WARNING – this might be as long and as tedious to read as it was following me online during the run! However it could be really useful if you suffer from insomnia.
Looking up towards Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi cable car
Until now my longest ‘race report’ has been a paragraph or so on Facebook, where I would usually claim that “I will never ever ever do <insert race name> again”. Within 2-3 days I would be on the phone trying to book accommodation close to the event for the following year. Such is the addiction of ultra-running.
It was this compulsion to enter more races that led me to the UTMB website towards the end of last year. I was initially surprised to see that I had the 7 qualifying points I needed to enter, thanks to two North Face 100km races and Mount Solitary 45km. Having the points however was only half the battle. There are a lot more runners wanting to do UTMB than there are spaces, so they operate a lottery system. I had heard it is pretty common to miss out multiple times before getting a chance to compete. So I put my name in the hat, thinking that in a couple of years it would be good to do it. Then in January I found out I had fluked it and got in first time. I was pretty terrified as this would be my first 100 mile race, and it is not really known as a beginners course.
Now fast track to Tuesday 26th August 2014. My 13 year old son Joel and I arrived in Chamonix on a train (actually 3 trains) from Paris. It was 10pm and we expected we could get a taxi from the train station, but there were none to be seen. However I had forgotten how small Chamonix town centre is, and it took no more than 5 mins to walk to our accommodation. I knew we were staying near to the finish but I was surprised to see we were only around 50m from the finishing arch. I did splurge a bit on this hotel as back in June it seemed like the only place still available, but as it turns out I needn’t have rushed. There are a lot of places within 5-10 mins walk and my sister was able to find an AirBNB apartment on the main street just a week before the race.
The view from our hotel over the start/finish area
The next morning I joined a group run hosted by Sebastian Chaigneau and Fernanda Maciel . There were around 40 others and we ran for half an hour on some flat trails around Chamonix. I had been quite worried about a hamstring injury that had been niggling me ever since TNF 100 in May. Luckily it felt good, and this short jog helped settle my nerves down a bit. It was great to see Tony Williams who is also coached by Andy DuBois.
My training partner for the day – didn’t push me as hard as David Brown on a Tues night hills session though.
I picked up my race kit and bib later than day. Queues were long and it took about an hour, but it was a good chance to chat to other runners. I saw Andrew Tuckey there and wished him luck, not that he needed it. He ended up having a fantastic race, finishing 6th overall.
I then visited the race expo which is huge, and where I managed to spend around AUD $500 on miscellaneous running gear, despite only really needing to buy an $8 plastic tumbler and $25 waterproof gloves!! I couldn’t see Hammer or Tailwind products there, but pretty much everything else I could have possibly needed was for sale. I also chatted to Shona Stephenson at the Innov8 stand and she was determined to have a good race this year. Like Andrew she absolutely smashed it, finishing 10th female.
My sister Amy arrived Weds night and the next day the three of us went up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to have a look around. It is one of Chamonix’s main tourist attractions and it is the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. The view was pretty cool, but I did get a shock when we climbed the stairs to the café on the top terrace. I really felt the effects of the altitude (3,842 metres). I was short of breath and had a headache which lasted until late that night. I had asked a few people whether you needed to do altitude training for UTMB, but they said it wasn’t really necessary. The highest peaks in UTMB are only around 2,500m, but I was nervous nonetheless.
Photo from the cable car as we were approaching the top station
The view back down to Chamonix. The hills at the top of the picture are where you run in the final stages of UTMB
In the top café I was left to mind our wallets and cameras while Amy and Joel went to get food. As I was waiting Killian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg walked past. Like a true groupie I abandoned all our valuables and chased them down for a photo. They were lovely and asked me about which race I was doing etc. I felt like a bit of a dork asking for a photo but now I have a profile picture that I can keep up forever (sorry kids you won’t get a look in now). I crouched down a bit as they are so cute and little, so I have a hunchback thing going on in the photo.
3 famous trail runners – yeah right!
That night back in the hotel I heard the crowds roar as the winner of the 119km TDS race was approaching through the streets. I bolted down the stairs, and got to see Xavier Thevenard as he crossed the finish line (he also won UTMB in 2013). There are around 7,500 competitors across all five races, so the town is pretty jammed with runners & supporters, and the cheers and commotion was unreal.
