About smilersteve

Ultras, mountains, running & anything extreme or bonkers. Not considered normal by some! Mountain and ultra runner based in Milton Keynes, UK. I've run over 30 ultras all over the UK and various countries in Europe including France, Italy and Switzerland. #neverenough

UTMB, the story of my 2018 race

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.

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UTMB race route – anti-clockwise loop of the Mont Blanc massif

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.

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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!!!

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Training

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:

  1. Speed
  2. Climb
  3. Specificity

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.

UTMB 2018 route preview

Race week

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thoughts afterwards

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.

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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.

UTMR – The ups and the downs

Introduction
I’m pretty good at these ultra things now you know. That’s how I should be feeling anyway after another completion, another big mountain ultra conquered, 116km and 8,300m of climb. Unfortunately that’s not the way things panned out this weekend for a number of reasons which I’ll go into.
Route profile
This was only my second DNF out of 26 ultras over the last 5 years. My first DNF hurt, really hurt, and I took weeks if not months to really come to accept it mentally. It knocked me for six and I cried as I left Chamonix. Not just a few tears shed, I was inconsolable, sobbing for about 15 minutes in a layby about a mile out of the town. I can still feel that raw pain, the devastation of failing at a race I’d been building up to for over four years. I never did write a blog about that race as I really didn’t want to relive it. Yet somehow that first DNF is what drives me on and I’ll not stop until I’ve reached that UTMB finish line in Chamonix, whatever it takes.
This time I feel very differently about not finishing the UTMR 116km ultra. I have some more experience and learning to take away and build upon. I always try to learn something from each race and put these into practice at the next race. In this case I had booked a hotel close to the start to make sure I was fully relaxed and ready and had studied the course profile and made a good detailed plan. Ironically, out of the two things I believe finished me off in this race, one of them was a failure to deal with something that had happened at the last race. More about that later!
 
The race itself
This race is a beast, a seriously tough combination of rocky, steep, technical running with boulder fields, disused ski runs, huge climbs and descents, most of it completed above 2000m. Sadly the weather was not kind for the 116km which started on Friday morning. By late morning the clag was down and there were virtually no views to be seen (which was disappointing) and when night fell it simply became mist and cloud bringing visibility down to about 5 metres (which was excruciating!).
I started well and was on track for a 30-32 hour effort according to my plan. Later in the day things started to get tougher and I slowed, reaching the 50km checkpoint at Alagna around 7pm. I felt better after some food and even made a short Facebook live video as I had 4G signal at the time.
That’s really where things went downhill (or not actually as it was the start of a huge 1800m climb). My pace was slow, I felt rough and was not pleased to be overtaken by everyone and his dog seemingly! This was a big section and other than a safety check it was 25km between proper checkpoints, 10km straight up, 10km down then 5k flat into the checkpoint at Macugnaga. I arrived around 4.15am, although I was within cutoff (just) I was done.
The route of the 116km ultra
 
What went wrong?
There were a couple of main reasons I wasn’t able to go the whole distance.
 
Fail 1: insufficient climb training this year
Climb training just hasn’t happened for me this year. My last big effort was the 6,500m climb in the Ultra du Pas du Diable in France in April. Since then I just haven’t managed to get as much climb in as I did last year and I could feel this – even in the early climbs I had nothing in my legs. Over the last couple of years I’ve really worked on my climbs and been powering up them but not this year! I also picked up a hamstring issue in July which I went and got treated, did my exercises and felt better just in time for the race, however this did mean that my training volume was down by about 75% over the 6 weeks prior to the race and my climb had been zero! Hardly surprising to struggle then.
 
Fail 2: bloody poles!
Now I’ve probably already painted this as quite a tough race, but overlay this on your thoughts about the toughness of the race. Picture the scene, it’s 5.50am on a dark village street in the mountain village of Cervinia in the Italian Alps, I’ve had breakfast, we’ve been briefed, we’re all chatting and ready for the off. At that point I take my trekking poles out of their case and realise they are jammed, the locking mechanism on both of them are welded together and won’t budge. I now know that this is a fairly common issue, particularly as they get older and definitely if they get put away wet (remember the weather from my last race in France in April!!). The metal oxidises and the two surfaces basically corrode together. I can’t explain quite how much my heart sank and I realised I was in trouble if I couldn’t fix them with climb of over 8,000m to come. (To put it in context, virtually everyone had poles, you really can’t run these races without the support, confidence and extra points of contact that they provide on steep, technical, slippery surfaces.) I managed to find a way to make them the right length by using the length adjusters but they wouldn’t lock in position so this only provided a partial solution. In use the poles repeatedly collapsed just when you didn’t want them to. I reckon I had to re-straighten them hundreds of times over the distance I covered and this was mentally exhausting and impacted in two ways. Firstly, it slowed me down seriously because I just couldn’t have any confidence that they would work, sometime when on very high, exposed, narrow ridges. This can obviously  be dangerous – you attempt to rely on a third point of contact, but you’re unsure if it will collapse. Secondly, I lost count of the number of times I slipped and fell, despite the snail’s pace I had dropped to. I slipped badly a couple of times in the 25km section, jarring my lower back and making it sore. I was high up and about as remote as it gets. That 25km section took me ten hours! Others were completing it in 5-7 hours. I had dropped to actual last position and didn’t think there was any way I could get through the next long section, with talk of the drizzle turning to snow on the high Monte Moro pass. For the first time, thoughts of whether I could safely carry on entered my head and as I trudged out the flat section towards the checkpoint I decided that there would always be another day and it really would be foolhardy to carry on. It was doubtful I would have made the next cut off anyway.
 
