A couple of years ago, I listened to a podcast that had a real impact on me and forced me to look at some of my fairly strongly held beliefs. John McAvoy’s story is one of such a 360 degree pivot, it’s like a Hollywood film. Growing up around career criminals, it seemed inevitable that his path was set. One of the most prolific armed robbers in the country, John ended up with two life sentences in a maximum security prison, surrounded by some of the most famous criminals of the early noughties. This is where his life took a dramatic turn though and the tenacity that made him a successful criminal paid off in sport. If you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it but suffice to say it made me question the idea I had that we are all influenced heavily by our surroundings, especially in childhood, and that most of the time, where we end up is a consequence of that. It made me see that we have the power to upend our story if we choose to. It seemed pretty fortuitous then that John was now living in Chamonix and I secretly hoped that I might bump into him. Surely that would be too much of a coincidence…..
I am a North Yorkshire council estate girl at heart. Brought up in a small market town, I never had big plans or thought about my future much at all. In the 80s and 90s in that area, I don’t think many of us did. We didn’t live in poverty, but I did get free school meals, wore a lot of second hand clothes and never had family holidays, again, much like a lot of us in that area at that time. Some of my summer holidays were spent at my Aunty and Uncle’s in Scarborough but the only time I went abroad before I was in my 20s was on a subsidised trip to Switzerland with the Salvation Army band. Our electricity came from putting 50p in the meter, we used to make toast on our open fire and we didn’t own a car. My £1 weekly pocket money from Nana and Grandad went mostly on sweets and one of my most exciting Christmas presents was a duvet. We didn’t really see many people from the town achieve great things or going very far away, barring a few exceptions that had certain opportunities and it was not a given that many of us would go to university.
I wasn’t an active child, in fact I avoided any exercise, always asking if we could get a lift rather than walk. We did walk everywhere though and played in the street; rounders, manhunt, creative games based on our favourite films. My happy place was in front of the telly or reading a book and I had no idea that people went walking or running for pleasure: surely you should be static in your free time??
Sport held no interest for me at all. P.E once a week was a bit too much and I never exerted, always preferring back stop in rounders so I didn’t have to move. In year 11, I was coerced onto the hockey team but only to make up numbers and because I was friends with some of the others. I had no real idea what was going on, we rarely practiced and lost literally all but one game we played. My school wasn’t a sporty one either and many of the students were from farming backgrounds: we even had an agriculture course. I’ve talked about this before but to fully understand why the UTMB was such a big deal you need to know this: I still don’t see myself as the sort of person that does this big stuff. The almighty Northern working class chip on my shoulder means that I am naturally inclined to not make life any harder than it already is and to assume that I can’t or shouldn’t do things that cost much money or seem frivolous. I am sure there is some ancestral gene from when we worked our fingers to the bone on the land or down the mine that has lingered in me and is always whispering, ‘why go looking for suffering when it’s already tough enough to make your way in the world?’ To put yourself in physical discomfort doesn’t make sense when you know what it is to work hard to get by and others seem to have it so much easier. Add to that the fact that I only found out how much I loved moving through nature and that you could do that with other people in my early 30s and I often feel like I am on the back foot, like this activity still isn’t ‘mine’. I still get a bit irrationally huffy when I hear elite athletes talk about how they started running later in life only to learn that they spent their childhoods hill walking, climbing, riding, rowing or playing team sports. I didn’t even know trails existed until 2011 when I joined my running club! To finish hammering my point, this still all feels like someone else’s world because, although I am 42 and am very comfortable turning up to local races, the girl who liked playing with make-up, binging on tv and cheese slices and being as indoorsy as possible is very deeply rooted. Give me an enclosed space, a book and a cup of tea, and I am content.
The extremely slow build to this race reflects that too. I have massive respect for something so challenging but I also needed to make sure that I could do it. This isn’t a lack of confidence. I have never doubted that I would finish UTMB one day but I am not a risk taker. I wasn’t going to fail at this through anything that I could control, so the long path begun.
After running OCC in 2014, I became hooked. The scale and beauty of this place was something I had never known and I set about earning the right to take on the Big One. Back then, you had to earn points over three races and there were plenty to be had. But, I wanted to make sure I was ready and not just ticking boxes, so ran my first 100 in 2015, the Hardmoors 110 as part of the Grand Slam, a series of four ultras across the year. This meant that I had the points to enter the UTMB ballot in 2016: crazy that it was so easy in hindsight! Instead, I went for the CCC, the 64 mile version, because I had the points to gain an elite guaranteed entry whereas UTMB would be a ballot. I am so glad that I didn’t chance it as CCC showed me how tough this was going to be (you can read about it in a previous blog!) and I knew that one 100 miler on the moors wasn’t enough.
In the subsequent six years, I ran more 100s, more ultras that gave me the points including the Ring O Fire and the Hardmoors 160. With the points system changing, I had to gather ‘stones’ so ran the UTS50k three years on the trot, earning me more experience on rough terrain and four stones. We also had several trips to the Alps – virtually every summer! – doing other races and just spending time in the mountains.
Then, I took the plunge.
When I got the confirmation email, I cried. This was going to happen! We had already been planning to spend longer in the Alps this summer, so now I would have two months before the race to get acclimatised and hit some big hills. It couldn’t have been better.
