Saturday 8 September 2012

Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, 2012

For the past week I have been following various people on twitter showing off the fabulous weather around Chamonix; beautiful blue skies, glorious sunshine, temperatures above 30 degrees. It was therefore slightly disappointing to arrive in Chamonix on Thursday to cold weather, a lot of rain, and a massive bank of grey cloud where the mountains should have been. Yes, unfortunately the weather gods were not smiling on the UTMB for the third year in a row, and with rumours of another shorter route a la 2010, the disappointment was palpable.
Somewhere behind those clouds there's a mountain with my name on it!
I traveled over to Chamonix with James Elson, who unfortunately had suffered the UTMB curse on his previous trip in 2010. He was, understandably, not amused. We were kindly offered a lift by Richard Felton who was driving over with his girlfriend Kady. Somehow we managed to displace his parents, but they didn't seem to mind!

I did my best to ignore the worrying weather reports of snow, fog, zero visibility and mudslides, and instead soaked in some of the infamous atmosphere in Chamonix. The UTMB race weekend actually consists of 4 separate races: the UTMB (Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, 166 km, 9,500 m ascent), the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, 98 km, 5,600 m ascent), the TDS (sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie, 109 km, 7,100 m ascent), and the PTL (Petit Tour de Leon, a whopping 300 km, 22,000 m ascent). But despite the rain, Chamonix was buzzing. Given the atmosphere at most ultras in Britain it was a huge difference, and more on par with a big city marathon. The locals take time out to come and support all of the runners, with shouts of "allez, allez!" being heard regularly throughout the weekend. There is a finishers chute that runs through the entire town, and the thought of running through the cheering crowd at the end of such an epic undertaking was an exciting prospect! But first we had to find out if we would be running at all...
The finishing chute in Chamonix. Fingers crossed when I head through it will be slightly drier
Given this amazing organisation, the race directors were surprisingly lax at actually informing us as to what was happening. In fact, I was getting most of my information from tweets from iRunFar and the guys at Ultra168 who were present at the press conference. I guess it makes sense that they would want a firm plan in place before announcing things, but I had seen the potential updated race course hours before we ever found out that the course was even being changed!

The upshot was that "the weather was bad, and was due to get badder" (the actual words of the RD Catherine Poletti). Essentially, the upshot was that the weather above about 1,700 meters was becoming highly dangerous, with high winds, snow, and low visibility from fog. Of course, this had been on the cards all week as far as I could tell, so quite why they were taken by surprise so much...

The PTL runners had begun their epic quest on Wednesday, whilst the TDS runners had started a few hours before we arrived on Thursday afternoon. The news coming in from the TDS runners wasn't great. Many were coming into Chamonix (still to a cracking reception, despite the late time and terrible weather) with a glazed look in their eyes.

The CCC began on the Friday morning, essentially running the second half of the UTMB from Cormayeur (plus a bit). But with the weather the decision was made to cut out two of the climbs (Tête de la Tronche and Tête aux Vents). Despite this, the majority of the course was as it should be. This left us all with hope that our race would go ahead with only minor alterations.
Chamonix looks much better in the dry
Unfortunately, 7 hours before the race was due to start, I got a text:

"Start around 7pm. Weather conditions too difficult on the mountain pass. New course 100km France only. 4 layers of clothing required."

Sigh. So, after all of the race prep, and all of the build up, we were left with a much shorter course (103 km, 6,860 m ascent) with none of the mountains. Disappointing.

But 100k is no walk in the park, and the ~7,000 meters of ascent we were expecting was an exciting prospect! So I tried to put the disappointment out of my mind and instead focus myself on what Luke Carmichael would later dub the mUTCV (Mini Ultra Tour of Chamonix Valley).

