Saturday 2 November 2019

UTMB 2019 - Crushing disappointment is earned, not given

Some people say the hardest part of finishing UTMB is getting on the start list. I have to admit I was in this group before I actually tried it. I even went as far as predicting my finish time would be close to 40 hours The reality was very different.

Most of you reading this probably know about UTMB but for those who don't, UTMB is arguably one of the most, if not the most famous trail ultra in the world. It is based on the Tour Du Mont Blanc ( ) which is a lovely walking holiday which is typically done in 11 days. It is 170km and 10,000m of climbing. There are mountain refuges to stay in each evening.  I have walked the TMB route twice as a teenager and in the guide book it mentioned that it was also held as a race. I never imagined I would be coming back as an adult to do that race.

It took me a quite a while to get into UTMB. I started collecting points in 2014. I ended up with 8 points in 2015. This would have got me in the ballot for 2014 when you needed 8 points but it was increased to 9 for 2015. I got in the ballot at last in 2016 after the Centurion Grandslam and was unsuccessful. Same again in 2017. I finally got in with the 3rd time automatic rule in 2018. The points expire after two years so I needed to maintain a running CV of three 100 milers in the most recent two years, After 5 years, I finally had my starting bib.

Getting to Chamonix was really easy. I got a flight after work on Wednesday from London City airport to Geneva and was picked up by James from Cham-Vans. It was a shared transfer with a couple of guys from Hong Kong plus some regular tourists. I made it to the hotel just in time to see 4th place of TDS finish in Chamonix. My parents had booked a room in the Grand Hotels des Alpes and I had the sofabed. I grabbed a beer and crepe at a cafe which was on the finishing straight. You can see a runner's foot in the background.

Thursday was registration. It was a very efficient set up with an airport security feel to it as you had all your kit in a tray. I turned up in civilian clothing but a lot of people turned up in full ultra kit including walking poles. This is one of the comedy aspects of the week. I made sure I had everything on the mandatory list including a few gels. I thought the gels was a bit daft but food was one of the things they checked for so just as well. I got my wrist band and was ready to go.

I now had a lot of waiting ahead before the 6pm start on Friday. I met up with Dave Kind and family for a cheeky beer. Dave had come up short on the challenging TDS and had some good advice including trying to use bits of trail debris to make mini steps (taken from the book "never wipe your ass with a squirrel").

The rest of the day TDS runners were finishing plus the OCC (56km race) took place. I was getting quite excited now.

Friday was finally race day but even then it was quite a bit of waiting around to go as it is a 6pm start. I tried to get some sleep but I was very close to the start line and there was some pre-race entertainment. This took the form of a bunch of people banging really loud drums just outside my window. I had a couple of hours rest but no sleep. Not ideal when you have potentially 48 hours of being awake ahead.

I was about the head to the start when a massive thunderstorm kicked off. It was torrential rain so I headed back to the hotel room and dashed over just before the start. I figured I would rather be dry and at the back than standing in the rain for an hour. I cut it quite fine and struggled to get into position as the hotel was the wrong side of the start. I almost ran into the start with the elites but the marshalls sent me round the side. I ended up lined up in a side street which wasn't a bad place as it turns out.

There were lots of speeches and a Viking clap before we finally started. First km was a bit of a faff with hundreds of people and lots of selfies and videos. It was a bit annoying and I was trying to push on as I was worried about the first cut off. The stretch to Les Houches was undulating valley trail with some mud and lots of people.

I made it safely to the first aid station. I had taken on a bit of extra water at the start with a bladder so I didn't stop. There were hundreds of people trying to get water here and I probably gained 200 places here. I had run 8 km in 56 minutes and felt I was quite far up the field. It turns out I was actually in 2,122 with only 400 people behind me. Shortly after Les Houches, the trail went uphill for the first climb.

I had been training on Surrey hills which are 100-150m high. This was 800m high so worth 8 reps of my favourite local climb - the Pilgrim's way hill. Plenty of people came past me and I overtook a few. I was flying on the descent and overtook quite a few. I put my poles away and ran pretty quickly through the woods. I was very late to put my head torch on as I used the light from everyone else.

I did get one photo in - it was a beautiful on the first climb

Just before St Gervais, there was a chalet giving out water. This was possibly the best water I have ever tasted - especially as the bladder in my pack was new and tasted slightly TCP-like. I figured it might save me a bit of time at the aid station. St Gervais was having a massive party with hundreds of people out watching the race. The aid station food was unusual. They had full fat coke and biscuits but the main food was french bread, cheese, and salami. I went for the usual sugar based selection.