Training went well with some build up races including a four hour uphill race and a two day recce of the first 50 miles. I had practiced the food I was going to use – cheese sandwiches, Veloforte chews, Voom bars, peanut M&Ms and jelly sweets; I knew I was already good with soup, noodles and Expedition foods too – and decided on shoes, socks, lube and tape for my historically blistery feet, and I felt confident.
The week of the race, we stayed just outside Chamonix in a small chalet with someone that I used to coach, Stuart, who was also having his first go. I had a chilled week, doing some catching up with friends, but there was an underlying tiredness. I brushed it off as a taper thing but I was pretty sleepy and just a bit ‘off’. The week is always exciting, sometimes too much, but I tried to do as little as possible, despite some star-spotting (Lucy Bartholomew, Tim Tollefson, Jim Walmsley and Zach Miller if you’re interested!) The race starts at 6pm on Friday so I lounged around all day, tried to have a nap and ate well. Jayson dropped me off in town with my heavily laden pack and I made my way to the start at about 5.15pm for a 6pm start.
After leaving my drop bag at the sports centre, toileting and eating my sandwich on the way to the start, I was feeling okay. There was a buzz around town with lots of people spending the last hour sitting or laying down but many more slowly strolling towards the gantry. I bumped into Dave and Tracey Troman after already having seen them the day before and saying our good byes and good lucks! They are UTMB superfans and come out every year, whether racing or not. Dave has run UTMB once and TDS countless times and as a coach, was talking to one of his athletes as I passed. I managed to put my foot in it by looking gobsmacked that this was her first 100 miler but found out afterwards that she had a really good race. Phew. I left Dave to fix the damage I had done and began the fight to get into position. Even 45 minutes before the start, there seemed to be no way in but as a small person, I managed to ‘excusez-moi’ my way through to what seemed to be roughly the middle. It was here that I got chatting to Sarah, a friend of Eddie Sutton (a friend of mine and Jayson’s, super runner and co-host of Tea and Trails podcast) as she recognised me and my name from being a guest on the pod. She was even smaller than me so it was nice to feel dwarfed together! The countdown finally started and the famous music began to play – Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. The mob became eerily quiet, 2700 people, plus the crowd, all pausing to soak in the moment. As the music culminated towards the rousing crescendo, a familiar voice started shouting right behind us, a Youtuber who will not be named, doing his race intro. Sarah and I looked at each other in disbelief that our special moment was being ruined and I actually said that I might ‘lamp him in a minute’. He stopped in time for the juicy bit of the tune but it did taint the start a little, even though I still had a few anticipatory tears. I just hope our disdain makes the final cut!
The start of this race was amazing. We started moving slowly towards the gantry and within 5 minutes were slow jogging through town. The crowds must have been 5 or 6 deep and I couldn’t stop smiling. All you could hear was cheering, cowbells jangling, names being called and all you could see were happy faces willing you forward. It was all a blur to be honest, but before I knew it we were out of town and onto the wooded trail heading towards Les Houches. Because it is still a populated area, the crowds lined the trail too. Somewhere along here, I saw Jayson for the last time that evening. We exchanged a hug and a kiss and I was on my way into the night.
The trail here is quite a rolling one, so every steep incline, no matter how short, I walked. I felt comfortable and I think somewhere along here, I found myself with Sarah again. She lives in Chamonix so knew this section especially well and we chatted about what was to come. After an easy 8km, we hit Les Houches, a small town with another big crowd. I looked for Mandy Clarke, another friend who had told me she would be there, but missed her. On my recce of this section, I knew I had gone the wrong way out of town so as we started the first climb, it was nice to know that it was a wide and gradual trail. Poles out and the march began. This climb is a ski run so not the most inspiring but pretty straightforward, steep in places and decent going underfoot. Along here, we passed an American woman called Amy who Jayson and I had met the day before. If she had finished, she would have been the first non-able bodied person to complete as she was running wearing a blade from the knee down. I don’t know where she stopped but I know she didn’t complete unfortunately, but what a challenge! I had eaten one of my three brioches at the start as well as my sandwich just before and was feeling fine: it was a warm evening but very comfortable so far and I was happy hiking up chatting to Sarah. Somewhere along here, we also passed the man himself, Michel Polletti, who, along with his wife Catherine, are the founders of the UTMB races. He was wearing the number 2023 and running the race! I went over to him, thanked him and shook his hand, again getting a bit emotional that he was doing this with us. Cresting the top of the hill at Col de Voza, there was a stunning and vibrantly colourful view of the massif behind us and it really felt very special to be there.