I wanted to get a good nights kip on Thurs night, but I didn’t fall asleep until around midnight, and woke just before 8am. I fussed around all day, packing and unpacking, and depositing my single drop bag across town. I tried to lay down and have a snooze around 2pm, but just couldn’t nod off.
Start to Saint Gervais
0 – 21kms
Fri 5.30pm – 8.53pm
Position out of 2434 starters:
– Le Delevret 1715
– Saint Gervais 1849
The beauty of being so close to the start/finish was that I stayed in my room, went to the toilet a dozen times (you think I’m joking), and then finally went down to the line right on 5pm as the briefing started. They started playing the Conquest of Paradise which is the race theme song, and I really did feel like I could conquer anything (except my nerves). I gave Joel and Amy a hug and kiss goodbye and joined the crowd of runners as we stood waiting for the countdown. I have never got teary in a race before, not even on finishing, but I found myself feeling very emotional. All the adjectives I could think of to describe the start seem too cliched, but take what you’ve heard and multiple it by ten. Maybe “choice” in a really exaggerated kiwi accent would be the best descriptor.
Joel and I just before it starting pouring down at the start- when did he get so tall?
Light drops of rain had been falling, but I hate running in a rain jacket, so I had resisted putting on my waterproof gear. But now five mins before the start it was bucketing down. I didn’t know how cold I would get in the mountains through the middle of the night so I decided I would cover up. Finally the countdown started and we were off. It didn’t take too long to cross the starting mat, and whilst it was fairly congested at the start it was only a few minutes until we were running.
Still from UTMB Video captured by Michael McGrath
Photo from UTMB FB page, credit Franck Oddoux
It seemed like half the males in the field stopped in the first few kilometres for a toilet break. I then rounded a corner to see one female competitor squatting down in front of me, the last remaining sunlight bouncing off her completely exposed bottom. No ducking behind a bush, just right there on the edge of the trail. I wondered if that’s just what you do in European races. The other interesting sight was a guy in a sumo suit. I think it was one of those plastic ones, great for moisture wicking I hear. Fine if you are doing City to Surf or the Bridge Run, but 100 miles in a plastic suit!
I had been told that the only flat part of the UTMB course is the first 8 kms and this is pretty close to the truth. I was running at a steady pace, and was soon in Les Houches where I just grabbed a banana and soup and ate on the move. The crowd support through the towns was very uplifting, especially as the rain was still coming down. I loved high fiving all the kids who lined the streets.
I started the climb up to Le Delevret (the first of nine major ascents throughout the course). I chatted to a runner from the UK who had trekked the whole thing just 10 days before. He thought that this first climb was harder than some of the other longer ones to come, so I prepared myself. It was definitely tough (around 900m ascent in 4.5kms), and I did feel a bit breathless towards the top, but overall I was pleasantly surprised. It was really muddy (for those of you who did Buffalo Stampede think of the first two hills) and my feet were soaked as the rain was pretty heavy at times.
Then came a 6km downhill. I love descents but Andy had wisely told me to look after my quads during the first half of the race, and to run lightly. As a result a lot of people did fly by, but I wasn’t concerned. I came into the Saint Gervais checkpoint pretty close to my expected time, but which was only 37 mins before the cut off. I did think to myself that the cutoffs must be pretty tight as I thought I was running OK. Whilst I knew I was near the back, there were still plenty of people behind me (585 to be precise).
Despite feeling really positive at this point, a couple of key things had already gone wrong. For some reason even though I had trained using Tailwind, it just wasn’t going down that well. It tasted too sweet, and I really didn’t feel like drinking it. At this early stage I wasn’t too worried because I was getting some good calories from real food, particularly from the delicious chicken noodle soup they had at most checkpoints. But I was conscious that it was a long race, and that I would have to be careful if I wanted enough energy to finish this thing. As it turned out, this first bottle of Tailwind was the only one I drank for the whole race.
The best ever chicken noodle soup
What was more alarming to me was that my iPod had stopped working after only 20 mins of listening to music. “What the <bleep>, <bleep> < bleep>” Oh and another <bleep> for good measure. I had spent months downloading all my favourite songs, sorting and resorting them into numerous playlists. I had a high tempo list when I really wanted to get moving up some of the hard climbs, more relaxed songs if I was cruising along in the middle of the race etc etc. I was also carrying a charger to recharge the iPod on the run, and I had another one in my drop bag – that’s how concerned I was that the battery would run out.
