UTMB take 2: weather deja vu


My preparation for UTMB went far better than last year. There probably aren’t many people who can stand on the UTMB start line confident that they’re going to finish. But I felt satisfied that I was ready to give it my best shot.  And then the weather intervened. Like last year the weather forecast for race weekend got steadily worse as the week went on: snow above ~1800m with wind-chill making it feel like -10. The outdoor shops of Chamonix were full or runners panic-buying kit. I phoned home and got the other half to bring out my thickest winter tights, a down pullover and a balaclava...

When the route was modified on race morning, to ~100km staying below 2000m, it wasn’t a surprise.  And at that point I was less disappointed than a lot of other people. I’d like to think (with better kit post Fellsman...) that I could have coped with the weather, but I could see why the organisers couldn’t risk sending 2500 (often scantily clad) runners up into it.

Running through cheering crowds at the start was great (although having a woman stop me on the way to the start to tell me how much she admired what I was about to do was a bit surreal). I have a habit of starting wearing too much clothes. Given that a waterproof wasn’t necessary for standing around in Chamonix, trying to run along the valley in one would’ve been insane, so I tied mine around my waist. Not very photogenic, but practical (and my rucksack was full with all the extra layers of clothes). But lots of other runners had set off wearing theirs and the track out to Les Houches was lined with runners stripping off (in addition to the usual ‘blokes having a wee’...).

After a quick stop to put on an extra layer the first climb to Le Delevret flew past. I was only 12 minutes faster than last year (and very close to the back of the field again). But the difference was it felt easy and I managed to keep running all the way along the undulating paths at the top (and past all the runners stopped, shivering, putting on extra layers). On the steep muddy descent into Saint Gervais my first numpty mistake, or at least its consequences, became evident. My headlamp was much dimmer than most of the ones around me, and I was struggling to see, which was slowing me down.  I’d experienced the annoying shadow you get when someone with a super-bright light is behind you before. But why, I wondered, has everyone else brought a super-duper-bright-burns-though-batteries-in-no-time headlamp this year?... None the less I made it into St. Gervais 15 minutes up on last year, passing 160 people along the way.

On the way to Les Contamines, where even seeing well enough to run through woods was a challenge, the penny dropped. When did I last put new batteries in my headtorch? Not long ago, before Fellsman. Since when I’ve run through the night 3 times... With cold wet fingers changing the batteries, was frustratingly slow, but now I too had a super-duper bright headtorch. And I was still 20 minutes up on last year.

I’d deliberately held off putting on my waterproof trousers and fleece until Notre Dame de la Gorge, the start of the first big climb and the end of the running for a while. I struggled a bit up to La Balme and didn’t gain any more time, but I did gain some more places (over 100). From La Balme we were off of the usual route and up into the snow. We ended up queuing along a never-ending rocky single track trail. No point even trying to overtake as the line of headtorches stretched into the distance. Especially after someone just in front tripped and fell several metres down the mountainside and it took 3 people and their trekking poles to get him back.

Eventually we reached La Joly and a long quad-trashing descent along tracks back down to Les Contamines. And then up the other side of the valley and onto some evil muddy forest tracks. Thanks to the Snowdon-repeats I’ve got to grips with long steady climbs, but I struggled with these short steep technical climbs (and along the way made numpty mistake number 2: stopping eating enough). I reached Bellevue just as a tram called Anne was trundling past. It was also leaving the St. Gervais depot as I started my training run earlier in the Summer. Some epic cosmic sign, or just a (not particularly improbable) coincidence?...

Leaving Bellevue another runner warned me about the dangerous descent down to Les Houches. Dangerous? Yes it was muddy, but dangerous? A quick butt slide is usually fairly painless. But when we hit the woods and technical single track, inches deep in gloopy mud, I could see what he meant. I inched my way down, constantly stopping to let people past, until I caught up with someone moving even more slowly than me. After the woods there was more quad-trashing road descent, but I did at least regain the places I’d lost (and a few more besides).

I managed to find some space at Les Houches to change into dry hat and gloves and remove some layers, but still didn’t eat enough. Even at the back of the field the aid stations were really crowded, and getting to the food required determined use of elbows.

