Friday, 12 September 2014

UTMB // CCC 2014

The UTMB is surely a global race of such distinction that few others come close to the organisation, the course, the depths of despair that so many will have to endure to complete. Amazing people one and all who had managed to get to the start line, a high accolade to those making the finish. Of course, it is not perfect. An event like this comes with some negatives. I was going to start this write up with such words, the CCConga....long queues and seemingly miserable runners, a focus on making money. But, once you get into the race it is truly difficult not to get wrapped up in the warmth and joy this large race has to offer, to feel emotion and to realise you are taking part in something pretty special that few get to experience. To those that question whether to do it. Sign up now and ensure you make a long weekend of it. Take in the ambiance of the town before and after, it does have that magical feel of a big competition which few Ultras could claim. I will though enjoy those quiet ultras immeasurable in the future.

I had arrived a couple of days early and had planned a wild camp up the Aig d'Midi. But on meeting Orla, an instantly likeable American, at the apartment I decided to stay in town, register for the race, enjoy the company and relax with a few drinks and a good meal, I was joined by more friends who were in the valley, Jake and Melissa. We even saw Timmy Olson, Mike Wardian and others in the MBC bar.
The day before Orla decided on a taper run!!! Nothing doing there for me. With the weather looking perfect I decided to meet Jake and Melissa up at Brevent and took an acclimatisation hike up to one of the smaller summits. The panoramas from this side of the valley must be hard to beat in the world.

Back in town I was introduced to Milan, a Czech living in Holland with a great pedigree of epic ultra running. It was clear how international this race was. People from 75 far afield nations had gathered to compete in this iconic race.

So, what of the race?
Up early and sneaking out so as not to disturb the others (Jan and Jiri had arrived late and crashed in the lounge). I did not want to wake anyone as these guys would have to be up shortly and run the race of their lives in the UTMB, where stamina and mental strength would determine how long it would take. The transfer to Courmayer was simple, quick and straight forward. In Italy there was not much to do for an hour. I rested up in the sports hall and waited until the inevitable migration to the start line.
The CCC (Courmayer - Champex - Chamonix) race stats are crazy. A quick run down of the race; 101km with 6100m of vertical. The first 10km are uphill. Km's 30 to 50 are all down and from km60 onwards it's steeply up, then down, up then down, up then finally down to the finish.

Courmayeur - Tete de la Tronche : 10.4km / 3hrs8mins / 1435m gain /1924th-1722nd (202 places taken)  -- It starts, slowly.
1924 runners started. I began at the back, strangely for once with no 'issues', body felt good and the dreaded cold that seems to follow me on race days didn't make an appearance. The front was filled with compression clad pros, the middle pack, congested with cladded hopefuls. The day was to be enjoyed, not ruined with the frustrations of dodging poles, elbows and people so I began my journey at the back of queue. Although impatience did get the better of me at times. Bottlenecks and queues were a given for the first ascent. In fact, I was caught up at some points by slower groups the entire race and the last section into Chamonix was the only place that no-one got in my way. But I was here to complete and not worry about a time or placing. The crowds added to the atmosphere and it gave me a few opportunities to talk to fellow runners. Up to La Tronche I had a good chat with Sarah, a Kiwi from Edinburgh. We set the political agenda right on the upcoming referendum then moved swiftly on to more interesting conversation. Unfortunately, one of my overtaking manoeuvres separated us. Sarah was unable to follow and the gap soon grew. Finally after over 3hrs of slow slogging uphill we climbed no more. We could enjoy the views and give our thighs a brief breather.

Tete de la Tronche - Refuge Bertone : 4.3km (14.7km) / 640m loss /  3hrs50 (42mins on section) / 1639th (83) -- Lost time and views to die for.

With such a slow pace there was no time to dawdle. We all set off on a fast paced exhilarating descent back down to the valley bottom.  I'd hoped to see Sarah again at the CP and wish her luck but the mass of people and the desire to keep moving pushed me on, taking a couple of pieces of cake with me. I have learnt that  by taking a large ziplock bag I can grab a few things and get going without wasting too much time. This worked, although I always grabbed too much and by the end it resembled a mush of 20 varieties of food stuffs.