Fail 3?
I could add a third point about not having the mental toughness to go on and slog it out to the finish but on reflection I think my sense of self preservation (which I can normally keep suppressed) kicked in. I did seriously doubt I could safely manage that next section so I’m giving myself a break on that point for now.
 
Summary
I could agonise about whether it was the ‘right decision’ and whether I could have carried on to the finish, but in the circumstances I don’t feel disappointment. I suffered an unfortunate set of circumstances (some of it foreseeable – live and learn) but on the day the course just needed more than I could give. No regrets whatsoever, I had a great time in the mountains, explored and experienced sights and sounds, met some great, like-minded people and had another adventure to add to my list that I’ll never forget. I’ll probably come back again in the future as it truly is a stunning course but the way I feel at the moment is that this whole experience will act as a huge stepping stone towards my ultimate UTMB goal. I now have a year (ballot permitting) to execute Project ‘Turning Point’. Watch this space!

UTMR: ready to go

Well that’s me registered for Ultra Tour Monte Rosa 116km race and ready for the start in 14 hours’ time. If I’ve got any signal I’ll try to post a few pics/clips on the go.
Race details/tracking links etc. below.
Race start: Friday 8th Sept 6AM (5AM UK time)
Cut off: 36 hours (Sat 7th Sep 6PM)
Ultra 116km, 8,300m climb.
My race number: 358

UTMR: one week to go

A quick post with details about my next race for anyone interested in following.

A week from now I’ll be over 12 hours into my next adventure in the mountains. I didn’t get a place in the UTMB ballot this year so while I watch the live coverage of the race I hope I’ll get the chance to run again next year my mind is firmly on the challenge in front of me next week. I’m flying to Milan on 6th Sept then a transfer minibus will take me up high into the Italian Alps to the village of Breuil-Cervinia at an altitude of 2,000m where the race starts. From there the route climbs and descends over 8,000m and will take me across into Switzerland finishing in the village of Grächen. It’s fair to say that training has not been plain sailing as I’ve had a hamstring issue for the last few weeks which I’m only just getting over. Provided this doesn’t flare up I’ll give it my best shot! As far as the weather goes, we’ll see! This is a high mountain race, starting at 2,000m and climbing straight up to 3,000m from the start. You can follow my progress using the links below.

Race details

Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (116km ultra)
Distance: 116km (72 miles)
D+/D-: 8,200m / 8,600m
Race start: Friday 8th Sept 6AM (5AM UK time)
Cut off: 36 hours (Sat 7th Sep 6PM)
My race number: 358

Relevant links

Race website: https://www.ultratourmonterosa.com/race-info/ultra/
Course map: http://tracedetrail.fr/en/trace/trace/29832
Live tracking: http://live.opentracking.co.uk/monterosaultra17/
Race timing:  https://www.racematix.com/site/#entry:rac/Ultra-Tour-Monte-Rosa-Ultra-116-2017
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/UltraTourMonteRosa/

Ultra du Pas du Diable 2017

Two of us travelled to France to take part in the 2017 Ultra du Pas du Diable. Here are both our stories of the race experience. First is mine, then my friend Paul tells things as he saw them.

 

STEVE’S ACCOUNT OF THE RACE

This was one of those races that seemed to have been booked months and months ago and yet suddenly it was upon us! As part of my quest to share my love (and the pain!!) of ultras with my friends and anyone who’ll listen I had decided that this race seemed like a good idea and signed up with my (equally nutty) friend Paul. 120km of beautiful French countryside in the Cevennes sounded amazing. I was right, it is a stunning backdrop for a race, but certainly not one to be taken lightly.

Getting there

The first major challenge was the logistics of getting there. The race is held every April in a tiny French village called St-Jean-du-Bruel, around an hour’s drive from the large town of Millau, famous for its majestic bridge which carries thousands of motorists towards the Mediterranean every year along the A75 autoroute. Millau is around 7/8ths of the way down through France towards the Med and roughly equidistant between Montpellier, Nimes and Marseilles, all of which have International Airports. (For equidistant read nowhere near any of them!). After hours and hours of searching flight combinations and hire car locations I decided that there was no simple way of getting there by air as none of the combinations of flight times and Airports was suitable. Looking for an alternative I found an unlikely succession of connections by train was possible. First to London, then an evening Eurostar to Paris, followed by the overnight sleeper train from Paris to Millau with an early morning change at Rodez. This seemed feasible on paper so a plan was hatched. All was going well until a complete lack of sleep on the sleeper train, mainly due to a seriously hot cabin which we shared with four other people and the exaggerated lurching of the train as it careered around corners at what felt like breakneck speed in the pitch black.

