I was close; almost too close…
At every check point I was arriving just minutes before the official cut-off time. Weary volunteers were starting to dismantle tables, chairs and event signage as I hunted through the remains of discarded banana skins and empty water bottles for something to eat. Everything ached; from my cramped left toe all the way up to the arch of my back. Yet another bead of salty sweat snaked its way into my eye. My inner monologue piped up yet again, this time accompanied by images of the fountain in Place du Triangle de l’Amitie behind the finish line: “keep going, just keep going, every step is a step closer to the finish line”.
That happened during the ‘CCC’ on Friday 29th August 2008 and after a long 24 hours, 59 minutes and 05 seconds I did eventually cross the finish line. To finish 124th lady and 1054th overall out of 1314 participants was beyond my comprehension. That was my first ever ultra and looking back at photos taken over eleven years ago, it’s easily apparent I was woefully unprepared. It was only my grit and sheer bloody mindedness which prevented me from stopping. Since then I’ve completed a veritable feast of international ultra-races across the world; and while the CCC is one of my slowest, my first ultra retains a special place in my memory.
The Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) race series has exploded from its original concept in 2003 when seven hundred runners circumnavigated Mont Blanc. Starting and finishing in Chamonix the UTMB route passes through France, Italy and Switzerland before returning to France, covering approximately 170km with 10,000m of ascent. The focus of my ambitions for this year, and that race back in 2008, is the “Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix” (CCC) race fondly known as the “Little Sister” to the main UTMB event. It was created three years after that initial UTMB as a shorter 101km race with 6,100m ascent. Fast forward to 2019 and this world-summit in trail running attracts over 10,000 runners from sixty different countries taking part in what are now seven races over the week (the full list includes the UTMB, PTL, CCC, TDS, OCC, MCC and YCC). In addition to these races around Mont Blanc, the UTMB organisation has also franchised new races in China, Oman, Argentina and the Pyrenees and I would not be surprised to hear more announced in the near future. Ultra-running is big business.
In planning my 2019 Ultra season, I was keen to join the week-long celebrations and take part in one of the UTMB events having missed out last year as I was competing at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Port Elizabeth, South Africa over the same weekend. The “Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie” (TDS) which is usually 121km with 7,300m ascent was my preferred option, though the new course of 145km with 9,100m ascent was too extreme with the Diagonale de Fous ultra (165km with 9,576m ascent) in Reunion Island scheduled in my calendar only six weeks later in mid-October. My decision was effectively made for me – I would return to the CCC and bag that eleven year PB!
Despite the CCCs nickname as the “Little Sister” to the UTMB, it’s a veritable challenge in its own right. The profile hits hard and fast with the 1,400m ascent up to Tete a Tronche coming in the first 9km. It’s particularly tricky to pace as your legs are feeling fresh and fully tapered and it feels a lot easier than it should. I’m sucked onwards and upwards by a never-ending single file of fellow competitors; my rate of ascent hovers between 850m and 950m per hour. That’s slightly too fast for the first 10% of a race. After this ninety-minute stepper workout, it’s a sheer pleasure to open up my stride and traverse the route from Bertone to Bonatti Refuges. The snow-capped mountains of the Mont Blanc Massif stretch to my left, framed by iridescent blue skies. It’s a total contrast to the sub-zero temperatures and low cloud which I experienced at the same point two years earlier during the UTMB (blog post link – here).
During some events everything flows and you glide through the course effortlessly; other days it’s more like wading through treacle with each step sapping your energy. My 2019 vintage CCC is a race of two halves…pleasure followed by pain. I float up and down the Col de Ferret, and glide through La Fouly. Then it hits. It’s a deceptive climb into Champex-Lac, an imperceptible minor bump on the race profile yet it’s vicious and soul destroying. Spurred on by the prospect of watermelon, a rousing cheer from my support crew and the prospect of mentally ticking off another stage, I trudge on. Momentarily replenished, I gaze enviously at the paddle boarders and holiday makers lazing by the lake. It seems a far more sensible summer “holiday” activity.
Time passes. Slowly. I keep on mentally ticking off each check point and willing myself forwards. Trient. Plan de l’Au. Darkness falls and I press on. I begin the counting game and it offers a momentary distraction. I count from one to twenty in time with my stride. And repeat. And repeat again. It’s riveting stuff – anything to encourage my legs which are seemingly filled with lead. Limping into Vallorcine, Ben has carefully laid out a selection of goodies to tempt my palate and I emerge slightly wobbly on my feet clutching a peanut butter and banana cracker. Crossing the road at the Col de Montets means that I’m back in the Chamonix valley – home territory. But before the descent down into Chamonix town centre, I must first negotiate the Tete a Vents climb. Flickering head torches zig-zagging straight up to the sky mark the route ahead up the side of this viscous climb set against the pitch-black night sky. It’s ‘only’ this climb left, followed by the descent from Flegere through La Floria to Chamonix that stands between myself and the finish line.
