In January I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was going to enter the UTMB or not. The Tor De Geants, which is staged two weeks after the UTMB, is an even longer race, and it’s length and added difficulty was drawing me in. However I was starting to hear of more and more of my running friends who were going to enter the UTMB this year. It sounded like there would be a massive Irish contingent in Chamonix. It could be an even better atmosphere than normal, and the UTMB has a fantastic atmosphere to begin with.
So I eventually decided that it would be worth putting the Tor De Geants on the back-burner for one more year, and enter the UTMB again this year. So when the window opened for taking entries I went through the process and signed on. I had no problem meeting the qualifying criteria even based on my previous 2 finishes from the UTMB itself. Now all I had to do was get through the draw to decide who would gain an entry this year.
On the day the draw was made Richard Nunan, one of my aforementioned running friends, rang me excitedly as I was getting into work. He was like a kid on Christmas day, as he had just got the email from the UTMB organisation telling him he was successful in the draw. I was logging onto my own email during the call, only to see that I had received the other possible email… I had failed to be picked for this year’s race. I think Richard had just gone online to view the list of Irish who had gained entry and had just noticed himself that I wasn’t in. In fact I was the only one of the Irish candidates who hadn’t made it. (It was now clear that an earlier conjecture of mine that the draw might be slightly rigged to get a more competitive field was definitely wrong).
I was genuinely delighted that Richard had made it through. Out of everyone I knew who wanted to run it he was probably the one who wanted it most, and he is certainly the one I would pick first if I had to choose just one runner from my friends to get through. But obviously I was still very disappointed not to have made it through. The fact that I had been erring against entering only a few weeks earlier was irrelevant now. I had made the mental switch and I definitely wanted in now.
For the next day or two I re-channeled my energy into looking up the details of the Tor De Geants, and making sure that I was ready for the entry process for that race, which would open in a weeks time.
I made one of my regular phone calls to my friend Richard Donovan during this time. Richard is probably the most remarkable person I’ve had the pleasure of becoming friends with through ultra running. I would be hours typing if I tried to list all he had contributed to my ultra running career, and to Irish ultra running in general. Nobody has done anything remotely as much for the sport as Richard. After telling him my news said that he actually knew the UTMB organisers, and would get in contact with them to see if I could get an entry based on my recent results.
A few days later Richard came back with the news that the organisers agreed that I should have an entry on that basis , and that I could now go online to complete the entry process. I was delighted and exited in the way Richard Nunan had been a few days earlier to be making the mental flip into being in the UTMB again, and reverting to leaving the Tor De Geants for another year.
With that, the UTMB went straight to the top of my target race list for this year. All my training from now on would ultimately be aimed at getting me to the UTMB in the best possible shape to take on the challenge. This focus was much more intense than it had been for the previous two times I had run the race. I concentrated a lot more on running than I normally do. In fact I all but became a single sport person, rather than the multi-sporter that I’d normally be. Kayaking and cycling both disappeared almost completely from my training plans, as my mental focus was so sharply pointed towards running, and ultra distance trail running in particular.
Two years ago I broke a leg in February which had a huge disruptive effect on my training for the UTMB. Last year I broke my collar bone in a mountain bike race fall in the spring which had a similarly disruptive effect (although not for quite so long). A side effect of dropping mountain biking out of my training schedule was that I was less likely to have a repeat of these issues. Although mountain bike is probably the most fun sport that I’ve ever tried, so I was missing it, along with the great social aspect of going on spins with my club-mates.
Without injuries or other sports, I was able to considerably increase the volume of running training I was undertaking, particularly at weekends. I would usually aim to get in back-to-back long runs. On a good weekend that could be a cumulative total of 9 or 10 hours running in the hills. I was also aiming to do most of these runs “on empty”, i.e. I wouldn’t eat beforehand, and would bring no food with me. That should have the effect of increasing my fat burning efficiency.
All my racing results from spring and summer were pointing in the right direction. I was winning all the domestic ultraruns that I was entering, and running the courses faster than I had done before. I was even going well in shorter distances races. In the early summer I became a member of Sportsworld running club and started to attend their speed-work training sessions. Mixed in with that I was also participating in the Irish Mountain Running Association summer league and racing well against shorter distance specialists (I ended up coming 2nd in the league overall).
