Where it all began
It was way back in 2015 when I first saw first-hand the crazy circus that is Chamonix in the last week of August. I was getting properly into trail running and ultras, having done a few 80km events in the French Alps. My in-laws were visiting one summer and it occurred to us that although they had seen the mountains of the Vercors around where we lived, they had never experienced the high mountains, and the imposing massif of Mont-Blanc so we found a hotel for the night, jumped in the car and drove up to Chamonix.
I vaguely knew that the UTMB was happening – in fact a friend of mine, Manu, was actually attempting to complete it that weekend but I wasn’t ready for the awesome spectacle that greeted us in Chamonix on that baking August weekend. The crowds were enormous – everyone you passed in the street was either running a long race, or was closely connected to someone who was. It was like a theme park for ultra runners where this weird, niche sport seemed normal. Nobody asked why we bothered running for hours or days on end, they just came here and revelled in the enjoyment of sharing these epic mountains with thousands of like-minded people.
After watching Manu complete his run on the Sunday morning, sitting there with post-race cigar and pint of lager in the finishers’ area, and cheering on the stragglers limping home after 45+ hours on the trail, I decided that one day I would complete that race.
Getting to the start line
One of the things that makes the UTMB events special, but one that also polarises many people (and I’m not going into the controversy of ITRA points here, that’s a blog post all of its own) is the fact that you cannot just enter the race. First you have to successfully finish two or three other ultra marathons of sufficient difficulty within the previous two years to demonstrate that you have a good chance of succeeding, or at least deserve to be on the start line.
This means everyone on the start line is a seasoned ultra runner – with at least some idea of what is in store. With that said, 170km and 10,000m of elevation is enough to scupper the plans of even the most well prepared and around 40% of the starting field of 2,300 runners will eventually abandon the race at some point.
I actually used two of the smaller UTMB races, the CCC and TDS to accumulate the points I needed to enter the UTMB, along with a 100 mile race in the UK. Applying for the 2019 ballot, I was unsuccessful in the draw but when that happens, you get an extra 50% weighting for the following year to increase your chances in the next draw, but again I was rejected for 2020, which meant I gained automatic qualification for 2021. Since the 2020 event was cancelled, and I hadn’t run any significant ultras in 2020 I assumed all hope was lost, but sure enough I got the organiser email to tell me everything was in order and I had better get training again.
This was a good dollop of inspiration as 2020 was a bit of a writeoff – with no races and little training due to lack of motivation during the pandemic lockdowns, I had one of my lowest mileage years since I started running.
Although the health situation was much improved one year on from the cancelled 2020 event, the organisers had put in place measures to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission as much as possible. Firstly, every runner had to have a pass sanitaire, a certificate to show to the authorities that they were either vaccinated against, had tested negative for, or had recently recovered from Covid-19.
The famous start of the race from Place de l’Amité in Chamonix under the UTMB arch to strains of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise would still go ahead, but in order to reduce overcrowding both in the start pen, and on the course, the runners would released in three waves, 30 minutes apart in blocks of 700 or so.
My race strategy was simple – go out with the golden rule for ultras in mind – keep it slow. This is especially important in a race like the UTMB – the climbs aren’t technical but they’re pretty monstrous, and the first 10km or so out of Chamonix and through Les Houches are easy and flat so its tempting to go out fast. That said, I felt like my feet didn’t touch the ground for the first hour – the crowds of Chamonix were amazing and the feeling running through those thousands of spectators piled deep behind the barriers, the sound of loudspeakers, helicopters and Conquest of Paradise all mingled together was quite awe-inspiring and emotional.
Even after leaving behind Chamonix when the roads turned to trails they were still lined with spectators, high fiving the runners and ringing cowbells. I passed a few pubs with drinkers outside on the pavement, bands or music playing and waiters handing out beers to the runners.
Things calmed down a bit as we hit trail proper, but then as we approached Les Houches crossing a bridge over the motorway approaching Chamonix the sound of crowds grew louder over the roar of traffic and honks of encouragement from hundreds of car horns passing below us. The crowds of Les Houches were out in force and I also spotted and said hello to my next-door neighbours from back home (they have family in Les Houches and were visiting) which was a pleasant surprise.
The local connection continued shortly afterwards at the aid station in Les Contamines. A kind volunteer helped me refill my bottles and noticing my English accent asked where I was from as she had spent time in the north of England too. Telling her I now lived in Lans-en-Vercors, a village of only 2,500 people, it turns out that so she also lived there a few years back.
