The route of the UTMB (anti-clockwise from Chamonix)
After race thoughts
Well, I've been sitting here for about 4 weeks wondering how to relate the experience of the UTMB to others. Sunny Milton Keynes with its climbs ranging from 0' to 130' is rather different from the landscape of Chamonix where a 1000' climb is pretty much the minimum, and 3000' the typical.
Life too is rather different from a week with a bunch of Scottish ultra runners in a bustling alpine town, all s******g it about a particular race they've got themselves into, trying not to drink too much beer, enjoying the mountains and the calm before the storm.
Images still fleet through my mind of running past jagged peaks and tumbling glaciers, but mostly of climbing, climbing, climbing up that b****y hill called Bovine in the dark over jumbled boulders, a torch light at my feet and down, down, down the narrow, twisting, seemingly never ending track to the few twinkling lights of Vallorcine which never got any nearer no matter how much I ran.
40 hours of heaven and hell. Two full nights, 103 miles, more height gain and loss than Everest from sea level. What an event. Here's my attempt to relay the experience ...
Aaagh the view from the start line in Chamonix (photo by Michael O'Connor)
I am sitting in our central Chamonix flat with Drew, George, John Malcolm, Michael O'Connor and Richie Cunningham. John and Richie are doing the TDS but their company is very welcome, particularly the advice of UTMB vet Richie. We are all putting our race packs together. 'You are only taking half a jelly baby?' 'You aren't taking a micro-fleece?' I am beginning to wonder whether I am over prepared with my pile of gels and my weather proof gear. Mike Mason's advice to cut all weight is also going through my mind. 'Stop it Brian, you know your own body, how much you eat and what you need to feel warm in the mountains' I tell myself as preparation anxiety bites deep. I can see the others are also questioning their own packs, gaaah the anticipation as we try to kill the dead time before the race. Will I finish? What happens to me if I don't? Doubts bubbling to the surface from the reputation of the race.
The start to Les Contamines (19.3 miles, +4765', - 4355')
The Vangelis music is playing loud as we (Drew, George, Michael and myself) leave our little bit of Scotland and get together with Davie Bell and meet Tommy Hepburn at the start line which is heaving with thousands of Frenchmen. I've never seen so many well defined male calf muscles in all my life. These guys look seriously professional thought I peering down at my wee hairy scrawny Scottish legs. Maybe I should shave to look slicker?
Our little bit of Scotland in central Chamonix (photo by Michael O'Connor)
We met quite a few other Brits on the start line, including the mightily thighed Jon Steele looking very sunburnt. A bit of banter but everyone was well inside their own thoughts, wondering what the heck will this be like? Will I survive? It did feel a little like we were preparing to charge recklessly to god knows what fate.
The most anxious Scotsmen in the world? (photo from Davie Bell)
The time passed quick enough though and we were off, walking the first few hundred metres before enough space opened up to allow a run. Keeping the pace deliberately slow (10 min miles or so) I ran towards Les Houches with George and Tommy, losing the others in the crowd and the differently timed pee stops we all seemed to take. The running was easy but it was difficult not to belt it with the majority of others. I just kept thinking 'the aim is to finish, don't shoot your quads'.
Les Houches was reached quickly enough after 4 or 5 flattish miles and the first of the support enjoyed. The locals were out with shouts of 'allez allez' and 'bon courage'; calls which I'd grow to appreciate more and more during the race, precious sparks of motivation which kept me going as the body fatigued. The locals were really an inspiration in this race. You run out of the dark up a mountain into a tiny wee hamlet in the middle of the night and the residents are out shouting your name and urging you on. Such a feeling of genuine appreciation for what us daft runners were attempting to do left you with a lump in the throat and a beaming smile on your face. Many thanks to all you folk I'll never know but who helped me finish, your shouts of 'allez Brie-ong' were superb.
The slope sharply steepened as the crowds squashed onto the track leading up the 2560' or so to La Charme. Poles out clacking clacking, head down with Tommy and George we made steady progress through the field to the top. Ha, these sleek French calf muscles don't actually seem to give any performance edge I thought.
We passed by a big Les Houches banner (I thought Les Houches was at the bottom!?) we contoured round in rapidly dimming lights past people putting on layers to cope with the onset of chill in the early night at 5900' altitude. Ignoring the cold we headed down the ever steepening, slippy, grassy track Tommy peeling away with ease from me whilst I gradually moved ahead of George. The 3280m descent was quite a surprise physically, very noticable in my quads which made me anxious about the next 9 such descents I'd need to do en route. Would my quads survive beyond the next such descent? Only one way to find out.
