Friday, 4 September 2015

UTMB 2015: two sunsets and a sunrise

Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc
  • Circumnavigation of the Trail Du Mont Blanc, anti-clockwise from Chamonix, through Italy and Switzerland and back into France
  • 170km/105 miles
  • 10,000 metres/32,800 feet
  • Time limit 46 hours 30 mins

Pre-race

This is what I've trained for all year, since January brought the news I'd been successful in the lottery. But bizarrely, despite the fact I knew this would be the most challenging race I've attempted, and my usual pre-race panics, I wasn't too nervous in the days before. I'd reccied the route several weeks before with Richard and Carrie and had trained hard on hills and endurance for months.

Kit checked, re-checked
I even caught 9 hours sleep the night before, unheard of for me before a big race. Maybe something to do with being somewhere new with so much going on, and in the sun all day. A big group of us had been in Chamonix all week, with plenty (perhaps too much) time to prepare and obsess about kit and final race strategies. This involved last minute purchase of the 12L Salomon s-lab pack when we were advised by the organisers to heed the heatwave forecast and carry 2 litres of water rather than the required 1 litre (my 3l pack only just squeezed in the essential kit and water) and temp-tattooing ourselves with the course profile, which for the UTMB meant a part one and part two on each forearm (thank you Carol for your expert tattooing). I felt ready and truly excited about getting out there and trying to run to my potential on a course I'd seen, that was brutal and beautiful in equal measure. So I was completely mentally unprepared for what was to come so early on in the race, thinking the mental and physical battles would arise much later.

the race route tattoos, which lasted all of two hours
It was hot and we knew it would remain hot, with the mountain forecast expecting 34 degrees all weekend. I tried to stay out of the sun all day Friday ahead of the 6pm start but it even the shade was stifling. After a leisurely lie-in and re-pack of kit, I met Dad and Hazel, who'd come out to support me, for an even more leisurely late lunch. All the sitting around was getting to me and I just wanted to get going so we headed to the start to meet the Scotland crew and Matt Williamson, who was also racing.




The start




Our starting position amid the thousands.
This would be a real race of firsts - the first time I'd experienced real stomach issues in a race, the first time I'd run into two nights, the first time I'd curled up on the side of a trail and the first time for weird after-effects like a bruised head from so much torch-wearing. It was also the first time I'd spent an hour an a half waiting at the start line in order to gain a good position, nicely behind the elites but in front of the hundreds at the middle and back of the pack. Matt and I sat in a shaded spot, trying to avoid being trampled on by runners and their friends dangerously wielding Go Pro's and poles right left and centre. The first time in an ultra this huge, surrounded by 2,300 nervous faces and thousands of supporters, organisers, media everywhere. I glanced up at the packed balconies of the apartments around the start and noticed an eagle. An eagle? No sooner had we saw it than it had been released and swooped right overhead, carrying a camera, to thousands of cheers. The announcers talked of having courage, of keeping going when your body wanted to give up, of using your mind and then your soul. Then came the iconic music, Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, and we were off. Well, off for a walk. I was quickly regretting the decision not to start further up the field as we walked for most of the way out of Chamonix onto the Les Houches trail due to congestion. All the cheers and support along the way were just incredible.

Chamonix - Refuge Croix de Bonhomme
Cumulative distance 44km
Runtime 6hrs 52mins

Day one in my racing mind, given this had been the first day of our
Matt and I about to assume position
four day recce; the first major section to tackle and put behind me. And I felt terrible from a few km's in. I expected to feel fresh and energetic on the first section, a flat-ish 8km trail to Les Houches, but instead by the time we reached the town my stomach was cramping and face felt burning hot. Soon after Les Houches came the first climb, 700m up to the small timing station of Le Delevret and the Col de Voza. Glancing behind me as we reached the top of the climb and the ski lift station, I was taken with the beauty of the shining line of headtorches snaking down the hill, and the setting sun overhead. But as we began the steep switchbacks 900m down into the first town of St Gervais, I didn't feel well at all, with the downhill impact making me feel sick, and I knew I had to stop soon. In fact, over the next two hours I stopped four times and was losing time on my planned splits. I began to accept there was nothing I could do about this, if I was developing some kind of bug or it was food poisoning from lunch then that was that, it wasn't my day and there was no way I could run with this for 100 miles. I thought I'd stick it out until darkness fell though, to see if it would clear up and I could eat (I hadn't eaten anything yet).