I had also been reading up a lot more on modern nutrition theory, and as a result I was also making some improvements to my general diet. The combination of better diet and lots of long distance fat-burning training runs (and ultra distances races) meant that my weight steadily came down until I reached my target race weight for the first time in a few years. Weight makes a difference to how fast you can run, and in an ultra race the small decreases in time per kilometer start to accumulate up to big differences. In a race like the UTMB, which as well as being 170km long also has nearly 10,000 meters of climbing (more than the height of Everest), the advantages of not having to lift excessive weight up all the climbs were likely to be even more significant.
I was better prepared for the logistical aspects of the UTMB much earlier this year. The big 2 tasks of booking flights and accommodation were done not too long after entry was confirmed. Anything else could be sorted out with less risk closer to the race. I also asked Helen (my fiance) quite early on in the process if she’d join me on the whole trip to Chamonix. It was a very important race to me, and she’s the one person I’d really want to share the whole experience with.
Over the months leading up to the race there were a few drop-outs from the mob of Irish heading for the UTMB races. Adrian Tucker, who is the only Irishman to have run all 4 races which are part of the UTMB festival, had managed to get an entry for both the UTMB and the Tor De Geants. It took a while, but he eventually settled on concentrating on the TDG and withdrew from the UTMB. Two of my friends who had entered the CCC race also withdrew early on. Greg had the good excuse of his wedding using up his “trip to Europe” allocation for the year!
There were also a few of the Irish international ultrarunners entered. Dan Doherty had signed up for the TDS this year rather than the UTMB, which initially surprised me. But the more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed. He was much more likely (100% actually!) to get into the race, as there is less demand for entries than the UTMB itself. It is shorter but more “climby” than the UTMB. Dan is probably the top performing Irish 100km runner currently, so the TDS distance might actually suit him better. He’s also got super ability in the hills, so the gnarliness of the TDS wouldn’t be likely to cause him a problem. In fact I reckoned that Dan should be capable of shaking up at least the top 10, if not higher!
Paul Tierney had successfully re-enrolled for the UTMB as well. After last year’s debut (and 49th place finish) behind him he was likely to be in a position to push himself even further this year. Barry Murray, stepping up from the CCC to the full UTMB, was in a similar position.
However with a week or two to go things were unraveling a bit. Dan had still got his niggling injuries which first affected him in the 24 hour world champs and caused him to pull out of the Irish 24 hour champs in Belfast. He was talking about going over, but not running the race. Both myself and Richard Donovan were encouraging him to run anyway, as it was his main target race. He’d loose nothing by trying and then pulling out mid-race if he wasn’t able. Similarly Paul had an injury that was causing him major issues, and he decided late in the day that he was also going to travel to Chamonix but not run the race.
I started the tapering process from two weekends before the race. That’s an unusually long taper for me, showing just how seriously I was taking this race. The race started on the afternoon of Friday 30th September. Helen and myself were flying out on Thursday morning. I would have my last gentle training session on the Tuesday. I had been steadily winding down the lengths and intensity of my training runs to that point. My last speed-work session with Sportsworld was on the previous Tuesday. I reckoned this would all leave me nicely sharpened up arriving for the race.
In the week before I checked and re-checked that I had all the gear that I needed for the race. The mandatory gear list is pretty easy to put together. The main thing that required a little searching was to find an old light minimal mobile phone to bring with me on the race itself. I had borrowed a Solomon running backpack from Jeff Fitzsimmons a month before to test in training. It has a water bottle pouch mounted on the front of the main straps at chest height. I guessed that this would be a very weight-balanced arrangement compared to having water at the sides of a backpack. It would also theoretically enable me to drink from the bottles hands-free, which would be very useful in combination with walking poles. It worked well in training, so I would use this in the race.
I had done so much racing and training this year that I had run my main trail shoes, my pairs of Columbia Ravenous shoes, into the ground. Luckily TJ in Columbia went out of his way to help and was able to sort out last minute replacements for me. Given how much my feet can swell I elected to get one pair half a size bigger, and one pair one and a half sizes bigger than I’d normally wear. I also got hold of a new half-zip Omni-heat base layer, which had worked so successfully in last year’s brutal weather.
