Race Report: UTMB 2021

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.

The fearsome profile of the UTMB – 170km and 10,000 vertical metres around France, Switerland and Italy.

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.

Covid Measures

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.

Lining up behind the arch in central Chamonix. Despite the COVID-19 measures, the crowds were out in force and the atmosphere was incredible.

The Race

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 early trails were non-technical, wide and very runnable since I guess the key is to thin out the crowds – it worked because there were no bottlenecks, probably helped by the staggered start.

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.

First Night

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.

Headtorches stretching for miles behind me in the darkness on the climb up to Col de la Seigne and over into Italy. The temperature dropped below zero meaning a tricky descent over the loose scree heading down to Lac Combal.

Italy

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.

Refuelling at Courmayeur
Made it through the first night.
The views on the Italian side between Lac Combal and Courmayeur were stunning.

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.

Refuge Bertone

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.

The flattish section from Refuge Bertone to Arnouvaz was a lot harder than it looked on paper, but has got some of the most dramatic scenery of the race.

Swiss Second-Wind

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.

The weather turned cold and windy on the way up to Grand Col Ferret but the running the other side was amazing.

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.

Home Straight-ish

Stopping for pictures on the way to Tête aux Vents.
Mont Blanc dominating a spectacular view, legs still feeling great and some great music playing on Spotify – I’ve never felt this good after 50 hours with no sleep!

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.

Running into Chamonix at a decent pace with a smile on my face – couldn’t ask for more.

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

PointHeureTempsClst
ChamonixF-17:31
Le DelevretF-19:2601:54:491124
Saint-GervaisF-20:1702:46:341070
Les Contamines MontjoieF-21:5804:26:501055
La BalmeF-23:5406:23:321112
Refuge de la Croix du BonhommeSa-01:3608:04:421129
Les ChapieuxSa-02:2208:51:291152
Col de la SeigneSa-05:1311:42:071156
Lac CombalSa-07:0113:30:091192
Arête du Mont-FavreSa-08:2514:53:511196
Col Checrouit Maison VieilleSa-09:0815:37:231183
Courmayeur – Mountain Sport Center EntréeSa-10:0016:28:551148
Courmayeur – Mountain Sport Center SortieSa-11:2117:49:541249
Refuge BertoneSa-12:5919:28:351230
ArnouvazSa-15:4822:17:311208
Grand Col FerretSa-17:5824:27:141212
La FoulySa-19:4226:11:281162
Champex-LacSa-22:4229:11:321035
La GièteSu-02:1332:41:59939
TrientSu-03:3534:03:41946
Les TseppesSu-05:3336:02:12940
Vallorcine EntréeSu-07:1237:40:49911
Vallorcine SortieSu-07:4238:10:45919
La Tête aux ventsSu-10:0440:33:25907
La FlégèreSu-10:5541:23:56888
ChamonixSu-12:0842:37:03874

Higlights

  • 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.

Lowlights

  • 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.

Strava Details

Race Report: UTMB Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) 2018

For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to acquiring enough points to enter the UTMB lottery. Last year I completed the 101km CCC, a hundred miler in the UK this summer, and the final piece of the puzzle was the 121km TDS – another of the UTMB events.

Naively, I assumed that at only 121km the Trail des Ducs de Savoie would be a nice intermediate step – a kind of apprenticeship to the UTMB. The race was introduced in 2009 and traces the Grande Randonée paths through the Aosta valley in Italy, and then the Beaufort, Tarentaise and finally Mont-Blanc valley in France. 

Chamonix heaving with the annual influx of trail runners, supporters and crews.

Amy and I drove up to Chamonix the afternoon before and checked into our apartment – it wasn’t the best facility but was at least only 5 minutes walk from the centre of town and the start/finish line. Registration and kit check passed without a hitch, although the queues were long so the whole thing took a good hour or so. 

Long lines at kit check – make sure you don’t forget anything.

Despite the clear blue skies, blazing sun and warm temperatures, the race organisers were warning of poor weather the next few days and the mandatory equipment check was quite heavily geared towards ensuring we all had waterproof clothing and working mobiles. Back in the apartment, I got an automated text from the organisers that due to bad weather the race route would be modified and would start two hours later – at least I would get longer in bed; so with that in mind I did one final kit check and set my alarm for 5am.

