Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc

29th August 2014


The UTMB was (according to everyone that had done it) the Ultra race to do! I was skeptical as I don't really like hype, crowds and it had got some bad reviews following a couple of years of rescheduling at the last minute. However I wanted to do another 100 mile race and this fitted the bill. I entered in January 2014 and was accepted along with www.MyRaceKit.com Colin Barnes. Elisabet Frankenburg (his wife) was accepted onto the TDS.

My real challenge for 2014 was the Charlie Ramsay record in May 2014 but that would also be good training for the UTMB. I also entered the 10Peaks Extreme in July and then planned just to do long fell races to increase my speed. Training seemed to be going well throughout the year. I succeeded in breaking the Charlie Ramsay ladies record by 45 minutes to do 19 hours and 39 minutes. Then I was first overall in the 10Peaks Extreme. My performance in the fell races was consistent and so I was confident I had done enough training for the UTMB. I did however have a lot of cramp on the Long Tour of Bradwell three weeks prior to the UTMB and so upped my salt intake.

I flew out on the Wednesday and planned to get up to altitude however this did not happen. Stupidly I had worn my size 6.5 Inov8 RaceUltra shoes instead of my size 7's. When I realised I contacted Steve and he posted them Next Day Delivery. So I sat outside the apartment (as there was no receptionist) for two days waiting for them. They had not arrived when I left a week later and still haven't arrived so I will never use Parcel Force again! It was lovely meeting up with Colin, Elisabet, Pete, Louise, Mark and Becky and the apartment was fantastic. We registered on the Wednesday afternoon and relaxed the rest of the time. I packed my Inov8 Race Ultra pack up with the compulsory kit and food. Also my drop bag for Courmeuyer to be dropped off before the race start.

The forecast on Friday night was due to be showers but mild - which was 23C during the day and 16C at night. Waiting for the start at 5.30pm the clouds were building and by the time the music started it was raining so waterproofs were put on. The atmosphere was electric - and even though I don't like that sort of thing it was great to be part of it. Colin, Mark and I had got ourselves a good position as 2300 runners are quite a squash through narrow streets. Running out of town the spectators were 5 thick and cheering. It was hard not to run fast but I stayed steady. I didn't enjoy the 8km of flat forest tracks and arrived at Les Houches quickly. I looked for marshalls with barcode readers but soon realised that they use chip technology. The water station was very well organised and we ran on. Le Deleveret came and went in fog but I had my head torch in my hand so it was easy to see. The descent was slippery but I was careful in my Brooks Cascadia as they have little grip (I wished I had the Ultra's on). I was watching my schedule and was pleased when we arrived at La Balme about on schedule. I was eating well but ate up all the Tunnock and Muesli bars that I had brought from home as they had melted. I picked up many pieces of bananas and tried the soup too which was good. The next few checkpoints seemed to come very quickly. It was very confusing as they didn't have any signs up telling you which CP you were at. There were more than I thought there would be, it was dark and busy. 

I ran through the main CP of Les Chapieux not realising it was the one that was supposed to have pasta - I didn't see any but that is what it's supposed to have. I was really annoyed with myself for that and so made up a Mountain House pudding and ate that. Although these seemed messy they were going down well and so I thought they were worthwhile carrying. I seemed to have a bigger pack than everyone else that's for sure! I ran with Forest Bethell for a while as he caught me and passed me but it was great to have a chat with someone for a short while! I can't remember much of the route as it was dark and so we just ran with our heads down. I had two meals and lots of other food before Courmayeur. When I arrived there I opened my drop bag and go out a rice pudding which I ate straight away. Putting two more meals and other foods in my rucksak I went upstairs for the pasta meal. It was a huge hall and very empty. Forest was sat eating his meal and I joined him. The pasta didn't have sauce and I didn't fancy cheese so it was hard to get down. There wasn't the selection of soups etc so I had a fruit puree pot and some pepsi and continued on vowing to have another meal soon.

Running out I was caught by a Canadian guy with long hair and a Spanish guy with a gecko tattoo on his calf. We ran for a while together - the Canadian was elite apparently (he said he had been passed by his "fans" and surprised I didn't know who he was!) and the Spanish guy was nice. We climbed well and I forgot to make up a meal. The sun rose and it was nice to have daylight but it soon got hot. I ran with Gecko for a while and climbed Grand col Ferret. Descending it was claggy and a girl appeared in front of me. She was Sarah from the UK and we ran together a bit before she took off in front. My thighs were feeling tight and so I was happy to descend at my own pace knowing that we dropped right down from 2540m to 1050m eventually. Running into La Fouly I knew I needed food and so made up a pudding; I threw it up about a minute later,  I drank some soup but threw that up too and then couldn't stop retching. It was hot inside the tent so I decided to move and eat crisps on route. This I did getting a packet of cheddars down. I got my poles out and climbed using the poles. My legs started to feel heavy and I was out of breath. I knew Elisabet was going to be at Champex Lac with a bag of my stuff so I hoped that I could find something I liked to eat. I wished I had put some baked beans in that bag but hadn't. Running into Champex Lac I was now very hot and worried about my situation. Elisabet had everything laid out. I tried some pasta but it was a struggle keeping that down. Then I spied a rice pudding and that tasted good so I ate all that. Elisabet filled my rucksak with fruit puree's, crisps and gels and off I went. 

