When I got my UTMB acceptance earlier this year after two years of missing out in the ballot, I was determined to be as fit as I possibly could be when the event came around. Sometimes things things just don't work out the way you want. Everything went fine until late March, after which a series of hamstring and calf problems meant I never got to improve on that situation and went backwards. As an illustration of this there is a little hill in my local forest, three hundred feet or so of height gain and a one and a quarter mile round trip to the top and back. In January I was lapping this at close to nine minute miles; by mid August I was doing well to achieve twelves.
But this hasn't been an isolated problem for me over the past two or three years and I've developed a strategy for if not dealing with it then at least making the best of the situation. I look at a race and say what is the best I could hope for as an outcome in my current state? In many of the bigger races this will simply be to finish, I can't hope to do more. So I put together a race plan for doing exactly that with the least possible effort. I've called this my tourist strategy for reasons that are't particularly relevant to the plot here, but if you're interested you can see how it started in my post "A Tourist's Guide to the Lakeland 100" back in July 2014.
Well having worked in 2014, this scheme had got me through the Northern Traverse and the Lakeland 100 again this year. I got my fingers burnt a bit on this year's West Highland Way Race by believing it was an event short and easy enough to be treated differently; it isn't and I was lucky to come away with a finish; had I planned more conservatively I would have had a much nicer time.
With all these issues I had done nothing to plan the Chamonix trip other than pay the entry fee and get the medical certificate organised. I was very undecided all through the summer on whether to go or not. To call it off would be the sensible thing but the events there are just so hard to get into that when you eventually do get a place you're very loathe to give it up. I decided that if I got away with the Lakeland then I would go for the UTMB. I'll examine this decision a bit further on; it wasn't a very logical one but I love the Chamonix scene and it was almost certainly a case of heart only needing a sniff of possibility to overrule head. So I got my insurance, confirmed payment on the apartment and booked a ferry. I'd just sold my Caterham Seven and bought a Mazda MX5 (not as much go but a lot more practical) so at least I would enjoy the drive down.
Before I continue the story let's take a short time out to think about my decision. I guess if you follow my blog regularly you're probably a near-back-of-pack runner like me - if not then I don't think you'll be finding much to interest you in these pages. So if you haven't (yet?) been to the UTMB then I'll tell you a bit about it. I know these trails. I've been going to Chamonix all my adult life, I've walked the route once with my wife Jan (10 days, very enjoyable) and once on my own (3 and a half days, also great). I've completed a CCC and a bad-weather-shortened UTMB, and I've started the race proper more times than I care to remember. All in all I've covered the ground of the course at least half a dozen times. I've heard the story put about that the UTMB is "about the same" difficulty as the Lakeland 100. It's not. This may be a genuine opinion but probably formed by runners for whom both races are so far below their limit that they can't tell the difference. Similar to when I went to a climbing wall regularly, I and my companions had to advise on the route grades at our end of the spectrum; to the route setter they were all so easy that he couldn't make any meaningful comparisons of one to another.
Let's take a look at the two events. The Lakeland is 105 miles long with 22,500 feet of ascent and a time allowance of 40 hours. The figures for the UTMB are 106 miles, 32,400 feet and 46,5 hours. Say it quickly and they don't seem a million miles apart. Just 10,000 feet more climbing and an extra six and a half hours to do it in. But look a bit deeper. Interestingly (or perhaps obviously, depending on your point of view) they both have a point about 60 miles in, which if you look at the statistics, represents the half way point in time for the majority of finishers. So for a tourist at the Lakeland, get to Dalemain in good shape in under 20 hours and you're cooking. But to Dalemain, even though it feels a lot, you've only ascended 12,800 feet. In reaching Arnouva, 60 miles into the UTMB, you've already done 18,800. That's like throwing in another three Black Sail passes, or three Fusedales, between Braithwaite and Dalemain. And your extra time for that? About three hours. Makes you think a bit. There are no navigation problems on the UTMB (but there aren't really on the Lakeland either); you don't get bogs like Grassguards but you get plenty of rocky and bouldery trails, miles of singletrack where you can't pass without co-operation, a lot of dust if it's dry and a lot of slippery mud if it's wet. Add to that the facts that the UTMB touches 2500m altitude (where many people will feel the effects of altitude, depends how lucky you are with your personal physiology) five times, four of them before Arnouva, and it can regularly approach freezing at night and 30 degrees in the day.
