The UTMB organisation texted out confirmation that the race would start at about 7:00pm, a delay of about half an hour. The course was now about 100km long, but still managed to squeeze in about 6000m of vertical ascent, which would be more than enough to test our ultra trail running abilities.
The organisation put a course profile graphic and a new set of maps available for download on the race website. Luckily I had asked Helen French, my one person support crew, to bring her laptop along. There was no internet in “Team Ireland HQ”, a studio apartment in Chamonix. But I was able to use my Android phone as a mobile internet wireless hub, and grab and view the maps. One advantage of being a good navigator is that I was able to mentally picture the new course in my head, and piece together the areas I was familiar with along the new route.
Daniel Doherty, Paul Tierney and myself were all together in “Team Ireland HQ”. We spent the last hour or two before leaving for the start preparing our race bags and selecting our race gear. That was probably a bit more of a classic gear faff than it needed to be, but we had plenty of time and we were all in good humour.
Jeff Fitzsimons and Aobheann called up to the apartment. Along with Helen, they would be the support crew for us all out on the course. Gear and food was handed over to them, and provisional plans made. Unfortunately with the change of race route it was a complete unknown as to how the organisation’s supporters bus system was going to work, so they were going to have to wing it!
At some time after 5:30 we left the apartment and headed off towards the start line. As ever in Chamonix during UTMB week the streets were full of activity and the atmosphere was buzzing. Walking down the main street the sense of anticipation of what was to come was rising all the time.
Arriving at the start line area at around 6:00pm, a full hour before the scheduled start, there were already plenty of runners and spectators milling about. A large group of runners had already taken position behind the start line to be as near to the front as possible. Paul Daly, who happened to be holidaying in Chamonix, and who we had already met a few times in the last day or two, saw us and grabbed us for a quick pre-race photo.
We then made our way into the queue of racers lining up for the start and positioned ourselves as far up as we politely could, about 10 meters back from the tape seperating the “plebs” from the elite start box. All the runners in the first 5 meters or so were sitting down, taking the strain off their legs, and everyone behind was standing, knowing that space was going to be at a premium as time ticked on. Paul and Daniel were standing right behind me.
After a few minutes I decided to manouvre my way over to the side boundary railing to lean against it, carefully stepping between the sitting runners. Just as I got there Helen emerged at the spectator side of the barrier, so we were able to chat away. The marshalls then moved a few the barriers positioned closer to the start line to make it less of an obstruction to the runners, which created a small bit of space at the “pleb” tape. No one else moved into the space, so I picked my way through the sitting runners and sat down in the newly created space just at the tape behind the elite box. Cool! That’s about as optimal a position as I could have hoped for. Dan and Paul hadn’t followed me though. Helen asked did I need anything more from her there, which I didn’t, so I let her away to find a spot in the town to watch the start.
I was nicely calm and relaxed, sitting on the start line. Indeed most of the runners in the area also seemed unpreturbed about the challenge ahead. The elite box slowly started filling with the “pointy end of the race” runners. I had emailed with a week to go to see if I could get in there myself, but was declined. I observed the elites arriving and wondered how many of them I would be able to scalp 🙂
Finishers from last year were given their race result as their race number. I was a lovely low 34, which I noted was lower than a few of the elites! I was a little miffed to see 36, a runner who I had enjoyed a good tusle with last year, arrive into the elite box. Must try harder to get in there next year!
With about ten minutes to go the atmosphere was really building. There were masses of photographers and cameramen milling around the start line. Big video screens were relaying images from them. Interviews with elite runners were blaring out of the PA. Then all the frontline “plebs” stood up in one wave motion. A few seconds later one or two people ducking the tape led to a rush of the tape, and the elite/pleb division was no more. I made it over to 36, shook his hand and wished him luck.
The leader of the CCC race was way ahead of the expected finishing time, so much so that there was a danger he would arrive towards his finishing line as the UTMB departed, using the same line as it’s start line. Luckily he was so far ahead that he arrived in about 5 minutes before our start to a tremendous reception.
