The months leading up to this were plagued by self-doubt. Two DNFs and recollections of the brutal ascent had me convinced that it was a step too far for me. I told Stuart Blofeld at the Lakeland 50/100 that I was seriously considering not going. Such was my doubt I hadn't even booked my travel yet and it was only a month away! He tried to talk sense into me. I was hearing him but ….
My miraculous comeback and strongest ever finish at Lakeland 100, along with recent PBs in short fell races as well as long Ultras, finally convinced me that I was fitter than I had ever been so it had to be now or never, just get the job done whatever it took to make it third time lucky. Travel got booked and for the first time I began to look forward to my third visit to Chamonix.
Chamonix was looking resplendent with its clean streets and luxuriant hanging baskets, planters and window boxes laden with billowing blooms. The constant sunshine topped off the effect to perfection. At registration on Thursday and race day on Friday it was a who’s who of ultra-running. The UK representation was large. I found myself constantly stopping for ear-bending sessions as another familiar face appeared or I heard my name called. Jenn Gaskell and supporting family, Mick Wren, Mark Dalton, Stu Blofeld and friends Dino Ilaria and Chris Howe, Simon Webb, Roger Taylor and Terry Conway were just some of them.
One notable absentee from the thronging masses (at least while I was doing my thronging) was Jez Bragg. I had threatened to go to the front line to say ‘ow do before race start but that proved impossible; they were fenced off in their own security pen, and in any case the big names didn't emerge from their sponsor’s penthouse suite until 5 minutes before race start (I only half jest). I was trapped somewhere towards the back of the crowd but at least I got a good view from the top of the steps and I was sufficiently far from the loudspeakers for the blaring music not to rupture my eardrums.
The announcers did their best to whip us up into a frenzy as we waited in the warm sunshine for our 16:30 start. As the music blared, one notable track that caught my attention was Daft Punk’s 'Get Lucky'. I can feel the bass on the Hi-Fi at home but there, it verged on sound warfare. It was ace.
Finally the UTMB signature tune started up – Vangelis’ 'Conquest of Paradise' – and we started. In reality we stood still, inched forward a bit, stood still, watched our feet so we didn't trip, inched, stood still, stood still some more, inched, walked, shuffled, almost ran, and stopped dead. It was just like a traffic jam on a motorway. The cheering from the crowds lining the street was deafening. Cameras were thrust out from all quarters to capture the spectacle of 2,469 mostly Lycra-clad and pole-wielding runners setting off on a very long journey. People who recognised me called out my name but my view of them was so fleeting I forget who they were. Paul Tierney was one I do recall shouting out my name from the left as we were leaving Chamonix centre and finally able to run.
A fixture of the UTMB, day and night and in all weathers, is the crowds. They are clearly awestruck and full of admiration for us. They are unbelievably uplifting if a little embarrassing at times as it borders on adulation. ‘We’re not worthy’ (at least I'm not; I'm just any old plodder, not an elite Tour de France athlete like they seem to think we are).
Following is the best I can remember of my race experience, much of it not having gone in because I was in survival mode, self-monitoring and taking care of myself for much of the time. The photos I took have acted as good memory-joggers.
Chamonix through Les Houches to Le Délevret (13.8km)
We were feeling the heat as we ran the undulating trail through the woods towards Les Houches. I caught up with Stu Blofeld and Chris Howe and we chatted as we ran and sweat ran into our eyes. On the climb up to the main road into Les Houches I was amazed to see Mick and Jacqui Cooper cheering us on. “What are you doing here? What a nice surprise.” Stu ran up the hill and out of sight before the checkpoint. “He’ll be going for a storming time, like he can”, I said to myself.
On the climb out from the Les Houches checkpoint I saw an excited group of runners ahead to the left, cameras being fumbled with. A very bemused-looking Kilian Jornet looked as though he REALLY didn't want to be there and would rather be running (at the front). He was hating the attention. I considered joining in with the camera-fumbling but quickly dismissed the thought in the interests of decency, to save further discomfiture of the phenom.
Further up the trail out of Les Houches I was caught up by threesome Roger Taylor, Mark Dalton and Simon Webb. They dropped back a little and I never saw Mark again until the finish, but it wasn't long before Roger came storming back up the trail with afterburners ablaze, overtaking everyone with his speed hike and causing heads to turn. I never saw him again. He finished back in Chamonix over 5 hours ahead of me.
