Race Report: UTMB: CCC 2017

UTMB. Probably the one event that even non-trail runners stand a chance of having heard of. However recently it had been well-known for many of the wrong reason including a controversial open letter from the organisers of Hardrock 100 lamenting the fact that they were asked to pay for inclusion in UTMB’s qualification process.

Cue lots of negative discussions on social media. UTMB/ITRA is a racket. It’s not real ultra-running and is more like a giant traffic-jam/human centipede. Ignore the circus and concentrate on more authentic events. I’m not getting into that though, you can read the other side of the story in ITRA’s response to the accusations.

It’s not that simple though. Regardless of which side of the argument you sit, if you’ve ever been in Chamonix at the end of August you will be left in no doubt that the atmosphere is second-to none. I had been there two years ago and watched a friend complete the UTMB event and was swept up in the carnival atmosphere that took hold of the town. I decided there and then that I wanted in on that action and that being stabbed by the odd trekking pole might be a small price to pay.

The UTMB-proper (171km with 10,000m of elevation) is currently beyond my reach, not least because I haven’t run enough qualifying races but I’ve also never run further than 86km. I did however find that getting enough points to enter the CCC was definitely much more attainable so last December I entered the race lottery and to my surprise, managed to snag a place.

Although the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, Chamonix) is the ‘little sister’ event of UTMB, it is fair to say that it’s a serious ultra marathon in its own right. For the most part it covers the last two thirds of the UTMB with a few deviations and at over 100km and 6,000m of elevation it’s certainly not an easy cop out.

So this was my ‘A’ race for 2017, and after a recent DNF in the brutally steep 80km du Mont Blanc earlier in the year I was determined to be well organised, fully on form and run a smart race this time.

The weather would definitely help this time – after two straight years of blazing blue skies and high temperatures, I arrived to pick up my race bib in a grey and wet Chamonix being drenched by a light but consistent rain. The amazing mountain backdrop was hidden behind battleship-grey clouds.

The start line in Courmayeur

On the Friday morning I took the organised bus from outside my rented apartment in Argentiere, through the Mont-Blanc tunnel and into Courmayeur on the other side and was greeted by cool temperatures, sunny skies and thankfully no rain – perfect ultra-running weather.

However we knew it wouldn’t last as the forecast for the later stages of the race was for very cold temperatures up high and more rain, possibly snow. A last minute text from the organisers arrived as I was waiting at the start line, explaining that the final section between Col des Montets and La Flégère had been rerouted to avoid Tête aux Ventes – I was unsure whether this was a good or a bad thing.

The course profile of the CCC

2,150 lined up on the start line and I had previously heard lots of horror stories about huge queues as the race hits the first narrow trails so I was keen to get reasonable to the front. The race was divided into three pens which would leave at 9am, 9:15 and 9:30 respectively and I was in the second pen.

The excitement and anticipation was building – large crowds had turned out and were very enthusiastic. Most ultras I run start at 4am so local support is usually less lively. Media helicopters buzzing overhead and an energetic PA announcer building up the enthusiasm of the crowd in three languages all contributed to a feeling of being part of something big – and then the starting gun went off, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise playing as we ran through the town of Courmayeur to cheering crowds and ringing cowbells.

Leaving Courmayeur and heading to the first forest trails

A route through the town meant that we got to soak up the atmosphere for a couple of KMs, and also had the benefit of thinning out the crowds before we hit the narrower trails.

The traffic jams never really materialised – the first climb was almost a vertical mile up to the Tête de la Tronche in the first 10km or so, ensuring most mid-pack runners would take it easy so we soon set into a steady pace. Maybe I was feeling fresh and enthusiastic but the first climb really felt good, and didn’t seem anywhere near as steep as it looks on paper.

Pretty soon we were over the top and running down into the first aid station at Refuge Bertone. There was no need to hang around so I quickly filled up with water, grabbed some chocolate and dried apricots and headed out onto the lovely runnable section of 7km to the next aid station.

Leaving Refuge Bertone

This next section was wonderful – rolling hills of single track with sweeping views of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc. The weather continued to be cooperative and stayed cool and sunny – pretty soon I arrived at the next aid station at Refuge Bonatti, 22km into the race.

Great running between the Bertone and Bonatti refuges

 

Still enjoying great weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc

Fantastic trails for running

 

 

 

 

I knew that the climb to Grand Col Ferret was going to be tough, so I sat down and had a bit of a rest, powered by some of the delicious pasta soup handed out at all the large aid stations. It was only when I looked at the map that I realised there was still another 5km of running to Arnouvaz before the climb started.