My personal opinion (no scientific basis) is that if you can knock out a 22 hour West Highland Way or a 30 hour Lakeland, you can go to the UTMB with with good confidence of success and a bit in reserve for things not always going your way. Get much below that and it's far from impossible but you just need most things to go right for you. I have two or three friends who I would normally expect to out-perform in most races, but who have got round the UTMB while it has eluded me. They have something I don't (I'd love to know what it is!).
Of course I knew all this before I made my decision to go but I guess I just wanted to be part of it all again. If everything went spot on I might just get round, if not I was determined to make it an enjoyable trip and not an endurance trial. The trails around Chamonix are made to be enjoyed not suffered on.
It feels bigger but Chamonix is really a small town and we tend to go to the same places. On my first morning I chanced upon Dave Troman in the supermarket, the following day I saw Bob Allison in the street. I recognised a Hardmoors teeshirt on the Brevent which turned out to be Sandy intown like Dave for the TDS. When I went to pick up my apartment key Neil MacRitchie was there just checking in. The Scots were there in fairly co-ordinated force as usual, the English less so but there were plenty around.
Time for only a minimum of acclimatisation but we all think every little helps. For me, day one, walk up to the Brevent (5000ft vertical above Chamonix) spend a few hours on top, jog down. Day two, first stage lift back to the Brevent, walk up stage 2, time on top, jog back to lift. Day three, lifts to the top, all day there, lifts down. Days four and five, rest before the race.
This year Haute-Savoie was hot. In the valleys it was hitting 30 degrees by about 11am and staying there until evening. The UTMB organisation was putting out lots of info about taking care of yourself in the heat. The kit checker at registration asked me if I had a Foreign Legion type type flap on the back of my cap; no, I normally turn the peak to face the sun, ah, that's OK then.
My plan was to stay about 30 minutes ahead of the cutoffs as far as Arnouva, after which they get much friendlier. I knew that cutting it this fine was a risk but I reasoned that every few extra minutes I could get on the course would allow me to move slower and use less energy; as I was taught early on in this game "It's not the distance that gets you, only the pace". On the plus side I knew most of the course like the back of my hand; I'm a competent descender and the key checkpoints are all in valleys, so I knew where I could pull time back if necessary. If things went wrong there was no Plan B.
The UTMB is a bit of a scrum at the start. Over two thousand runners have to funnel down from a random assembly in the church square, intermingled with supporters and sightseers, into the bit of the pedestrianised Chamonix main street not occupied by spectators, maybe 4 or 5 runners wide, which goes on for several hundred yards. Your choice at the start is to go early to secure a spot near the front and sit on the floor for an hour and a half or so in the sun, or turn up later and accept that you're going to be delayed. Although a time penalty was the last thing I really wanted, I decided that sitting in the shade under the trees was the better way to clear the mind for the adventure ahead, so I opted for the back. With fifteen minutes or so to go we had the briefing which I'm sure no-one ever listens to, then the music, the countdown and the off. The cheering as you go through the town is pretty manic and really has to be experienced to understand what it's like.
It took me 15 minutes to do the first kilometer. After that I was able to pick up to a fast walk as the crowd thinned. People came running past. After two or three minutes I was aware that the cheering behind me had died down. I turned around to see that I was at the back of the field. Not near the back, or in the last few, I was actually the final participant in the race at that point. Well someone has to be.
I wasn't looking forward to the first five miles down to Les Houches because apart from one or two small rises it is flat or very gently downhill. The first cutoff at St Gervais is set on the assumption that you are going to run this bit. I hadn't run for over two weeks and was very tentative but at least I managed a bit of intermittent jogging. I have done the section from the start to the first checkpoint in Les Houches in under 50 minutes in the past, this time it took me an hour and a quarter. Once through Les Houches though you get the first climb, about 2500 feet up a good jeep track to Le Delevret, and it was good to get to the point where everyone ahead of me was walking, and I started to overtake people fairly regularly. Not far up the climb it was great to see Dave and Tracey Troman cheering us on. I reached the top of the hill in 2491st place out of 2555 starters - still pretty near the back but at least there were 60 or so people behind me now!
