This report is not necessarily just about the race, but race week as a whole. Grab a cup of coffee and a croissant, you have over 10,000 words to consume, one for each metre I had to climb over the 171kms. Hopefully it won’t take you the 41 hours I took to complete the course.
UTMB? Why would anyone want to compete in it?
Would I ever encourage a person to participate in UTMB? How does someone begin to answer this question without scaring the living daylights out of them?
There were 2543 starters, 987 wouldn’t make the finish line.
The first to cross the line was Pau Capell bib #2 from Spain who quite incredibly ran the course in 20 hours 19 mins 9 seconds. The last was Guillaume Keller bib #2392 from France who still finished even though he was over the 46.5 hour cut-off time, crossing the line to rapturous applause in 46 hours 55 mins 30 seconds, that’s almost two days out on the trail. Both amazing feats and both greeted with the same enthusiasm at the finish line.
Should I have listened to a good friend who on several occasions had stated quite clearly and without hesitation that they’d never ever do this race again? Maybe.
So, should you do UTMB?
Training started in earnest not long after UTA100 with a 16-week block leading up to race week at the end of August. Many questions have been asked of me post UTMB with the most frequent one being “what would you have done differently in your training to prepare for UTMB”? To be honest not a lot, as quite simply there’s nothing that really comes close here in Australia that emulates the climbs you do during UTMB, unless you’re prepared to go down to Jindabyne and do Jindabyne to Mt. Kosciusko repeats.
What I would suggest is to mix up your training by starting at different times, go and do Kedumba repeats at 2am, sublime point at 5am running in to sunrise, get your body accustomed to running on tired legs and understand what it’s like to see the sunrise and feel that surge of energy when you may feel at your lowest.
The race starts on a Friday evening and you’re pretty much running through two nights to get back to the start line some 172kms later. Learn to use poles and use them well, use them to add power to your climbs, use them to navigate and help your quads on the long descents which can be as brutal as the climbs so much so that you’re almost wishing for a climb to break up the relentless downhill. When you are training and doing hill repeats don’t worry about running up the hills but focus on your power walking with poles, this approach is really going to help you when you hit those big climbs which are scattered throughout the course. Quite simply, you’re not going to run up the hills during UTMB.
Yes Mt. Solitary repeats will help but Solitary you’re done with the toughest part of the climb within ½ hour, now visualise doing this for 2 to 3 hours.
When it comes to training for UTMB do hills, lots and lots of hills, I lost count how many Balmoral hills repeats I did as I couldn’t always get up to the Blue Mountains – https://www.strava.com/activities/2585317168.
Do Kedumba and Sublime Point Rd repeats, gentle jogs downhill but then march the uphills, fantastic if you’re strong enough to run all of Kedumba without stopping but you need to learn to use poles. Get the hint. https://www.strava.com/activities/2546624220
We arrived into Chamonix on the Monday afternoon allowing for us to take in fully the crazy events of race week. Chamonix is buzzing on the run up to race day (6pm on the Friday), with the majority of the elite runners already having spent many weeks in the mountains to acclimatise it was a who’s who of Ultra running glitterati walking the streets of Chamonix. The cafés are full, the bars are busy the scenery is truly spectacular with Mont Blanc the backdrop. Plenty of food, beers and wine was consumed and maybe just the odd croissant and baguette.
Tuesday morning we caught the Mer de Glace cog train up to Montenvers and took a fantastic run/hike round to Plan de L’aiguille https://www.strava.com/activities/2655251516,
An easy alpine track following the countour of the mountainside, whilst providing for incredible views down Chamonix valley
From the mid station we then caught the gondola up to Aiguille du Midi at 3700m you’re really feeling the altitude up here but with views to die for.
Wednesday we ran from the UTMB start to checkpoint 1 at Les Houches https://www.strava.com/activities/2658030571
We hadn’t planned to do this but I’m so pleased we did, it eased my pre-race nerves of not knowing anything of the course other than what I’d read and viewed on YouTube. This is an easy 8km trail that follows the river down to Les Houches, a perfect morning spent with Jenny with a coffee and a croissant with our old friend Iain once we’d arrived in Les Houches.
We caught the bus back to Chamonix, if you get chance and feel inclined I would encourage you to do this small section of the course even if it is to just put your mind at ease. It will offer that little bit of foreknowledge of the first section after leaving the hype of the start, it really allowed me to just take that first section very easy when it came to actual race day.
Wednesday evening it was time to catch up with the rest of the gang who’d arrived into town and do a short 5k run along the river next to the race expo
Thursday was check-in day; we all went through the process together, allowing for us to get the obligatory group bib photo, the nervous excitement was clear to everyone, even those of the group who’d done the race before could not help but be drawn into the excitement of UTMB.
The actual process was very easy, show your entry confirmation, a sheet is printed with a randomized selection of mandatory gear you have to show, i.e. each of us had different items to show. Mandatory gear passed, bib presented then group photo. Job done.
Don’t forget to collect your crews bus wrist lanyard at this point too (more on this in the crew notes at the end).
Chamonix 0kms Fri 6pm (Alt 1032m)
6pm! Who starts a race at 6pm, only in France.
With a 6pm start time there’s nothing else to do than just rest up, eat, hydrate and keep the nerves at check. We’d discovered an excellent omelette café Omeletterie La Poele and indulged in some last-minute protein, a perfect lunch that we’d had numerous times through our week at Chamonix. Don’t be put off by the rude staff, the food is (was) excellent each time we ate here. I even managed to sneak in an afternoon siesta.
