My journey to the TDS, a 145km alpine trail event from Courmayeur in Italy to Chamonix in France and part of the UTMB series, started three years ago.
At the end of August 2019, I undertook another UTMB event; the CCC. I stood at the start line on a hot morning feeling sick with terror and absolutely convinced that I would not finish. I am a plodder, but I managed to keep going, keep ticking off the aid stations, perversely enjoy the depths of the night and felt I was strong on the last mountain of the 100km route. The finish line experience with the crowds of Chamonix cheering me to the famous arch was one of the best moments of my life, partly because it had seemed an impossible dream until the last few hours. I walked away from the CCC feeling I could have gone further and intrigued where my limits might lie. I would have written a report from the CCC, but events afterwards prevented me completing that write-up.
Exactly three weeks after the start of the CCC, I was at a work meeting in Reading. Suddenly, I felt very unwell with my head going mushy and I collapsed in a corridor. Luckily, my colleagues reacted quickly by calling 999. Paramedics rushed me under blue lights to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where emergency scans identified that I had had a stroke and I was given clot busting drugs to prevent further damage to my brain. During the following week in hospital, I had to re-learn how to walk as the part of my brain interpreting hearing (and balance) had been affected. The physio who worked with me was also a runner, knew of the CCC event, was shocked as to how it had happened and so was determined that she wanted me to slowly jog down a hospital corridor before I was discharged.
I spent five months off work, recovery felt slow, and I was affected by confidence loss and anxiety. I was tested extensively to see if a cause could be found; but everything pointed to the fact that I am very healthy and have a strong heart. The hospital consultant said that running would be a good thing for me and wrote a note to say that she considered it safe for me to undertake long ultra-events. I am incredibly lucky because I was treated so quickly before much damage was done. I only really notice some hearing challenges now, but I do have to take daily medication to reduce the chance of further strokes. Just after I resumed work, covid hit, which gave me the space to regain strength slowly and get back into running properly.
During those long, lonely months, I dared to dream of the finishing arch in Chamonix again, more motivated as I desired some sort of affirmation that everything was good again. I achieved the qualification standard and managed to draw a place for the 2022 TDS. At the start of the year, Alexandra Oliver kindly offered to work with me as she needed an “athlete” to give her the experience required to achieve her coaching qualification. I won’t deny that she set me some tough tasks, particularly the strength and conditioning work, but she also improved my running form, technique on trails and provided me with an interesting a varied fitness framework. After a few months of tutelage, I was feeling stronger than ever and less injured than ever before. I can’t endorse Alexandra’s expertise and coaching skills highly enough.
Another aspect that Alexandra encouraged was keeping a better diary of fitness activities and events during the year. One consistent aspect I noted was that I seem to be struggling with temperature regulation after several hours running, which even culminated in a DNF after 67 miles on the South Downs Way 100-mile event while feeling I was running strongly – I suspect I suffered heat exhaustion on that warm day. The side-effect of one of my medications is that I can’t regulate myself so well on hot days. So, I made a mental note to proactively drink a lot on the TDS…
I arrived in Chamonix for the TDS feeling confident that my preparation was as good as it could be. Jesper did the TDS in 2019 and gave me loads of great advice. I had my 18-year-old daughter, Grace, alongside me to be my event crew – she would use the UTMB buses to get to 3 points on the route where she could provide me with support. I was feeling very nervous about the magnitude of what I was about to undertake. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Why hadn’t I entered one of the shorter events? But I
had to keep reminding myself that I get the biggest buzz when I complete a challenge that I feel would be impossible and I really wanted to understand how far I could push my limit. Plus, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel fear about undertaking a tough challenge.
On the evening of Monday August 20th, we took the UTMB bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur. The event was starting at midnight, and I lay on a bench in a carpark to attempt some rest while waiting. The 1700 runners assembled behind the start line, and I used my previous experience to take some big breaths, ignore the loud, pumping music and ignore the lean-looking other runners. In the last minutes, I talked myself into my focus mode and talked to myself to manage my journey:
“It’s just one foot in front of the other. The other runners are moving. I am crossing the start-line. Ignore the cheering crowds. Say bye to Grace by the side of the road. Through the streets of Courmayeur – be mindful not to go too fast. Quickly onto the first climb now – a wide, steep ski piste out of Courmayeur. Poles out, establish a rhythm… A line of torches snaking up the dark mountain, the lights of Courmayeur fading below. Not much talking, everyone focused. The first checkpoint arrives – 7km, 750m vertical, 1 hour 10 minutes taken – all good. A quick coke and water and onwards on the trail.