Headlights went on at the top of the climb, then it was a long and easy (in the dry!) descent down to St Gervais, about 3300 feet in 4 miles. I easily pulled back the 15 minutes I had lost at the start here, and arrived in St Gervais on my target of 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. A quick bite to eat here and refill the water bottles, about three and a half hours from the start. I was starting out from each refreshment point with a half litre of water and a half litre of Mountain Fuel and it seemed to be just about right. At each stop I would drink maybe a couple of cups of coke or some tea or soup to supplement this. The organisation had recommended carrying 2 litres of fluid, but with the pit-stops so close together I think this was way over the top and I only ever set out with the mandatory 1 litre. I normally ate some cheese, ham, bread, biscuits, that sort of thing to get some different flavours at the checkpoints.
The two hour allowance for the six miles from St Gervais to Les Contamines seems generous enough as it looks quite flat on the topo, but that is only relative to the rest of the course; you actually gain another 1700 feet on this leg so you have to keep pushing along, particularly as a lot of it is single track in woods, so it's quite difficult to pass if you come up behind slower runners. But I managed to hold my buffer OK. Once beyond Les Contamines it's a wide jeep track as far as La Balme, another 5 miles further on and 1800 feet higher, and I was really enjoying the race now, going along at my own pace in territory where I didn't have to travel too fast to stay safe. In fact from St Gervais up to the Croix de Bonhomme is the biggest overall climb on the course at just over 6000 feet of height gain, but because it has long flat sections at intervals it doesn't feel arduous.
I stopped at La Balme for something to eat and a five minute breather because I was building up a better buffer now. An item of our mandatory kit was a mug to avoid the use of paper cups, and I remember setting mine down beside me on a bench while I mixed some more Mountain Fuel. Well-fuelled and striding happily up the now narrow, steep and rocky track some distance above the checkpoint, I suddenly realised that my mug was still sitting on the bench. Annoyed with my incompetence I returned to collect it. No great problem but an extra 200 feet of height gain and 10 minutes or so lost is not really what you want on an event like this. I put the episode out of my mind, nothing further to be done about it now.
I made my way steadily up to the highpoint of the climb at the Croix de Bonhomme, and started another 3000 foot descent down to Chapieux. This is quite a steep descent but relatively easy, earth and gravel paths through grass without many rocky outcrops, easy to run almost all of it. When I have been on the course before, everyone around me had been running here so it had been easy to go with the flow, but this far back in the field tonight many people were descending slowly so it was quite a task to keep getting around them on the narrow paths, something that I hadn't really foreseen. Nevertheless I arrived at the major checkpoint of Chapieux with my buffer still intact, having gained about 250 places since Le Delevret.
At Chapieux it became light again, first night done and dusted. It's always easier to make progress in daylight because your peripheral vision returns, your world is no longer limited to the beam of your torch, and you can make directional and foot placement choices concurrently rather than having to concentrate on one or the other. Coming out of Chapieux is a good place also to take stock. The first bunch of climbs are out of the way but there are still some big ones before Courmayeur so just settle down calmly and let them come. I'd had the best part of a meal at Chapieux, soup, bread, cheese and sausage, bananas, so was feeling good.
The first thing to deal with is the 3000ft climb up to the Col de la Seigne, but this one's first up a short section of road then a long steady track, very easy underfoot, so just head down and work your way up. Into the sunshine on the top, brilliant, it seemed a long time since we last saw the sun on the climb out of Les Houches. In my previous years it was just a half hour simple descent down to Lac Combal from here, but since then a new climb has been added, down from the Seigne then up to the Col des Pyramides Calcaires. Only a 900ft climb and I think it really adds something to this section of the route. It's a bouldery track up with a bit of snow to cross, more interesting than the rather bland ground over the Seigne. It also now provides the new high point of the course at 2563m, marginally above the old high point on the Col de Ferret (2525m). Down the other side, a very rocky descent, then a steep track down past the Elisabetta hut and on to the Lac Combal checkpoint. The new bit adds maybe 45 minutes or an hour to the route. The buffer was still looking good.