The descent into Saint Gervais was not my favourite. On my recce, I had been convinced it was wrong as it was a red ski run, so very steep and just a narrow track with lots of long grass to the sides. But, it was the way! Sarah ran away from me here as I tottered down, trying not to let my feet slide around in my shoes. This eventually gave way to a wider path winding through trees, where I put my headtorch on and I stopped for a quick pee. A Japanese woman followed me into the bushes, and said ‘Men are shit’. I think she was referring to the fact that some of the men could just stand at the side of the trail to do their business while we felt we had to go off course! I fervently agreed as we squatted in sisterhood. When we hit the road into town, the noise picked up again, with people cheering from balconies, coming out of their houses with their children to high five us and eventually, people lined the streets as we came along the closed road to the first bigger checkpoint. Coming through at 9pm, I was feeling good still, having covered 12.4km in 3 hours and had been eating my brioches and M&Ms. I was being extra cautious with my feet and stopped here for a minute to take off my shoes and socks and smear them in lube. As well as resolving to do this regularly, I was also wearing gaiters, to try and stop any debris causing issues. Passing Catherine Polletti near the entrance to the CP was also a surprise: people talk about this being a big business race but it honestly felt like a fantastic community event, just a really big one! I took some bread and cheese for a stodgy sandwich and as I neared the exit, an English volunteer wished me luck. She rather amusingly had a jug of tea with her, so I took some for the walk out of town. Walking along drinking tea and eating a sandwich, people cheering me along, I definitely felt like I was in a good place!
The next section to Les Contamines is probably the easiest running of the whole route. It is low level, with a very gentle uphill trend for 10km. I had found Sarah again and another English man, whose name I forget, and we trotted along together quite well. I had put my jacket on a bit too early though, and although I was feeling a little too warm, was loathe to take it off again since I knew we would soon be very high up and much more exposed. This is also where I think I started to not eat as much as I should have been. The exact timings are blurry but I know fairly early on, the bread and cheese that I had practiced so well with and not had issues with before, became something that I couldn’t stomach and I just wasn’t eating what I was carrying in the quantities I wanted to. All three brioche had been eaten, the stuff at Saint Gervais too, but for 4 hours or so in, it was nowhere near enough. My stomach felt like it was twisted up and I just couldn’t eat solids. I have never had this problem before: I have had some stomach issues but never where I couldn’t eat something for a long period of time. It didn’t worry me too much though as these things usually pass, so I motored on.
Les Contamines came and went, another small town with less bustle than the last but still plenty of people out to cheer us through. I tried more cheese and bread here but know that I threw some of it away, again, not really grasping or wanting to face that I wasn’t having enough food. When you look at the race profile, this whole section looks pretty benign and it certainly felt it as we easily rolled along the wide forest trails to Notre Dame de la Gorge, the scene of the famous Hoka tunnel of lights. It was much more calm here than I had expected as we ran through the tunnel: there were people cheering but I guess because of the time of night – around 11pm – many had left. As we started the long climb up to Bonhomme though, there were a rowdy bunch coming off the hill with music and booze to give us our last taste of civilisation until morning. As I climbed, Sarah drifted away from me and I found myself on my own, yet surrounded by people. This typified much of the race for me: you are never really alone but once it starts to spread out and you get into your groove, if you only know how to order food or ask where the toilet is in French, you can’t really get into any decent trail banter. It was all good though; I like the quiet (oblique Buffy reference, it has to be done!)
The refuge at La Balme marks, in my head anyway, the halfway point of this first really long climb. In the day, it is a lovely spot with benches outside, a trough and a toilet, as well as panoramic views of the valley below. It was also a great opportunity to pause and look behind at the snaking headtorches framed by silhouettes of mountains on either side. I know people say there are more beautiful races but as someone that hasn’t been to an awful lot of places, this is pretty hard to beat for me. The night wasn’t that clear but the moon was nearly full and framed by the smoky looking clouds. This was probably the last time on the race that I could very easily appreciate my surroundings!
Croix de la Bonhomme lies at around 45km in and over 2400m, making it the third biggest climb on the course and I reached it in 8 hours 9 minutes. The clag was down up here and it was a matter of moving from flag to flag, having only ever done this section once in daylight. Add to that a thin layer of wet snow and the fact that it had rained quite a lot in the preceding days, and this wasn’t the descent it had been on my recce. It was slow going coming down, muddy and with the loose rocks made looser by hundreds of other feet and the weather. Concentration was high here too and this I think became another factor in my not eating enough food. I just didn’t think about it. It was cold too and, following some others leads, I stopped to put my waterproof trousers on, as I was moving too slowly to stay warm. It only lasted about 10 minutes though as I got too warm and stopped to take them off again!
I can’t really remember the Chapieux CP although the tracker thinks I stopped here for 20 minutes. I am pretty sure I kept going straight through it, and trotted along when I felt I could along the flattish valley floor towards another climb, this time the second biggest, Col de Seigne and the Pyramides. Again, my memory is hazy but I know it had moments of snaking lights and another sketchy descent like the last one, and I also know that I still wasn’t eating enough. It had been 6 hours or so from Les Contamines where I managed most of a small sandwich and I had only been having odd sweets. As is usual too, the early hours of the morning mean general wooziness, especially after the hype of the previous evening followed by the silence of the mountains at night. I had recced the Pyramides section and thought that I would hit it in the dark but because I had been moving slowly, the morning was breaking as I got onto it. This section is a dog leg off the main TMB route, I can only assume to add more ascent. It is basically a big rock field surrounded by jagged peaks. The light here was sort of pastel blue, really hard to describe and stunning but big rocks are not my forte and again, it was a walk rather than a run across the boulders and down towards Lac Combal. At nearly 70km in and with almost 13.5 hours of moving clocked, I was starting to feel the lack of fuelling now, exacerbated by having lost a night’s sleep. I had a quick stop at this small outdoor CP to take my torch and jacket off and put my cap back on. There is a long flat stretch here and I remember thinking on my recce that it might be a good place for a little walk and an eat and it seems others around me thought the same, as barely anyone was running! It becomes quite catching too: you just join the pack.