Time to lube up the body, Squirrel nut butter, Vaseline on the toes, Vaseline where the sun don’t shine, kit on, shoes on and it was time to go, only to turn around and notice that I’d neglected to drop my drop bag off. First panic attack, where was the drop bag place, what time did it have to be there by? Jenny to the rescue who ran it over to the expo to drop it off and then get back in time for us all to meet at the others apartment where it was absolutely organised chaos as last minute checks were being done, last minute poo’s done, do I have all my nutrition, is my watch charged up, have I got enough anti-chaff applied, do I go bladder or bottles.
Walking down to the start line at Place de l’ Église I reckon my resting heart rate was way over 100, the atmosphere was electric, with 2500 expectant runners squeezing in to the square all with the same nervous anticipation I just wanted it to start now.
We found a spot in front of Église Saint Michel and waited for the music to start.
With helicopters overhead, the MC’s working the crowd and everyone hugging each other you cannot begin to explain the shivers that go down your spine as Conquest of Paradise begins to play over the sound system.
“Deux minutes”!, sweaty palms, live Facebook feed is going out, smiling nervous faces all around.
“Une minute”!, are my shoelaces tied up.
“Trente secondes”!, boom goes the bass as Vangelis pumps out
“Dix secondes”!, “this is it”,
“Aller”!! we’re off.
It’s a shuffle to get to the UTMB archway, but to be honest I would not want it any other way, take it all in, take it slowly, this start is one of the most humbling experiences you’re likely to experience, so many languages cheering you along hands held out for high fives, take in every last second of this start, it’s bloody amazing, would it be wrong to DNF now, nothing can surpass that start why now run 171kms.
Les Houches 7.97kms Fri 6.51pm 1317th
(Race 00:51:11) Alt 1017m (Cumulative vert 130m)
I teared up.
That start was something else but now the task at hand had to be faced. Having run this first leg on Wednesday morning it really allowed me to just enjoy the start with the knowledge of what I had ahead of me for at least the next 8kms, time to compose myself, get into a rhythm and settle in to what would become a very long 41 hours.
The crowds lining Rue du Dr Paccard as we left Chamonix were immense, 3, 4 persons deep wishing you nothing but success. Within 10 mins though we were out of town and heading out on to the trail that followed L’Arve river down towards Les Houches, with no major climbs to contend with this was an excellent way to get the legs working and ease in to the run. Everyone was chattering away about the atmosphere at the start, with many people on the trail at this stage it was very much a conga line of runners, an easy pace was held, no ‘go hard or go home’ for me at the start of this one.
You cross the L’Arve river and do the short climb up to Les Houches and with no real need to stop at the checkpoint I ran on through heading towards the first major climb that would lead up and over into St. Gervais
Saint-Gervais 21.51kms Fri 8.42pm 804th -513
(Race 02:42:35) Alt 829m (Cumulative Vert 957m)
So, this is what ski fields look like without the snow.
With Chamonix behind us down in the valley that we’d left just over an hour ago we left the flattish terrain and began the climb out of Les Houches.
Up and up we went on the first climb, still very congested at places, some people were running up as if this was the last hill, but with the poles out I began the march up.
Kedumba up to the white gate takes me approximately 1 hour, it’s 8.5kms with 660m of elevation. This first climb is approximately 7kms with almost 800m of climbing and this is one of the smaller climbs, it was humid too post rain that had hit us all just before the start.
Once at the top the urge to bomb down the hill to St. Gervais is strong but with almost 1000m of descent the quads had to be looked after, at times though it hurts to just take it easy down these hills, and then you have some crazy French runner doing an impression of a mountain goat, boy can some of these runners do these descents well, they were flying. Coming into St. Gervais I’d picked up 513 places but this was most probably just a natural re-ordering of runners post first checkpoint from Les Houches, my pace was still steady, I was taking on fluids and gels, all felt good as the party town of St. Gervais appeared.
St. Gervais was mad, extending from the people who were all on speed I reckon through to the smorgasbord at the checkpoint, cold meats, cheeses, baguettes, cake, soup, noodles, I reckon my eyes popped out of my head. I took on some soup and noodles, refilled my bottles and headed on out having spent around 5 minutes in the aid station. With head torch now on I headed out in to my first night.
Les Contamines Montjoie 31.81kms Fri 10.14pm 697th -107
(Race 04:14:04) Alt 1160m (Cumulative Vert 1531m)
Check out the meat and cheese selection, better than any Super Marché in Australia.
What can I tell you about this section? Not a lot to be honest, I have an absolute mental block for this section of the race, I’m sure I was still awake at this stage. I remember leaving St. Gervais as I saw Asterix and Obelix on the run out of town (maybe I was asleep), and I remember getting to Les Contamines and the long steady rise to get up to the checkpoint but the majority of this 10km section I have no recollection whatsoever, I’ve watched videos on YouTube to try and spark the memory but still all blank, I know there was a river to the left of me, a lot of forest running, but everything else is gone from memory, no major climbs that I can recall but on getting in to Les Contamines aid station it was chaos, “Alan, Alan” I heard over the din of the noise in the tent and there’s Jen, the first and only stop for this first night. A welcome sight.
