Friday, 5 September 2014

UTMB: The Journey

I arrived in Chamonix on the 21st of August and headed for fellow Team Raidlight athlete Ute Baird and husband Andrews apartment. They had very kindly offered to put me up for a few days until I met several other British athletes and we moved into a chateau we had rented for a week. Summer in Chamonix had not been great compared to previous years but I timed my arrival very nicely with a great weather window; a window of running opportunity in the surrounding mountains.
The start and finish arch of the UTMB 2014
Ute knows the area very well and over a coffee showed me some great routes on the Chamonix valley map. To cut a long storey short over the next few days I was like a kid in a sweet shop exploring the beautiful area. I was clocking up 5 hour days with around 1200-1800metres of ascent each day. The mixture of sun, views, mountain air and new trails for me kept me smiling all the time I was out running and exploring. It was on the evening of the third day out that I realised I had a problem, both Achilles where throbbing with pain. Whoops I may have overdone it somewhat. The worrying thing was that I had never had a problem with my right foot until now, 5 days before the start of the UTMB! Doh and double doh! I had previously torn my left Achilles last year and had been battling with it again this year (along with other injuries and illness-see previous blogs) and the one thing I have learnt is that the only thing I can do is rest and ice it; with appropriate calf muscle stretching. So that’s what I did. Ute also recommended a sports therapist in Chamonix; so I booked in with them on the Wednesday before the Friday race start. 
A day out playing up the Brevent prior to the UTMB; and its Seb Chaigneau
and crew doing a shoot for Garmin

I could feel the strain in the Achilles when just simply walking on it. I was getting worried that my UTMB experience would be very short lived. So whilst walking around the UTMB Expo show I called in the Active Patch 4U stand and they put around 8 of their patches on me in various locations and to further back things up I then called in the Raidlight stand where Team Raidlight Japan were present and they fixed me up with some kensio tape on both Achilles. So when I rolled up to the start of the UTMB on Friday, I had Actives patches, Kensio tape and calf compression guards on in the hope that would do the trick along with the physio I had had a couple of days before in keeping the strains at bay.

Raidlight Stand at UTMB expo, with a bountiful supply of kensio tape!
So race day arrived and I arrived at the start to be greeted with a sea of other competitors sitting down taking position to get in line for the mass start of 2300 runners. Just as the Elite runners were coming out to take their places in the reserved patch up front, the rain started. Most people reached for the waterproof tops but I was quite happy with the rain, as it was still quite warm. I decided to leave my waterproof in my Olmo 5 Raidlight backpack and just go with the gillet and arm warmers.

At 5.30 we were off…..well the elites were I think it took me another 6 minutes to get under the starting arch. However, I was not stressed by this as I had already made my mind up my sole objective was to complete the UTMB. Time was irrelevant, I backed this up by not wearing a watch and in fact from that moment on until I finished I hadn't a clue what time of the day it was. The atmosphere in Chamonix when the UTMB starts is just quite simply amazing. The amount of people that line the course out of town is breath taking as is both the noise and applause they give the competitors. It was so much fun just running down and hi five(ing) children and people, who were also so happy to just spectate and join in the carnival atmosphere.
So I jogged on down to Les Houches along the first 10km of the course which is fairly flat and just kept a steady pace and weaved in and out of people on route. The crowds were back out at les Houches so I immediately went into child mode and put both arms out pretending to be a plane diving from one side of the road to another hi five(ing) kids either side. I’m not sure who was laughing more, myself or the kids (and yes I made aeroplane noises as well, ha).

After the village centre it was time to grab the trekking poles off my back and put them into action. The first proper climb of the UTMB started as we divert to our left from the road and head up to Le Delevret. The rain continued to come down as I continued to go up. As long as I maintained a constant forward motion I was warm enough and therefore happy enough with everything. This was pretty much the theme for the rest of the night except I had my first experience of runners “stomach issues”. Yep, no need to go into detail but between Saint-Gervais and Les Chapieux I had about 5 unplanned stops. I think had I been time and raced focused this may have had a larger negative impact on my run than it did. I just simply thought to myself that as long as I was going forward then in didn’t really matter. I did however, focus on getting more solid food into me at the check points on route and concentrated on remaining hydrated. 
See told you it was wet to start with!

