I flew out on Tuesday and joined my brother and dad for a week’s family get-together and relaxation in the Chamonix valley. There was just the small matter of a foot race towards the end of our stay to ensure that I didn’t overdo it on the relaxation, meaning wine consumption at respectable levels of an evening, and no mid-week fell races.
The heatwave was still in full swing, with daytime temperatures cooling from low 30s to high 20s Centigrade. On Wednesday we soaked up the atmosphere of Chamonix and I got registered and tagged with my timing chip and kit check tag. On Thursday we spent most of the day up the top of Aiguille du Midi, which looms over the Chamonix Valley. The two cable car rides up there via Plan de l’Aiguille were breathtaking, especially the single cable span journey from the halfway house at the Plan to the top. The final winch up to the top station was near vertical. It’s mind-boggling how those cables withstand the weight of 66 human sardines plus the car plus their own weight.
The views from the top were even more breathtaking. Looking back down towards Chamonix in the valley was akin to looking down from an aircraft, except here we had a full field of view, not a porthole window to peer through. Looking in the opposite direction towards Italy with Courmayeur well out of sight over the other side, we saw only mountains, snowfields, ice and glaciers. A swirling lump of cloud permanently enshrouded Mont Blanc, which loomed 1,000 metres above us. Yes, we were already at 3,842 metres (12,607’). Looking upwards we saw a Flash Gordon rocket structure. Goodness knows what it housed but it was well protected from lightning strikes by lightning rods and earthing straps.
Our dizziness was not caused by vertigo but by the altitude. We had to take stairs rather slowly. As I got accustomed to the conditions I derived warped pleasure out of relaxing until I felt normal, then sprinting up a flight of stairs and holding on to the nearest solid object as the strange urge to pass out descended upon me before receding slowly. It felt similar to suddenly standing up from lying down and my brain becoming starved of blood.
It was much colder up here, but thanks to the heatwave only a long-sleeved top was needed for warmth. There was an exit from the station to the ice ridge, which saw a steady stream of crampon-wearing trekkers slowly plodding their way to and from the station. It provides a launch point for assaults of Mont Blanc. As I watched a single line of trekkers making their way slowly across the ice field way below in the direction of Mont Blanc, I heard a muffled disturbance and saw a rock fall spread itself across the ice. Thankfully it stopped well before it reached the trekkers.
The mountain struck me as being in a perilous state – disintegrating, unstable, falling apart, bolted and tied together. I wonder how they ever built the station at the top, which itself appears to be a cobbled-together hotchpotch of reinforced concrete mouldings from long ago. It would make a perfect location for a James Bond shoot-out scene. The main viewing platform was lined with steel plate bolted together, a construction worthy of Blofeld’s base for world domination. I wondered if I might see a fluffy white cat up there. Anyway I'll stop waffling about the wonders of the mountains and let the pictures speak for themselves (see numbers 010 to 054).
On Friday I chilled and relaxed at the apartment with Aiguille du Midi looming above, and tried to get some sleep in readiness for the 18:30 start. I had been following the forecast and it was not good. A weather front was due to move in on Friday evening that would bring thunderstorms, rain, a big drop in temperature and snow over the passes! While I dozed a text message came in from the UTMB organisation. The start would be delayed by 5 hours, until 23:30. Great, I could squeeze in more sleep and be really well set up for two days and nights out in the mountains. I now willed the rain to start as soon as possible to get it out of the way, but nothing seemed to be happening. The day was still as warm and sunny as ever.
The rain finally started around 18:30, just when we were originally due to set off. The delayed start would mean we would have 5 hours less rain to endure. What a master stroke by the organisers. It reminded me how dynamic and flexible they are and it reminded me why mobile phone communication is mandatory to take part in this race. While I dozed, more text messages came in to say that the final leg from Vallorcine would now return along the Chamonix valley, and the 5-hour later starting time would become a 2.5-hour later cut-off at the finish. We would have 2.5 hours less to complete a slightly shortened course.
