Three weeks. Not just a holiday, a late honeymoon and an adventure but three weeks of specific, Alpine preparation before the CCC. This would be awesome. We’d have done the whole course, got loads of acclimatisation in and done some extra hiking practice. I was feeling positive that this would be a good race for me after some not so impressive performances. This was going to happen…
The CCC is part of the UTMB week and is billed – rather disappointingly – as ‘The Way In’ or ‘The Little Sister’. There’s nothing little about this behemoth. 101km, 6100m of ascent and 26 hours 45 minutes to complete. The whole week in Chamonix is crazed. A race sets off every day from Tuesday until the grand finale of the UTMB itself on Friday night. Runners, their friends and family descend on the town in droves; everywhere you look you see paraphernalia associated with trail running that makes you want to buy, buy, buy. Apparently some of the exhibitors in the race village made upwards of 10, 000 Euros in one day. Running madness but so much fun. You can get ‘valley fever’ though, especially if you’re bumpkins like Jayson and I, so luckily we had the means to escape the chaos in our motorhome.
Two years ago, Jayson came 20th in the CCC while I had a good race in the even littler sister, the OCC, finishing as 10th lady and loving every minute of it. I had originally planned on trying my luck in the ballot for the Big One but we both found out we had enough ITRA points to get guaranteed entry into the CCC and get an Elite start. Check us out. I had some silly thoughts that I was copping out a bit but my god, I’m glad I did. We planned a three week break as it would be the last time I would have a school summer holiday and it would give us a much needed escape.
The plan was to drive to Chamonix, park up, get the bus to Courmayeur and run the whole route over three days. We’d then have a good chunk of time to relax and explore. The recce was tough for me. The altitude got to me again and I moved so slowly on the first day, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy the race. Things did improve though and by the last day of the recce, I was feeling confident that this course would really suit me and my wussy non – technical ways.
The next week was spent in the Gran Paradiso national park. This place really deserves its name. Waterfalls, crystal lakes, winding trails snaking through trees and tranquility in abundance. So we went nuts. Five hour days which consisted of three and a half hours of climbing became the norm and we were loving it. There was some occasional afternoon snoozing and lazing about but we certainly made the most of the trails around us.
After a week at altitude, we thought we should head lower down but Jayson really wanted to see the Matterhorn. Off to Brueil-Cervinia we went, putting the motorhome through a torturous road that climbed to 2025 metres where we stayed for a few days. Turns out there are some nice trails there too, so off we pootled, enjoying more long climbs and fun descents.
Race week and we returned to Argentiere where we based ourselves to stay out of the circus of Chamonix. Deciding we should back off a bit, we had a lazy few days. There was a recce of the last 12 miles with Jason Millward, Tom Payn and Rachel Bonner and a short run out with Robbie Britton and Natalie White’s ‘Run As One’ group but we really only spent our time pottering around town, meeting friends – Dave, Tracey, Tony, Shelli, Robyn, Adrian and Isla – for pastries and lounging.
Friday dawned and we were ready to go. After porridge and green tea, we caught the bus to Courmayeur for the 9am start. Last time, we arrived really early and had nothing to do except freak out a bit and keep going to the loo, so we got there a bit later this time. It’s really well organised so after we dropped off our bags, we headed to the front to join the elite runners. I went straight to the back of the pen where I found Tracy Dean looking very collected. I asked for any tips and she told me to take my time. Lots of people will dash by you at the start she said, but they’ll burn up. Very good advice and very true as it turns out. Charmaine Horsfall appeared next to me and we were both really glad of a familiar face. Just before the start, the tape separating us from the next pen came down and there was a surge of big blokes. Charmaine warned me that we would get pushed and she was right. As soon we set off, I literally had people shoving me in the back and elbowing me out of the way. I don’t really know what they thought they would achieve! The course takes in a flat loop through the town before starting the ridiculously long climb to the first checkpoint. I resolved to run slowly as long as I felt able to on the road, then get the cheat sticks out and start power walking. Often on this kind of long, gradual climb, there’s no point running as it’s just as quick to walk and certainly saves some lung power for later.