After Les Contamines though (4:02, 15 mins off target) it was dark and in a few miles we reached the start of the climb up to La Balme and eventually the Col du Bonhomme, an incredibly long, slow climb that in the recce had become tortuous due to heat, lack of shade and our first day at elevation. I started to feel more in control on the climb, and was awash with relief - maybe this would go and I'd have a chance of continuing. I knew what to expect now, and there would be no sun to contend with. At the La Balme aid station, I could eat well - noodle soup (exactly what I needed) and cups of coke which energised me for the final climb up to the Col and the landmark of the refuge that we'd stayed at on the recce - my favourite refuge of that trip, with a cosy feel, stunning vistas for relaxing outside and great beer. But I had to get those dangerous thoughts out of my head!

Refuge Croix du Bonhomme - Refuge Bertone
From Croix du Bonhomme (taken during recce)
Cumulative distance 84km
Runtime 15hrs 04mins

Onwards - straight through the timing point and headfirst into the steep 5km downhill into the tiny village of Les Chapieux, exactly 50km into the race. There was a decent aid station here and I needed to eat, I wasn't fuelling as I'd promised myself I would. I discovered some Overstim banana and date energy bars, and had more soup, more coke - to become my only staples for the day. I was looking forward to the road section that led gently uphill for several miles outside of the village and up to the next climb up to the Col de la Seigne, the transition point into Italy. My stomach had settled, it was cooler (although not nearly as cool as I'd hoped the night would get) and I could walk/run this section comfortably as a welcome break from technical trail. On the climb I spotted my first fellow no-pole runner, a very rare sight. I was beginning to question my decision by this point. I'd run the entire recce without poles but over 90% of UTMB runners use them and after the stomach issues I'd begun to question my stubbornness and the need for them should something unexpected start to affect me.

I'd hoped there might be a water station or coke at the summit (2507m) but sadly not. 'Welcome to Italy' shouted the volunteers and we were sent down the trail for a short downhill section before the second (and new for this year) climb up to the Col de Pyramides, that Richard, Carrie and I had missed out of our recce in error. And no wonder, it was hardly a trail at all, but a boggy hill climb up and a slippy, technical boulder field descent that never seemed to end. I really needed water by this point but it took over an hour an a half to get down to Lac Combal and the next major aid station. I'd been chatting to a nice English guy called Chris about UK races but
Rich and I at Mont Favre on the recce
began to find it a bit of a struggle to talk constantly as we were negotiating boulder after boulder. In the aid station I sat for five minutes and had a mental check, downing yet more noodle soup (extra salt, cold water for quick drinking), coke and a few pieces of cheese. A rare runnable few miles of flat path came next, to reach the 500m climb to Arete de Mont Favre, another memorable break stop from our recce where we sat and admired stunning afternoon light across Mont Favre and down towards Courmayeur, In fact this had been the last time I'd felt fresh in the recce, right before I sprained my ankle on the descent - after which I was running on very few cylinders for two days!

The dawn was coming and I was looking forward to losing the head torch. Then, no sooner had we left the summit than I slipped on a large slab, left foot sliding beneath me and knee scraping off the ground, tweaking the sprained ankle at the same time. Same descent, another fall! It threw me but I knew it wasn't nearly as bad as the recce. My knee was bleeding down into my shoe though which was off putting. I took the rest of the descent easy, delicately negotiating the steps that had tripped me last time and following behind another female runner who eventually let me past. Courmayeur was a metropolis of an aid station, in the town's sports centre, and I picked up my only drop bag here. Hundreds of runners were properly stopping, sitting at tables with their support, eating pasta, changing clothes. I refilled and grabbed a small plate of pasta to take into the medical tent, where a lovely volunteer cleaned and bandaged my knee and dealt with a blister. I told myself time stopping here was an investment. It was a maze to escape and not clear where to give your drop bag back but a kind supporter took it for me after I'd jogged two circuits of the centre frantically asking people who didn't speak English.

Into the second half/second arm
I prepared myself for what was a brutal climb on the recce, 800m up to what had been our rest point for day two, Refuge Bertone - it had been hot, we'd been running over eight hours and my ankle was huge. And today, I'd been running for over 15 hours, with the sun up and temperature swiftly rising against a deep blue sky, no clouds in sight. I didn't have poles but I had playlists and had planned to let myself listen to music for the first time around halfway so distracted myself with this. Reaching the refuge, I sat for two minutes, forcing down more water and coke.

