A week has past since I crossed the finish line of the UTMB CCC in the centre of Chamonix, so now seems like a good time to reflect on a great race.
My excitement for this race had been building ever since I finished my first ultramarathon (Race to the Stones) last year. Against expectation, my first attempt in the draw for the CCC was successful (I had half hoped I would fail this time around so as to double by chances in 2016). Despite my reservations about the race and the fact I had only been running for less than a year, I began my training. I had walked the UTMB as a teenager, so I had a good idea of what I was letting myself in for, and after a year of carefully planned training and some good races in between, I felt ready to go for it as I arrived in Chamonix on the Tuesday before the race.
The UTMB CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) is 101 km long with 6100 m of ascent (spread across 5 main climbs). It is a brutal route and the high temperatures on the day made the first half of this race particularly tough. 1470 people finished out of 1900 starters. This is a fairly high drop out rate and I imagine the heat had something to do with that. I had a pre-race aim of getting round in about 20 hrs, but went in with the attitude that completing it would be a big achievement in itself.
I have broken the race down into what seemed like significant stages during the day…
The start (epic):
As I had anticipated, I didn’t have the best nights sleep, but the adrenaline took over as I got my things together in the morning. Kevin and Edward (my support crew for the day) drove me through the tunnel to for the Start at 9 am in Courmayeur. We arrived about an hour before kick off and already half the field was in place and/or queuing for the loo. The atmosphere was amazing and the excitement only grew as they played epic music as both a helicopter and drone were hovering above. I took my place in the second starting group of runners (the 9.10 am start) and waited in anticipation as they played Vangelis – Conquest of Paradise https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaOBOGA_PJ0 (the UTMB ‘theme tune’). We agreed the music sounded as if we were going into battle. Before long we were counting down from 10 and the first group were off through the streets of Courmayeur.
Then it was our turn, I waved goodbye to Kevin and Edward and then set off to the sound of music, cheering and cowbells. I knew the first 10 km up to Tete de la Tronche had nearly 1500m of ascent and I had heard this was mainly walking slowly in a queue of 1900 runners so I tried to get forward in the group without getting carried away and starting too quickly. Partly because it was going to be so hot and partly because of the enormity of the challenge, I had now decided that I was going to just enjoy the experience, times didn’t matter; I would be happy as long as I enjoyed it. I think this was a good mindset to get into and it paid off as the day progressed.
The first climbs (hot hot hot):
After a few km’s the winding road became a single track that steepened sharply. We were now in the queue. I chatted to another Brit (Adrian) as we slowly climbed for the next 2 hrs. It was still relatively cool and I didn’t feel like I was pushing at all (which makes a change!). We had a laugh at the people trying to overtake at this stage, it really was wasted energy! I had some of a gel and ate an energy bar on the way up as I feel it is very important to start eating from the get go. After 2.5 hours we had reached Tete de la Tronche and it now felt like the day had really begun.
I jogged along the ridge and down to Refuge Bertone (14.7 km), this is what the CCC is all about; single track trails along high terrane with spectacular views. There were still many people bunched up at this stage and it was stop-start for about the next 30 km, but this was to be expected from a race of this scale. Refuge Bertone was very busy so I didn’t hang around long. I just picked up a few crackers, drank coke, and filled my bottles.
The trail to Refuge Bonatti winded along the side of the valley, dipping in and out of tree cover. It was now very hot and I took every opportunity to dunk my visor into the cold streams running across the trail. I mostly ran to Bonatti and continued to chat to Adrian, although it was still quite stop-start. I headed straight to the loo at Bonatti and had the lovely experience of trying to squat above a hole on the floor – my quads felt it! After a few cokes and crackers, I was off again along the valley side and down the switchbacks to the first big checkpoint in Arnuva. The crowds of supporters were out here – this always gives me a huge boost. It was here I got my first taste of the delicious noodle soup and I guzzled down a couple of bowls! It was so hot in the tent on the valley floor so I didn’t want to hang around for too long. I looked for Adrian but I couldn’t spot him so decided to keep pushing on.