Refuge Bertone - Ref. Bonatti : 7.4km (22.1km) / 320m gain 350m loss / 5hrs4 (1hr14) /1548th (91) --  La Valle Beautful

The Aosta Valley is certainly breathtaking. Glacial filled rivers, one side imitating a Welsh valley, the other showcasing the might of the Alps. Mt Blanc was shrouded in clouds but the Grandes Jorasses et al bared down on us with their menacing seracs and rock walls. This section rolled and in the main was runable, when crowd dispersal allowed. A pleasant chat with a lad from North Face and the the next CP was reached.

Ref. Bonatti - Arnuva : 5.2km (27.4km) / 230m gain 370m loss / 6hrs (56mins) / 1476th (72) -- Perfect trails.

More enjoyable running to the head of the valley and to a major CP where many runners (too many in my opinion) were taking a respite. If this is what it took to spread out the field then it works for me.

Arnuva - Grand col Ferret : 4,4 km (31.8km) / 770m gain 90m loss / 7hrs30 (1hr30) / 1412th (64) -- Ciao Italie

Up, Up and UP, we went. The poles came out. Better to use them than carry them. Nearing the top the weather certainly started to turn. The clouds darkened and the wind whipped around us. Feeling the altitude a few took refuge in the acclimatisation tents. Rich oxygen to re-energise their bodies and return them to the field. I certainly felt the altitude but it never hit me hard thankfully. Taking sips of water would leave me gasping for breath for a few moments and then it would pass.
I had now been going for 7hrs 30 and had done less than 32km. That's 20 miles. I now understood why it would take so long to complete this race. The terrain continually working you hard and slowing you down.

G Col Ferret - La Fouly : 10.1km (41.9km) / 235m gain 1140m loss / 8hrs53 (1hr20) / 1305th (107) -- Allez Allez

From the top it was downhill for a long way. And what a descent, one of the best. I linked up with Susanne from Sweden here and we zig- zagged our way down. It was fun after the hours of slogging uphill just to be able to fly down the hill and zip past people (It felt that way, the videos show it as a little more laborious). Enjoyment was slightly marred with the onset of rain. We made our way at the head of the valley, lush with forest and fresh rivers to the town of La Fouly with another large CP.

La Fouly - Champex Lac : 14.1km (55km) / 700m gain 900m loss / 11hrs24 (2hr30) / 1163rd (142)  -- Rain

Leaving the CP, I again lost my running partner. Susanne had her dad in the valley to help so I am sure we would of run at different paces in any case. I had gone 10+ mins out of town when a sudden realisation that my poles were not in my hands. D'oh. Now, I did deliberate for a good few minutes on leaving them. If they were cheap I might well of. But they weren't so I retraced my steps, found my poles in the tent and re-started.

Although surrounded with low clouds and looking rather miserable you had that feeling that this was a beautiful valley and one to visit again in better conditions. The first third took us along the river and then a path cut into the mountain side. The second part went into the valley where we got to enjoy the open space and the local communities. They had all come out to cheer each and every one of us along. One family even set up a tea and coffee stand. Excellent support from warm, friendly people. The final third took us back into the forests and hills and up to the small ski resort of Champex (one to explore when I return ski touring). Closing in on the CP, daytime turned to darkness and it seemed that each runner was waiting for someone else to put their torch on first and so we all carried on trekking in the darkness until the bright lights of Champex shone through and showed us the way.

Champex - La Giete : 11.2km (67km) / 900m gain 400m loss / 14hr28 (3hr4) / 1008th (155) -- Schoolboy error

Relaxing in the huge marquee I got some pasta and soup, filled my flask with tea and got my cold weather/night time gear ready. Baselayer - check, waterproof coat - check. Head torch - check.  Hang on why is only a quarter battery showing!! No problem I will use my spares. Not working!! Fiddlesticks. My crappy spare torch would just have to do when my main one ran out. I left the tent a little flustered while everyone inside seemed to be getting ready for 3 course meals, fresh clothes and unwinding. There was certainly no rush to get back out from the majority.