With 3 minutes to go the atmosphere was ratcheted up to “11”! The video screens showed a countdown clock and highlights of the previous 9 years of the race. The race theme, Vangelis’ 1492, was blaring out over the PA. It’s a very effective tune for creating a big atmosphere! Finally the crowd, lining the streets as far as we could see from the edge of the barriers to the walls of the buildings, start counting down from 10. At about 3 some of the elites cracked, and we were off!
Last year it seemed to take forever to pass under the start banner, and there was a lot of walking in the congestion to get out of Chamonix. This year I was under the banner pretty much straight away and was able to run all the way out of the town. Again, the cheering crowds lining the main street all the way out of town were amazing.
After 1 or 2 kilometers the route turns in off the road and onto the trails down the right hand side of the base of the main Chamonix valley. Overall this section is slightly downhill, but all the undulations make it a very mixed bag. Everyone was still hammering along. I had initially allowed loads of people to pass me and concentrated on running at my own pace. Once on the trails the general speed eased off a bit and I started overtaking people in dribs and drabs.
Because of the inclement weather conditions I was wearing a rain jacket over a very warm base layer, and as a result this run out to Les Houche felt very hot. I wondered how long it would take for the others to catch up. Soon enough Dan came flying past at a phenomenal pace. He really is a speedster! A few brief greetings were exchanged and off he flew into the distance, ripping through the field. After another few kilometers, not long before the final descent towards the bridge across the river to Les Houche, Paul caught up with me. I matched my pace to his and we ran together down to the bridge, across and up to Les Houche, straight past the first aid station without stopping and on through the town until reaching the base of the first climb.
The climb starts with a long section of metal steps (Dan told us afterwards that Killian Journet, who had decided not to race as a result of the course shortening, was here cheering on the racers). I followed Paul up. After a brief shallower road section the fun really begins as it turns sharply upwards on wide pebbled trails. I “dropped gears” to stay running and started easing past the runners ahead who were walking with poles. Paul didn’t follow, and I lost contact with him.
Because the race had been shortened I had decided earlier not to bring poles with me. Even on this first climb I started regretting that decision. Where the slope was shallow enough to run I was outpacing, even if only slightly, everyone around me. But as the slope steepened beyond the point where walking was required I would loose out to competitors with poles. Note to to self for next time… bring the poles no matter what!
About halfway up the rain, which had stayed away to this point, started again. I zipped up my Omni-dry waterproof jacket to keep my base-layer dry. The two layer system was working extremely effectively. I was very comfortable, despite the rain and the drop in temperature due to advance of the evening and the height gain.
Reaching the summit, the field had thinned out quite a bit. I took advantage of the last section of climb to take out my headtorch, as light had faded considerably by now, and descending is where torch power makes the biggest difference. I had borrowed Greg Byrne’s Ay-up lights after witnessing for myself how effective they were for him at the Art O’Neill run in January. They were a big improvement on last year’s lights, with very little weight penalty.
My descending speed had improved considerably from last year. No doubt the much better training as a result of not breaking my leg this year helped! But I was also running more aggressively, knowing that this year’s race was shorter, and as a result I could be a little more reckless about preserving my legs for later in the race. The descent down to St Gervais is a lot of fun, even more so under headtorch light. The last section is a nice technical steep zig-zagging section on muddy trails. Despite my more aggressive than usual approach I got down without incident.
I could hear the chearing crowds in St. Gervais from quite a distance away. Descending through the narrow streets and around towards the aid station, the streets were again lined deeply with enthusiastic supporters. It seemed to be a great party atmosphere. Just short of the aid station I caught a glimpse of Helen cheering me on. I picked up a cup of coke in the aid station, along with a small piece of cheese, drank it quickly, and resumed running after passing through the station as quickly as possible.
I was looking forward to the next stage leading up to Les Contamines, as the undulating, but steadily ascending nature of it suited my running ability. I was able to run pretty much all of it, whilst overtaking lots of runners who slowed to walk uphill sections. Occasionally runners who I had passed would latch on, but they would usually drop away after an undulation or two.