Refuge Bertone - Champex-Lac
Cumulative distance 125km
Runtime 22hr 54mins

Into 'day three'. Crossing this boundary was a mental boost. From Bertone, a beautiful, gently undulating stretch of trail came next, 8k to Refuge Bonatti - straight through the middle of the giants of the Mont Blanc massif, overlooking the Val Ferret. But there was limited shade and I made the mistake of calculating how many hours of sunlight we had to run through. It was smokin' hot and oppressive. A long line of us were leapfrogging right along this stretch, running at different times and struggling at different times. A sharp 100m climb up to Bonatti sapped enough strength that I needed to sit again and thankfully there was shade in which to refill. Again some soup, again some coke and I tried to eat some Chia Charge. A few more miles along the trail came the steep single track descent into Arnuva, which a more substantial aid station awaited us. Running along the river out of Arnuva was torture, I was tempted to dive in and stay there but settled for a cap soak. The heat was stifling, how on earth would I make it 800m up the shadeless climb to Grand Col Ferret? I hope there'd be a water/coke stop halfway up, at Refuge Elena, where we'd stopped for a break on the recce but there wasn't. There was a water butt in the middle of a field though so we could re-fill and re-soak here. It was a long climb, little by little, and I was passed again and again by multiple men with poles. At the summit, we crossed into Switzerland. I sat on a rock, head in hands, and steeled myself for what would be a quad-crushing 930m descent into an airless La Fouly, it was so tough to get the quads moving but a few minutes into each descent they would ease off slightly and become more bearable.

From La Fouly, a picture-postcard little Swiss hamlet, I was playing the calculation game for arrival into Champex-Lac, I knew it was 14km from here, via another 900m of climbing in the sun, and wondered if I could make it by 16:30, an hour off schedule but still a reasonable time given the conditions we were running in. In La Fouly I lay on a bench and close my eyes but quickly forced myself up. This wasn't a good strategy. Instead, a young volunteer stuck my head under a cold hose and I grabbed more coke, soup and got out of there. The 8k into the small hillside town of Praz de Fort was fairly uneventful and I spent most of the time wondering how I could possibly run a marathon and 3,000m after Champex - always a mistake in ultra running to think that far ahead, but I'd almost resigned myself to stopping. The climb from Praz de Fort was made all the harder for thinking there'd be aid in the town - there wasn't, and I hadn't re-filled water at the last water butt. The kindest runner at the side of the road gave me his, he'd just dropped from the race and was awaiting his lift. I tried to get him moving but he was done.

Finally, the top of the climb into Champex came, and I saw Fiona, Karl Zeiner's girlfriend and support. It was great to see a friendly face. Soon after, I heard Daddy McKay's shouts, it was good to see him after nearly 23 hours on the road and he was so excited to see me. He had a whole array of treats ready, which would normally look appealing. Fresh figs and blueberries? No, can't do it. Bars? Nope, but will stuff yet more in my pack not to be eaten. Water? Hmm. Energy drink? Coffee? Hell no. Chips and salt? Yes! They went down so well, although soon after came the familiar stomach cramps I'd had earlier on. I told Dad I didn't think I could go on but no agreement came. I resorted to peeling off my clothes to change my shorts and top - another first in a race but it felt so good - and Dad fuelled me up, dressed and taped my feet (I'm so sorry Dad), changed my shoes and socks and sent me right back out onto the trail.

Champex-Lac - Chamonix
Cumulative distance 170km
Runtime 34hrs 50mins

My only race pic - sun setting on the second day above Trient
The final 'day' was finally here, with its final countdown of three major climbs totalling nearly 3,000m and a similar level of descent. This was the hardest day of the recce for many reasons but I knew as I'd made it through Champex (where the majority of DNF's happen) that I would do my best to make it to Chamonix, no matter how long it took. It felt good to be chipping away at the distance. As soon as I left the aid I felt uplifted by seeing Dad and taking the time to properly re-fuel. I also started getting lovely, supportive text messages from Carol, Richard, Lorna, Keziah and Dawn after texting Carol at Champex (by supportive I mean 'Don't you DARE drop'). So I could run strong here and passed four or five men until the ascent started again, up to the high alpine pass of Bovine, with its noisy cowbells and relentlessly climbing path. This soon drained the life out of my legs but I spotted a fabulous little branch which I started using as a stick. Pas de baton? asked the French. I didn't care what it looked like - this was helping. I was suddenly in a long string of runners and we faced the most incredible setting sun against the mountain panorama. I even took a photo, my only attempt throughout the race. Up at La Giete there was a timing station and a few runner bodies sleeping under blankets. I began to feel incredibly tired on the descent into Trient, my eyes weren't focusing and my thoughts weren't my own, with random country names running through my head in French. Etats Uni, Royaume Uni. Wonder if the American ladies had finished? Where were the Brits? Were they still out here too? I was talking to the mad commentator in my head and began to feel like I was two people - a new level of sleep deprivation. There were a few ankle twists and a fall, grazing the other knee. Lots of swearing.

