go back to get them passing a surprised Graeme Gatherer who I’d had a brief chat with at the checkpoint on the way. The climb back up to the checkpoint was all the proof I needed that the poles would be vital for the remainder of the UTMB. Not using poles would have added a huge chunk of time to my climbs. It was a wasteful 20 min though.
The Courmayeur checkpoint was in a sports hall, the biggest checkpoint of them all. Pretty efficiently set up so that you could pick up your drop bag, meet your support person (should you have one) and sit down for a while or even put your head down on a mattress. I’d been debating with myself on the way in if I should have a short nap. When I got there I got myself a bowl of pasta. It took me a long time to eat the pasta as I was constantly falling asleep. I’d also hoped to see Fiona (my partner) there as we’d said that if I was slow into Courmayeur she could come across from Chamonix on one of the organisers buses. If I was fast she wouldn’t have made it. I was slow but somehow she still didn’t make it. I was a bit confused and put my head down for a while in the hope it would refresh me a bit the way it did at Strathpuffer in January. It may have helped to stem the sleepiness but not the stomach issues. I briefly bumped into Craig Hamilton before leaving. He complained about the boulder field on the Col des Pyramides Calcaires as that hadn’t been there before. It was his 4th UTMB and the first time he’d thrown up. I don’t think he blamed the boulder field for that. The boulder field didn’t bother me but then I’d not seen the course any different. I also bumped into Bob Allison who seemed in pretty good spirits at the time. We’d meet again on the Grand Col Ferret when he was having a rest on his way to the summit. Both on my way in and out of the checkpoint I got a wave from Katie Hall which was most welcome. She was waiting for Ashok to come in. I did always expect him to catch me at some point. He never did and sadly retired from the race at Courmayeur after falling heavily on his hip.
One thing that did help make me feel better leaving Courmayeur was a change of shoes, socks and t-shirt. I also had a cap back as I’d lost the other in the Chapieux checkpoint during the random kit check there. All of the above contributed to a midday departure instead of probably a 10am departure. Would it have made a difference to when I was to experience to sun beating down on me. Probably not.
So I’d hoped getting through Courmayeur would give me a boost. It didn’t. As already mentioned I was genuinely questioning the sanity of this venture while heading from Bertone Refugio to the Bonatti Refugio, my stomach continued to play up and I started making the one mistake I really shouldn’t do: Look at the big picture. Arriving at the Arnuva checkpoint I’d just about done 100km which sounds awesome until you flip that around and have 70km to go. O.M.G. Strangely I couldn’t really work out what that meant as I wasn’t sure what distance I was covering per hour.
The sector from Arnuva to La Fouly was a struggle though as it was the longest unsupported stretch since we had started with 14 km and the Grand Col Ferret in between. I had a couple of stops on the way up including a chat with Bob. Clouds had rolled in and I was looking forward to a good descent on the shadowy side of the mountain. The descent was great fun down as far as La Peule after which it got bitsy and once it hit the valley it was too flat for me.
Remarkably I think it is the flatter parts of the route that I mostly struggled with as I wasn’t travelling at a pace I was comfortable with and others would travel faster which was frustrating. The descent from La Fouly to the bottom of the climb to Champex Lac was like this and on paper looked like I should be able to cover this much faster.
As with Courmayeur I’d secretly hoped that Fiona would make it to La Fouly. I’d texted her earlier to find out which checkpoint she would be at to which I didn’t get a response apart from a motivational response saying that I could do this. I just wanted someone to chat to at this point and was starting to convince myself that Fiona was not going to be at any checkpoints in order to get me to the finish.
One of the downsides of an international race like this is that you have less opportunity to chat to people due to the language barrier. Although I am not the chattiest person during races, it can help improved the mood and pass the time if you can chat to someone. I had the pleasure of chatting to a Dutch guy on the climb up to the Col du Bonhomme and spoke briefly with a guy from France after leaving the Lac Combal checkpoint. For a while I also had a chat with another Brit heading into Praz de Fort on our way to Champex Lac. There were a couple of Brits from the Manchester area around me after Champex on all of the last 3 climbs so I joined in their conversation occasionally.