On reaching Millau at 7.45am on Friday morning we had a leisurely wander towards the river to collect our hire car. The morning and early afternoon was spent driving across the Millau Bridge and down the autoroute to register and collect our numbers for the race, before heading back to Millau to check into our hotel. Checked in, fed and watered by 8pm we tried to settle down for a very early night. With the race start at 4am, race briefing at 3am and an hour’s drive this meant a 1.00am alarm call!!

The start line

Lining up in the village square at 3.45am for a 4am start was a surreal experience, especially after less than 6 hours sleep in the preceding two nights. Knowing that all of Saturday night would also be spent running was quite a daunting thought, particularly as we had nearly 80 miles of running with 6,500m of climb ahead of us! The pre-race ritual consisted of a French man dressed as the devil standing on a crane platform above the 400 or so competitors gathered in the square, shouting through a microphone in French over the obligatory atmospheric pre-race music. With these formalities complete it was time to get on with things! My grasp of French isn’t what it once was but I managed to join in with the backwards count from ten (dix, neuf, huit, sept…) then we were off!

After a kilometre or so through the village we were soon onto a narrow track climbing up gradually through the woods. Starting mid-pack is always a bit frustrating in these races as the single track climbs always slow everyone to barely more than strolling speed for quite some time. I remember thinking how long it took for the sun to rise on that first day. It seemed like we were running forever in the pitch black. Finally the sky grew lighter and we were rewarded with a stunning cloudless sky which lasted all day. The forecast mentioned an approaching front and a marked deterioration in the conditions was expected by lunchtime on Sunday. For now we were content with a beautiful clear day, not too hot and ideal running conditions.

The early checkpoints came and went, every 10-15 kilometres or so and we stopped for nothing more than 2-3 minutes at each to refill water bottles. The terrain was varied with open, mountainous trail sections then long stretches through woodland, climbing up and then dropping back down into the next valley.

Fun and games

The first third of the race brought us some nice surprises. First, a rope and ladder climb up and into a cave on the mountain-side. A combination of scrambling, pulling yourself up a rope and then climbing up to the top of the cave.

Secondly, came a slightly gratuitous (there were other ways around!) crawl through a storm drain to access the next trail up through the woods. The drain was only around 5 metres long but the pipe was so narrow there wasn’t enough clearance to kneel and crawl through – you had to literally drag yourself through on your elbows and shuffle.

The most amazing surprise came when we found ourselves steadily climbing again through a gorge with the sound of waterfalls becoming gradually louder and louder. Turning a corner we saw the entrance of an incredible limestone cavern system called the Abime de Bramabiau. A world famous underground world of caverns and chambers forged by the running water over millions of years.
We were stunned to find that our route took us through this cavern system for over a kilometre and absolutely loved running through it. What a treat! At the top we emerged into the bright sunlight from an odd looking set of fire exit doors that seemed a little out of place, obviously there to restrict access when the attraction is closed. As the day wore on we crossed rivers on stepping stones, jumped gaps between rocks, climbed up and down and generally explored this amazing area by following the neat little race flags every 20-30 metres. Our first longer stop was at a sports hall in the village of Saint-Saveur-Camprieu where hot food was offered in the form of soup with pasta and cheese added. We had covered around 30 miles at this point and were both tired but loving the route. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint I decided that I had an urgent need to take a toilet break of the second order(!) so found a quiet point off the trail and reminded Paul why I always carry a pack of travel tissues on these races now! He carried on and I caught him up a while later.
 

The going gets tough

So far, we had been having a great time and loving it but I knew things were going to get tough when night fell. We had stopped a few times on the trail for food breaks and layer changes etc. Soon after, Paul fell over for about the tenth time!! I commented that it was like running with Mr Bean – an observation that made us both descend into uncontrollable laughter for the next few minutes and the name stuck! My personal favourite of his falls was when he tripped over a blade of grass or something and ended up falling hands first into a prickly, thorny bush. Ouch. Numpty! Nevertheless we made steady progress and reached the halfway point around 6pm – (14 hours from the start). We had started to spend longer than planned at some of these checkpoints and eventually made our way towards the next climb. Night fell and we donned our head torches. Soon after, Paul decided he needed to do a bear impression in the woods and asked to borrow my tissues. He suggested I carry on and he’d meet me at the checkpoint. At this point we thought the checkpoint was only a mile or so away so I agreed and carried on. This is where things started to go a little awry. I carried on through the woods and then onto a clear section of the trail, still quite high. There were only a couple of pin prick lights visible from where I was. We were truly in the middle of nowhere in the Cevennes mountains in the pitch black. After what seemed like ages, I came to a junction and followed the flags up the next hill, which surprised me as I was expecting a descent to the next checkpoint. I carried on again for some time, concerned I had missed a turn or somehow skipped the section leading to the checkpoint. This far into a race, fatigued, hungry and separated from your running partner your mind plays tricks and I worried I’d be disqualified for missing a checkpoint. I hadn’t seen a flag for a while (or had I?). I pushed on and eventually to my great relief, a marquee appeared out of the misty darkness and I went inside. I grabbed some food, refilled my water bottles and drank a couple of cups of coke. I sat down and waited for Paul… and waited, and waited. I was getting cold, I could feel myself starting to shiver. This was not good. I didn’t know what to do. If I stopped much longer I risked not being able to carry on. By this time, I was wearing every layer I had, including waterproofs and jacket, I was sitting in a heated marquee shivering. I couldn’t carry on without Paul could I? No, this would play on my mind for the rest of the race. Damn. What to do?? Finally, after 45 minutes Paul arrived and I was so relieved to see that he was ok. I knew I had to carry on though as I couldn’t wait much longer. I was getting colder by the minute. “I need to go” I said to Paul, shivering. He nodded that he understood and I made him promise me that he would finish the race before I headed out into the night.