This checkpoint was shaped like a horseshoe, I grabbed food of soup and noodles and bread, walked around to find Jen, the heat and humidity in this next section was almost too much, fortunately Jen had found a quieter part round near the first aid section, a welcome respite from the chaos that was next door, possibly the worst checkpoint on the whole course unfortunately. A change of clothes for warmth, on went the Ayup (I’d used just a Petzl Reactik for the run from St. Gervais), and after 20 mins in the station I was off with a kiss.
Running out from the checkpoint I hear two more familiar voices, Raki and Mark who were waiting on Piera and Marty to come in, always good to see happy familiar faces, they must’ve been doing it tough waiting for us all to come in.
La Balme 40.13kms Sat 12.25am 1083rd +386
(Race 06:25:40) Alt 1714m (Cum vert 2105m)
The French are mad.
If you’re going to gain any ground then it’s this first section out of Les Contamines up to Notre Dame de la Gorge, it’s flattish and on road, as you arrive to the church on your right you’re greeted by the traditional bonfire that marks the start of the ascent up to Col du Bonhomme and so it begins, the crowds along the first part of this climb are cheering you along, cow bells ringing as you begin approximately 10kms of climbing with 1200m+ of elevation which would take me 3 hours with a 15 minute stop at Refuge de la Balme.
At the refuge I bumped in to Piera for the first time, stood at the soup station I turned to my left only to see Piera stood next to me “what are you doing here” she exclaimed, a witty retort was long gone as I was certainly feeling this climb “taking it easy” was my reply, nothing more could be done, would this climb ever end. I wasn’t cold but I was just tired, I was taking on food and gels and hydrating but this was a beast of climb, I sat down enjoying the warmth of the marquee but had to face the night and the rest of the climb. The climb up to this point had been through alpine forest, until you get above the tree line and then it’s alpine ski slopes (minus the snow) then rocky single track for the climb up to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.
The humidity had dropped off, the wind was not too bad the higher you got up but all I needed to keep warm was my Merino long sleeve, a running t-shirt and my rain jacket, I don’t think I even had my full finger gloves. The welfare of my fingers had been a big concern to me on the run up to the race as I suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome which see’s the blood supply to my finger tips cut off, I reckon I must have taken four different pairs of gloves for this race, including the trusty marigolds to help keep my hands dry, i.e. put on warm gloves and place the larger marigolds over your warm gloves. I didn’t have to resort to this option.
Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme 45.73kms Sat 2.02am 1085th +2
(Race 08:02:04) Alt 2456m (Cumulative vert 2900m)
Yep, the French are mad.
From La Balme to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme it took me another 1.5 hours to finish the climb up, some 4 hours after I’d left Les Contamines, dropping almost 400 places, did 400 people pass me on the climb and through the wait at the refuge? No recollection, it was a case of head down and just keep climbing up and up.
Getting near to what I hoped was the top I heard cow bells, excellent the col must be near. The cow bells got louder, the cheering even louder but then in the middle of nowhere half-way up the mountain there’s a French family, kids, parents, grandparents and possible the family dog cheering and clapping and screaming and shaking cow bells as if their lives depended on it. Crazy, crazy but such a moral boost, merci, merci, merci.
Finally, at the top I bumped into Piera again and down the other side we both went, trying to accommodate for the ‘mountain goats’ powering down the descent. The descent was open, no trees, the pathway rutted and rocky in places, but the running was easy and steady the quads were doing fine. Poles still out assisting with the turns and step downs etc.
Les Chapieux 50.68kms Sat 2.50am 1123rd +38
(Race 08:50:24) Alt 1551m (Cumulative Vert 2900m)
Duff duff duff.
Bloody hell, I’ve heard some sounds systems but the rave party going on at Les Chapieux was in a different league, 3am in the morning, running for 9 hours having taken 48 mins to get down from Bonhomme I just needed some warm soup and to rest, but the wall of sound on arriving into Les Chapieux was beyond bone shaking.
As usual though the food was excellent, the volunteers superb, with soup and bread in hand I found a spare table to rest, consume the food, go back for more, then thirds and a chance to close my eyes for five minutes, there was no way I was going to sleep with the rave party that was going on so I didn’t set my timer as I thought that even I wouldn’t be able to sleep through this party.
BANG! I was woken abruptly by someone dropping their poles on the table next to my head, I woke with a start giving the runner a filthy look as if to say how dare you wake me, only to realise that despite the 140 decibel rave party going on I’d still managed to fall asleep. I didn’t dare look at my watch for fear of seeing how long I’d slept, but jumped up and headed on out of the checkpoint, turns out that I’d probably had only around 15 minutes sleep but felt wonderful and energised for it although I was now decidedly deaf.
The climb out of Les Chapieux follows a steady road climb until you turn off left into the meadows that would lead in to the climb up to Col de la Seigne, two hours of climbing with 1200m+ again, does this ever end, thank God for the poles.
Col de la Seigne 61.3kms Sat 5.47am 1201st +78
(Race 11:47:44) Alt 2517m (Cumulative Vert 3961m)
I’m all for worshiping the sunrise.
Yay the top, only another 7 major climbs to go but to be honest I hadn’t once thought about the number of climbs throughout the race but focused purely on the next checkpoint which in this case was 7kms away at Lac Combal.
Breaking a race down in to smaller chunks is the only way you can really do a race of any distance whether it be 10kms, a marathon or a miler, break it down or else it’s going to beat you. When you’ve been climbing for two hours to look up and see lights climbing, climbing and climbing you must reach so deep inside of yourself.
This photo of the trail of runners climbing towards Col de la Seigne does not do the view justice, there were many ‘false’ summits on this climb, it just didn’t want to end.