The next relatively small climb has the most gorgeous views of glaciers and on my recce it had been breathtaking. I had taken a short stop there to film it and take it in. Now, I was starting to have to make myself appreciate it all. I knew that to carry on feeling like this would be at best incredibly unpleasant so I went off the trail a little to try and make myself sick, thinking that if I could stop the nausea and reset, I would be able to eat again. But there was nothing in my stomach to bring up, and believe me, I tried! The liquid that I was taking in must have been put to use as not even that came up, so I just kept plugging on towards Courmayeur, knowing that Jayson would have some different food for me to try. The small CP at the top of the climb had toilets so I took advantage as well as getting a cup of black tea, and pressed on down into the first big CP and Italy proper.
After an initial section on a ski slope, the descent into Courmayeur is very steep and rooty. Because I hadn’t had the wherewithal to take care of my feet in the previous 10 hours too, this was a problem! I knew I had some blisters and as is the theme of this blog so far, the downhill became slower going than the uphill. Approaching town was a bit of a shock too. The noise and the people were amazing but also overwhelming after so long in the dark, cold and quiet. I had just done 50 miles and was coming in a couple of hours later than I had expected, so with all of this piled on and the awesome welcome at the CP, I started sobbing. Afterwards, Jayson said when he saw me, he thought something terrible must have happened! All I could say was that everyone was so nice! Italians really are so welcoming, it was just from now on I had to remember to say grazie instead of merci! I spent almost an hour here in the large and packed sports centre. Your crew can give you things that they have brought in but you have to get what you want from the CP yourself so as to avoid lots of people getting in the way and, I guess, to make it a more even playing field. We had brought some Expedition foods with us, dehydrated camp meals with tons of calories, which I had used successfully on the Hardmoors 160. It was still hard to eat the chicken noodle stir fry but I managed to have half of it, around 400 kcals. I think having that different flavour helped but it still felt like a lot. I also managed a vanilla Vivolife protein shake but these would be the only substantial things I would have for the rest of the weekend. We took my shoes and socks off to let my feet air and Jayson put Compeed on two big blood blisters that had appeared on the inside edge of my big toe joints. He also applied tape to my heels where I have calloused skin as that was getting sore and I knew would end up with deep blisters. Maybe if I had been more stringent about applying lube, I could have countered some of this, but my addled brain had just forgotten. I put on new socks, a new top and new underpants which felt great. It is interesting how you care so much less doing this in front of people! Rather than go to a toilet, I just asked the man next to me to turn away while I changed my pants and the woman with him even shielded me from sight! It was a small reset but I did feel fresher and as I left the CP with a piece of focaccia, I saw Sabrina Verjee. We have never met but I said hi and she recognised me after having spoken to Jayson. She was crewing for two people and in town for the Tor Des Geants, so it was lovely of her to walk along with me for a few minutes and put me more at ease with her matter of fact-ness. As she left me, I was still working on the focaccia which wasn’t easy but I was determined! From here though, my race was a walk. I did get another lift here too as I was cheered on in the street by a group of Lancastrians with t-shirts saying ‘Avocado Ricardo’. After a couple of months of mostly hearing French or Southern English accents, it was really lovely to hear ‘Come on Kimberleh’! I told them it was great to hear Northern voices which they loved and made me feel quite warm inside.
Leaving town as we headed towards another climb, I fell in with an American guy. It was really useful that we all had a number on our backs as well as our fronts with a name and flag too, so you could see the other English speakers. He was really chatty and told me that he had spent four hours in the CP: one hour convincing himself to stop, another two hours sleeping then an hour eating and his wife telling him to keep going. I have to say, I was pretty jealous of the two hours sleep! We had a good chat going up the hill until he pulled away from me. This is a really lovely section once the wide forest trail opens out onto a balcony with a huge valley view in both directions. Six kilometres of climb takes you to Refuge Bertone where more people were cheering and I had a water top up at the trough, then the flowing track takes you around 7km to Refuge Bonatti. It is a really runnable and smooth section but I had fallen into my pole walk and there was no pulling me out of it. I just had no energy and was actually telling myself out loud to look at the mountains and how amazing it all was. At no point did I consider stopping or that I might be timed out: it was a sort of stoic acceptance that this was just going to be really hard.
The trail winds slowly down to another CP at Arnouvaz at around 100km, where it feels like you lose most of the height you just gained but in reality, you only drop a few hundred feet. It was warm down here though, around 4pm in the afternoon and feeling stuffy in the tent that was set up. I took my soup outside and sat down on a rock to drink it, clocking a young woman having what looked like a very peaceful nap just on the side of the trail. This was a constant sight throughout Saturday and feeling very tired, I decided to have a go as the next climb was the biggest on the course. I lay down with my head on my pack under some trees and closed my eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come. It felt lovely but it was wasted time so I headed out, doing my big and sharp exhales as I went. These gave me some energy and I feel that they focused me on the next few steps.