The applause and cheering in Les Houches was nothing on Saint Gervais, with what looked like a reasonably sized town's population all out on the streets behind barriers 'allez allez' 'bon courage'. I caught sight of Tommy at the drink and food station as I grabbed a coke and 4 slices of cake before running straight out and into the darkness of the night.
The 6 mile 1180' climb to Les Contamines was pleasant enough, a mixture of the odd steep switchback climb with lots of forest and agricultural trail running. Tommy caught up with me then we passed through a checkpoint, both of us bleeped in with a bar code scanner (all very hi tech this race). It didn't feel like 6 miles so I was a little confused but carried on regardless. Les Contamines was reached shortly thereafter and I joined the scrum for a water re-fill, some coke, my first bowl of salty noodle soup and some more slices of cake. The stop was beginning to look a little like an army field hospital with a few casualties sprawled around, including one Brit who appeared injury free but suffering from plain old knackeredness. I wished him luck but he looked out already.
Not falling into the pit-stop trap and with Tommy nowhere in sight I pushed on out of Les Contamines 2 hours or so in advance of the first cut-off time and feeling good.
Les Contamines to Les Chapieux (11.8 miles, +4360', -3080')
The stretch to Notre Dame de la Gorge was easy going with Notre Dame itself appearing out of the dark in the form of a seemingly abandoned Marie Celeste like rave. Purple lights, decks and a sound system but only 2 or 3 local kids ambling around and the few runners who were in front and behind me. Quite surreal but soon forgotten as I headed sharply up the steep natural stone slabs and outcrops that marked the 1970' odd ascent to La Balme.
A bouffant haired fella with 70s style trainers and very short shorts, that I decided unconsciously for some reason was Italian, kept jockeying for position with me. I decided to beat him on the ascent and we both kept each other going (I could sense he was thinking something like I'm not going to let that little bald hairy legged guy beat me).
We passed by a randomly located mountain pub at some point where the half cut and some clearly pissed occupants encouraged us. Next in line were a man and a woman manning a tree stump with cups of water and tea. Who are all these people? Are they part of the race? What are they doing in the dark half way up a mountain?
The tree cover was still substantial on either side so it didn't feel fully like we were going up a mountain until the warming bonfire of the La Balme refuge were reached. I lost my bouffant foe as I checked in, refilled water, ate more salty soup then began to feel cold. No bloody wonder really given that it was the middle of the night and I was at almost 6000' altitude. I pulled on my WHWR pirate buff and Montane Oryx microfleece, thinking about the latter that I was glad not to have been influenced by the others into ditching gear for the pursuit of lightness.
Then the proper climbing began. 2460' into cloud up a steep, rocky trail, the water droplets scattering my head torch beam eerily and reducing visibility to less than hundred feet at points. Head down, overtaking when I could, I clack clack clacked away, poles and legs taking the strain. I felt ever so tired however. Rather concerning given that I had most of this night plus a full day another full night and some of a morning left to go! I figured out on the next major climb that this was the effect altitude was exerting on me. No lack of puff, just a serious urge to curl up and go to sleep.
After a long time of head down effort and some more jockeying with the bouffant haired Italian the track levelled out and we seemed to contour a bit, large boulders and cliff like out-crops half seen in the dark, images of a mountain vista beyond tantalising my mind. Checkpoint at Croix Du Bonhomme (8130') passed I began the very steep, technical, slippy mud and rock 900m descent to Les Chapieux (5080'). I lost the bouffant Italian and lots of folk bombed past me but I couldn't go any faster without risking injury and the ability of my quads to go on. I just persisted as fast as I could, becoming aware of a blister on my right heel (nooo! not this early on surely?). Overtaking some people, other people falling over in front and behind me with the tricky ground I reached the Les Chapieux checkpoint, grabbed food (more salty noodle soup), refilled water and drank coke. I decided to re-lube my foot to prevent further blistering so sat down and got to it. A good 15 minutes after I arrived I checked out past a few enthusiastic well wishers (allez allez) still well ahead of schedule into the night and the second serious 3100' climb up to Col de la Seigne (8252').
Les Chapieux to Courmayeur (17.3 miles, +4890', -6068')
The first stage of the climb was up a gradual winding tarmac road to Ville Des Glaciers. Is that some Scottish chatter I can hear behind me after a few minutes? I turned round to see George Reid and Drew Sheffield coming up the road. They must have caught up whilst I was relubing, great! Some conversation! I had been on my own for hours now. We clacked our poles, chatted away and plodded up the road and beyond as it turned into an endless rocky ascent over what seemed like a hill perpetually about to round off to the top but never quite making it. A never ending asymptote. I could feel altitude taking its toll, making me very very sleepy and sapping my will to push on. Oh how I wanted to just curl up and go to sleep ...