If at any time I’d thought to myself that I have ‘x’ kms to go I think I would’ve pulled the pin and this would happen through this next morning, as the sun rose during the climb to Col des Pyramides Calcaires little did I know how much this run was about to hurt me.
This first sunrise was magical, stepping across the rock landscape of Col des Pyramides Calcaires, click clack of everyone’s poles on the rocks, to be greeted by a magical sunrise as we dropped down in to Italy with Lac Combal down in the valley. This is where your body gets a lift with the sunrise, the climbing has been incessant, the night long but to feel that warmth of the first rays of sun are uplifting. The run down to Lac Combal came easy once we were off the rocks, an easy single track with over 13 hours of running behind us.
Lac Combal 68.41kms Sat 7.20am 1120th -81
(Race 13:20:18) Alt 1979m (Cumulative Vert 4224m)
Soup glorious soup, and bread.
I loved this checkpoint. There was an air of peace amongst all runners who arrived here, an open-air collection of tables and chairs with the usual fare of food, ample soup and noodles which was eagerly consumed. Medics were walking around everyone asking the simple question “all good”? The sun had risen warming our bodies although to be honest it really hadn’t been that cold through the night
Arête du Mont-Favre 72.38kms Sat 8.32am 1053rd -67
(Race 14:32:18) Alt 2433m (Cumulative Vert 4687m)
I left Lac Combal with a new sense of purpose having re-energised with soup and noodles, cannot recall if I actually had that many gels through the night but the soup at each aid station had been perfect along with copious amounts of slices of baguette.
You run for approximately ten minutes next to Lac Combal, with steam rising off the lake and mountains all around you the scenery continues to be spectacular, I thought many a time what a shame it is that you do so much of the race through the night as you don’t get to appreciate some of the spectacular scenery you’re running in.
Before long, you take a right turn and you’re back to the climbing, onwards up towards Arete du Mont Favre before you drop down towards Courmayeur. The climb is not tougher than the others although somewhat shorter but still this would be another 50-minute climb. Open ski areas, single track but with plenty of easy passing points. I’d been watching closely peoples styles of using their poles, some were using both hands in front at the same time technique to then pull themselves up with each stride, I adjusted my style to using the alternate arm style but shortening my reach forward and to use the power in my arms to really help with each step, it really changed how I was able to climb and found myself doing the ascents quite comfortably and began to claw back some spots.
Col Checrouit Maison Vieille 76.86kms Sat 9.06am 1010th -43
(Race 15:06:45) Alt 1975m (Cumulative Vert 4710m)
Who put this aid station here?
The run down to Col Checrouit Maison Vieille was ‘fast’ and smooth and to be honest I’d completely forgotten about this aid station, so whilst standing at the soup station I began to ask “What station is this”? only to turn to my left and to see Piera standing next to me again. Big beaming smile to see a familiar face. Piera, seeing your smiling face at both Col Checrouit and earlier at La Balme was such an uplift to the spirit, thank you.
The sun was shining, the soup and bread was delicious, it was all downhill to Courmayeur, I’d been running/walking/snoozing now for 15 hours with almost 5000m of climbing, what could possibly go wrong?
Courmayeur – Mountain Sport Center 81.25kms Sat 9.50am 1001st -9 (Exit 10.24am 895th -106)
(Race 15:50:30) Alt 1192m (Cumulative Vert 4728m)
Rich Bettles, what have you done?
Ahead of leaving for France Richard Bettles had kindly offered an evening of UTMB insights, with his knowledge of running and crewing, along with his wife’s experience of crewing too for the race they indulged us with a fountain of knowledge, what can a runner expect, but possibly more importantly how to crew for UTMB, I’ve added some information as a footnote to this report around this. (Thank you Richard and Louise).
One of the stories Rich shared of his race was how on arriving into Courmayeur his drop bag was not on the rack of bags. Bear in mind that you’re only allowed the one drop bag for the whole race and Courmayeur is it. So, you can imagine my shock upon arriving into the checkpoint only to see peg #1303 empty. How the hell had Rich managed to stitch me up was my first thought. I really thought he’d pulled some strings and was about to say to the volunteers “Ok jokes over, give me my bag, tell Rich he succeeded” but, the bag really was missing!
It wasn’t the end of the world as I knew Jenny was going to be upstairs in the hall, but we spent 5 mins hunting for the bag, but it couldn’t be found. I went upstairs to find Jenny, another chaotic thriving mass of exhausted runners, this was meant to be a happy moment on seeing Jen again but it was all very stressful, no Jen didn’t have the bag the last thing she was expecting to be asked upon my arrival. Went over to the race director who said she’d get back to me. Nothing more could be done, so I sat down in a daze to try and get some food in and refresh.
There wasn’t any soup, no bread and just some dregs of pasta left to eat. I wasn’t in a happy place. Mark had managed to pour water all over the bench with our clean gear, he was unceremoniously being torn a new one by Piera, it’s an unforgiving life as a crew person Mark was to discover. I don’t think I swore at Jen during this stop, if I did sorry Jen xx
and the volunteers had found my bag (I reckon Rich had put the call in to ‘release’ my bag) so with clean clothes, a spray of deodorant, sun cream applied it was off in to the sunshine I headed, but blah, I felt just blah. Running out of the hall I see Raki, high fives and beaming smiles I hit the climb out of Courmayeur.
