Saturday 16 September 2017

UTMB Race Report 2017 - Needs More Cowbell

The UTMB is one of, if not the most well known mountain ultra in the world. Granted, that is a fairly niche category in which to find yourself at the top of the heap. However, find yourself in Chamonix or any of the villages surrounding Mont Blanc at the end of August during the UTMB festival of running, and you might think that you had stumbled upon a big city marathon nestled away in the mountain valley. The atmosphere is, quite simply, electric, with the sounds of cowbells and shouts of "Allez!" ringing out day and night. And the finishing chute in Chamonix, where runners pass hundreds of cheering supporters high fiving kids as they go, is teeming with energy no matter the weather or time of day (or night).

Race week consists of five main events; the titular UTMB (Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc - Chamonix to Chamonix, 171 Km, 10,000 m ascent), the CCC (Courmayeur to Champex-Lac to Chamonix, 101 Km, 6,100 m ascent), the TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie, 119 Km, 7,200 m ascent), the newer OCC (Orsiéres to Champex-Lac to Chamonix, 56 Km, 3,500 m ascent), and the team based PTL (Petitie Trotte a Léon, 290 Km, 26,500 m ascent). They are spaced out so that there is always something going on around Chamonix, with the main event of the UTMB concluding proceedings.

I originally did the UTMB five years ago in 2012, although my finish there has always had somewhat of an asterisk alongside it. The weather was awful leading up to the race, and so the organisers decided to reduce the distance considerably and changed the course such that we barely left the Chamonix valley. Whilst I finished the race, it wasn't really the UTMB. I had always had it in my mind to address this, and decided last year to put my name into the draw so that I might have a chance of actually getting in several years down the line. I really was NOT expecting to actually get in, so you can imagine my surprise when, for the second time, I got into the race on my first try. I have the worst luck.

I confess that my lead up to this race has not exactly been ideal. The last time that I finished a race was the South Downs Way 100 over a year ago, and my running over the last 6 months leaves a lot to be desired. Since moving down south, and due to an injury that has affected my running for nearly 2 years now, I have barely run more than 30 miles a week, with nothing longer than 15 miles except for a botched attempt at a 100 Km a few months ago. I still cycle plenty and use the gym, but I miss the days of training for and completing ultras. I contemplated not running, particularly after I pulled out of the Serpent Way 100 Km at 40 miles recently. But seeing as how there are plenty of people out there who would love to have the opportunity to run this race, I wanted to give it the best go that I possibly could.

Plus I had already payed.

The weather leading up to the event was hot and sunny, and the photos that I saw from friends already out there looked incredible. So you can imagine my disappointment to turn up in Geneva to driving rain and threats of snow. It was all a little familiar... I was going to be seriously pissed off if the race changed again, and I ended up with another not-quite-UTMB finish.

In the meantime I was soaking in the atmosphere, and spending the day looking after my friend Tim's family while he ran what his wife described as the "baby" race (OCC). I had hoped to take Jen and Lottie along with me, but unfortunately it didn't work out, so it was funny to end up tagging on as  a third (well, fifth) wheel to a family. As the evening approached, we met up with Tim's friend Christian (who would also be running UTMB), his wife Caroline and their two boys, and made our way to the finish line to wait for Tim to come in. The weather had been pretty awful all day, and I confess to hoping that the OCC runners would bear the brunt of it leaving only good weather for me. Soz.

Despite the rain, the kids were in good spirits, excited to see their Daddy finish the race. We set ourselves up near the end ready for them to join Tim in his final run through the line. It was dark and rainy, but as Tim came through the cheering crowd, he was delighted to see his family, and was so proud to run with his little boy and girl through the cheering crowds to the finish line after 12 hours of running. The "baby" race it may be, but there was nothing easy about it. But boy did he milk the fact that he was all done when Christian and I were still waiting to get going.

I spent the next day just chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool and all shooting some B-ball outside of the school. I don't really put too much thought into these things, so was happy with the 10 minutes that I had spent throwing all of my random bits and pieces into my bag the day before. Funnily enough, the majority of my kit (except for my shoes) were the exact same things that I had brought with me 5 years ago, even down to the bandage. I guess it was a good sign that I had got through with everything intact last time, but it kind of highlighted quite how cheap I am.