If you’d asked me prior to the run to rank my kit in terms of importance, I would have said my iPod was second only to my headlamp. I guess it must have got water on it during the downpour, despite it being in a ziplock bag. For about a minute I thought about how terrible it was going to be to run for around 40 more hours without music. But there wasn’t much I could do about it, so surprisingly I was able to put it out of my mind pretty quickly.
Saint Gervais to Les Chapieux
21kms – 49kms
Fri 8.53pm to Sat 3.32am
Position out of 2434 starters:
– Les Contamines 1642
– La Balme 1410 – not sure how this happened or if it’s right?
– Croix du bonhomme 1649
– Les Chapieux 1696
Notre-Dame de la Gorge – Photo from Flickr, credit Nick Ham
This section was one of the most memorable of the whole course. It started off very gently and again I felt good and thought that perhaps people had exaggerated how hard this race was (it was a bit early to be thinking this as it turned out). In the early stages there were again lots of people lining the course, ringing bells and calling out our names.
Photos from UTMB FB page, credit Franck Oddoux – as you can see it was a touch wet on Fri night
Eventually I came to a long steady climb up through a valley, and because it was so dark I couldn’t really see the mountains that surrounded us. What I could make out were hundreds of headtorches in a big zig zag pattern in front of me. They got smaller and smaller the higher up they got. Then if I really squinted I could make out a couple of insy winsy dots up in the sky. I honestly thought that they were so high up that they must be stars, or a plane, maybe a UFO, just please tell me they are not runners. Of course a couple of hours later when I thought I had reached the summit I realised that these were more headlamps still climbing up to the heavens. All up there is just short of 2,000 metres in elevation gain in this section, pretty much all in this one long ascent. For comparison purposes this is three times as much vertical gain as the climb up Mount Solitary, albeit it wasn’t quite as steep.
When I felt like this climb was never going to end (which was often), I turned around and looked back down into the valley. There were hundreds of lights stretched out behind me, and it gave me reassurance that I was probably doing ok if there were people that still looked like they were down in the flattish section of the valley. I didn’t realise it at the time but I now know a lot of those runners would not have made the next cut off. When I looked at the stats post race, already 275 people had dropped from the race by this 49km checkpoint, although it doesn’t separate out who was timed out vs injured etc.
Overall I only gained 19 places through this section, but was now 1hr 13 mins ahead of the cut off when I arrived at Les Chapieux. I did find it slow getting through the checkpoints, and was here for 21 mins according to the results sheet. In the North Face 100 I am usually great at getting myself in and out of checkpoints quickly (2-5 mins, with about 10mins at CP4), but I was incredibly slow throughout this whole race. I put this down to three things:
- A lot of the checkpoints are quite large, and the stuff you want can be really spread out – the sweet food is usually at completely different tables from the savoury for example. They were crowded and it often took a bit of time to get to the front of the lines, or to get through to the other side to exit. They definitely don’t look like they appear in the elite runners videos where there is just a handful of people standing around.
- There didn’t seem to be many toilets (or maybe I was looking in the wrong place) so the queues were long – perhaps you were meant to go on the trail like the lady at the start!
- There was a really relaxed, party atmosphere. A lot of runners would sit down at the many long trestle tables, and it looked like a huge dinner party (one where some guests nodded off from time to time, their head nearly in their soup). I am sure it would be completely different if I was further up the field, but no-one around me looked rushed or stressed about cut-offs. I never sat down to eat, but I do think I was overly relaxed with a sense that I was part of one giant adventure rather than a race.
Les Chapieux to Courmayeur
49kms – 77kms
Sat 3.53am to 10.57am
Position out of 2434 starters:
– Col de la Seigne 1837
– Lac Combal 1851
– Arete du Mont-Favre 1847
– Col Checrouit 1840
– Courmayeur 1839
There were some stunning sections of running through this stage. It did get pretty cold through the night, and I put on my mid layer top, rain jacket and buff. I am usually in a singlet top and skirt even in 4 degree temperatures in the Blue Mountains, so it was chilly. The mandatory gear is similar to the North Face 100 in Sydney, and I certainly wouldn’t be trying to skimp on any items, given how ferocious the weather can turn over there.
Arete du Mont-Favre – Everyone seemed to be getting photos here so I swapped cameras with a fellow runner
It was gorgeous as the sun came up, and quite surreal to be running in areas where there was nothing but snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see. The Italian section of UTMB was definitely my favourite part, but every stage of the race was quite different. I don’t think you could ever get bored of the views and overall time passed quickly (even 45 hours of it).