I took the last train for the 15-minute ride into Chamonix centre. When I deposited my Courmayeur drop bag an announcement was being made that there was 5cm of snow on the passes and we should consider packing an additional layer in our rucksacks. I then ventured outside to wander around in the rain to await the start. Fortunately I met Jonathan and Shirley, who very kindly offered me the warm and dry sanctuary of their hotel just around the corner until closer to start time. Jon had unfortunately had to withdraw from the TDS due to the heat on the previous day and was hospitalised with dehydration. He was well on the road to recovery now, no doubt helped by the much colder temperatures too.
The time finally came to join the throng in the square and listen to the highly amplified foreign utterances that were mostly meaningless to me. I stood there in the rain like a spare whatsit at a wedding, surrounded and warmed by people yet isolated by language barrier. I occupied myself by assessing the waterproofness of the attire of those around me.
“Hmm, yes, water beading nicely and rolling off as if from a duck's back. You'll stay comfortable, warm and dry.”
“Flimsy jacket without hood, shiny wet, every raindrop absorbed nicely. You've got no chance matey. You'll be out with hypothermia after the first pass.”
Finally the time came for our unaccustomed night-time start and we were sent on our way at 23:30 on the stop-start, log-jammed exit of Chamonix centre through throngs of cheering, screaming, whistling, rattling supporters. I struggled to see my feet and not trip up on darkened obstacles like ramps, kerbs and other feet. There is no other country in the world like France for enthusiastic support of athletic endeavour by night and day, no matter the weather. The support on a wet night was truly uplifting but I was glad to leave the noisy traffic jam behind and finally start running, with just the sound of massed shuffling trail shoes to caress the ears (the somewhat more strident, less soothing click of walking poles would come later). The rain was falling but it wasn't torrential, and thankfully there was little wind. Also thankfully, the thunderstorms never materialised where we were.
I had decided to set off more conservatively than I did in 2009. I was running well within myself and I felt strong and confident of a finish this year. We were soon running into Les Houches and beginning our first climb up and over Délevret before descending into Saint Gervais. The rain had already stopped and the stars were peeping out by the time I arrived at Saint Gervais (21km), and we had only been going for 3hrs 17mins. I thanked the race organiser one more time in my mind for delaying the start. It may have been a cold wet night for standing around but the crowds were as big and enthusiastic as ever. The sound system blared music and running commentary as the MC mingled among the runners and supporters with his radio mic. We took our fill from the well stocked aid station before moving onwards, away from the noise and lights.
The reflective markers this year were very visible in our torchlight, so much better than in 2009 when they were less effective and we kept losing the trail over the foggy mountain tops. However, so far route finding would not have been a problem due to the volume of runners. There were always queues to follow (or hold us up on the single tracks) all the way to Courmayeur. As we progressed towards Les Contamines, even though the sky was clear and starlit I could see frequent flashes over the horizon from distant lightning. Someone was getting it. Thank goodness it wasn't us.
Dawn was finally beginning to show as I climbed to La Balme (39km, 6hrs 43mins). We would begin to see day-lit views that we would not normally get to see, thanks to our delayed start. A log fire was burning vigorously on several sheets of corrugated iron spread out on the ground. The fire was surrounded by UTMB-ers on bench seats trying to warm up and dry out. I joined them. The chap next to me was standing up in bare feet, shivering and trying to change his top. He must have been one of the ones with an absorbent 'waterproof'. Every so often he repositioned his shoes and socks at the edge of the corrugated iron sheets. They were beginning to steam quite vigorously. The breeze kept blowing the smoke directly towards where we were sitting, causing me to close my eyes tightly and hold my breath. Then someone chucked some more logs onto the fire, launching showers of glowing embers onto us. Expensive man-made fibres and fire probably don't mix so I made a quick exit up the next mountain. The view back down to the checkpoint compelled me to take my first race picture now that the rain had stopped.