The race started in the evening at a slightly revised time of 6:30pm. We had received confirmation that the race would go ahead with only minor changes - it still wasn't the classic UTMB course, but was close enough to finally get rid of that asterisk. I guess that all I would have to do now was finish the race.

Tim was planning on crewing for elite runner Jason Schlarb during the race so had offered to give me a lift to the start. Jason had the win in his sights with a time of 20ish hours in mind - somewhat faster than my intended finish. As we approached the start, Jason and his girlfriend Meredith walked through to the elite pen, whilst I was redirected towards the general start pen with the rest of the plebs. Since we had turned up quite close to the starting time, I found myself pretty far from the actual start line. However, since I had no airs about my finish time I wasn't too worried.

Despite the issues leading up to the race, I was feeling pretty positive. I was planning on pushing myself as far as I could one way or another, even if it meant hiking most of the way to the finish. Since I was there until Wednesday anyway, I had nothing else to be doing other than enjoying some time in the mountains. My plan was to keep moving forward and smile as much as I could - this was due to be an amazing experience that I planned and making the most of. I was a bit concerned about how my legs and feet would stand up to the strain being so out of practice, but I put that out of my mind and concentrated on taking in the atmosphere.

With one final rendition of Vangelis' Conquest of Paradise (man that song can get annoying after a while), we were off! Well sort of... As far back as I was, the movement was somewhat stilted as we were squeezed through the streets of Chamonix. The shouts of "Allez! Allez!" were somewhat frustrating while surrounded by hundreds of other runners moving at a crawling pace. I was allezing as fast as I could, damnit! Not that this was a bad thing of course - last time, I was quite near the front and ended up running to Les Houches in a ridiculously fast time and ended up completely shattered early in the race. This at least kept my pace sensible.

As we got to the first climb, I was finally able to move, and set off at a run to get the legs going. Despite the threatened apocalypse, it was actually a very pleasant evening, and the run through the woods to the first aid station was a perfect start to the event. I heard a cheeky shout of, "Go on Sam, you're running faster than Walmsley!", and turned to find Robbie Britton out supporting on the route following his 16th place finish at the OCC the day before.

The climb up to Le Delevret was about how I remembered it from last time - long and arduous. And this was one of the shorter climbs. Luckily, I had remembered one of my main tips from last time - there's always more up. Never think that you are at the top, because you will only be disappointed. Let it be a nice surprise when you start to come back down again! Another good tip is sometimes a cowbell is just a cow, so don't use the sound as a signal for an upcoming aid station.

During the climb, it started to get colder and darker. I was quite happy in my choice of clothing for the time being (nothing fancy, a cheap thin long sleeved top with a cheap T-shirt over the top) as long as I didn't slow down too much, but put my head torch on early to save faffing later. I was climbing quite well, and when we reached the summit and began the long descent down into Saint Gervais I was picking up quite a few places.

The problem was that I was starting to feel it in my foot. I had been dealing with an ache in my forefoot since Les Houches, and it was now starting to feel pretty bad. Not a great sign with 140 Km left to go. So I made a decision that very likely is the only reason that I made it back to Chamonix - I started using poles.

Dun dun dunnnnn!

This is something that I have never done before. Generally it's because I can't be bothered with the faff, and I don't really now what I am doing. But Tim had convinced me to take his poles with me just in case, and right now I was really happy I had taken his advice. I was able to take a little pressure off of my foot which made a huge difference, and I soon got the hang of how not to poke people in the face with them.

I had also made a mistake having not eaten anything since lunch. I had originally meant to grab something before the start, but ended up not having enough time. A few gels had kept me from feeling too hungry, but the cheese and sausage at Saint Gervais was very welcome. Since it was getting cold and wet now, I also got into the habit of having some nice warm salty soup at each checkpoint, and filled one bottle with water and the other with half water and half Coke. This winning combination saw me through the rest of the race with no stomach issues at all.

It was raining as I headed through Les Contamines, which was the region in which I was staying. My one worry at the start was that I would end up pulling out here, but there was no risk of that now. I was smiling and happy, and feeling good with how things were going.

Coming into La Balme was a very different experience to five years ago. The snow had really started coming down then, and we were forced to put on all of our layers before they would let us continue. This time, however, it was chilly and wet - a perfect British summer's evening really. This was one of the largest climbs of the race with about 1500m climb up to Bonhomme from Saint Gervais. But I was pretty pleased with my climbing, making good progress all the time without feeling like I was struggling the whole way. The poles were really helping as well and it was nice to take advantage of some upper body strength.