The night section

I emerged from the relative safety and warmth of the marquee into the cold night. It was around midnight by this time and the temperature had dropped noticeably, with mist descending and an increasing wind speed, surely a sign of things to come as the forecast had predicted. On a mission to get warm again and fearful of a cold-induced DNF I flew through the night, skipping down the descents and powering up the ascents. My nutrition strategy was working and I felt good. I overtook 100 people during the course of that night. Approaching the next checkpoint around 3am things were about to get challenging again. The cold night had taken its toll and quite a few competitors were sitting and lying around in the building with foil blankets on. The atmosphere was subdued and not many people spoke. I was conscious of the need to push on and didn’t want to hang around so I was in and out in five minutes, drawing envious looks from a number of dazed runners, clearly either already out of the race or still contemplating their go/no-go decision through the haze of tiredness, physically fatigued and lamenting how their races had gone wrong.

The biggest climb

I felt strong as I pushed on, aware that I had run almost 60 miles at this point and starting to feel like the worst of the race was behind me. I was brought crashing down to earth by the realisation thatI had miscalculated slightly and the biggest climb of the race was in fact still ahead of me. Climbing up from 500m to 1366m at the summit of Saint-Guiral this would be a long climb after over 24 hours on my feet. No choice but to just get on with it though. After what seemed like an age I finally summitted.

The weather had started to deteriorate earlier than the predicted Sunday lunchtime and before even the first glimmer of light the wind had increased to not much short of gale force and occasional spots of rain started to become more frequent. After a quick water and safety check at the next checkpoint the trail became a long undulating track which twisted and turned through the woods high on the mountain. The wind was howling and the trees groaning as they swayed and bashed into one another. I carried on, willing the daylight to arrive. Sunrise on the second day of such a challenge is a watershed moment, mainly symbolic as in reality it is just the start of another cycle of day and night, but to anyone engaged in a challenge that straddles more than one day and night the second sunrise brings hope and the feeling that the finish line is finally, slowly coming into sight and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get there.

Caffeine bomb

The darkness finally hinted at impending daylight, but with leaden skies and persistent rain there was no sunrise to be seen. I was tired, really tired. Finally, my lack of sleep over several nights was catching up on me and I began to worry about falling asleep on my feet. I have experienced this before in races. No hallucinations this time, just a feeling of overwhelming tiredness and a creeping desire to sleep, wherever. I closed my eyes for a few seconds every now and then as I ran, almost to appease my body and convince it that I was getting the sleep I desperately needed. Around 6am, through the misty blanket of writhing tree branches and creaking trunks appeared the next checkpoint. I sat clumsily in a chair and contemplated having a 15 minute nap as several others were doing. I was worried. What if my body gave up? What if I fell asleep while running as I had done on occasions before? I heard one of the checkpoint team telling someone else that the distance (to the finish I assumed) was ‘quinze kilometres’, 15km I thought. I can do that. I need to keep going. If I stop now, it’s game over. I had a strong black coffee, took my double espresso caffeine gel, wolfed down a big handful of fruit jellies from the checkpoint and pushed on. My ‘caffeine bomb’ did the trick and I felt alive again within 20 minutes or so. It turned out the 15km was to the next checkpoint, not the finish! Luckily I didn’t know this at the time and kept moving, determined to finish as soon as possible and before the effects of the sugar and caffeine wore off.