Courmayer in Italy is one of the main checkpoints (77km), and it is where you have access to the one and only drop bag you are allowed for the whole race. If you have particular food or drink requirements that are not catered for at the checkpoints, then you need to carry enough on you to last at least 15-20 hours. You can have a support crew, although it seemed to me like the majority of people didn’t. I think there are only 5 checkpoints where you can have assistance, and they are strict about having only one person with you in the designated area, anyone else has to wait outside this section. Having said this, your crew could watch you run past at other viewpoints along the course, they just can’t help you.
The view from the trail overlooking the Italian town of Courmayer
Amy and Joel had caught the supporters bus from Chamonix to Courmayer, passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel to get there. It was great to see them, and they gave me a big hug even though I was really muddy and smelly. Amy said she thought I seemed a bit flat, but I felt OK.
At this checkpoint I dumped the six or so zip-loc bags of Tailwind I had been carrying, given I had only drunk one bottle, keeping one bag with me just in case. I also mixed up a bottle of Perpetuem to see if I would have more joy drinking that. If I thought I was slow at previous checkpoints, I took it to a new level here at 31 mins!. This was partly due to me just chatting, something you don’t really get to do much on the run because there are relatively few English speaking people. I wished I had learned a few more French phrases so I could have intiated conversations a bit more, as I felt rude just launching into English.
I changed over my headlamp batteries and my shoes and socks which were still saturated from the rain. I did notice that they have a few checkpoints where Petzl provide free batteries (possibly just AA and AAA?) but I had the Ayup headlamp which has its own unique ones. One thing I’d add in my drop bag in future is a toothbrush as my teeth felt sticky from Coke and sweet stuff.
I had arrived in Courmayer just over an hour before the cut off, but after my extended stay I left with just a 32 minute buffer. A few runners said that the gap between the cut offs gets more generous towards the end of the race. I had in my head that if I had one hour spare getting into Courmayeur, that I should be able to double that over the next 90kms, and therefore hopefully finish in 44 hours or less. All good bro, no worries.
Courmayeur to Champex-Lac
77kms – 122kms
Sat 11.28am to Sun 12.19am
Position out of 2434 starters:
– Refuge Bertone 1680
– Refuge Bonatti 1646
– Arnuva 1650
– Grand Col Ferret 1679
– La Fouly 1695
– Champex- Lac 1595
Amy and Joel kept me company for the first stretch out of Courmayeur. They left as I started the steep climb up to Refuge Bertone which has around 800m of ascent over 5kms. I think we would have resembled the Zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, in a type of death march up the hills. I just didn’t have the energy to fast hike like I had been doing in training. Maybe this was because I wasn’t taking Tailwind or Perpetuem, and I didn’t have a gel for the whole race, but I’m really not sure. On the upside I was enjoying eating real food, felt mentally strong and I had no leg issues, so I wasn’t too bothered by this lack of oomph.
I was slowly ticking off the checkpoints, and kept thinking only about the next milestone. There were quite a few places where there were race officials at the top of a mountain pass etc where they would scan your bib, even if there wasn’t food or drink. These mini checkpoints also helped me break down the race mentally, so I was always reaching my next target within 2-3 hours at the most.
One of the mini checkpoints where they scan your bib, and they could provide medical assistance if required
I had laminated a card of motivational quotes or reminders that I could look at if I hit a really low point. But I never had a bad patch, and so only needed to think of one thing. If I did pull out, I could not have avoided the finishing chute because of the proximity to our hotel. I would have had to walk next to it, not through it, along with others members of the public. In contrast I thought about how amazing the crowd support was when I saw people finishing the TDS race. I envisaged myself running through the streets and across the line with Catherine Poletti the Race Director standing there as I have seen on so many of the UTMB videos. Pretty simple, but that was enough to perk me up every time.
I had also laminated my rough split times (for a 44 hour finish) and the checkpoint cut offs. But by around the 100km mark I had lost this card which was to become a bit problematic. At each checkpoint there were signs saying how many kms to the next stop, and the positive and negative elevation change. By asking volunteers I could also find out when the next time barrier (cut off) was, although I occasionally got given the wrong time. The biggest problem was that I didn’t know how long an average person would take to run each section, so couldn’t judge if the cut offs were going to be tough to beat, or if they were easy.