Climbing towards the Grand Col Ferret – the wind increased and the temperature dropped meaning the layers started to go on.

As the race approached the Col Ferret it was obvious that the great weather wouldn’t last – forbidding clouds in the distance towards Switzerland suggested I’d soon be adding layers and waterproofs.

Zero visibility and freezing wind at the Grand Col Ferret

The climb itself only took just over an hour but the difference between the top and bottom was pretty stark. I’d added a waterproof layer to keep out the wind, and gloves but arrived at the summit with my hands so frozen I couldn’t collapse my trekking poles to stow away for the descent – thankfully one of the medics at the top was happy to help.

What followed was 1,500m of continuous descending into the Swiss side of the race, with a brief stop at La Fouly for more water and food. The amount of supporters at La Fouly was impressive, and it gave a great boost – I remember leaving the food tent and running through a tunnel of kids high-fiving on the way out.

I was planning to meet Amy at Champex-Lac, the first aid station that allowed help from crews and about the only one where I would visit at a sensible time (the others were Trient and Vallorcine). She was tracking me on the official app and I seemed to be on track for getting there a little before 8pm, which meant I was pretty close to the 22 hour pace I was aiming for. However leaving La Fouly and heading down into the valley we were soon on asphalt roads, which I thought would just link some trails, but we ended up running around 10km like that. It meant that, helped by some friendly encouragement from a fellow Brit I was running with, we were soon running 5.30min/km pace which meant getting to Champex-Lac early.

It turned out that the route had been diverted because of landslides caused by the recent bad weather. It was a welcome repreive from the technical trails but meant that I had to phone Amy to get her to start the one-hour drive to Champex early.

On the approach to Champex-Lac the rain really started to come down strong and the deeply rutted, muddy forest trails were quite depressing to negotiate in the falling darkness, perhaps because I knew that I was so close to a change of dry clothes and some moral support.

The curse of being a mid-pack ultra runner meant that the aid station tent was absolutely packed with runners and their associated crews. This made it difficult to lay out kit on the long bench tables but Amy managed make sure I went through all the right checks, helped me get into dry and warm clothes and also brought me a steaming hot flask of freshly made pasta and potato soup.

Freshly fortified with pasta and potato soup, in dry clothes and waterproofs ready to tackle the night section after Champex-Lac at 56km

Leaving the aid station I was shocked how cold my muscles had got, and running out of Champex-Lac was more of a hobble, despite the best efforts of the supporters who were yelling encouragement. It was almost a relief when the pavement gave way to steep forest traila and I was able to focus on climbing rather than running at any particular pace.

The latter half of the race comprised of three big climbs – none of them quite as large as the first two, but significant, in the dark and in the pouring rain on tired legs. I mentally broke it down to just powering on through to the next big aid station and actually found the climbing to be straightforward – my legs were still feeling good.

Taking refuge at La Giète

On the long climb up to La Giète it became evident that this was going to be a long night. The heavy rain was turning the already saturated ground, trodden by the shoes of hundreds of other runners in the last few hours into a boggy quagmire. In parts the trails were rocky, and we could use these for some traction, but the clay-like, light-brown mud was oozing down the mountain between the rocks like gravy. We finally made it to La Giète, where a small barn on top of the mountain, lit up and playing techno music offered some shelter and hot soup.

It was a case of rinse and repeat for the next few hours as we descended to Trient, restocked, climbed more monstrous, muddy mountains and slipped and slided our way back down into Vallorcine.

The descents were getting treacherous and despite using trekking poles and took at least a couple of falls but thankfully they didn’t cause any problems.

Refuelled at La Giète and ready to go back outside to face the elements

By Trient, certain body parts had begun to chafe and I ammused the staff at the medic tent by asking if they had any cream, although I couldn’t remember the name in French so had describe it. I’m sure not for the first time that evening, the medic handed me a tube of anti-frottissement cream and pointed towards the bathroom; I soon anti-frottisée’d parts that will remain nameless and was able to resume the glamour of an ultra marathon at one in the morning.

At Vallorcine, the last major aid station it felt like I was almost home but there were still 19 more kilometeres to run, and the temporary notices on the walls made it clear that the new route, bypassing the Tête aux Vents was not necessarily going to make things easier. Leaving the aid station the next few KMs seemed much gentler than the profile on the course map suggested and I made pretty good pace, setting into a rhythm on good, relatively dry roads.

