Ultra Trail Mont Blanc Race Recap

Race report by Colin Barnes (race date 29th – 31st August 2014). Photos courtesy of Rebecca Lynch (world class UTMB crew to Mark Lynch).

A wet start

It was 16:30 in the afternoon and the clouds were thickening. They were looming above us, dark grey, and seemed to be heading in the direction we were going to run. This was no surprise at all as it had been predicted by the weather reports but I had hoped they were wrong. Alas not! It had been 3.5 years since I was diagnosed with DCIS (an early form of breast cancer) and I had vowed at the time to run the UTMB one day. It had almost become an obsession. Now I thought “Damn, that came round quick!!”

I was sat in the central square of Chamonix between Nicky Spinks, fell running extraordinaire, and Mark Lynch, a tent mate from the Marathon des Sables 2012, among 2300 other runners and many of their family members. All with the same expression: an exterior smile hiding the anxiety in anticipation of the 104 miles and 9600m of ascent that laid ahead and what would inevitably be a very dark, cold and wet first night. Very wet indeed.

The minutes ticked by, strangely slowly and rapidly at once. Then, as we were about to start, the clouds opened and it rained as if we had been through months of drought. Waterproofs came on and before too long the haunting sound of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise reverberated around Chamonix. The setting could not have been more dramatic as this army of runners prepared for what seemed like a march of life and death, into the dark unknown that the next 46 hours in these mighty mountains would bring. I had waited for this moment for so long and I felt a sense of clarity and purpose. I knew what I had to do. I sent a text to Elisabet telling her simply that ‘I was ready’. I doubt this would have been too reassuring to her as she would know this meant that come what may, I would push to the finish line no matter what state I got into.

I was possibly the most prepared mentally that I could have been although this was the result of a somewhat unorthodox build up. In the four months leading up to the UTMB I had run the Marathon des Sables (MdS), Grand Union Canal Race 145 miles (GUCR), Centurion South Downs Way 100 miles (SDW100) and the North Downs Way 100 miles (NDW100) with the last one only 3 weeks prior. Possibly not your standard training programme for the UTMB but it felt right. Right for me, that is ;-).

Suddenly there was a surge forwards, supporting family members scattered, a countdown, and we were off and running through the crowded town centre of Chamonix. The support on the UTMB is second to none, much like the Tour de France, and with only a narrow-straight between spectators for the runners to make their way out of town and on to the start of the UTMB trail. I managed to spot Elisabet in the crowd before leaving town and hitting the flat 8 kilometres of trail to the first of many climbs, the one to Le Delevret.

This was quite a slow climb as the path was narrow and the field bunched with runners although I seemed to reach the top in good shape if somewhat wet from the persistent rain! Going down the descent to Saint-Gervais was interesting to say the least. It was thick with the wettest of muddy surfaces and I watched numerous Hoka’s fly past me at all angles (some with runners still attached to them!) I was thankful that I had opted for the Inov-8 Roclite 295’s. I could throw my foot down and know that it would stick. Well, that was until I realised that I hadn’t tied the laces properly! I had then stupidly decided to push on to the first main checkpoint before sorting them out contrary to any advice I would give to anyone! By the time I reached Saint-Gervais my toes were already battered as the hills, be they up or down, are relentless in this part of the world, unlike my very flat Thames Estuary training arena. Still, what’s the worst that could happen? I only had another 147k’s to go!!

I pushed on to Les Contamines which was 10 kilometres of gradual incline. Well, it might be to some but compared to sunny Essex it’s a bloody big hill! It gave me a chance to get a feel for the new Mountain King Carbon Trail Blaze trekking Poles which Mountain King had asked me to try. They are effectively the same design as the aluminium poles but even lighter with each pole weighing only marginally over 100 grams. I must say that they felt very good and the further I went on the more I liked them. They packed down smaller than the Black Diamond Carbon Ultra Distance which has been my pole of choice for the last three years.

I got into Les Contamines, with the rain still hammering down, grabbing some noodle soup and bread as I passed through the very well drilled checkpoint. I heard my name being called out in the distance and as I got to the exit there was Elisabet and friends. I hadn’t expected to see Elisabet until I reached Champex (Switzerland) so it was a very uplifting sight especially knowing I had a tough night ahead of me before reaching Courmayeur (Italy) and my drop bag. I had three big climbs: Croix du Bonhomme, Col de la Seigne and Arête du Mont-Favre, each at around 2500 metres of altitude.