Never-ending story

The last few hours of the race were an exercise in endurance and determination all of their own. The weather was truly awful by this point. The buffeting on higher ground was almost enough to blow you over and the driving rain hurt as it pelted your face from one side or the other of the hood of my waterproof. Repeated steep climbs and long zig-zagging descents through the forest were the predominant terrain in the last 20km. Familiar to me from running in the alps and other mountainous areas of France I knew that they were challenging enough in the dry. When wet, these slippery descents with little or no vegetation to use for support had simply become mud slides. Trekking poles were not sufficient to provide the grip needed due to the steep gradient. These descents were relentless and a combination of pigeon steps, scrambling, sliding and grabbing tree branches seemed to be the most effective way to descend. I witnessed a few uncontrolled slips and slides down some of the steep sections, people slipping and sliding fast down the 10-15m descents. I was careful as I didn’t want to pick up an injury this late in the race. Somehow I always seem to feel more at home on this technical terrain than a lot of people.
Time and time again, I reached the next checkpoint thinking ‘it can’t be much further’ only to find that there was another section and another. My mind was definitely playing tricks on me. Time and distance seemed to bend and take on a new warped meaning as I pushed through my own personal demons and inched closer and closer to the finish. Each village I passed through looked familiar and made me think ‘this is it’. When St Jean du Bruel did finally, indisputably, appear in the distance I pushed on, determined to overtake a few more people as I pushed towards the finish arch.

After the race

With the mission accomplished, thoughts quickly changed to recovery and getting warm. Especially as the rain continued to fall. Finisher jacket collected and congratulations received in French I started to slowly make my way back to the car. As competitors from one of the shorter races came past me towards the finish of their own personal challenges, my thoughts soon turned to Paul and how he was doing. The last time I saw him was at midnight, almost 14 hours ago. I wondered what he had encountered in those 14 hours. Was he still running? Had he succumbed to the conditions as many others had? Would he make the cut off?? How guilty would I feel for leaving him if he didn’t make it round? All I could do was get warm and sit and wait for him in the car. I had no idea how long he would be and felt helpless. I had wanted to run the race with him, share the experience with him all the way, but fate had a different idea. I was reminded that in any event of this length and difficulty you simply have to run your own race and pace. You can’t conform to the rhythm of others, mirroring and amplifying each other’s highs and lows. It just doesn’t work. Please please, just let him be ok and finish! Just then, a shivering, steaming figure appeared at the car parked next to ours and started to try to get into it! I made eye contact and he looked relieved. Eventually, both warm and dry we made our way back to the hotel, an hour away. I hadn’t slept at all for over 40 hours, but the sleep monsters had given up for the time-being and I felt fine to drive carefully back to the hotel.

Recovery

Sunday evening happened in a blur. Checked in, showered, all you can eat buffet dealt with, sleep finally achieved. Monday morning dawned and we both felt refreshed. We had planned a lazy recovery day so once breakfast was sorted we spent a couple of hours washing kit in the bath and shower in the hotel room before hanging it up all over the room and turning the heating up to 30 degrees. The highlight for me was when the maid arrived to service the room and was met at the door by a waft of steamy heat, God only knows what the smell must have been like as Paul opened the door wearing blue rubber gloves and asked for more towels!
We still had the use of the hire car for the day so decided to go for a drive, have some fun and explore a little more, fitting in a recovery walk somewhere during the day. We both felt achy and stiff, but were able to move around without looking too much like zombies.

 

Adventures come in many shapes and sizes. Overall, this had been an incredible, seriously tough and character building experience. The main thing was that we had both made that finish line and the Trail du Roc de la Lune races go down as one of my favourites so far.

PAUL’S ACCOUNT OF THE RACE

This was always going to be a tough ultra. 120km with over 6,500metres of climb.  I knew I hadn’t trained well enough for this race but also know that my general fitness is reasonable and mental strength would get me to the finish in time.  Just had to man up and get the job done….
 

Getting to the start line


The 4am start was a massive shock to the system and Steve being the type of person who likes to keep the small details under control our early alarm clock got earlier and earlier.  Although I was happy to make sure we got to the start time with out any surprises.  Although a huge Hare running out in front of us on the drive nearly did just that.  Who needs sleep when the thought of seeing two sunrises would keep me focussed and can’t thank Steve enough for his support.  He kept reminding me that running for over 30 hours was going to be bloody tough and sleep deprivation is hard to deal with.  Am so thankful that he helped pace and mentor me through the first half.  
 

Here we go


After running for a couple of hours my hands became warm in my gloves and as I was expecting sunrise within a short while, I opted to take my gloves off.  I then didn’t want to have to stop and put them back on again as they began to cool and made a stupid judgement.  By the time I needed them back on, I already knew I had lost too much movement in my fingers to get the gloves on correctly.  It took us longer to get to the check point than I expected and the temperature had dropped to around freezing.  The ground was covered in frost.  



Once at the check point I needed Steve’s help to undo my bag, fetch me food and a hot drink whilst I waited to regain movement in my hands.  Was really annoyed at myself for costing us such valuable time so early into the race.  Another lesson learn that on mountains, often survival is based on a right or wrong decision.  It was only after the race that I read that The Swiss climber Ueli Steck has been killed preparing to climb Mount Everest, Nepal’s tourist office says. Steck, who was known as the “Swiss Machine”, died in an accident while acclimatising for an attempt on the mountain without oxygen by a new route. The Swiss machine was an inspiration and even with all the experience he had it goes to prove how unforgiving Everest is and mountains alike.  RIP. Luckily my situation wasn’t as critical and I was able to enjoy the companionship with Steve of crawling on hands n knees though a storm drain, pulling myself up a rope into the cave entrance, I even slipped at one point and gave my shin a massive whack on a rock! Loved being inside the massive space which was the Abime de Bramabiau caves.  Doing my best Mr Deeds impression to create an echo!!! 

