This years UTMB again suffered at the hands of the weather. To say that there was disappointment when the organisers announced on just 10hrs prior to race start that the course would be dramatically altered, would be an understatement, but the mountain rules the roost and we have to respect that sometimes we're allowed to pass whereas other times the door is firmly closed.
The weather around Mont Blanc in the week leading up to the race had been fine with clear skies and warm temps. That changed Wednesday night and when we got in to town Thursday lunchtime it was raining hard. In 2010, I started the race with 2300 other runners only to be pulled out at the first major checkpoint, St. Gervais at mile 13, because a mud slide had wiped out the trail higher up the first major pass. Despite the rain, I didn't think for one minute that there would be enough of a reason for the organisers to think of changing things again, but that rain was accompanied by freezing temperatures and high winds. The Cols and trails up and over them (of which there are numerous above 2000m) are incredibly exposed. It simply wasn't safe to let us go up there over the course of Friday/ Saturday so the news came down that much like 2010, there would be a UTMB but it would be a revised course.
The organisation decided that any route would have to stay below 2000m and thus built one that made use of the first 25 miles of the traditional UTMB course, before switching back around after La Balme and linking up to the TDS course (race was run on Thursday so no TDS runners would be out there) and then what quite frankly was a contrived 4 mile road climb out of Les Houches to get us back on some mid level trails on the Brevent side of the valley, running all the way along to the Col De Montets which is the head of the Chamonix Valley and then back down through Argentiere to the finish in Chamonix, making use of the last 6 miles of the CCC route. If you haven't been here before that'll all read like the last chapter of a Brief History of Time, however it'll make sense to some of you I'm sure. It was amazing that they were able to alter the course so drastically and still lay on a flawless event for us.
It did briefly cross my mind not to start, but only briefly. I have an entry for the Spartathlon in 4 weeks time, and it was always going to be a push to do both, certainly to do both well. Given that this new course was 104km with circa 18,000 ft of climb though, I could look at it as a late long training run. That and I've been training my ass off on every bit of hill I could find for the last 2 months to prepare adequately for what is undoubtedly one of the hardest races in the world. This is still Chamonix and whichever trails they gave us to race on would provide a stern test so we all made the decision to get on with it.
There was/ is a huge group of UK runners out here this year and everyone was visibly deflated on Friday at the news. It was almost surreal, going through it all again after working so hard to train and plan right. I just couldn't get excited about the new course and felt in a bit of a funk about it all. 104ks and 18,000 ft of climb (36,000 elevation change all told) is no stroll in the park so we still had to get our heads on straight to tackle what we had been given to run.
We lined up in the main square behind the start line an hour out from race start: Robbie Britton (1st at the 2011 NDW100, 2nd at the 2012 TP100), Mark Collinson (1st SDW 2010, 3rd NDW100 2011), Luke Carmichael (SDW100 finisher and multi day superstar), Paul Bennett (3rd NDW50 2011 amongst many other things) and me. A very good group of UK runners (and me) raring to go.
Startline. Photo: Luke Carmichael.
More and more people hopped the barriers making it impossible to stand comfortably and just as we were about to burst, just 3 minutes before the 7pm start time, the winner of the CCC (100km sister event to the UTMB) came across the line to see 2300 people cheering him on from the other side, which must quite frankly have been an incredible moment for him.
When the gun went, we had the usual deal of stop start as we exited the town through the huge crowds but it is an incredible atmosphere every time. With the reduced distance I was quite prepared to just go for it. I said to Robbie before we started that I expected to see us throw down some 6 minute miles on the 5 mile flat trail section to Les Houches and I wasn't disappointed. Once we cleared the crowd we tore down the trail. What with starting behind 500 people we didn't get to the first CP anywhere near the front but we had clear air on the first climb up to Le Delevret and promptly broke in to part running/ part power hiking the 900m ascent before dropping down in to the 13 mile CP at St Gervais. I had stopped to put my waterproof trousers on already in the rain and saw Sam Robson (2nd at this years SDW100) go past me half way up the climb. We made St Gervais in 2:24, I was running alongside Meghan Arbogast one of the elite women runners and was directly behind Jez Bragg of the UK (winner of the 2010 shortened course) who promptly pulled over to course control and dropped form the race. I don't yet know why but he was probably 30 minutes behind where he wanted to be already by that stage.