Losing the plot

I got to Courmayeur reasonably on schedule but now I was paying the price for my loose shoes in the first 21k and was really struggling with the descents. It was probably more to do with the technicality of the descents as I am a reasonable hill runner both up and down but I rarely get the chance to train on mountain paths and my battered toes weren’t getting any better. Elisabet was there to meet me again and took over sorting my feet out, force feeding me (vital to get the food in for these events) reloading my emergency food and sending me on my way. I was starting to see the early signs of food issues. It’s not always easy to eat as much as you burn in fuel and you soon go off foods that you wouldn’t expect to.

The climb out of Courmayeur was tough going. It only went up to just short of 2000m’s but it was a steep incline. At least the rain had long since cleared and the day was stunning. I was pleased I had opted for the X-Bionic gear as it was great through the night and with the sun burning it seemed to regulate my temperature perfectly. I had used the X-BionicThe Trick’ and the X-Bionic Buddy Guards on the NDW100 so I knew they would be great. I hadn’t, however, run in the X-Bionic Long Running Pants for any great distance so I wasn’t sure if I would get too hot and need to change. This was not the case. I guess if you forget what you’re running in then what better feedback can you get to know that something is working and working very well. I don’t recall questioning my choice of running clothes again. I can honestly say I have never run in such comfortable running clothes as the X-Bionic kit.

I reached Refuge Bertone and the next 13k’s were undulating, fairly scenic and a welcome break from the intense ascents and descents.  However, Grand Col Ferret, the highest peak on the course at 2600m, was still to be conquered. I ate as much noodle soup and snacks as I could at Arnuva which wasn’t enough but all I could manage as food intake was becoming a battle now. You could see minute moving pinpricks on the peak of Grand Col Ferret which I resigned myself to accepting was where I would be in an hour or two.

It was a tough, tough climb and I was conscious that I was digging deep into my reserves and starting to fade. Reaching the peak of the Grand Col Ferret I felt a moment of joy and relief that soon subsided to mild disappointment seeing that the checkpoint was still a few hundred meters further on and inevitably up!!

I passed through the checkpoint fairly quickly as I wanted to get to Champex-Lac where I had originally arranged to meet Elisabet, but during the next 20k’s things started to fall apart for me. I reached La Fouly totally confused and disorientated thinking it was Champex-Lac. I couldn’t see Elisabet (retrospectively obvious as I wasn’t as far as I thought) so I called her and she patiently tried to explain that I still had another 14k’s to go despite my insistence that I was at Champex-Lac. In my confusion I had passed through the La Fouly without picking up any food or water, the wheels were starting to fall off and I had only covered 108k’s with 60k’s still to go. What made it worse is that I recalled Nick Spinks saying each of the last climbs were equal to that of Ben Nevis. On the positive side, I had never climbed Ben Nevis so I had no reference to how tough it would truly be but I assumed it would be a little more challenging than running up to Hadleigh Castle in a very flat Essex!!

I pushed on and somewhere during this part I run a few miles with an Australian girl who I can only assume gauged my state as she suggested we make a pact that we both cross the line in Chamonix the next day. I didn’t leave Champex-Lac with her so I can only hope that she made it. I don’t remember much about this part as I was a bit spaced out but I found myself climbing again from some woodland with more and more people cheering along the route and to my surprise there was Elisabet sitting at the side of the road just before the checkpoint. Champex-Lac was always a mental milestone before I even started the race and to finally arrive was immensely uplifting. Elisabet had picked up some sausage and chips and I ate it like it was my last meal. I wouldn’t have imagined eating anything like this but for the first time in many hours I was able to consume a good quantity of food. I retrospectively thanked Elisabet for feeding me her dinner!!

Up and down and repeat!

Before leaving this checkpoint I had to sort out my head torches as the second night was fast approaching. I loaded up my backpack with food, swapped some wet clothes from the first night for dry and set off. Three more climbs to go before reaching Chamonix. At last, my legs felt strong again, the carbs had kicked in and I was able to pick the pace up on my way La Giete. However, approaching the top I could feel my Achilles popping. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, to say the least. I passed through the next checkpoint fairly swiftly, malignly because there was nothing there, and started to drop down to Trient. My feet were totally battered and everyone I passed climbing the hills flew past me on the descents. This was to be the pattern until the end.

Despite the battered feet, I arrived in Trient as strong as could be expected at 139k’s. I was now firmly in the ‘march to the to the finish line’ and I knew nothing would stop me finishing. Loosely translated ‘march to the finish line’ is where I’m on empty, nothing left in the tank but a big bag full of stubbornness! Elisabet was there again and in hindsight, I have no idea how she had kept going. To follow someone for what was now 31 hours deserves recognition in itself. That said it seems that is exactly what families do for the UTMB runners.