The section down to Chapieux started quite technical and scary in the wet, but eventually opened out into a lovely track that was perfect for some proper running (when I wasn't stuck in a procession of other runners). It felt really good to get the legs turning over, which really helped to avoid the muscles getting too stiff. I was a bit taken aback by the guy behind me who very proudly declared that he wanted to "take my ring". Okaaaaaay... After a bit of fractious French, I realised he was making a slightly tortured reference to Lord of the Rings given my name. So after nodding, smiling, and quickly backing away I ran into the tent for some soup, a bit of a cheese, and a quick reapplication of lube. One of my lasting memories from last time was a 20 Km John Wayne walk to Chamonix due to the rain having washed away my lube last time, so this time I was going to be sure to take time to keep the balls rolling. So to speak.

It was here that I accidentally bumped into Christian, who had been caught up in the manic rush at the front of the pack. We headed out together on the switch back climb up to Col Seigne, which I believe may be where you enter Italy. In all honesty, I never really noticed. I kept forgetting where I was and saying "merci", "thank you", and even "gracias" for some reason at random times throughout the run. I'm so British. Christian and I headed up the nice wide trail together at a pretty good pace, making our way up the hill. At some point I managed to get ahead of Christian which I completely failed to notice until I turned around to see why he hadn't answered me only to find a rather confused looking Frenchman in his place.

The sun was starting to come up as I headed down towards the lake at Lac Combal. Getting through the night is usually somewhat of a crux point in these races, as the sun can act as a huge rejuvenating factor. In this case I was going to end up going through another night, but for now it felt great having made it through the night, and the fact that it was looking to be a nice sunny day was a huge boost. The climb up past the lake towards Mt Favre was beautiful, and I even stopped for a few photo opportunities with the Italian side of Mont Blanc.

The descent towards Courmayeur was pretty technical, but I was feeling pretty good at this stage and made my way down as quickly as I could. Generally the trick to downhill running is to avoid putting on the brakes and let gravity do the work. This is easier said than done when one false move can lead to a rather rapid descent with an unfortunate ending. Quite how there are not more injuries, particularly at the pointy end of the race where every second counts, I have no idea. Unfortunately I was a little limited in my ability to move by the runners surrounding me, and I wasn't comfortable enough passing by on some of the more narrow paths to overtake. But I still came into Courmayeur in under 15 hours, which was far beyond my expectations!

Since I was already walking all of the climbs, it did occur to me that an early morning finish might be in my sights, which fit with my most ambitious plans from last time (before they changed the course). However, this time I had made no plans at all and was just planning on rolling with it. Plans can go wrong, and if you're too busy thinking about things you can really get your head all over the place. "Run stupid" is my motto, so I had nothing in mind other than "run to Chamonix". Simple.

I was feeling comfortable and dry at this point, but decided that I was going to take some time to get changed into some fresh clothes whilst I had the opportunity. I changed my clothes, relubed my... extremities, and changed my socks. I also replaced the tape on my feet just to avoid any issues that may occur down the line. I considered stopping for a nap, but actually was feeling pretty awake so decided to just crack on.

The section up towards Refuge Bertone was quite relentless, with switchback after switchback up through the woods. This was absolutely a section where you need to avoid wondering "are we there yet". You're not. You're nowhere near. Get over it. When we eventually made it out of the woods, the track opened out into a wide open plain, with the route heading up towards the refuge. A helicopter was tracking above a group of us, and was swooping around all over the place. I felt that I should probably be running at this stage, but as soon as the helicopter buggered off I let out a sigh of relief and settled into a nice relaxed pace.

It was really starting to get chilly, and I could feel the rain coming. Since Courmayeur I had been running in shorts and a T shirt as it was too hot in the sun to wear anything more, but here I stopped to put a long sleeved top on before the cold weather got worse.

By the time I dropped into Arnouvaz, the rain was really coming down, and the terrain had become boggy and slippy making descending quite treacherous. We were told that we would have to put on all of our waterproofs before being allowed to head out from the checkpoint, so for the first time in the race I found myself in trousers. But the ascent up Col Ferret into Switzerland was when the weather really turned. The driving rain very quickly became driving sleet and snow, and I had to use a buff on my face so that I could breathe properly. The ground was ridiculously slippy, and if it wasn't for the poles (which I used to literally drag myself up) I don't think that I could have made it. I was wearing Salomon Sense Mantras which are perfect for most running that I do (including road as I wore them to finish Spartathlon), but they just don't have the grip of something like the Speedcross or Fellraiser. I was a bit concerned that I had a made a terrible mistake, but was able to persevere with only a few slip ups.

