THE NORTH FACE® ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT-BLANC – CCC
Two years of training & it was finally here.
I’d managed to train as hard as i could for this race & could only hope it was enough, as i’d never tackled anything quite like this before. As it turned out i think i got the training bang on, getting up at 5am most mornings for a full year beforehand & going out no matter what the weather threw at you definitely helps build a spot of stamina & a summer of Munro bagging is certainly what’s needed to complete a race like this.
I’d had the usual aches & pains & plenty of trips to the physio, including a trip the day before flying out thanks to several weeks of back & neck pain! I have to admit i was starting to worry about standing on the start line a week before.
2014 CCC Training Plan – This was my 17 week record of training runs, basically a weekish time off after the Highland Fling & then get some hills in for the CCC.
When we arrived at Chamonix (Ally from the shop had come along to help support), it was Monday afternoon & with the race starting on Friday morning, it meant i could relax, register & try not to get stressed. This worked out ideally, Tuesday was a total downpour on a biblical scale so it was stay indoors & catch up with Breaking Bad (typically it was in the 20’s back in Aviemore with wall to wall sunshine!) I did make it out on Tuesday & Wednesday for a couple of 3 milers just to keep ticking over, but mainly sat on my arse resting for the remaining days. Ally was making full use of being in Chamonix & heading straight up the nearest mountains & once Tuesday was over we had some great weather. Wednesday was also registration day, were you have to stand in a queue for about 90 mins waiting to find out if your kit met the requirements & you were given your race number.
Restaurant on the right was pretty bloody rubbish but had not too bad a view! Rivers were raging after the Tuesday downpour. One of many folk flying on a glorious morning & the eventual finish line.
Tuesday night we were out to meet a few other Brits who were in the UTMB & we watched the winners come through for the TDS, this was an amazing experience with the floodlights on & cowbells being rung. I definitely left feeling on a high after watching that finish & was itching to get going myself.
Bit of Ultra runner star spotting went down -With Luis Alberto Hernando (top left), Xavier Thevenard winning the TDS & With Mike Wardian.
Well Friday morning arrived & the alarm went off at 5am, a last minute check of my bag & kit which i’d already checked about 20 times, then a spot of breakfast & we headed off to get the coach that was laid on to get to Courmayeur. Ally was checking out his bus map, so he could get to as many checkpoints as possible & that looked like a feat in itself! He was going to be up all night trying to stay awake, just to give me some encouragement for the few minutes i’d see him! Once we got to Courmayeur it was time to find the toilets, we found the queue 1st & after standing still with the queue not moving for about 40 minutes, i gave up & ran around a sports center trying to find another one! I’d left Ally with my bag at the entrance & with only minutes to get to the start line i’d come back to the entrance to find no Ally & no bag!! Panic was now kicking in, i thought i’d done the training & got to Courmayeur only to be beaten by a sodding toilet queue! Thankfully Ally turned round the corner & off we went to the start. It turned out there were 3 start waves & you went into the pen according to your bib number, mines was the last pen, but i thought nothing of it & didn’t mind starting almost right at the back, i was just enjoying the experience whilst wishing we’d get going.
You start running through the streets of Courmayeur with the crowds cheering you on & within about a mile you start going up, nothing too mental just yet but you knew this up was just the start of things to come. Soon enough you’re on single track going through the trees & you realize the pace is dictated by the people in front of you & there’s no room to overtake. I didn’t think too much of this to start with as i knew going off too quick is the worst thing you can do, so i just got on with it thinking it’s a long way & there’s no hurry yet. Pretty soon i was starting to regret starting at the back, especially when i reached a clearing with what must have been several hundred people trying to get down a steep narrow path.
Once i got moving again albeit very slowly i could see that i’d be stuck in a queue for flamin ages. If you zoom on this picture you can see a winding queue of frustrated wanabe runners all the way over the top. I was now looking at my watch more often whilst thinking of my checkpoint times i’d set myself, each time i’d look at my watch i’d be thinking ‘right i’ve got 40 mins to get over the top here’, ‘ok it looks like i’m going to be a little behind on the 1st checkpoint’, ‘ now if i get there in 10 mins i’ll be bang on an hour behind’. By the time i got to the 1st checkpoint i was about 1hr 50mins behind on my schedule! (Note to self, get in the 1st wave next time!!).
The route itself looked like this:
1st checkpoint i was in 1743rd place
I made a point of every approx 30ish minutes to eat a chew bar of some sorts & take some water on board, i did this right from the start. When i got to checkpoints i’d refill my 2 x 500ml soft flasks with water (even if they were only 1/2 empty), i wanted to leave each checkpoint with full water supplies, not knowing what lay ahead. I’d also eat whatever they had on offer at checkpoints, not tons (initially) just enough to make sure i was constantly fueling. Foods ranged from bits of salted crackers/chocolate/oranges/salty noodle soup at the smaller checkpoints to full on spag bol/more soup/sandwiches/coffee etc at the bigger checkpoints. Feeding wasn’t pretty, i’d ram about 5 bits of cut oranges down my throat, soup & some biscuits in about 90 seconds flat! Oh cheese, can’t forget the cheese, oh & salami, in fact its worth doing the race just for the food!!
The picture on the left is up some hill somewhere in the alps! On the right is chatting to someone that had done the ‘fling’ earlier this year as we approached ‘La Fouly’ & my 1st sign of Ally, spotting a friendly face whilst running through 3 countries in the rain certainly does help give you a lift, i was coping fairly well anyway but after a few words with Ally i was certainly smiling & running slightly faster. As you can see, i was making full use of my poles, in fact i’d say i used them every step of the race bar the 1st & last few hundred meters. I’d thought from the 1st moment of going up hill that if i can use anything to my advantage i’d be stupid not too. Almost everyone else i saw only used poles going up & some whilst going down, i’m pretty sure i was the only person (at my end of the field) that used them going up, on the seldom flatish sections & on the downs. I’m convinced they helped keep me fresher for longer (that sounds like an Ad for something!). Poles are awesome to run with, but you have to practice beforehand, i’d been using them a fair bit in the 6 month lead up.