Grand Col Ferret marks the highest point on the trail and where you cross into Switzerland. It is a long and gradual climb with lots of switchbacks, and one I had done a lot in the past. This is usually where I come into my own: I can get a good march on and tend to overtake people. Today, I was consistently losing paces though, trudging along mostly in robot mode. I was very happy to get to the top and be told ‘Welcome to Switzerland!’ by a marshall, as I knew that the descent was a long one, roughly 10km of nice gradual, smooth trail. Another American guy caught me here and although he was moving better than me, he walked with me for a while and we had a really good chat about training, racing and some of the impressive athletes he knew. Because it was so pleasant, I felt like I had started to turn a corner and decided to try a jam brioche. It went well until the last bite when I started retching it back up. He politely waited for me but I told him to go on as he didn’t need to see me trying to puke! I went off the trail again and because nothing was coming up, put my fingers down my throat for the second time that weekend. Sorry to be so gross, but you’ve gotten this far so you must be interested! It was mostly bile that came up which was disappointing, and it still didn’t make me feel any better. I ploughed on, alone again.
La Fouly is partway down the long descent and if you watch the live video of me coming in, you see how I was really starting to hobble. My feet were so painful and compounded by the lack of food and sleep, it felt even worse. There was no support allowed here, but Jayson was cycling between these CPs and saw me come into the village on the road, so rode along next to me for a few minutes, talking about what we would do at Champex-Lac, the next big CP almost 14km ahead. He reminded me that this was a decent section of forest trail on a flat, wide and clear path, and one we had done several times before in previous years. He told me that I would be able to run it if I got my head down: he was obviously very aware that I was only 2 hours inside the cut off now and haemorrhaging time. I went in and out of the CP, got my hat off and torch on once again and headed out into the night. The apparently easy section was definitely not that with sore feet though, with a good stretch like a dried up river bed, rocks of every shape and size all over the path that were hard to avoid! It was a low level path though and as it got darker for the second time that weekend, other people were running in pairs and threes, so it felt pretty lonely again. This section is really lovely though, as it takes you through very pretty typical Swiss villages. There were a few people out, quietly clapping us through the narrow streets surrounded by stunning traditional chalets, which I had already been fortunate enough to see plenty of times in the past during the day and a lot fresher!
The climb to Champex-Lac is very steep in places but thankfully quite short. I could picture where the trail popped out onto the road and was certain that I kept seeing it at the top of the next switchback but no, it was just more climb, more trees. It took me three hours twenty minutes to do 13.6km but because I had been moving so slowly previously, I was ahead of my estimated time, having made up around thirty-five minutes on the cut off. Getting in at 11.55, I was determined that I would sleep here, especially since there was a designated area for it. This was the first job, while Jayson sorted my pack out and got me ready to go, I was going to nap. I wandered into the large tent outside the main CP where there was a line of camping mats on the floor. They were more like mattresses so the thought of laying down and closing my eyes was wonderful. A man pointed out the last space to me and I crawled onto it, looking around and thinking about how organised everyone else was as they were covered in blankets. I curled up and set my phone timer for 20 minutes but it was so noisy outside with the announcer and the other runners that I ended up laying there not being able to drift off. It was only when I gave up after about 16 minutes and stood up that I realised there was a pile of blankets for us to use! Maybe I would have slept if I had been covered up but I didn’t want to use more precious time that I already couldn’t afford. Finding Jayson, he gave me more soup while he looked at my feet and I think taped them up even more. By now, I had very sore heels too which had blistered deeply but there was no time to get them treated. I got my headphones (quick aside: I was given the OpenFit by Shokz to review for run247.com and they are amazing!) and my MP3 player, loaded up with great tunes, and made my way back out into the night after a 53 minute stop. Immediately, the music made everything feel better. I sang out loud and felt like I was getting a decent marching pace on as I made my way around the beautiful lake in the town. It was along here, only 5 minutes out of the CP, that I decided I was cold and I needed to put my trousers on. There was no real urgency in me at all as I unplugged my headtorch to get my pack off and put my trousers on. Luckily, they have a long zip so are easy to pull on over shoes but I suspect I still took too long! I got going again, only to decide that I was actually too warm and proceeded to go through the same faff to take them off. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how addled my brain was to make me do this kind of thing with no thought of time. On I trekked onto the forest trail, and out of civilisation again.
The 11km to La Giete I think was the worst section of the race for me. It felt like the longest, steepest climb of the whole race and I think the only thing that sustained me was my music. I was now 30 hours in, with no sleep, a tiny amount of fuel and very blistered feet. People littered the trails left and right, napping on flat rocks, so I spent several hours searching for my own big flat rock to lay down on. Nothing was right, the ground was damp and cold and there was nowhere off trail to go. We trudged up through Bovine where in the daytime, there are usually cows to weave through, but it was eerily quiet. The climb went on and on, again with me seeing lights just up ahead that must be the CP, surely, please, but no, just more switchbacks and more runners. When I finally reached the top, the CP was in a barn and on arrival, a marshal outside scanned my number. I was very thirsty, having taken over four and a half hours since Champex-Lac and had drunk my water a lot further back. I asked him if there was water here as I didn’t realise there was a barn behind him! He didn’t understand me and said there was none until Trient, 4km down the hill. I tried to get him to give me some nonetheless and failed so went into the barn and there was a great spread! They were playing very chilled music and there were people napping on the benches that lined the walls: it would have been so easy to stop again but I had some coke, filled my cup with soup, topped up my water and went back out.