Roger, Mark and Simon on the climb from Les Houches.
I have no recollection of Le Délevret, but the electronic timing splits give the following stats:
Race distance: 13.8km
Race time: 01:58:18
Stage speed: 6.90km/h (uphill)
Race position: 1015
Le Délevret to Saint-Gervais (7.2km)
All downhill to Saint-Gervais; with legs still fresh we enjoyed easy running in the evening sunshine. I had a 35-hour and 40-hour pacing chart around my wrist, which Stu had kindly made for me. It looked so professional I would have sworn it was official, but he assured me it was his creation. It gave me the distances and even told me what refreshments to expect at the aid stations. I really appreciated being informed and having a better idea of what to expect. It helped me mentally and gave me better purpose. I was well ahead of the 35-hour schedule but I knew it would slip.
Race distance: 21.0km
Altitude: 810m (lowest point of the course)
Race time: 02:50:28
Stage speed: 8.37km/h (downhill)
Race position: 972
Time in checkpoint: 1 minute
1:33 ahead of 35hr schedule
Saint-Gervais to Les Contamines (9.7km)
This section was gently uphill (by UTMB standards at least). As the evening light was beginning to fade, at one point we ran between lines of paraffin torches on the ground. One had gone out. I jokingly told the man standing behind it that his fire's gone out. Looking back through my photos, I saw that he dutifully relit it. I never realised at the time.
Race distance: 30.7km
Race time: 04:45:05
Stage speed: 5.40km/h (uphill)
Race position: 960
Time in checkpoint: 2 minutes
1:40 ahead of 35hr schedule. Woo-hoo!
Les Contamines through Notre Dame de la Gorge to La Balme (8.1km)
The gentle uphill gradient continued to Notre Dame de la Gorge before steepening to La Balme. I always remember the lane leading into Notre Dame de la Gorge with its dim festoon lighting and illuminated cubbyholes containing religious (Catholic) statues. I look at every one as I run past.
I always look forward to the coloured lights of Notre Dame de la Gorge and the carnival atmosphere of happy spectators whose cheers and encouragement send us powering our way with vigour up that long, steep, rocky path. At this point I still have energy in the legs and I enjoy overtaking the pole-wielders with my hands instead occupied by drink bottles. It feels so easy now but I know what they’re all thinking: "
Show-off. I’ll 'ave
eem latterr when ees knees ‘ave gone."
As La Balme came into view up ahead, we could see the line of torch lights rising from there and zigzagging its way into the sky to mingle with the stars. This is the UTMB. I grabbed some Coke and took a spare seat by the fire. As I ate one of my mini pork pies I looked around me to see everyone clothed from head to toe. Even then some were still shivering. I felt quite comfortable in shorts and T-shirt (the T-shirt having just replaced the vest in readiness for the night chill, which was never significant because there was so little wind).
Race distance: 38.8km
Race time: 06:22:29
Stage speed: 5.09km/h (uphill)
Race position: 1011
1:45 ahead of 35hr schedule. Woo-hoo again. How much longer can this go on before the inevitable slowdown hits?
La Balme through Col du Bonhomme to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (5.4km)
From La Balme we climbed to the stars for the first of many times over the next two nights. Looking back towards the checkpoint, the sight of the torch lights leading up to it and onwards up to where I was standing was awe-inspiring. Nowadays it’s the piercing cold white punch of LED light compared to the dim yellow incandescent glow of yesteryear.
Looking back on the climb to Col du Bonhomme.
My memory is dim but as far as I can recall, the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme was just a timing point near the mountain refuge hut not long after the high point at the Col.
Race distance: 44.2km
Race time: 07:57:28
Stage speed: 3.41km/h (uphill)
Race position: 967
Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme to Les Chapieux (5.2km)
This stage really was downhill all the way. Les Chapieux was a welcome oasis to really recharge the batteries for the next long, tough stage that would take us into Italy. However, we had to queue to get into the checkpoint. There was a random kit check. I had to show my mobile phone. With all the fumbling that went on I managed to leave a drink bottle behind. Thankfully I realised in time and was able to run back to retrieve it.
