Sunday, 21 September 2014

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc report

Why the hell has someone left sausages all over the track?

I was making the final descent of the most epic race I've ever run, heading back to Chamonix. It was about 2am on a late August Sunday morning, I'd been running for the best part of 33 hours and I actually told myself to stop being so stupid, there were obviously no sausages on the ground - I was hallucinating. I weaved around a bit more, and still the sausages were there, glinting in the torch light. I stopped and took a closer look - Slugs!

As I made the final few turns through the streets of Chamonix, I thought back to the January morning in the PE Department office as I logged on to the UTMB race website and had to ask a colleague to double check that I had read the information correctly - I was in! I hardly slept that night so you can imagine how I was feeling in the final couple of days before the race actually started.

The finish line

Prior to our week in Chamonix, Team Troman (Mom and Dad, Tracey and I) spent a lovely week in northern France, conducting our own tour of the First World War battlefields, cemeteries and museums. My outlook on the holiday changed once we hit Chamonix on the Monday afternoon - this was ultra trail running Nirvana, I was going to love this!

View from outside the apartment

I live in the Lake District, which is pretty dam beautiful, but Chamonix simply takes everything to a new level and for this week of the year, it embraces the world of mountain trail running. I found it really difficult to hold back and remember that I was close to the end of a taper, all I wanted to do was run around the hills for a few hours every day.

We were able to watch lots of other runners finishing their races (5 races as part of the UTMB week long festival), including the winner of the TDS, Xavier Thevenard, who won UTMB last year. It all gets very emotional as you can see what finishing means to all these runners.

Xavier Thevenard, winner of TDS

My pre race thoughts were focused on just three things; I had my fingers crossed that we would be able to race round the full, iconic UTMB route (this has not always been the case due to the weather), I promised myself that I would strive to enjoy myself as much as I could and DNF was not an option. I knew that it was very likely that this would be my only shot at this race and I, therefore, had to get round to claim one of the coveted finishers gillets, but equally, I did not fancy making a 15 hour death march and hate every minute of it. I genuinely had no idea what time I was aiming for - it would be a successful race if I finished and enjoyed it.

Packed and ready to go

At least in the final day and a half before the start I was able to occupy myself  with sorting race pack, running kit, nutrition, drop bag and bossing the registration process. To cut a long story short, I found myself sitting on a curb 50 yards behind the start banner, 45 minutes before the 5:30pm start, managing to stay fairly calm, soaking up the atmosphere; a mix of excitement, trepidation and, for some, outright fear (at least that's how it smelt!). All I was waiting for was the first few bars of THAT music; I just wanted to remember what it was like as I stood there with Conquest of Paradise rising to a crescendo before we were finally set on our way - it was AWESOME :-)

Just before the start

Through the streets of Chamonix

What I have found difficult since getting back is recalling the specific details of the race. I think this is because I didn't have to navigate as the course is fully marked and you can just follow the pack, I didn't even carry a map, subsequently, I have struggled to put the memories in the right order, but I'll have a go.

Running through the streets of Chamonix was amazing; the music, the crowds, the cheering, the high fives. It took me about 8 minutes until I was properly running, but once out of the town I settled into the long line, making our way along the flat valley to Les Houches, the start of the first climb. You've gotta love this; the town of Les Houches is basically just a water refill point for the race yet had a live band playing on a stage opposite the feed station and supporters covering every available space along the road. I was starting to worry that my hands would suffer with all the high fives, but this was a premeditated strategy as part of my "enjoy it" race plan.

On the first climb from Les Houches

I was soon into my power hike with my poles, those endless trips up Skiddaw were going to pay dividends today, passing folk all the way but staying very much within myself. We crested out at around 1800m above sea level and started the ridiculously muddy descent down to the first major support station in the town of Saint Gervais. I think of myself as a fairly good descender, but there are some bloomin nutters out there. You could easily have finished your race there and then, so I just made my own merry way down and breathed a sigh of relief once I reached the tarmac road on the outskirts of the town.

Saint Gervais

If you've run this race (or seen the videos on YouTube) you'll know what I mean when I say - how much fun is that, running through Saint Gervais? I was through just after 8pm and it was bonkers; in a good way! I felt like such a hero and I'd only run for 2:40 hours. I had to think hard to get all my sorting out done, what did I fancy eating, put on rain jacket (as it was starting to rain quite heavily now), remember to put on the head torch, refill water bottles, etc, etc. Although I did not know my positions at all throughout the race, the results showed that I was in 576 place in Saint Gervais.