Straight out of the checkpoint and we seem to be stopping. The trail is narrow as we climb, and runners are stuck ahead on the mountain above. Don’t let that bother you. I am warm and far ahead of the rear of the race. I reach the top of the climb at 2400m and don’t feel the altitude, so that is good. A short descent to the next checkpoint and, unusually for me, I am holding my own on the downhill. All is generally good. But the earlier queues mean I am going to be tight for time at the checkpoint cut-off. With hundreds of runners behind me, surely they won’t enforce the cut-off? I’d better make sure of myself though. I’ll run strongly for the 3kms along the valley floor to the checkpoint. I hope I am not working myself too hard too early in this…
I cross the line into the checkpoint. A marshall is yelling that we have 3 minutes to get out or we will be cut off. Don’t worry yourself about the hundreds behind. Best not battle through the scrum to the food and drink tables. Out of the checkpoint. Drink from my bladder, eat a crunchy bar and I’d better put on my waterproof to protect myself from the cold wind blowing along the valley. Another 700m climb to another high point – 2700m up – more queues on the narrow trail. That gives me a bit of a break. Then a long downhill for 12kms. It starts on a nice, gentle track. Surely this is too good to be true? Surely, we’ll be on narrow, technical trails soon? Make the most of the track then. And the track is keeping going. There are the first signs of light and the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc behind and Grand Paradiso in front are starting to be seen. Ignore the views, you must stay focused…
Then a climb to the checkpoint at the Col du Petit St Bernard. The sunrise is spectacular. OK, I will allow myself to take a picture as I eat a gel. It’s cold at the checkpoint, so don’t hang around. Good to know I now have 20 minutes to spare from the cut-off. No border control as I cross from Italy into France. It is 15km of downhill (with 1400m of height loss) to Bourg St Maurice and Grace. It’s suddenly heating up in the clear day, so night layers off. Keep concentrating on the downhill. I’m actually overtaking a few people – must remember to thank Alexandra for that.
It’s hot in Bourg. Thank goodness the checkpoint is a big sports hall. 50km done. It’s 10.25am, so 35 minutes spare. There’s Grace. She’s great – fills my water, grabs food and soup. Time to change my kit. Injinji toe socks are amazing but seem to be taking ages this morning. See you in Beaufort this evening Grace… It’s a 1200m climb to the next checkpoint and there is no shade. I am strong uphill, but I need to manage this one. Must drink lots – make the most of my full 2 litres of water. Ignore all those heading back down to the checkpoint looking forlorn. Ignore
those being sick. Focus… Slow plodding and drink. I see the fort at the top of the climb a long way up. I can do this. Keep drinking and don’t push the pace in the heat now.
Into the checkpoint, having drunk all my water. Ten minutes spare. Lots of empty water barrels lying around. Where do I get water? Really?? You have run out??? It’s 1.30pm, the sun is burning bright from cloudless skies, it’s 10kms and 700m climb to the next checkpoint. Do I risk that there is a mountain stream ahead? They have coke – should I fill with 2 litres of that? Wake-up… It’s game over… I can’t risk it… Just like that – failure in a matter of minutes. Gutted… Better call Hazel. Sorry…”
At the end of the day, I wasn’t good enough. If I was stronger, I’d have been ahead of the queues and less rushed for the early checkpoints. If I was stronger, I would have been further ahead and there would have been water for me at the top of the climb out of Bourg St Maurice.
I do feel a sense of shame. I, and I am sure others, do think I probably bit off more than I could chew. I worried about posting the track on Strava. I am vulnerable and sensitive, and I know my slow plodding efforts do not get the same recognition as faster runners get. People like to see well-placed finishes more than a DNF but if we only ever stood on the start line of events we were confident we would ace, we would never reach our potential. It is only when you make yourself vulnerable to failure that you have the chance to feel the ultimate achievement. I am not sure I can answer my question, brave or stupid? At least I had the courage to try and the strength now to overcome my disappointment.
I initially felt bitter towards the UTMB as their organisation this year was not the seamless experience of previous years. Out of 1700 starters, 800 DNF in good conditions is not a good ratio. Do they care now they are a business owned by Ironman? But it is pointless being angry and I take accountability that maybe I did find my limit for now. The trails were wonderful, and I had 13 ½ hours of an amazing journey in beautiful mountains. I did really want that finish line buzz again, but, as I said to Grace, it was 100 times more important that she achieved her A-level grades this summer than I finished this event. And I won’t forget the week we spent together, having a laugh and enjoying the Alps – how many dads of 18-year-olds can say that?
Finishing the CCC, August 2019:
Dawn on the TDS – the only picture I took:
Leaving the checkpoint in Bourg St Maurice: