Back at the beginning
The UTMB is the one race that has been on my mind for a very long time. Six years in fact. 2012 was when I first heard about this incredible run around the entire massif of Mont Blanc, starting and finishing in Chamonix. I can’t really begin to explain how much it means to me in a way that adequately explains the effect it has had on me except perhaps to say that it has almost become who I am, my primary purpose. This one race has defined me and been my ‘A’ goal for six long years.
2012 was the year I saw my very first YouTube video about UTMB. I knew instantly that I wanted to do it. I was a million miles away from being capable then but watching that video for the first time became a pivotal moment for me. Later in 2012 I raced my first ultra with the simple aim of achieving enough UTMB (ITRA) points to qualify for one of the races. My ultra journey had begun.
Previous UTMB races run
Like many, my UTMB journey has not been a smooth one and the sheer numbers of people wanting to take part in the races as they have grown since humble beginnings in 2003 (history of UTMB link here) meant that a ballot system and then later, in addition, a points system have had to be introduced to manage demand. So far I have, more or less, been successful on each second attempt to be selected to race.
My first race experience of running a UTMB event was in 2014 when despite not being successful in the CCC draw I was offered a place in the TDS, a chance I jumped at. I wrote a blog about my TDS race experience (link here). The TDS was a phenomenal experience and only increased my desire to complete the full UTMB.
In 2016 I was successful in the ballot and secured a place on the start line of the UTMB. The hot year as it became known was a gruelling test in temperatures up to 35 degrees and sadly I (along with 44% of other starters) didn’t finish the race. After such a long time preparing and having felt ready for the challenge I can only describe the sense of failure as crushing. I cried as I left Chamonix that year and it took me weeks to recover from the sense that I had let myself and everyone else who had supported me down badly. I never did write a blog about that race as it was too painful. I did, however make lots of notes and resolved to use every single learning as a base to get that coveted finisher’s jacket. Several people asked me questions along the lines of ‘surely that’s it?’ and ‘you’re not going back are you?’. Never for a moment did I consider allowing that to be the end of the journey.
After an unsuccessful ballot in 2017, fast forward to January 2018 when an email arrives and a little box on my personal space on the UTMB website changes to green – successful – pre-registered for the UTMB 2018, I’m in!!!
Mountain ultras are about one thing, CLIMB! Hang on… two things, CLIMB and DESCENT. Oh and don’t forget running through the night… and nutrition… and hydration. Ok, so success in a mountain ultra is dependent on a LOT of things all coming together. By no means exhaustive but here are some of the factors.
- Climb speed
- Descent speed
- Flat pace
- Maintaining energy levels (Nutrition strategy)
- Staying hydrated (Hydration strategy)
- Electrolyte balance
- Other body factors
- Managing stomach issues
- Staying alert/managing sleep deprivation (especially when running all night)
- Mental strength
- Autonomy/confidence to deal with issues – weather, stomach, dehydration etc.
Some of the learnings I had taken on board from 2016 meant that I was able to devise a suitably challenging training programme which pushed me physically while gaining confidence mentally that I could complete the race. Without going into too much detail my 2018 training plan involved three phases:
In practice, the speed phase was short and phases 2 and 3 overlapped as both involved training through ultra races and essentially building the climb to around 10,000m per month which I held for three months before dropping back in August.
Other aspects I chose to focus on included studying the theory of performance in ultras and also taking preparation seriously. Several months out I began to read a number of books on preparation for races including the Ultra Mindset and a book I had to order from a publisher in France specifically relating to succeeding in the UTMB. This was an expensive purchase but extremely valuable in the lead-up to the race.
I arrived in Chamonix confident that I had prepared the best I could have done around the usual personal commitments of a demanding job and children.
One of the things I did differently this time was to focus on my wellbeing in the weeks before the race. The aim was to start with fully charged batteries, preferably with a zero sleep deficit and very well rested. In practice this meant that I didn’t set an alarm for the whole of August and tried to go to bed early whenever possible. Once in Chamonix the week before the race I tried to have an afternoon nap every day if possible.
Other than a couple of hikes up to 2,500m and higher to acclimatise it was a very relaxing week. Very fortunate to have my girlfriend as support crew before and during the race I was able to get to race day feeling relatively relaxed.
The weather forecasts throughout the week had been changeable but on the whole fairly benign until the morning of the race when an ominous message arrived – UTMB BAD WEATHER. This was the first sign that it may not be plain sailing.
