The adventure of a lifetime
It’s taken me a year to write this report because it’s hard to do UTMB justice in words. With the aim of just finishing it, I’d spent nearly 3 years running huge distances, climbing every peak I could find and building the leg strength of a horse. After failing to complete a similar race the year before, I became obsessed with the challenge that only 60% of the 2000 starters would ultimately manage to finish: 103 miles of running and 9600m of climbing non-stop in 46 hours across one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. (Featured image credit: freedom-conservation.org)
Stage 1: Chamonix to Les Contamines (30km, 1486m+)
The adventure began with a Freedom Eagle fly-past to the music of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise and it was a rousing spectacle to behold. As the runners jostled across the start line, huge crowds lined the streets of Chamonix to cheer our passage westward to Les Houches along one of the few flat sections of the race. There was a lot of excitement and competitiveness in the air but I held back my pace and settled in for the first climb up to Col de Voza (750m+)
On reaching the summit, a burning sunset across the Dômes de Miage greeted us which many runners stopped to photograph. The descent into Saint Gervais was a direct one, straight down a ski slope into the upper suburbs of the town. As would soon become the norm, hundreds of locals lined the streets all the way to the main square high-fiving us and ringing cowbells as we passed. I spent less than 3 minutes at the checkpoint to refill my water and to grab some meat and cheese (the long distance fuel of choice) and off I clattered up the Nant valley towards the first big climb of the race. Along this undulating section with a few little climbs (100m+), the first casualties started to appear as a few runners could be seen vomiting by the side of the path.
Stage 2: Les Contamines to Les Chapieux (49km, 2823m+)
Les Contamines is the last town before you reach the first high passes of the Tour du Mont Blanc path so I took the opportunity to put on my warm clothes. In a race this long, I prefer not to spend any time in the aid stations until I really need to (i.e. later on when you’re destroyed) because there’s no quicker way to waste all of the hard pacing you’ve done than to sit around chin wagging with other runners, tempting though it might be. The best approach is to get back on the move ASAP so after an hour or so I reached the church of Notre Dame de La Gorge which marks the start of the long slog up to the Col du Bonhomme (1200m+). As we approached, the sound of Country & Western blared out into the night along with roaring bonfires. This charming, left-field gesture gave everyone the necessary boost to start the first aggressive climb of the race as the twanging guitars faded into the distance.
On approaching Refuge La Balme, the ascent towards the Aiguilles de la Pennaz was opened up by a procession of hundreds of headtorches; a truly surreal sight that was both unsettling and majestic in equal measure. It was around this time that my body demanded Coca Cola and in huge amounts so I heartily obliged. After the checkpoint, the going got steep and I finally started to get into my comfort zone as we rose and rose and rose up into the beautiful moonlight of the high alps. This moment overwhelmed me and for the first time in the race (and not the last) I was moved to tears. Since its inception in 2003, UTMB has been affected by the sort of adverse and unpredictable weather that is common to high mountain ranges. In particular, the risk of landslides from heavy rain has forced the organizers to shorten the course in previous years. Not this time. We were very lucky indeed.
Eventually we reached the saddle-like summit of the Col du Bonhomme (2329m) to the wild hoopla of a small squad of the hardy volunteers that make UTMB possible. It’s this contrast between alpine solitude and sudden bouts of loud encouragement that make this race so unique and so endearing. Suitably jarred and awoken from my trance, I set about the rocky climb of a few hundred metres up to the Col du Croix du Bonhomme dodging the occasional pool of vomit. At the top I was rewarded with a spectacular view westwards across the uplands of Savoie.