The climb from Arnuva to Grand Col Ferret was brutal in the heat, but I felt really good and managed to hike past a good number of people on the way up. I had two litres of water for this leg, but I still filled my bottles from one of the taps dripping into a trough on the mountainside. I reached the top around 3.30 pm, over 6 hours of running and only 32 km in. At this stage I couldn’t see how I would get to the finish in under 20 hours, but my legs still felt good and I was going to enjoy the next 20 km of (nearly all) downhill running.
The long descent (running at last):
The descent off Grand Col Ferret is fantastic, it felt like the first time in the race I could properly run and I was soon spraying my face with water at an unofficial stop half way down. As we entered the trees towards the bottom of the valley I slowed down a little and it seemed as if everyone was descending faster than me – at least I felt strong on the uphills!
On the way down from Grand Col Ferret (I think)
As I ran into La Fouly (41 km) I began to get excited as I was due to meet Kevin and Edward for the first time. Sure enough, they were waiting outside the checkpoint to cheer me in. I dipped in and out of the tent, only stopping for orange segments and a couple of bowls of soup, so that I could rejoin my support crew outside. We walked together for a section of road and it was great to chat to them.
Kevin told me at this point it was only 15 km to Champex-Lac and it was all downhill. I felt very upbeat so continued to run along the valley floor, which was now in shade and it was the first opportunity of the day to get out of the heat. As I looked ahead on the trail I soon realised that Champex-Lac was actually going to be up a hill, and a fairly substantial 600m hill at that! I also stupidly thought this was the first of the last three hills, I was wrong. I got into my walking rhythm again and hiked my way up through the trees and into Champex-Lac (55 km) at about 7pm.
Happy on my way out of La Fouly
This was the first opportunity for my support crew to give me assistance and Edward was waiting with the bag full of food we had prepared the day before. I took a seat and started eating a ridiculous number of different things. Another couple of soups (with added salt), spaghetti Bolognese, a quiche, chocolate, Yop yogurt drink and orange juice. I was now over half way through the race and had begun to feel some fatigue, although I felt better than I had before at this stage of a 100 km race. I told Edward I would be walking the vast majority of the second half as I didn’t imagine I would be able to pick the pace up.
The beginning of the end (a low point):
I never considered dropping out of the race at any stage during the day, but I did have a little low point for around 2 hours during the climb out of Champex-Lac and up to La Giete. As I left Champex-Lac my stomach was full and I felt sick. My legs were strong, but every time I ran, my stomach turned more. I had eaten too many different things at the checkpoint and my body clearly didn’t know what to do with it all. I really did feel rough and I wasn’t even moving well on the gentle descents. As darkness fell on another brutally steep ascent, I became disorientated and dizzy and was yawning a lot. I was tired and I contemplated having a 10 minute nap at the next stop or even at the side of the trail (I had seen many others during the day doing this). My poles kept me upright though and I decided to eat a few caffeinated Cliff Shot Blocks to keep me awake. The combination of the caffeine, the cooler night air, and my body finally figuring out what to do with all the food suddenly brought me out of my low point and by the time I reached La Giete, I felt good once again. By this point I couldn’t think where I was in terms of the profile and I asked another runner if it was one or two more hills to go, to my annoyance, he replied with ‘two, just take one at a time’. I slightly regretted not putting on the transfer tattoo of the profile Edward had bought me earlier in the week, although not knowing what is coming up next is sometimes better than knowing!
Perhaps the scariest part of the race was waiting at the top of the hill, I could hear cowbells ringing for sometime and thought it was the crowds at the next checkpoint. However, as I entered a paddock, I realised the bells were actually hanging around the necks of a large herd of cows. I am very wary of cows in the daylight, never mind in complete darkness. The noise of the bells was now all consuming, I could just make out the outlines of the cows and the reflection of my light in their eyes as I tried to loop around them. I made it through though and had a chuckle about it as I began the descent.