From Champex Lac to the finish there were three big hills, 2700m in total (two times up Ben Nevis) and 30 miles. I had hoped to do it in 9 hours. The first hill was very steep and I felt sick everytime I got out of breath. I stopped and ate crisps and then had a gel. I was strict with myself now as I wanted to finish this. Descending my thighs were solid and I used the poles a lot.  I passed a Frenchman that I had been running with a lot; he pointed to his Achilles and said he wanted to see a doctor in Trient. He said for me to go on as he could walk down ok. At Trient I managed some bread dipped in soup, the Canadian arrived and asked me if I had Vaseline; I didn't but had a small pot of Sudocream as I was chaffing. I was reluctant to share but did so in the spirit of fellswomanship. Gecko asked me about the Frenchman and was upset he was pulling out. We set off together but he soon left me. I felt like I was going backwards. Running was almost impossible now; my thighs being solid lumps and painful. The second hill was not so bad; just very hot. Once again I ate crisps and had a gel. Descending I knew there was only one hill left - 900m of boulders apparently. I passed through the valley CP quickly as I couldn't eat anything and it was so airless inside. The climb was interminable - steep at first, then steep with boulders, then steep with steps, then steep with boulders and steps. Then it flattened off only to climb again over more boulders. It got dark and I lost the will to carry on. Stopping a lot to faff with my clothes as I was getting cold I just kept going. It was soul destroying to lose so many places but I was cheery to people passing me and congratulated them. "Oh well" I thought "It makes a change me being the struggling one; usually I get it right and run pass the battered and injured". 

The plateau was cold, windy and full of boulders. I couldn't jump down anything and so ended up sliding down on my bottom. We went down, then up, then down and then back up. I cursed not having reccied this as planned and arrived at the Flegere CP miserable. Asking how far I was told 8km. I tried to run as much as I could but was soon reduced to a walk. Eventually running into Chamonix at 2.47am I was cheered in by Pete and Louise at the Finish; thank you guys! I finished in 214 place in a time of 33.15 hours.

On reflection; it is a hard race and I think I need to look scientifically at what went wrong. Mark Townsend suggested a lack of salt which makes sense as I always like crisps but it hasn't twigged why. Also I could have done with some altitude acclimatization as my sickness started when we were up high for some length of time. I will do a lot of research and practice with my salt intake then hopefully get a place in 2015 UTMB and return to do it justice. 

Mark Lynch finished in 296th in 35.02 hours having had a superb run and Colin Barnes finished in 706th in 40.16 hours; not bad for someone who has raced over 1000miles this year! There were 1578 finishers out of 2300 starters. 

In partnership with Colin and Elisabet I'll be running another UTMB seminar; we're looking at March 2015 so come along and together we'll make sure we all get round comfortably next time!!




Reflections - 1 Month Later

I wasn't happy with my performance and confused as to what went wrong. Something went wrong with my energy levels as I recovered quickly and felt strong after two weeks. That has happened before and usually means my energy levels weren't up to scratch and therefore the legs got a fairly easy time of it. After a couple of days hobbling round Chamonix with the thighs I was fine when I got home.

So I asked a few people their opinions; Mark Townsend who knows me well and has seen me perform on record rounds, Anthony Bethell; a UTMB competitor and saw me a couple of times on the race, Elisabet and Colin Barnes with their wealth of Ultra running and supporting experience. I was also contacted by Sarah Rowell who provided me with the final piece of the jigsaw - thank you everybody for taking the time to help.

I bought "Waterlogged" by Tim Noakes and also read Mark Hines's advice on hydration. Like most runners nowadays I have the belief that we must stay hydrated while running and to drink electrolytes not just water. Waterlogged is a big book and hard to read as Tim spends most of the book criticising and disproving tests / theories. So I resorted to dipping and highlighting the "relevant to me bits". Below is what I highlighted; followed by my experiences, conclusion and what I plan to do now:

1) Water is the major constituent in the human body, accounting for about 60% of body mass. The origin of our need to drink starts in the brain which causes the sensation of thirst. The ingested fluid goes through the stomach and into the intestine. As the water passes the upper bowel it receives the secretions of the pancreas which enter the bowel through the bile duct. This adds electrolytes, especially sodium, increasing the osmolality of the solution. The added electrolytes increase the rate at which the fluid can be absorbed across the intestinal wall. The amount of sodium that is added is clearly regulated to optimize the sodium concentration of the ingested fluid. 