UTMB: North wind, cold nights, feels like 0C
This was followed up by an even more pessimistic view just after 1pm on race day.
UTMB Weather deterioration: bad weather until Saturday afternoon, very cold, windy, feels like -10C. Cold weather kit essential.
UTMB starts at 6:00pm so race day always involves a restless few hours wondering what to do with yourself. I had a lazy start, an early lunch of pasta, fruit and plenty to drink to remain hydrated. With my previous experience of the excitement and emotion of the UTMB start line I knew it would be best to get to the famous square a couple of hours early. It already looked as if the weather gods were feeling playful this year so we sheltered in the porch of the church to avoid the intermittent showers which were sweeping the Chamonix valley.
By around 5.00pm the numbers in the square were swelling to the point where moving would soon become difficult so I chose that moment to secure the position I wanted to start from. I wasn’t so worried about being near the front, more like just not right at the back! By 5.30pm the square was completely jam-packed and the start line festivities soon began. The last half hour before the start was a very emotionally charged time, many athletes I’m sure thinking similar thoughts about how the race would go and a few last minute self-doubts creeping in. When the first bars of Conquest of Paradise began to ring out a few minutes before six there was a huge cheer and I, along with many others, had tears rolling down our cheeks as we knew we were moments away from one of the biggest occasions of our lives. Timed to perfection with the crescendo of the music and it’s Go Go Go for UTMB 2018!
The race in detail
Start to Les Contamines
Shuffling through a drizzly square with 2,500 other runners may not seem like the most auspicious start but the atmosphere was incredible. After a few minutes we were able to lengthen our stride and start to jog through the packed streets of Chamonix. The crowd were in a wild frenzy, cheering and whooping as stream after stream of runners passed them by. After a couple of miles the course becomes a forest trail and still there were thousands of spectators all the way to Les Houches. One of my clear aims before the start was not to go off too quickly and keep to a jog. There’s nothing to be gained to go anaerobic in the first few miles of a 106 mile race. After a couple of miles I looked down at my watch and saw 160 bpm for 12 min/mile pace. WTF? The excitement of the start was enough on its own to elevate my heart rate so I decided to ignore heart rate and just focus on keeping a steady pace. I was dying to get into the first climb, number 1 of the 10 major climbs, totalling just over 10,000m of positive elevation change over the 106.5 mile route. After all, this is a mountain race, not a road race. After the first 5 mile downhill stretch to Les Houches came the climb to Le Delevret, an 800m up and over, then down to St Gervais on the other side. After St Gervais came another 600m climb before dropping back into the first major checkpoint at Les Contamines (19.4 miles, 1,581m climb done). Still the streets were lined with increasingly excited spectators. (It is around 11.00pm on a Friday evening by this time remember!).
Les Contamines to Courmayeur
Soon after Les Contamines comes Notre Dame de la Gorge which signals the start of the first long mountain climb of the race, a 1,300m climb over around 6 miles of rocky, uneven surface ascending into the dark night. At last, it felt like I was into the race proper and a welcome sense of solitude settled me into the rhythm of the cold, misty night. The crowds left behind, finally it was game on!
I launched into the climb, remembering how much I had enjoyed this section last time. It was very cold on top but once over the Col du Bonhomme the long descent into the checkpoint at Les Chapieux felt more sheltered. Arriving at 3:55am I felt pretty good and refuelled with some noodle broth before continuing. Focussed on getting to Courmayeur quicker than last time I didn’t want to linger too long in the warm marquee. After Les Chapieux comes the very long climb to the Col de la Seigne and the border with Italy. The rain had stopped but the wind had definitely picked up and it was important to keep moving on this section, up and over into the waiting morning. I arrived at 6:33am in the pre-dawn murk and remember thinking that it had been daylight last time when I was there. I pushed on and refuelled at the next checkpoint at Lac Combal, remembering that the section to Courmayeur is very tough with some steep climbs and some particularly unpleasant steep, rooty zig-zags dropping quickly into the town.
This is where the enormity of the task as a whole and in particular how much further I had to go hit me. I cried as I descended, knowing I had to go up again… and again, over and over for more than another 24 hours. How on earth could I do it? Was I about to fail again with my whole world watching? This is what you came for! Man up! Get on with it. Just checkpoint to checkpoint. Forget everything else. I summoned some positivity up from somewhere, remembering my DNF in 2016 and carried on, putting all my negativity into a metaphorical box with a lid on it. It wasn’t even 9.00am on Saturday and at best I hoped to finish late morning on Sunday!