The descent into Trient (141km) was nasty - rocky, rooty, dark and longer than I remember from the recce. Runners behind me were throwing my head torch beam off which was constantly disorientating. Dad was there again, we both knew I'd slowed significantly but I was still chipping away and his cheering and hugs gave me another boost. I stopped for 20 minutes here, eating some soup, coke, the usual.

Next came *the absolute worst* climb on two counts: I'd lost my stick so it was my slowest. I was half asleep and hallucinating. I decided half way up the climb to a) find a new stick and b) curl up on the side of the trail for a ten minute sleep. This was inadvisable though because I couldn't find a cosy spot far enough from the trail (steep drops or hill either side) so even when I lay down with torch off, several runners spotted me and approached with 'Ca Va's?' shining their headtorches down on me. I kept thinking I was past Vallorcine and realising I was still above Trient approaching Catogne, the penultimate climb and not the final. Switching my alarm off, I got up again and brushed the spiders and dust away to edge on up towards the summit. At Catogne there was coke and 5km down into Vallorcine.

Another difficult, technical descent which I was barely running down, despite sensing another few female runners around me. I managed to overtake one on the final grassy down into the aid station - and despite being past midnight the cheers, cowbells and support here was just spectacular with people lining the street into the building. Once again my Dad was here, with a huge hug and encouraging words about the final stage, 90% behind me. This didn't sound like enough! I sat for 9 minutes here and promptly felt sick and lightheaded. Up again, I warned Dad I would be a while and to go get some sleep (I later found out my lovely friends took him back to our chalet for a quick sleep on the sofa) and set off along the trail that Richard and I had jogged along on the final home stretch of our recce (it had taken us 3 hours from Vallorcine to Chamonix, it would take me 4.5). In the dark I didn't recognise much until I reached 4k in and the shadow of La Tete aux Vents, the final mountain. The support through the car park beneath was pretty special and I finally forced down the Gu gel I'd been clutching since Vallorcine.

What to say about the endless 900m climb up to La Tete aux Vents, the windy peak. Yes it was breezy, a welcome change to a still-stifling temperature. I hadn't used any of my extra layers throughout the entire race. I found a third stick after discarding the last one on the descent into Vallorcine and set a steady pace, timing sections of 20 minutes on my watch and telling myself after three I'd nearly be there or at least approaching the gentler uphill section after the steep switchbacks. Looking back down was incredible, yet another string of hundreds of headtorches winding back to Vallorcine. Near the peak, cries of 'regardez'. I looked up and an Ibex stood a metre above on a rocky outcrop, looking down on us all as if we were crazy. After I passed by it jumped on to the trail and headed downhill. I dread to think the shock the runners behind would have got coming face to face with it but it was beautiful.

After the peak came an undulating and technical 4k section over to the iconic ski station of La Flegere and the final timing point and aid station. It was far less runnable than I remember, with boulders, loose stones and steep sections but I was on autopilot by now and by the time I reached La Flegere I ran straight through and down to one of the steepest descents of the race - slipping and sliding down to reach a fire road then trail for the final 8k to Chamonix. Again, far more technical than I recall for the first 4k before a more runnable, smoother path through La Florier and down into the town. I thought the tarmac would never come and when it did I realised a sub 35 hour finish was still a possibility. I was running hard for this entire section and passed eight people, reaching my highest speed since 75k into the race.

Soon I was alongside the river and Gavin was there, testing if I could still string a sentence together. The home straight was just a joy, and Keziah thrust the Scotland flag at me to take over the line, crossing in 34 hours and 50 minutes. I had no idea of position throughout and was sure I'd dropped tens of places by struggling on the final climbs (its easy to lose track when people stop for long periods in the aid stations) but I ended up 288th overall, 23rd female overall and 13th senior female.

It was amazing to hear about other finishes, Matt had made it in an incredible 30 hours and Lorna had finished the CCC in a fantastic time of 18 hours the day earlier. I couldn't have been better taken care of out there and at the finish, and the whole experience - however much I struggled throughout - will remain a positive memory. I'm so relieved to have a UTMB finish after working hard for it this year. Thank you to Daddy McKay, Donnie for your coaching and all my friends in Chamonix as well as back home - what a journey and what a community :-)

My full results, including finish video