The journey of an ultra runner

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Shared Ambitions: The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

I first heard of the UTMB in 2008 when I was doing the Transalp race. I had wanted to do it ever since. After having watched the start of the race last year while on holiday I planned to put an entry in for the CCC ( a shorter race in the same series) as I didn't think I had enough points for the UTMB. To get an entry for the race you have to enter a ballot which opens in December. On the day entries opened I entered my details only to realise that I had the full eight points required to enter the UTMB. I did for at least a few seconds consider entering the CCC but knew the ultimate goal was the UTMB so thought what the heck. After a months wait I got the news I wanted, the ballot had been in my favour and I had a place.
Eight months of focused hill training later and I was making my way to the Place du Triangle de l’Amitie
On the way to the start
Trying to stay in the shade, a 2 hour wait.
in Chamonix where the race starts. I felt a strange mix of nervousness, excitement and relief to be getting started. We had been in Chamonix for 5 days at this stage and had to refrain from too much running because of the race so was very glad to eventually get started. There were 2300 runners on the start line and with no waved start people start queueing early. Two hours before the start I made my way to the start with Caroline McKay (above) and we found a shaded spot to sit.Temperatures were sitting at low 30's and we were having to try hard not to get trampled by other runners and spectators.

The start line
At 6pm we started out journey to the sounds of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. The crowds lining the streets as we left Chamonix were phenomenal and I knew I was in for an unforgettable experience.
The first section consisted of a fairly flat trail to Les Houches followed by a 700m climb to Le Delevret before a steep 900m decent into St Gervais. As I reached top of the first climb I met Bob Steel and Scott Bradley two other Scottish runners, we ran together for a while happy that the heat of the day was easing as dusk approached.
In the check point at St Gervais I had a quick scout around to see what food was available  to try and plan my race nutrition a bit better. The check points provided water, tea, coffee, coke and noodle soup to drink and energy bars, cheese, meat, bread, dried fruit, fresh fruit and some cakes to eat.
I opted for some dried fruit and fruit bread as well as a quick top up of my bottles. I left St Gervais in 374th place. The next section was a fairly uneventful 577m climb to Les Contamines, by this stage it was approaching 10pm and the sun had set long ago but the party atmosphere here was still going strong. It gave me a lift before the long climb up to the Refuge Croix Bonhomme. I felt comfortable and was enjoying the cool the darkness had brought.
Enjoying the cool of the night
An enjoyable steep 5km descent brought us into Les Chapieux. By this stage like so many others I had began to enjoy the noodle soup provided at the check points and was struggling to eat a lot else, I forced down a few other bits of food and hit the trail again. Leaving Les Chapieux a steady tarmac climb took us to Col de la Seigne and the Italian border.
By this time it was after 1am but with a full moon I was able to climb into the darkness without the use of my head torch. Leaving the Col was an awe inspiring sight seeing the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains illuminated by the moon. I felt very privileged to be in a position to participate in an event like this and have the physical ability to consider it. I felt really excited to be heading into some quite remote mountain trails in the dead of night.
Leaving the Col there were 2 or 3  hardy supporters at the side of the trail and one of them was playing music through a small speaker. Ever since I was 16 I have never ran with music and in all honesty when running in the hills I just enjoy sounds of nature but I have got to admit the sounds of "Lost Frequencies- Are you with me?"  gave me a little spring to my step. Maybe I should consider this in the future!
After a short decent we entered new territory for the UTMB course as we headed up to Col de Pyramides. As we ascended the path it became more like a Scottish hill walkers path than the usual well trodden alpine trail, a bit boggy and wet before we hit the first really technical section of the race, a lovely boulder field. My endless days in the Scottish Munro's served me well and it wasn't much of an issue but I was glad of a decent head torch on this section. I know not everyone shared my sentiment on this section.
 I hit the next checkpoint at 4:21am, after a brief stop to refuel I for the first time felt slightly cold. I considered putting on my jacket but decided against it as I was confident I would warm up again once I got going. I'd guess it was maybe 10 degrees, so not surprising some of the locals were wrapped up by this time, shorts and t-shirt were enough for me. It wasn't long before we started the next 500m climb to Arrete du Mont-Favre, the final climb before the mammoth 1200m descent into Courmayeur. My quads were screaming at me as I made this descent but I was buoyed  by the sunrise and by the thought of reaching Courmayeur which marked roughly the half way mark of the race.
