Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cham Story 2010

I think it's worth telling a bit of the tale of the dramatic events in and around Chamonix last weekend, in which the real winners were British Ultra Running and probably The North Face company, as a background to my very small part in them. So if you're interested, pour yourself a dram or a G&T or whatever, and settle down as you may be involved a while.

The Background

The last weekend in August in Chamonix is now firmly established as the "Ultra Trail" weekend. It started with the first running of the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" in 2003, and has grown in popularity over subsequent years to reach its current status as the annual pinnacle of the ultra calendar in Europe if not the world. There are now three races each year involving over 5000 runners:

- the "Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix" (CCC), 98k and 5600m of ascent, with 1800 runners, starting in Courmayeur at 10am on the Friday, with a maximum allowed time of 26 hours
- the "Traces des Ducs de Savoie" (TDS), 111k and 7000m of ascent, with 1200 runners, starting in Courmayeur at midnight Friday and following a somewhat wilder route back to Chamonix in a maximum time of 32 hours
- and of course the original big one, the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" (UTMB), in which 2300 runners start from Chamonix at 6.30pm on Friday evening and have 46 hours to find their way back via an enourmous loop loosely following the classic "Tour du Mont Blanc" walking trail. The first half to Courmayeur is 78k and 4400m of ascent, and the tougher return leg, on a route mainly along the same route as the CCC, is 88k and 5100m of ascent making a massive 166k and 9500m in total.

To put these into some sort of UK context, the general feeling is that as undertakings, the CCC is a little bit easier than the West Highland Way, the TDS a little bit harder, and the UTMB in a different league.  Before this year, in spite of some pretty adverse weather at times, all the races which were planned went on to start and be completed.

Demand for places in the UTMB is high and a ballot is held in January. This year I missed out, but was able to progress to an automatic entry into the TDS and a guaranteed UTMB entry next year, so with that objective I drove out to Chamonix a week before the race, did a couple of acclimatisation runs then generally lazed about for a few days. The weather was great, sunshine and blue skies. There was a forecast for some rain on Friday then showers on Saturday but no dire warnings involved. A number of friends from the WHW family were in town for the various races and spirits were high.

Friday 27 August

We woke up to the sound of rain and a message from the UTMB organisation on our mobile phones (a mandatory piece of kit for participants!) - "weather conditions rain wind cold Provide the necessary equipment". We had breakfast, it rained. A number of us had arranged to meet up near the "pointy man statue" for a chat and coffee before retiring to our beds again for last chance sleeps. As we turned up from various directions it rained - it was just as well  there was a tent errected near the statue. We waited for an easing in the rain so we could make it to the cafe a hundred yards away; there wasn't one so we got wetter. Unbeknown to us the CCC was just starting in identical weather conditions. An hour later we left the cafe and walked home in the rain. Later it stopped. Then it started again.

At 6.30 the UTMB got under way in a slight easing of the weather. Not long after it was raining again. I was due to get a bus at 10.00pm to go to Courmayeur for the start of the TDS. I walked up to the Sports Centre in the rain, there were a lot of people still there although the buses were supposed to have been shuttling runners over from 8pm. I got a phone call from George Reid and John Malcolm, also up for the TDS and booked on the 9pm bus - "we're still here, and they're talking about calling off the race". I went and found them. It was one of those situations where information comes bit at a time, sometimes conflicting and you're never quite sure what to believe. The first thing we heard was that because of the heavy rain, strong winds on the Col du Bonhomme, and mud slides causing the route markers to be washed away on the Col de la Seine, the UTMB had been stopped; runners were being brought back from St Gervais and Les Contamines.

It was clear that the TDS buses were going nowhere so we all gathered in the Sports Centre out of the rain. We first heard that the TDS start would be delayed until at least 3am, then until at least 5am, the organisation would make a decision by 2am latest. Could we go home and get some sleep? No we must stay here because if a positive decision was made we would go to Courmayeur asap. We scattered around the floor and dozed. Though not properly asleep, I was roused by George at around 12.30 - "It's off, have a beer". Well at least there was plenty of that around. A drink and a shrug and we all went our separate ways, it was clearly all over until l'anee prochain. I wandered back through town philosophically. At least we hadn't had a soaking three or four hours on the trail like the UTMB guys.