Race distance: 49.4km
Race time: 08:53:58
Stage speed: 5.62km/h (downhill)
Race position: 1016
Time in checkpoint: 15 minutes
1:25 ahead of 35hr schedule. The slip has begun. I lost quite a few places on the descent when I would normally make up places. My knees were feeling a bit sore after the past few months of fell racing. Perhaps I needed sticks. There, I said it. Wash my mouth out.
Les Chapieux to Col de la Seigne (10.3km)
I remember this section clearly from previous years and was quite looking forward to it, even though we couldn't see anything this time. When I was last here in 2011 we were well into daylight on Saturday because of our delayed start. Now I could picture the terrain and I knew what was coming up. We had a long, not too steep ascent up a country lane with the river roaring way below to our right. I recall from two years ago how the rising ground with its foliage to our left looked just like the English Lake District or Peak District. It was cold and damp at the time, which did help with the illusion.
Re-energised by the bread, cheese and Coke at the checkpoint I found myself hiking or even running up the lane and overtaking everyone again. I knew it wouldn't last but I had to ‘make hay while the sun shone’. At one point as I was hiking alongside another person a movement in his torch beam caught my eye. A tiny mouse ran out and stopped in front of him, confused by the light. I expected it to run off but it didn't. It darted sideways a bit and stopped just where he was about to put his foot down. He just about saw it in time and modified his footfall, just as the mouse darted away.
We lost some of the height we had gained to cross the river before beginning the climb proper to the Col (losing height only to climb again is what the UTMB is all about). Torch lights zigzagged their way into the starry sky once again, their cold white light matching the starlight perfectly. We could only separate them from the stars because they moved and changed intensity. When I finally reached those lofty heights, I looked back to observe the longest and most impressive trail of torchlight of the entire UTMB. Thank goodness we didn't have the cloud, wind and snow that we had two years ago.
The Col de la Seigne was a timing point and emergency shelter only. I could feel my energy levels dropping after the climb and I needed food. Although the UTMB instructions tell us never to rest at a high exposed point like this, I sat down on the leeward side of the tent (sheltered from what cool breeze there was) to eat an energy bar. As I did so, Simon Webb appeared at the summit. As I got up to continue my journey with Simon down to Lac Combal I noticed that I'd sat down right next to a pile of vomit. It suddenly dawned on me that the ground up there could be covered with all sorts of UTMB-er issuances. I could feel no damp or sticky patches upon my person so I considered I'd had a lucky escape.
Race distance: 59.7km
Race time: 11:16:41
Stage speed: 4.80km/h (uphill)
Race position: 905
Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal (4.4km)
This is an easing downhill section through dramatic glaciated scenery. I would have to picture it from previous years because it was still pitch black. We levelled out into the wide pastures of the hanging valley, cowbells tinkling unseen in the distance to our right, before crossing through the moraine and descending steeply towards the bright lights of the checkpoint below in an even wider glaciated valley that we still couldn't see. Thanks to my fuelling at the Col I ran strongly down to Lac Combal. As usual it was rather cold in this big hollow and storer of cold air mass.
Race distance: 64.1km
Race time: 12:03:12
Stage speed: 6.22km/h (downhill)
Race position: 888
Time in checkpoint: 15 minutes
1:20 ahead of 35hr schedule
Lac Combal to Arête du Mont-Favre (4.3km)
This stage was longer, steeper and more 'up' than I recalled. It was the first time I had done it in the dark. The first signs of dawn were beginning to appear in the eastern sky as we arrived at the Arête.
Race distance: 68.4km
Race time: 13:16:43
Stage speed: 3.15km/h (uphill)
Race position: 837
Arête du Mont-Favre to Col Chécrouit – Maison Vieille (4.9km)
Daylight finally returned as we descended to Col Chécrouit. Food always seems to be on ration here, with freshly-prepared nibbles and titbits brought out on occasion, never seeming to satisfy actual need. This time the cupboard was almost bare so I washed down some of my own rations with their Coke. Thankfully, Coke was never in short supply.
Some dogs that were tied up alongside the Maison kept barking agitatedly. I soon realised why as a herd of horses came stampeding through several times, one of them through the runners in front of the food tents. I think they were playing a game of 'dare'.
Race distance: 73.3km
Race time: 14:07:22
Stage speed: 5.32km/h (downhill)
Race position: 856
1:11 ahead of 35hr schedule
Col Chécrouit – Maison Vieille to Courmayeur (3.8km)
This section is down, oh so steeply down, zigzagging back and forth for ever down the mountainside on dry trails. Italy is definitely on the dry side of the mountains. This year was even drier than usual, with thick powdery dust getting kicked up from the single-track with no passing places. We coughed and spluttered as a line of us got held up behind a mincer in her dust cloud.