I continued upwards towards Croix du Bonhomme (45km, 8hrs 25mins) and the first wet snowfields left over from the overnight precipitation. My climbing was slow and I had been doing a lot of walking. I would have been disheartened were it not for the fact that everyone around me seemed to be in the same boat. The promising dawn had given way to ominously heavy clouds. It wasn’t long before mini hail pellets started to fall. This wasn’t forecast. It was supposed to be clear and sunny after the overnight rain had cleared. As we neared the top, the TV camera helicopter rose above the mountains and hovered and circled around us noisily, making use of the first daylight. It was a treat to be seeing these new areas for the first time. Two years ago the helicopter treatment didn’t come until Arête du Mont-Favre, 24km further on.
The run down to Les Chapieux (50km, 9hrs 15mins) was often technical and sometimes steep, but I was in my element. Of course I didn’t blast it as if it were a fell race. That would be reckless. I eased back a long way from that, but I still overtook a few on the way down. I detected a slight soreness in my lower left shin but it didn’t worry me. I’m used to the odd niggle, which can disappear as quickly as they arrive during an event.
We left the light precipitation behind as we made the easy road ascent from Les Chapieux. I was fuelling well and made good progress as I walk-jogged my way upwards. A small dam and turquoise reservoir nestled at the bottom of the valley to the right, while to the left the heather on the hillside reminded me of home. I marvelled at the views and paused a few times to take more pictures.
Looking ahead towards our next target the mountain seemed to melt into haze, which I assumed to be cloud. We descended right a little to cross the valley high up where it was wide before embarking on the long climb to Col de la Seigne (60km, 11hrs 47mins). I soon realised the haziness was snowfall. We climbed into a winter scene that was being replenished as we plodded. I was awestruck. (See picture at top.)
At the summit we crossed into Italy and began our descent towards Lac Combal through amazing glaciated scenery. On the first long flat hanging valley with its terminal moraine we passed through a herd of cows with their jangling bells. They were being herded by farmer and dog. They are amazingly docile. They even waited for a group of us to pass along the track before they crossed. Once through the moraine we descended again to the group of tents in the wide flat glaciated valley below, on the way getting warmed by the first sunshine of the day. It was nearly midday. (This was also the place where I felt the first sunshine two years ago. However, back then it was dawn.) The storm we’d left on the mountain top was still trying its hardest to blow snow and hail down the valley onto us as we arrived at Lac Combal (65km, 12hrs 26mins). The checkpoint was filled with runners relaxing, refuelling and soaking up the life-giving warmth of the sunshine in the shelter of the tents. I joined in the luxuriating.
I did not go as fast out of this checkpoint like I did two years ago. I mostly walked even though it was quite runnable. I wasn’t worried. I went too fast in 2009 and blew up. This year I was taking it easier and I was going to finish. It soon became too warm now that the sun was out, so off came the full waterproof and on went the lightweight wind-proof to keep wind chill at bay.
The climb up to Arête du Mont-Favre (69km, 13hrs 48mins) was longer than I recalled. I must have been going really well here last time. It became less windy and warmer on the descent, through more herds of docile cows to Col Chécrouit (73km, 14hrs 29mins). Even though it was only 5km before Courmayeur the food was pretty impressive. An Italian chef was just bringing out some of his new creations. I pounced, along with others. It was fantastic. Runners were spread out in the warm sunshine having a picnic.
Now with my waterproof trousers and wind-proof top stuffed into my rucksack I felt more like a runner. I set off on the final descent to Courmayeur. It simply begs to be run properly but it gets steep at times. As I descended it became warmer and the steeply zigzagging single path became dustier. I was so in my element I'm afraid I let it rip just a tad, overtaking countless others on the descent to the town just like I did two years ago. It probably took too much out of me again but I couldn’t help myself. I promised myself a good recharge at Courmayeur. As I approached the sports hall the efficient UTMB machine had sent word ahead of my arrival. A young lad ran out clutching drop bag 2062 as I passed the doorway. I didn’t even have to slow down. “Merci!”