2) Much of the advice on drinking has assumed that there is no limit to the rate that the human intestine can absorb fluid. However the kidneys have a limited capacity to excrete fluid load. The human intestine can absorb fluid faster than the kidney can excrete the absorbed fluid (800ml/hour in 70/80kg male) and 600ml/hr in 50/60kg female). The fluid that is not absorbed accumulates in the intestine causes symptoms of nausea and intestinal fullness, leading to diarrhea and vomiting of clear fluid.

3) Originally in the 60's and 70's athletes were advised not to drink. Weight loss was seen as normal as humans are very good at developing "voluntary dehydration" which is corrected soon after exercise; especially when drink is consumed with food. Dehydration symptoms start with thirst then flushing of skin, heat oppression, weariness, sleepiness, impatience, anorexia and dizziness. At about that stage walking pace can not be maintained.  

 4) EAH is Exercise Associated Hypronatremia - the symptoms are in order 1) Impaired exercise performance, bloating and swollen face, hands, legs and feet, nausea and vomiting, headache, altered level of consciousness then seizure. It is caused by an imbalance of the sodium levels within the intestine as a result of drinking too much water/fluid during exercise. Treatment is 3% sodium solution either intravenously or an amount of 1 milliliter per kg body weight per hour.  

5) EAPH is Exercise Associated Postural Hypertension - the symptoms are in order 1) Dizzyness and fainting, nausea caused by reduced blood flow to the brain secondary to reduced blood pressure, vomiting. It is caused by physiological changes that begin the moment the athlete stops running or walking after exercise. Treatment is to lie the athlete flat, or better, with their legs and pelvis elevated above the level of the heart.

6) Other things I read which I think are relevant to me - The faster an athlete run the higher their temperature is. Water consumption does not cool you. Ingesting too much salt causes "salty sweat" as the body gets rid of the excess sodium.

Tim Noakes final summary is:

a) Your body will tell you what it needs, if you listen. b) So drink only ad libitum - that is, according to the dictates of thirst. c) Dehydration is not a disease d) If you are carbohydrate adapted, to optimize your performance during more prolonged competitive exercise, you will need to ingest some carbohydrate or preferably a favourite food. e) There is no need to increase your habitual daily sodium intake above that dictated by your appetite. f) There is no need to ingest additional sodium during exercise.

Relevance to Me!

I have always tried to listen to my body. In training and through cancer / various operations I am amazed at the body's ability to heal itself. 

Interestingly along Tim Noakes's way he came across "the Fat Man, who taught the following: "The main source of illness in this world is the doctor's only illness; his compulsion to try and cure and his fraudulent belief that he can.... We hardly ever cure. We cure ourselves and that's it" . On the farm I am sometimes reluctant to call the vet to a strange cow / calf illness as vets are the same. The poor animal can end up being treated with all sorts of stuff when I believe that left alone it would just take weeks if not, months of considerate care for the animal to recover.

A lot of what I read made sense as over the years through races and rounds I have experienced the following:

a) I like to drink and as per guidelines I drink quite a bit before and during running. However I can often feel and hear fluid sloshing around inside me. I rarely need to wee while running long races. After Courmayeur (18 hours) I didn't need to wee even though I was drinking a lot.

b) My hands swell up quite often on longer fell races and rounds.

c) On the UTMB for the last 30 miles all I ate was crisps followed by a gel then the odd banana or two. When I arrived at Champex my first thoughts were "I'll get this packet of crisps down to settle my stomach". If I am sick on a round then I always eat a packet of crisps; I have found it works for me but I have never investigated why this might be. My best rounds - ie my first Ramsay and the record Paddy have been when I have eaten a lot of crisps. My favourite flavour is salt and vinegar.

d) On the Fellsman and 50 mile runs I have about three times, experienced the feeling of needing to pee a lot. When I go there is very little and then immediately I need to go again. By trial and error I have found that I need to drink about a litre of water and the need to pee goes away. Odd ... but it works.

e) I know I don't like to be too hot. I drink because I like the feeling of cool water inside me. I also tip it over me. As soon as I'm cooler I am happy.

f) At the end of the Grand Raid Pyrenees I fainted; I had low blood sugar but also thought it was due to dehydration.

g) Sarah and Mark suggested I was tired and so didn't have the reserves when it all went pear shaped in the UTMB. That also makes sense as during the summer I found that I couldn't train properly. I would have one good week/race then a shocking week/race. There was no pattern. Looking back my best 100 milers - Grand Raid Re-Union and my first Grand Raid Pyrenees have been when I only did one other big event in the same year.


I am going to experiment by not drinking quite as much and eating more crisps. See if I can get the balance right.

And next year 2015 - I am going to re-enter the UTMB and go back, with support, after not over training and do the best I can.