I entered myself into the CCC ballot in December 2017, you need to be thinking ahead to get your ultra races planned, especially if you want to race in some of the more popular events. As expected, I was unsuccessful and received my bad luck email sometime in January. With me already being entered into Highland Fling and Lakeland 50, I wasn’t too concerned about not getting a place to run 100km only 4 weeks after running 50 miles. With that option out if the window we decided to still head out to Chamonix for a week in August, but we brought it forward a few days as Rosie was due back at work on the Friday of the UTMB. We booked for Wednesday to Wednesday, aiming to get a bit of the UTMB hype at the end of the week.
Roll on 6 weeks and I got a message saying that there was a new race in the UTMB week for volunteers and locals, but any places not taken up would be for those that missed out on the lottery. I don’t think there were many locals and volunteers running as there were heaps of foreigners running it too. Another money making race, marketed as giving something back. Let’s not complain though, as it got me a race whilst I was going to be there. It was to take place on the Monday, 26th August and run from Martigny in Switzerland back to Chamonix, France, covering 40km and 2000m of elevation gain/loss.
We were staying in an air BnB flat 10 minutes walk (up a big hill) from the town centre and started the week with a walk up to Chalet Floria, a potter around the town and a gentle run out along the river. I wanted to get some form of run in pre race so set off at 7am on day 2 heading up the vertical km and running through the clouds to Lac Cornu at 2200m. It was a bit of a struggling to make myself head back for breakfast, it’s always far too easy to go a bit further than you planned and run your race in the days leading up to a race.
Day 3 saw us getting out early and heading for Vallorcine on the train, I was planning to have a look at the race route from Col du Balme down to Le Tour but the weather was honking and all we managed to see was 10 metres in front of us. We walked up to Col du Balme, hearing and not seeing the cows grazing next to us and then headed for Refuge Albert 1er at 2700m above sea level. The weather worsened and all we managed to see on the way up was a decapitated Marmot, cloud and the arrival of snow flakes. A quick cuppa and a sarnie and we headed back down, with the cloud opening up to give us some worthwhile views.
The weekend saw a noticeable increase in race participants arriving in the town, there was a definite increase in tanned, shaven legged runners sporting gilets of the various races they’d finished. All of whom, me included, casting sneaky glances at people they pass, just to see what kit they’re sporting. Sad acts.
We had a quiet day on Sunday, not wanting to do too much. Registration was at the sports centre and we headed down for the time slot I’d selected. On the way in I asked about the supporter buses and was over heard by a fellow Brit, Robbie Britton, who lives and runs in the Chamonix region. He offered some advice on the course and described which bits were runnable, rocky and steep. All very useful and I failed to heed any of it, working too hard and overheating on a steep section before the runnable bit. Post registration it was time for pizza. And chips. And a Nutella crepe. Then back up the hill to the apartment for an early night.
Race Day – de Martigny-Combe À Chamonix (MCC) 44km
Monday was race day, I was fully prepped the night before and was ready to go with plenty of time to spare. I’ve got this much more finely tuned the more races I’ve done. All you want is a stress free pre race routine! Kit laid out next to a packed race vest with number already attached to tshirt. A 15 minute walk to the bus got the nerves jangling and the hour and a half bus journey didn’t improve things. I ate a banana and drank some water with electrolytes in on the way. We pulled up at the start in Martigny-Combe, a small Swiss town in the base of a steep sided valley, lined with vineyard’s. We hoped off the bus and I left my bag with Rosie to jump in the toilet queue, it wasn’t too bad. Business taken care of we headed for the start area. I’ve either packed my bag really well, or it’s much lighter than it should be…. FAAAARRRKK.
My dry bag, with all of my mandatory kit in, was missing. Panic. Stations. We ran back to where Rosie had waited for me, it wasn’t there. Rosie legged it to see if the bus had left already, I nashed into the school hall acting as race HQ and registration. It was there… Handed in as soon as it had been dropped pretty much. They’d already identified me by my driving licence stashed in my first aid kit and were planning an announcement on the start line. Talk about avoiding a walk of shame in front of 1000 people and a few town majors. Relaxed, kinda, I went for a quick jog to get my legs operating and then headed into the starting pen.
Martigne – Col de Forclaz
The race. Stood waiting for the start, listening to several Swiss and French mayors I was getting itchy feet. The weather was chilly, but there was clear blue skies and the forecast was set for 25°C and breezey high up. The usual UTMB fanfare and hollering and a overly long countdown before we set off. As I ran through the town, waving at Rosie, I passed a middle aged woman dressed as a playboy bunnie (picture Bridget Jones Diary). Who’d got herself positioned on the front row, set off at a sprint and looked knackered after 800m. We saw her at the prize giving, she won the fancy dress award so fair play. Got herself out there.