Les Contamines is smaller town, and the supporters were more thinly spread on the road approaching the town, but were no less enthusiastic. No cups were provided at this Aid Station (or any more from this point) so I unclipped my own cup and had it filled with coke by one of the volunteers. I grabbed a random piece of cheese and walked out of the aid stations having spent only a few seconds there, as my race plan demanded! I walked whilst drinking the coke, to ensure that it all went in my mouth rather than spilled out over me, and then started running again.
The section towards Notre Dame seems pretty much flat and is a nice fast running section. I slowly but surely hauled in and overtook one or two more runners before reaching the open fires burning at the campsite at Notre Dame. That was the end of the speedy flat section. The trail turns to a rocky fireroad and starts ascending steeply. I could still run sections of this climb, overtaking a runner or two as a result.
It now felt that we were running into the real alpine section, away from the villages and ski infrastructure. The climb eventually eases off enough to quite a long runnable section before sharply turning up towards the mountain hut at La Balme. By now the temperatures had dropped considerably, but my two layer system was still working extremely effectively.
The aid post at La Balme felt like a winter encampment, and I didn’t hang around, with a repeat of a quick grab of a piece of cheese and a cup of coke, which I drank walking up the hill out of the aid post. I had no idea where I was in terms of my race position, but I knew I must have been quite high, as competitors were now few and far between, and we were all much more closely matched in pace now. The rain had now turned to slushy snow, which thickened with each meter of ascent.
(I learned afterwards that Dan had made it up to La Balme in a low teens race position, but unfortunately had to pull out at the medical station there due to gastro issues)
The route then left the original UTMB route and headed out on its long loop back around towards Les Contamines. The highest section was blanketed with a thin layer of snow. I put up my hood to protect me from the cold, but even in these conditions I didn’t need to add any more layers. I was surprised that my shorts-over thermal leggings combination on my lower legs was still working effectively, despite the precipitation. I had expected I would need to put on waterproof leggings, but was getting away fine without them.
The other major item of gear that was working extremely effectively was my Columbia Ravenous Outdry shoes. I normally wouldn’t wear waterproof shoes in a race like this, but there was only a small weight penalty and the shoes felt exactly like my normal trail runner of choice, the standard Columbia Ravenous. Cold feet could be disastrous, dangerous even, in these conditions, but the waterproof membrane was functioning perfectly and leaving my feet dry, despite spending a very large proportion of the race running through puddles, mud and snow.
A very technical trail followed, traversing across the top of the valley. This was very enjoyable to run after the hard slog of the long climb to get to this height (the highest section of the new course). My technical running ability enabled me to catch and overtake one or two more runners. A long fireroad descent followed which took us all the way back to Les Contamines. One runner overtook me on this section, and I used him as a target to follow down. We closed in on anther runner who reacted by holding us off at a short distance back. Behind I could see a few more headtorches descending not far behind on the zig-zags.
As we reached the road at Les Contamines where we had earlier exited the village there was a long continuous stream of runners still heading out. We were diverted down a trail along the river valley before a short sharp climb up to revisit the aid station at Les Contamines. Again I moved through as quickly as possible and filled a my cup with coke to drink walking out. I also wanted to fill my water bottle and make a “for goodness shakes” mix.
It was quite a confusing environment in the aid station, with the outgoing and returning runners mixing in the station. It half a minute, and a somewhat confused mix of broken English conversation with a marshal to leave by the correct exit. Helen was immediately outside the tent. This was the first time that I would have found meeting the support crew helpful, so the timing was excellent. I looked for water, intending to use it to make the shake mix, and she offered me a pre-made shake instead. Perfect! Bottles were swapped and away I went with only seconds expended.
I guessed the climb out of Les Contamines was going to be very sharp, and it didn’t disappoint. I had arrived into the aid station with runners visible in front and behind, but was totally alone leaving. I guessed my speedy trips through the aid stations were paying off. At the start of the first steep section I grabbed a Bazzball from my bag’s side pockets and ate it whilst climbing, and then slowly sipped on the shake mix. Over this section my isolation didn’t last. Two more runners were overtaken, while I was overtaken in turn by, I think, the runner who had passed me on the earlier descent.