I headed over to the start line with my room mate, Paul Wells, who was a very experienced mountain runner having run the Trans Alps several times before, as well as being an avid triathlete. We joined the throng about an hour before the kick off. The weather was... fine actually. A little cloudy, but there was no rain. Hmm. I would have preferred torrential floods to be honest, rather than feeling like we were missing out for nothing! I got chatting to a couple of English guys, Bill and Chris, while we waited. Both were of course a little annoyed at the changes, but were excited to get going. Chris actually came 28th last year, so we convinced him to go and use his fame to get up with the big dogs in the elite pen. The elites were noticeably thinner on the ground than expected, with several of the Salomon athletes being pulled out at the last minute for other races (such as Steamboat Run Rabbit Run, with its enticing $100,000 prize pot).
Crammed into the starting pen an hour before the start. The weather didn't look so bad - pretty much how July looked in England
With only a few minutes to go, we were surprised to find that the CCC leader was making his way in - a first for the event. It was an excellent finish, with all of Chamonix and all of the "UTMB" runners on hand to cheer him in. I did wonder what would happen if 2,300 runners suddenly descended on whomever was coming in in second place...

But there was no time for such concerns. The countdown went down, the sounds of Vangelis' Conquest of Paradise played on the loudspeaker (that tune becomes very annoying after the fiftieth or sixtieth time), and we were off! Well, sort of. The pushing was immense, with thousands of runners pushing to squeeze through an annoyingly tight section. And nobody warned me about the step! Luckily there were so many people around me, I couldn't have fallen over if I'd tried, although I later found out that last year's third place finisher Sebastian Chaigneau had no such luck and had taken a pretty nasty spill, but was luckily okay.

It took a while to get to anything resembling a run, but once I got going it was a great experience. Running out of Chamonix to the sounds of "Allez! Allez! Bravo!", a cornucopia of cow bells, whistles and horns, and high-fiving kids as we ran past was truly astounding. The first 10 km or so is all pretty much flat, with some smaller climbs through the woods of the Chamonix Valley through to Les Houches. At this point I was vey happy with my chosen attire - shorts and a t-shirt, with a thin base layer where I could roll the sleeves up easily. I was also wearing some calf guards for the first time ever as shorts were only allowed if you had something to cover your legs. A lovely German couple that were in the same chalet as Paul and me would later comment that they could recognise the Brits as they all had shorts on. I say that with a modicum of national pride, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a complement!
This climb sucked. Like, seriously sucked. 10 km my arse!
My game plan had been the usual - run to how I felt, power hike the toughest climbs (I was determined to never get the "cheating sticks" out if I could help it - another British distinction apparently!), and don't waste times at the aid stations. Some water, a bit of coke, maybe some cheese and salami, but otherwise rely on a few gels I had in my bag. I figured that 15-16 hours was a realistic goal. I had my bag packed in such a way that i shouldn't have needed to ever take it off - waterproof in the front pocket, and an UltraSpire handheld bottle for water tucked into the bag that could be carried if I needed to put the waterproof on over the bag. Genius!

As we headed up the climb to Le Delevret, I passed a few familiar faces. Mark Collinson, who had won the SDW100 on my first 100 miler, was looking comfortable, and said that James and Robbie Briton had headed past not long ago. As I headed past, the rain started to come down, but in more of a drizzle than a torrent so I left the waterproof and carried on. I found James pulled over making the sensible decision to put his on, so decided that maybe I should follow suit. It was, after all, due to be wet all night. But aha! My cunning plan meant that I had no need to pull over. Oh no. I continued my hike and slipped the jacket on, smug in the knowledge that I hadn't lost those 10 seconds. Of course what I hadn't remembered was the effect that nighttime can have on your ability to see. As the day drew to a close, and it quickly became clear that the full moon was fighting a losing battle with the black rain clouds, I remembered that I needed to get my head torch. Which was in my bag. Which was under my jacket. Well no problems, I can just take one arm out, reach around, just about... Nope, wrong thing. Is that it? Aha! Gotcha! Now, if I can just close the bag. Bugger, can't get a purchase. Nghhh. Grrr! Can't do it. Shit. Going to need to get the other arm out. Crap, it's caught on my Garmin! Argh! It's all inside out and wet and.... Aaaaaarghh!