Back to the task at hand. Reach Courmayeur. My main aim for the first half of the race had been to get to Courmayeur feeling fresh! Yes I know it sounds odd, run 50 miles including an entire night and 4,600m of climb and expect to still feel fresh but I can’t stress enough how much of a mental game this race is. Courmayeur is where things had really started to fall apart in 2016. I arrived later than planned then spent an hour in the checkpoint, destroyed by the 35 degree heat. Determined not to let that happen this time I was pleased to arrive an hour and a half earlier and feeling a lot better too. Fresh might be pushing it but I felt alive and ready to push on. Less than 20 minutes later (which is not bad given the general carnage at the checkpoint with hundreds of runners and their support crews milling around!) I was on my way with a bowl of pasta in my hand, picking at it with my fingers to save time wasted sitting down. Fortunate to have my girlfriend crewing I was also able to leave with freshly massaged and re-vaselined feet and ready for the next section of the course. I was scolded for not eating enough of my food in the previous section and set off around 11:10am muttering about how nice it would be to have a sausage roll, not all this nasty stuff that I had packed which I now couldn’t face!
Courmayeur to Champex-Lac
Half way round? – almost. 50 of 106 miles done. The home straight? Maybe not, but at least I was starting on a section that I knew well, having run some of it previously and also completed a recce run four weeks before the race. A tough, dusty 800m climb to Refuge Bertone is followed by a lovely undulating traverse to Refuge Bonatti. I was feeling pretty good and quite warm at this point. The weather warning had said bad weather until Saturday afternoon so maybe we were through the worst and would be treated to a nice calm night. Quite a lot of cloud was building by this point but nothing that was causing any major concern. Some steep zig-zags later and I was down in the relative calm of the Arnouvaz checkpoint. It was 3.30pm, a full 3 hours before I had arrived and been timed out last time. Some nutrition on board and I was ready to go only to face a queue to leave the checkpoint. Strange! It turned out that the forecast had deteriorated further and the temperature was reported to be -10C with severe windchill and persistent rain on top of Grand Col Ferret. All runners were being required to put on waterproof trousers, coat and hat before they were allowed to leave. This is the first time I have experienced that! Once through, the 2 hour climb up to the summit at 2,529m could commence. After a slow slog the wind speed was increasing and it was a biting cold wind. Rain started to fall, although not heavy it was driven by the strong wind and felt like needles as it hit the small amount of skin left exposed by my combination of layers, windproof, waterproof, both with hoods and a buff across my face for good measure. In truth, it was cold and wet but nothing us brits aren’t used to, particularly if you have spent a reasonable amount of time on mountains in Wales or Scotland so it didn’t bother me as much as some others. Soon I reached the Col, crossing over a literal and mental watershed as I arrived in Switzerland. I hadn’t made it this far last time and that climb had haunted me. It was 5.25pm and I had covered 63 miles with around 6,600m of climb in 23.5 hours. Just over 43 miles to go and 23 hours to do it in. Just the small matter of another 3,100m of climb and the fact that I had already been awake for 34 hours and faced an entire second night of running to reach the finish line. I started to run-walk and tried to conserve energy as I was struggling to deal with the thought of having to eat anything. Nothing in my meticulously prepared food pack (number 2, Courmayeur to Champex) seemed remotely appealing at that time and I was surviving on noodle broth, salty crackers and a couple of bits of cheese.
Content that I was at least now into the second half of the race I decided that my strategy should be to pull out a gradual increase in my time ahead of cut offs. In Courmayeur I had been two hours ahead of cut-off. I reached La Fouly at 7.50pm with a cut-off of 10.30pm. Around 2.5 hours ahead, excellent. Unfortunately I was having my first real low point in the race and was feeling pretty crappy. Time to think carefully! I had planned a clear sleep management strategy and various methods to stave off the need to sleep which would eventually win of course. It was just a matter of when. In my armoury I had coffee from the checkpoints, gels with caffeine in and a couple of 150mg caffeine shots which I had planned to take along with a large dose of sugar for a quick boost. The final item in my armoury was the mythical micro-nap – a sleep of 10-20 minutes which can unbelievably make you feel like you have slept all night and really perk you up. I had used micro naps in the past so know they can work well. I had to consider carefully which tactic to use as to get it wrong now could be disastrous with so far still to go. I decided to push on to Champex-Lac asap where I knew a warm meal awaited and Sinead could also sort me out and apply common sense if I was wobbly. I sent her a message to tell her how I was and signal my intent to crack on. As I left La Fouly I felt a chill and stopped soon after to layer up. I didn’t need to get cold on top of everything else.