A descent down to the tiny village of La Villette followed, before the real climb back towards Les Houche began. It was a real mixed climb, with long runnable sections interspersed with short sharp walking section. The final section of the climb was a brutally sharp narrow mud track however. A chasing runner had been steadily catching me, but stuck in right behind me on reaching this section. As it eased off near the top he piped up (in a French accent) that I was strong. I smiled and pointed out that he was pretty strong himself, since he had caught me! We ran together to the tiny aid station at the top of the climb. I guessed that it would be all-descent from here down to Les Houche and didn’t stop for any food or drink, which reopened gaps on chasing runners.
The aid station marshal warned that the start was very steep. Indeed it was, as well as being quite muddy and slippy! I descended cautiously at first, especially with a big visible falling away of the ground to my left, where I could see the lights of Les Houche. I sped up a bit, which a few minutes later led to my first fall of the race. It was a harmless enough splashdown onto the muddy singletrack trail. This descent was starting to be a lot of fun!
I opted to run the descent at a “safely fast” speed, pushing along a bit, but not wanting to risk cramping in another fall. The next section was an extremely steep and muddy single track trail through woods. It was a hoot! At one point I saw a marshal, which made me suspect it might get interesting… I virtually skiied past him and around a mud filled curving descent. Further on I found one turn which was a giant skid mark in the mud. As soon as stepped on it I added to the effect as I slipped and slid along on my side. It eventually turned to shallower fireroad, but it had been really enjoyable descent to there. My old chasing friend had caught me again on the way down.
My headtorch batteries were now running low, so I was happy enough when he finally overtook me as we returned to roads leading down to the town. I followed him a little back, using the light from his torch when necessary. In no time we were down in the outer edges of Les Houche, again returning to the outward route in reverse.
Jeff was at the aid station in Les Houche, waiting for Paul. He had no idea where Helen was, but offered help. I asked if he had any shake mix, but he didn’t. Oh well! I grabbed another cup of coke in the station, and had my water bottle half filled with their isotonic drink mix. The cured meats in this station looked particularly inviting, and I grabbed one on the way out. A little down from the station, under streetlights, I swapped over to my backup headtorch. Yet again I was isolated.
I crossed back over the bridge over the Arve river, and started a long road climb. Being a road, the gradient was relatively shallow, so it was quite runnable. The markers were more sparse here, so I assumed we would be on the road until there was a big indication otherwise. I had another bazzball to fuel up for the climb. But eventually even the relatively benign gradient became too difficult to run continuously, so I had to adopt a run walk strategy. The mist at this stage was so thick that visibility was down to only a meter or two.
After what seemed like an age the climb and the road ended at Merlet, and the route headed down through the woods along the side of the Chamonix valley, high above the path we had run out hours earlier. Yet again I was overtaken by a speeding chasing runner. Another runner followed, but he was much closer to my pace and we ran behind each other for quite a lot of the next section. There was one or two more sharp walking/crawling climbs before we finally descended down to the small aid station Les Tines (which I now know to be just above the planpraz cable-car station on the edge of Chamonix itself.
I spent a relatively long minute or two at this station, drinking a cup of coke on the spot, before leaving with another full cup. The route climbed gently, then steeply up the valley side again. I overtook one runner here, and eased away from him as we ran accross the Balcon Sud trail. This section was the reverse of the route we had been sent on to finish last year’s UTMB. It was much more enjoyable in this direction… for now!
The trail eventually descended to a trail running along the riverbank, before climbing steadily up the valley side, and then undulating along. By now I was in “ultra-cruise” mode, running a slow steady speed that I could keep up for a considerable amount of time. One or two runners came through from behind running at a much quicker pace. I thought to myself that this was where I would pay, competitively, for the course shortening, as the advantage was now with any ultra-speedsters who had judged their pacing well.