Suddenly the footpath levelled out to a descending lane into Courmayeur and the narrow, twisting, ancient streets that led to the sports centre. A volunteer had my drop bag ready for me thanks to the advanced notification of my 'dossard' (which shall remain visible at all times). We were still less than halfway.
After previous experiences of crashing and burning after a pasta meal, I decided to forego the refreshments on offer and just ate one of my pork pies and drank Coke. A change of socks and a restock of supplies had me back on my way in less than half an hour. I really needed the toilet but it could wait. The sun hadn't yet risen over the mountains when I re-emerged into the cool early morning air.
Race distance: 77.1km
Race time: 15:03:13
Stage speed: 4.64km/h (downhill)
Race position: 900
Time in checkpoint: 27 minutes
1:02 ahead of 35hr schedule. I'm slipping further behind on the descents, sore knees preventing me from 'letting fly'.
Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone (4.9km)
It's a slow plod up to the high traverse between the refuges and back into the morning sunshine. I had hoped that no big meal at Courmayeur and continual grazing would keep my energy levels up better than in previous years, but it was not to be. I would soon start to 'go backwards' as I got overtaken by others, always struggling to maintain energy in the legs for the climbs and sore knees holding me back on the descents. My getting overtaken would be partially compensated by others stopping for longer at major checkpoints or dropping out altogether, so overall positioning would not deteriorate too dramatically.
The early morning paparazzi helicopter started to buzz us as we hiked up to Refuge Bertone. I wonder if I’ll see myself on the DVD this year. If previous years are anything to go by, that’ll be a ‘no’. Simon was still with me. He needed as much rest and recovery as I did. We made sure we refuelled well before Simon led the way upwards out of the checkpoint.
Race distance: 82.0km
Race time: 16:58:39
Stage speed: 3.21km/h (uphill)
Race position: 777. This was my highest position at any of the checkpoints, no thanks to any speed on my part but due to retirements and longer times spent by others at Courmayeur.
0:09 ahead of 35hr schedule
Refuge Bertone to Refuge Bonatti (7.3km)
This is an undulating traverse with minimal ups and downs, except when the legs have gone and you’re getting overtaken loads, when the ups and downs suddenly appear significant. The mountain scenery with precipitous drop-offs to the left, illuminated by the bright morning sun, did a good job of taking our minds off the suffering as we passed the halfway point.
We eventually climbed to Refuge Bonatti where I greeted the English checkpoint volunteer once again. She’s a permanent fixture on that checkpoint. Because I was in survival mode and deciding how best to refuel to keep myself going, I failed to notice that Lizzy Hawker, multiple female winner of the UTMB, was standing in the background watching and supporting instead of running due to injury. I only found out afterwards when Stuart told me. Of course he recognised her immediately. I looked back at my photographs to check and sure enough, there she was. I was mortified.
Lizzy if you read this, please excuse my rudeness. I didn't ignore you deliberately :-0
Lizzy if you read this, please excuse my rudeness. I didn't ignore you deliberately :-0
Race distance: 89.3km
Race time: 18:39:27
Stage speed: 4.40km/h (uphill)
Race position: 800
On 35hr schedule exactly
Refuge Bonatti to Arnuva (5.2km)
Simon and I needed another good refuelling rest before continuing the undulating traverse and descent to Arnuva. The dramatic glaciated mountains and valley below us to the left kept our attentions rapt once again, the dazzling sunshine showing it off to maximum effect. Although the sun was intense, fortunately the temperature was not too high. Conditions couldn't have been better.
Another Maindru Photo photographer was lurking around the corner of the left switch-back as we neared Arnuva. Simon was near the front of a long line as we wound our way down the single track to the checkpoint on the valley floor, where a concerned marshal was shouting out instructions to take plenty of water for the next long stage (14km or 4 hours) without support in the heat of the day.
Race distance: 94.5km
Race time: 19:56:05
Stage speed: 4.09km/h (downhill)
Race position: 856
0:13 behind 35hr schedule. Since I would not be speeding up, a 35-hour finish would not be happening but a sub-40-hour schedule should be well within my grasp, so that became my next target. It was my original secondary objective anyway (the primary one being simply to finish within the 46-hour cut-off).