Courmayeur: 78km in 15hrs 25mins. Checking my times from 2009 I have discovered that I was 54 minutes slower. It had to be a good thing though. I was running more within myself so was more certain of a finish.
The first job was to remove my shoes and socks to let my feet dry out. They were beginning to feel a bit sore. Fifteen and a half hours of wetness had created the beginnings of trench foot. Both socks had rucked up, which was the main cause of the soreness. I prevented too much damage just in time. Apart from that minor irritation my feet were in perfect condition. A fresh pair of padded socks restored luxury. On went the Crosslites, which fit like a glove. I was ready to go, but not before a good refuel of pasta and sauce and some tea (always without milk on the UTMB).
Thirty-eight minutes after arriving, after what seemed to me a decadent rest (perhaps it was – it was only 28 minutes in 2009) I was on my way upwards in the hot afternoon sunshine towards Refuge Bertone.
For the first time I was not in a queue. The field had thinned dramatically. I was freshly fuelled but, just like in 2009, the fuel wasn't reaching my legs. I needed a pudding of chocolate cake and custard to give me a kick up the arse, like we got at Dalemain on the Lakeland 100, but it wasn't there. Pasta and sauce alone just doesn't do it for me. It slows me down instead of speeding me up. (I had the same issue at L100 2010, so I know what I'm talking about.) I grind to a halt as my body tries to digest it, with no instant energy to power the legs RIGHT NOW. I resorted to my own rations of gels to undo the short-term damage the pasta was doing. It sort of worked. By the time I arrived at Refuge Bertone (82km, 17hrs 35mins) I had gained 110 places, though most of those were probably due to retirements, loitering and vacillating in self pity at Courmayeur.
Despite my copious fuelling I still seemed to be plodding on empty. I was amazed how much food I was having to consume to keep myself going at peak efficiency and avoid the dreaded plod of self pity. I lost a few places on the flattish, high level traverse to Refuge Bonatti (90km, 19hrs 14mins) in the warm evening sunshine. Perhaps I was loving the views too much down to the valley on the left.
I had to loiter unashamedly at Bonatti (two pictures above). I needed yet more fuel. I soaked up the warmth of the evening sun just before it sank behind the mountains across the valley. I drank life-giving Coke. I ate sugary foods. I donned warmer clothing for the imminent disappearance of the sun, then I was off contouring along the hillside towards Arnuva. Other runners passed me. I passed other runners. I didn't care. I could only do my own thing and I seemed to be going OK once again. I remember trashing myself on my over exuberant run down to Arnuva in 2009. This time I took it easy with a careful jog down to the checkpoint. 'Remember the ultimate goal of finishing!' My left shin was making itself felt more forcefully on the final descent, but I'm used to temporary soreness and minor niggles. It was instantly forgotten upon my arrival at Arnuva (95km, 20hrs 32mins).
More cake and Coke saw me on my way up the valley with my head torch, in readiness for the advancing night. This would be interesting. I did this in full daylight two years ago. I forked right through the farm, more herded (docile) cattle and up the zigzag mountain path. The torch went on halfway up. I needed more food and needed to don gloves. My mobile phone beeped a text message. I sat down on a convenient rock to take care of business – (yet more) food, gloves and text message. Bovine (after Champex Lac) was now out and an alternative mountain was chosen. New route length was 170km (up from 166km but had been reduced from that). Ascent was now increased after having been reduced. Cut-off was back up to 45.5 hours (originally 46 hours for a shorter course with slightly less ascent). “Bring it on”, I thought. I'm well inside the cut-offs. I'll just plod on until I've finished like I've always done.
There were few others around me now. As I climbed towards Grand Col Ferret I entered cloud. The strong wind at lower levels subsided as I climbed. I saw a diffuse red glow in the sky. It signified the checkpoint. The mountain path took me to the right away from the glow, causing it to fade to obscurity. The path tantalised and tormented me before eventually turning left to restore the glow, which was now orange. The path eventually levelled out to Grand Col Ferret (99km, 22hrs 14mins) and a high pressure sodium vapour floodlit mountain-top oasis. Apart from the light, the petrol fumes from the generator were also a bit of a give-away. The marshal scanned my number and ushered me down the other side into Switzerland. I was happy to oblige. I was feeling good.