Yet again, I was tempted to rest a while and take it all in but I stuck to the plan and set off down towards Les Chapieux for the first serious descent of the race. Criss-crossed by streams and gulleys, the path was a mangle of very narrow channels with 1-2 foot grassy banks on either side. I saw at least 10 people fall over, one or two of them quite badly and resolved to take it easy not just to avoid an injury but also to minimise the trauma to my quadriceps. If you’ve had a difficult climb on the way up and with the ever-looming threat of the Barrière Horaire (time barrier) behind you; it’s tempting to make up time by hammering it down because it’s not tiring and it’s a lot of fun but it can be very counter-productive. The problem with this tactic, as I learned the year before, is that it can trash your quadriceps unless you have the sort of conditioning that comes with living in the mountains and running down 1000m slopes on a regular basis. Me, I live in London and the nearest thing I have to a mountain is the mighty Box Hill standing at a height of… er.. 224m so I took it easy and saved my legs.
Somewhere on the way down as I was being cajoled by the passing thrill seekers, I managed to lose my beloved collapsible drinking cup (boohoo!). Besides the disgrace of littering such a pristine environment, this handy piece of kit also happened to be an obligatory item which triggered a deep sense of panic when I noticed that a kit inspection had been established on the approach into the checkpoint at Les Chapieux. Sometimes referred to as the sleep monster, the onset of paranoid delusions is quite common in races of this length since it is not only your muscles that are working for 40 hours straight. It’s your brain too and it gets tired like everything else. Blowing it out of all proportion, I started to have premonitions of being forcibly ejected from the race for being “sans cup”. It sounds ridiculous I know but it felt perfectly rational under the circumstances. Like a drug mule sneaking through Bangkok airport, I resolved to look as normal as possible and got away with it.
Stage 3: Les Chapieux to Lac Combal (65km, 4052m+)
After a generous refuel, I was on the move again through the small hamlet of Les Chapieux. Once more I was moved by the sight of so many torchlights snaking up the Vallée des Glaciers towards the border with Italy some 10 miles ahead. I felt really strong at this point, no aches or pains and plenty of power so I upped the tempo and gained nearly 350 places by the time I reached the next aid station at Lac Combal. Our moonlit progress up the steep-sided valley was accompanied by a raging stream as the mighty presence of Mont Tondu and the Aiguille des Glaciers gradually came into view. Just to the right, our path up the Col de La Seigne was clearly visible and it was on the steepest section of this climb that I met a very brave man. Having reached the painful realisation that he could not go on, this Japanese runner was utterly crestfallen at the side of the path. Incredibly, he was dressed like a cross between the Michelin Man and a boiled sweet. Foolhardy though he clearly was, you have to admire the audacity. In fact, I had flirted with the idea of doing it myself in a cheap suit just for comedy value but I ditched the notion the moment I actually tried running on a mountain. This terrain is jaw-droppingly difficult. It really is that hard so whoever you are Mr Blob: I salute you! (Or 私はあなたを敬礼しますas they say in Japan)
The approach to the summit coincided beautifully with the break of dawn. Heading into the rising sun behind the shuffling silhouettes ahead, we eventually reached the checkpoint and the most spectacular view opened up in front of us. Flooding the Val Veni with fractured shafts of light, the sun caught the mist rising off Lac Combal far below and gave us a glimpse of Entrèves, just to the north of Courmayeur, the halfway point of the race. As I beeped over the tracking mat, I nodded my good mornings to the race marshals as something incoherent and urgent was garbled at me by way of a rebuke. Quickly, I reviewed all of the usual UTMB faux pas: was I pointing my sticks at them? No. Was my headtorch still on and was it blinding them ? No. Still none the wiser, I decided to affect an exaggerated air of exhaustion and to carry on regardless. The UTMB race marshals are nothing short of heroes. With most of the checkpoints located on remote summits (to deter cheats), these guys will have hiked up with lots of equipment (tents, chronometers, first aid kit) 24 hours ago and would have counted through every single runner.