I had completely forgotten about the last major climb in the race. The trail branched off left and climbed with viscous sharpness. The runners who had just overtaken me disappeared into the distance and I settled into a slow steady climb. I realised it might help to get an energy kick for the climb, so I took the two “emergency” gels I had been carrying. Over the course of the climb two more runners, or more accurately competitors walking with poles, caught and overtook me. Eventually, and to my great relief, the climb topped out, and nice undulating technical section of trail followed. By now there was enough light from the dawn that I no longer needed to use my headtorch.
Supporters with very big and loud cowbells greeted us at the end of this trail where we crossed the road, and started to descent on the other side of the valley down to nearby Argentiere. At this point our route merged with the CCC route, and as a result I would spend the rest of the race running past the competitors from that race walking towards the finish. For the most part, they looked extremely tired. No doubt I did too, even though I was still running along in “ultra-cruise”.
It didn’t take long to reach Argentiere, where Helen greeted me at the entrance to the aid station. I couldn’t think of anything I needed that would really help to get me to the finish at this stage, but took up her suggestion of taking a bazzball from her. That would be high quality “emergency” food. Another quick aid-station traversal followed, with the usual cup of coke routine being followed. I overtook one UTMB runner heading out of the town.
I knew the remaining stage to the finish was relatively straightforward, having run the trail several times previously during a skiing holiday in Chamonix a few years previously. Thankfully there was no covering of snow in the trail this time though. Most of the early undulating sections of this stage were spent passing CCC walkers. However after a while two or three more UTMB runners caught and passed me. Yet again I quietly cursed the relative shortness of the revised course.
As I ran along the flat centre of the valley I was thinking to myself how desceptively long this stage actually was, and noted to myself not to get “finish line fever” too early. I then turned a corner to see the towers of the swimming pool in the Chamonix sports centre. Now was the time for finish line fever… only a kilometer or two remained. I picked up my pace as best I could in case there were any more runners closing me down.
The feeling of elation was growing as I ran under the 1km banner on the riverbank next to the sports centre. I still didn’t know what my position was, but I guessed I was still going well. Whatever about that, I was definitely happy to be within 1km of the finish with a little over 13 hours elapsed.
Heading down the streets of chamonic, within two or three hundred meters of the start line I had relaxed again. And then UTMB runner appeared from behind and overtook me. I sped up, caught up and ran beside him as we both increased our pace. We rounded the buildings in chamonix town centre with the finish line crowds cheering us on. With about 100 meters to go we made the last sharp turn and I upped my pace to maximum. I couldn’t quite believe it. After 13+ hours, 100+km and 6000 meters of climbing I was in a sprint finish!!!
We both gave it our all belting for the line, where there was a small crowd of recently finished runners and photographers on the finish line. We ignored that minor problem and sprinted hard to the finish. I think he just edged me on the line! But it was a fun finish. He flattened a photographer just over the line, and was picking himself back up. I went over to him and we laughed together and shook hands.
Helen and Barry were also at the finish line. Barry looked in great shape, despite not being to sleep since finishing the CCC earlier in the morning. He had had a good race. Helen was able to relieve me of my curiosity and tell me that I had been around 25th in Argentiere. I reckoned that I must have finished roughly around 3oth, which was great! (It turned out in the end I was 29th).
I swapped my waterproof jacket for a Columbia omni-heat down jacket to try and ensure I didn’t quickly freeze. Last year My energy drained away rapidly after finishing, despite taking the same precautions, but the ambient temperature was warmer in the daylight of this year’s finish so I was relatively comfortable.
Adrian Tucker had also been at the finish, just like last year, and he came over and congratulated me. We all made the 5 meter trip to the nearest cafe to the finish line, and Helen got me a hot chocolate, my first warm item consumed since before the race start. About half an hour later Paul crossed the finish line in a superb 48th place. We all congratulated him, and joined him in another round of hot drinks. Double espresso for Paul though!
Unlike last year I was able to make my way under my own power back to the apartment under my own power. On the way back we called into one of the patiseries, where I allowed myself to get absolutely everything that took my fancy. I reckoned I’d earned it. Even that was only the beginning of an epic days eating which followed a truly epic night’s running!
(More to follow on both Nutrition and gear I used at this year’s UTMB)