I set off running gently downhill with two or three other runners in close proximity. I felt fit and well and wide awake despite being into the second night. I was raring to go (while the latest fuelling lasted). Within minutes, warning bells began to sound. I couldn't run freely. My left lower shin was paining me. I persevered. It got worse, rapidly. I slowed to a walk and watched the other runners' headlights gradually disappear downwards into the mist. I tried to run but was thwarted to a walk every time. I tried everything – shuffling sideways to my right, shuffling with bent knees, lifting my left leg high and letting my left foot hang limp. Nothing worked in the end. The pain just got worse. I could hardly walk let alone run. I screamed internally with anger and frustration. I was on course for my first UTMB finish and a limb was scuppering my chances of a race finish for the first time in my running career. I cursed through clenched teeth and wept tears of sheer frustration as it dawned on me that my UTMB was over for a second time.
A few runners began to overtake me. A trickle became a flood as lines of head torches loomed from above/behind. A sit-down would have been nice each time but the path was so narrow the best I could manage was a lean or fall to the left while the human train barged past, sometimes with a “Ça va?”, occasionally with an impatient barge of the walking poles at being inconvenienced by an invalid. Oh, the ignominy.
During an all-too-rare sit-down opportunity a head-torch sat down beside me with a: “Mr. Ham, how's it going?” It was Mark Dalton. His arrival was accompanied by a voluminous gaseous release of putrid origin. (Don't worry Mark. We were all doing it quite audibly. As ultra runners we know farting to be a cause of celebration. It means our digestion is working and we are fuelled for action.) As the stench of sewage wafted across my olfactory organ I explained why I was sitting down and why my race was over. He offered welcome sympathetic words, and after a respectable number of seconds he was up and off down the trail to continue his own race. He finished. Well done Mark!
The 11km of mostly downhill to La Fouly took me 3hrs 44mins. The revised (compared to 2009) up-and-down route to the checkpoint was a source of immense irritation to one who was in dire need of retirement hours ago. I felt totally unworthy as I hobbled my way between the lines of spectators with their inappropriate (under the circumstances) cheering and cries of “Bon courage” and “Bravo”. I tried to ignore them and wished they'd shut up. Couldn't they see my predicament and moderate their enthusiasm appropriately? I was feeling sorry for myself, I was injured and I wasn't used to it.
After getting scanned (La Fouly, 110km, 25hrs 58mins) I made a beeline for the medic. She confirmed what I already knew – I would not be continuing to Chamonix under my own steam. I suddenly became grateful for the French penchant for medical treatment and accoutrement as impressive bandaging was wrapped around my injured forelock to authorise and visibly justify my retirement. I was sent on my way with two enormous painkilling torpedoes to be taken immediately. 'How decadent', I thought. 'I'll take one now and one later if I remember.' I returned to the heated tent to have my timing chips unceremoniously and unsympathetically hacked from my person, then comfort gorge on bread and cheese before lolling on a table in front of the 9kW fan heater to wait for the sag wagon to come round. Oh the ignominy.
I achieved my highest placing - 825th - at the top of Grand Col Ferret. By La Fouly that had become 1022nd. On the bus back to Chamonix I sent a text message to my dad and brother to not bother going to Vallorcine to meet me. I kept falling asleep mid text. I needed several attempts to get past three letters in a four-letter word.
After an all-too-familiar retiree's sleep on a camp bed in the sports hall in Chamonix I knew straight away that I had to return. I still want it. I haven't made it back to France yet under my own steam (is there a message there somewhere?). It has to be third time lucky. Perhaps next time I won't combine it with a Runfurther Grand Slam attempt.
Nine days later.