After a short descent, we veered north and started to climb again towards the Col des Pyramides Calcaires. My only criticism of the course is the utter impossibility of running this section. Making its UTMB debut in 2015, this part served to “bump up” the total race ascent to a nice, even ten thousand metres. But as a lonely outcrop of limestone in a sea of granite, these twin peaks are a cascade of jagged football-sized rocks which, for added entertainment, are as loose as an asteroid field. I defy anyone, even the elite competitors, to run across this sort of terrain. Moreover if you ever need an efficient machine for breaking people’s ankles then just do it the easy way and spend 30 seconds trying to run down this mountain. You’ll be in hospital quicker than you can say Toblerone.
Stage 4: Lac Combal to Courmayeur (78km, 4520m+)
As the wobbly rocks gave way to a hard-packed path, the Lac Combal aid station with its handy ambulance came into view. Lucky to be unscathed, I devoured as much food and water as I possibly could. It was only 8 am but the temperature was rising quickly: this was going to be a long day. Dead flat and hugging the side of the lake, the next couple of miles were a scenic interlude before the next climb of the race. Weaving around some derelict alpine huts, the path up to the ridge felt heavy going and it was a relief to reach the Arête du Mont-Favre: an impressive spur where one of the race helicopters was taking a break. This vantage point high above the Val Veni has one of the best views in the entire race (see this clip) but there was no time to appreciate it. After pinging through the checkpoint, we meandered back onto the ridge line and enjoyed the magnificent views all the way to Col Checrouit. Around this time, I encountered a runner who appeared to have become either hypoglycemic or in danger of heatstroke or both. Asking me frantically where he could buy a cheeseburger and struggling to stay on his feet, he was clearly having a bad morning of it so I gave him a couple of sugar gels, a lot of water and some guidance to the next checkpoint. So insistent he was that he was “perfectly ok, thank you very much”; it became necessary to follow him for a mile or so, feigning my own exhaustion, and to gently re-direct him back onto path. This is potentially serious stuff to be dealing with next to a big drop so it was a relief to introduce him to the marshals at the Col Checrouit checkpoint, drink 2 litres of coke and set off down the ultra-steep path to Courmayeur.
The track was nigh-on vertical with constant switchbacks and an ample choice of tree roots to trip over. I was hugely impressed by the few people that decided to really attack it with the exception of one utter $%^&** who nearly pushed me off a 30 foot drop and didn’t even bother to apologize. Comforted by the fervent hope of watching him clatter into a stinging nettle bush further down the slope, I continued my stately descent into the upper reaches of Dolonne – a charming, medieval village on the west bank of the Dora Baltea river. As the halfway point in the race, the Courmayeur sports centre was thronged with supporters and it was a real boost to see both my wife Jenny and my mum Sheila who had taken the bus from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc tunnel to cheer me on. After eating like a horse, changing clothes and refreshing various bits of kit (e.g. new batteries for the headtorch).
Stage 5: Courmayeur to Grand Col Ferret (100km, 6475m+)
As I crossed the bridge which divides Dolonne from Courmayeur, I managed to get the tip of my walking pole stuck in a drain cover. Despite the firmest encouragement, it just wouldn’t budge and the red mist came down in a torrent of foul expletives that shattered the peace of this Alpine idyll. Rather than dampen their spirits, however, this unladylike display served only to rouse the onlookers’ hoopla. Amazing. We then climbed up through Courmayeur’s winding streets and through the main square where our names were read out as we passed. After so much time alone in the wilderness, it was both jarring and heartening to suddenly be in the spotlight of a large crowd but these wistful musings were extinguished as quickly as they arose thanks to the horrendous climb up to Refuge Bertone. At the best of times on fresh legs, it feels like a death march but in 30 degree heat after 20 hours on your feet it rapidly morphed into the low point of my race as I paused for breath at the corner of nearly every switchback on the path. At the top, I even had to sit down for 10 minutes in the shade after drinking a ton of water before I could face the trail again.