This all helped pass the time and after Les Chapieux things had pretty much settled down. So I could trot on nicely without the trots (sorry couldn’t resist that one ha). It was also around here that I bumped into a few other Brit runners including Nicky Spinks (whom I had had the pleasure of helping out on her Paddy Buckley Round in her quest to get all 3 ladies records for the 3 big UK rounds). I exchanged a few words with Nicky but then we kept just trotting on in the dark and rain at our own pace and feel. From Arete Mont Favre it’s a nice descent pretty much down to Courmayeur. The last section was quite steep though and I remember having to dive to one side on the single track to let two lady runners come hurtling past me. I remember thinking they must have quads of steel as well as very dextrous reactions as it was still night and the track was full of tree roots exposed at intervals along the steep switch backs.

I must admit I was happy to get to Courmayeur, it had been a wet night and I was doing my best drowned rat impression and it was great to get my drop bag for a change of clothes. After a short while Nicky Spinks came in and sat down with me as we both tucked into plates of race aid station pasta. Nicky was worried that sitting around a lot would make her struggle to get going again. So within 10minutes she was gone and back out onto the course. I was impressed once again by her tenacity. I decided to take my time. I ate as much as I could stomach, went the wash room, had a good wash/scrub and changed my clothes. I also decided it was time for music, so I got my ipod wired up. After 30 minutes I decided to hit the road again and left Courmayeur….5minutes later I was back to grab my cup of tea I had left, wally!

I think the course markings were a little thin on the ground in Courmayeur and although I roughly knew the way (I had stayed there 2 years previously when doing the Tor Des Geants) I did get slightly lost until a local dustbin man pointed me in the right direction. Once I was on the road to the Refuge Bertone path I knew where I was and immediately relaxed singing along to Placebo songs…..much to the amusement of a competitor I passed as I came out with the immortal lines of “A friend with breasts and all the rest, A friend who’s dressed in leather”…..As I hit the chorus of “Days dawning, skins crawling, pure morning” the day was indeed dawning and the head torch was removed. 

When I arrived at Refuge Bertone I had to take a few minutes to take in the views, they were simply breath taking. The last time I was here was when I was competing in the Tor Des Geants, it was night time with snow all around, no great amazing views of the mountains but the sky was completely clear and the night sky blazed for one and all, with and unfathomable amount of stars beaming down to our little planet. I then thought of the sepsis that had been steadily blazing up my leg also 2 years ago on that event (see previous blog); quick shudder and it brought me back to the present.
Doing my Caveman/Werewolf impression on route to Bonatti

 I realised it was now time to run. I knew it was good path to Refuge Bonatti so I made the most of the cool morning conditions and got into a nice running stride whilst also taking in the views. This was my favourite section of the UTMB course with a very impressive looking Mont Blanc to my left dazzling in the morning sun. It was somewhere along this section I passed Nicky again. A quick exchange of words but I kept going with the flow this time and plodded onto Bonatti. On the descent from there to Arnuva I then caught up with another Brit and fell running friend Lee Knight. “Aye up” I said and then we waffled on to each other for a while and into Arnuva. Lee said his drive had gone. He had got stressed out about keeping up with a planned schedule he had and due to the slow mass start had been constantly on the back foot chasing his split times. “I’m still flipping finishing” or words to that affect he said. “I want that finisher’s gilet”. We left the aid station together and Lee produced his profile sheet so we could see what was coming up next….whoops Grand Col Ferret, the highest point of the course. I told Lee I was just running to feel and at that moment in time I felt Ok, so I continued to ascend at my chosen pace, as at the back of my mind I must admit I was then beginning to think that I would like to be back in Chamonix before it was daft O’clock at night. 
Arnuva to Grand Col Ferret

