I'll be back
The thing which was worrying me most about UTMB was the early cut-offs. I’ve got a habit of just squeaking through mid-race cut-offs before going on to finish (relatively...) comfortably inside the final cut-offs. For instance at the Hardmoors 55 I was 2 minutes inside the mid-way cut-off in 2010 and 8 min this year, but went on to finish 30 min and 82 min inside the final cut-offs respectively. And at the Long Tour of Bradwell earlier this month I technically missed the mid-way cut-off by 2 min, but was 28 min inside the final limit. So given UTMB is notorious for having tight cut-offs early on, I was worried.
From the moment I got injured crossing the road on the way to get my UTMB medical certificate signed nothing had quite gone to plan. The delay in the start time (from 6.30pm to 11.30pm) wasn’t a surprise given that the bad weather (heavy rain, thunder and high winds and snow at high altitudes) had been forecast all week. However the reductions in the early cut-offs (by 15 min at Contamines and La Balme, 30 min at Chapieux, building to more than an hour by Vallorcine) was one final, nasty surprise. All I could do on reading the text message from the organisers was laugh.
Rewinding a bit, my final big training session, a weekend of ‘Snowdon repeats’ a la Jez Bragg and Mike Mason, went OK. I went up the pyg track and down the miner’s track 3 times on Saturday and another 3 times on Sunday. Saturday’s first repeat was grim. I set off too fast, the weather was cold, wet and windy and the path was cluttered with numerous miscellaneous numpties. But by Sunday afternoon I’d got my pacing sorted, the sun had come out and only hardened hill walkers were left (and the ‘haven’t we seen you coming up before today?’ ‘yes, this is my 3rd time’, ‘!?’ conversations were good for my ego).
Then I went for a short gentle run a few days later. Within a couple of 100 metres my shins felt sore, and sore rapidly became painful and affected my gait (it felt like the first few painful runs when I started running 15+ years ago). So I cut the run short and rested for a couple of days, before trying again. With exactly the same result. At this point even managing the first 5 flattish miles to Les Houches was looking doubtful. There was nothing to do but stop running completely and hope for the best.
I flew out to Geneva on the Wednesday night and bumped into one of my Fellsman companions on the transfer to Chamonix (he went on to get agonisingly close to finishing). The hotel I’d booked was a small family run hotel. Very quaint, but no air conditioning, and I got very little sleep that night, waking up drenched in sweat every time I dozed off. With a dull headache (which refused to go away for the next 2 days) I went to register and get my kit-checked. A walk in the park compared to the Fellsman kit check and the bloke doing it was very impressed that I showed him the items in the order they were on the official list. Apparently I was the first person to do that (pity there are no medals for kit organisation...)
Bad weather on Friday night had been forecast since before I left the UK, so the first thing I did on Friday morning was check the UTMB web-site. The 5 hour delay in the start time wasn’t ideal, but not a disaster, it just meant rejigging my eating plans for the day. However the text message which arrived a few hours later with the revised cut-off times reduced my already small chances of finishing to almost zero. As the afternoon went on clouds rolled in and the temperature plummeted. And by early evening it was raining torrentially. Having tried and failed to sleep, I tried to wile the hours away reading and surfing the web.
Come 10pm I got my gear on, downed a couple of gels (not a great idea in retrospect), slathered my shins in painkilling gel and headed down to the start line. It wasn’t clear exactly where the start was so we milled around at the edge of the crowds, trying to avoid being stabbed in the eyes by brollies (the rain was still coming down steadily). Just after 11pm there were a sequence of announcements, mainly in French, and some random waving of trekking poles in the air and then we were off.
It took a few minutes to cross the line, followed by another 5 minutes of walk-shuffling out of Chamonix. But I was surprised by how soon we got running. My shins initially felt odd, but thankfully that faded after a couple of miles. For most of the trail out to Les Houches (and in fact for most of the next 15 miles) I repeatedly got stuck behind an infuriating group of Japanese runners. Strewn across the trail I had to barge past them as they walked (strolled even) on the flats but then they’d run the uphills and overtake me. Through Les Houches, with a quick stop to fill my water bottles and put on my waterproof trousers, I was otherwise actually enjoying myself.
On the climb up to Delevret quite a few people overtook me.
