It was rain when I arrived in Chamonix on the Monday before the Wednesday event, but that was gone by Tuesday morning and as the forecast had suggested it was going to be a cloudless and hot day for the run. It could be quite different to 2012 where I'd run in awful dull, wet and cold weather.
I started fairly far back in the 1800 or so starters so I wouldn't suffer from too much over-exuberance early on, as the trails would be crowded. Usual "UTMB-family emotive" start and moody music to see us off through Courmeyeaur (1220m). Then up the switchback track to Col Checrouit (1959m). "Clack-clack-clack" go the poles of over a thousand runners (I figure over 90% must use them in this event). At the checkpoint (CP) some nice honey on toast to start - yum!
It took quite awhile to be free of the crowds, as after this path was single track along the valley of glaciers which was stunning on a really clear and sunny day. So amazingly different to 2012 and I feel I experienced an entirely new dimension of the event in 2015. We reversed UTMB route for awhile now taking our first high point at Arete du Mont Favre (2409m).
Classic trail descent to Lac Combal CP and first full food/drink point. Some refilling of bottles here as already warming up. Steep in places and switchbacks over Col Chavenne (2584m), single file and still quite slow up here due to numbers on the trail. But then got a chance to move more freely on the long wide track descending steadily, following the Vallon de Chavenne. And by time of the climbs to the Italian/French Border at Col du Petit St Bernard (2188m)and CP I was relatively free to run at my own pace. And also feeling 36km of near constant ascent and descent.
Next came a long descent down to the low point of race at Bourg St Maurice (816m) and it was now really hotting up! I took every opportunity I could to splash some water on face or wet my buff. Some kids towards the bottom of valley really were getting into the spirit of things running to greet runners, offering to wet peoples hats/buffs for them, running off at full speed and wetting the garment by time the runner passed to collect. Through B-St-M and spent a bit of time under the shade and getting plenty of liquid down.
More help from the French general public at start of the monster ascent up to the Forts. Kids with hoses, stalls with water laid out, etc,,,,, I was going well up climb at first passing many people who were stopped for a break. But maybe halfway up I started to grind to a halt. My stomach was really playing hell and my energy supply had been cut off, it seemed to take me an age to get between the lower fort (truc) and higher (la platte - 1976m). I stopped numerous times for a rest or to try and kick start myself in the last 500m and had I not been a long way up already may have tracked back to B-St-M. Almost vomited trying to take some tablets, whilst around me several people were vomiting like gooduns! It was a pretty low moment and not even halfway.
I got to la platte with my aspirations of 24hrs for the course looking distinctly in tatters.
Time to problem solve and dig in
I needed to stop the nausea and re-establish my energy supply a bit. Runners will know how difficult this is when the stomach can no longer accept sweet food and generally isn't keen on ingesting anything.
Go for broke time and despite no official food at the check up here inside the fort some locals were offering canned or bottled drinks and food at a charge of 5e (I don't begrudge them this as its not exactly an accessible spot). Not feeling like solid food or sweet stuff or even a beer.... I opted for a bottle of coke (old style curvy bottle and all). Like many a runner I know it seems to me its mysterious sugars are tolerable even when the stomach has gone on sugar strike. I took about ten minutes to drink this and opted not to use the squat toilet, which looked to have not been refurbed in all the years the fort had been there (though it made me chuckle to find a goat getting shade in the room next to it).
I kind of got going again and eventually was making not a bad pace again on the overall uphill - but distinctly rocky in places and undulating section - which delivered us to the foot of the steep climb of Passeur de Pralagnon. Thankfully it was cooling into the evening and up high as I topped out over 2546m. A steep, rocky climb down and then quite a flat track to the - just over - midway control at Cormet de Roselend (1976m). Didn't fancy much to eat still but had a good dig into the supplied pasta meal and a few other bits. A change of socks and t-shirt from dropbag was also welcome and I stopped longer here to check how feet were doing (just one blister worth covering).
