To be part of the UTMB week was something I have thought about for so long. I have wanted to run this incredible event year on year but decided I wanted to wait until I had enough ultra running experience behind me to attack it with confidence. So it was a shame to get to the start line of the CCC not fully fit. However, I wasn’t going to give this opportunity up and decided to give it the best shot I could and push my body as hard as I could in the circumstances.
We arrived at the start line in Courmayeur, Italy, in the early hours of Friday morning whilst it was still dark but with plenty of time to sit and enjoy a last coffee before I walked up and took my place among the throng standing behind the start line. There was a real buzz of excitement, plenty of commotion and chatter, the pre-race tension almost palpable. A nervous tapping of the hand or foot gave away the inner anxiousness of the participants eager to get started. With no pressure on me, I was feeling relaxed and was savouring every moment. Once the countdown began and Vangelis started to play it was great to get the legs moving and enjoy the run through the town. I have never felt more like a superstar! The streets of Courmayeur were lined with people cheering, clapping and ringing cowbells… a sound I would come to love during the course of this run.
No sooner were we out of the town than the first hill was upon us. 2500m up, and pretty much straight up. It was a baptism of fire. We snaked our way along to the ‘tic, tac’ of walking poles – initially on the tarmac and then on rocks as we made our way into the hills. I used this first climb to find my rhythm and ease into the run. There was very little point pushing it at this stage, it’s about completing the whole 100km and not wining prizes for being the first over 10km! It was a pretty silent affair as we attacked the mountain, heads were down as we focused on the job in hand. The only break in this silence was the odd shrill scream of a marmot alerting its mates to the presence of 10000s of runners on his patch! I felt good on this climb and found it passed quickly. My Legs felt strong and it was surprisingly good fun, made easier by the most incredible views of Mont Blanc and surrounding mountains, snow capped and majestic against a back drop of blue sky.
Andrew, Maya and James had come out with me for this event to support and cajole as needed. The supporters’ bus timings meant that they weren’t going to see me until La Fouley, 42km into the run so in these initial kms I was eating from the well stocked aid stations and munching on rations stashed in my back pack. We were blessed, despite a very bleak weather forecast, to be running under a beautiful blue sky with not a hint of rain. My waterproof remained firmly tucked in my pack for now. For the first half of the run I was in a great place. I felt positive and strong, happy to be in this most beautiful environment and excited that each step was taking me closer to achieving a goal I had dreamed for a long time.
The aid stations were a hive of bustle and noise. Runners excited to refuel and have a quick break and supporters happy to see their loved ones through another section of the race. These were a direct contrast to when I was out on the trail. Whilst running I was in my zone, finding a rhythm and quiet. The contrast between trail and aid station became even more apparent as we went into the night. Whilst out in the silent blackness, only the narrow beam of my torch giving me an inkling of my surrounding environment, my world was very small. The aid stations by contrast were seething with action. Some people rushing in dealing with their immediate needs before heading back on to the trail. Others enjoyed a breather; using it to change socks, shoes and their clothing. I fall into the former camp. I don’t like to change anything once I have set off, not unless it needs addressing. Instead I chose to run in, gulp down chicken noodle soup and flat coke. Snatch a quick kiss and reassuring words from my brilliant crew and, with a pile of cheese biscuits in my hand, I was off again.
The rain that was forecast did eventually arrive during the night and with it a drop in temperature. I have never used waterproof trousers before whilst running. I don’t like the rustle they make as my legs rub together but heading into one of the aid stations I could sense my body temp dropping quickly. I had no choice. Every piece of additional clothing I had brought was going to have to be used so that I didn’t slip into hypothermia. The trails were becoming treacherous, reminiscent of the Conti 24 hr with mud up to my knees. The torch beam in the fog presented me with an interesting problem. It was a hazy and not sharp this reduced the clarity of the vision and running on tired legs I needed to be extra vigilant, picking my feet up over the rocks. A fall at this point wouldn’t have been helpful. I had invested in a good Petzl head torch but was disappointed to find that it died after only 4 hrs. I had to rely on my lesser torch to light the way. Fortunately, whilst not emitting such a powerful beam, this old chestnut did take me all the way back into Chamonix.
The hours passed, as did the kms and I was closing in on the finish line. I didn’t have a finish time in mind as I really didn’t know what to expect from my body. I was in pain and had been taking painkillers throughout. I kept telling myself to just ‘tap it out’. I was finding the climbs hard now and the lack of training was showing. It was down to mental strength now to keep myself moving forward. However, with the last soul destroying climb done (this one was the worst one for me, not because of its steepness but I was ‘over it’ by then) I was headed down in to Chamonix. I couldn’t wait… the thought of seeing James, Andrew and Maya at the finish line and holding their hands as we ran the last few meters together made me well up. I arrived at 5 am and as you would expect at that time in the morning there weren’t too many souls about. Two guys dressed only in dressing gowns 50m from the finish line made me look twice and question my sanity! Then, there it was, and there they were. We ran together finishing as a team. They had sacrificed their last 24 hrs to support me and I was enormously grateful to them for their love and encouragement. I couldn’t have had a better crew.
The UTMB week is extraordinary. Extraordinary in its organisation, which was seamless, in the beauty of the trail and in the atmosphere of the event. I won’t ever forget this run, the energy, the passion, the damned hills and yes, in answer to the inevitable question … I will definitely be back.