I had hoped the rain had dispelled but it seemed stronger so I stopped and put on my waterproof jacket on again. With luck this time I realised a little sooner about my poles and didn't need to deliberate on turning around to retrieve them!

Once out of Champex I had decided to only use my torch when there was a risk of hurting myself. I followed from light to light, tucking in behind someone (asking for any spares, which no-one had) and using their light to direct me. There was still enough people around that the ones behind helped illuminate the way and if I wanted to press on I could by-pass and soon link up with someone else. This did suck though and I really hoped that at the top of the mountain an all night supermarket would be open!! Wishful thinking. Depending on others to help show me the way was not what I wanted for the rest of the night. One thought was to hold up once my lights had run out and to wait for day light. Whilst I still had light and friends around I would proceed. One of which was another English lady and we egged each other on up the relentless hill, through rain and washed out tracks.

La Giete - Trient : 4.8km (72km) / 260m gain 760m loss / 15hr17 (51min) / 951st (57) -- Overtaking

Through the timing gate and we made our way around the mountain. The weather did start to lighten up and you could see Martingy and the bottom of the valley, burning orange with the street lighting.

Time to turn on my torch and turn up the pace. I actually felt fresh and my legs strong - were they getting stronger?? It was a little surreal feeling this good after 15hours but I felt great and the descent was full of exhilaration and a little danger. The paths were slippery, narrow and full of slow movers and I wanted to move fast down. Many seemed to be extremely reluctant to just move aside a little and let a fellow runner by. It did become a little frustrating, especially in these testing conditions. I was on a high and wanted to make the most of this good feeling. A lot of 'Excusez Mois!' yards behind seemed to get most to at least step a little to one side so I could side track them. I am sure if it was daylight some of the tracks would have scared me and put my brakes on but in the dark I could only see my beam and focused purely on this light and let my legs go.

Closing around Col De Forclaz, the town of Trient shone in the valley below and littered all the way up the other valley up the the Croix de Fer pass were illuminated runners. A memorable sight which also highlighted another tough upcoming passage.

Trient - Catogne : 5.5km (77.4km) / 810m gain 230m loss / 16hrs57 (1hr40) / 824th (127) -- To love a Petzl man

Coming into the CP, again the crowds were warm and uplifting. I saw a Petzl tent and went over and chatted to the guys to see what could be done. I was expecting to buy a replacement torch for 100+euros. But these guys made my night. They just replaced my dead battery with a charged one. I was so pleased that I hugged them. Now I could carry on without the stress of 'if' and 'when' my light would run out. More soup and bread and On y Va!
Refreshed in both body and spirit I fast hiked out of town with a mindset that the hills would take an hour and then its off running again. Upwards I went, chipping away at several small groups and individuals. I was moving well, although there was always more lights high above.  Then half way up I finally caught up with a train of slow movers. To overtake one or a few guys is ok. It doesn't take much out of you and there are gaps to pass especially at the switch backs. But to try and take on 20+ people would just take too much out of the legs and gain you little. I reluctantly stepped into the train line and followed the next guys arse up to the top of the hill whilst all those I had overtaken moved in behind me. Very frustrating.

Catogne - Vallorcine 5.1km (82.5km) / 90m gain 750m loss / 17hr49 (52min) / 765th (59) -- Loving the descents

The slow going meant I was even more eager to get going at the top, and even more fresh it seems. As soon as the path flattened I pushed off with my Excusez's and Pardons and worked to a reasonable pace down the steep slopes to Vallorcine. Concentration was key here as one slip would be the end of my race. Rock and tree obstacles littered the area. I was loving the descents and it was these thoughts that got me up the endless hills in between. I only wished that the growing number of walkers would let me through more easily. Nearing town I took my one and only tumble, with luck just on a slippery grass slope so only got a wet and muddy bum but a stark reminder to keep the mind on the footing and not to go too all out.

Vallorcine - La Tete au Vents : 7.7km (90.3km) / 900m gain 250m loss / 20hrs08 (2hrs19) / 663rd (102) -- The End, or is it?