The sun is coming up
This check point is the first place they offer hot food and conscious of the fact I hadn't been able to eat as much as I would have liked I was keen to fuel up. We were also able to leave a drop bag at this point. I reached Courmayeur at 6:30am, quickly washed some of the dirt sweat and suncream of my face and grabbed a bowl of pasta. After pushing the dry pasta around the bowl for 20 mins, changing my socks and applying some more sun cream I gave up on the hot food opting instead for some more noodle soup, bread and some apple compote. Before starting the UTMB I had decided that while I was going to push hard I wanted to treat it as an experience rather than a race. Accordingly to this point I hadn't looked at a single split. To give me a rough idea of my progress I had written splits to Courmayeur for a 25h, 30h and 35h finish.  My primary goal being a finish rather than a specific time.  Despite a fast finish not being my priority I was a bit disappointed to be 40mins behind the 30h split.
As I left my legs felt stiff and sore and I was worried about the fact I hadn't managed to eat much. Running thought the pretty old streets in the dawn light I thought it would be nice to come back one day and explore the town at a more leisurely pace. Leaving Courmayeur in 184th place there was a couple miles of tarmac before an 800m climb to Refuge Bertone. As I climbed I was conscious that another runner was right on my tail, given that the path was pretty narrow I asked would he like to pass. He declined and we chatted for a while. A  Polish runner called Bart it was his first attempt at the UTMB as well, we shared the ambition to make that iconic finish line.
At the refuge concerned about the my lack of calories I had a mug of coke, as I finished that and topped up my bottles I was surprised to hear Bart ask "are you ready?" Now  I am happy to admit that I can often be a bit anti social when I race, preferring to focus on the race and looking after myself but it was nice to have some company. As we passed Refuge Bertone heading towards Refuge Bonatti we followed 7km of undulating trails with in my recollection some of the best views of the whole race.
A short steep descent brought us into Arnuva. I was feeling pretty good and lifted by the fact that our next climb would see us over the highest point of the race and despite there still being 3500m of climb to come after that it seemed like a small victory.
As we climbed through this area popular with walkers I took every opportunity I could to cool myself, filling my cap with water and pouring it over my head every time we passed a stream on the course. Passing Grand Col Ferret I was in 153 place and began yet another quad bashing 1000m descent into La Fouly and after a quick stop to refuel another 500m of descent awaited. At Praz de Fort a small village at the bottom of the hill I remember looking at the rather smudged temporary tattoo on my arm that showed the race profile. It looked a short climb to Champex but this conflicted with a sign I passed which showed 8 km to Lac Champex. It was  for a biking route and not the route we were following and in my head I thought it couldn't be that far. We left the village and climbed into the forest, the shade was nice but I was beginning to feel pretty wasted, surely it couldn't be far. Unfortunately looking at the contours of where we were going I knew we still must be some way off the hill was far to steep to accommodate a lake. For the first time in the race doubts began to enter my head. I still had over 20miles and 3000m to cover, I felt completely empty as I eventually reached the checkpoint at Lac Champex. I  optimistically picked up another bowl of pasta and a few other snacks and sat down. The noodle soup went down as did another apple compote but even the thought of the pasta made me feel nauseous, this time I didn't even manage a single bite. I just wanted to lie down. For a brief few minutes I lay on the bench I was sitting on, before one of the volunteers came over. She said "there is a bed next door if you want to lie down". No way!! That would have been a really bad idea. Still feeling nauseous and again not having eaten as much as I'd have liked we set out once again.
Champex aid station a bit later in the race
 Running  along the edge of lake Champex in the blazing sun it was so tempting to jump into the crystal clear water. Thankfully before long the nausea passed and I began to feel more confident that the combination of noodle soup and coke was enough to keep me going. After a short descent we climbed 865m to La Giete. It was around here somewhere that Bart checked his splits and said "you know if we keep pushing really hard we could make it under 30 hours". Now up until this point I had been fairly relaxed about times but with only two more climbs to go and over 85 miles already covered I was ready to give what I had left. We descended quickly into Trient, only two more climbs to go I told myself. While I was keen to push on the distance was beginning to catch up with Bart. He told me I should go on myself. While it did cross my mind I hoped that with a bit of encouragement he'd get through the dip. We hit the trail again on our penultimate climb, 700m to Catogne, the sun was setting on another day. I said "we've come this far lets stick together we can reasses at the next checkpoint ". While his pace had slowed Bart was still moving well. The summit came and we descended into Vallorcine. One more climb I said we can still make sub 30. Bart didn't look convinced and said something about just getting there. After Vallorine and a few more words of encouragement our final climb came into view, the route ahead of us traced on the hillside by the flicker of head torches.