Based on the route description from Robbie Britton, the route was broken into a long first climb to Col de Forclaz, a flat 2 miles, a steep climb and a rocky technical section up to Col du Balme, runnable single-track and hard descent into Argentiere and a small section of woodland tracks before a fast flat 4 miles into Chamonix. And it was bang on.
Running along the road on the climb out of town I knocked the first mile out in 8 minutes, probably too quickly for the gradient. Once onto the trail, we climbed up grassy slopes on paths behind people’s houses and every few hundred metres we would pop out onto a road switchback and start the climb again. It was warm going, and I was already lamenting the decision not to use poles. It got much hotter than I anticipated that early and I was soaked through, I passed the chance to put my hat under a hosepipe which I’d regret within the hour. As I reached Col de Forclaz I guessed I was in and around the top 20. I was 15th. The number of people out supporting and the enthusiasm they show is a real positive and negative at the same time. 200 people shouting “allez allez allez!” “UP UP UP!” and “GO GO GO Michelle!” gets the juices flowing, I power hiked up the steep grassy bank not realising I could feel my pulse beating in my temple. As ever, Rosie was the first person to see me and the first person I heard! Cresting the hill I set off around a corner and within 20 seconds was on a flat forest track, on my own, and blowing out my arse.
Col de Forclaz – Col du Balme
I ran the flat track steady away, and crossed a bridge to start the climb up to Col du Balme. I knew I was off as soon as I started climbing. How did I know? The people just in front of me hiked away from me like I was standing still and I was passed by 6 or 7 people within 15 minutes. Life was shit. It was emphasised when I passed a couple of hikers out for a walk and couldn’t pull away from them, my legs literally wouldn’t move quicker than a regular walk. Figuring out what had happened didn’t take long, I wasn’t sweating and my head was boiling hot. Accepting my fate, I dribbled some water down my neck and carried on hoping things would turn around. When the trail began to level out I started to move a little better, it became rocky and quite technical, which slowed me down, barely (and everyone else) which gave me the chance to cool down, not work too hard and enjoy the slight breeze that was blowing higher up. As I continued to pick my way along the bouldery path I started to feel a lot better, I rounded a corner and could see Col Du Balme up ahead. The vast majority of the climbing was done. I hiked the last climb into the CP and grabbed a drink of coke, filled my bottles and set off on the amazing singletrack that followed, it flowed and switch backed its was down the side of the Col Du Balme ski area, which in the summer months is a upland grazing meadow and big mountain biking area.
Col du Balme – Argentiere
The scenery was epic, and I didn’t even realise that I was on some of the same paths that we’d walked along a couple of days earlier. I really got into a nice rhythm on this section and caught a couple of people ahead of me, not wanting to overheat I decided not to work too hard to pass along the singletrak and as they were unwilling to move to the side (despite clearly moving quicker than them) I contented myself with sitting in behind for a little bit and see what the downhill entailed. As we started to descent to Le Tour that dropped 2000ft in 2 miles, all on hard packed dusty paths I was clearly moving quicker than the guys in front. I found a couple of chances to pass but they didn’t seem keen to oblige. I ended up running off path for a short section to get passed. This is something I’ve found with races in Europe, it’s very much every man/woman for themselves. As the descent wore on, I noticed that my feet were starting to feel a bit hot, I was having to apply the brakes too often on the sharp switchbacks and I felt like there was a pebble in my shoe. It quickly became apart that this wasn’t the case, as when do you have a pebble in each shoe sat in the exact same spot? The answer is you don’t. And you’ve got the beginnings of a blister. As the path started to level I stopped to retie my laces to prevent any further foot slipping. I had a quick look at one of my heels and I couldn’t see anything, but it was definitely there! The path had now dropped back into a woodland area and as I emerged from the trees Mike Jones was waiting for me, he jogged along side for a couple of minutes asking how I was and how it was going so far. His advice was just what I wanted to hear. “Most of the people ahead of you look like shit.” … yeah, but what do I look like? “Take your time in the CP, get some extra fluids in, cool down and get ready to bury yourself on the flat run to the finish” I then realised how hot I still was, my head was boiling and the day had started to really warm up, it was mid to late 20s at this stage. “You can definitely catch five people before the finish!” I can? I can! I left Mike and ran the bit of tarmac before the CP into Argentiere and as I ran in, I passed Rosie, she said afterwards that I looked terrible here. I knew Mike was lying to me! I couldn’t face any food, so just necked a cup of coke and kept going. I got a bucket of water poured over my head on the way out which did wonders. Waved to Rosie and set off towards Chamonix. Only 7 miles to go.