Not my finest hour. Well, 5 minutes at any rate. Good going you idiot! With that little ordeal sorted I got back to the task at hand, vowing that if anything else needed to come out of the bag I would just pull over and do it the sensible way. What is it they say? Less haste, more speed?
Going down! Much nicer than the ascent, but could easily have been somewhere in England...
At this stage, we were still on the UTMB route, and would continue that way through St Gervais (where I was later very surprised to find that I came in only 23 seconds after Jez Bragg who had won two years earlier!), on to Les Contamines, down through Notre Dame de la Gorge, then back up to La Balme. After La Balme, we would begin to loop back on ourselves through an alternate route through to Les Contamines and Les Houches through the Chamonix Valley in a kind of figure-of-eight, meeting up with the latter part of the new CCC route at l'Argentierre, then back to Chamonix. The highest ascent would be below 2,000 meters, with the rest of the ascent made up of shorter (but steeper) climbs. I had heard that the start of the UTMB was a little uninspiring, with forest trails that could really be anywhere but after La Balme it opened out into more interesting mountain passes. Unfortunately, we would not be getting these awesome vistas and would instead be stuck with views that could have been on the North Downs Way a few weeks ago.

Things were going well, and I was moving up the field nicely. My climbing was surprisingly good for a guy from Cambridge, and I was overtaking people even without using poles. But the downs were really where I was causing some damage. The trails were not too technical and it was quite easy to just let loose and really push the descents. It's much easier on the quads to avoid braking. But of course the danger is that the faster you go the less control you have, and the more likely you are to cause an injury (or, y'know, fall off a mountain...). But I was running at a speed at which I felt confident (watching real descenders like Killian Jornet is amazing, to see the speeds that they can get to whilst still maintaining control) and was able to push up the rankings.

But then I started to feel hungry. My stomach was rumbling and just felt completely empty. I chucked a gel down, and waited to see if things would improve. They didn't. The climb up to La Balme was starting to feel tough as I just felt devoid of energy all of a sudden. And it was a looooong climb. I had to stop and "stretch" - kind of in the way tennis players check their strings when they miss a shot. I decided that I was going to sort myself out at the next aid station and try and fill my empty stomach. As I was doing one of my "stretches", James passed me, spotting the sideburns like a hairy beacon in the night. He offered to climb with me, but he was going strong and I didn't want to hold him up. By this point the aid station was visible so I knew it wasn't long to go.
The sun is up, and I'm feeling good! I can almost smell Chamonix.
I arrived at La Balme to be treated by a huge bonfire, and a small amount of snow. It was noticeably colder, and one of the aid station assistants told me I would have to put my trousers on before continuing. I was really worried at first as I didn't have any running tights, and tried to explain in broken French that the rules said it was okay to wear shorts as long as I had the calf guards on. However I soon realised I was being dense and they wanted me to put my waterproof trousers on, which was essential kit for the race. Doh!

I grabbed a LOT of food, and headed over to he bonfire to sort myself out. It was bloody cold having to stop here, and I started to shiver quite badly in trying to put clothes on to keep me warm. Oh the irony. I started to munch my way through my rather large picnic when somebody said my name. Once again, my sideburns had been recognised and I was introduced to Marcus Warner one of the Ultra168 guys. I have been following Marcus' ongoing review of the Salomon Sense quite keenly, hoping for something to crop up to put me off wanting a pair (they're on the expensive side). Unfortunately it still seems as if they may be the perfect shoe. Bugger.

After a bit of a moan from me about my lack of energy (sorry Marcus!) he headed off for the next section. I, on the other hand, went back for seconds. And thirds. And must have been there for about 10-15 minutes scoffing. I have never had that issue before. Usually I hardly eat anything when I run, usually because I would go through expensive gels too quickly otherwise! But now it felt as if I was putting food into a black hole. Some people have suggested this may have been a result of the altitude, but whatever the reason - I was hungry!
A lovely family of supporters cheering us through the last 10 km into Chamonix. Needs more cowbell!
When I finally felt as if I couldn't fit anymore cheese in, I headed off. This section was a lot of fun, and was much more like the race I had expected. After a little bit of getting going (probably waddling from all that cheese), I felt reinvigorated! My running stride was back on track and the leg turnover increased once again. We were running over some quite open ground now, with the light snow being buffeted around us. Unfortunately it was pitch black, but it still felt more like a mountain race than the woods had. As I was following the track, a large group of runners appeared coming the other way shouting "non!". Apparently they had somehow all gone off course, and the lead runner had very nearly run off a cliff! I am not entirely sure how this could have happened as the markings were second to none, and there was a marker right where I was standing, yet somehow we had all managed to make the same mistake. Up in the distance we saw the lights of runners who seemed to know where they were going and a quick check of the course on my Garmin (which unfortunately wiped all of my data up to that point) confirmed it. We all climbed over the fence and headed up onto the (really quite obviously) correct path. Few!