The last climb before Courmayeur is the 1500ft Arete de Mont Favre. This one was now in full mid-morning sunshine and the heat slowed everyone down a bit but I was able to adopt my usual technique of taking it at a steady pace and not stopping between the start of the climb and the top. From there is a lovely cruise all the way down to Courmayeur, first a contouring, gradually descending track to the Checrouit ski station, then a series of dusty single track zigzags all the way down to Courmayeur and the "drop bag" checkpoint, where I arrived about 35 minutes before the cutoff. It felt pleasant enough running down through the trees and meadows, then through the old village of Dolonne, but as soon as I picked up my bag and went inside the sports hall I was wet from sweat from head to foot. It was hot in this valley.
I changed socks (although there was possibly no need, feet were fine apart from looking a bit grubby from the dust) and shirt, topped up water bottles, changed torch batteries and had something to eat. I was feeling OK, the plan seemed to be working but there was still a very long way to go. I was out of the checkpoint and into the town. It was only two or three minutes until the checkpoint closed when I left, but I wasn't really not bothered by that. I still had five hours to cover the eleven miles to Arnouva.
As soon as I started up the steps to the main street I realised just how hot it was. Dave said that the temperature reached 39 degrees in Bourg St Maurice on the TDS. I'm not sure what it was here but must have been well into the thirties. But it will get cooler higher up. On the little uphill road leading to the start of the climb proper, I soaked my cap at every available fountain, it still felt hot. Once we got into the continuous steep zigzags on the 2700ft climb up to the Bertone hut, it seemed impossible to make progress at any sort of speed. Every step was an effort. Everyone around seemed to be affected, there were people resting all over the track. I normally never stop on a climb but I needed three breathers of a few minutes each before I reached the hut. Even though I gained over 50 places between Courmayeur and the Bertone, I was going impossibly slowly. I eventually reached the hut over two hours after leaving Courmayeur and immediately sat down, drank a couple of mugs of coke, and rested for a further quarter of an hour or so before I felt that I was in good enough shape to go on.
But I now had only something over two and a half hours to cover the remaining 8 miles to Arnuva. Even so that was only just over 3 miles an hour and the major height gain was done, should be OK. The next bit was an undulating traverse along to the Bonatti hut, about five miles I thought, with a net height gain of about 900ft. I could remember running it nearly all at a good pace when I did the CCC years ago, but today unless I put in an effort that I knew was unsustainable I couldn't raise any real speed, I still didn't seem to have recovered from the last climb. I pressed on but it took me nearly two hours. I've just done the sums here but I didn't get them right on the day because when I arrived at the Bonatti I was under the impression that Arnouva was just around the corner then straight down the hillside to the valley bottom, and that I would be OK.
"You're not going to make Arnouva in the time" was the opinion of the marshal at the Bonatti. "Stop and have a rest and a drink then walk slowly down". I wasn't so sure. How far to Arnouva? Just over 5 kilometers she said. Much further than I had thought. 40 minutes left on the clock now. I could make it if I went flat out from here, only about a hundred meters of height gain, the rest flat or down hill. But I knew what would happen, same thing that got me in the Dragon's Back last year; after going at a pace that I could sustain as far as here I would now go right out of the comfort zone for 40 minutes then there would be no way back. I wouldn't be able to make the next climb over the Col de Ferret. I was done.
I sat down, had my last coke of the race, and walked down to the valley.
No regrets, I don't think I could really have done anything that would have made a difference on the day. I wasn't fit enough to cope with the race under the conditions that pertained. I had covered 60 miles and the best part of 19,000 feet of ascent, and enjoyed it all until the final 10 miles. By the time I stopped I had caught up 600 places since the first checkpoint so the strategy was sound. It just wasn't good enough to keep me in the race. There could never have been a Plan B.