Jen had pretty much got straight on to the bus heading back to Chamonix to then get up to Switzerland for our next rendezvous at Champex Lac, she drove straight past me, little did she know how average I was feeling. What was going wrong? I was thinking too much about the climb ahead of me 1400m+ up to Col Grand Ferret.
Refuge Bertone 86.12kms Sat 12.09pm 931st +36
(Race 18:09:32) Alt 1981m (Cumulative Vert 5535m)
DNF stands for Did not Fail.
I’ve never DNF’d a race, I’ve come close, very close in UTA100 in 2017 but the level of discomfort that I was now in for this climb out of Courmayeur really was putting a DNF front and centre of my mind. What the hell was going on, I seemed to be taking one step forward ten back. The climb was beautiful, pine forests with glimpses of Courmayeur back down in the valley but none of this beauty was working on me no matter how much I was telling myself “look at that scenery, it’s amazing” really wasn’t cutting it as I felt the first pangs of nausea.
Was it something I’d eaten, was the altitude or the hot day that had hit us? No idea but whatever it was it was crippling me. Every lush green area of grass I passed I just wanted to curl up on and sleep away the discomfort, the only saving grace that stopped me from doing that was the knowledge of countless runners who’d stopped and pee’d on that lush patch of grass, so on I pressed.
It would take me almost two hours to walk the 5kms (800m of elevation) up to Refuge Bertone.
I’m not sure at what point I messaged Jen that I wasn’t doing too well, not really sure why I messaged her as stressing her out with this news was not going to help her, I was almost seeking a validation that it was ok to DNF, i.e. taking the decision away from myself, fortunately that validation never came and on reaching Refuge Bonatti I just curled up in the shade (on a wooden slatted pallet) and rested.
It was hot, maybe I was suffering from heat exhaustion. Can’t say that I’d really taken on a huge amount of liquids, but I was certainly drinking. Problem was I had a raging thirst, no matter what I did I just could not shake this thirsty sensation, it was driving me to distraction. I had some cups of Coke at the refuge and this seemed to perk me up so on I continued to Refuge Bonatti
Refuge Bonatti 93.53kms Sat 2.08pm 1037th +106
(Race 20:08:10) Alt 2025m (Cumulative Vert 5826m)
Check out the serenity.
Another two hours to walk 7 kms of pretty much flat single trail. Something had to change for me to finish this race.
I recall Geoff Evison stating once that it’s a shame that so much of the race is done in the dark that you truly cannot take in the majesty of the mountains, something I touched on earlier, so with that thought in mind and something needing to change I found that lush green patch of grass and double checking for any damp patches I parked my sorry butt down and took in the view.
I pulled out a Cliff Bar and I told myself that I was going to stay here for as long as it took for me to finish this bar and enjoy the scenery. So there I sat for 15 minutes, nibbling at the bar, watching and nodding at the other runners as they cruised by but it worked, off I set again, continuing along this undulating track until it started to drop down towards Arnouvaz, dare I say it I was beginning to enjoy the race again.
Arnouvaz 98.6kms Sat 3.42pm 1139th +102
(Race 21:42:36) Alt 1800m (Cumulative Vert 5956m)
Ooh those clouds look dark.
The sanctuary that was Arnouvaz. Food and lots of it was the order of the day and I lie down in the sun on a wonderfully green patch of grass with many other runners taking respite from the heat and recharging.
I’ve no idea what the temperature had been on the climb up from Courmayeur but the slow pace had meant that I’d lost 244 places, not that the places mattered to me right now (not that I even knew my position on race day) but it was a reflection of how slow I was going. Little did I know that behind me was Marty and Jennie who would be pulling the pin once they got to Arnouvaz, happy that I didn’t know this until later in the race but bitterly disappointed for them both.
It was still warmish when I finally left Arnouvaz but with looming storm clouds I kept my merino long sleeve on for the climb up to Grand Col Ferret.
The view back down the valley towards Arnouvaz was magnificent.
Grand Col Ferret 103.18kms Sat 5.45pm 1161st +22
(Race 23:45:02) Alt 2528m (Cumulative Vert 6697m)
Ouch, ouch, shit, this is getting serious.
The storm clouds were building, the sun was dipping, and the temperature was beginning to drop off.
The climb was steady and easy under foot, and then the rumbling of the storm clouds began with about another 15 minutes to get to the top.
I stopped and put my jacket on before any rain started as the wind was also picking up, a wise choice it proved.
Reaching the summit, the guys manning the checkpoint at the top of the col were looking nervously at the storm clouds, the thunder now was picking up in intensity and the first rain drops had started.
The descent down towards La Fouly was a perfect gradual descent on open land with the land rising up to your left with the valley down to your right, we were exposed though as the thunder and then the lightning began to get closer. BOOM, I reckon every runner on the hill side at that point hit the deck as lightning seemed to hit the ground around us, with rain intensifying the urgency to get down the mountain suddenly spiked and the temperature plummeted, my strava recording shows a temperature of 32oC back in Arnouvaz, 25oC just below the summit of Grand Col Ferret with it dropping to 15oC as we ran as fast as we could down the track, but then the hail stones started. Those who had not put their jackets on were now frantically trying to get these on, they would’ve been soaked in no time but to add to this was the intensity and severity of the hail that was now pummelling us like marbles, the only exposed bit of skin was the back of my wrists which were bruised blue from the hail. The track had turned in to a creek of freezing ice water there was no avoiding it, on we all continued with the descent with hail, thunder and lightning turning this in to one hell of a mad dash down the mountain side for everyone.