The descent was actually a lot easier than I feared, and I came into La Fouly feeling pretty good. I was, however, aware that I had not slept for a while, and was actually a bit surprised that I had not begun to feel it yet. Over the last few years, fatigue has been somewhat of a recurring theme in races (after several years of raising a non-sleeping baby), so I was quite impressed with how awake I was feeling. That being said, there was a long way to go and the last thing that I wanted was to realise how tired I was while trying to negotiate my way down a cold wet mountain pass. So I decided to attempt to sleep briefly now, just enough to get me through to the end. Of course, I say "sleep", but really it was a case of wrapping myself up in my emergency blanket, sticking in my headphones, and resting my head on the table. I had my eyes closed for 20 minutes, and I'm not sure how much it helped, but I headed out into the drizzly evening ready to crack on.

The next section was a rather long fairly flat or downhill section along the road (due to a landslide that had made the normal route impassable), which was a great opportunity to get the legs moving again. I could already feel my thighs screaming at me, but after a bit of time forcing them to do their bloody job I found that I was able to run quite well which felt fantastic. It was drizzling, but I felt perfectly comfortable in my waterproof and the movement was keeping me toasty warm. The light failed along the way, and I was back under the glow of my head torch before I made it to the lake at Champex Lac. Unlike the previous evening, there was no fog and so it was a lot easier to see, which made a big difference.

I was definitely starting to feel it by this point, but this just spurred me on to get moving. After a quick stop for soup and to top my water off, I headed back off to make my way up through the woods. It was pretty wet and muddy again, and I was struggling to get my legs to do as they were told, but I made consistent progress up through the night. Again, this is not the time to be thinking about whether or not you are near the top of a climb, and being able to see lights above you does nothing to help, so I tried to concentrate on my Star Wars audiobook instead. I'm dead grown up, me.

I was a bit worried that I had misjudged my water supply and was worried that I would run out before I got to Trient. I was keeping my ears open for flowing water to top it up, but luckily there was an intermediate checkpoint at the top of the hill at La Giétes. There wasn't much choice in this little shack, but I was happy to fill up my water and press on down the hill to Trient. By this point, I was struggling to pick up any speed at all on the descents, which is where I had been making up my time up until now. So for now it was pretty much hiking all of the way, including some fairly tentative steps down the hills which felt excruciatingly slow. Still, better than falling I guess.

I could practically smell the end now, although there was still 30 Km and 2 big climbs left to go. I can't remember much about the climb up to Les Tseppe, other than that it was very very wet, but by the time I made it down to Vallorcine the sun was just starting to peak over the horizon.

This was it now, one last climb before the final descent into Chamonix. Due to the weather, one of the route changes was that we would no longer be heading up to La Tete aux Vents, but instead would be skirting around slightly lower over to La Flégere. This is about the only section on the whole race where I had a sense of humour failure. Heading up through the woods into the mist was fine, and the early morning sun had once again given me a boost, making me feel nothing but excitement about the coming ending to this epic endeavour.

However, when I started descending down prior to the final push to La Flégere I was struggling to get my legs to do what I told them. It was really gnarly terrain with some quite scary sections that required hands and feet, and I was just struggling to avoid careening down the mountain side. The lack of sleep was catching up with me here as well, and whilst I'm not sure if this counts as hallucinating (something that has never happened to me before), but I kept thinking that I saw the checkpoint tent up ahead - only to be incredibly disappointed.

After a couple of little wobbles and collapsing on my arse in a very undignified manner, I came out of the woods to the wide (and steep) track up to La Flégere. At this point, I had got over my (albeit quite small) strop, and was feeling really excited. I "stormed" up the hill, and came into the checkpoint smiling and chatting to the aid station workers. It was warming up so I got rid of some of my layers and was back to shorts and a T-shirt for the finale. I was able to gradually get my legs moving down the first wide open section, and by the time I hit the narrow trail that winds its ways down to the town I was actually running. RUNNING! I mean, really really slowly sure, but it felt great and I was so excited knowing that within an hour I would be in Chamonix.