I really enjoyed the descent from the Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly, once again great running with some great views. However, the section from La Fouly to Champex lac was not as enjoyable for me. It must have been getting around mid-day or later as the sun was getting hot and I was beginning to cook. I’m not a runner who does well in hot conditions. I did quite a bit of walking in this section, particularly in the exposed areas. By the time I got to Champex Lac I felt blah! I had been going through a lull for about an hour or more. Help was at hand though. Ute and Andrew had volunteered to crew for me at the later aid stations. This was brilliant, as I rolled into the aid tent Ute had already got my stuff laid out, and just simply asked what food and drink I would like. I let her know and the next minute it appeared. Brilliant I could just keep my backside on the bench and moan about how rubbish I felt! Ute reminded me that there was only a marathon to do now and everyone feels rubbish after 70 something miles…….as I've never raced a 100 mile race before I couldn't argue with that one so just accepted my fate. I had also been talking to Dakota Jones who was sat opposite me. Things hadn't been working out for him and he was regrouping himself for a continuation. He suggested that we both leave together, well I didn't need to be asked twice. As far as I was concerned it was a great privilege to be able to travel a while with such a talented runner. That’s the one thing I totally adore about this sport; when we race we all line up on the same start line and run the same course no matter if we are elites, good club runners mid packers or back packers. How many amateur footballers can play with the pro’s, how many amateur golf players can play with the pro’s etc etc, yet in the world of ultra-running we can all be lined up together to run the same course at the same event. We all share the same passion and the same love for a sport and then subsequently also share it in our racing. 
Descent to Vallorcine, with La tete aux vents in the background
Photo Simon Ellis
After a few miles of further descent from Champex Lac aid station Dakota concluded that his legs were not as ready to commence the pounding as he initially thought they were. He decided it would be best if he turned back, so we shook hands and parted company. Ute and Andrew managed to intercept him at the top of the road climb we had descended. I then saw all 3 of them next at Trient. I can’t remember much about the then ensuing section apart from thinking “blimey this is taking some time,….huff, puff” and “look out rock, look out tree root and ooooo stream…..chuck water over head”. But eventually Trient aid station did appaear and once again Ute sorted me out. I thought I was going a bit delirious when I arrived as I thought I had entered a disco, but no when I looked to my left there was a dj mixing tunes and getting down with the groove….although it was tempting to bust a move or two I decided to leave my dancing till later and headed out onto the course still feeling rather grim. The saving factor of this next section was that the course goes straight into an ascent up to Catogne. J’adore ascents! The ascents I could manage and they gave time for me to digest food and get back into a rhythm. It was the descents that were taking the toll on my feet and quad, despite me taking it “easy”.  By the time I got to Vallorcine I had perked up though as I could smell home; Chamonix was not far away and only the ascent to La tete aux vents stood in my way.