We passed a group of enthusiastic American supporters at the side of the road just before we started the climb in earnest. As we started to climb Bart suddenly said "OK let's do this". He took the lead and we climbed steadily giving what we had left in our legs. We climbed up towards Tete aux Vents, up, up up we went,  then as we got about 3/4 way up it was my turn to feel the pain. The energy slowly drained from my legs, soon Bart was out of sight. I walked, jogged, shuffled on as best as I could but the ground was very bouldery slowing my progress more. As I neared the summit there was no sign of Bart and I thought , the bugger has left me, but sure enough a minute or so later he was there shouting words of encouragement to me this time. He said I needed to run faster. I frustratedly replied saying I couldn't go any faster. I was so tired that on the rocky terrain any time I tried to run faster I was tripping and stumbling. The last thing I wanted to do was fall and injure myself at this stage. I knew I needed fuel so I took a gel and kept going trying to keep Bart in sight. Slowly the carbs kicked in and I began to be able to keep a better pace, the lights of La Flegere the final checkpoint came into view.
We came into the checkpoint and after a quick drink we quickly asked how far to Chamonix. 7KM came the response. With 800m of descent and 48mins to go sub 30hrs seemed within the realms of possibility. We ran down the steep ski slope as fast as our quads would let us. Could we do it? Then as we hit the dark single track trails I realised my head torch was dying and it was slowing me down. I made the decision to change batteries. It was a good call, soon we were hammering along the rooty trail towards Chamonix, tick, tick, tick!! The trail turned to landrover track, we ran faster again, but the trail started to contour. We could see the lights far below us and we still had a lot of descent to go. I hoped for a nice steep switchback to give us a rapid descent, but it didn't come, we kept pushing but as time passed I began to realise that we were probably just too far off the finish to make sub 30. At the pace we were going I was worried that at the end of such a long race I'd end up  flaking out on the finish line. If I'd been on for  a podium finish this would have been well worth it, but I was way off that and I was keen to just enjoy the rush of running into Chamonix at the end of such an epic race. I suggested we back off  the pace. As we reached the outskirts of town we once again checked how far just in case. 1K to go, 3mins left! Just out off reach. We continued into town to the cheering crowds. I turned the corned to see Dawn and Gavin. A rather excited Dawn gave me a Saltire and we lifted our pace for the finish line. For an individual race, crossing the line with Bart was like being part of a team, it was a great feeling to reach the finish line together.
Bart and I heading to the finish line.
I hugged Bart we each thanked each other for the help along the way. Dawn was there too, she told me "wave to your Mum" I thought for  moment she was there too and felt a bit emotional, but Dawn explained that she was watching on the web cam. Great to have support from back home!
Starting the race I knew there was a very real possibility that I may not finish, that was part of the appeal- a real challenge comes with no guarantee of completion. Indeed of the 2300 runners about 900 did not finish, so while I could have been disappointed that I missed the sub 30hr mark or that I was just outside the top 100 my overwhelming feeling was one of excitement and satisfaction.
After a flurry of excitedly regaling may tales of the race to a few friends the adrenaline began to wear off. While I wanted to stay and see some others finish bed beckoned. Dawn took me home, and did her best to make me eat something as I did my best impression of a nodding dog. I got to bed about 1am and woke about 7am, excitedly I checked the time and Live Trail to see if I could catch Caroline come over the finish line, but she was already home and dry having finished in 34:50.
Knowing that I took my time, had some breakfast and even managed a wee bit of yoga before heading back to the finish line to see some of the other Scottish contingent finishing. It was incredible to see these guys coming in 40hrs + after starting.
The Scottish Contingent


  1. Great write up, takes me right back there. And a great result. Well done. X

    1. Thanks Amanda, will you be back in Chamonix next year?