The search for a sleeping rock resumed all the way down to the next big CP at Trient but to no avail, and I suspect I was scaring some people singing the Pentatonix cover of White Winter Hymnal! It was slow going again with yet another rooty descent, which Jim Walmsley made look super smooth on the live feed! I lost time again as I came into Trient down the incredibly steep and loose final descent only one hour forty minutes inside the cutoff at around 6.20am. Walking past the pink church, it was getting lighter now and I spotted Emma Moore, one of the athletes I coach, who was on a guided walk of part of the TMB route. She is an early riser so had come out to see me! I had told her I might see her en route during the day but it turns out I was too ambitious! It was worrying not seeing Jayson though, as he had ridden his bike from Champex Lac to Orsiere so I did have some thoughts of him being in an accident. Part of me knew I was catastrophising though so I did what I had to do to get out. When you register for the race, you are given support passes so that one person can come into the CP to help you but Jayson had all of mine and I had to tell Emma that she would have to wait outside. Luckily, this far back in the race, no-one seemed to care who was in the tent as there weren’t that many of us around, so Emma managed to sidle in and chat to me while I was drinking my soup and nibbling on a small piece of bread. She held my poles for me as I messaged Jayson to tell him I was just leaving, and we walked out together, more tea in hand, into the early morning sunshine. I said my goodbyes and thankyous and Emma said she would have a look for Jayson as I left. Walking down the road out of the village though, I got a message saying that he had slept in: little did I know that if I had been more observant, I probably would have spotted the motorhome parked up just on the edge of the village as I left! That was a relief and so I went on, no more charge in my MP3, and listening to the latest Tea and Trails episode instead. I knew that when my headphone battery ran out, I would be okay as it was only going to be daylight from here on. (Another aside, they actually lasted me around 8 hours on one charge, so a great bit of kit!)
The climb out of Trient is another steep one in the trees with switchbacks and it was starting to warm up even at around 7am, but I knew from doing this section so much, that I could start thinking about the home stretch now. The climbs were slow and hard with so little energy but they were doable. A small tent at the top, surrounded by fields, marks the CP at Les Tseppes where a small team of marshals were still having a great time playing music and cheering us through: they must have been there for such a long time! By now, it was full daylight and the rolling singletrack towards Vallorcine was stunning, with some walkers out and the valley in the near distance. As the path descended and runners started coming past me more frequently, the shouty Youtuber appeared behind me. He was very gracious and told me that I had been doing a lot better than him for this long but he was quicker than me on the downs, so off he went. I decided to forgive him because I was too tired to be annoyed! More very steep descending (you see the pattern of this race!) through trees with so many roots again meant I was getting passed constantly and I finally reached the grassy bank into the French village of Vallorcine. At the bottom, a man, not a runner, asked how I was doing and started walking with me when I told him I wasn’t good. Jayson appeared and took over though and I have wondered since who he was. He seemed to be part of the race somehow, maybe a voluntary helper angel?? The circuitous and mildly irritating loop into town on tarmac seemed unnecessary but only because I knew how easy it was to get to the CP directly, and because I was now only 30 minutes inside the cut off after the monumentally terrible section off the last hill. As usual though, Jayson just gently told me that I didn’t have time to stop and so it was a quick drink and out, despite having to dance around someone who was taking the perfect picture in front of a UTMB sign: I don’t think he could have realised how tight time was. Jayson told me to throw everything at it now and that I had just under three hours to get to La Flegere, the last CP. It still didn’t really register with me that this was that tight a time, as I had walked the last section with Bee earlier in the week in two and a half hours. What my head couldn’t factor in was how much slower I was walking now. This was the last time I would see Jayson until the end and I had no idea how much I had him worried about whether I would get cut off or not!
