UTMB – Ultra Trail du Month Blanc
5:45pm on Friday 1st September, Vengalis’ Conquest of Paradise, echoes around the streets of Chamonix. After an hour sitting in the blazing sun we get to our feet and surge towards the start.
2700 Runners clap down the final 10 seconds, until the church clock strikes 6pm . We stream through the starting arch. The streets are rammed with cheering crowds, and I spot Ruth, Ollie & Nick, half a mile down the high street. The first 10k is downhill on road, I try not to run too fast and settle into my “all day pace”.
To qualify, I needed to run a UTMB branded event, plus a few 100m races to gain entry into a lottery. On my second lottery attempt I got a place. UTMB is about 110 miles with 10,000 metres (or two Park Runs), of vertical ascent and descent. Rebranded the “World Series Finals” it is, the pinnacle of hundred-mile trail racing.
This year I tried something different in training and followed Phil Maffetone’s “method”. Three months of low HR base / volume training. A few months of base + short faster (XC) and a couple of long events, Lipchis trail FKT, and The Fox Ultra.
In July, Mark, John, Chris, & myself fastpacked the TMB route over 5 days. As well as great fun, this was an invaluable experience, gaining familiarity with the course and practising the big climbs.
Meanwhile, in Les Houches the crowd is five deep, with cow bells and music. Then comes the first of 12 big climbs, this one is 800m+
In St-Gervais, the town is another big party, Ruth, Ollie & Nick had caught the shuttle bus to the checkpoint. After quick hugs, I refill my Tailwind bottles and move straight through. Just then I spot Alexandra and Abby cheering on too. More hugs and “thank yous ‘, then I am on my way.
Having “packed lunch/dinner/breakfasts” of Baguettes and flapjacks, I can eat on the move, leapfrogging hundreds of runners in the crowded aid station. Every big climb starts with food 😊
The end of the beginning: 1 am Saturday La Balme 40KM
Halfway up the 1500 m climb from St Gervais to Col de bon homme. It’s been dark for a few hours now and I see hundreds of head torches snaking down the valley behind, and above me into the dark sky above. Gone are the crowds from the towns and villages, this feels very remote.
I stop and prepare for the night ahead. And “check in” with myself. Great fun, moving well, eating/hydrating well. I take a look at “The Spreadsheet” which tells me I’m on schedule. The weather is amazing, probably 10 c. I add a second T-shirt as the next peak is over 2400m and its is after midnight,
Climbing towards Col du Bonne Hommes is long, tough and slow. As I plug away a few guys fall by the wayside. “GI issues” by the sound of it. The next peak is Croix de Bonhomme which looks a bit different to Chamonix.
On the steep descent to Les Chapieux, I stack it twice on a muddy section, landing on my backside. It’s about 3 am, so I grab a big coffee at the CP to keep awake. I turn off my head torch and allow my eyes to adjust to the beauty around me. The moon is lighting up the snowy mountain peaks, spectacular.
The French, Italian border has three big climbs, nicknamed “The Pyramids”, with over 2.5K of ascent over 10k. I disappear into thick clouds and put on a long sleeve base to keep warm. On the second climb, Col des Pyramides Calcaires, I slip on some rocks and tweak my ankle. I don’t give it much thought at the time, as I’m chatting with another brit. The dawn breaks on Saturday as we arrive at Lac Combal CP.
With soup from the CP and a “Breakfast Baguette”, my energy levels pick up. From Arete du Mont Favre, its 1200 metres descent into Courmayeur and the life base. A beautiful roller-coaster for a few miles, with views of the Miage Glacier, followed by a steep technical descent. My right ankle starts to complain at this point, I slow down and shift weight onto my left leg.
Courmayeur: 16 hours in. Oof! I’m tired and it’s not even half way! Ruth is here, which gives me a big boost. As is my drop bag, stuffed with spare “everything” and enough Baguettes for another few days on the go. Ruth organises pasta and Tailwind refills. I get on with my foot protocol: Empty shoes, Sudacream and fresh socks – Luxury! As I prepare to leave, a guy collapses behind me. Ruth does a great job of distracting me by leading me to the exit and on my way.