Descending down towards Refuge Elisabetta from Col de la Seigne (photo: Davie Bell)
It would soon be light however as the black turned to deep grey and rocky shapes and edges began to appear. Still deep in cloud we crested the Col de la Seigne (8250') in the growing light of dawn. The arctic blast of wind channelled up the valley from Lac Combal hit us, instantly removing all body heat but also acting like a giant slap in the face, countering the soporific effects of altitude which had been increasing their grip on me steadily throughout the climb. George stopped to put on a windproof and Drew headed on. I waited for George but soon pulled away on the descent, catching up with Drew after a bit of serious effort as he'd opened up a fair gap. We then made good progress down, down, down past Refuge Elisabetta to the Lac Combal checkpoint (6460') where more salty noodle soup and coca cola were gratefully consumed, hands slightly numb in the early morning high altitude cold, glaciers and jagged peaks peering down at us.
George came in just as Drew and I were leaving the checkpoint, legs creaking back into motion as we trotted along the high, perched alpine valley on a rough rocky road raised above pools of crystal clear water on either side. The path soon left the road stiffly climbing up to the east. The sun wasn't on us yet so I was glad to generate heat from climbing as we headed up the 1525' climb to Arete Mont Favre, a tiny little tent of a checkpoint perched high above Lac Combal and Courmayeur at 7990' altitude. The views of the Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) massif were glorious in the early morning sun which hit us as we crested then began the long descent to the mid-way point distance wise - Courmayeur.
Me descending from Arete Mont Favre towards Courmayeur
The tendons on my left knee began emitting some sharp intermittent pains on the way down the 1580' descent to Col Checrouit en route to Chamonix. I ignored it, determined to keep with Drew and not fall behind. Some upbeat jazzy music was playing as we hit the checkpoint, quickly filling up our water packs and drinking down some coke before heading down the bone dry, dusty switchback nightmare of a trail that twisted it's way down between the ski-lifts to Courmayeu which seemed almost close enough to touch. Ha. It took us bloody ages. Dust, beaming sun and narrow, precipitous trails for 2500' of straight down descent. We chatted a bit but I mainly concentrated on jut getting down. Or rather concentrated on not thinking at all as I hoped my knee pain would go away and blisters wouldn't pop or become very very sore.
We hit the bottom and ran through what looked like a swing park before reaching the narrow, ye olde style streets of Courmayeur. What a beautiful town! Reaching the half way point in reasonable shape was a real confidence boost. I'm going to complete this I thought. I am.
Our only non-checkpoint support en route was a single drop bag at Courmayeur which we collected easily from some super efficient Italian girls. Drew headed off to wash his feet whilst I restocked with gels and checked my phone which contained lots and lots of texts to my surprise. Mike, Dave W, Murdo, my wife, parents, brother all urging me on. This really gee'd up my spirits. I texted Mike back and he sagely advised not getting caught up in the relaxing, inviting atmosphere of the checkpoint. I washed my feet, relubed them, made the tactical decision not to pop the 4 serious, bulging and deep heel blisters on my right foot and then ate some pasta with Drew before heading off, legs sore but spirits high.
Courmayeur to La Fouly (19.1 miles, +6865', -5540')
We walked / jogged through Courmayeur town centre then walked up the ever steepening road to the monster 2620' trail ascent to Refuge Bertone in steadily increasing heat. Drew was suffering a little so we slowed down a bit but he soon picked up and we made steady progress up the never ending dusty switchback forest track. The skyline always seemed just above us and one switchback away but it took us a good while to reach it but the refreshing caffeine infusion of coca cola made it all seem a distant memory.
My knee pain had disappeared and my blisters seemed fine but made me anxious. If any of them popped it would make the rest of the race a serious painfest.
We headed out of Bertone to begin the high level (6500') contouring trail run past Refuge Bonatti (6625') then down to Arnuva (5800'). We disturbed a large deer early on the run which bolted from bushes above us but the rest of the run was uneventful. George had clearly been making great time and caught up with us just before Bonatti. It felt good to be re-united as we had agreed that we would run together earlier on, before Lac Combal. It was clear though that we were running at different paces downhill so we had gradually peeled apart from George. He must have been belting up that hill from Courmayeur to make up the distance though!
Drew fell back a bit before we reached Arnuva and I peeled away on the descent, reaching the checkpoint first. I stopped for longer though whilst Drew was in and out. George and I left together after some more salty noodle soup and coca cola, chasing Drew up the hill.
