As I stood on the start line of Orsieres, I felt more anxious than I had in a long time before a race. UTMB meant so much to me during some tough times last year that failing to finish it had, I realized over winter last year, impacted me a lot more than I had appreciated at the time. So being back at the, albeit shorter, OCC race and the chance to finish in Chamonix meant a great, great deal to me.
I was at the tail end of a nasty cold which had dilapidated me quite a bit in the ten day lead up to the race and up until the night before, I wasn’t even sure I would be starting. But I kept telling myself it was “only” a 56k race and I had plenty of time to finish it.
What I didn’t remind myself was that the weather was dreadful, I had 3500M+ of climb en route to Chamonix, I was racing between 1200M and 2200M above sea level (where I live) and that this was my third hard ultra in an 8 week period (Lavaredo Ultra Trail at 75 miles and the North Downs Way 100 miler just a few weeks before).
I focused on the positive.
Despite this being the shortest of the UTMB race series, there was no sense of that at the start. I had already been up since before 4am to get a coach to the start line, but the atmosphere in Orsieres was electric. There were camera crews, helicopters and drones all around us filming the runners as we prepared to set off. Like others have said before- UTMB is something else and the hype is immense. I try and be quite low key and as such it was easy to feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of where I was.
As the gun went off at 8:15am we made our way through the small towns streets and up towards the first climb, high fiving kids as we went and to shouts of “Allez, Allez!”. If I am honest, I almost stopped whilst we were still on the towns tarmac as I didn’t feel great at all, but told myself I would give it an hour and worst case, I could walk back down to the town, knowing I at least tried.
The rain was coming down hard now and being towards the rear of the field-not caring about placing one bit in this race- it was very muddy already with a good 1000 runners ahead of me churning up the ground well. It wasn’t cold, but was very wet so whilst I started in the waterproof I found I was too hot quite quickly and took a moment to take it off and run in just my t-shirt. After I did this I felt a whole world better.
The first check point in this race was 10K in at Champex Lac where we then followed the remainder of the UTMB route into Chamonix. I don’t use a GPS but run to feel and estimated that based on the terrain and conditions, 5K an hour was about right, so I would be on for a roughly 12 hour finish. The cut off was 15 hours, so this allowed me to relax, albeit keep up a decent rhythm as there are intermittent cut offs on the route along the way. It felt like a 5K pace, hiking the ups, jogging the flats and running the downs.
After such a big year and as I started to feel better, all that mattered was getting to the finish in one piece. It doesn’t say your time on the gillet and the weather was getting worse and worse.
After Champex there is a short section along the lake, but the fog was so thick I could literally see a metre into the lake. I had seen this section hundreds of times on YouTube so it was a shame not to feel the surroundings, but such is the world of ultras, and I knew I would be back in 48 hours whilst crewing the main UTMB (more of that in a blog soon).
This follows a lovely fire road downhill where for the first time I felt normal and the legs moved nicely. At the bottom here there is the first big climb of the day (when I say big, to put it in context the ‘big’ ones have over 500 metres of gain, the small ones less than 300).
Here I thought back to the website where it describes this race as “for the less ultra runners”. I can assure you, I consider myself very much an ultrarunner these days having completed a lot of races, and this was by no means the fun run for crews wanting to be part of the atmosphere. This was a very tough, albeit shorter distance, race. It is 14k longer than a marathon on very tough terrain and I do feel it deserves a lot more respect than it gets. There are no fun runs at UTMB- even the kids race goes up a ski slope!
At the top of this long climb we found our way above the fog, but the rain was turning to sleet and patchy snow, so the waterproof came back on as did the hat, but not the gloves as I knew we would soon top out soon and be making our way down the long descent to Trient, with a 600m drop in altitude in just 5k.
Just after the top we entered a gite and this was the perfect time to fill up on water. Not having felt great I was mainly getting through this race on Tailwind, so I took the time to fill up a couple of bottles but the weather made the decision to press on quickly for me, as any stops in longer than two minutes resulted in shivering.
Again, this descent felt fantastic and I found myself passing a lot of runners and the grip on my Speedgoat Hokas was perfect. Despite the mud I didn’t lose my footing and I felt my descending was way better than at Lavaredo.
At Trient I was at the psychologically beneficial half way point and again quickly moved through. Shortly after there was another 5k climb and then 5k descent to Vallorcine. Each 10k section taking a little over 2 hours hopefully puts this race in context.
Through Vallorcine and the weather started to clear a little so it was back down to just a tshirt and pressing on along the relatively flat section to Argentierre and I felt like I was making decent progress. Despite no GPS, each aid station had distances listed so I knew I was on for 12 hours and I knew my family would be following online (the timing system here is first rate and even predicts accurately your next aid station arrival based on pace to date and terrain ahead). I was due to run into the finish with the kids and didn’t want to keep them waiting in the rain (as the weather was due to worsen again) so I kept up a decent momentum- as much as anything to just stay warm.
Through Argentierre you can almost smell Chamonix- driving it is only 4k away, but the course deviates uphill one last time to the top of a ski resort called La Flegere where it was then a 9k technical downhill to Chamonix itself. It was about 9:30 on the clock at this point and I calculated for the last 10k 2 hours climbing and one hour descending so was on for a 12:30 finish, which I would have been happy with. But my hiking here was very good and when I finally reached the top at La Flegere I knew if I ran the last 9k in an hour- all downhill but technical and slippery- in an hour I would be in for 12 hours.
Running down was excellent. No more climbing, my family and hot food awaited and I finally felt like a decent runner again. I savoured every step and knew this season had been amazing- so many fun races, no DNF’s and to have run my two main races in the Alps and the Dolomites I realized how lucky I was.
Finally the trail turned to a track, the track to a dirt road and the dirt road to tarmac. Chamonix’s lights were twinkling around me as dusk fell. I ran into the town and high fived kids and listened to the cheers all around me- this is what I had been looking forward to for almost 18 months and now it was happening.
I weaved through the town and just as I hit the final bend, there were Monty and Lulu along with Sol and friends Sam, Christian and Caroline and their kids. I grabbed the kids by the hands and we jogged through the cheers to the finish. My parents were watching live on the webcam and it was just a fantastic feeling all round.
12 hours and 7 minutes. 2017 done.
Now nothing until the mega Arc of Attrition in February.
Follow up blog to come soon on crewing Jason Schlarb the next day at UTMB and then I will post on how I plan to recover and build fitness before February.