During the night sections, the contrast from the sensory overload of the checkpoints to the quiet solitude of the night time trails is significant and takes a while to get used to. I know this sounds strange, bit this is, at time a lonely race. You might always be surrounded by other runners but, largely due to the language barrier, I had relatively few conversations. As I left Saint Gervais, I took out the course profile I was carrying and did some quick maths. OK, get your head around this one; for the next 23kms you are basically going uphill! The tracks and fields to Les Contamines (31kms into the race) were a bit of a memory blanc, very muddy I do remember, but in the dark with just a head torch beam to guide the way, hood up, it was just a case of getting through. I do remember overtaking quite a lot of runners which always perks you up, finally arriving in Les Contamines in 4:11 hours (501st place).

What I was now looking forward to was the Notre Dame de la Gorge supporters area which marks the start of the climb to the Croix du Bonhomme (2439m). I've seen the video clips and photos from this place and it looks mad. It did not disappoint - it was like being on a Tour de France climb, with spectators shouting, cow bells ringing, all in the dark with bonfires and fairy lights. Insane!

Notre Dame de la Gorge - Bonkers!

I felt pretty good for the most part of the monster climb, just grinding out a rhythm. The views back down the climb were incredible, with a long line of head torches trailing back down the mountain; quite spectacular. I didn't pass many on the trail, but as soon as we came to any sort of water/food stop (like La Balme), I made a quick stop and turn round while others seemed to stay for longer. Somehow, in the 18kms from Les Contamines, over the Croix du Bonhomme and down to Les Chapieux, I overtook 85 runners, moving up into 416th place. I did suffer on the top half of the climb, possibly with the altitude, but started to feel better at I made the, initially quite technical, descent to Les Chapieux. At the checkpoint, we had to show a couple of items from your race pack - if I remember correctly it was phone and waterproof jacket. I took quite a few extra minutes (12 minutes in total) in the feed station just to collect myself a little which was a wise move as I felt better as I ventured back out into the night.

Les Chapieux, I think?

As I had suffered a bit on the previous climb, I decided that I would just try to hold position over the Col de la Seigne (2507m) and treat it as a re-grouping exercise whilst still ticking off some miles and crossing over the border into Italy. This seemed to take a bit of pressure off me and, though I still struggled at the very top of the climb, the plan seemed to work. I lost a few places on the way up and proceeded to catch them all back up again on the descent, arriving in Lac Combal in 417th place.

I had a quicker turn round here, so I guess I must have been feeling a bit better. I was coming out of a dark patch in both the metaphorical and actual meaning of the words. The sky was slowly starting to brighten and I was feeling a little more chipper, thinking about the run into Courmayeur where it would be daylight and I could grab my drop bag and a good sort out. The climb up and over the Arete du Mont Favre (2409m) went a little better, I could feel myself getting back in the groove and suddenly I could sense my game face starting to make an appearance. The long descent down to Courmayeur was a joy and as I ran down the technical zig zags in the woods above the town I was finally able to switch off the head torch. I'd picked up 25 places, but more importantly, I was in a good place mentally and really looking forward to a day of running through the Alps. 77kms done in 13:20 hours.

Drop bags at Courmateur

I had a laminated sheet in my drop bag listing all the things I MUST do (change socks, shoes and top, replenish some food supplies, etc) and what I MIGHT do (cap, sunglasses, shorts, etc). It was obviously going to be a cracking day, so I went with cap, sunglasses and a splash of sunblock. I took my time, spending about 17 minutes in the checkpoint, but left feeling like a new man (cue joke ...) and really looking forward to the next section, climbing to the Bertone Refuge, sighting Mont Blanc for the first time and running the terraced path to the Bonatti Refuge. I took a look round the checkpoint as I left, and you could already see that folk were starting to suffer big style, sleeping, being sick, head in hands, cramp, etc, etc. These sights would only get more serious as the journey went on. Big smile - off we go!

The field had suddenly thinned out and I knew it would take more effort to catch and pass other runners, but all I could think about was how much I was now enjoying this journey, if I caught others, that would be a bonus - lets get to the Bertone Hut and see Mont Blanc. The view did not disappoint - what a vista. Everyone stopped to take out cameras - how much fun was this?!

Through the Bertone Hut (1979m, 336th place) and along the terrace to the Bonatti Hut (2015m) I found my mojo, settling in with a small group that was running along nicely, overtaking a few but without going into the red zone; exactly what I wanted. Before the race, I had a good look at last year's results and it appeared that, for those runners who had a good steady race (came through the field), the Bonatti Hut was about half way time-wise.