Even this early in the day, the heat was relentless. The TDS had seen almost half the field drop out because it was hot, and it looked like our race would be a similar temperature. The climb is exposed too, winding its way up a single track on a hillside with no respite from either the gradient or the pounding sun. After 6 miles – that’s right – of climb, I summited Tete de la Tronche where I took a couple of minutes to refill my bottles and put my poles away. Luckily, they had supplied a small water stop because of the conditions but we were told we could only have half bottles as the checkpoint was only a few miles away. Charmaine caught and passed me here and we had a brief chat, probably about the weather. How very English of us.
A very pleasant descent to Refuge Bertone followed, the path meandering along the hillside with plenty of little streams littered around. Jayson had the brainwave a couple of days earlier to carry a sponge to soak up the glacial water and douse himself in, so I got one too. It was a great way to manage the heat and I have to say, even though I could feel it, I don’t think I suffered as much as I might have done because I kept soaking my neck, pulse points and legs in cold water. My smugness was ill advised, but that realisation came later…
Nothing of note really happened in the next few miles. I got through Refuges Bertone and Bonatti without event, feeling strong on the climbs and trotting nicely on the descents. The first big checkpoint with food and a cut off was Arnouvaz which arrives after you come all the way back down the huge climbs you’ve just done by way of a lovely single track switchback path. I flew into the checkpoint, still feeling positive, in 4 hours 19 minutes for around 26 km. This was good progress! I had decided to eat ‘proper food’ every chance I got, especially when there was a big climb ahead, so I had some noodle soup, bread and cheese – probably too quickly – refilled my bottles and set out for the highest point on the course, Grand Col Ferret. The Col tops out at around 2600m but is very gradual, unlike the initial ascent out of Courmayeur. And I think it might be in Switzerland. Poles out again, I powered on, passing some weary looking people on the way. I actually reached the top before I realised it and, thanking the marshals for helping me with my cup, I started down to La Fouly.
This descent is great. Yes, it’s long and yes, it hurts a bit, but it’s such a relief to know that you’ve climbed the highest you’re going to climb and when you get to the bottom, you’re about half way. Again, I passed people on this section. For some reason, British runners seem more cavalier when descending than their European rivals. Anyone who has seen me run downhill will know that I’m nothing to write home about, but they just don’t seem to want to put their poles away and trash their quads! Weird. Somewhere towards the middle of the descent, it levels off for a while and there’s a little cafe where they had kindly set up a hose pipe shower. The guy in charge warned me it was ‘tres froid’ but I assured him that was perfect and stood under it for a while, letting the water saturate my sore legs. On I cracked, down to La Fouly.
After emerging from a pretty wooded section, I hit the road into the town. I was completely stunned to see that Tracy Dean was just up ahead. I started having the inevitable conversation with myself: ‘I must be going really well if I can see Tracy. Unless she’s having a hard time. Or unless I’m going too fast’, etc. Turns out all three were sort of true. I don’t remember much about this checkpoint, only that I ended up passing Tracy. I was also now ahead of Charmaine too and started to get carried away with myself about the possible time I could do. At the time, it didn’t seem unrealistic to be aiming for 17 and a half hours and I still think I could have done it, if not for a few variables that reared their heads later on.
Still feeling really strong and comfortable, I pootled through the beautiful Swiss villages and day dreamed about living in one of the gorgeous wooden houses with the massive log stores and skis mounted on the side. Once again, I stopped at several troughs and sponged myself down. I even had a little giggle about the water squishing around in my shoes. What a naive wally.
The climb up to Champex Lac is more of a beast than I think it’s given credit for, probably because it’s very gradual but very long. Upon starting this climb, I fell into step with a lovely chap – I think he was Swiss – whose name I can’t remember. We exchanged our goals for the race and, as he was clearly feeling more tired than me, went our separate ways. One thing that I don’t think I’ll forget though was when he said, ‘I think you are a great woman’. That’s another reason I love this sport; the mutual respect among competitors is fantastic, regardless of gender, nationality, age or speed, everyone gives everyone else who is there kudos for their achievements.