It was dark on leaving here and another tough section to the next full indoor check with two big climbs a big descent and numerous smaller ones and some semi-to-technical terrain in places. I remember lots of mud and technical going for awhile from my 2012 experience. Col de la Sauce (~2300m) was muddy on the way up per most peoples experience I've heard of, but not half as bad as 2012. The long descent afterwards is interesting on varied terrain to La Gitte at 1665m and I made places I think. I felt increasingly sleepy on long climb to Col est de la Gitte so took a caffeine gel. This worked for awhile but after slow going on the rocky and undulating section with some short steep climbs that took us to Col du Joly (1989m) I was getting really sleepy again and struggling to concentrate. Also starting to feel that nausea again
A longer stop would be needed at this control too. Despite the banging music (which could be heard km away) a few were asleep head down on tables inside the tent and I figured I'd try this. No beds were free and possibly a good thing as I'd lay down on one of these in 2012 any that had been it. This time I got a coffee and some broth'n'bread as well as trying to pick other energy sources that I could tolerate. I took a gamble on a bit of an overstims energy bar provided inside tent and that was good. Changed batteries in headtorch (new barely used headtorch and batteries had dropped to barely usable level after La Gitte leaving me faffing to get reserve torch out by side of track).
Then the head went down on the table.....
- not refreshed but having rested enough to go again - I hoped - after some 10-20mins fit-ful rest. I finished my soup and coffee to hopefully complete the battle against drowsiness. I'd given up here in 2012, probably in worse state, but I would now consider not having done everything I could have done to try and complete. So I was going to do my best to make up for that this time.
Now it was 9k to Les Contamines and the best part of 800m downhill. I was quite surprised how many people I overtook downhill, my downhill legs seemingly as good as anybody's I encountered during this stage and running a lot more than most. Per the leaving of Cormet I left Joly in my jacket and thin gloves after cooling whilst stopped, but they were soon off again as I figured 30s lost removing them would be made up by being able to move more comfortably on a warm night.
Coming into the Les Contamines control at 95km and 1170m it would be easy to think the hard work was done, but I've heard said the last climb of this one is somewhat of a sting in the tail. And they aren't wrong, it was near enough hands on knees climb straight out of town on road, then track, through woods and back on track. Oddly there is then a descent, but at this stage you know there is plenty of climb to come as headlights are dotted really steeply up a hillside about a km away. Crossing the river I was going well on the last ascent and descent but I'm glad I still had something left for Col du Tricot as it was steeper than the last climb even with switchbacks to help and the going was rougher too. It took quite awhile to top this 2126m beastie!
But by the top, day was dawning and the night had been seen off. Much as finishing in 24hrs had seemed a real tough target, I know thought of how it would now be nice to finish in daylight and with more people up and about. After some fast and slightly rocky descent I was confused when the route levelled off and started climbing again after the rope bridge. I'd completely forgot about Bellvue control. And now there was quite a lot of descent in a few short km, mostly pounding roads as we arrived in Les Houches (111km - 1019m).
I'd got into an unspoken semi-race with another brit on the descent and we continued after the control. He'd taken the initiative out of the control barely spending a minute there (I spent barely more just toping up water to wash down a potent caffeine gel). This section is mildly undulating and often flat and my legs were ready to give me some energy saved for running on flat. I passed my competition on a descent with about 5km to go convinced I could run the rest of way barring any steeper climbs (only a few and very short). I passed quite a few on this leg and ran my way up to the highest position I'd been all race for the finish, breaking into the top 500 with a last 8k done in under an hour..
After passing through the dragging outskirts of Cham I was into town, up a hill and then onto the main shopping strip, plenty of people out clapping and cheering runners in. I crossed the line, my adventure was complete and I was pretty happy with having recorded just over 27hrs after earlier troubles. It was just passed 9am and warming up already. I made some emotional calls to family back home, got my prized finishers gillet and got a beer from the finish food table (otherwise it was the same fayre of cheese/meat/cake that had been on offer throughout the race) - the beer was good!
Again..... or the UTMB, or PTL? Afterwards I thought I wouldn't fancy another 30m or more. But having finished strongly I obviously could have gone further. So I won't rule it out, but the crowded nature of early miles is a bit off-putting in these events. I'm a bit more of a one man and his dog kind of runner and may look for other challenges home or abroad for the next few years.
And then, I must have been confident as I entered a longer event just a few months later....
Next - Why can't I ... run 125 miles?
* I'll revisit this post and add some pictures soon