Reset: 2:26 ahead of 40hr schedule.
Arnuva to Grand Col Ferret (4.5km)
We crossed the river and passed another Maindru Photo photographer before attacking the next big climb. It’s a case of putting your head down and getting on with it. The climb is steep but nowhere near the steepest that the UTMB throws at us; it just drags on at altitude and we’re tired. Simon was pulling away as we crossed the grassy meadow before hitting the stony path that zigzags its way up the mountain. He eventually disappeared out of sight to finish 2hrs 20mins ahead of me. Good effort Mr Webb!
Most people will grind to a halt at least once on the long zigzag climb and have to sit down to eat something to get going again. I passed several in that predicament. “Been there, done that by night and by day” I thought to myself as I passed them. I’d probably sat on the very rocks that some of them were sitting on right now.
It hit me a bit later than usual this year – quite near the top in fact – but it happened for sure. The breeze was a little chilly up there so I couldn't linger for long. Not many people who plodded past me asked if I was OK because they were in their own world of suffering. We were all in it together; they knew what the problem was and that it would only be temporary, so enquiries as to my well-being were superfluous and a waste of precious energy.
I had revived quite well a few minutes later by the time I reached the Col and its helicoptered-in paraphernalia, tents and rigid shelters. I was thankful for not needing the facilities up here but I did need another facility. The toilet call was stronger now that I’d been brewing one for a day. I’d save it for Switzerland, next stop La Fouly.
Race distance: 99.0km
Altitude: 2537m (highest point of the course)
Race time: 21:50:27
Stage speed: 2.33km/h (my slowest stage)
Race position: 894
Grand Col Ferret through La Peule to La Fouly (9.4km)
It’s a long way down to La Fouly and my sore knees were holding back my descent, to my increasing frustration. I was getting overtaken aplenty when I should have been the one doing the overtaking. However the perfect running conditions and amazing views helped to make my dawdling worthwhile.
The descent to La Fouly is such a long stage that by the time I get there, no matter what I do, low energy levels mean that I'm at rock bottom mentally and physically. It was the same this year. I plodded down the final bit of road to the checkpoint to the cheers and encouragement of the bystanders, wishing they would shut up with their inappropriate encouragement and wondering how on earth I could continue. A saving grace was that we were back to the more direct arrival of 2009 instead of the convoluted drawn-out approach we had to endure in 2011.
I tried to shuffle into the checkpoint but mostly I walked. I so wished it was the end right there, but a spark in the back of my mind told me that it would get better because I've ‘been here’ so many times before. I was basically injury-free and I’d felt worse the previous two times I was here, so retirement was never a serious proposition. I'd be nothing short of a lily-livered fraud if I were to retire, so suck it up like a Dyson and just get on with it! I went in search of Coke, bread and cheese.
Race distance: 108.4km
Race time: 23:45:02
Stage speed: 5.27km/h (downhill)
Race position: 910
Time in checkpoint: 16 minutes
2:06 ahead of 40hr schedule.
La Fouly through Praz de Fort to Champex-Lac (14.0km)
I had thought about doing the captain's log while in La Fouly but it slipped my mind to search out the bog trailer upon my departure. Fuel was finding its way back to my brain and legs and I was getting on with the job of putting one foot in front of the other faster than those around me once again. It could wait; perhaps Champex.
This was almost a journey into the unknown now, but not quite. I had been this far once before, in 2009. The route is very picturesque alongside the boulder-filled river (glacial debris) before we divert onto a gratuitous detour into the forest, but we do get a bonus downhill run down an old railway track-bed back to the river. A marshal is there, probably to make sure we don't continue ahead across the footbridge and to impose a penalty if we took a short cut directly along the river path.
The location of Champex-Lac at the end of its hanging valley is visible ahead to our left for a long time as we approach. We just have to climb up the side of the tree-clad valley to get there. It's the usual slow trudge on apparently fuel-starved legs (they have no right to feel starved but they always do). Comparing to how I felt in 2009 I was fair flying along and had no doubt I'd finish it this time. I was looking forward to covering new ground before long.