After St Gervais the UTMB and this years course climbs steadily up to the town of Les Contamines at mile 19, then on to Notre Dame de la Gorge and then up the steep pitches to La Balme. All in all the climb is around 12 miles and though some of it is very runnable the bottom section of La Balme, is not. I was in trouble by Les Contamines, because I'd had three layers on from the start, raced hard and sweated under the jacket and was now wet through both inside and out. I was dehydrated but I sorted the water/ food issue out and carried on the climb to La Balme feeling a little better. I passed Sam again at this point struggling with his own stomach problems as we went higher in to the falling snow. It either rained or snowed for all but the last 3hrs of my race.
From la Balme mile 25 we cut off of the UTMB course for good and instead climbed to the Col de Joly which was a little technical in places and covered in snow.
Col Du Joly. Photo: Luke Carmichael.
I was freezing but moving well so I staved off any issues as we dropped off of the climb on a very fast dirt trail all the way back down to Les Contamines retour, mile 32. I made it there in 7:22, so I was quite sure I could finish the course in under 15 hours if I stayed on top of things.
From Les Contamines the course deviated on to the TDS route down to Les Houches. We climbed 2 or 3 steep woodland trails before we got one of two very testing climbs, up to Bellevue. It was steep, muddy, wet and miserable on the way up and the way down was a mud chute. I went down hard caking everything in mud but once we hit the road I was able to really throw down the pace and keep things moving into Les Houches, mile 44 with 10:44 on the clock. At this point the course went dramatically south in the quality stakes as we dropped down a bypass and on to what I can only describe as a 4 mile road climb that sucked beyond all belief (great training for Sparta). It was about 6am by this point so the sun was yet to come up and a long line of about 10 or 12 of us just dragged our feet along round switch back after switch back getting soaked in the rain, with no real idea of how long it was going to last.
We eventually cut on to a trail and skirted across the top of Chamonix where they had put in a temporary aid station, about a half a mile from town. I was damp inside and out and quite frankly not very interested in anything at this point, so I changed out all the spare dry gear in my bag and put the wet stuff away. I felt a million times better and began various other contrived climbs and descents along the valley walls to the Col Des Montets. It was a pretty ugly climb up some steep sections high up above the valley floor.
Col Des Montets Climb. Photo: Sam Robson.
As we came off the trail south of the summit it was then a 8 or 9 mile downhill run through Argentiere back to the finish and I walked most of it. I was tired of being cold and wet and wanted to enjoy the glimmer of sunshine. I did however get a huge boost at Argentiere by destroying the plate of brie they'd laid out. mmmm
So 64.8 miles, 18,000 feet of climb and 17 hours and 9 minutes after starting, I crossed the finish line back in Chamonix. Good enough for 330th overall. I'd haemorrhaged well over 100 places since Les Contamines, strolling in.
We are incredibly lucky to be able to travel to places like this and run in the mountains. But the mountains have their own set of rules and most importantly, weather systems. The organisers did what they had to do, making the only possible decision open to them. I'm sure I'll come back one day and pray that we'll be allowed to travel around the mountain uninterrupted but I've had my fill for now. I've been lucky enough to run the entire trail in different sections over the years, I only hope I can come back as well trained the next time to execute a decent race. One DNS with achilles tendonitis in '09 where I crewed instead, and course changes in 2010 and 2012 mean that was the third strike for me.
In the end our happy band of campers all finished. Robbie went on to a 16:25, Luke to a 17:44, Mark a few minutes quicker than that, Paul an 18:09 and Sam toughed out his 19:25 with a whole plethora of issues. Chamonix is a very special place and one day I'll return to make it right.