On walking into the checkpoint it was possibly the first time that I was aware of the state of the runners around me. You seem to pass through the series of checkpoints in your own bubble of trouble and traumas where you see what is going on with those around you but the carnage on broken runners doesn’t register. There was a sea of pale lifeless faces attached to failing broken bodies and we were all possibly wondering why were we putting ourselves through this. Is it braver to pull out or to keep going?

Some runners (I use the term very lightly) were fully engaged in eating as much as possible, others were looking at the food they were presented within the hope that if they could eat it, it would remain inside. Then there were the broken or near broken that were sat slumped over the table in a deep comatose state. Never has a wooden table looked so inviting a place to lay your head. I was somewhere in the middle of the above, certainly not brave enough to pull out but stupid enough to keep going. Elisabet had given me a list of food instructions to eat including apple puree and soup. Nice!!! By this time I had eaten so much soup it felt like it was coming out of my ears and it had long ago lost its appeal but in truth, it was my main fuel source throughout the race. To this day I have no idea what I did or didn’t eat but once I had passed the scary looking food table it was time to get ready to push on.

With 30+ hours of running and being well into the second night, fatigue mixed with the dropping temperature meant I had to be more aware of getting the layering right. Every checkpoint I departed on the last night I really felt the cold but once I hit the aggressive elevations I would then overheat. I added a few layers and left the checkpoint. Just outside Elisabet and Rebecca Lynch greeted me for an opportune photograph moment.

I set off into the night again for the last two hills but was I looking too far ahead? I say hills but remembered again Nicky Spinks telling me that she had worked out that each of the last two ‘hills’ were approximately equivalent to Ben Nevis, which, in her world was a good thing. I quickly shook off the thought and pushed on.

As was par for course I set off absolutely freezing but before I knew it the ascent to Catogne had started to bite. Retrospectively I realise that I live in what must be the flattest place on earth. Fortunately, I was still strong ascending and passing runners consistently but I knew that everyone I passed going up to Catogne would literally float past me on the descent to Vallorcine.

It seemed to take a lifetime to reach the top, one of those types of hills where you think you are close only for a clearing to reveal another monstrous hill. I probably spent more energy popping my eyeballs out of my head searching for the summit more than the climb itself. I was in the loop of wishing I was at the top, never finding it, to dreading I had reached it as the descent would be more painful.

I was in relatively good shape mentally (despite what it might sound like) thinking straight, looking after myself and always looking for the next checkpoint. I found this fascinating considering I hadn’t slept for so long.

And then the descent came….

It felt like every single toe was screaming at me to stop, ten very angry crying toes that were protesting like no other posse of toes had protested before. I’m guessing it was the result of the very first of the race where I had got the tension in my trainers completely wrong and my feet were moving too much in the trainer on that very first decent. Not my best decision but it was payback time. Technical descents are without a doubt my weakness and the one thing that hadn’t occurred to me to train on in the lead up to the UTMB. My focus and concern were purely on the ascent! I continued down to Vallorcine, the last major checkpoint before CHAMONIX!

At Vallorcine I ate what I could eat and loaded my pack with what I hoped I could eat on the last major hill. Yeah, the last major hill. Once again Elisabet was there to repackage me and send me on my way. The next time I would see her was in Chamonix itself. It was so close, 19km’s to the finish, not even a half marathon distance, but it did have a big lumpy bit to negotiate. The final pass of Tete aux Vents.

Dreaming…and the battle of the toes!

I left the checkpoint and headed to the foot of the climb. The route there was quite a nice gentle incline and easy underfoot. I say gentle incline, clearly, it is all very relative and in relation to what was to come – this part was gentle. En-route to this point, it seems that the UTMB police were out checking every individual runner and logging them as they passed. On reaching Col des Montets, a mini checkpoint at the foot of the final climb, there was a photographer capturing pictures of all that dared to pass. On passing, yes I was still stupid enough to pass, you could see the climb ahead. More worryingly you could see a string on tiny lights winding its way to the top like a string of tinsel around a Christmas tree. Fortunately, I was still sane enough to realise that the top really wouldn’t be the top.

This final hill was brutal and never-ending and I was hanging on, finding my way up the path like a lemming following the meandering line of lemmings perpetually and painfully moving forwards. My head was starting to go now and I had become convinced that I had been on this part of the route before. There was absolutely no doubt in my tired mind that I recognised the trail, even some of the boulders. I had never been here before but I recall being in no doubt that I knew every step, every boulder, tree….