As darkness fell I began to hallucinate. I have had hallucinations in long races before but these were something else, quite spectacular and detailed. There are too many to name but a couple of my highlights were a giant teapot the size of a car and an old lady bending over a flower pot. I know!! I didn’t choose what to see, they just happened!
Champex-Lac took a long time to appear and the climb to the village, half way up a mountain took longer than expected. I popped out of the woods and into the arrival area at 11.30pm where Sinead greeted me with a very welcome surprise. Somehow, after I had last seen her in Italy, she had gone back to France, found a sausage roll in Chamonix and taken it with her in the support bus across the border to meet me in Switzerland. OMG, it tasted like heaven and I wolfed it down in a couple of minutes while my intact but sore feet were attended to. After some more broth and cups of coke I assured her I was good to go. Apparently I was more or less coherent and that is more than could be said of a lot of others in the checkpoint. One more checkpoint and maybe I’ll have a micro-nap.
Champex-Lac to Trient
Here we go. Into the second night of running proper. Champex-Lac to Trient via Plan de L’Au and La Giete, followed by Trient back round to Chamonix. It’s a little before midnight. 28 miles and 2,700m of climb to go. 16.5 hours to complete before final cut-off. Feeling a bit more lively I attempted a determined trudge for a first few minutes to allow the food to settle. The next section involves a long climb up to La Giete before a steep, seemingly never-ending descent into Trient. This is where my mind started to play tricks on me. I felt sure that the next checkpoint was only 3km from the last but as I climbed higher I was sure that I had covered more than that. The route card said Plan de L’Au at 1,515m. I was already approaching 1,800m. Surely I hadn’t missed it? What would happen? Would I be disqualified? I seriously thought about turning back but even in my sleep-deprived state I realised it was madness and I’d never make up the lost time. Convinced there was an error on the card I continued to the next flat section on top where I told myself that Plan de L’Au would be found. In fact, I was at Bovine. I hadn’t gone wrong, there had been a sign at the side of the trail way back, but the checkpoint was either unmanned because of an incident elsewhere or the guy was asleep in his car. Either way I had wasted valuable energy worrying about checkpoints and disqualification rather than focussing 100% on the mission so my climb had been slow. After another hour or so I arrived at La Giete and was very pleased when the handheld scanner turned green when my chip was scanned. Relief! 2.35am and a big descent to cover into Trient.
The hallucinations were becoming truly spectacular and quite unlike anything I had seen before. Rather than worry about what I was doing to myself though I decided to embrace the night and go with it. The hallucinations were intriguing me and I wondered how exactly they were being concocted in my brain. Clown faces, giant Mount Rushmore-type heads and ghostly apparitions like witches appeared in the darkness in front of me. Things were getting strange and as I looked down at my footing to avoid tripping over roots and rocks I saw letters, words and hieroglyphics appearing on the rocks and roots. Woah! This continued for hours. The letters were so clear and I was loving this first-person video game that only I was playing. Alone on a remote mountainside, somehow this experience energised me and I felt a renewed sense of purpose as I realised what lengths I was going to in order to achieve my goal. It’s amazing what the human brain can do when pushed. Just one more checkpoint and maybe I’ll have a micro-nap!
Trient to Vallorcine
I reached Trient around 4.30am and had the now customary foot treatment of a massage and re-application of Vaseline. I had read a statistic before the race that 94% of runners who reach Trient complete the race so I had been using this to push myself on all night. Now I had reached Trient I reasoned that there was no point sleeping. It would be light soon anyway and I craved the energy rush brought by sunrise. I have felt this many times in the past but never the absolute elation and truly surreal experience of the second dawn without sleep. I really wanted to experience this, to harness its effect so I subconsciously resolved to push on – I could always sleep at Vallorcine if I really bonked. With an 8.00am cut-off at Trient I was now almost 3.5 hours ahead and had a little time in hand. I just didn’t feel the need to squander this by sleeping. At this late stage I think the deep determination I had found to finish meant that I really wanted to push through. Let’s do this!