This section towards the last climb is lovely, really easy to recce too as the excellent train and bus from Chamonix runs up the valley to Vallorcine, so it is a popular option to run back to town from here. The track is a riverside, flat trail, nice and gentle and parallel to the main road, so it was busier with people and more runners making their way to the end. I fell in with another American called Adam Devine who has done some crazy stuff and was wearing very jazzy shorts. We both agreed that it felt like we had been out for about a week, with him saying even some of the 200 milers he had done felt less ‘all-consuming’ than this. He dropped back from me a bit – I had a semi decent march on the flat – saying that he might be TFL, but I did see him at the end so clearly not! Crossing the main road, the deviated section climbs a little (or what seems like a little in comparison to literally everything else), then becomes an undulating and extremely technical path with big rocks that you need to lower yourself down, really rough underfoot trail and some not quite scrambling. It was around here that I started hearing an Australian man asking anyone who would listen some odd questions. He didn’t seem to understand the race at all, wanting to know things like how did we know we had finished, what was the end like and how was it celebrated. I somehow drew myself into it and still without realising quite how far I had to go, lost some focus in my talking to him. We got to a junction where he was just ahead, having accosted another runner and a walker, and he was saying that if he didn’t have to go up to La Flegere and could take another route to town, he wasn’t going to bother. I told him that he had to and explained why, then he stayed with me, asking me lots more questions. In hindsight, he may have been as sleep deprived and out of it as I was but it felt like he was very lucid and genuinely didn’t really know much about UTMB, even calling the race ‘an enigma’ and thanking me for answering the questions that other people couldn’t. We were joined my an Australian woman too who seemed as puzzled by him as I was and I think we both felt that we should look after him a bit! I had also been seeing things for a while that weren’t there: the usual faces in rocks and in trees, etc but nothing too bad. This was definitely my most vivid and beautiful hallucination though. As he kept making our way up and around, I kept telling them that I was sure it was just around the next corner when I saw what I thought was some kind of small chalet in the trees ahead and convinced myself that must have meant we were near the CP. Next to this small chalet (that wasn’t actually there) was a huge stags head made from tree branches. It was stunning and so clear to me and I reasoned that if something like that was going to be anywhere, then this would be a good place. But I also half knew that I had been seeing things, so I grabbed the woman’s arm and said ‘ Is there a stags head sculpture up there?’ She confirmed that there was not and as my sightline changed, I could see it was just a tangle of trees. I think this was where I started to realise that my brain was not fully functioning and that I needed to focus! Just after that, a Chinese woman wearing running kit but not in the race, came careening down the hill towards us, shouting in a panicked way. She got to her friend just behind us and started geeing her on, clearly frantic about time. Something switched in me and I started to get worried: maybe it was further than I thought. I said that I was going to pick up the pace and see how far ahead it was and the other two sort of waved me off. As I started to march on and kept going up, there was still no sign of the clearing onto the ski piste that marked the final short climb up to La Flegere. The Chinese woman kept running ahead, shouting and hurtling back again and I started to get scared, I didn’t want to get this far and get cut off 7km from the end. I shouted back that we needed to ‘crack on’, half wondering if Australians would even understand what that meant, and went as fast as I could up the hill. Thinking it was a 2.30pm cut off at the top, this only gave me about five minutes to get there and as I came out into the clearing, I was scared. I could see the CP but the brain fog had cleared, and I knew it was going to be close, if not impossible. Some marshals were standing on the corner of the clearing and said that we were fine, it was a 2.45pm cut off but I only half believed that they were right, so I kept pushing. Caroline Graham and Ian Oldham appeared here, two friends from the local fell race scene. They come out most years too and Caroline had even supported me back in 2016 on the CCC. They knew how much the race meant to me after Ian completed it in the past and them both taking part in some of the other races earlier in the week, so it was wonderful to have them there to walk me up to the CP. They were telling me how strong I was looking and mostly all I could do was pant a few words out. As we crested the hill, I heard another familiar voice encouraging me on.
It wasn’t was it?
I turned and there was John McAvoy. I couldn’t believe it but I had just seen a giant tree stag head so anything was possible! Before I had time to stop my inner nerd, I bleated out, ‘You’re my hero!’ to which he came over, gave me a hug, and kept walking up with us. It is a blur as to what was said but I am pretty sure it was me saying how terribly I was doing (and probably being a fangirl geek) and him telling me I was amazing. As we approached the CP, he gave me another hug and kiss and told me to message him when I finished. I was so excited, that I tried to tell Caroline and Ian who he was but obviously all they wanted to do was to get me through the last CP, so they said they would see me at the other side of the tent. The tent here is a small one, open ended so that you can get scanned in, then get out. There was a tunnel of marshals just in front of it, and as I passed through them, they gave me a huge Mexican wave: I later saw a video of someone who had thought that this was the finish because it was so awesome! I got some coke for the road and met Caroline and Ian again as I came out. Not wanting to get me into any trouble, they told me that I had one hour forty five to do the last 7km and it was all downhill. I even remember Ian saying that I could walk it: I don’t think he realised how slowly I was walking downhill! I had made it here with twelve minutes to spare and with the descents hurting more, I knew this would be okay but that I would have to get going. With it being mid-afternoon and so close to town, there were a lot of people around now and lots of encouragement on the descent. The first few kms are – surprise, surprise – very rooty as you descend through trees, so my battered feet were suffering but I didn’t think that I wouldn’t finish now. Lots of people were overtaking me though and it crossed my mind that I could be dead last which was actually more appealing than being anywhere else. What an amazing reception that would be! Halfway down the climb as it starts to flatten out and get less technical, there is a lovely café called La Floria and Caroline and Ian had trotted past me a little further up saying they would see me there. This gives you an idea of how slow it was too: they were able to run ahead, stop at the café, and then get down the hill ahead of me again! As I reached the café, Caroline was clapping her hands as if to say, right, come on now! She told me that I would have to motor and to trot the flats instead of walking. I tried, but think the best I could muster was a shuffle. The track widens as it approaches town and becomes forest fire road and along here, Jayson was waiting. He walked/trotted next to me with just a couple of kms to go and I had to pull over and have a side of the trail wee. Boundaries were down and I was desperate but I certainly wasn’t expecting the man dressed as a centurion to start asking me questions in French as I was squatting! He was really there too, you can see him finish ahead of me! We approached the town and the road crossing where you have to go over a metal bridge. Caroline came with me and that was my final climb! We all started jogging as we hit the tarmac, with Jayson filming and Caroline and Ian shouting affirmations at me. The path along the riverbank is lined with people, all cheering you in and it slowly builds in volume. Along here, John appeared again, a friend filming on his phone, and he joined my little train. He said to me, ‘This is your moment’ and he was right. I knew what it was to run into Chamonix at the end of the OCC on Thursday afternoon, what it was to run in at the end of the CCC at 4am in the morning on Saturday, and I had run in with two other people, Jack and Andy, finishing their UTMB the year before. I thought I knew what it would be like but I was completely overwhelmed by the crowd. With each turn, the noise and the volume of people swelled and I ran around the final corner on my own, the pain in my feet and the tiredness all gone. The tears of elation and relief set in and my jaw hurt from smiling through them. I saw Simon from our running club, looking happier and more excited than I have ever seen him. I saw Dave and Tracey right near the finish line and went for a hug. There were people on either side of the path inside the gantry, lined up and clapping me in that I thought were UTMB staff and it was only later on I found out that they were elites giving the last few a guard of honour. Walking over that line, by myself, but blanketed in so much support was a moment I will never forget and one that made the struggle worth it. I had finished UTMB.