Refuelling with hot soup at one of the aid stations

After a while though the paths got ridiculously technical, with huge knotted tree roots and large rocks strewn across the path which made mincemeat of our tired legs and frazzled, sleep-deprived brains. The real sting in the tail came two-hours on from Vallorcine, with a 250m descent on the same horrible paths, only to be faced with over an hour of yet more climbing up to the ski station of La Flégère. The elevation amount wasn’t particularly huge, but the trail just seemed to go on forever and was a real destroyer of morale.

While sitting in the aid station at the top of the climb I chatted to a couple of other runners who were all cursing the organisers and expressing disbelief in the last section. However the good news was just 8 more KMs and aroun 1000m of descent to the finish.

The descent had its technical sections but generally got better the further I descended and this last section only took around an hour. It had the added bonus that it was starting to get light, and I got to view Chamonix down in the valley below, framed with the always-amazing sight of the Mont Blanc massif, freshly dusted with snow from the previous night poking out from amongst the clouds.

Chamonix and Mont-Blanc on the final descent down from La Flégère

I was dreading a long run-in through Chamonix but the trail joined the town just near a hotel I’d stayed in before so I knew it wasn’t long to the finish line. What’s more, my legs actually felt (relatively) great despite almost 22 hours of running. In fact I was minutes away from beating my (admittedly arbitrary target) so I picked up the pace, passing a few people hobbling into town).

On the way in I was surprised to see Amy a few hundred metres from the finish, and she actually had to yell at me to slow down while she ran round to the finish line to take a picture – I still managed to finish in a time 21:58:32, 854th place overall and 267th in the veteran male category V1H.

A bit dazed and confused at the end

 

I’m really happy with my result – since the first goal was to run a good race and finish under the cutoff time of 26:30. Looking at my placing throughout the race, I started off quickly (due to not wanting to be caught in traffic jams), stayed ranked around the mid 900s in the middle of the race and managed to claw back another 100 or so places. I didn’t set the world on fire but it was my first 100km distance, and considering how poor the terrain was in the latter half of the race I can’t complain. On the other hand, the cool conditions probably helped since I have a tendency to suffer from the heat in ultras.

A moment of reflected glory on the podium.

The race organisation was superb, with well stocked aid stations at regular intervals but what really stood out for me was the support of the crowds. In all three countries there were so many enthusiastic supporters in the towns and villages, at all hours of the day and night, and even up on the sides of remote trails in atrocious conditions.

I genuinely enjoyed the event and this has only made me think that the the full UTMB should be on my tick list one day.

 

Race Report: Trail Gapen’cimes 2015 – 55km

I almost didn’t get to run this race. As you may or may not know, the French insist on seeing a signed medical certificate from your doctor before allowing you to race. Every year I go to my GP, she checks my pulse and blood pressure and then signs my note. It lasts for a year and I can supply photocopies to race organisers with no problem – in fact I’ve run 8 races in France this year with the same form.

GAPENCIMES 2015 from AIR libre on Vimeo.

The Gapen’Cimes series of races took place over the weekend of 3rd/4th October, with the 55km/3000m Edelweiss race being on the Sunday. Since the race would start at 6.30am, and the start was at least an hour from my home I decided to pick up my race bib on the Saturday, since we had to be in the city of Gap, where the start/finish was, anyway.

The course profile - pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

The course profile – pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

When I went to collect my race number I was told that the regulations had changed, and my medical certificate had to explicitly state that not only was I am fit to run a race, but that I was fit to run ‘in competition’. Sadly, my certificate didn’t say that. It was only after the race staff tracked down my doctor, and had her email them an attestation that I would be OK, that they would let me enter.

Bib collection on Saturday - like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn't straightforward

Bib collection on Saturday – like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn’t straightforward

If I’d left this to 6am on Sunday morning I wouldn’t have had chance to do this, so I’m very glad I decided to try to save myself some time.

On Saturday afternoon the south of France was being deluged by huge storms, some of which sadly claimed the lives of several people down on the Mediterranean coast as tunnels and underground carparks were swamped and people were washed away by flash floods.

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather - here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather – here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

Up in the Alps things weren’t quite so bad, but the rain was torrential and violent lightning storms flashed and rumbled long into the night. It was announced that although the weather would be fair on Sunday, the route would altered as many of the trails had washed away and for the safety of runners and marshals, some of it would have to be rerouted. The race start was also postponed to 7am.