The high mountain refuges were fantastic, they had open fires to welcome you in. A few runners huddled around the fires whilst others filled their water bottles. We were told it was 5 km to Trient and so I decided I would start to push it. I was now descending better and quicker than I had all day, and I must have overtaken nearly 20 people on the way down, only slowing for a chat with an English girl. I had had little good conversation since leaving Adrian in Arnuva and unfortunately it seemed like the international field of runners didn’t like to talk as much as the Brits during these events. So in that sense, it was a fairly lonely race.
I ran all the way into Trient, past the church and through the crowd into the large marquee. This was a really nice checkpoint and Petzl even had a station there for runners to exchange batteries. As I sponged water all over my face and neck, Edward came running up to see how I was. It was great to have the support at this stage of the race and we both walked into the marquee. I changed my socks here although my feet felt OK still. I kept on saying to Edward ‘I need to keep the food simple’ and apart from a Cliff Shot Blocks, I stuck to savoury (soup, crackers, bread, meat) for the remainder of the race. I tried to drink a coffee but a fellow runner managed to spill the whole cup over me with his poles. I was past caring about small annoyances like this though! I asked Edward how far it was to the next Checkpoint, but he didn’t know. I felt so good at this point I told him ‘it doesn’t matter, what difference will it make anyway’
Another hill (feeling good):
I now felt the best I had all day and it felt like I powered over the next hill to Catone and back down to Vallorice. I was even running up gentle slopes during this stage and I overtook many people on the climb (I was 423rd in Trient and 366 in Vallorcine). The open fire at the small mountain refuge Catone was another great sight. The moon was almost full, it was a clear starry night, and I was loving it. I had feared the night section in the weeks before the race and it surprised me how much I was enjoying it. Maybe it’s the narrower focus a head torch gives, as it forces you to think only about moving forward and not how much of the race is left. I couldn’t quite believe my legs still felt OK climbing (still no cramp) and my feet were good (no blisters). I knew I was going to finish the race now, it was just a matter of how hard I wanted to push it over the final stages. I ran into Vallorcine and was greeted by Kevin and Edward for one final time. I spent less than 15 minutes here as I didn’t want to upset my rhythm.
The final push (racing to the finish):
I ran out of Vallorcine and up the gentle climb towards the head of the valley and once again, settled into a hike. I looked up to see a line of head torches marking out the final (and steepest) ascent and wished I had my camera for a long exposure. It was a truly beautiful sight. The pass looked so high and I thought it would take hours to reach the top. I was getting a little tired again but I powered on up the hill. It was STEEP! The switchbacks became steep wooden steps/ladders and boulders towards the top, as if we hadn’t already endured enough! I had the wrong idea of the profile as the hillside flattened out again. I thought we were due to reach La Flegere, but instead the trail undulated for what seemed like forever. The path was technical with loose rocks underfoot and I struggled.
I realised a guy seemed to be tailing me very closely behind, so as always, I pulled over and told him to pass. But he had no light left on his head torch so needed to follow a light (Im not sure how he used 2 head torches with spare batteries!). He followed me over the next few km’s which began to annoy me and I soon became grumpy. I didn’t feel like I could go at the steady pace I wanted to. I was pleased when he pulled away with a few others (on my second time of asking) just before one last small climb up the ski slope to La Flegere. I text Edward to tell him it was taking much longer than expected so I wasn’t going to make 5am and the 20hrs I had hoped. drank some sparkling water (another good choice throughout the day) and ate more crackers. I realised a lot of the other runners who came in before me were hanging around, so I decided to make a move.
It was now 4 am and there was 8km of downhill left. I began to open-up on the way down and really stretched out my legs like I hadn’t all day, passing a few others on the way down. I realised I might actually make it back for 5 am in Chamonix, so I picked up the pace further. Strangely my legs seemed to enjoy the different running style and after only an hour I was off the trail and onto the tarmac as I entered Chamonix. Many officials, a number of supporters and a few drunks cheered the runners over the final km through the centre of town. My emotions began to build as I ran down the final stretch and over the finish line. I looked for Kevin and Edward, but they hadn’t made it to the finish in time, at least this meant I had run the final descent much faster than predicted! I didn’t have to wait long before they showed up and we headed back to the Chalet. Annoyingly, they slept much better than I did that morning!