But I was still hungry. So again, rather than a quick refill and a fond "merci", I was force-feeding myself cheese, and noodle soup. This pattern of overtaking a number of people on the section, only for them to pass me as I scoffed, became a recurring feature through Les Contamines (retourne) and Bellevue. The route down from Bellevue was a hell of a lot of fun, slip-sliding my way down an incredibly steep mud chute. From then on, we were back into forest trail running territory and familiar ground as we once again went through Les Houches.
Beautiful weather in Chamonix! Shame it was 24 hours too late...
One thing that was absolutely incredible to me throughout the race was that, even in the middle of nowhere, even 2,000 meters up, even in the middle of the night, and even in the pouring rain, there were people out cheering us on. Not just at the aid stations in the villages (which were bustling with activity throughout the night, and the spectators and volunteers were an absolute joy!), but along the route itself. So on my way into back down into Les Houches, on hearing the familiar ringing of cowbells I was most surprised to find that it was, in fact, just a cow. But I take the support where I can get it!

So I was having some stomach issues which weren't awful, and this was slowing me down a lot due to having to eat, but things were still going okay. My legs felt good, and my pacing felt consistent. After Les Houches we hit a particularly uninspiring section of the route - a 5 km climb up a road, to reach a car park. A lovely way to greet the new day. By this point the rain had stopped and the sun had come out, and it looked to be a relatively nice day. On the way up the hill I chatted to a French runner I met about various aspects of running in Europe compared to Britain. He didn't speak much English but I seemed to get on okay with my GCSE level French. I also bumped into a girl who was struggling with her knee. My attempts to explain the complex interactions between the Iliotibial Band and "runners knee" were not so successful, but I think that she got the gist and stopped to stretch in the way that I showed her. Hopefully that helped and she was able to finish.

We got back into the woods and headed across the valley and passed Chamonix to the sounds of cheering and cow bells as others completed their journey - but we still had another 25 km or so to go, heading up towards l'Argentierre. I made up some time on a slightly technical section downhill through the valley, but when I got to the bottom I realised how hot I was. I stopped to take off my extra layers and got back to running in shorts and t-shirt. As I was fighting with my bag, I was caught up by Luke Carmichael who had the same idea of cutting down on the layers.
Prize giving in the sun
The climb to l'Argentierre was tough. Very tough. A winding, incredibly steep route up through the woods with no sign as to how much further we had to go. Each time we thought that we were nearly there, the route turned a corner where we would find more up. At one point we passed a sign for l'Argentierre saying "25 mins" (presumably to walk), so we assumed we were nearly there. But the route took a different path and it was another hour before we got to the summit. At which point we then had to drop back through the woods into the town.
This last section I had developed a new problem - chaffing. I had now reached the stage when walking was painful, so running had become a no go. Instead I had made the call to walk it in to he finish - a very annoying decision as up until now I had been looking okay (other than my stomach). I stopped briefly to phone Jen and let her know that the reason that it was now taking twice as long between checkpoints wasn't because I had fallen off of a mountain, when I was passed by Paul Bennett whom I had run with at the end of the SDW100 last year. I got back to the task at hand and completed my John Wayne walk into l'Argentierre.

By this time I had hemorrhaged a few hundred places, and the aid station tent was jam packed. As I grabbed some noodle soup, I saw Marcus again. "We really must stop meeting like this" he said. As we were chatting, Bill came through as well. We headed out for the last 10 km; Bill and Marcus heading off at a good speed for the final push; me gritting my teeth and making my way slowly towards the finish. Along this section, I met a nice French chap called Jean who had also slowed down to a walk, and we had a nice chat as we made our way towards Chamonix. Despite the searing pain down below, and the fact that I had dropped massively off of my planned pace, I was feeling pretty happy. The sun was shining, there were lots of really supportive people out on the trail (and a lot of photographers ready to snap the runners in various states of suffering), and I had made peace with my poor performance long ago. So now I was just soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the ride. Jean took off to try and get to the finish, and I just kept on moving. The final section was pretty flat and will have been a fantastic speedy session for the fast guys.
The sort of weather we could have expected on the higher peaks over the weekend?
The sound of cowbells in the distance heralded my arrival on the outskirts of Chamonix. I had been saving all of my "Allez"ing for this last section, as I knew that I wouldn't be able to forgive myself for walking through the crowds. I gritted my teeth, rearranged things as best as possible, and set off for one of the toughest kilometers of running of my life! But the cheering crowds, along with swerving to high five as many of the kids as possible, quickly made me forget the pain. I ran through the line that I had been picturing since I had arrived in 19:26:03 - about 4 hours later than I had hoped. And I felt great! A beer and some cheese to recover, and I headed back to the chalet for a shower. Ow...