I woke up on Sunday morning thankful to not hear the rain pounding on the windows. Driving towards Gap, there were still lightning flashes in the distance but thankfully it stayed dry.

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

300 runners assembled in the Parc de la Pépinièrein the centre of Gap. The pre-race briefing explained that the new route wouldn’t add any significant distance to the expected 55km, but to groans from the crowd of runners it was announced we would have an extra 300m of vertical to climb on top of the usual 3000m.

A quick gear check, countdown, and we were off. Running the through Sunday morning streets of Gap (a small town of perhaps 30,000 people, but one of the largest towns in the area) to the occasional applause and encouragement. The local police were holding the (admittedly light) traffic to allow us to run unhindered to the outskirts, and after a few KMs we were on trails heading up to the mountains of the Haute-Alpes.

For this race, and for the first time ever I was using a pair of trekking poles (or cheating sticks as they’re rather sneeringly referred to in the UK). I’ve never really used them before, but for the next couple of years my aim is to bag a few more ultra distance events with a view to getting to a 100 miler. I’m not sure if the use of poles made a positive difference but they certainly weren’t a hinderance.

The early stages of the race

The early stages of the race

I’d say that at least 70% of runners were using poles, and since we’d had so much rain the many streams that we had to cross had been transformed into raging torrents, they were a big help when crossing. The first couple of streams, we were able to gingerly pick our way over the rocks, but our feet still got soaked so myself and many others decided it was better off to just run through, get the feet wet and hope they dried out in the sun.

One of the early stream crossings - the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken - after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

One of the early stream crossings – the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken – after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

The first checkpoint at Rabou came at about the quarter-way stage – there weren’t many food stops, but they had the standard French trail running fare – cheese, salami, ginerbread cake, chocolate, apricots, crisps, bread flat and fizzy water and Coca-Cola. I availed myself of the food, cleared some grit out of my wet shoes and got moving.

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

As we left Rabou, we climbed higher into the mountains and sun came out – the surrounding countryside was awash with autumn colours and to the northeast we could see the high mountains of the Ecrins national park, and the recent dusting of snow that must have fallen in last night’s storm on some of the lower peaks.

Looking over to the Ecrins

Looking over to the Ecrins

To be honest, most of the race was fairly standard. I deliberately kept myself to a sensible rhythm, aiming to dose out my energy over the course of the race and not blow up. It was hard not to run some of the descents too fast though, as there were some great tracks, including a fairly kamikaze dash through a field of scree which was a lot of fun.

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

IMG_4927

By the time we made it up the final climb to a spectacular view, I was pretty knackered and little bit dejected at the final checkpoint when I asked a marshal how many had come though and he said “most, maybe three-quarters”. I was sure that I was still in the top half of the race even though things had definitely thinned out. Nobody was passing me in fact I had gained a place every couple of KMs.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

That final checkpoint was just 11km from the finish, and all of it was downhill on fairly easily runnable terrain. However it was the hardest point of the race, and running into the streets of Gap, despite the cheers and applause of random onlookers, and even encouragement from the police holding up the traffic, the run into the finish seemed to take forever.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

IMG_4938

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

IMG_4937

I made it over the finish line in 8h41’37”, placing me 138th out of 297 starters, so in the end was quite happy with a top half finish.
finish

Race Report: Marlborough Downs Challenge

Where: Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK
When: Sunday 10th April, 2015

We’re on holiday in the UK at the moment, down in Oxfordshire so I looked around for a race nearby and found one – the 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge.

The Race

The Marlborough Downs Challenge started in 2003, and comprises of a 33 mile ‘ultra’ route and a shorter 20 miler course – they both take on much of the same terrain, which is in and around the Marlborough Downs of Wiltshire, rolling, undulating hills of chalky clay, iron age relics, white horses etched into hillsides and old Roman roads.

The MDC is now part of the Runfurther Ultra Championship series so attracted a fairly large field of runners. As a ‘short’ ultra-marathon it’s a perfect introduction for people who haven’t ran more than 26 miles before, and although it was hilly there was nothing in the profile to worry anyone since I would call it ‘punchy’ rather than steep.

The course profile - or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

The course profile – or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

 

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

With an emphasis on self-navigation, the race organisers only lightly signposted the route, in just a few places near the beginning and couple of other areas. However runners were supplied with turn by turn route directions and downloadable GPX track and were expected to find their own way over the course.