Me ascending out of Arnuva towards Grand Col Ferret
The slope steepened stiffly then eased off for a bit as George and I plugged away before reaching the start of the main bit of the 2520' climb to the Grand Col Ferret, at 8321' the highest point on the race. I could see Drew ahead and decided to catch him. Having agreed to roughly stick together I found it very motivational to make sure I kept up with whoever was in front. I steadily overtook a bunch of folk, George not too far behind me, but got caught behind a big train of runners so didn't catch up with Drew until part way down the long, undulating descent t La Fouly.
My knee pain had gone but the blisters were definitely still there, just on the edge of popping but not quite. Drew and I kept up a serious pace on the 3100' descent, alternating who was in front and who was following. This tactic proved pretty effective and other than when we stopped for a quick lace re tie and refuel we weren't overtaken by anyone. By the time we hit the road we were knackered though, and very tired of going down but over lots and lots of undulations. We walked a fair way down the road before putting on a show of running into the checkpoint heroically.
And guess what? Yes, more salty noodle soup and coca cola. Lots of coca cola.
La Fouly to Trient (18.8 miles, +4300', -5260')
The most dangerous bit of the race came in this section. As we headed out of La Fouly, an hour behind our 40 hour schedule I suggested to Drew that we try 10 minute miling for as long as we could to make up time. He skeptically agreed then proceeded to set a great pace, definitely quicker than 10 min/miles along the gradually descending forest trail. We overtook a bunch of runners and ended up with a few latching onto our pace as the trail became a ledge, perched a good hundred feet or more up a cliff face, sometime sheer, sometimes a steep forested slope. If you tripped and went over at this point you'd not be coming back. Focus I thought, focus, not being the best with heights.
We slowed down just before the beautiful Swiss alpine village of Praz De Fort where we gained the company of one of the Mens Health Magazine team runners, the last standing man in his team. Simon was his name I think. He knew Drew so we chatted away as we reached the start of the 1000' climb up to Champex En Lac and plodded up in fading light. Champex took ages to reach and I began to flag mentally a little. Drew kept up a good pace and we staggered into Champex as darkness properly fell, Drew's cousin Emma shouting hello excitedly and joining us in the runners tent.
Tommy was there with his wife Rhona, but was acting a bit bewildered. He hadn't been eating much and appeared a bit sleep deprived (unlike us of course haha). He headed off saying we'd probably catch him as we began eating bread, salty noodle soup and I had my first couple of cups of coffee. Sharon appeared from nowhere. Together with Emma they really helped us prepare for our second night, insisting that we put on extra clothes, helping refill water bottles and getting cups of coffee. They were superb. Thanks girls. I owe you.
We headed out, walking through Champex with Emma and Sharon, enjoying the slightly delerious sleep deprived silliness of the whole affair. We hooked up with a random Spanish guy just beyond the town boundary where we left Emma and Sharon and headed into the forest leading to the 3rd last climb, up the hill called Bovine. But why were we going down? We wanted to go up. Eventually the trail turned the right direction and we started ascending.
Bovine was quite simply put, hell in the form of a hill. We knew it was our 3rd last big ascent but had no idea how long it would take. It turned out to be hours I think, time was ceasing to have much meaning so it is difficult to say - existence was transforming into never ending forward motion. The trail deteriorated as we passed by the first few folk we'd see hunched at the side of the trail, head in hands either gathering strength or sleeping. Casualties became an increasingly familiar sight from this point.
The trail up Bovine was hardly a trail at all. It was just a jumble of large, awkward boulders which prevented me getting into a rhythm, and required some serious leg lifting effort to get up. Drew was pressing on ahead like a man possessed and I followed in his wake, head down, alone in my torch beam, the dark night and increasing cold with altitude pressing in on me.
Eventually we pulled out of the forest and, relieved, contoured round in the chill of the air to reach the Bovine checkpoint (6520'). A very quick cup of coffee and salty noodle soup and we headed off to tackle our 3rd last big descent - 2250' seemingly straight down a hard rocky path to Trient with hardly any swtichbacking at all. The descent has become a blur in my mind. Drew was ahead and we were making good time. I stopped thinking about anything other than going down, except the bit where we had to navigate round a very very large bull which loomed suddenly out of the darkness in the middle of the trail. This race still had some surprises!
My legs were stiff as we hobbled across the road in Trient to reach the checkpoint and to resume the now familiar salty noodle soup ritual. I was knackered, very sleepy and in need of coffee, which perked me up. A large German sounding man said 'hello Brian' (from my race number) and we talked a bit. He was one of a bunch of locals (I guess) who were stood at what seemed to be a bar section inside the checkpoint tent, next to but separate from the runners benches. It must have been around 2am so what these folk were doing out I don't know. Crazy, but much appreciated support. We said goodbye and headed out, reluctantly leaving warmth for the cold of the night and the beckoning 2580' climb up to Catogne. I kept thinking 'dig deep' (Mike Mason's mantra), nearly at Vallorcine. We had run / hiked from Vallorcine to Chamonix the week before the race so I knew if I made it there I'd make it back to Chamonix for sure. There'd be no more surprises in store.