The next morning, the apocalyptic weather hadn’t materialised, and after the shuttle buses had deposited us on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Courmayeur and the sun came up, the warnings seemed even more overblown as we were treated to the start of a glorious day. However the last announcement before the start said that as soon as we hit the Col de Petit Saint Bernard and crossed into France, the weather would become decidedly less pleasant.

The start line in Courmayeur

The start was just like last year’s CCC – and the delayed start meant that more spectators were out to cheer us through the streets. The first trails we hit were quite wide and this meant that the usual bottlenecks you experience in mass start ultras weren’t really a problem. Over the course of 10km or so we climbed over 1000m before dropping down to Lac Combal. The terrain here was stunning – surrounded by glaciers and sweeping views I started to get an idea of why this course is well known for being more rugged and remote than its UTMB siblings.

The early running in Italy was in perfect conditions.
Running through the Italian Alps, surrounded by glaciers and alpine streams.

After leaving Lac Combal the hot sun and clear skies meant that I exhausted my water supplies quickly on the hard climb up to Col Chavannes, but dropping off the other side we descended a long 4×4 track which allowed me to effortlessly knock off 7-8km at 5:30min/km. I was a bit worried this was going too fast and I would pay for it later but it was great to get some distance under my belt.

The race reflected in the calm waters of Lac Combal, as we approached the first checkpoint in the distance.
The descent after Lac Combal was fast.

Finally the rain came. On the climb up to the Col du Petit Saint Bernard the clouds became more ominous and then suddenly, around 30 minutes from the next checkpoint the heavens opened and we were soaked by ferocious, driving rain. That mandatory kit came in handy as despite the waterproof jacket, gloves and hat, I was shivering by the time I got to the aid station which thankfully was serving hot pasta soup.

Afterwards the descent into Bourg Saint-Maurice was a tough one – made all that much harder that we could see the town in the distance from a long way off so it seemed to take ages to arrive, but at least it was drying out and warming up. The checkpoint was heaving with people as it was the first point where outside assistance was allowed. I’d asked Amy not to come to the CPs because they were pretty remote, and I could rely on the drop bag at Cormet de Roselend instead. 

A very welcome water stop at Séez, after the long, hot descent towards Bourg Saint-Maurice.

Every race report and review of the TDS I have read seems to have one thing in common – the climb out of Bourg Saint-Maurice and up to the Cormet de Roselend is steep and relentless. The almost 2000m of vertical in the late afternoon sun (for most of us) and with limited water opportunities this was something that loomed large on the profile map after relatively easy running of the first 50km. Our weather-affected route meant that the climb wasn’t constant, but instead it kept dropping back down, losing height and adding distance before eventually reaching the Cormet de Roselend after what seemed like an eternity. Cracks of forked lightning pointed the way we were headed as well as signalling the meteorological conditions that would be in store for us as night fell.

A few KMs of the adjusted route to Cormet de Roselend were on tarmac, which just seemed to make the climb feel like it went on for even longer.
The last few minutes of daylight on the climb to the Cormet de Roseland – you can see what little sun that  broke through the clouds shining on the mountain on the right.

Cormet de Roselend was the first opportunity to access my drop bag, and I got changed into new layers and socks which gave more of a psychological boost than much else. I took on some soup and hot, sweet tea and had a ten minute doze on my backpack before heading back out into the night.

More climbing – this time as the rain started to come down harder and the trails got higher and more technical, the pace slowed as we picked our way through the trails in the dark. However going up was far better than the following descent down to La Gittaz. Rivers of mud, reminiscent of last year’s CCC meant we were slipping and sliding constantly. As we edged through a gorge we passed a blazing bonfire in the night, surrounded by a team of emergency service responders and it pretty soon became clear why they were stationed there as a precaution, as just further on we tentatively edged our way over wet, slippery rocks with a steep drop to a raging torrent on our right. 

Thankfully this was successfully navigated and we passed through the time check at La Gittaz where I followed the line of headlamps snaking up into the darkness towards Les 2 Nants.