It didn’t help then, that after having spent ages plotting the route online over an OS map, printing out and laminating a roadbook, I then proceeded to leave all of this at home! I still had the route directions however and decided that there would be safety in numbers on enough of the route to be able to find my way around the course.

The race started off fairly gently – all my races this year have been 10-20km, and so are usually off at lightning pace with lots of shoulder barging, but this was much more serene bearing in mind even the winner would be on their feet for the next 4 hours. After 3 or 4kms I found myself dropping back from the lead group of about 6, into a smaller group with two other runners – we were 200m behind the leaders and maybe the same ahead of middle pack behind.

After 5km we entered West Woods, which this time of year was full of bluebells and was looking pretty scenic – I even managed to grab a few pictures as the terrain was good (if boggy in places) and I was really getting into a good rhythm. Suddenly we exited the woods and one of my companions looked into the distance down the valley where we expected to see the lead pack to see nobody. Looking at our maps and directions we realised we had overshot a turning and ran almost a mile in the wrong direction. Once we had finally backtracked to the correct (unmarked) turn, we rejoined main group at the back of the field.

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells - I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn't taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells – I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn’t taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

By this point the trail narrowed and overtaking was difficult in the boggy ground as we ran through glades of pungent wild garlic. I started to pick my way through the field but resigned myself to the reality that I wouldn’t be placing highly, even with over a marathon of distance still to run I’d lost at least 20 minutes on the lead group.

The trail opened up from forest to rolling downs which made overtaking easier, and also navigation because it was possible to see a couple of miles ahead and see the rest of the race snaking their way across the countryside.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The weather continued to be overcast and windy, and a light drizzle blew in across the hills but it never rained, meaning it was pretty ideal for running and getting dehydrated was not going to be a problem.

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

9 or 10 miles into the route, the course split off to the north for the 20 mile runners, where the rest of us continued west. We would rejoin the 20 mile course in another 17 miles or so.

 

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

After descending off the downs, we ran into the small town of Bishops Canning where we had a few other navigational changes, and I teamed up with a runner who had done the course a few times to negotiate the changed route for this year. We eventually found our way onto the canal towpath, where a long stretch flat track continued into the market town of Devizes where I counted bridges until reaching the next checkpoint.

Some company while running along the canal towpath

Some company while running along the canal towpath into Devizes

 

After leaving Devizes, the route climbed some fairly steep hills, climbing up towards distant radio antennae that seemed to take forever to reach. More undualting terrain and we then arrived at the Cherhill White Horse, and Lansdowne Obelisk.

White horse and monument

Cherhill White horse on the left, and the Lansdowne Obelisk on the right

By this point though, I’d already run a marathon distance so wasn’t really interested in admiring the scenery (besides, there are loads of white horses in the hillsides in this part of the world, and this one was only cut in 1780, as opposed to the bronze age carving at Uffington White Horse that I’m much more familiar with) and so continued to press on to the Beckhampton checkpoint where the 20 mile route rejoined our route.

Running through Avebury, I caught a glimpse of the stone circle. There was lots of support with people cheering and clapping in the town (a nice pub on the road and lack of rain probably helped) despite a little girl asking me why everyone was clapping.

The final run in to Marlborough was fairly uneventful, and I clocked my finish time at 5 hours 51 minutes, so considering the extra mileage (36 miles in total – 58km) I was pleased to get under 6 hours.

All finishers were awarded with a hand made mug from the local pottery.

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

Overall I enjoyed the day – it was good to get out and do fairly long run on terrain that wasn’t too technical so wouldn’t wipe me out for days to come. The checkpoints and food stops where well run, and the marshall generally fairly encouraging. There were shower facilities at the finish (in the local leisure centre) and a meal for all finishers although I headed home quickly.

My only criticism, and one of a lot of people on the course was the lack of course markings. I realise that it was made clear in advance, and in fairness the directions where pretty accurate. However I think it detracts from the enjoyment to have your head stuck in a route book, following it each few hundred yards like an in-car sat nav – I much prefer to be able to take in the scenery, chat with other runners and generally enjoy the event without worrying too much about taking a wrong turn.

However, that said, I knew what I was getting myself into as did everybody else – and getting lost was my fault, and finding my way back was my responsibility. I would recommend the event to anyone who hasn’t yet done an ultra but wants to step up from marathon distance – its good intermediate step before plunging into 50 milers.

Strava Data

Offical Results

Full results of 33 mile race

Full results of 20 mile race