Since i’d reached the top of the 1st climb & there were opportunities to overtake, i managed to keep overtaking people, in fact that was all i seemed to be doing & that feels pretty good, i just seemed to keep a fairly even pace on the flats, work slightly harder than folk around me on the ups & discovered much to my surprise that i was pretty quick going down, especially on the twisty techy single track downs that others were being hesitant on, i just seemed to be a little more fearless (or possibly stupid). I’d meet Ally at certain checkpoints & he’d say ‘do you know how many folk you’ve overtaken in the last section?’ & he’d tell me some figure that sounded pretty good, but i was feeling pretty good, others around were stating to look pretty beaten up but thankfully i was still ok.
By the time i’d reached Champex-Lac i’d overtaken 551 people since the 1st checkpoint. It was also dark & i’d resisted stopping & putting on my headtorch because i didn’t want to lose any places, so the last few miles to Champex were pretty tricky running on trails trying to gauge the ground from other runners lights. This was a major checkpoint & pretty busy, i’d been running for 11 hr 30 mins at this point & was fairly hungry, i got myself a 3 course meal (yes that’s right 3 courses), found a seat & started wolfing food down my neck, it was at this point Ally appeared & thankfully got me the best tasting coffee i think i’ve ever had! I sorted out my Petzl Nao headtorch, gave Ally my sunglasses/sunhat & ipod that i hadn’t used & headed out into the night & the pouring rain.
I knew i had 3 mountains coming up in the dark & set about passing anyone that came into my view, the ups on these hills (they are of course bloody big mountains, but hills sound nicer to me) went on for a lonnngg time, but my spirits were kept high as i’d march past another headtorch then another, you don’t run up these things, its a solid walk & just keep going. I’d pass a few folk that were just standing still, trying to get their breath back. On that note i’d best mention the altitude, the air is noticeable thinner & at points its a little tricky breathing if you’re pushing yourself. I found taking water on board particularly hard, as every time i did whilst high up, i’d be gasping for air for the next minute, so i ended up paying attention & trying to drink on a flat section & not when i was breathing out my arse!
It rained a fair bit during the night & the course resembled a ‘Tough Mudder’ at points, it didn’t matter how much grip you had on your soles, when they’re clogged up they’re clogged up, you just have to adjust the way you move. Other points were like running through streams, being fairly steep & it raining the fastest way for the rain to come down the mountain is down the path. I didn’t mind this too much as i just thought it’s the same conditions for everyone & just got on with it.
The last time i met Ally was at Vallorcine (i had seen him at Trient as well, he’d been busy getting about!). Vallorcine was the last checkpoint before the final mountain. I’d been going for 18hr 25 mins at this point, but still felt reasonable. I changed my socks to a fresh pair, gazed at the person lying on the ground on a drip with lots of people rushing around them, had a bite to eat & drink & said fair well to Ally with a ‘see you in Chamonix’. I left feeling tired but nothing too bad, had a wee chat with a guy from Edinburgh that was walking & then pushed on. As i approached the climb, i began to feel very tired all of a sudden & i’d developed a really sore stomach, things were getting grim. I started to imagine things like i had liver damage due to the paracetamol i’d taken earlier to ease my back pain. I was struggling to keep my pace & before long the people i’d been passing at the bottom & had caught me, i felt like i was holding them up & became one of the many i’d passed by having to sit on a rock for a few minutes & try & sort my head (which seemed to be somewhere else) & my stomach out. I could hear ambulances in the valley below that were obviously ferrying runners backwards & forwards. I was thinking how long would it take for medical help to reach me 3/4 of the way up a mountain with a steep climb, i decided it would take bloody ages & i should just get my arse into gear & stop feeling sorry for myself & get to the top of this bitch of a mountain!
I reached the top of Tete aux vents after 21hr 10min, pretty much around dawn. I still felt like crap but i was at the top & i was feeling slightly better knowing it was just downhill from here. As i went down i started overtaking again & a new lease of life came over me. They say it’s ‘darkest before dawn’ & that couldn’t have rang truer for me, now it was back into there’s someone ahead ‘let’s av em’, i started running like a lunatic coming down, i’d be passing people like i was in a 10k race, i was flying! I kept this up for a fair while then started to think if i keep going like this i’ll end up crawling through Chamonix, so i applied the brakes & made sure i would have a strong finish through the town. I entered Chamonix & had some small crowds cheer me on, this was feeling pretty good, crowds already, albeit small but they’ll be huge at the end. There’s Ally waving me on, there’s another runner ahead, he’s mine, there’s the final couple of turns, hold on where is everyone? Ahh it’s 8:25am they’re all having breakfast!!!!!!!!!
Entering the finish straight & having a beer for breakfast.
I finished feeling surprisingly good, able to walk ok & no real injury worries.
My time was 23 hr 2 mins (my goal time was 23hr) & i ended up in 765th place meaning i overtook 978 people from the 1st checkpoint at the top of ‘Bottleneck Mountain’. 1900 people started & 1423 finished.
On the left are my splits & on the right are notes i made afterwards on what i carried/ate, what i needed & what i could have done without.
Would i do it again? Hell yes, i’d make sure i stared further up the field & i’d make sure i had plenty of hill training & 8-10hr training days including hiking & get using those poles 🙂
I’d taken some Go Pro footage, but it was pretty much a last minute decision, so i’d had no practice using it, so apologies for the crap footage & even worse editing!