I have been going on about stomach issues for a while now and while they plagued me for nearly the entire race I have managed to come up with a possible reason why. Nearly all the races I have done have a morning start, usually somewhere between 6-9am. I have a routine for races that start then which includes when to have breakfast, what to have for breakfast and how often I need to go to the toilet to clear out my bowels. UTMB started at 6pm. I had breakfast that day and then lunch at around 1pm. I wasn’t able to go to the toilet to clear my bowels pre race – i.e. my body didn’t let me – and I wasn’t able to do this for the first 24 hours of the race even though I did visit the odd toilet at some checkpoints on route. Finally with nearly 27 hours gone a field just outside Issert at the foot of the climb to Champex Lac served as the much needed toilet.
This was probably the start of the turning point in the race. As I got to Champex Lac, Fiona was there: Hurray! Part 2 of the turning point? I had a moan at Fiona as to how I wasn’t enjoying this and had nothing to prove and would be happy to walk away. She kindly said I should continue. As already mentioned, I wolfed my pasta down which was quite a change from earlier.
When I left Champex Lac I still wasn’t sure why. The next 2 climbs were very foresty and rather technical meaning slow progress and no night time views. Fiona walked with me until I left Champex Lac’s tarmac road. Frustratingly the descent after the first climb was one of the few I really didn’t enjoy as it was ankle breaking stuff. We were heading for a town called Trient and when it looked as if we were approaching Trient a guy told us it is another 20 min away and a further series of large steps. Fiona was there again in Trient and I was down to 2 climbs to go. I had some noodle soup and coke (or was it coffee) and was on my way again reasonably swiftly. The climb over Catogne and down to Vallorcine wasn’t that bad. I could enjoy some of that descent and got into Vallorcine just as the 2nd dawn was breaking over this race. I was now 1 climb and 17km from the finish. Inside the last 10km. Fiona was there to help again. I had my last helping of noodle soup and another coffee (or was it coke this time).
I couldn’t care less about the sunrise I just wanted to finish. I was very tired. I tend to use pro plus in long ultras to help keep me awake and alert. I said to Fiona that they don’t seem to be helping much anymore. I had been awake for more than 48 hours by now.
On my way out of Vallorcine, after saying ‘bye, see you at the finish’ to Fiona, I bumped into Sarah Spence – to my surprise – who had been one of my coaching clients. She had just sent her husband Ross off on his last leg of this journey too. She pointed him out to me and I made an effort to catch up with him for a chat. We hiked up to the Col des Montets together where he stopped to sort out a blister. Even though it was a very sleepy chat it was good to chat and take the mind of things. On to the final climb proper which I mastered pretty well in the morning sunshine and nearly enjoyed. I passed quite a few competitors but whatever energy I had used to do this seemed to have disappeared as I got closer to the top as some of them started passing me back. Once I’d passed the checkpoint at Tete aux Vents a wave of tiredness came over me and I had to sit down to regain my strength. A few jelly babies helped too.
I’d soon be on familiar territory. Getting from Tete aux Vents to La Flegere is surprisingly technical on tired legs and half way there I stopped for another break. I was making hard work of these last few kms. Ross caught up with me again and we covered the section to La Flegere together. I’d been on this bit earlier in the week but it didn’t make it any easier. Into the checkpoint at La Flegere for the final scan of our number and a cup of coke. No more climbing to do now just an 800m descent into Chamonix over approx. 8km. Job, effectively, done. Let’s hope the coke I just had would do the job to so that I could lift my legs on the descent.
Ross said to me as we left the checkpoint that I shouldn’t hold back for him on the descent. Not sure what he was expecting of my descending prowess after 160km of running (or moving forward). We’d come through La Flegere at 10am and I thought with an 8k descent I should make the finish before 11am and thus inside 41 hours. With that in mind I did leave Ross behind but the gap didn’t really open much and as I stopped for a drink by a river he’d caught me again. Meanwhile it was 25 min to 11 and I said to Ross I am going to try and get to the finish before 11. His comment: no chance or something to that effect. But I’d finally flicked the switch properly and sprinted off or as I’d said to everyone after I’d finished: I’d put on the after burners. I through caution to the wind and bounded down the last 400m of vertical having already bounced past a number of runners on the way down to the La Floria chalet (a beautiful lookout spot although they apparently only do Nescafe). Since we’d topped out at Tete aux Vents support along the trail was growing with people regularly congratulating us. These numbers grew as we got closer to Chamonix and I was enjoying overtaking runner after runner. I was tempted to put my number to the back so that they did think I was some idiot on his Sunday run, instead I was some idiot who was sprinting down a hill having already done 160km.