I arrived in 16:14 hours so set myself a tentative target of 32:30 hours for the finish. I had settled on a bit of a routine for the feed stations; sort out water bottles (one water, one Mountain Fuel), a couple of beakers of either carbonated water or Pepsi and a bowl of noodle soup with a lot more noodles than soup. This seemed to work a treat and meant that I was able to just drink from the bottles whilst out on the mountains, making life much easier.

Bertone Hut

It's amazing how you can tick off the miles without too much pain when you simply take in the views and by the time I had been through the Bonatti Hut and dropped down the Arnuva, I had somehow picked off 80 runners since leaving Courmayeur, now in 312th place. It was definitely the long, steep, technical descents where I was making up most ground on others; thank you Skiddaw!

Bonatti Hut

The next climb was significant as it would take us to the high point of the course, Grand col Ferret (2527m) and take us into our third country of the day, Switzerland. I remember saying to myself that I was just going to grind the climb out, hoping to make these good vibes I was having last as long as possible and I was well prepared for the "feeling rough in the top sections" game I seemed to be playing all day long, but, to be honest, I don't remember much about the climb apart from the final gentle path to the col which I had seen so many times before on the TV/YouTube footage. It was a grind, it was hard, I suffered, end of story. The wind was well spicy at the col; if I had stopped like some, I would have had to put a jacket on, instead, I just wanted to get to a lower altitude and tick off some of the distance of the 18km descent, through La Fouly and on to Champex Lac.

Grand col Ferret

Grand col Ferret

I was still picking off runners, but at a much slower pace now as the field really thinned out. On the trail, generally, everyone was moving at a similar pace on the up-hills, my well conditioned quads were allowing me to make good time on the descents, but it was in the checkpoints that I was really making up places. These stations were now starting to resemble casualty wards; the sick, ailing, crying and down right beaten-up were littered around the tables, those looking happy were in a minority. La Fouly (282nd position, 108kms, 19:55 hours) was a typical example, and by Champex Lac (255th) it was getting to the point where I would try not to look at those in trouble, I didn't want any negativity at this stage of the race, but through the gloom I saw a familiar face looking distinctly better than most; my friend Mike Raffan, who has had a magnificent season this year, was just starting to leave the checkpoint and we spoke briefly. I think we came to the conclusion that, between us, we had a good runner; he was great on the climbs and I could cope with the descents. I made the sensible decision to not race after Mike as I wanted to continue my routine in the aid stations.

Champex Lac

Champex Lac is a gorgeous place and I was excited about the climb up La Giete on the infamous Bovine Path seen in so many YouTube clips. Well, what followed was 2:30 hours of hell! Initially, everything was fine, climbing gently on some forest roads, then we hit what looked like a new loose rock and gravel path which didn't take any sort of zig-zag line up the hill, instead it just carved a straight line up into the distance. I found this so tough; I could not got any kind of rhythm, I was taking smaller and smaller steps and, most discouragingly, those around me were powering off into the distance. This was the key moment of the race - I just knew I had to get over this and I was annoyed with myself that I wasn't able to enjoy this stretch - one of the iconic climbs of the race. I knew that there was a chance that a colleague from work (Clare Morley), might be in Trient, the next checkpoint. Clare is also a mountain guide and was taking a party of walkers round the Tour de Mont Blanc route, which, by pure coincidence, would allow her to meet me during the race. She had texted me to say the entire party was really excited to be able to cheer me on and I knew this was just the sort of help I needed at this point.

Eventually, I got over the climb (how many hours did that take?!) and immediately felt better as I started to go downhill again. I was soon passing runners again, but all I could think of was meeting Clare, just to see a friendly, smiley, happy face.

After another 45 minutes of running downhill, I rounded the corner by the pink church in Trient and there she was, charging up the street, screaming and shouting, accompanied by rent-a-crowd.

Clare rushing to greet me :-)


By the time she reached me, I was in tears, it was magical and exactly what I needed. Hugs from Clare and high-fives from the group; I was unable to thank them enough, it meant so much to me and was, yet another, turning point of the race.

With Clare in Trient

The marshals very kindly let Clare into the checkpoint with me even though she didn't have a pass and we just sat and had a chat about the race, I asked her to text my Dad to let the family know I was going well and looking better than most of those around me. To make the situation even better, Mike came into the checkpoint with his wife, and we had a good regroup together. I had passed Mike just before the checkpoint and it was nice to sit down and have a chat, the comment that there was only two climbs left kept coming up as we both started to think about the finish.

More noodles!