 

When you’ve got to go…


We stuck together until I needed a call of nature, in a bid to reduce my pack weight I opted to leave a pack of tissues behind.  Thinking I could always use a toilet at a feed station, luckily Steve always carried a pack, a lesson he learnt himself many erm moons ago!!!! (apparently from the Ultra Goddess Veritie).  Steve asked if I could not wait until the next checkpoint which we expected to hit in about a miles time, I was already reaching to pull down my clothing!!!!  I told Steve to run ahead and let him go off at his own pace whilst I did what bears do in the woods!!  Thought I would catch him at the next feed station, turns out the checkpoint wasn’t exactly how it was marked on the map, instead of running downhill to the check point we had a massive climb to it!  I ran out of energy as I hadn’t expected that climb and hadn’t eaten enough.  I kept second guessing myself.   Had I missed the marker?  Was I on the right route? I wasn’t wearing my glasses, only really do when I’m driving.  I was trying to look back down the mountain and trying to work out if the headtorches in the distance were coming up the same way as I was.  Ultras are all about the mental game, and you will go through highs and lows of emotions.  This was a massive low…I had to take control of the controllable.  I sat down, put another layer on and then rummaged around my bag for some quick food to give me enough energy to get to the top of this damn mountain, once on top then maybe I would find the checkpoint on the way down…when I reached the top I was overwhelmed to find a marquee buzzing with volunteers and runners.  
 

Go your own way


The heat of the gas burner hit me as I’d entered and there sat on a chair looking very tired was Steve!  I felt really bad that he had waited for me for about 45 minutes.  We chatted for a bit whilst I tried to get warm, and although the marquee was warmer than outside it still wasn’t warm enough to stay for any length of time.  I promised him that I would finish this race no matter what.  And then off he went out of the zip doorway…..that was the last time I was to see him until about 14 hours later.  


Keep on moving


My back, legs and feet had been sore since about mile 20 and I was counting on the second mornings Sunrise to give me a huge lift.  It was whilst I was at 1366metres on top of the mountain when rain set in! Viz was about 100metres and I was struggling to see the course markers. I put every layer I had on, changed my head torch battery and battled through day break.  Didn’t get to see the sunrise which I really wanted to see to lift my spirits.  A few hours later I had my first hallucination from sleep deprivation. This still makes me laugh at what I thought I saw in the mud!  Luckily this mountain had a decent path to follow and I felt fairly safe on top.  I pulled on my waterproofs and prayed this would be enough to keep me warm and hoped the weather didn’t get colder.  I really didn’t want to be that stupid Englishman whom was rescued from the top of the mountain!  I knew that as long as I kept moving then I would eventually start to descend and find warmer air.  We had checked the weather forcast before the race started and Steve is nearly always spot on with his information.  He cross checks everything.  That’s what he does.  We expected the weather front to come in about midday.  This front hit about 6 hours early! 


Buddying up


Luckily for me a group of four guys caught up with me and originally they went straight past me as I was moving so slow.  I knew I had to put in maximum effort and managed to catch back up with them and used them for company.  Just having the reassurance of other people double checking the markers and picking the best route through the terrain helped keep my pace up.  At the next feed station the marque appeared out of fog.  We only just made the cutoff time and we stayed until they closed it.  I didn’t really understand what they said in French but I knew I was in danger of missing the next cut off. The volunteers there were really helpful.  I ate well there and when the four left they had a real push of pace.  



I struggled to get my wet gloves back and and one of the volunteers helped me.  By this time I could just see the four guys disappear into the fog.  I sprinted out of the marque in the direction I saw them go. I hadn’t expected the now gale force winds which blew my hat off.  I had to double back about 20 yards and chase after it.  I couldn’t afford to let my head get cold.  I then had to work extra hard to catch up with the guys ahead.  Running down hill, sliding and jumping over rocks, legs and feet sending shocks of pain through my body.  That didn’t matter right now.  I promised Steve that I was going to finish and I needed to work with the four guys to keep a good pace for the next 9 hours.  In my head I named us the famous five, we took it in turns to be on the front leading the way and just found a natural rotation without ever really saying anything.  Often hours would pass with deep breaths, coughs and every other noise that can come from the body until we hit a check point and our spirits would be lifted and chatter would break out between the French. 

 

Not the dog…


Eventually we reached a road crossing which looked to me like it was the village we had first started in.  I came upon what appeared to be a water station .  It was sort of a garage sized dwelling with a young boy of maybe 12 and what appeared to be his father.  At first they assumed I was French but then the boy spoke a little English when I told them I was.  I asked them how far I had left to run. 10k the boy told me.  When I asked if it’s all up.  The man said a little….at that point a sheepdog was almost run over by a Land Rover turning into the drive.  I left the two of them roaring in laughter as I tried to fight back the tears at the thought of the dog being squashed right in front of me!