Fortunately, half-way down the descent there was a safety timing point at Alpage de La Peule and right next to the volunteers there were two Yurts in to which all the runners were diving to take shelter. The photo below does not do the scene inside justice, runners were stripping off trying to get dry clothes on, bodies everywhere with some taking advantage in the impromptu pause in the run to have a snooze, for me it was standing room only so I took the opportunity to get some full fingered dry gloves on and crack open the hand warmers, heaven.
Everyone was just in a state of shock I reckon, how no one was hit by lightning continues to amaze me, I just found it exhilarating and just what the doctor ordered to get the blood pumping. As soon as the rain passed, I grabbed my poles and headed on down the valley towards La Fouly.
The track was treacherous, muddy and where it wasn’t muddy it was submerged in water. At one creek a local was looking anxiously uphill, at the time I guessed it was to ensure that there wasn’t a sudden surge of water, little was I know that not shortly after passing here the onrush of water did come down the mountain side washing out the road further down the valley which stopped all access for support crews getting from La Fouly up to the next checkpoint at Champex Lac.
Whilst running down towards the road I realised that the poles I’d grabbed were not mine, but I had good idea that the guy in front of me had mine, I’d wait until I go to La Fouly to do the exchange.
La Fouly 112.77kms Sat 7.56pm 1185th +24
(Race 25:56:02) Alt 1601m (Cumulative Vert 6763m)
The carnage that was La Fouly.
The thumbs up to the live feed camera hid a very relieved feeling as I jogged in to La Fouly. What had just happened? That was absolutely mental, but walking in to the aid station at La Fouly I was confronted by a crazy mass of runners is all states of dress (no modesty lost amongst continental Europeans) everyone trying to get warm, get on dry clothes or just sitting there naked trying to get their sodden clothes dry’ish to then put back on.
I tracked down the guy who I believed had accidentally swapped poles with me back in the Yurt only for him to say “Non, ce sont les miens” or something to that affect. Oh well, now wasn’t the time to pretend I could speak French and off to the soup station I marched putting on my best most disgusted of British looking faces.
Warm soup, noodles and bread, oh the saviour of my UTMB.
Before going to the soup station I’d pulled my jacket off and placed my jacket on ‘my’ poles to drip dry, once eaten I thought I’d better give Jen a call as she would’ve been worried for me if she’d seen or heard the storm. No phone! My jacket pockets were empty. Stay calm Alan it’s here somewhere. Short pockets empty, backpack no sign, merde!! (One French word that I was clear on).
Possibly the next key piece of mandatory gear next to your rain jacket is your phone, no phone no race, what the hell was I going to do. I know it was on me when I left the Yurt as I had definitely put it on the inside pocket of my jacket where I knew it would remain dry but had it made it’s way down the mountain with me, the pocket was empty. I looked around on the floor but no sign, I went back to soup station and with very little English and no French by me I started to try to communicate with the volunteers about my lost phone. “Phone”? Yes, I nodded, “Follow me”. Would you believe it, I managed to find the one supporter out of the whole tent that my phone had been handed over to who had then passed it on to the officials at the entrance to the aid station. Panic over, a lot of gratitude expressed to the volunteer and one very relieved runner. More soup and bread to celebrate was called for.
I made the call through to Jenny to let her know I was ok and to ask what dry clothes she had for me? There was silence, “Nothing”, Jen had left my spare bag from Courmayeur back in Chamonix whilst en-route to Champex Lac. Further silence, no expletives, just a simple “Oh well, see you soon I’m leaving La Fouly now”, only for Jen’s response as “You’re only leaving now”. Little did she know what had happened, goodbyes were said and off in to my second night I headed.
Sorry Jen if I may have been a bit rude on that phone call xx
The run down from La Fouly was brilliant, gentle road all the way down to Praz de Fort, was making good time, felt good, stomach was good, I had warmed up (didn’t need those dry clothes after all Jen 😊) and then climb up to Champex-Lac.
Champex-Lac 126.62kms Sat 11.16pm 1099th -86
(Race 29?16:32) Alt 1473m (Cumulative Vert 7310m)
Don’t forget the live webcam.
On my original plan pre-race I was hoping to get in to Champex-Lac around 5pm, it was now edging towards 10pm as I started the climb up to checkpoint 13, and boy was it a tough one. I had continued to improve though post La Fouly where I’d really taken on a lot of food. I wasn’t taking any gels now and relying solely on aid station food. It worked for me, and can be done on a race like UTMB where the aid stations are stocked well, but if biscuits, soup, noodles and cake don’t cut it for you then don’t stop taking the gels.
The climb seemed to go on for ages and is unforgiving but my new found technique of driving up the hills with the poles was really paying dividends now, only to be overtaken by this crazy American who was ‘sprinting’ up the hill, “hey Aussie” he called out and ran with me for 5 mins for a chat, this is when he informed me about the road being washed out and that crew were not getting through from La Fouly and he was running with his crew bag up to Champex-Lac to meet his runner. Good on him.
2 hours 40 mins after leaving La Fouly I jogged in to Champex-Lac, no internet due to storm and Jen wasn’t expecting me, so good to see her.
I felt good, I put my head down for 15 mins obviously no chance of me falling asleep zzz zzz.
Gentle prod from Jen to bring me out of my doze and time to take on more food.