Having a good re-group with Mike

I had arrived in 222nd place (26:51 hours) but, after the horrific time I had over Bovine, I was more than happy to take my time in the checkpoint and, in fact, spent 21 minutes there. However, as I left, I was a new man - the positive vibes from Clare and rent-a-crowd worked miracles on me and instead of continuing to struggle on the next climb, I absolutely flew up. 80 minutes after leaving the checkpoint, I was topping out on Catogne (2009m) and feeling right back in the game, re-entering France. I made the mistake of letting my mind think this game was over - short drop to Vallorcine and one more climb, nearly there. It then took me an hour of downhill, now back in the dark with head torch on, to get to Vallorcine and I started to realise this race was not nailed yet. I was still positive, but this was just a kick up the backside to remind me there was still a lot of work to do.

As I left Vallorcine, now in 209th place, I had now idea I still had over 4 hours to go, I genuinely thought it would be maybe 3 hours at the most. The view of head torches snaking down through the trees towards Chamonix further down the valley only added to the illusion that this was done and dusted. This final climb to La Tete Aux Vents (2116m) was a killer! I had two issues with the climb, firstly, it was much rougher than I anticipated, with rock steps all the way, including some sections where I was just about scrambling and this continued on the top with sections of bare rock where it was hard to make out the path in the dark. Secondly, I had totally the wrong picture in my head of the topography of the climb/mountain. For the race, I carried a profile of the route, not a map. I had the basic shape of the course in my head and things had turned out pretty much as expected, but not on this one. In my head, I had "steep climb, checkpoint, sing and dance down to Chamonix" whereas in fact it was "long steep, rough climb, then 40 minutes of staggering in the dark across bare rock to a checkpoint that would just not arrive, rough track to final checkpoint at La Flegere and then another 8kms steep down to Chamonix". Needless to say, this was one almighty sting in the tail. On the plus side, I still managed to pick off a few more places and was lucky enough to run a short while with my friend, Lee Knight, ultra legend who won the Hardmoors 160 miler earlier in the year.

I stood at La Flegere (198th place), took a breath, smiled and set off on the final drop to the finish - I was going to make it and in pretty good shape too. Emotions were starting to well up, especially once I had got past all the sausages and recognised the track from some of my runs earlier in the week. I guessed there would be a few spectators around at the finish (it was 2:30am on a Sunday morning after all) but knew it would not be the masses you find during daylight hours, but as I ran the final kilometre through the streets of Chamonix, I was thrilled to see how many hardy souls were out there cheering the runners on - what an event! Tracey was first to greet me - Oh, the emotions were now doing a little more than just welling up, Paul was there taking some photos.

Nearly there!

They were able to cut through to the finish as I ran a little loop and then I was confronted by that iconic finish gantry, a small bank of photographers, incredibly appreciative supporters, Mom was there, just before the finish line, even a pupil from school who, by pure coincidence was on holiday with his family and he'd come out to see me finish at 2:30am (cheers Cameron, though I did think it might be another hallucination until I shook his hand).

I crossed the line in 198th place after 32:56 hours of running, hiking, crawling, crying, stumbling, smiling, swearing and any other form of movement and emotion that would get me over that finish line.

I think some thoughts on the aftermath and what I have learnt from this experience can be saved for another blog post, but I was absolutely fine after the race; no sickness, no blood pressure drop (the game I usually play), no cramp, just one happy bunny. I think back now to my targets before the race which were to not DNF and to enjoy the experience - both of those can be ticked of emphatically and to then add a top 200 placing is just icing on the cake. I might have been able to run a faster time but, after seeing what happened to others who tried, there was a high probability that I would have crashed and burned and failed to get from the race what I really wanted.

Looking very tried!

Thanks to all of you that followed the race either online or via social media, it does help, knowing that you are all out there watching me - I thought about this every time I crossed a timing mat and heard the beep. Thanks to Clare for appearing at just the right moment, you will never know how much that meant to me and what a difference it made to my race. Finally, thanks to my family, Tracey, Mom and Dad, it may not feel like it to you, but I couldn't have done it without your support and I'll never forget those moments at the finish.

2434 runners started the race, 1581 finished in the 46 hour time limit (65%).

Did this event live up to the hype and my expectations? HELL, YES!


Fell Runner said...

Bloody brilliant!

Andy Cole said...

Fantastic performance Dave, and a great read.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Blog Dave & what a performance. You raced to perfection, the rocks from Le Tetes Aux Vents to Flegéré were horrendous!!

Robert Osfield said...

EPIC. Few times is that word justified, but it's a great fit for how you did. Well done.