Stomping up into Champex was a brilliant feeling. I was still going well and looking forward to seeing Caroline Graham who had kindly offered to spend her recovery day after the OCC lounging by the stunning lake in Champex in order to crew for me at the checkpoint. What a pro she was! I arrived to find plates separated into sweet and savoury, some chewing gum I didn’t even know I wanted and a very happy face to greet me. As Caroline went off to fill my bottles and get me some soup, Ant Bethell came over to tell me that Jayson was looking good too. He went off to support Tracy who had just come in and I got troughing. On the way out of the checkpoint, everyone was getting a kit check, which was mildly irritating but we were all having to do it and you certainly can’t take the risk of being in that environment without the necessary equipment. Having to take off my pack and put it back on again made me realise how sore my back was. It felt like it was bleeding in a few places where my bra was rubbing onto my damp skin. It was something I could put up with though and I even thought that it might leave me with some battle scars! A quick toilet stop in the luxury of the portaloos and I was off, enjoying some juicy orange on the way up the road and back onto the firetrack.
Some guys from Compressport were accosting runners here, giving away free sweatbands, so I happily took one and kept on. I’m never one to pass up a freebie, even if I’ve never worn a sweatband in my life! This section is very easy running along a broad track suurounded by trees. I was absolutely stuffed and not feeling particularly light on my feet but still chugging along quite well. The plan was to get to Trient before dark for some peace of mind as that was about 70km in and it would feel like I was on the home stretch. This, however, was where the proverbial wheels started wobbling.
The climb up to La Giete is not the highest or the hardest on the course. It is, in fact, very pretty, with lots of tinkling streams cascading down the hills and some beautiful wooded sections. The thing was, I was starting to get really tired and my feet were very sore from the soaking I’d been giving them all day. My smug heat management system had worked but the side effects were lots of pain.Tracy came steaming past me on this climb, swiftly dunking her cap and motoring on. I later found out she’d had a bit of a rest at Champex instead of ploughing through it like I did and it had clearly paid off, as she looked great.
It was starting to get dusky as I headed towards Trient but I kept my headtorch in my pack for as long as I could to save the batteries. I eventually got it out on the swoopy descent into the town as it was pitch black among the trees. When I turned it on, it was ludicrously dim, especially compared to the others running past me. I started to worry. I had spare batteries and a tiny handtorch but there were still hours to go and I was worried I would be running blind. I had just changed the batteries the night before: what was going on? I managed to totter down a descent that should have been much quicker, barely being able to see the rooty path. As I got into the checkpoint, I turned the torch off and got topped up, still thinking about what to do. There was some great support here and, with it being around 9pm, some people were treating it as a reason to party. I saw more than a few locals with drinks lined up!
I left the checkpoint with my little handtorch out and my headtorch off for now, somehow thinking that it would be fine because I was heading up again. My brain was slowly turning to illogical mush because of fatigue, but at the time, it seemed the right thing to do. Walking with poles and trying to point a torch ahead of you is virtually impossible. I kept turning it off by accident and it was never positioned well. I was getting more and more frustrated, and even resorted to turning everything off and following the torches of the people in front of me. This wasn’t ideal! Eventually, I gave in and sat down to get my spare batteries out, still thinking I just had the crappest headtorch in the world and it wouldn’t make any difference. Guess what? It did! My headtorch lit up like Christmas and I quietly chastised myself for being an utter plank and not doing it sooner. That was a couple of hours where I had being stumbling round for no good reason. By now, every pebble I stood on felt like a hot needle piercing my feet, but I was obsessed with the idea that I could still get a good time and position, so didn’t give myself a chance to sit down and try to see if anything could be done to help the pain. There should be a term for the stupidity you experience in ultras!