Saturday 28th August

Back at the hotel I lay down, tired but brain still wandering over events, unable to sleep. I was just starting to doze off when we had another text from UTMB "TDS/UTMB to depart Sat 28th course Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix buses leave Sports Centre Chamonix from 0630" This meant that all the TDS and UTMB runners were offered a race along the second half of the UTMB course. It wasn't what I'd come for but I would kick myself if the weather turned a bit better and it would still be a good ultra. The buses would take a couple of hours at least, I'd set an alarm an get a later one. Still unable to sleep, I was roused again by a second text "Due to cancellation of CCC and repatriation of runners, bus departs for Courmayeur now limited to 1000 runners". Because of flash flooding on the section between the Col de Montets and Flegere, the CCC had been stopped. 400 runners had passed this point, the rest were now being bussed back from all down the course, creating a shortage of buses.(Incidentally, those who finished the CCC and those who were still going when it was stopped had all put up a pretty heroic performance in truly appalling conditions)

Effectively, this meant that out of the TDS and UTMB fields, the first 1000 to turn up at the bus stop would get to race. It was now 5am. If I was going, I had to get my stuff organised and go. I looked outside again, the rain was like stair-rods. But these are the times when you remember that this sport isn't exactly about comfort, so out I went. One of the first people I met in the bus queue was Shirley, one of the few WHW folk I hadn't met so far this week. She's been stopped at St Gervais on the UTMB, had a few beers then made it back. "I think I'm still slightly drunk". We had to queue in an orderly line and this was out in the rain of course. I don't know how the cutoff was managed but we got on the bus.

Amazingly, as we drove out of the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy we were greeted by blue sky. We got out at the Courmayeur Sports Centre and grabbed what was available for breakfast. Although we hadn't communicated during the night, all the usual suspects were there - George, John, Ritchie, Drew and the others, it clearly takes more than a drop of rain to halt the Tartan Army. Before we left to walk through the town to the start we put on sun screen.......

The Race

The start was scheduled for 10, but we eventually got under way at 10.15, a little circuit of the town then up the hill to the Bertone Hut. I knew what was going to happen here but I didn't have the energy starting out to prevent it affecting me. At least a thousand closely packed runners (it turned out that in the end there were 1250 starters) were going to run uphill for a couple of miles and then converge onto a single track which effectively goes on for the next 6 or 7 miles. If you were near the back (of course I was, even if I'm not tired it's my normal tactic) your pace was going to be set by the guy in front for the next couple of hours or so. The modern CCC follows a different route initially to thin the field out, but we were on the UTMB route; the same thing had happened to me on this, the "old" CCC route when I ran that race in 2007.

Still I was happy to go with the flow, up the long 900m climb to the Bertone, then along the wonderful slightly undulating balcony to the next checkpoint at the Bonatti Hut. The weather was fine, the ground underfoot seemed to be drying out well, the views were as good as ever and it was great to be doing something after all the frustrations of the night. It wasn't to last though, as we descended to the next checkpoint at Arnuva it was clouding over again and a chill wind was springing up. The mist turned to drizzle and it was rain jackets on for the climb up to the Col de Grand Ferret, at just over 2500m the highest point on the course. I was glad to get my jacket on. In spite of all my pre-race concentration on lightening my load, when it came to setting out in the prevailing conditions I had opted for a fairly heavy jacket and overtrousers - my packed seemed to weigh a ton as normal.  The lack of sun affected the ground underfoot on the climb, slippery mud most of the way, without poles I would have struggled to make progress as I was as usual wearing road shoes. It's an honest climb though, nothing sneaky, and the top seemed to come fairly quickly.

The descent was the real disappointment. From the col down to La Fouly is usually 10 kilometeres of wonderfully runnable wide track at a perfect descending gradient, 8 minute mile territory even for me. Today it was run, slip, check, adjust, almost stop, start again, all the way down. I kept thinking how it would be in Rocklites......