Between Bertone and Refuge Bonnati, the path is more or less flat as it hand-rails a contour line that dips in and out of the mountainside to cross stream after stream. In spite of the altitude it was still baking hot so I dunked my head into every other water source until we eventually reached Bonatti. Overlooking a monstrous wall of moraine on the south-eastern flank of Mont Blanc, this is a very special place and a well-equipped mountain refuge. Having lost my beaker on the way down the Col du Bonhomme, I had by now developed a range of begging and scavenging techniques in order to eat my fill. At Bonatti, which has its own pub-style bar, they kindly lent me a pint glass so that I could fill it with a huge helping of vermicelli pasta in a lukewarm broth which I duly downed in one. Shortly afterwards I considered my “emergency €20 note” and a dishonourable but highly appealing thought crossed my mind. What if I just sacked in the whole damn race and drank a lovely pint of ice cold lager instead?
After Bonatti, the path meanders along for a few miles before the Grand Col Ferret comes into view. At 2490m, it’s the highest point in the race but it doesn’t look too fearsome when you first see it. This is because you’re already at 1900m. Then you realise the path is about to drop 300m down to the Arnuva checkpoint far below. Crushing! As we zig-zagged down the mountainside, I felt a burning sensation on the back of my knees and decided to have a proper look at it in the aid station. In the month before UTMB, I’d developed a mild patellar tendon inflammation that would come on after running downhill for a couple of hours. To mitigate it, I’d opted to wear knee braces on both legs and when I removed them, my skin had been badly chafed from the friction and was bleeding quite a bit. The medics patched me up with plenty of antiseptic cream and I grabbed some food before taking an age to pack and then re-pack my bag thinking that I had lost something. In fact I had (one of the knee braces which I left with the medics) but I only remembered this a month or so after getting back home. By this stage in the race, my clarity of thought was starting to deteriorate and even simple tasks like tightening my shoelaces seemed to take on a dimension of absurd complexity.
I’d heard it said that once you’ve climbed the Grand Col Ferret you’d have more or less have broken the back of the course. Getting up it proved to be a horror of steepness but I used the tactic of never looking up at the summit and taking the smallest steps possible. It worked and before long I was at the top of the pass crossing into Switzerland.
Stage 6: Grand Col Ferret to Champex (124km, 7178m+)
The descent from the summit was a lovely, gradual decline which I ran until we reached a small refreshment point beside a remote farm. Then we twisted and turned all the way down to the village of La Fouly after crossing the Dranse de Ferret river. In the aid station I drank a few cups of coffee and took the time to eat a lot of soup and bread. A few hundred metres later, I knelt down to tighten my shoelaces and managed to tear my race number off the tri-belt it was fastened too. In my fractured mental state, it took nearly 5 minutes to solve the problem by simply turning the number upside down and use the other two holes. Panic over, we started the flat section that ran all the way through the villages of Praz-de-Fort and Issert to the foot of the climb up to Champex. At the last village, the locals served us cups of a warm sweet liquid that was highly refreshing but very difficult to identify. Emerging from the trees after a relatively short climb, we reached the major aid station at Champex which had big tables of proper food such as pasta and stew. By this stage, lots of runners were starting to struggle and had sat down in a sort of trance to recuperate themselves. I was wary of doing this in case I nodded off and lost a couple of hours.
Stage 7: Champex to Vallorcine (151km, 8922m+)
On leaving the aid station, the course hugged the edge of the picturesque Lac de Champex and then became a trail that would lead to the foot of the next climb up to Bovine. It was along this section that I opted to leave the path, find a suitable hedge and take a 20 minute power nap to refresh the mind. I’d been advised by someone never to sleep next to the trail. This guy did this once in UTMB and was constantly woken up by passing runners to ask whether he was ok. Whilst in keeping with the race’s spirit of looking out for each other, he got no rest at all and so I decided that hiding in hedge would be a much better idea. Using a double alarm clock on my iphone to guard against the disaster of falling into a deep sleep and triggering a huge manhunt, I managed to switch off for 2o minutes in my leafy solitude before pressing on towards the eighth climb. Characterised by large boulders and tree roots, Bovine was a gnarly ascent that slowed you down by forcing you to clamber up onto high ledges or around jutting rocks. I was impressed by all the supporters I could hear ringing their cowbells on the mountainside but I never actually saw any of them until it dawned on me that they were probably cows and that the clue was in the name of the mountain. Once we broke through the treeline, you could just make out their shapes in the pastures or at least I imagined that I could. To the right hand side, far below we could also see the bright lights of what I later determined was the town of Martigny.