A funny CP. There was a feeling that we had done it hanging in the atmosphere. But, we were far from the finish line and looking at the profile map brought all those finishing emotions to a grinding halt.  We still had nearly 20kms to go (and would take nearly 4hours). Far from over but I didn't care. It was one last long uphill and then a descent and I still felt good. I took only my second paracetamol with caffeine of the race. My thoughts pre race was a to munch on these to get me through but like most things in my bag they remained as a contingency only.
The final hill was a beast and seeing the torch lights stringed out high above only highlighted the effort that was going to be needed. Numerous quick switch backs later and I again slotted into a grouping of CCCers, this time happily slowing to save my remaining strength for the faster sections.

T au Vents - Flegere : 3.5km (93.8km) / 60m gain 330m loss / 20hrs51 (41mins) / 639th (24) -- A forgotten ridge

Where did this come from? It seemed never ending and fraught with danger in the twists and turns, ups and downs with lots of potential hazards waiting for a tired mind and body to trip up on. It was only 40 minutes but I loved this ridge. I only wished daylight came sooner so that I could see the stunning ridges and panoramas from up high.

Flegere - Chamonix : 7.2km (101km) / 190m gain 1000m loss / 21hrs57 (1hr6) / 601st (38) -- C'est fini

From this CP it definitely felt that the end was achievable. It's all downhill from here....metaphorically and literally. With few people around I ran all the way in (well, it felt like running!). The dawn was breaking with uplifting views of Mt Blanc and it's impressive range. I ran down through the cloud inversion. I ran into Chamonix with the early risers cheering 'Allez Allez'  and 'Bravo Bravo'. 
Along the way I had thought about finishing and got a little emotional but as I finally passed the finish line there was no room for tears, I just felt pure joy in finishing a truly amazing race. The crowds were thin at 7am but it was great seeing a friend, Peter, who had just finished as well. We congratulated each other, went for a couple of beers on the steps and caught up on life quickly before calling it a day and heading off to contemplate our achievement.

CCC 101km 22hrs 6100m +/- 601st place.

1945 Starters / 1423 Finishers (73% success compared with only 40% on the UTMB, do I really want to do this next year?)
A race for all Ultra runners to try. These races test you physically, mentally and emotionally. Which is partly why we do this.

Transitions/CPs were good, I never stuck around for long. I still lost 50mins in the bigger CPs plus 35mins at Champex whilst I exhausted all options for getting more out of my torch batteries. I lost more time going back for my pole at La Fouly, around 25mins. And maybe 1 to 3 hours in slow queue trains and the constant stop starts of overtaking on difficult terrain.

I loved the race though, there was a special atmosphere to it all week. The atmosphere was electric, the town buzzed for days. I did feel a little disappointed that the mood of other runners felt a bit flat. I did manage to talk to a few, mainly women, but most runners seemed lost in their own thoughts and unwilling to communicate. Maybe I just expected too much, maybe they didn't speak English!

After the finish it was nice to relax in the town square cheering on the others runners finishing the other races, PTL and UTMB - this went on for another day and a half.

Jiri (sickness and fever) and Orla (see picture) had had to pull from the UTMB. Milan was still out there though. We went up to see him come down the final CP at Flegere. Jan and Jiri, with fresher legs, went of to see him further up. Orla and myself hobbled up to a nice resting spot by a stream and cheered on the many other UTMBers coming down. Milan came past, looking surprisingly fresh. We cheered 'Bravo Bravo' and try as we might, we could not keep up with him on the descent. Luckily at the bottom we had a car waiting to take us to the finish line in town. Cheering Milan through the tape was a wonderful experience. I haven't seen many friends through a finish line and could relate, in a small way, to what depths a person had to go through to make that finish. Bravo Milan you are an extraordinary man.

More rest, more beers and more food were enjoyed over the next couple of days before our little group parted company. I certainly hope I get to meet up with these inspiring guys again someday soon.

As for running the UTMB myself, it would be good to test myself on one of the top races so I'll enter the ballet and make a tough decision for 2015 if I get in.

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