Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc
26th August 2016
My return to the UTMB was prompted by Jean Brown in November 2015 noticing that I had squeezed onto the Elite category therefore would automatically be allocated a place. Before that although I had wanted to right the disappointing and confusing experience I'd had in UTMB 2014 I wasn't prepared to miss the opportunity of other races and wait for the ballot.
The spring and summer went well for me; the Double Bob Graham achieved in May meant that really I could concentrate on recovery interspersed with fell races for most of the summer. This as usual went pear shaped as the weather delayed silaging, then haymaking, then straw harvest so as usual three weeks before the UTMB I didn't feel like I'd had a consistent summer of running. Combined with an atrocious Borrowdale fell race where I'd badly sprained my ankle meant that forced taper was upon me and the race loomed.
All I wanted to do was right the wrongs of 2014. I'd come to the conclusion that I was over raced then, didn't eat and drink enough early on, didn't take enough salt on and so suffered badly from sickness which resulted in a severe lack of energy for the last 25 miles / 10 hours. To put it into perspective it took me 5.45 hours to get from Vallorcine to Chamonix and the cutoff split for that section was 5.15 hours. So I had a schedule that I was not going to go faster than, I knew it was going to be hot so the hydration plan was to stay hydrated throughout the night, pack my own food in the Courmayeur drop bag as I had been sorely disappointed in the pasta meal there in 2014, then plod and survive the heat of the day so I arrived at Champex Lac in a much better state than 2014 ready to utilize my support of the wonderful Charmian from then on.
I packed light but sensibly; some forecasts were giving out rain showers. I was glad of my 6" stretchy tape bandage at kit check as the women measured it's width, length, stickiness and then it's stretchiness (yikes!). But by using lightweight Inov-8 pants , 3/4's with thin long socks, Inov-8 top and Merino layer I was able to comply with kit requirements but feel happy about what I could wear on the hill in bad weather. I also took (after much deliberation) two Alpkit Muon head torches. I have had bad experiences of usually reliable torch's running out of battery and also the kit requirements says "2 torches with spare batteries". Two Muons with two spare AA batteries weighed under 200g. With more spare batteries in my drop bag I was confident I would be ok. Shoes are always a dilemma but having run in the Inov-8 Ultra 290's in L'Echappee Belle in 2014 I opted for the new TrailTalons just half a size up to allow for a bit of swelling.
So having been allowed in the "Elite Pen" both me, Jasmin Paris and Jean Brown were in there (at the back) in good time. There was the usual hype and music and then we were off. Almost immediately I began to sweat. "Oh Great" I sarcastically thought. And tried to drink straight away but the running was flat and horrid. I couldn't wait for a walking climb to arrive. I tried to go steady but it was hard. I was really pleased to arrive at Saint Gervais only a few minutes quicker than I'd hoped (in 2.41 hours). I scanned the food table as my other cunning plan was to eat more of their food. Bananas and museili bars were collected and stashed away in my Race Ultra 10ltr I tried these out while running and while one sort needed 30 mins of chewing to get it to swallow but the Date and Banana bars were great so became a favorite. Noodle soup also a great option and I had two bowls at every CP.
I was letting lots of people pass me; hoping that I would get them back later. The heat was stifling and the trails very dusty. I don't like this race I thought. We got to the extra bit after Col de Seigne called Col des Pyramides Calcares and suddenly were off piste up a boggy tussocky mountainside. How fantastic I thought while the locals obviously thought otherwise! The descent was even better - huge, unstable rocks a bit like the Carn Mor Dearg or Scafell. For the first time I was faster than most descending and that's with me going steady! I loved it but all too soon we were back on normal trail running. I was slipping on the schedule but it was only a guide to help me know how long between CP's so I wasn't worried. I was caught by James Harris as it got light and had a lovely chat, passing a kilt clad man playing bagpipes!
Heading into Courmayeur at 7.30am I was looking forward to my own food. After 2014 I had packed ready cooked pasta, beans, tin of coke, milkshake, a flask of proper coffee and the usual rice puds and fruit salads. Changing my socks was lovely too. I'd gone with normal Inov-8 socks but added vasaline to my feet and changed them as often as I could. My feet felt ok which was good as I could feel dirt and grit getting in. Out of Courmayeur a long hot climb then onto the plateau where I remembered in 2014 it had been claggy and I had started to struggle. Although the climb was so, so hot it was good to feel slightly better than last time. I enjoyed the descent down but was careful as the quads were sore from previous cramping. I was a little worried but hoped that when it was cooler they would feel better.
In and out of La Fouly (where I was sick in 2014) and the huge hot climb onto Grand col Ferret. At least this year we got views so I took it all in. I was really hating the heat but it was 2pm and so I was praying that it would get cooler. I did the Old County Tops race in heat where you felt like your head was going to explode; it was like that. I slowed and slowed but just couldn't climb without puffing, which increased the pressure in my head. But the system of drinking water and energy drink with zero tablets was working. Going to the loo between CP's became the norm.