After passing through the tiny hamlet of La Forclaz, the path started to descend sharply down to the valley below. As we rounded the edge of Bovine, the scale of our next climb came into view as we could see the procession of torchlights zig zagging up from our next destination in the valley far below to the summit of the penultimate climb in the race. On reaching the aid station at Trient, I was full of trepidation since this was the point where I crashed out of the previous year’s race. Despite being sleep-deprived I felt physically ok and this was a great boost when I set out for the climb up to the Catogne Pass. Most of the runners (myself included) were silent and in a sort of trance as we marched our way to the top as dawn broke. After passing through a checkpoint, the course made a sharp detour onto the steep path down to Vallorcine. I found this to be a highly technical section of loose rocks, tree roots and very tight switchbacks. This slowed me down a lot and I started to get some vivid hallucinations in my periphery vision. On at least three occasions, I remember stopping or – worse – not stopping but craning my head back to make a double take at a tree root which I believed for a moment had been carved into the shape of Westminster Abbey or the Space Shuttle.
At last we clattered into the Vallorcine aid station and for the first time in the race I felt completely sure that I could finish it. There were just 10 miles to go, 1 climb and about 7 hours before the cut off.
Stage 8: Vallorcine to Chamonix (166km, 9889m+)
The undulating path out of Vallorcine followed the railway line and the Eau Noire river in alternating stretches and I managed to hold a brisk, quick-march sort of pace until we reached the Col des Montets and the foot of the last climb, the Tête aux Vents. Fortunately, as I had recced this last stretch the week before, I knew what was coming: a deceptively quick climb to what looks from a distance like the summit but which transpires on a closer inspection to be only halfway up. Eventually, we reached the main ridgeline and started to close in on the Tête aux Vents itself. To the left hand side, the huge panorama of the whole northern flank of the Mont Blanc massif was truly a wonder to behold as we reached the cairn where the small checkpoint was based. I remember asking the marshals whether they had a knife or a pair of scissors so that I could make two new holes in my race number and thus re-attach it with the proper orientation. Why? I’d become anxious that perhaps the number could not be read upside down and that I would be disqualified as I crossed the finish line. It’s ridiculous in hindsight but this is what a lack of sleep can do. With such weighty topics gnawing at my mind, our course was set for the very last checkpoint next to the ski station at La Flégère. Now late morning and baking hot again, I remember being reduced to a slow shuffle until we started the final descent into Chamonix itself. This part was so much fun although it took a lot longer than I thought it would. After endless switchbacks, we started to get near enough to the town to hear the tannoy at the finish line and the cheers of the crowd. When at last I broke out of the tree-lined trail and into the upper suburbs of Chamonix, I was immediately recognised and congratulated by Sophie – the owner of the room I rented in Les Bossons the week before. I then made my way to towards the place where Jenny and I had agreed to meet before running the last half mile together. This part was incredible as you run a lap honour through the middle of Chamonix to the cheers of the crowd. As we approached the arch where it all began 42 hours earlier, I picked Jenny up and carried her over the line in a Hollywood finish much to the amusement of the race commentator. Rather than collapsing in a heap, I felt overcome with joy to have completed the course and simply could not believe it. This emotion last for all of three minutes, however, as the effect of nearly two days on my feet started to take hold. There was only one thing for it: we found a restaurant nearby and went for pizza/beer with my mum Sheila and my friend Miles’ and his family. Wow, what an adventure and what a wreck my body had become.
I hope you enjoyed reading this report about UTMB 2015 as much I have enjoyed writing it.