Its been a few years since I’ve run a ‘proper’ ultra so I was looking forward to getting a long distance race under my belt in 2016. Through social media I found out that a new race had been created fairly close to me – the Ultra Tour de la Motte Chalancon.At 86km and 4,500m of height gain it was a simialr profile to past ultras, and I thought it would be a good test to see if I could set myself up for some longer stuff later in the year.
I booked into a hotel at Remuzat, about 10 minutes drive from the start line and headed to the bib collection. I was a bit early so had to hang around and despite a few teething problems with the pickup process everyone was friendly and welcoming. Grabbing my goodie bag (Buff, a jar of local honey and some discount vouchers) I headed back to the hotel to eat my pasta, arrange my kit and get an early night,
It feels odd to set your alarm for 2.50am, but that’s what I did, and was successfuly up, changed and out of the door by 3.30am, managing to park in La Motte Chalancon and get to the start line just about in time.
The problem with 4am race starts is that nobody in their right mind wants to get up and at that time and watch 100 lunatics head off into the dawn at a very slow pace so consequently in a lot of races there’s not much crowd support. This was no different but the organisers made a big effort, playing music and having the marshalls burning red flares as we ran our way through the streets of the town.
We soon left the town and headed up the first climb – the usual strung out line of head torches as everyone settled into a rhythm. There’s never much to see and with the low cloud from the storms we had been having still clinging to the mountainsides, the view was fairly dull so I just got my head down and followed the feet of the runner in front.
The middle of July in the Provençale French Alps is hot. Luckily however, after day after day of 35ºC blue skies the rains came and the cooler weather arrived meaning the conditions were much cooler. It was still warm enough at the 4am start to run in t-shirt, and I liberally applied the SPF50 at the start, but hopefully heat stroke was not going to be a significant issue.
Unfortunately the downside to this was that at the top of the first climb after a couple of hours on the trail, we didn’t really get to see much of a dawn – just a murky twilight but gradually the views got clearer and clearer.
I didn’t have any support crew at this race, so there was no opportunity to eat anything I either couldn’t carry mysef, or find at the food stops. Although the race was only 86km, it really would have helped if there had been the opportunity to leave a drop bag. I tend to find that French races don’t really offer this unless we’re talking about the very long events (e.g.. 100 milers). Since the weather forecast was poor, and I couldn’t carry all the food I wanted, being able to leave a change of shoes and some food at the halfway point would have been a big benefit.
As a result, I stuffed about a dozen energy bars and 8 or 9 gels into my race pack and figured I would take my chances with the aid stations. Unfortunately the food choices at the aid stops weren’t amazing (crisps, cheese, salami, crackers, apricots etc, with soup at later stops) so I probably ended up eating too many of my energy bars and gels, meaning I took on way too much sugar and I started getting digestion problems after about 60km.
The weather forecast predicted a fine morning with possible thunder storms in the afternoon, and the morning did turn out to be perfect running conditions, and after 8 hours I’d reached almost 50km into the race and got three or four major climbs out of the way. Just after mid day, at the highest point of the race, the heavens opened and huge globs of heavy rain came heaving down. This was quickly followed by enormous cracks of thunder and lightning – being on top of the highest mountain in the area was quite a terrifying place to be so I headed into the descent as quickly as possible.
Although I had a rain jacket, the undergrowth was suddenly so wet, that my feet and shorts were soon soaked from running through the bushes on the way down. At the bottom of the descent, which took maybe 90 minutes, I found myself in Remuzat, site of my hotel, and making my way into a barn to a loud round of applause (as all the runners got) from the assembled volunteers.
The barn was dry and warm, so I was able to at least change into a pair of socks from my pack, although they were pretty wet anyway. The organisers were holding back the runners because the ongoing storm was making it dangerous to head up the next mountain. We could hear lots of sirens as the gendarmes and fire service rushed by in the street outside – although I don’t believe it had anything to do with anyone involved in the race.
By this point I was starting to feel very sick. I really didn’t want to eat, and had barely eaten an energy bar in the last two hours. I forced myself to drink some of the noodle soup but that was about all I could face. After 20 minutes or so we were given the all clear but I think I wouldn’t have been too upset at that point if the event had been cancelled.
The rain had stopped and the sky seemed to be brightening up, although there were still distant rumbles of thunder. Getting moving again was difficult – I was cold and shivery and couldn’t get moving smoothly – my limbs felt stiff and the run along a river bank trail was difficult to get back into the swing.
Even worse was to come – the ‘trail’ moved sharply upwards, following the route of a waterfall. Streaks of orange paint showed the way, because we weren’t following a trail for most of the time but were simply crawling up slick rocks.
A couple of sections had via ferrata wires or fixed ropes in place and were necessary as losing your step could have ended badly. Some sections even had fixed ladders, but the rest of it was steep, stepped, slippery rocks.
Finally topping out on an undulating plateau, were still picking our way through slick rocks which made running difficult and dangerous and I cursed the organisers several times. However the biggest problem was that I was simply bonking – I’d taken on so little fuel in the last few hours that I was in danger of not being able to reel it back in.
I sat down on a rock and had a little word with myself – forced down an energy gel and almost vomitted. I think it would have been better if I had. That was basically the pattern until at around 10km to go, I got to the final aid station. A bit more magic soup and some words of encouragement from the organisers and were back out for what should really be a simple 10km, mostly downhill run to the finish.
Although my energy reserves were sapping at this point, I actually found the downhill single track quite easy and fun, and was able to keep a good pace, catching a few groups in front who had been way out of sight earlier. However we ran through some very claggy fire roads and the clay-like mud stuck to the soles of my shoes and wouldn’t shed, adding a lot of extra weight just when I needed it least.
Descending back towards La Motte Chalancon, there were a couple of (by now very swolen, fast running and silty) river crossings and a what seemed like never ending run through the streets of the town.
Just before 7pm I made it across the finish line with a time of 14:58:06, getting 44th (out of 84 starters) place. A small ceramic medal, and a finisher’s gilet were awarded at the end, and a complimentary meal at a local restaurant was available, although was so cold and tired at the end I just headed back to my hotel.
Overally this was a great race. The course was challenging with some exceptionally steep climbing in places. The organisers and volunteers were superb as is always the case with French races and the scenery is breathtaking despite being spoilt somewhat by the weather. On top of that, the race was worth 3 of the old style UTMB entry points (or 5 of the new ITRA points). I would definitely do the race again although there are so many other events on my bucket list that I’m a bit spoilt for choice.