I always hoped though to finish like this in the same way that I had finished the Zugspitz Ultra Trail a couple of months earlier. One huge advantage of finishing towards midday and not in the early morning hours were the crowds. As I hit the pavements of Chamonix there were cheers everywhere. Before the race had started I was confused as to why we’d be doing such a complicated labyrinth through Chamonix before reaching the finish line. Now I knew and I didn’t want it to end. Having spent hours, nearly days, wanting this to end, I’d hit the streets of Chamonix and they could have gone on forever. I felt awesome, the crowd were awesome, I was high fiving folk lining the route to the finish, the pain in my legs had disappeared and my stomach was fine and any tiredness was gone. After my high speed descent I did slow down somewhat going through Chamonix to soak up the atmosphere, saw Donald and Elaine Sandeman, spotted John and Karen Munro, Fiona handed me the Austrian flag and I turned onto the finishing straight, swung over to the left hand side to high five the Scottish support crew who were (still I assume) outside the Cheval Rouge Bar, and strode up to the finish line.
40 epic long hours followed by 63 minutes of awesome fun!
A few days after the event I picked up an article by Kilian Jornet about his speed ascent of Denali in which he wrote the following line: ‘I had the satisfaction of having completed my objective, but I hadn’t felt the pleasure of the journey.’
This sentence perfectly summarised how I felt about my UTMB experience. I had gone and completed the event I had set out to do, the distance, the mountains, crossed that finish line, but when I look back I struggle to be happy about it as I hadn’t been able to enjoy the experience. Robbie Britton who DNFed this year’s UTMB appeared to have similar emotions which appeared to have led to his exit.
When I got to Champex Lac I said to Fiona that I never want to do something like this again. At the finish some people commented that now that I had finished I wouldn’t have to go back again. Had I DNFed then I probably wouldn’t go back again. Having finished, knowing the course and likely being aware what caused the problems mean I can see genuine room for improvement.
All my moaning aside I am pleased to have picked up my UTMB gilet on what has proved to be a very tough weekend for many. Nearly 1000 of the approx. 2500 runners that started exited the race at some point or another. I nearly joined that number but thanks to Fiona and a gradual change of fortunes I didn’t. 41 hours is a bloody long time to be on your feet. I have no intention of being on my feet for any longer any time soon, probably ever! Which means that if I do it again I’ll have to do it quicker.
For now though it is time to rest an look back on a year that has been hugely successful with Strathpuffer in January, the Highland Fling in April, the Zugspitz Ultra Trail in June and now the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. The UTMB was my first time I had broken the 100 mile barrier! I must not forget that! In one of the hardest 100 mile events out there.
Ross crossed the line a few minutes after I did while I was still milling around at the finish. Bob came in around 1 hour later to rapturous applause from The Scottish crowd. Craig finished at 2:30pm. I was fast asleep by then. Congratulations to the other 2 Scottish finishers, Caroline McKay and Matt Williamson who stormed the course in 35 and 30 hours respectively.
We had an absolutely awesome week in Chamonix, enjoying the trails, the mountains and the buzz. A place I am surprised not to have visited before but a place I will return to before long again. Alongside the UTMB there were 4 other races going on during the week and the runners I was out with had mixed fortunes on all of them with heat and the course taking its toll. Congratulations to all for toeing the start line and thank you to all for being fantastic start and finish line support during the UTMB itself. My final but most important thanks goes to Fiona for once again being my trusted support crew out on the course. I wouldn’t have made the finish line without her and I have realised more than ever how much of a help that is.
I may add some after thoughts in a separate blog post but for now I’d like to thank you all for reading and also thank everyone who congratulated me or willed me on by text, social media or in person. THANK YOU!