RE-energised again, just passed mid-night, on my feet for 30 hours, little did I know that I’d probably had more sleep than Jen up to this point, she’d been waiting on Champex-Lac for around 7 hours for me to arrive. Sorry Jen, I was enjoying the scenery too much.
New batteries, stomach charged too and off into the night I went having picked up 86 places on the climb up to Champex-Lac
La Giète 138.23kms Sun 3.18am 1081st -18
(Race 33:18:29) Alt 1866m (Cumulative Vert 8226m)
By heck love that bit of grass looks lovely.
I dropped a clanger on this climb, I’d convinced myself that I had a big climb ahead of me over an exposed col and not long after leaving Champex-Lac I couldn’t keep my eyes open, we were already in open land, the wind was quite high but I needed sleep even though I’d just had 15 mins back at the last checkpoint with Jen.
On seeing this beautifully lush large green patch of meadow grass the urge to sleep won out. I looked for a dry’ish patch, set my timer for 15 minutes and fell straight to sleep. The alarm duly woke me, I rolled over to see that five other runners had joined me, not that we were quite spooning but it must of made for a very funny view for the other runners passing by.
Off I tiptoed only to find that I was only 15 minutes from the top of the climb and warm sanctuary of the dairy shed that was acting as an aid station. Oh well, my slumber under the stars was worth it, have you seen the night sky with no light pollution. Incredible.
Trient 143.12kms Sun 4.27am 1054th -27
(Race 34:27:50) Alt 1301m (Cumulative Vert 8285m)
Let me sleep!
The drop down to Trient was tough on the quads but all was good. Once you exit the dairy shed up at La Giete you drop in to the tree line for some very comfortable running, plenty of switch backs with some larger man made steps as you get closer to Trient which are actually harder to run down with tired legs. It was now after 4am and the mind was beginning to struggle, my eyes were closing but I was determined to make it to Jen and the checkpoint before I allowed myself to close my eyes again.
Almost at 4.30am I staggered in to the aid station, sat down and announced to Jen “give me 15 mins, I have to sleep” at which point I promptly put my head on the bench and passed out. I wish I didn’t have so much trouble falling asleep.
It’s amazing what 15 mins can do backed up with a smorgasbord of soup, bread, cake and biscuits, thank you Jen.
Another 27 spots picked up on that last leg, sun due to rise in about an hour and I was feeling good. Legs were feeling good but more importantly no blistered feet, just perfect. 11kms to Vallorcine, dare I say it, but the end was in sight. There was just one last stop on leaving Trient, Jen asked if I’d been to the toilet since the start? “No”, well the plumbing was well and truly tested on departure from Trient. Now 5 kgs lighter the trip up and over Les Tseppes was looking good.
Les Tseppes 146.37kms Sun 6.12am 1005th -49
(Race 36:12:06) Alt 1931m (Cumulative Vert 8930m)
Switzerland, delicious chocolate.
Another 600m climb, a relative doddle on the grand scheme of things. We were up in the ski fields above Vallorcine and the sun was coming up, how good does that make you feel, I wouldn’t encourage anyone trying to run through two whole nights but those sunrises over the mountains are something to behold.
I was light on the feet and running strong and freely down the tracks from the top gondolas at Les Tseppes, so many runners were struggling now with these downhills, but I was loving them. Moving from access to roads to track it got even better, the sun was now up the torch was off and Vallorcine was just at the bottom of the valley. Oh, how I wished that the climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bonatti hadn’t wiped me out so much.
Vallorcine 153.59kms Sun 7.24am 918th -87
(Race 37:23:59) Alt 1282m (Cumulative Vert 9083m)
Who needs sleep anyway?
Running in to Vallorcine Jen had come out to meet me as they had no idea how close we were, I think the systems had gone down again. There she was, 500m from the aid station and we ran in together with Jen trying to make it a bit harder for me by inadvertently getting tangled up with my poles, needless to say my accommodating demeanour took it all in it’s stride. I’m sure I didn’t swear at you Jen?
Feeling good, more food, another teeth brush, change to singlet in anticipation of another warm morning and off I went with 15kms to La Flégère and Chamonix only another 8kms from there. Only problem is that this last climb up to La Tête aux vents is almost 700m over 4kms, this by all accounts is the hardest climb technically over the whole course, think Mt. Solitary on steroids.
La Tête aux vents 161.24kms Sun 9.53am 871st -47
(Race 39:53:11) Alt 2118m (Cumulative Vert 9964m)
The last climb.
You have an easy gentle climb following the river up towards Col des Montets, crossing the road you’re straight into the climb and it’s unforgiving. Up and up you go, the poles were being worked hard, there was a guy marching backwards up the climb filming our group, later I was to find out that this was being streamed on UTMB Live much to the amusement of friends who were watching the stream, I think I managed to hold myself ok on the climb whilst they were filming, shame I was now some 7 hours behind my original schedule. What these sections from La Fouly proved though that taking it easy over the course in the first half really does pay dividends on this second half, although most people state that the race doesn’t really commence until Courmayeur but that section for me almost put me out of the race. So pleased I dug in.
Up and up we continued, this was tough with some sections you’re really scrambling up the rocks, with some seriously steep drops behind you, but my legs were holding strong and it wasn’t until the climb began to plateau out that the effort on my legs began to take it’s toll when I felt the first real efforts when stepping across some larger gaps and drops during the climb, but you then reach the last safety checkpoint La Tête aux vents and you begin the drop down to La Flégère and you can see Chamonix down in the valley ahead of you. This is really going to happen.