Descending into Vallorcine is a joy when it’s daylight or you haven’t just run for over 14 hours, but this hurt. It’s quite steep, with some technical sections made trickier in the dark. It was 11.20pm and the checkpoint was buzzing with people, still with loads of support in the town and the tent. I did the usual of stuffing some food in me, filling up bottles and dashing out again. I was reasoning that I could still do this in 18 hours because surely the last climb wouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours? Plodding along towards the start of the climb, I was moving a little better than some others and once I started going up, I still felt ok: very tired but I thought it was doable.
Then it all fell apart. I have never felt so weak, so suddenly in a race. Something hit and I had to keep stopping to sit on rocks every 5 minutes or so. A fellow runner was doing the same thing, so I felt like we wordlessly helped each other by seeing that someone else felt the same way. I was getting passed by a lot of people here and each time I sat down, someone asked if I was okay. On telling a German guy that I was just very, very tired, he replied, ‘You are still doing amazingly well. You must be in the top 200-300′. Keep it going’. He was right. This was a real achievement, but what made it feel terrible was getting passed by people who looked great when I was completely broken. I did as I was told and just put my jacket on, and kept moving. I had run out of water long before I got to a marshal point where the course flattens out and they were reluctant to give me any of their emergency supply but I must have looked so desperate that they ushered me away from the trail and gave me half a bottle, assuring me that La Flegere was only 4km away.
The little kick up up to the last checkpoint at La Flegere felt horrendous. I knew this was the last climb but the rocks were destroying my feet and I just wanted it to be over. In the checkpoint, I resolved to take a few minutes to drink some coke and try and boost myself for the last 8km. Charmaine came in and even though she had obviously not had her best race, she looked so much better than me! She gave me a much needed hug and said she was just going to get on, as she needed it to be done too. I asked her what time it was, as my watch had died, and she said it was five to three! For some reason, I hadn’t really considered that I would be out this long! That gave me a kick up the backside and I decided Charmaine was right: just get it done.
Again, the loose rocky surface down to the trail gave me such a battering, but the sooner I got down to Chamonix, the sooner I could get my shoes off. This was another descent that is fun in the daylight and excruciating in the dark, but my spirits were lifted slightly as I seemed to be holding my position. This section went by quite quickly and soon I was pounding the tarmac of town. There were still marshals out and a few hardy supporters to cheer me through the loop of the town centre. I jogged along, looking for Jayson but didn’t see him. Crossing the line with a massive sense of relief and a bit of teary elation, I went straight to the first place I could sit down and just had a little sob. Jayson was nowhere in sight, which worried me slightly, but I assumed he must have just missed me rounding one of the corners. I went to pick up my finishers’ gilet and was a bit disappointed with the fact it seemed to be some kind of shiny bin bag material! Hmmm. Heading over to the refreshments tent for some tea, I spotted Charmaine and her fella, so I went and joined them. Seeing how spent I was, Charmaine gave me her cup of coke and went to get herself another one, just as Jayson appeared. He was gutted he wasn’t at the finish but no-one was expecting me to get to the end as quckly as I did with how much I’d slowed down over the last few climbs! At least that was something!
With the benefit of hindsight, as is always the way, I made a lot of mistakes with this race. I wouldn’t change all the spectacular running we did in the lead up to it though, as I really enjoyed our holiday. I would wear different shoes: the Salomon Sense Pro were just not hardy enough and, although comfortable over maybe 10-15 miles of the TMB route, they weren’t meant to be worn for longer. I’d also be careful not to get my feet sodden when cooling down in water, as they were verging on trenchfoot at the end. The rubbing on my back was an irritation that I could cope with but I could have done without it! Some well placed tape should sort that out if I know I’m going to get soaked again. And maybe I could have paced it better, although I still believe that I was running comfortably in the first half. Maybe the adrenalin was making me feel that way because this is one awesome event. It’s hard not to get caught up in the rush!
I finished in 19 hours and 14 seconds, 246th overall, 32nd lady and 17th in category, so not too shabby! Give me a few more years of ultras and I’ll be ready for the big one 🙂