As I approached the edge of the town, I stopped to put my poles away and to get a stone out of my shoe. Some of the people were very aggressively shouting "allez, allez!" at me, so I didn't hang about. The support throughout the town was as amazing as I remembered from my last finish, and even though I was a lot later than I had hoped it was actually a much nicer experience than it would have been to finish in the rain in the middle of the night. The sun was shining, and the crowds were out in full force as I headed through the town towards where I could hear the shouts from the finish line.

I was enjoying taking the ambience and high fiving everybody that I could, but as I took the final corner and saw the finishing arch in front of me, I broke out into a sprint and made my way to the finish as fast as my little legs would carry me. Probably not particularly fast to be fair, but to me I felt like the Flash, and got a good cheer as I came through the line.

40 hours, 17 minutes and 12 seconds after leaving, I was back and finished. Huzzah!

I picked up my finisher's gilet - which this year was not a horrific lime coloured one like last time (which went straight in the bin) thank goodness - and sat to have a well deserved beer before heading off to pick up my finish line bag (which was annoyingly held miles away over by the Sports Centre).

I was originally planning on sleeping for a while, but decided that I was too wired and wanted to take in the atmosphere while I could. So I grabbed a shower (thank goodness I got a T- shirt for finishing, as I had forgotten to pack a towel - technical T-shirts are pretty absorbent!) and headed back out to cheer on the rest of the runners. I hung out with Tim and his family, along with Tim's friends in the Scottish contingent who had all finished one race or another that week and were waiting to cheer on one of their friends. I had a bloody good steak, a couple of beers (which went pretty quickly to my head given my lack of sleep, lack of food and general fucked-up-edness), and cheered and shouted until my voice went horse.

If you ever get a chance to be in Chamonix when the race finishes, I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity - it's incredible to see the culmination of so many people's journeys. There were smiles, there were tears, and there some incredible processions of friends and families running down that finishing straight.

We were waiting to cheer on Christian with his family, and were getting a little worried as the cutoff was approaching quickly. We knew that he had left La Flégere just in time, but there now wasn't long left. As it turned out, we needn't have worried as the cutoff time we had been told was incorrect, and he finished with time in the bag, running through the line with his two boys.

After a lot of cheering, a nice big ice cream, and a few drinks with friends, I headed along to the Like The Wind celebration party where I caught up with a few people who I knew. I hadn't seen Simon and Julie from Freestak for a while, and it was good to catch up. I even got to speak to Double Bob Graham Round running legend Nicky Spinks for a while, who had crewed Damian Hall to a 12th place finish which was astounding.

By this point, I was genuinely struggling to speak coherently, never mind keep my eyes open. It was Sunday evening, and the last time that I had slept was Thursday night. I headed to bed for a well deserved sleep.

I came away from the race feeling a lot better than I had any right to. The next day I was running around with Tim's kids, and was frankly far too happy when I managed to beat his 7 year old son in a sprint across the park. In my defence, he is bloody quick having come third in the kid's CCC a few days previously. I was worried that I was going to be wrecked after the race, but I felt great. Bloody tired, but great nonetheless.

Other than taking 10 hours longer than I would ideally have liked, I would go so far as to say the race went excellently. My fuelling decisions were spot on, I had no stomach issues whatsoever, I had no blisters, and most importantly my foot felt absolutely fine. In fact it felt better than it has done for a while. Now that I am back to earth at sea level, it is back to being niggly, but for those few days after the race I forgot all about it. My thighs felt very tight for a few days, but I got back on my bike as soon as I got home for my daily commute with no issues. All in all, I was very happy - not only did I finish, but I didn't kill myself or break anything doing it. Score!

My last post was supposed to be a lighthearted dig at myself for having not finished anything in a while, but a few people took it as a genuine cry for help! But it's fine, I can now hold my head up high that I have finally finished something this year. Hurray! I still need to sort my foot out before I can get up to anything else particularly interesting, and if my house sale ever goes through maybe I might just look into that. But for the time-being this should do me for a while.

And most importantly, I now have a qualifying race for Western States so I can continue my run of entries in the lottery, which double every year. I don't think next year will be a good year for me to get in, but it means 32 for the following year which should work out perfectly. Although knowing my terrible luck, I'll inevitably get in for 2018...

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