La Flégère 164.73kms Sun 10.36am 849th -22
(Race 40:36:39) Alt 1882m (Cumulative Vert 10057m)
Plant zee poles.
The run in towards La Flégère was following an easy contour line down but seemed to take an eternity. I thought La Flégère was the col, but as with a lot of this course I was wrong, that was back at La Tête aux vents, but at least I was going downhill which I didn’t mind unlike a lot of runners around me who were struggling now with the downhills. For a large part of this race you are running with a lot of people, it wasn’t really until after Trient that I found myself alone for large portions of the track, and now we were getting close to Chamonix and dropping down to La Flégère that I had the track to myself picking off the odd runner as I headed down. La Flégère was literally a run in, scan bib, run out and down you went, down, down, down. Dropping some 800m over 5kms, a lot of it on wide trail but then changing to alpine forest switch backs, planting my leading pole to jump around it on the turns almost as if I was skiing down, a lot of fun and all up from Champex-Lac I’d picked up 381 on the run in to the finish line and ran this second half strong.
You spring out of the alpine trees cross the road and over the L’Arve river which I’d crossed some 41 hours earlier down in Les Houches, the run continues along the river embankment next to the race expo, with crowds building the sun shining and Mont Blanc in front of you (my emotions are going even now whilst recounting this moment) it’s truly incredible.
Everyone is cheering you as if you’ve won UTMB and you’ve not even reached the town yet.
Chamonix 171.62kms Sun 11.29am 804th -45
(Race 41:29:52) Alt 1032m (Cumulative Vert 10061m)
Bloody hell I’ve done it.
Heading into town the crowds build, you are absolutely pumped and running on adrenaline, the start of UTMB is hard to surpass but this finish, quite simply WOW.
Crowds get thicker and thicker, out pops Andrea from the crowd with a beaming smile and a high five, something he was reciprocating from me meeting him three days earlier at the end of his mammoth 145km TDS, I run on past Andrea and there’s Jen a beaming smile running the last 200m with me round to the finish line.
Drums are playing, the cheers are deafening, and then you see the finish chute, high fives with mates lining the finish the grin could not be larger
171.6kms with 10061m of climbing and for me 41 hours 29 minutes and 52 seconds later I cross the line where it all started and in to the arms of my rock that has been there for the whole journey.
So, UTMB? Why would anyone want to compete in it?
Quite simply, why wouldn’t you!
Piera, you were amazing to finish the race in the manner you did but it was your uncanny ability to turn up at just the right moment when my morale was low, thank you for that smile of yours that lifted me so much.
Raki and Mark, thank you for looking after Jen as you travelled three countries together, it meant everything to me to know that you were there with her. Raki, just remind me never to ask you to crew for me.
The Aussie Team
Thank you all for making this week so special, I’m saddened for three of you that your race had to be cut short, Russell, it was just as well that I didn’t know that you were in the warmth of the refuge on Grand Col Ferret whilst I was sheltering next door in the drafty Yurt. Cathy, you should be so proud of yourself for your achievement.
Jenny, we did it.
Without your unwavering support this race would have been so much harder, thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything that you did for me to get me round in one piece and get me to that finish line. Through your coaching plan I felt more than ready for the task at hand.
I would be honoured to do the same for you one day. Love you xx
Some quick pointers on how to crew for UTMB.
Sign your crew person up through the same registration process you would’ve followed for your own rego, but you select ‘none runner’, you then link your crew to your profile. This then allows you to purchase a bus pass (in the form of a wrist band) that your crew uses to travel between checkpoints. The wrist band is picked up at the bib collection site for runners.
Note that you only have the one drop bag, I put spare clothes, shoes, gels, sun cream in to this bag, even though Jenny was going to meet me here, the bag was there just in case. Important, remember to deliver your drop bag at the race expo before you go to the start, just a small oversight on my behalf.
I did a two sided laminated cheet card for Jen, keeping it simple with ‘things to do’ for me at each checkpoint and times/distances between each cp, although those times went right out the window during the first night.
From the start I just carried two Petzl Reactiks and didn’t need to put a torch on until I was leaving St. Gervais. Then at Les Contamines I swapped one of my Reactiks for the Ayup and carried a spare battery for the Ayup.
If you are game, you can do most checkpoints, but it’s not recommended. Jen caught the crew buses as follows:
- Immediately after the start caught bus from expo centre in Chamonix to Les Contamines (U3), then bus back to Chamonix to sleep.
- Saturday morning at around 5.30am, caught bus from expo centre in Chamonix to Courmayeur (U8), then bus back to Chamonix.
- From Chamonix changed bus and headed to Champex-Lac (13).
- Then bus from Champex-Lac to Trient (U14).
- Then bus from Trient to Vallorcine (U15).
- Finished with bus back to Chamonix for the finish.
Don’t worry about the bus timetables, they don’t neccessarily run to time and there are plenty of them, Jen barely had to queue.
I did hire one of the GPS trackers which for 2019 was done through Dotvision, was it worth it? Not really to be honest, Jen didn’t gain much from the GPS, the UTMB Live website is very good.
SIM Cards – Unless you are relying on your own SIM using international roaming then be understaning of the following, if you buy a SIM in Chamonix (France), you won’t be able use this same SIM in Italy or Switzerland. We’ve since learnt from Stephen Redfern that he always uses SIM Direct to purchase his SIM’s ahead of time (thanks Stephen).
UTMB Live – https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/runner/1303