Trient to Vallorcine (5.9 miles, +2580', -2715')
Shoving a couple of Hammer gels down we joined in with a train of folk heading up the swtichbacking 2580' climb. We stopped a couple of times to get more food inside and passed a few semi-sleeping casualties on the way up. The tree line was tantalisingly close for ages but the trail always seemed to have an extra corner, or an extra little steep climb. There were a set of 3 or 4 lads who kept catching up with us throughout the climb then powering ahead only to be caught by us as they took a breather from their serious pace. This happened several times but we took them just before the crest of the hill and they never caught up with us as we descended towards Vallorcine.
But oh what a descent. Hell. 2460' of what seemed to be randomly curving trail which left me completely confused. What direction was Vallorcine? Where were the lights? Accumulated tiredness was kicking in big time as Drew and I pushed our way down at as fast a pace as we could manage. We gradually caught and past a few folk then joined on the back of a bigger group which we worked our way through at pace until we hit the really steep dusty lower sections of the descent where all thoughts of overtaking disappeared, the mind having to completely focus on the technicalities of the steep, dusty and rocky trail. The lights of Vallorcine popped in and out of sight but never seemed to get any closer. My spirit was slowly being extinguished. Dig deep Brian push on I kept muttering to myself until we finally reached the back of some wooden huts, slipped and slid down a grassy path to the train track and headed over to the field hospital that was Vallorcine.
Tommy was there along with Rhona (what a trooper!) and he waited for Drew and I to quickly down some salty noodle soup and for me to do my business in the portaloo. I timed it perfectly and managed to finish just as my gag response to the awful awful smell became irrestible and I heaved myself out of the loo with a rasping, gasping wretch.
Vallorcine to Chamonix (11.3 miles, +3080', -3817')
Drew headed off slowly as I put on my gloves then Tommy and I followed, catching him up after 5 or 10 minutes. Boy it was freezing as the sun began to poke through and we plodded up to the Col de Montet then began the last big 2850' foot climb to La Tete Aux Vents. Drew wanted to push on for a sub-40 hour time. I wasn't bothered, having long ago set myself into a finish the race mind set rather than a do it as fast as you can mind set. I asked a French runner (in French despite the 2 nights of sleep deprivation) whether sub-40 was possible and he replied that it was. I told Drew and let him know I was happy for him to peel off, which he did with gusto. Tommy and I plodded on for a mile or so then upped the pace to run into La Flegere, the last checkpoint before Chamonix.
After some more coca cola and a gel we headed out and down the first section to Chamonix, which the only way to describe is Kinlochleven on acid. A very very very steep rubbley landrover access track which we ran down the side of before pulling off onto the technical switchbacking trail down down down to Chamonix. Tommy and I ran hard, Tommy in front, overtaking folk and inspirin a few to follow us in our wake. The motivational power of following someone in front running hard is quite amazing, even after 39 hours of running.
Richie Cunningham was waiting at the foot of the hill where is spills you out onto the streets of Chamonix. He gave us the saltire he was carrying and urged us on. Saltire fluttering between us we ran down and round the twisting town centre, calls of 'highlanders' and 'Scotland' heard here and there we ran up the final straight and over the line.
Confused, elated, exhausted and just plain relieved to not have to go forward any more we shook hands with the race organiser and collected our gilets noir. Would I do this race again? No f'ing chance thought I. Chanelled out of the finishing area Tommy met with his wife, and I met up with Drew and Emma. My phone then rang, I fumbled then answered. My wife, daughter, mother and father were on the other end cheering and for a moment I couldn't speak. Emotions welled up and my eyes began to fill before I got it under control. 40 hours of driving myself forward. Mountain scenery like you would not believe. The comradeship of running with Drew, Tommy and George. The support of so many locals around the massif regardless of the time of day. This is an experience of a race that all ultra runners need to sample.
After race thoughts
I can't wait to do this race again. Maybe not next year, but I'll be back for sure. I know where I can gain time by stopping for less, and by pushing on more. I should have pushed on for sub-40 where Drew did as Chamonix wasn't half as far away as I thought at the time I decided not to push on. But how near 35 hours or less could I get? I haven't been able to stop thinking about it all ever since, and probably shan't till I return to the streets of Chamonix. Come on!