I walked into Jayson’s arms and sobbed, less than 8 minutes inside the final cut off, placing 1725th out of 1758 finishers. I sat on the floor and cried, surrounded by all the others who had also finished by the skin of their teeth. Lots of friends came over on the other side of the barrier and we talked for a while, with Serena handing me a PRC vest for a picture! I felt euphoric, not tired anymore but also really wanting to get my gilet! After we found it, I cried a bit again – I finally had it and had really earnt it. Finding a place to sit on the grass to have a drink and get my Crocs on, we were joined by a young man called Casun who Jayson had met on Friday evening standing at the side of the trail before I had gone past. He was American, on holiday and didn’t have a clue what UTMB was. When Jayson told him, he got so excited by it that he followed me on the tracking all weekend and had even got a good place in the crowd at the end to film me finishing. He told us that it had inspired him to try to get into one of the races in the future and that we should visit him in California! Dave and Tracey found us too and helped me to hobble through town – my feet were definitely painful again! – to the motorhome and we had a good debrief. It helped a lot to talk to someone who understood and Dave asked me if it had been what I wanted it to be. While the race itself was not a good experience in terms of how I felt, it was what I wanted. It was hard and painful, and because of not being able to eat, I really just had to grit through it, which I knew that I could do if I had to and which wasn’t something I wanted UTMB to be. I know I am tough, but I was a bit sick of that always being the theme of my longer ultras. But, if I hadn’t had to do that, if I hadn’t finished so far back, I would not have had the indescribable privilege of that finish. So ultimately, UTMB was all I had hoped and more.
There has been a lot of negative talk about UTMB: the relationship with Ironman, the stones system, the number of races that they now own and all of the travel and cost associated with getting into and running one of these events. To me, it feels like a very Little Britain attitude that if something is a bit extravagant and successful, we must tut and shake our heads at it. As trail runners too, there is a real conflict between wanting to enjoy the outdoors while preserving and protecting the environment we run in and to me, that can also create an exclusivity. There is a disconnect between wanting more people to get into trail running but not having lots of people on the trails. How can we get the word out about this fantastic sport if we don’t have at least some media friendly, international, well promoted and well organised races like this? How can we grown the sport if we keep it under lock and key and don’t shout about it? Or is it that really we want to keep it small, niche and just between us? I don’t know what the answer is as the sport does grow but it can surely only be a good thing if someone sees something like this, like Casun did, and wants to experience it themselves. And as for UTMB specifically, where else can you line up with the world’s greatest to truly test yourself against an awesome course in an event where every person you see on the trail is cheering you on and is excited about what you are doing? Where whole towns spanning three countries come together on this one weekend a year and make you feel that you are doing something exceptional? This might be a very large community but I have genuinely never felt so much support pouring from every place you pass through on this race. The locals love that it happens, they embrace it and are proud of everyone that completes. It is a stark contrast to some races in the UK, where organisers have to beg and plead and jump through numerous hoops before being grudgingly allowed to hold an event for 200 people where they are then subject to abuse for a few cars parked in the wrong place. Low key trail races have my heart and I will always go back to them, but sometimes, you have to treat yourself, to allow yourself to be told things like ‘you’re amazing’ and ‘this is your moment’. Sure, you enjoy a digestive biscuit but once in a while don’t you just fancy an extravagant French patisserie cake? The icing on that cake was meeting John at the end too. It really felt like fate, that someone whose story had resonated so deeply with me was there to be part of a closing chapter for me, one that was so far away from the path of ordinariness that my life might have taken. It felt at the same time like a full stop and a ‘to be continued…’
Without wishing to sound too worthy and Oscar speechy after you have read over 10,000 words (!) I have to thank everyone that joined me on this path for the last decade. Pickering Running Club have changed my life in lots of ways as have the Hardmoors community. If not for this huge and wonderful bunch of people, I would be in a very different world now, so I am utterly grateful to them all. And of course, Jayson. He followed me around this race, increasingly nervous of my precarious position and did everything I needed him to, as well as supporting me on every other event and in my training, even when I have been a brat. Looking forward to the next thing 😉