My world is constricted to focusing on taking each step. The surroundings become more and more familiar. I start to recognize individual trees and bends in the path from the many training runs that I have done over these trails. I reach La Flegere and in my head that marks the beginning of the end. The lights of Chamonix appear on the valley floor beneath me and a sense of relief floods through me. It’s nearly over, but not quite. My brand-new torch starts to dim. Another challenge to deal with. Luckily, I’m soon leaving the peace and quiet of the trails behind and the sounds of Friday night revelry echo between buildings. Through the town centre past the Irish Bar, a little dog leg over the river, and turning the corner, I finally catch sight of the hallowed archway. It’s over. It is a PB. But……
Be the Tortoise. This is a repetition from an earlier blog post. Purposely. A reminder that you can never start off an Ultra too slow. A gentle reminder mainly to myself, an attempt to remember to reign myself back and curb my enthusiasm before hurtling off the starting blocks. Remember what happens to the hare. Be the tortoise.
Your First Ultra. Everyone has a first ultra. It’s a rite of passage. You know you want to go long and break past that marathon distance physically, mentally and emotionally. The trick is to divide the challenge into manageable chunks, navigate the uncertainty around clothing and equipment, nail pre/during/post nutrition, training, rest, and surmount the numerous other complexities. No-one said it would be easy, but if you’ve got a tiny voice inside softly whispering “I wonder if I could do an ultra”. Listen to it. Dream, research, plan, prepare, train and do it. It’s worth it.
Time Spent in Recce. Time spent in recce in seldom wasted; unless it’s the wrong route. But even then, it’s rarely wasted. The Tour de Mont Blanc walking route which the UTMB races tend to loosely follow, has several variations and it’s tricky to know which route will be chosen on race week even though the organisers usually release a GPX route well in advance. The first 15km of the 2019 CCC deviated from the usual UTMB route and climbed 1,400m in the first 9km to Tete a Tronche (25% of the total elevation of the whole race) so I was keen to familiarise myself with the ascent. However, 15 mins into the race I realised we were being led up to Tete a Tronche on a different route to the one I’d recced. Download the GPX file and train on the course, but always be prepared for last minute changes.
Execute the Plan. Spend time fleshing out your race strategy. Crunch the data whether it’s pace, distance, HR, elevation or a combination, take into account technical terrain, check points and climate. Familiarise yourself with your key numbers whether it’s pinning a copy on your fridge door, next to your computer or on your phone. On race day stick to it.
I suspect anyone who knows me will have gleamed an inkling of my frustration at my performance and overall result. A slightly fast start up to Tete a Tronche followed by an hour of over excitement pushing the pace between Refuge Bertone and La Fouly yielded hours of pain towards the later stages. I could cite I was slightly overwhelmed at the ludicrously long list of fellow athletes with eye watering ITRA scores; or the mental acrobatics of starting in the elite pen which inevitably means I start too fast, or reference the heat and nutrition challenges... though ultimately I failed to stick to my plan.
Every race is a learning and re-learning experience. Some have more lessons to embrace than others. There’s just under five weeks to review, refocus and get ready for my next challenge - Diagonale de Fous which snakes its way across Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean from St. Pierre in the south to St. Denis in the north. The CCC was the warm up. Next up, might be the toughest ultra I’ve ever faced...
Finally - BIG thanks for my sponsors for their ongoing partnerships headed up by WAA (What An Adventure) as part of their elite athlete programme, Veloforte for supplying tasty bars crammed full with real food, Precision Hydration for the sweat expert balancing the salty stuff and 33fuel for ingenious "chia seed" gels.
Photo 1: Family ultra antics. Powering along CCC circa 2008 with my dad behind in red. Credit: Ben Psaila.
Photo 2: CCC finish line shuffle circa 2008. Credit: Ben Psaila.
Photo 3: Big smiles captured flying through La Fouly. Credit: Edward Watson.
Photo 4: Pain momentarily forgotten cheered into Champax-Lac by Sarah Credit: Edward Watson.
Photo 5: Going long for the first time in 2008. Credit: Ben Psaila.
Photo 6: Checking out Digaonale de Fous stand at the UTMB Expo. Credit: Ben Psaila.
Photo 7: Throwback to CCC circa 2008 with my race buddy (aka dad) where we're both excited to tackle our first ultra together. It was also Ben's first crewing experience cutting up strips of zinc oxide tape to strap my feet. After 11 years experience he's now an absolute pro. Credit: Anna-Marie Watson.