Argentiere – Chamonix
The path from Argentiere to Chamonix is a rolling woodland trail with some short hills, a couple of runnable climbs and a section of tree roots before emerging by the river on the valley floor when it flattens out to the finish. I started well, knocked out a few 8 min miles and felt good. I passed a couple of runners only a mile or two outside the CP, but things started to slide after this. I hit a gradual incline in the woods that I was trying to run, but every 20m I would get a spasm of cramps up the inside of my right thigh, I changed my running style and tried to push through it. I’d only just passed my third victim since Argentiere and I wasn’t going to start walking straight after it. He must have been in a worse way as I didn’t see him again, despite my own ailments. The path dropped sharply through a patch of boulders and tree roots which in most circumstances would be fun to run through, having to stop because of bouts of cramp took away the joy factor. I resolved myself to run through as much cramp as possible and only stop for a stretch or leg loosen when it reduced me to a walk.
As I emerged onto a road heading in Les Praz on the outskirts of Chamonix I was really struggling. Both legs were cramping badly, all I could muster was a grimacing shuffle. I rounded a corner and arrived at a water trough with a runner filling his water bottles up. I ran up to it, put my entire head into the trough and left it there for 20 seconds. Emerged, filled up and drank a full bottle and set off after refilling my bottle again. If only there’d been a water trough sooner. I was a new man. Admittedly I knew there was only two miles to go. But I was now moving freely and quickly dispatched the chap who’d stopped for a drink. I now knew in my head how far was left as I’d run this section on yesterdays jog out. It was flat and horrible, but I could see a runner in the distance and was determined to catch him. As the town centre got closer and we passed over the final timing matt before the finish, I saw the runner ahead look behind. Bingo. Gave myself one last kick up the backside and moved ahead of him just before the town centre. I tried to turn right but was blocked off by a marshall, WTF? He pointed over my shoulder at the three tiered gantry that crossed over the road. You’ve got to be kidding me?! Cursing, I climbed up and hobbled down the other side and ran towards the finish. The town centre was packed, it was 2:30pm and it made for a noisey finish. I gave out a host of high 5s on my way through and the rush of elation you get when being cheered on by hundreds of people you don’t know is goose bump stuff. Rosie was in the same position as the last time I raced in UTMB week, The OCC, in 2016. I crossed the finish line with a massive grin on my face, delighted I was able to turn things around.
Post race I felt horrendous, I ate a mountain of water melon, took off my shoes and realised the size of my blisters. BIG. I chatted with Rosie and Mike for a while before Rosie headed off to get my flip flops, the shoes were NOT going back on my feet. I stood and cheered other runners under the arch, and started to feel faint. I was still in the sun. I sought out some shade. With flip flops on my feet I limped to the medical tent to enquire if my blisters could be tended to. I sat on the camp bed and the lady volunteering took a look, then drained both blisters with a syringe. The dye that was injected into them didn’t disappear for 8 weeks. We hobbled to a nearby smoothie cafe when Rosie returned. After an hour I felt able to walk up the two big hills back to the apartment for a shower before heading back out for some bait. I had a burger and frittes, with lashings of salt. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
The next day I was in for a shock when I tried to walk down the hill for a baguette. Try spending the day walking only on your toes after a marathon the day before. Grim. We pottered around the town centre, did a few laps of the expo, Rosie got a signed copy of Emelie Forsbergs book and we went for a lounge in the sun and a dip at the swimming pool. We flew home on Wednesday morning, after another epic week in Chamonix and The Alps. If you’ve never been before, I would urge you to head out during the summer to see the scale of the mountains, the alpine flowers and just enjoy being outside. The area is so accessible. The whole area is serviced by chairlifts so even if you’re not a runner or walker you can get up high and enjoy the scenery.
Since getting home and getting this blog post written up (3 months… SHAME SHAME SHAME!) I’ve actually been back to Cham again, this time for a 3 day outing for Ian’s 40th. We had a couple of runs in the mountains, ate a heap and drank coffee like water. While out there, I got the news that I’d been selected to be a part of the Squirrels Nut Butter (SNB) and X Miles ambassador team. SNB isn’t, like Rosie thought, a range of peanut butter, it is in fact superbly effective anti chafe salve for your errr… nuts. Along with other body parts that may be on the receiving end of some chafage. It’s made of all natural products, is great on dry and cracked skin and their Happie Toes product has seen off some of my feet issues (miracles do happen). If only I’d had some on my feet in August. X Miles is a specialist sports nutrition store that caters nutritional advice and plans for endurance athletes and stock all manner of running products along with a huge range of nutrition products. Check them out!