Stupid bloody emotions! That’s what lack of sleep can do to you! So I set off following the flags indicating the course on what I thought was another 10k.  I hoped that I could cover the terrain in less than 2.5 hours.  One of my errors in preparing for this race was to assume that my garmin could be charged whilst running from the powerbank I carried.  Unfortunately this did not work and when I tried to do so after about 10 hours I lost my data.  I waited for the Garmin to recharge enough and then reset it between checkpoints. Later I realised that the distance between checkpoints on the official race route was not as advertised, I could only use it as a rough guide.  Very frustrating when you are trying to gauge energy, effort levels and pace over 120km distance.

 

Slip sliding


The next Hill I had to climb was a shock to the system, it was basically a muddy hill side and the trail shoes I was wearing didn’t give me enough traction to get up the steep slope!  I had to use my pole like an ice pick and  pull myself up it.  Maybe every ten feet up I’d fall to my knees and I could feel the energy draining from my body!  When I eventually reached the summit I was hit with gale force winds!  The course took us over a huge bolder which was slippery with all the rain, I didn’t trust my muddy feet enough to climb over it so I opted to walk along the barbed wire fence instead.  One hand on the fence the other holding my precious hat on my head.  I made my way to the tree line as quick as I could in the fierce wind.  As I approached the tree I could see them almost bent over double in the wind!  Was this another hallucination?  I didn’t think so, there was evidence of freshly broken trees on the mountain floor and i could hear the branches straining.  I was now extremely worried that I would get debris or even a branch or tree come crashing down onto me.  As I hurried into the cover of the trees I slipped at a bank and grabbed out for a tree to steady me.  The sheared off section of a branch hit me square In the chest.  It hurt but luckily I didn’t fall with enough force for it to puncture me.  My brain played images of me stuck on the tree with the branch penetrating my body.  Would I have screamed out?  Would anybody of heard me over the wind n rain? What would the runner behind me do?  Doubt mountain rescue would be able to get to me for hours! Luckily the terrain was so hazardous that I had to push that thought out of my head and concentrate on every single footstep! Over the remainder of the race a small group of us stuck together and although we didn’t really exchange words we knew we were keeping an eye on each other.  We all wanted to finish in one piece and as we ran down the muddy hillsides we had to grab trees, branches, handfuls of grass or whatever we could find to try to slow ourselves down and prevent falling over.  
 

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Mr Tumble


I genuinely lost count of how many times I unwillingly fell over.  Most of the time I was throwing myself onto the floor to prevent a larger fall.  Even this didn’t stop me having a number of tumbles that really hurt me.  The type when you know you’ve hurt yourself and I remember saying to myself, I’ve had enough now, I want this to end!!! In the past I’ve ran Man versus horse, touch murder and a number of fell races in Wales where mud had been part of the enjoyment.  On this occasion I was so exhausted that if I’d known a quicker way to the finish line then I would have stopped right then! 
 
 

‘Merci you wanker!’


Suddenly the distance didn’t matter, I was fed up of not having enough strength.  I was physically, mentally and emotional beaten.  At that point the devil had won….luckily for me I didn’t knew where I was, the only option for me was relentless forward progress.  I kept going over the same mantra….this pain will keep me awake.  I might not make the finish time but the finish line is the way home. Before I had that luxury I had to endure more of a beating.  At this point the runners whom had taken part in the shorter races were running past me.  Some of the lead runners came so fast down the hills that at the point I heard them over the wind and rain they had almost ran into me on a number of occasions.  Most of the time I would jump off the narrow path into what felt like a rocky ditch with all the rain water draining off the hillside.  On one particular occasion I jumped out of a guys way, which in turn caused me great pain and he didn’t even acknowledge that fact I had done so.  I was furious.  In my tired state of emotion I shouted back at him, ‘MERCI YOU WANKER!’.After that I decided I was still racing as well, all be it very slowly. It was up to them to find a way around me. 
 

‘We are strong. Come on’.


After what seemed like miles and certainly was a few hours I saw a hut approaching through the long grass.  In my tired state I now for some stupid reason thought that they must have moved the finish line due to all the rain! I unzipped my jacket, unfolded my mud splattered race number, held my arms in the air and smiled as I ran towards this gathering of people whom were cheering me in…… As I approached them I realised it was another feed station…I didn’t want food, I needed the finish line.  Surely it could only be another kilometre maybe two tops?  I grabbed a sugary bun and ran out of the checkpoint, feeling determined that I was close to the finish line.  As I left the building and approached another road I expected it to send me left, instead it was across the road towards a lake.  Was this right?  Had the wind blown the marking flag around?  Had someone messed with the course? I stopped running and walked around the lake, still uncertain if it was the right direction.  I then turned around and started walking back to the last checkpoint.  Luckily before I reached it one of the runners I’d passed earlier crossed the road and came my way.  I asked him if this route was correct.  In broken English he said maybe.  So together we began to run again.  I put my fingers to my neck and told him I was done.  No more.He simply replied ‘We are strong.  Come on’.  Those five little words brought renewed enthusiasm into my body.  A smile appeared on my face and I powered up the next hill and despite the pain I found the strength to run down the next one.  I then tried to copy his skiers technique for sliding down the muddy banks and hills.  I didn’t have enough strength left in my legs and I fell every time.  But now I had decided that I was going to finish this bloody race.  Yes i had been tested and yes I was feeling like shit but that’s the crap that lIfe throws at you.  