Champex-Lac was big and heaving with UTMB-ers. As I grabbed my Coke, bread and cheese rations I was aware of a strange light to my right. I turned around to see a video camera following my every move. A few minutes later I went in search of some tea (always black, with sugar, with or without lemon) and the cameraman seized his opportunity. He thrust his appliance into my face and proceeded to pump me for information. The line of his questioning was: “Night time is fast approaching. How are you feeling about venturing out into a second night, into the dark? Are you scared?”
What? Creepies and crawlies, ghosties and ghoulies? I sensed that he wanted a response laced with fear and foreboding and not wanting to do it. I think I was a big disappointment to him. He wanted hype and I gave the opposite: “Nah, I'm not scared of the dark or second nights. Done it too many times before”. I might have mentioned “hundreds” as well (as opposed to “one hundred and sixties”). I don't think I'll be appearing in the DVD unless they really took a shine to the Union Jack shorts.
On my exit I went in search of the bogs, now with slightly increased urgency. There weren't many. The one vacant pan in the men's trailer was full to the brim and overflowing. There was a spare one in the women's. I was told to use that. “But that's the women's”, I protested. That's alright, it doesn't matter. (They're very liberal in that department are the French.) I began to make my move and a woman beat me to it. Seven usable toilets and all occupied. I gave up and continued on my way. It would have to wait (again).
Race distance: 122.4km
Race time: 27:02:14
Stage speed: 4.65km/h (average slightly downhill)
Race position: 903
Time in checkpoint: 33 minutes
2:09 ahead of 40hr schedule.
Champex-Lac to Bovine (9.9km)
With only three (smaller) climbs and less than 29 miles to go I could almost ‘smell the barn’. How naïve was I.
Now I really was into new territory. In my blissful ignorance I was relishing the new experience. With head torch on head with fresh batteries in readiness for the second nightfall, and rejuvenated by the latest fuelling, I set off in pursuit of others once again to make the maximum use of the remaining daylight. It would be dark before the next refreshment stop at Trient. We had been advised that there would be no refreshments at Bovine, so effectively we had a 16.5km stage ahead of us. That could take quite a long time at this stage of the game. I could never have imagined how long it really would take.
I had been told by a previous UTMB completer that it's straight uphill out of Champex. That didn't happen this time. There was a lot of undulation with an alarming amount of 'down' before we finally began our climb, during which it became dark. It was rocky with plenty of mountain stream crossings and paths doubling as streams. I hate to think what it would have been like in a wet year.
I have vague recollections of the gradient easing before Bovine, allowing a faster walk (walking was pretty much all anyone was doing now). Now out into the open, the breeze was decidedly chilly. I stopped to put on my windproof top before making haste through Bovine, which was luxurious as a timing checkpoint but had nothing to offer as we had been pre-warned.
Race distance: 132.3km
Race time: 29:58:52
Stage speed: 3.78km/h (uphill)
Race position: 839
Bovine to Trient (6.6km)
This is where the wheels really must have fallen off. This section is all but erased from my memory. Records show that it took me over 2 hours to do a little over 4 miles averaging downhill. That's 2mph.
From the last aid station at Champex it had taken me 5 hours to do 10.3 miles. 2mph was my best effort up and downhill. I never imagined I could go so slowly yet remain as a viable participant in an ultra-marathon. I suspect lack of fuelling to be the main culprit, especially after Bovine. It’s not that I wasn't eating, though. I had plenty of my own food and I was eating it.
Race distance: 138.9km
Altitude: 1300m (downhill)
Race time: 32:01:44
Stage speed: 3.41km/h
Race position: 888
Time in checkpoint: 20 minutes
1:07 ahead of 40hr schedule.
Trient to Catogne (5.0km)
Another brutal uphill. I was taken-aback by the toughness of these final climbs. After Champex with less than 29 miles still to go, we might think the worst of it is over and we're on the homeward stretch, but far from it. If anything these climbs were even steeper and more energy-sapping.
On this second of three final climbs with the early stages of hallucinations creeping on, I have recollections of:
- Zigzagging steeply upwards very slowly to the accompaniment of others’ sticks clicking on the rocks;
- A racing mind in a dreamlike state making up its own reality from intermittent images glimpsed in my torchlight (my torch wasn't flickering, it was my mind);
- Sitting down on a rock to eat yet another piece of food to get myself going again;
- Getting overtaken (still).