I’d had a quick look at the revised route, and I had in my head ‘climb a little way up the valley side, along past Chamonix to Argentiere and then back along the valley’. So I thought the climbs were done and dusted. The big climbs were indeed done and dusted. But in the Alps even a small climb can be pretty hefty, and out of Les Houches there was a never ending road climb. Dozens of people streamed past me, and I kept stopping to remove even more layers. At the top, shattered, I sat down and forced down an energy bar, and suddenly I became turbo charged! I ran along the technical undulating forest track better than I’ve ever done, moving back up the field again.

On the outskirts of Chamonix (tantalisingly in ear-shot of the speakers at the finish) there was an unexpected aid station. I’m usually pretty good at arriving at aid stations with a ‘to do’ list to execute. But this one caught me out and I forgot to top up my water bottles. I realised just as I was leaving, but thought it wasn’t a problem; I had one almost full bottle and Argentiere was just down the valley. Except I didn’t and it wasn’t...

A few miles later, just after my water ran out, we reached a bridge with a small crowd on it, on the outskirts of some sort of civilisation. Excellent I thought, we must be close to Argentiere. But the route went off in the other direction. However there were signs saying Argentiere 30 min and even running slowly I could probably do it in close to half that. And then the route turned again, up another steep climb... Without water, and unable to eat with nothing to wash it down, I really struggled and again people streamed past me. Even at the top it wasn’t over-more undulating single track (and two runners laid under space blankets being looked after by medics). But at least I did eventually come across a stream to fill my bottles from.

I’d been vaguely aware that one of my feet had blistered, and now that I wasn’t thirsty any more my attention turned to that. I’d been holding off on sorting it out until Argentiere. But as the undulations continued, with no idea how much further it was, I randomly decided to sit on a rock and burst and tape it there and then. As I was sat there a familiar, but French, voice said hello-Louis from last year’s training camp. Typically, not long after this the route headed down, and finally, into Argentiere (where I re-passed Louis and his entourage).

I stuffed some cake down and then headed out as quickly as possible. A couple of people overtook me straight after the checkpoint, but by running slowly, but steadily, I passed another 50 people in the final 10k (although a handful of them went from walking to sprinting in the last k and re-passed me). I finished in 24.09. An hour faster than CCC  2 years ago.  The modified route had a similar distance and ascent but was very different in nature (more mud, but also more road) so it’s hard to compare them. I could have been a bit quicker if I’d been more focussed and less of a numpty, but probably no more than an hour. Of 2482 starters, 2122 finished, and I worked my way up from 2328th at the first summit to 1851st at the finish.

Even though I was close to the back of the field (and the time cut-off...) people were coming across the line at a rate of 4 or 5 a minute, so there was a queue to collect finisher’s fleeces. When I got to the front the woman distributing the fleeces tried to shoo me away. And when I looked confused, started burbling in French and waving a bit of paper with info in 6 different languages on at me. Eventually the bloke behind me intervened and explained that they’d run out of finisher’s fleeces in my size, as (thanks to the shortened course) more people than expected had finished. This was really disappointing.  Having my own UTMB finisher’s fleece had been a big carrot (the other half had been plotting how he was going to get it off me to wash...). I’d feel a fraud posing around in it not having run the full route, but post race in Chamonix would have been the one time when I could have worn it with pride (and if you see someone hobbling around Chamonix post race without a fleece, you assume they’ve DNF-ed). Surely more people finishing the shortened course wasn’t a surprise, so if there weren’t enough fleeces for everyone (and since it wasn’t the ‘real UTMB’) they shouldn’t have given any out. I will apparently be getting one  in the post in the next month, but I definitely wont be wearing it ultra-running circles.

So what next? Having wanted to run, and finish, UTMB for so long (5 years...), I’m gutted not to have been able to, for reasons beyond my control. Even if I could get an entry for next year, I don’t think it’d be a good idea. What if it all went pear-shaped again?  And while the TMB route is epic (and run-walking it on my own was the highlight of my Summer), there’s a lot of things I don’t like about UTMB: the queues, the pushing and shoving (which are exacerbated by the unnecessarily tight early cut-offs), the alpha-males, and their families, strutting around Chamonix like triathletes...

I will almost certainly be back at some point (I don’t give up on goals that easily...) but next year it’s time to try some different things. And not just my original ‘flat and (relatively) fast’ plan. I’ve entered the
Spine Challenger. 108 miles along the Pennine Way, in January....