Finish line in sight

It wasn’t until the course directed us under a road, along what felt like a river bed.  The banks had now been worn away and I slipped at one point almost face planting into the water.  I opted for the easier option of running through the knee deep cold water instead.  Thinking that the finish line was just around the corner.  Sadly it was not,  there was even more hills to run up and tracks to run down or over until eventually I found myself running in the stream again but this time I could hear the finisher announcements on the PA system.  As I approached the road section again there was a man standing in the field on the other side of the fence I asked him what time it was…he pulled his phone out and showed me…..I punched the air with my fist, threw my head back and shouted merci.  Suddenly I could feel an emotional release building up inside me and I really struggled not to blubber.  I ran along side the road, around the finishers enclosure and a woman was standing there in the rain with an umbrella.  Probably waiting for a loved one in the wind and the lashing rain.  As I ran past her she congratulated me and I looked around to my right and I could see the finish area.  I almost burst into tears again.  I thanked her as I continued to the finish line.  As I approached the line I threw my now broken pole over the fenced off area, taking care not to hit anyone and crossed the line with my arms held in the air.  I asked for the time and they showed me I had made it in within the cut off time and that was all that mattered.  
 

Aftermath


I then proceeded to collect my finishers jacket, collect my dropoff bag and head back to the field that I expected Steve to be in.  I still had enough charge in my phone to call him but had no signal.  It was only at that point that I suddenly hoped he had finished as well.  What if he had twisted an ankle? How would I know? I walked the half mile or whatever it was to the field car park, I was soaked, legs, feet, back sore.  Mud all over me!  Not sure what I needed to do.  I felt like I needed a big hug, a cup of tea and then a shower…. I looked across to where we left the car…..it had gone….then I saw parked under a tree a similar colour car, damn hire car, was that the one we hired? No one was inside it? WTF, maybe Steve was asleep in the back?  I tried the door no luck.  I actually said F**k out loud. I looked around the field in disbelief and then I noticed, parked next to this car was our hire car and Steve was staring straight at me! Instant relief came over me and suddenly I was happy, secure and pleased to have such a good friend.  He already had gone through exactly what I had.  Although I was out in the rain for about two hours more than Steve and the trails had a lot of use and rain on them in that time! 
I must have looked a right mess with mud all over my face, arms, legs, up my back, I had to use my bum to slide down some of the slopes and my ultra light water proof trousers and jacket were ripped.  My stupid precious hat had fallen off on one of the many occasions I had fallen over.  Didn’t even notice it had gone at the time! 
Hopefully Steve has already told his version of events and all I know is that we both talked about how tough the race was in those conditions and how we both knew we just had to suck up the bad weather and finish the race.  I learnt last year in Annecy that a DNF really sucks.  I would rather have a DNS.  So this race I went into with the right mental attitude to give it maximum effort and hope that was enough to complete the race.  Looking at the results after the race, many whom entered did not.  Steve’s the stats man so am sure he would have an accurate number, think it’s over 100 DNF’s.  That’s a lot of experienced mountain trail runners who didn’t cut the grade.  That makes me feel pretty damn good about what we have just achieved.   As far as I’m concerned, if Steve says it was bloody tough then I’m happy to take his word. I jumped into the back of the car still dripping wet.  Steve put the heating on to max and we then had to watch as a camper van tried to wheel spin it’s way out of the field.  At one point the van smacked into a tree, which gave Steve enough time to zip past and start our journey to the hotel almost an hour away.  We chatted non-stop about different parts of the race and shared our experience.  Am sure we will both learn valuable lessons from this race and come out mentally stronger.  I love adventures with Steve and am sure this is just another chapter……good luck Steve for your 100miles in a few weeks’ time….at this moment in time I’m glad I don’t have to run long for a while yet….the 205km bike ride I’m doing just a couple of weeks after the ultra sounds much easier 😉 Not going to bore you with all the blisters or using the shower in the bathroom for almost two hours to clean the mud of my kit, or having the heating in the room on 30 to dry it all out.  We had to be imaginative with having things to dry.  The only time we used the TV in the hotel room was to dry Steve’s T-Shirt.  
 
 
 
Can’t explain how much I’m looking forward to pulling all the splinters out of my hands and wrists.  Think I’m going to end this blog now, currently sat on Eurostar and Steve’s gone off with my money to buy tea and hopefully pasta…..that’s another story right there!