The latest sit-down and piece of food having done its trick for the time being, after the summit we enjoyed a brief downhill romp in the dark to the timing tent of Catogne. Both ends were open to allow easy run-in, scan and run-out. I lingered awhile for a photo shoot opportunity. I must have been feeling better to bother with that but I still looked weary.
Race distance: 143.9km
Altitude: 2027m (uphill)
Race time: 34:30:27
Stage speed: 2.55km/h
Race position: 913
Catogne to Vallorcine (5.3km)
My memory is virtually non-existent for this stage, but the route profile shows all downhill and steepening dramatically into Vallorcine. My pace was undoubtedly slowed by sore knees that had long since ‘had it’ with descending. The one thing I remember having fixed in my mind was looking forward to reaching Vallorcine, because then I would be back into France and at the top of the Chamonix Valley, so nearly home with just 12 miles to go. Yeah, right.
It was still pitch black as I romped into the marquee at Vallorcine. I set about grabbing my rations for the umpteenth time (that’s right, Coke, bread and cheese plus some black tea with sugar as a chaser). I was sufficiently ‘with it’ to take a few more pictures. A big gas heater with a top hat provided warmth. A warmly-clad UTMB-er stood underneath it trying to soak up its heat. I still felt comfortable in shorts and featherweight windproof top with not much on underneath.
Race distance: 149.2km
Altitude: 1260m (downhill)
Race time: 36:15:18
Stage speed: 2.92km/h
Race position: 956
Time in checkpoint: 16 minutes
0:40 behind 40hr schedule. A shocking slowdown but who gives a stuff? I would revert to my original primary objective of just finishing.
A good refuelling gave me a miraculous new lease of life. Also the lower altitude may have played a part, but I fair raced out of the checkpoint still in the pitch black, the uphill gradient to Col des Montets being gentle enough for me to chase down and overtake all before me. They probably wondered how on earth this scantily-clad, Union Jacked upstart sans sticks who had been dragging so slowly when they overtook him earlier could now be romping past them as if he’d just started his race. I could not believe how good I was feeling. It was time to 'make hay while the sun shone' once again.
We enjoyed some uphill road running before hitting the trail at the foot of THAT WALL, which was added to the UTMB as a sadistic sting in the tail a few years back. A line of torch-lights, well spread out by this late stage, wiggled its way to the stars. I was still feeling strong as I continued to pursue and overtake others on the steepest, most gratuitous climb of the whole event. Car drivers cruised back and forth on the highway down below, peeping their horns in wild encouragement at the spectacle of our lights winding their way into the sky. I fed off their energy to continue the hands-and-feet climb up the boulders, rock steps and wooden steps that got us to the top of La Tête aux Vents.
On the way to the top and mountain goat country, daylight returned and, big surprise, I caught up with Stu, who had left me for dead before Les Houches. He'd teamed up with UK runner Simon James to get to that finish line as a pair, come-what-may. That's ultra-running camaraderie at its finest. Have a look at Simon's report, which communicates the true horror of what we went through. I'm afraid I'm too old and battle-hardened to communicate such emotion any more. Stu’s equally impressive report is here.
I don't even recall La Tête aux Vents as a timing station. All I know is that it would have been up where the mountain goats roam and before the sun rose above the Mont Blanc massif across the other side of the Chamonix valley.
Race distance: 156.9km
Altitude: 2130m (uphill)
Race time: 39:07:26
Stage speed: 2.96km/h
Race position: 902
La Tête aux Vents to La Flégère (3.0km)
As we contoured along the mountain side, hopping across rocks and boulder fields, climbing and descending ‘headlands’ towards the ski station of La Flégère (which never seemed to get any closer), I checked behind me to see if I could see Stu and Simon in hot pursuit. I couldn't, which surprised me.
The urge to drop a depth charge was now becoming increasingly desperate. It was now nearly two days old and wanted out. It came over me in waves. I scanned the terrain for suitable boulders and bushes but none would do. In any case there were too many people up there. La Flégère was my last and only chance.
You can guess my first question upon arriving at the marquee doorway. The helpful marshal led the way through a doorway, along passages and past the kitchens to the oasis, where the crime was committed upon the porcelain. I hope I didn't crack it. You cannot imagine the physical and mental relief. I spent so long in there relaxing, someone turned the light off.
Many people including Stu and Simon overtook me while I was ensconced. Upon emerging I took my final refuelling, including getting one of my bottles filled with Coke, which they were happy to do. I’d seen this being done for others at earlier checkpoints, which surprised me because the rules stated that only water could be taken away from aid stations. Any other drinks were for drinking from cups at the checkpoint.