I made it to St Gervais in 3:20 which was 40 minutes inside the cut off. I was a lot more relaxed now as my big fear was getting stuck in the queues and being time out. I could now relax and get into the rhythm of the race. If figured that barring injury, I had a finish in the bag,

This was the start of the biggest climb of the race at 1,900m of height gain. It was a bit of an uphill plod but I felt like I was making good progress. I got to the next checkpoint in 5:20 which was still 40 minutes inside cut off. I had hoped to increase my gap a bit but at least it hadn't reduced. This was the first aid station where crew were allowed. The first tent was for runners only and I refuelled with stuff. The second was where people could get support. This was a bit of annoyance for me as everyone had to go through the second tent even if you didn't have crew. The second tent was rammed with only a small gap to pass through. One stupid cow was using the gap to film her runner and take some selfies. She seemed very put out when I bumped her out of the way after she was oblivious to my repeated "excusez moi"s. I race without crew which puts me at a disadvantage but at least other crews don't slow me down usually...

It was fairly easy coming out of Les Contamines Montjoie with some nice running along the river. It then went a lot steeper uphill. I ended up chatting to a few more people here. There were some Americans and a lady in a Lakeland 100 top. I just about hung onto her pace until the La Balme aid station. This was a bit of a squeeze with lots of people trying to grab stuff. I had managed to get my stuff and was trying to get out the aid station. A lady from China was trying to get at the aid station table but unfortunately I was in her way. The easy thing would have been to let me pass so she could have a good grab at the food but she tried to grab around me. This made it much slower for her and she was very disappointed as her grabs only resulted in picking up some crumbs of TUC biscuits. I was close to just pushing her out of the way but didn't as she settled for her crumbs and went on her way. The aid stations were generally very civilised given the vast numbers of runners. 

I was only 45 minutes inside cut off which was less than ideal - I had hoped to add more to my cushion.  I didn't feel this was a great section but looking at the results, I gained 300 places on this section. A fair chunk of this was probably people taking selfies with their crew at the previous aid station...

The climb continued and became more technical. It was a big conga line up the climb. I was struggling to keep up with the pace as I'm not a good climber and it was getting above 2,000m. I pulled over to let people past every so often and a few steamed past but most were going at the same pace. The miles were taking at least 30 minutes.

It was pretty cool with hundreds of head torches in front and behind me. It was a clear night and there were thousands of stars in the sky too. Some people argue you can just run the trail whenever you want but I'm not sure many would be up in the trails at night like this. Eventually I made it up to the top... There were quite a few people out on the course cheering people on with cowbells which was a nice touch. There is a big tent and timing point at the col which seems like it should be the top but you carry on up. This was a very technical section with a tough rocky section.

Eventually we got to the refuge and croix which is the peak. It had taken my nearly 6 hours to climb up. My longest climb in training was about 10 minutes... I started the descent which was fairly technical. There was an older Belgian chap who was descending quite quickly with his poles in his hand. He stacked it quite hard and the people around him checked he was ok. It was quite slippery and tricky but he continued carrying his poles rather than using them to help his balance. He stacked it again which I had no sympathy for this time - the poles are there to help you... I tried to get past him as he was an absolute liability to those around him. I took a less than ideal route to get around him and slipped. I wrenched my shoulder and knee but was pretty much ok. He was now regarded as the fucking Belgian pillock from now on.

I took the rest of the descent quite steadily as I lost a bit of confidence and I wanted to save my legs for later. I eventually made it into Les Chapeiux just before 4am. The cut off was 5:15am so I didn't quite have the margin I wanted. There was an interesting surprise on entry to the aid station. They had a kit check here where you needed to show your phone and survival blanket. These were buried in the bag so took a while to find. 

I was in and out very quickly - a lot of people were crashed out in the aid station, I decided to take the plunge and get stuck into the French cuisine. I had some soup and a hand made cheese and ham sandwich. I had this on the trudge out of the aid station.  This was a lovely smooth tarmac road. I was really enjoying this until there was a turn onto a footpath before I had finished my meal.

This was the point in the race where my 40 hours plan was out of the window and it was going to be a big fight just to finish. I was pushing hard just to make the cutoffs and was only a quarter of the way into the race. Normally the first quarter of a race is a bit of a jolly and trying to make sure I don't go to fast. 

The course profile headed up and it was a 1,000m climb up to Col de la Seigne. This was another beautiful climb with stars and head torches lighting the way. I was surprised how many people were sleeping on the trail. I called them "campers" and there were at least 10 camping in one of the barns we went past. I must have passed at least 100 people sleeping at various points on this climb.

As I got near the top, the day dawned and blue skies came out. It was full daylight when I made it to the col. It was stunning with some spectacular mountains now visible. One night down, one to go. One border crossing down, two to go.

The timing crew joked about asking for passports. It was pretty cool to cross into another country.

We started the descent into Italy. On the walking route, this is a lovely gentle descent toward Refugio Elisabetta. After a short descent, we were sent up towards Col des Pyramides Calcaires. I was planning to get to the top and reward myself with a gel. This section of the route was particularly crap. The "trail" was where the smaller rocks rather than car sized rocks were. I gave up on plan to get to the top before having a gel and stopped on the side. A lot of other people had done the same.