Mid Day on Saturday at Refugio Bertoni, am half way. The plateaux along to Arnouvas, is the most beautiful part of the route. Rolling meadows with spectacular views of “Monto Bianco”. Hikers, many of them brits are cheering us on, high fives and pats on the back, feel awesome!
It’s now baking in the sun and runners are dropping by the way. It is quite disconcerting, to see guys sat on the path with a vacant gaze or even asleep, in the blazing sun. At Arnauvaz Ruth greets me with ice-cream, and a kit kat. That plus a Maurten gel, fuels me up to Grand Col De Ferret, 2650+ metres high.
Meanwhile back in France, the crew have it tough!. Ollie and Nick watch Jim Walmsley finish, then catch a bus to Switzerland, to meet me.
I stop on the top of the Col, and look back along the route and choose my “Lunch Baquet”, Hmm I fancy Cheese and Ham. Check in time: The Super Spreadsheet says I’m on time. I’m still enjoying this I feel like a kid in a giant, beautiful, playground.. Arrivederci Italia, I descend into Switzerland towards La Fouly.
My ankle is now bitching on the descents, and I have a big blister on my opposite heel, but I’m looking forward to seeing the boys in La Fouly.
We trot along and the boys laugh as I fumble my water bottles, this simple task is taking forever. 24 hours in, I am losing the plot.
They grab me a big coffee and a handful of choc snacks, which do the trick.
I had committed to myself that I would run this next flat 10K section to Praz de Fort. The ankle is not so grumpy on the flat so I do just that. En route I bump into Yoko, from Godalming, who is as surprised as me.
The beginning of the End
At Champex-lac Nick takes care of me at the CP, bottles done and I am through. I’m feeling better here, maybe slightly euphoric. Nick tells me to focus on the trail and don’t get ahead of myself. Back in my place I do as I’m told and head out into night two.
The trail to Trient takes forever, Ive been on the go for over 30 hours. This path is a gentle climb, but too steep to run. At Plan de I’Au there is a Reffuge with water stop and to my surprise a dozen guys wrapped in foil blankets, asleep. At the CP, Ruth has joined the boys and we are back in France. I notice a party going on, in the aid station. Beers, dancing, and Jimmy Hendix music! After hours alone on the trails, I don’t want to leave.
After some pasta,( someone ate my “Dinner baguette”!) and more hugs, I am back, into the night. The trails are now silent and lonely after the last CP. No head torches ahead or behind me. The next climb is another whopper, on tired legs and a painful ankle. After a while I catch up with a French chap who speaks English and we have a nice 20min chat as we inch up the mountain. I pass him at the top and him thank him for his company. After countless hours alone, it’s great to have some company.
The final CP is Vallorcine. Ruth and the boys are super excited, I’m just hanging!. Barely functioning, I can’t remember when I ate or drank anything. Just desperate to get this over with. A check of the now famous spreadsheet and sub 40hours is still possible. Just a number, but a ridiculous source of motivation.
Due to route variations, I don’t recognise any of this section which snakes up and down the mountain side, including some tricky climbing at times. Meanwhile the sun rises on Sunday morning, I’ve been on the move for over 36 hours, covered about one hundred miles and start the final climb.
Moving slowly but steadily, on my painful ankle, I pass a few people on the slope to La Fleger. Approaching from an unfamiliar direction I’m surprised to be here so soon. From the ski lift to the finish in Chamonix is 8k across and 850m down ”. The 40 hour target is within reach!
I apologise to my balloon shaped ankle, “This is going to hurt, then I promise, I will be really nice to you”. Then it’s the famous, technical descent through the trees, to the road. Over the scaffold bridge and there are the crew, on the riverside path.
Having watched online in previous years, it feels wonderful to run this section into Chamonix, with Ruth Nick & Ollie. What an adventure we have had!
For 9:30 on a Sunday the streets are busy. The route is lined with a cheering & whooping crowd. High fives and hugs along the blue carpet before I half step and half stumble through the arch.
An unforgettable experience made super special with Ruth Ollie & Nick – The Crew!
And finally ..here you go …