Les Contamines was where I realised just how cold it was getting – the cold weather protocol had been activated before the race with the organisers texting all the runners explaining that extra warm layers would be obligatory because of the expected cold conditions up high. Stopping for food and water for just a few minutes, I suddenly realised I was shivering as the sun had set and with an upcoming climb to the 2,500m Col du Bonhomme, it was only going to get colder so I zipped up.
The climb up to the Bonhomme brought home how endless these climbs could feel – and it was only the first significant climb albeit one of the biggest sustained ascents – with the sector from St Gervais being the longest continuous climb of nearly a vertical mile. However being in the cool of night and early on in the race it wasn’t too bad, and the crowds started to the thin out as we headed to the Col de la Seigne and the border into Italy. The descent over the border in the early hours of Saturday morning was spectacular, with snowfields and glaciers looming out of the darkness and the sheen of ice coating the large chunks of scree on the Col des Pyramides Calcaires sending many runners slipping into the darkness.
Soon we were down to Lac Combal – I knew this from the start of the TDS but this time we were approaching it from another direction. Dawn had broken and it was great to have made it through the first night and although tired, I was still feeling pretty good. Leaving Lac Combal, I noticed somebody hiking towards me who looked familiar but thought it was my mind playing tricks on me – turns out it was Nico from my running club back home who had been staying at the refuge at Col Chercuit Maison Vielle – again – small world.
The scenery as we made our way to Courmayeur was staggering, but the descent into town was steep and by the time we got to the last 400m of descent down steep steps cut into the side of the mountain my knee was giving me some pain. Luckily I was planning to take a break at the aid station – almost the halfway point at 78km into the race. It was warm and sunny and Amy met me there after driving across from the French side through the tunnel and worked her aid-station magic, making sure I stayed warm, got some decent food down me and basically took a break after 16.5 hours of running.
Warm and rested in the Italian sunshine I probably stayed too long and started to seize up after about an hour, reflected by the fact that I lost 100 places while I was there. Getting moving again was tough, and I was starting to feel the fatigue and the pain in my knee some more, since I’d already run as far as many ultras I’ve done and still had more than the same again to do. The route out of Courmayeur was circuitous but took us through the town where lots of locals and tourists cheered and applauded while tucking into their lunchtime pasta.
The climb up to Refuge Bertone took 90 minutes, climbing as it did around 800m. I was expecting it to be straightforward as I had done the CCC in the past which starts out from Courmayeur but takes a harder climb via a different route before joining the latter sections of the UTMB route but the pain in my knee, general fatigue and the early afternoon sunshine made it feel like quite a slog. Even worse was the 12km ‘flat’ section to Arnouvaz – I found running on the flat really difficult and getting to Arnouvaz, at the foot of the ferocious Col Ferret climb, turned out to be very slow going.
As we approached Switerland and the Grand Col Ferret the weather was getting cloudier, colder and windier. The race authorities ensured we didn’t leave the Arnouvaz checkpoint without having waterproof tops/bottoms plus gloves and hat already on – I guess deciding to change into these at 2400m in 70kph winds wouldn’t have been ideal.
I expected the Col Ferret climb to be purgatory, but moving uphill seemed to feel better – plus I was under no illusion as to how hard it would be as I’d don’t it a few years earlier in freezing conditions in the CCC. I got my head down and ploughed on up to the top in a little under two hours. As soon as I got over the Swiss border and began my descent, I felt like I was in the mood for running again – miraculously I started powering down and before I knew it (in reality, 4 hours later) I was approaching Champex-Lac, 24km or so from the summit having regained 200 places on the descent.
I didn’t want Amy to meet me at Champex-Lac – it’s a tough drive from Chamonix (she did it during CCC where it is the halfway point) and I didn’t want to hang around too much either since I had new-found momentum – I wasn’t sure how much longer I would feel like running at this pace so I refilled on food and drink, sorted out my gear, and headed out into my final night.
The next few hours were a bit surreal – a combination of headtorch light, forest running and by now, 42 hours without sleep meant that I had to pay extra hard attention not to stumble. I fell into step with a group of similarly paced runners and we chugged silently through the forested trails, carpeted in a very fine sand that coated everything and flicked up clouds of dust, especially when somebody in front stumbled or fell which happened a few times.
Amy and I agreed she would meet me at Trient – even though I didn’t get there until 3.30am as it was a fairly easy drive from Chamonix and I definitely needed the help and motivation by that point. I didn’t stop long there were now ‘only’ three more climbs left I was keen to get on with it.
On the next climb I realised I was ridiculously tired but I didn’t really want to sleep at night as I felt I’d get too cold (it was another subzero night high up) and wouldn’t be able to start moving again. Couple with the fact that with maybe only 10 hours or so of running left, it felt like I was ‘nearly there’. There was a fire burning outside the bergerie at La Giète and I was tempted to lie in front of it and grab some shut-eye but I decided to try to make it to Vallorcine where there might even be some beds available if needed.
Talking to other runners during the previous day, the recurring topic of conversation was ‘Have you slept yet?’. I hadn’t – preferring to push through but many of my fellow UTMB’ers had extolled the virtues of a quick nap. However as dawn broke on the descent to Vallorcine I could feel myself drifting into involuntary microsleeps – I would be running along the track and feel myself jolt awake, unaware that I had drifted off – probably only for a split second but it was clear this could be disastrous so I promised myself a nap at Vallorcine if I could get down in one piece.
I’m not sure there could have been a worse place in the world to get some sleep. Vallorcine is the last big aid station, back on the French side and only 19km from the end and a short drive or train ride from Chamonix. It was 7am and the aid station was rammed with runners and supporters, and to help keep them going the organisers had a PA blasting out music and shouting out announcements.
Regardless, I put my race pack on the table in front of me and fashioned a makeshift pillow, put on all my warmest gear, set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and put my head down. After what felt like 3 seconds later I was awoken by the beep of my phone, grabbed a coffee from the aid station and set off on the final climb to Tête aux Vents via the Col des Montets.
That fleeting 10 minutes of sleep seemed to have helped and although I was still more tired than I had ever been in my life, I at least I could continue running without falling asleep mid-stride.
During the night Amy had put together a Spotify playlist and texted me the link. For the first time in 38 hours of racing I felt like putting my headphones on and listening to some tunes so I fired it up to see me home.
It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning and the trail was packed with hikers cheering us all on. Yet again I felt amazing, powered by some great tunes, the restorative nap and the excitement of the end being in sight. Although I wasn’t moving very fast, I was at least overtaking scores of hikers and bouncing along the trails with the spectacular view of Mont Blanc in the distance. The descent from La Flégère was a familiar one from the CCC (except this time it was dry, and daylight) and I managed to make up another 30 or so places on my way into that famous finishing arch in Chamonix with a time of 42h37 in 874th place.
I started the race with 2,300 hopefuls. My primary goal was to finish (around 800 didn’t). My secondary goal was a vague target of 42 hours, but mainly to finish strong and not limp broken across the line and in that respect I succeed. I was able to run across the finish and savour the moment, and actually felt better than after many shorter ultra races I’ve done in the past.
The Race in Numbers
|Les Contamines Montjoie||F-21:58||04:26:50||1055|
|Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme||Sa-01:36||08:04:42||1129|
|Col de la Seigne||Sa-05:13||11:42:07||1156|
|Arête du Mont-Favre||Sa-08:25||14:53:51||1196|
|Col Checrouit Maison Vieille||Sa-09:08||15:37:23||1183|
|Courmayeur – Mountain Sport Center Entrée||Sa-10:00||16:28:55||1148|
|Courmayeur – Mountain Sport Center Sortie||Sa-11:21||17:49:54||1249|
|Grand Col Ferret||Sa-17:58||24:27:14||1212|
|La Tête aux vents||Su-10:04||40:33:25||907|
- Never feeling like failure was a possibility – generally my race management was good and if anything I might have taken it too easy at the start but even during the hardest moments it was always a question of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’ I would finish.
- Lining up under the arch in Chamonix – I’ve done the CCC and TDS before but never started a race from Chamonix itself. It may be cheesy but running through the crowds to the Vangelis music is an unforgettable experience.
- Cruising along Tête aux Vents knowing the end was in sight.
- No feet problems – not a single blister or sore patches. I ran the whole race in the same pair of socks and Hoka Speedgoat. I smeared some Squirrel’s Nut Butthttps://squirrelsnutbutter.com/er on my feet (and other sensitive parts) at appropriate moments and it really seemed to do the job.
- Realising that even though I’m a strong climber and live and train in the mountains, the climbs on the UTMB are monstrous and relentless.
- Being so monumentally tired, although this was easily fixed by the nap at Vallorcine. It might have been better in hindsight to nap at Courmayeur but on a bright, warm sunny morning it didn’t feel right.
- Not locking my Garmin watch at the charging stations – the timing ended up getting stopped twice which meant I had to stitch together my GPS files at the end.