I went for one of my SiS gels - a nice blackcurrant one. Despite being in just being in date (September 2019), it had turned into mint flavoured lumpy wall paper paste. I carried it for 12 hours and it was a vomit inducing waste of space. Be warned if you ever use this brand. Luckily I had another which was not out of date and helped take the taste away. This could have broken my race if I had taken several of them with me. Another 30 minutes of climbing and I got to the actual col.

This was spartan with a just a timing point. They had a bottle of coke and asked if I could have some. They left me have a cup which was magical. A few other people around me dived on it too. I made up quite a few spots on the descent towards Lac Combal. I made it into Lac Combal just before 9am. The cut off was 10am so I had lost some of my buffer. I was pretty quick in this aid station and went for cheese and salami sandwich with a coffee. I grabbed stuff quickly and pushed on down the round.

For the Tour Mont Blanc walk, this is a nice gentle walk towards Courmayer and the UTMB follows this for a while. I had just about finished my Italian breakfast when there was a sign pointing off the road up the hill. Rather than a flattish section, it was a 500m climb. The start was at 2,000m and I was blowing quite hard. The day was warming up as a bonus...

Col Cherout was the next aid station which had a dance group with drummers. This might have been a nice place for a nap if it wasn't for the tossers banging drums. A quick stop here and it was just 4km to Courmayer. This was downhill so figured I would be in the big aid station in 20-30 minutes. This was a massive under-estimate as it was essentially 4km of steps, roots, and switchbacks as the route dropped 750m. It was actually 53 minutes for 2.5 miles.... 

The next aid station was the big one with the drop bag. I had puts loads in it including a spare pair of shoes. This was unfortunate as I had to carry my bag through the big sports hall. I changed clothes and put on sunscreen. I thought it was in my drop bag but I had been carrying it since Chamonix... I also smashed a bottle of sprite and some treats. I was on my way fairly quickly but managed to get everything done. It was only 5km to the next aid station so didn't grab too much fluids - especially as I had a bit left in my backpack bladder and 500ml of sprite in my belly.

I know the climb to Bertone is brutal but forgot how bad. It was pretty hot and I was going to take some water from a fountain but someone said it wasn't potable so I left it. I regretted this later. It was two hours of switchbacks through the woods. I ran out of water after 90 minutes and my heart rate was climbing faster than I was. I was getting badly dehydrated but had to crack on as there was sitting on the trail wouldn't help. I saw someone how had dropped but they had to walk back down the trail as there is no other option...

I eventually got there and figured I had lost all by buffer to the cut off. Probably two of the worst hours I've had "running". I crashed out at the aid station with some water and some "overstim" which is actually ok. I figured I needed to sort myself out or my race was over. My heart rate was falling and I was getting my body under control. At the aid station, someone lost their poles. They had been picked up by someone else. I had stickers on mine but will make them more distinctive next time so they wouldn't be picked up by mistake (or would be obvious if taken).

It felt like I had spent half an hour here but it was needed. Fortunately, there wasn't a cutoff at this aid station - probably because they couldn't deal with the dropped runners. I came out pushing - I wanted to give myself a chance of carrying on. 

I made it through the next two aid station and made it to Arnovaz. I was really pleased to have dug in and made it here. I came out the aid station with 30 minutes buffer on the cutoff. It was 15km in 4 hours to the next aid station. I gave myself 10 minutes to have a nap outside the aid station. I set my phone for 10 minutes but after 6, I wasn't sleeping so just got on with it.

It was a big climb and I started on it. I could see a long train of people ahead. I was making slow progress and struggling a bit. I figured I would bat on to the next aid station and probably not make it.  I thought I had enough in me to get to the next aid station but figured I would probably be timed out there. DNF due to being timed out is a great way to go and leaves you with no regrets and some pride. 

I had been going a while uphill when there was a massive thunderstorm. It was torrential rain and lightning. Walking up into this didn't seem wise so I decided to head back down and drop from the race. A few others did the same and descended until we came to a race vehicle and dropped. To put myself in potential danger didn't seem wise just to get a better DNF. 

There was a refuge nearby where we stopped until a 4x4 took us down to where the broom wagon / coach was there to take us back to Chamonix. The refuge had a bar so at least I dropped somewhere with beer.

Race over after 25 hours and about 105km. I still have 21.5 hours / 65km to finish. I had pushed very hard to get to where I had and don't think I could have finished but I don't know given the way I dropped.

I will write another blog with a bit more on lessons learned and how I can do things differently. When I finished, I thought I wouldn't try it again but with a week or two of time since, I'm certainly thinking about putting my name down for 2020. And I really want one of those tacky naff gilets.

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