Down, down, down we went - running with two Brits that knew the course (and the water troughs) as we ran along the blistering valley. Track, road, road, track - I could see the climb to Champex Lac and remembered it as hot. But when we eventually reached it it was in shade. Charmian, beans, Charmian, coffee, Charmian, milk shake became my mantra walking uphill. Steve came down to meet me and walked in with me. It was hot in the tent but I ate beans, changed my socks, gathered some food up and was on my way. Along the lake side where people were swimming, I couldn't run on the flat - worryingly. Passing Anthony Bethall taking photos who gave me such good advice after 2014 - he was cheery.
We started to climb I was behind a guy called Mike and a guy with sticky out grey hair (not that mine doesn't stick out) but he reminded me of Joss Naylor with his sticks poking out and he running gait. I felt a spot of rain but there were no clouds. I prayed it was rain. More spots. Then no spots. "Oh well - no rain". 15 minutes and more spots. We climbed in silence. Then big spots, getting stronger. Onto the plateau we climbed. The rain started properly and was so cooling. Then the spots started bouncing and I noticed it was hail. Although I was still hot I thought maybe waterproof was needed. I had been thinking about my legs - my quads - and wondering if I could tape them. I would do it at Trient. The rain came heavily but then the hail. All at once everyone stopped and waterproofs were quickly donned. "Why don't I put my leggings on to see if they help my legs?" It's what I would do on a fell race - keep my legs warm. But what a faff. I took my shorts off, sat on a rock, tugged my now wet leggings over my shoes, put the shorts back on, then the waterproof on and stuffed everything into the now soaked rucksak. Everybody else had gone! I was cold, my hands were cold. I reveled in this feeling!!! Setting off running my legs felt so much better. I felt so much better. The lightning was low level and the thunder came 5 or more seconds later. I remembered that the time between lightning and thunder represented how close the storm is to you. There were rainbows behind, sunshine on one side of the hill, hail on the other. I was absolutely loving it.
Running along I soon caught people slipping on the mud and rocks. My shoes were just right - the right size so secure on my feet and with grip that even I was impressed with. Trying them on the wet rocks I found I could grip. How amazing - not Welsh or Lakes rock but nice grippy gritstone type like back in the Peaks! This is just getting better by the minute. Descending into Trient the rain stopped and I took my waterproof off. Steve once again met me and ran in with me. Changing socks again, eating beans, collecting rice pudding and fruit salad I was off again. Now having a tussle with another lady I wanted to get going. A long zig zaggy climb next - a nice one. It was very dark but I had collected my big Magicshine torch from Charmian and was a happy bunny. Not only was it a huge help lighting up the ground but people got out of it's way preferring to use my light to their own pathetic one! Between Trient and Vallorcine I only passed people but one guy could descend better than me so we took it in turns. I was passing women as well.
Into Vallorcine and the lady hadn't caught me so I wanted to be quick. Beans, and just rice pudding and gels to go. I was in and out quickly. Now I was on the last climb; the one I remembered being hell. But first there was an awful valley section alongside a road; too steep to run; too gentle to walk. I was happy to cross the road and begin climbing. Ladies I passed were trying to stay with me. I pushed on; getting a rhythm going, catching my friend. Although it had stopped raining I knew Flegere would be exposed and kept my waterproof on. I passed all the spots where in 2014 I'd stopped and rested. Nothing seemed bad to climb, the steps, the flat rocks, the unstable rocks. I fell once on the plateau and reminded myself "It's not over till the Fat Lady Sings". Be careful.
Passing a row of walking runners I noticed the Italian lady there with surprise. Now I was running well, enjoying the rocks. Into Flegere I ran straight through as a lone head torch was chasing me. Soon as I was in the woods it caught me; the Italian lady skipping along. I can't do skipping! She passed me and I speeded up not wanting anyone else to catch me. I spied someone in front wearing a pink top, long legs, pink shoes - a lady? "Oh no - I didn't want a 4km sprint". But then again let's have a go and see. I opened up my legs, "Ouch that hurts." "Never mind it will be worth it". I passed her and carried on opening up a gap.
Down onto the road, turning this way then that way. "How much further?" I wanted to ask. Then the town, then the bridge, the canal side. Turning off my torch I turned round, I couldn't see anyone. Into the last 200m I slowed wanting to enjoy it. People clapping, Charmian and Steve there. Oh what a wonderful feeling! I crossed the line and wasn't bothered about my time. It's the feeling I wanted. To have enjoyed the last three climbs from Champex Lac; to have run with energy to finish in style. My dream race. We collected my gilet and headed home. I had a lettuce sandwich (food of champions) a shower and a 3 hour sleep! Waking I went and had breakfast with Jasmin and learnt all about her race. I have loved staying with Jasmin and her family, getting to know them all. In her first 100 mile race in which she also hates the heat she finished 6th in 28 hours. An incredible athlete.
Then I went to meet Charmian and down to the finish to meet Jean Brown and wait for Kirsty Hewitson and Mark Townsend to finish the PTL. I was also very keen to see Ruth Batty from Dark Peak finish what I know has been a long, hard programme for her to get points, and entry and now round the UTMB. What a determined star she is; after watching for hours I spied her trotting in and rushed to congratulate her!!!
Results http://utmb.livetrail.net/classement.php?course=utmb&cat=scratch And this time it took me 3.40 hours to get from Vallorcine to Chamonix!