Up and up the trail went. Past the tree line, which is always a good sign, but still up it went relentlessly climbing higher and higher. I always struggle at dawn but with this being the second night without sleep this was different. I wasn’t struggling to keep awake from tiredness but I was struggling to be in the here and now. I felt like I was dreaming and didn’t understand what the dream was about. Of all the pleasant things I could dream about I was dreaming I was running up a mountain and I couldn’t work out why. It was real but it wasn’t. Fortunately, I didn’t wake up as the dream would have turned into a nightmare and one where I was running up a mountain!!

I eventually reached the penultimate checkpoint La Flegere in a complete haze. Someone pushed a coffee into my hand and told me to sit down. It was like I was Stig, our Great Dane. You tell him to sit and he does but he then looks at you all confused. So like Stig I sat with coffee in hand and looked confused. I eventually defied the scary lady that told me to sit and stood and walked towards the entrance of the tent. When I left Vallorcine Elisabet had told me to enjoy the last part. Easy for her to say!! I had dismissed the words as soon as I heard them. But when I walked out of the tent of that checkpoint the words came back to me. What stood in front of me was the most amazing scenery: a blue sky, the sun shining and Mont Blanc. It was stunning. It was like the most beautiful picture ever painted. I went back in the tent, filled up my coffee cup and returned to absorb and enjoy the view of Mont Blanc, it was stunning and by far the most rewarding and enjoyable moment of the last 38 hours.

My head was now back on this planet and on the UTMB, I had 8k’s to go. I had done it, a goal I set myself what seemed like a lifetime ago. Well, I say I had done it. I still had 8k’s to go and a battle with ten very grumpy toes!! The numbers were not in my favour, after all, there were ten of them and only one of me but I was going to put my foot down!!

Needless to say, the final descent was much like the previous ones. All the runners I passed on the way up danced their way flying past me on the way down. I methodically made my way down to the outskirts of Chamonix. On the way down I passed many walkers nodding their head with respect and shouting out Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. It was all very humbling as I only got this far because I was too stupid to pull out.

I could now hear the distant cheers and buzz of Chamonix and before long a sight for sore eyes was Elisabet waiting to join me on the run in. Although she didn’t want to I insisted that Elisabet ran with me all the way to the finish line. My toes had conceded the fight and were up for twinkle toe shuffle to the finish line.

There is no race that can match the support you get when finishing the UTMB. You effectively run a parade through the centre of Chamonix, which is packed with a mix of locals, runners, families of runners and confused tourists. And once you do eventually cross the line and collect your gilet there is a 20-metre hobble to the nearest bar (or what became my last checkpoint). I think I spent more time at this final checkpoint than any along the168 brutal kilometres and although the soup they served was cold and in pint glasses it was the best tasting soup and the only place I asked for a few more refills. It also made all ten toes very happy!!

The UTMB is Utterly Toe-tastic Monsterously Brutal!

A note on support

The UTMB is a difficult race to run whether you have support or not but it is also a difficult race to support. At some of the checkpoints where you are allowed support, there are designated areas your crew must stay in. Depending on when you get there this can be an experience that costs you time. The particular checkpoint where this is worth noting is in Courmayeur. If you plan to meet your support here you should know that you are confined to a pretty crowded area with no facilities. The runners’ area with food, beds and blankets is upstairs and your support crew cannot enter this area. Make plans accordingly and decide in advance what you need from them and what you want from the runners’ area (if anything).

From a general logistics point of view, as a supporter, travelling between CPs by car is more convenient than using the buses if you are planning on following a runner around the course. The buses are good but if you want to go back and forth to your base for a nap during the race this could get complicated if you rely on the buses. Pack warm clothes and maybe a sleeping bag. There can be a lot of waiting around in the cold and dark. Never commit to supporting two runners, at least not in the latter half of the race. There can be many hours between two runners and this makes it a very difficult task to offer support.

As a runner, you should think carefully about whom you ask to support you and also instruct them beforehand what you want help with. The last thing you need to worry about is looking after your crew, they need to look after you. This requires slick checkpoint management, an understanding for potential issues you could face and how to deal with them (blisters, fatigue, dehydration, over-hydration, hypoglycaemia, hallucinations, sickness etc), what to fill your pack with and where to put your items if they help you with this at the CP. Having support can be a great morale boost and if you get the help you need can make all the difference. Just make sure your crew knows it will not be an easy task…

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