I had tried using Barry Murray’s home made energy balls (Bazzballs!) during the race last year and they worked well. So I emailed Barry and asked him for the recipe. He has only given this to a select few people, but he added me to the privileged few. So on the Sunday before the race Helen and myself went late evening shopping for the ingredients. Some of them were quite new and exotic to me, but it was all natural ingredients without any of the junk that goes into commercial energy bars and gels. The recipe turned out to be simple to follow, much to my surprise, and the end result was actually delicious! In fact it tasted so good that I needed to make a second batch of them to ensure that there would be enough for the race itself. I was having too many occasional treats!
Richard, Dan and Barry all headed to Chamonix much earlier than me. Richard had his family with him and was posting some great holiday pictures on Facebook. As is usual for him before a big race, he had also turned into mini-meteorologist, and was sending back plenty of weather reports and forecasts. The forecasts were looking promising. Unlike my first two encounters with this race it was looking like the weather would be pretty much perfect.
Dan’s race, the TDS, started on Wednesday morning. I kept an eye on the online tracking to see how he was doing. It got very exciting for a while as he climbed his way into the top ten. But he fell back a bit from there, but was still in or around the top 25 by the time I had to leave the technology behind and could no longer follow his progress.
Once the Wednesday evening drama of picking up my race shoes was out of the way, the rest of the evening went very well. I managed to finish off my packing ahead of schedule (without forgetting anything!), which left plenty of time for meeting up with Helen and having a nice relaxing evening. Unfortunately our flights were very early in the morning, so it was a short evening!
The trip over to Chamonix all went to plan, with no hiccups along the way. As usual, it was nice to get the warmer weather in Switzerland/France. I always get a shiver of excitement approaching Chamonix and seeing Mont Blanc and the rest of the high Alps, with the glaciers stretching down and almost into Chamonix itself. It seemed to be even more buzzing than normal. There were queues of cars making their way into town.
After dropping our gear at our accommodation we headed out to the large hall where race registration was taking place. However there was a huge queue snaking into the building, so we decided to leave that for a while in the hope it would dissipate. Instead we headed into the main streets of Chamonix itself so I could show Helen where everything was, and also had a nice lunch. On our return through town we stopped in a supermarket and picked up supplies for both of us for the race day (and also for my pre-race loading).
When we got back to the registration hall there was no improvement to the queuing situation. I don’t know why, but it seemed like it was a lot worse this year. At least it wasn’t raining on us as we joined it and slowly made our way to the hall. We must have been at least an hour and a half queuing. As we were in the queue I received a bulk text from the organisation warning UTMB runners not to join the queue for registration this evening, but to leave it until Friday morning instead. I wanted to get everything out of the way so as to have a totally relaxing Friday morning.
Things progressed nicely once I reached the top of the queue. You have to visit 5 or 6 stations. You get your mandatory gear inspected, your bag tagged with an electronic tag, get the race numbers etc etc. After that there was a little more queuing to get Helen’s bus tickets (The race tries to discourage car use and has a bus system to get supporters to various points on the course).
Getting all that out of the way took us until after 6pm. So after that we dropped all the gear back to the accommodation and headed out to grab some dinner. I have a very definite pre-race meal in Chamonix in a nice little restaurant slightly away from the main touristy areas. It’s got a great combination of steak, bacon pieces, baked potatoes, and a cream lettuce and tomato salad. And it’s huge! A perfect pre-race fuel up, and exceptionally tasty as well. We were the first into the restaurant that evening, so even at slow-food pace we were out and heading for home early enough.
We decided to skip dessert in the restaurant and instead head for one of the ice cream palours in town (which sells cones ranging in size from 1 to 10 scoops!!). Just as we were approaching it we ran into Dan on the street. Poor Dan was a bit knackered after spending the day in the mountains on a photo shoot (and this was his post TDS recovery day!). But we all had a great long chat, which of course included the blow by blow account of his race. When I said where we were off to Dan enthusiastically joined us (and gifted us the ice cream to celebrate our engagement 🙂 ). He was flying home the following morning, so I was glad that we managed to run into him.
Getting to sleep that night wasn’t a problem. As the only real task I had for Friday was to be well rested arriving at the start line no alarms were set.
(Part 2, the race day, will follow….)