Race distance: 159.9km
Altitude: 1860m (downhill)
Race time: 40:07:42
Stage speed: 3.55km/h
Race position: 915
2:00 behind 40hr schedule.
La Flégère to Chamonix (7.8km)
The sun was well up and it was warming up again. Before leaving the checkpoint I sorted out my attire for comfort into the third day of ‘running’ (I use that term loosely), so back to running vest it was.
The descent back down to Chamonix provided one of the longest runnable stretches of the whole event. I so wanted to run all of it but the knees continued to say 'no'. On the way I caught up again with the fellow Brit who developed a lean very early in the event. We’d passed back and forth a few times. I was amazed that he had kept going at such a decent walking pace for so long with that back muscle weakness that must have put him under so much strain. His finish really was a triumph. Looking at the results I'm guessing it was most likely Andrew Arnold, who finished in 42:17:21.
Andrew if it was you, superb effort. I hope your back recovered quickly afterwards.
As I alternated between running (shuffling) as much as I could bear before having to walk again, I welled up with emotion at the thought of finally crossing that finish line, a pleasure that had been denied me twice before. I entered the outskirts of Chamonix and followed the markers on the magical mystery tour of the town. The cheering crowds began to appear as I got closer to the centre. I glanced behind me to check that I wasn't going to get overtaken again. I did, but only one final time as I ran alongside the milky grey-green river of glacial melt water.
Excuse the dramatic license but I could have been the race winner as I ran alone between barriers that near-buckled under the weight of the cheering crowds. Professional and amateur photographers strained for that perfect shot as I sprinted across the line and knelt down to kiss that hallowed piece of ground, full of emotion that I’d finally cracked it. It had to be third time lucky, do or die, last chance saloon, but you don’t 'alf have to commit to suffering to achieve it.
Race distance: 167.7km
Altitude: 1035m (downhill)
Race time: 42:01:49
Stage speed: 3.80km/h
Race position: 991
2:02 behind 40hr schedule.
Doing the tour of the town
I get overtaken one last time.
FINALLY I make the full journey!
Official photo copyright Maindru photo.
Stu and Simon had finished 14 minutes ahead, the time difference being more than accounted for by the munitions deployment at the pan of La Flégère.
Amidst much endorphin-fuelled ear-bending with fellow runners and supporters, I slowly made my way to the finishers’ refreshment gazebo, where we spent a couple of hours in the warm morning sunshine drinking beer and reminiscing about what we had just experienced. I didn't want it to end but it had to. There was a drop bag to reclaim, a ‘caution’ (deposit) to get back for the timing chip, a bath to have (where I started to fall asleep) and, finally, 2 hours’ proper sleep in a proper bed before hitting the town in the evening for din-dins, drinky-poos and more animated ear-bending with fellow Ultra nutters.
The UTMB is one awesome, challenging event like no other I have done. The organisation, support, location and terrain make it special enough but the crowds and spectators raise it to an even higher level. It is a very good ambassador for France and the French.
My race pictures are here.
Some UTMB 2013 statistics
Finishing rate: 68.3%.
1st man: Xavier Thevenard (France) in 20:34:57.
1st woman and 7th overall: Rory Bosio (USA) in 22:37:26.
1st Brit and 11th overall: Jez Bragg in 23:50:01.
The obvious word is “HOW”. How can it be possible for anyone to run those distances over that terrain in those times?
My time: 42:01:49.
Position: 991st (top 41.1% of starters, bottom 41.2% of finishers).
Total distance: 168km (105 miles).
Total ascent: 9,600m (31,500 feet).
(Height of Mount Everest from sea level is 'only' 8,850m.)
The conditions were probably as good as they can get (it’s about time!). A long dry spell led to good conditions underfoot. It was sunny by day without being too hot. The nights were clear and starry and not too cold (i.e. it remained above freezing even at the high points). Wind chill was minimal.
I spent three recovery and chill-out days in Chamonix after the UTMB.
Day 2 was spent up l'Aiguille du Midi at 3,842 metres, beneath Mont Blanc and overlooking the Chamonix valley. All pictures are here.
Day 3 was spent up at Montenvers and the Mer de Glace glacier. All pictures are here.