I was a bit cold even with full waterproofs and 2 upper layers on, but decided to press on rather than stopping to put on another layer. There was a trail of headtorches behind me, but I didn’t realise how close I was to the back of the field until I checked the results after. (As at CCC there were only about 50 people behind me at this point.) Thanks to the hours of heavy rain and the 2000+ people in front of me, the steep grassy decent into St. Gervais was pretty much a mudslide. Using my poles I stayed upright and even overtook 20 people on the descent. Running into the aid station I was surprised, and worried, by how much my legs were already aching. I stopped briefly to sort out my insoles which had bunched up (presumably due to gripping with my toes while desperately trying to stay upright), grabbed a handful of biscuits and headed out eating them.
As the early time cut-offs were going to be tight I’d made a spread-sheet of times, speeds elevations etc. which I’d been planning to tie to the outside of my rucksack, but with the shortened cut-offs I’d decided to just see how far I could get without worrying too much and stuffed it inside my bag. A quick mental calculation revealed that it was going to be touch and go whether I made it through the first cut-off at Les Contamines. The 10km from St. Gervais has a deceptive 500m of climbing. It should be mostly runnable but, just like on the training camp, I struggled to do so consistently. On the final narrow bit of trail I got stuck in a queue behind some (even slower) runners and, aware of the ticking clock, squeezed my way past them. I didn’t realise quite how close the cut-off was until, whilst jogging up the road, I heard an announcement that the check-point would be closing in 5 minutes. I sped up to a run, grabbed the first bottle of water I could see (sparkling unfortunately) to top up my supplies, grabbed an even bigger handful of biscuits and ran straight out with a couple of minutes to spare.
The road out of the check point descends gently so I kept running, biscuits still in hand, overtaking large numbers of people who seemed to be wandering along without a care in the world. I did a better job of running the flatish bits out to Notre Dame de la Gorge before slowing on the climb up to La Balme. By now the rain had stopped and the sky was clear and starry. The sun rose and half an hour or so before the cut-off, the checkpoint came into sight in the distance. I was going to make this one with a little bit more time to spare, but (not having eaten apart from the biscuits) my energy levels were fading, so I slowed down a bit to get some more food on board.
After a slightly longer stop to put on warmer gloves, pack my headtorch away and eat some more biscuits, I headed off on the first big climb with 8 minutes to spare. Quite a few people overtook me in the early stages, but then I kept pace with the people around me (although the fact that there weren’t many people left behind to catch up probably had something to do with that...). The skies clouded over and light hail turned into snow, but I was working hard enough not to get cold. On the final section over to the Refuge Croix du Bonhomme I encountered a runner sat on a rock seemingly having a picnic.
The next cut-off at Les Chapieux down in the valley had been moved in by an additional 15 mins and I had an hour to get there. I couldn’t remember how long this slightly technical descent had taken on the training camp, but it was going to be touch and go whether I made it. The snow and mud made the descent even trickier. The picnicing runner flew past me, but otherwise I passed a handful of people descending even more tentatively then me. The runner sat on the floor with what looked like a broken ankle didn’t aid my confidence (an official with a radio was already in place, and shortly after a helicopter flew overhead). I reached the last, gentle grassy section of the descent with 10 minutes to go. At this point it was clearly game over. I pressed on, overtaking a couple more people, just in case. But my maths was right and I was 10 minutes too late. I was guided to the medical area, full of unhappy looking runners, where my chip was removed from my number.
My race ending this early wasn’t a surprise, and I’d been lucky to make it through the first cut-off at Les Contamines. But none the less being stopped when I still felt, more or less, fine was frustrating. Maybe I should have pressed harder, but risking overdoing it in sub-zero temperatures at 2500m didn’t seem too sensible. And if I had to go hard at this point I had no chance of finishing the full 100.
There was an entire bus load of drop-outs for the slow, but beautiful, journey back to Chamonix via Courmeyer. At this point the weather in the valleys looked frustratingly benign.
We decided to make the most of the semi-unexpected free Sunday and take the railway up to the Mer de Glace. My legs were slightly sore, but no worse than after a longish training run, and I had energy to burn... First I decided to race the cable car back up from the ice cave (I lost, but only just). And then I left the other half at the Grand Hotel du Montenvers and went for a run/walk up to Signal. The weather was warm and sunny and it was the highlight of the trip...