More slipping and sliding on the descent (can you spot a theme here?) towards the refuge at Col du Joly where the sound of Foreigner, wanting to know what love is, was blaring from the speakers to guide us in. Lack of sleep, fatigue, darkness and a thriving bar pumping out music up in the middle of nowhere contributed to the surrealism of the experience. 

The trails were becoming ridiculously slippery now and on the exit from the Col du Joly aid station I ended up sliding down the hill like I was Frank Spencer (if you’re not British from a certain era you will need to Google it) on roller skates – my trekking poles looped over my wrists didn’t help and I slid down on my back. Thankfully no major harm was done and soon the trail turned to more hard packed 4×4 track I was able to reach Les Contamines by around 5am.

All Downhill From Here?

From here on I was sure I had this nailed. There was ‘just’ the Col de Tricot to pass and then it was more or less all downhill to Chamonix; in total no more than another 25km but encompassing another 1300m or so of climbing. The climb up to Tricot however was incredibly steep – although this had been the theme for the whole race, coming after 100km it was tough and people were dropping like flies, allowing me to make up nearly 50 places on this climb alone. More than once I was treated to a rendition of somebody vomiting into the undergrowth as I stood surveying the natural beauty around me.

Half way up the brutal climb to Col de Tricot looking back down into the valley.

After passing the Col the technical trails on the other side were fairly runnable as things were drying up and despite the heavy clouds it was shaping up to be a nice day in Chamonix. Passing the Nid de l’Aigle tramway I arrived in Les Houches where I really didn’t stay long – I’d been told it was 8km flat run into Chamonix and I was keen to get this done with.
We had to cross the motorway via  bridge to get onto the back forest track that led into Chamonix and after so long on remote trails it was amazing to be cheered and applauded by so many people on the streets. Nearly every car that went past would honk it’s horn which just helped add to the renewed enthusiasm.

The back run into Chamonix was more ‘undulating’ than flat meaning a couple of sections were power-hiked but I managed to keep running  for the most part and many others were finding the same second-wind. In fact between Les Contamines and the finish line I improved my ranking by over 100 places, I think helped by the cool night with it’s slow pace – I was able to avoid a lot of eating to let my stomach recover.

The sun was coming out and the heat starting to build, but by 11am I was heading into the outskirts of Chamonix. More and more cheers and clapping from people on the trail encouraging me home, and the closer I got to the finish the more intense this became. I managed to speed up from a slow trot to a relative sprint by the time I reached the last 200m, responding to the cheers of the crowd, high-fiving and banging on the crowd barriers. 

It was a struggle to climb onto the podium but worth it for the shot.
Tired but very, very happy.

I crossed the finish line in 27hrs 13m 17s, coming under my target time of 28hrs, and nearly 6 hours ahead of the cutoff. 

Plastic Is Not Fantastic

This year the UTMB organisers have announced that they’ve removed single use plastic cups, plates and utensils from the course which I think is a fantastic idea. This meant that we all had to bring our own utensils – the only downside was that at aid stations I needed to keep getting up and down again (eg. after finishing soup, get up to get a Coke, then get a bowl of pasta) rather than be able to take everything I wanted over to the table. Next time I’ll probably bring a couple of cups/bowls rather than just the one.

The Race in Stats

My pace throughout the event – you can definitely see it dropping off through the muddy night section.
My ranking throughout the race – fairly consistent after Bourg Saint-Maurice.


Runner’s Page: https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/runner/7481

Race Report: Jurassic Coast 100 Miler

The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.

I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.

Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.

The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.

2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.

Relive ‘JC100 mile’

Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.

Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.

Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset

The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.

Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Specatators along the route

On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.

 

Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.

The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion. 

The view from the trail

The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.

The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.

I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.

Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.

As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.

Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.

Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.

No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.

Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.

After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime. 

As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.

The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.

Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.

More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.

After 100 miles, 60 of which we’d pushed through together, we’d made it onto Exmouth seafront.

Somebody taking a breather with a view.

Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.

The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.

After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.

Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy

I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.

Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces

Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.

As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.

A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.

Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.

Jurassic Coast 100 Mile Results

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.