The climb out of Trient was horrible. Exceptionally steep zig-zags that seemed to go on for ever. My memory of this section is loose and all I can really remember is the relief of reaching the top as night slowly gave way to a cloudy dawn as I battled on. The descent in the grey morning was as painful as the climb. Although I had no major issues with muscles I was generally sore all over and my right knee/hamstring area was getting a little more painful than I would have liked. I trudged on and seemed to take ages on the steep, rocky descent of a ski run as countless others passed me. At this point I didn’t care. I just needed to finish. Just one more checkpoint then I might sleep – oh hang on, the tricks have worked. It’s daylight and the last thing I want to do is sleep. Let’s finish this. Courage! Allez allez!
Vallorcine to the Finish
Determined to ride the wave of energy found by the increasing daylight I was through Vallorcine in around 5 minutes. It was 7.55am and I had a mere 12 miles and 1,000m of climb between me and the crowded square in Chamonix where the finishers do their victory lap. So near. So let’s get on with it! 8.5 hours to cut off.
After Vallorcine there is a gentle uphill for a couple of miles before crossing the main road at Col de Montets to take on a re-routed (and more technical) section to La Flegere following a recent serious rockfall on the usual route. Pushing forward in a semi-dazed state I’m almost right next to my friend Stephen before I realise it is him waiting for me to cheer me on. I walked with him for a while before we got nearer to the road and I realise that Margot is there too – and Paul. They both look close to tears as they hug me and wish me well.
I stop to chat for a minute before pushing on across the road onto the climb/descent/long climb to La Flegere. Still almost 1,000m of climb and 1,000m of descent to tackle but it’s ok – I’m going to make it! I take it very steady on the rooty, rocky descent through the trees, not wanting to turn an ankle now. As the penultimate descent eventually becomes the final long climb I realise that I am experiencing another first. The hallucinations have continued into the daylight hours. Now though, the hallucinations are more mission-at-hand related. I see cable cars and pylons forming out of the shapes of the tree branches. I know I am climbing all the way up to the La Flegere cable car station and my brain wants me to think I’m nearly there. This continues for the next hour or so up the climb and end goal-related visions repeatedly appear only to fade away in the trees as I get nearer. A cable car station, a chalet, a pylon and cables. Eventually I emerge out of the trees and face the final 200m climb up the out of season ski slope to the very top and the final checkpoint. Relieved this section is finally done I barely stop after being scanned into the checkpoint. It’s 11:20am. 5 miles and 900m of descent to go. I’ve got this! A tiring descent ensues and finally I reach the chalet at La Floria where the steep descent becomes a jeep-track, so a little easier at least. Groups of runners, walkers, spectators and bemused onlookers pass in a blur of colours and noises. Allez allez, go Steve, well done, courage, super, bravo. Blur, noise, blur, noise. At last I can see houses. Chamonix is in front of me. A river crossing, a temporary bridge over a road, the sports centre, barriers, people. Stephen meets me again and follows me, videoing my progress through the streets. One more bridge over the Place du Mont Blanc, 48 steps up, 48 steps down and I’m into the final half a mile.
I’m welling up, the cheers are merging into a wall of noise. The streets are packed. The crowd are all clapping and cheering. The music is playing. Conquest of Paradise! (I’m fighting back tears as I write this). The final corner, 100m to go. I cross the line. I’ve made it. I am a UTMB finisher! After a few seconds I’m greeted by Sinead, Paul, Stephen and Margot. I collapse in a heap crying, sobbing with joy and others around me are in tears too.
A week later and there is so much positive to take away from this race experience. My long-term goal has been achieved and I’m over the moon.
My favourite Youtube video of the 2018 races
Recovery has gone well and I have no major issues to deal with. Not a single blister to show for it and maybe just some tired legs to look after for a few weeks. I have been asked if I would run it again! Let me think about that some more but for now it is a maybe! I’m sure I’ll want to do the CCC next and finish all the races at least once so that will keep me going.
What’s next? Well, there are certainly plenty of other races that take my fancy. I’ve now run 34 ultras and my goal of running 50 before I’m 50 is well and truly alive. For now, rest and recovery. The swimming pool and jacuzzi are calling.