I ended up in 332 place in a time of 19:48:56. I looked over my stats the following day and I was evenly paced over the whole 100 km and I progressively improved my placing between every checkpoint. I can’t complain with that!
In terms of the journey, the trail, and the experience and by my performance on the day, this was without doubt my best race yet. I don’t think I could have done any better and apart from eating too much at the half way point, I wouldn’t have changed anything. Apart from my Petzl NAO, I didn’t take any of the compulsory kit out of my bag, wearing the same t-shirt and shorts the whole way. The temperatures during the night were lovely, and just warm enough to stay in a shirt throughout the race.
I couldn’t fault the organisation of this race at all, the checkpoints were fantastic and the route was so well marked all the way. It was amazing how they coped with the huge numbers of runners throughout the whole week.
Initially I couldn’t consider entering the race again, but after a week off I am keen for more! At some stage in the future I would love to have a crack at the UTMB but for now I want to focus on my speed with some ‘shorter’ races.
What I ate:
The more I run, the more I find I want to eat real savoury food and the CCC was no different. As always, I ended up stockpiling far too much food for race day and I also carried far more than I ate. I tend to take full advantage of the food available at the checkpoints. However, what I always carry (and use) are Nuun electrolyte tablets. I have one 500 ml bottle of this every hour or so, and I believe this is the recipe to avoid cramp.
After spending three days looking around the stalls at the Salon Ultra-Trail I bought into a small French company making the honey based MelTonic gels and bars. These taste amazing (the best tasting gel I have had) but on the day they just felt too sweet. I ended up only having the equivalent of about 3 gels during the race, and 3 small bars. I also ended up buying an incredibly expensive turd-looking piece of fruit cake (100 % fruit). It tasted great but I didn’t touch much.
I did, however, enjoy Cliff Shot Blocks. These were tasty and easy to eat on the way up the climbs and always gave me a boost. The ones with caffeine in were particularly effective in the dark and towards the end of the race.
The Checkpoints provided a great selection of food and these are a few of the things I went for:
- Noodle soup – they had this regularly and I always had more than one bowl. This is good, salty, savoury and hydrating stuff – I couldn’t get enough of it!
- Bread, cheese and cured meats – I had acclimatised to eating this in the week before and the meat, in particular, was great.
- Oranges, oranges, oranges – so refreshing on a hot day!
- Crackers – These were real stomach settlers and tasted great.
- Spagetti Bolognese (Champex-Lac 55km)
- Quiche – provided for by Edward
- Coke and sparkling water – both great for the stomach!
Gear that made a difference on the day:
- Mountain King Trail Blaze poles: I am not sure I could have done the race without poles and the ‘bullrushes’ didn’t fail me at all on the day. I kept my poles extended for the whole race and this forced me to use them at every opportunity (both up and downhill). I struggled using these on the Ultimate Trails 110 km in June, but I guess practice helps and the trails in the alps are a little more suited to them. I think I would prefer the Black Diamond Ultra distance as they seem to assemble and fold up more easily.
- Petzl NAO headlamp: I couldn’t fault this bit of kit. By far and away the most spotted headtorch during the race. Still had half of the battery life left after 9 hrs in the dark.
- Salomon Sense Ultra 4 SG: I was sceptical about buying these trainers as I know I will never run like Kilian, but they have been amazing. They give me significantly more confidence on quick descents over any terrain and I didn’t get any blisters through the race. The only fault being the holes forming on the upper inside toebox.
- Drymax socks: These have to get a mention as I didn’t pick up a single blister. I didn’t even feel I needed to change the Drymax Speedgoats at Trient (71 km), although I did.
- Salomon Advance Skin Lab Hydro 12 Set: Love this backpack, a perfect size for the race and the 4 softflasks worked well.
- A Buff/Visor combo: Decided to do this just prior to the race and was brilliant as I could cool down by dipping either of them in the many streams crossing the trail. I think covering your head during high temperatures and exposed climbs could mean the difference between finishing and a DNF.