Leaving Vallorcine with cup of tea in hand..happy
Photo Andrew Baird.
I left Vallorcine aid station (where once again Ute and Andrew Baird had crewed for me) with a cup of tea in my hand feeling quite happy that Chamonix was in striking distance. Barring a major disaster I knew I could finish the race and that if I got a wiggle on I may just make it before nightfall. After I had finished my tea I started to speed up and much to my amusement I was greeted with a cowbell and lots of applause from Ute, Andrew and other brit competitors from the CCC and OCC, Simon & James Ellis, plus Jayson Cavill and Kim England at Col des Montets. Haha that made me laugh and gave me an extra burst to get up La tete aux vents as quickly as possible. It worked well and I was passing a number of other competitors on the way up. Between La tete aux vents and Flegere it became apparent that although I was moving quick I was not going to beat the dark to Chamonix. Darkness descended quickly on that leg but I could just make enough of the trail out to get to the Flegere check point without stopping for my head torch. I came into the check point and asked for a coke in English. There were two other competitors in there as well and they looked at each other and said “I think it was time we left now”. I turned and looked to see one had a union jack on his number before they left. I had a little to eat and then dug my head torch out and dropped all the batteries on the floor. One of the aid station ladies was great, she took the torch of me so I could finish my tea and collected the batteries up and put them in the torch for me. Time to go. I left that last aid station thinking wouldn’t be able to catch anyone and indeed initially I could see no head torch lights. That final section is a great woodland switchback run with lots of rocks and roots; in the dark quite technical, but great fun. I just started smiling to myself because I could see the lights of Chamonix below and then suddenly I caught a glimpse of a head torch. This spurred me on and quickly I overtook someone and then within a couple of more minutes I was running behind someone else. I went past them but this time they gave chase. Not today I thought to myself. I started to accelerate and for the next few minutes I could see a head torch light still following me! Faster we both went (it certainly felt as though I was at 5:30 mile pace or quicker) and suddenly 2 more competitors were overtaken. “Bravo, allez, allez!” shouts one. When I reached Chamonix I decided to not let up even though I could not sense the other runner know. I finished in 28hours and 6mins to a great reception from a fantastic crowd plus all the brits I was staying with in Chamonix along with Ute and Andrew. What an atmosphere, awesome! It was just as well I kept moving at a good pace as the next person to finish was Brit Dan Lawson (winner of Ultra Trail South West 100mile and the Ridgeway Challenge 85mile) and he was only 1min 40seconds behind me. So it looks like that for the last section of the UTMB my goal of completing went out of the window and I was definitely competing at the end; once a track runner always a track runner ha.

What an amazing experience the UTMB was. I certainly had some low points but overall it was a joyful journey full of beautiful sights and beautiful people. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to partake in the race and experience all 104miles and 9600metres of ascent of it! If you are thinking about doing the UTMB, OCC, TDS, or CCC then stop thinking and get applying. You won’t regret it.
Speaking to James Ellis (2nd Junior man CCC) after finishing
Beer in hand! Photo Simon Ellis

Kit used:
Head: Buff peak cap and Buff bandana
Backpack: Raidlight Olmo 5
Waterproofs: Raidlight Ultra light top and bottoms
Longsleeve top: Raidlight Wind stop top
T-shirt: Raidlight Ultra light top x2 (change Courmayeur)
Gilet: Raidlight
Arm warmers: Raidlight (used until Courmayeur)
Gloves: Raidlight
Shorts: Raidlight Ultra light till Courmayeur then Changed to Team Buff ones
Leggings: Raidlight ¾
Calf Guards: Team Buff compression
Socks: Injinji
Shoes: Hoka rapa nui
Poles: Black diamond Ultra z poles

Race day Nutrition:
Food from aid stations plus the following;
3 torq gels
2 sis gels
3 shot blocks
8 chocolate Bounty bars!

7 things that worked for me on the UTMB
1. Eat as much as possible; especially items that are salty
2. Use coke or pepsi to settle my stomach.
3. Always exit an aid station walking, I try to allow a few minutes for my stomach to settle. This works well when ascending out of an aid station but a little more difficult when descending. 
4. Use sticks on descents as well as ascents.
5. Always take the descents easy for the first 75% of the race; overtake mainly on ascents.
6. Always look for a positive out-look, (even when I had the trots I just thought great it means my pace will be slower and I can have a breather for a bit) and take time to smile/laugh.
7. Bounty chocolate bars! They work better for me for delivering energy than gels.....but then again I love chocolate and coconut ha!

Special thanks to Ute and Andrew Baird for crewing for me at the final 3 aid stations and all their other help prior to the race. Dakota Jones for inspiring me to get off my arse at Champex-Lac. Simon Ellis for photos and videos at Vallorcine and Chamonix. James, Jayson and Kim for cowbells & cheering on at Vallorcine. J

PS. As for the Achilles, I had a few niggles on route but overall they held up, so massive thanks to Chamonix Sports Therapists, Active Patch 4U, Team Raidlight Japan and Team Buff UK for the calf guards. 

PPS Lee did get his finishers Gilet 

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