Just before La Fouly I met up with two other Brits, Ken and Dave, and I travelled on with them for quite a way. The long gentle descent down the Swiss Val Ferret went easily, and the nicely graded 300m climb up to Champex at the end wasn't too bad. Plenty of people were eating and suiting up for the night here, but we agreed on a brief pause to top up water and press on to make best use of the remaining daylight.

Champex was half distance maybe a bit more on this course, but everyone who has been along this way will tell you that this is where the work starts. The cruel finish to the end of the UTMB, three big climbs each with their own particular brand of challenge. The first one is Bovine, the most technical ascent on the UTMB, a jumble of tree roots and boulders where no real rhythm is possible. Half way up here we had to put on our torches. The long descent from the top down to Trient is usually pretty harmless but tonight we got the first inkling of what was to come; mud at times worthy of Rotherham had us lurching and sliding in the darkness most of the way down. At the Trient checkpoint I decided to rest and have something to eat, and to change into a dry shirt - I'd brought all this stuff, I might as well use it! Ken and Dave were going strongly so I told them to press on.

Eventually I pulled out of Trient for the second of the three climbs. This one is OK going up; long and steep but a good rocky path underfoot, I just latched onto a small caravan of runners going at about the pace I wanted and shut my brain down until we got to the top, graced by a small tent, one marshal and a bonfire - a long night out for him. The weather was looking much better now though, the sky had cleared and the temperature really started to drop. On these long uphills at night you occasionally look up to see the dots of headtorches ahead of you - at one point as the ground had started to level off I saw lights way higher than I expected, a real moment of deflation until I realised there was something familiar about the pattern of the lights I was looking at - it was the tail of the Plough constellation, breathe again!  But the sting in this section was on the descent - it's muddy at the best of times, tonight it was just horrendous, I'm sure I went slower on the descent than on the up. I was glad to get to Vallorcine, a bowl of soup and a cup of tea.

At Vallorcine you used to be able to think quite justifiably that the UTMB, or the CCC, whichever was your course, was in the bag. A gentle ascent up to the Col de Montets up the ancient Chemin des Diligences (coach road), then an undulating but benign 5 or 6 miles down the valley to Chamonix. Then some massochist in the organisation decided that a little more spice was required. From the Col de Montets you climb 60 steep and rocky zigzags then rock slabs and boulders to gain another 800m to the Tete aux Vents, after which you follow an undulating rocky track on which there is barely a hundred yards where you don't have to place each foot (and sometimes hand) with care, for several kilometers to the Flegere checkpoint. I had to dig quite deep on this stretch, I was slow, and by the time I reached La Flegere the daylight of Sunday had arrived. I was just about to leave the checkpoint when Neil MacRitchie came in looking fitter than I felt. We started down together but as he broke into a run I carried on walking. There was still a final 50m to climb, but strange things happen in ultras and when I was half way up it I suddenly started to feel some energy flooding back. From the top of the rise I jogged all the way down into the valley and through Chamonix to the finish, beating my "predicted arrival time" (which had been automatically texted to Jan by the organisation, based on my location and recent speed) by 15 minutes, so by the time she arrived I had collected my goodies, had a rest and was chatting to Neil, having picked up 20 or so places on the final stretch.

I was also met by Mike (M Gilet Rouge) and his wife Gill, to be first congratulated and then sternly admonished that the "UTMB Finisher" vest which everyone in this rearranged race had collected was definitely fraudulent and would not be recognised on any occasion in which I wore it in his sight. After a solid breakfast and a couple of hours sleep I was ready for the day where we caught up with what had been going on. Jez had at last shown the world that he really is the star that we all knew he was by winning the race outright, and Lizzy Hawker took the ladies' prize to complete a UK whitewash which probably won't go down too well with the locals but sent our gang home happy. Ritchie's training miles paid off again as he came home third Brit (or first Scot, which he probably considers far more important). John Malcolm had a storming run, and there were the usual impressive finishes from George, Drew, and the rest of the contingent. Shirley must have sobered up along the way because she finished well, along with Helen.