The men's race was won by Frenchman François d'Haene in 10:32:36 (the guy never even saw daylight!), with Swede Jonas Buud second in 11:03:19 and America's Mike Foote taking a fantastic third place finish in 11:19:00. The woman's race was won once again by the remarkable Lizzy Hawker for her fifth win (go Team GB!), with Italian Francesca Canepa taking second in 13:17:01, and Spain's Emma Roca taking third in 13:23:37.

The rest of the weekend was spent cheering people on, and generally soaking up the beautiful sunshine (bloody typical) that had graced us. I went up to l'Aguille du Midi, a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif with a summit at almost 4,000 m giving a great view of the surrounding Alps. It was pretty cold up there, about -10 degrees - I got some funny looks wearing my shorts. It was definitely harder to breathe up there, and I did get a little out of breath climbing the stairs, although I do wish we could have run at that altitude to see what would have happened. Oh well.

In the evening, I went along to an event organised by Centurion Running and Extreme Energy for the British runners that had taken part, and it was great fun hearing people's stories (and it was vindicating knowing that everybody thought that it was more than 10 km to l'Argentierre) and how they got on. It sounds as if everybody had done incredibly well, and nobody that I spoke with pulled out. I think about 80 % of us ran in shorts and without poles - "allez les rosbifs" indeed!
Stunning view from the top of l'Aguille du Midi
So overall, things didn't go to plan. But I had a fantastic time none the less. My food issues may have been a result of the altitude that I hadn't considered, and it is definitely something that I need to look into in the future. The chaffing is just one of those things. Usually I avoid it, but this time it became an issue. C'est la vie - can't win them all. In general I was happy with my climbing and more than happy with my descending. I can definitely benefit from adding some hills into my training, and this is something I will work at in the future. But hey, it doesn't always go to plan.

The race itself was incredibly well organised, especially given the last minute changes. It's easy to see why this is one of the top events on the race calendar. I have never seen so many race markings in a single event - frankly it seems impossible to get lost. To have done that over the new course in such a small amount of time was pretty astounding. The helpers throughout the weekend and at the aid stations were amazing, and were incredibly helpful despite my poor attempts at speaking their language. Of course I was very annoyed that I couldn't officially say that I had run the UTMB (particularly as I had essentially wasted my Lakeland entry to be there), but to be clear I wasn't annoyed with the organisers. They know the terrain much better than I do, and were doing what was best for the safety of us idiots. However, I suspect that something will have to change. This is now the third year when adverse weather conditions have affected the route. Hopefully a contingency plan can be developed that can be rolled out if necessary - 100 miles, same elevation, but none of the highest summits. I guess we'll have to wait until next year to see if this happens though.

So would I come back? Most definitely! After all, I still have to cross the UTMB off my bucket list...


  1. Well done Sam. Wear you finisher vest with pride. As you mentioned the TDS was a nightmare and I had to drop at night after 63km - rain, snow, wind, mud - it was becoming pretty dangerous and I had no more dry clothes. I was supposed to have been on the 2nd part of the UTMB course but as you know that didn't happen, so I couldn't look out for you. Btw my friend Katia came in 5th among the women so we had a chance to do some celebrations anyway.
    Also btw I have a blog which you might want to take a look at sometimes -

  2. Nice one Sam! Re: Chaffing Kinesio tape is awesome. I suffered a little on the Dragon's Back and a strategically placed piece of tape removed the issue immediately. Since it has similar elasticity to human skin you never even notice it is there, so whilst I think the fancy taping that is going on is more placebo than anything else, it's proven for chaffing!

  3. Thanks guys! Congratulations to you and Katia, Martin! It sounds like you both did really well. I'll have to go back another year to do the full course. Cheers for the tip Chris. I may try that next time.


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