I was happy with my race although the performance wasn't one of my best. I ran this course (the then CCC) in 2007 finishing in about 17 and a half hours. The new finish over to Flegere probably adds a couple of hours, conditions were much worse, especially the muddy night-time descents, the events of the preceding 12-15 hours weren't condusive to a relaxed starting condition,  and I'm three years older, but even so  my time of 21:40 was pretty unspectacular.  Against this, I was in good shape at the finish and never felt at any time that I was in danger of not completing the course. Although I felt I slowed up a lot in the second half this was no more than those around me as I continued to pick up places steadily through to the end, rising from position 1061 at the Bonatti to 781 at the end. Maybe in future I should heed the wise words of Murdo tM, who I know always felt I had taken on a bit too much this year in doing 4 long ultras as well as a handful of "10-12 hour" races.

But the impressive statistics were (a) that the race took place at all - the amount of rethinking and on-the-feet reorganisation done by the race directors and their crews during the harrowing Friday night was truly amazing, and (b) how well the runners responded to this. Normally in the Chamonix races, in good conditions, drop-out rates of 30-40% and higher are commonplace each year. At 10am on Saturday morning,  runners assembled for the reorganised race in Courmayeur. None of them had had more than an hour or two's sleep, all of them had already got extremely wet in the preceeding 12 hours, many of them had run 15 or 20 miles in very poor conditions the night before. They faced a course ankle-deep in mud for many miles, and no-one knew what the state of the last section (closed 6 hours earlier to the CCC) would be when they eventually got there. 1250 started from Courmayeur; 1127 finished.


On Monday it was still a bit rainy. Jan and I drove round to the Giannada Foundation in Martigny where there is normally a good art exhibition on. Afterwards, out of interest, we drove up the Swiss Val Ferret until we could see up to the Col de Grand Ferret. It was completely white with snow.


John Kynaston said...

Well done Andy. Another superb run in very difficult conditions.

Really enjoyed your report.

Loon Dod said...

Cracking report Andy, was great to see you again. Its a race we want forget.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant report and write-up (as always) Andy. It certainly helped to put a bit of clarity and perspective on the whole thing. It was difficult for us Cinderellas back in Brit to know what was going on with such a moving feast.

There will certainly be folk who feel they've missed out, or been short changed in some way by not getting to run the full race they had entered. But the organisers had to do a huge amount of thinking on their feet as events unfolded, along with the logistics of shuttling thousands of folk safely backwards and forwards.

If there had been fatalities the organisers (and the event) would have come in for no end of much more vociferous criticism. Some folk will be disappointed, but you can't please all the people all the time; and I think the organisers did a remarkable job in all the circumstances.

Oh, and well done on your own run, btw, great to complete the distance and get le gilet (even if you'd better not wear it when in the company of Monsieur le gilet Rouge ;-))

Murdo t M

Mike Mason said...

Sorry Andy that my comment was a bit harsh in spite of all the great work you had done. I hereby retract it immediately.....all the best and great to see you again.

Mike Gilet Rouge

Neil M said...


Great account; summed up the weekend so well.

You know I was thinking just the same about you at La Flegere!

Don't be hard on yourself about being slower than 2007. I remember that year and the conditions were fantastic and running was so enjoyable. There were certainly moments this weekend (generally slithering uncontrollably down long clay/mud slopes) that I wouln't have described as enjoyable.

Wear your Gilet with pride!


P.S. Didn't come back home till today and the weather got back to its usual glorious summer conditions on tuesday and so went for a 'wee' run on the route. Bits that were soul-destroying in the wet were back to being great fun! Hopefully next year will be the likewise.

Brian Mc said...

What a week and weekend you guys must have had. I think the organisers did exactly the right thing, and that you did too. I can appreciate those who were too full of beer not to race the replacement but if not then why not. Well played. Now next year you just need to put the two halves together to finish the UTMB. :-)

Debs M-C said...

Fantastic report, Andy. Well done on a fabulous race. Hats off to you all :-)