I eventually got to Grand Col Ferret, the highest point in the race and started the never-ending descent (never-ending = around 20kms in this instance). This is the cross over point into Switzerland. My Garmin had run out of battery so I was guessing how many kms I had travelled.
After running for a long time and expecting to get to the next checkpoint at any moment, I started to hear the cow bells that the crowds typically ring as runners approach. The bells were getting louder and louder, but after a while we started running away from the sound. Convinced we had somehow missed a turn, a few of us stopped. Some runners came up behind and said we were on the right track but a British guy was quite anxious and asked if I could please ring the organisers as his phone was dead. So I rung the number I had pre-programmed into my phone. When a woman answered I said that we may be off course and then went to explain the issue. The only problem was that because I’d lost my splits card, I didn’t even know the name of the checkpoint I was looking for, yet alone being able to describe where I was (on some trail on some mountain). I asked the other runner to speak to them but he went all shy on me and wouldn’t talk. I apologised to the woman on the phone, and hung up. I decided we weren’t lost (this was correct) and carried on when I couldn’t convince him. As it turned out the cow bells we heard were actually from cows, with bells on – who knew!
As time went on, and day became night again, I was getting more and more tired. I wasn’t unhappy, just struggling to stay awake. By 11pm (around 40 hours since getting out of bed on Fri morn), the sleep monsters were in full pursuit, and I now noticed quite a few people having naps on the side of the trail. Luckily I didn’t have any hallucinations, unlike one runner who was seeing Star Wars Stormtroopers. Once we came down out of the mountains into a village called Praz de Fort I began to eye up places to rest. I resisted lying down where people could see me, as I didn’t want to be prodded by passing runners to see if I was OK. I was also worried some random weirdo might see me on the way home from a bar, so I started to watch out for safer locations to nap.
I won’t bore you with all the crazy options I identified (trust me there were quite a number), but I did arrive at a short list of two. The first one was a ute parked in a garage. I thought if I laid down in the ute, I would be hidden from view. What finally stopped me was the thought that the car alarm may sound and wake the owners who would have been in the house above. Less than 5 minutes later, and after trying to sleep while walking (quite tricky as it turns out), I found the perfect spot. A kids cubby house in someones front yard. Tiptoeing across their lawn I couldn’t wait to lay down and drift off into fairy land (or ultra runner land as the case may be). Imagine how devastated I was to see they had used it to store kids bikes, so there was nowhere left to lie down inside. THAT’S IT! I had to have a power nap at the next checkpoint no matter what. Plus I didn’t want to fall off the edge of some cliff when we got back into the mountains.
After what felt like 5 hours but was probably 90 minutes, I got to Champex Lac. I immediately asked where you could rest. I was ushered into a tent behind the main food marquee where they had around 25 thin mats laying side by side. There was only one spot left and I made my way there and lay down. As I did, I looked around and saw that I was the only female there. For a split second I wondered if there was a separate womens tent, but was too tired to check that out so lay down anyway. Only 8% of the UTMB field was female so I guess it wasn’t that surprising.
There were no volunteers waking people, so I set my phone alarm to give myself 15 mins rest. I didn’t fall asleep because there was a band playing in the main marquee next door, but it was still brilliant. It was like I had pushed a reset button and I got up feeling a hundred times more alert. However the whole process was time consuming. I had to take my shoes on and off (they didn’t want to co-operate), find my phone (which had shifted compartments in my backpack all by itself), set the alarm (challenging when sleep deprived and I thought I hadn’t changed the time zone), and by the time I went to the bathroom and got food I was there 42 long minutes.
Despite my rest, my overall position improved by 244 places between Courmayeur and Champex-Lac. I am sure that this was largely because of people who pulled out or were timed out, rather than any burst of speed on my behalf. I had arrived into the Checkpoint 1hr 11 mins before the cut off, but left with only a 29 min buffer. This was becoming par for the course.
Champex-Lac to Vallorcine
122kms to 149kms
Sun 1.01am to 9.24am
Position out of 2434 starters:
– La Giete 1483
– Trient 1471
– Catogne 1462
– Vallorcine 1452
The energy boost I felt as a result of having a rest was soon to be replaced with a fear that I had completely stuffed things up. As I left Champex Lac at 1am, I knew I had 6 hours to get to Trient before the 7am cut off. The problem was a volunteer had just told me that the average time for this section was around 5hrs 40 mins, plus I needed time in the next checkpoint to get food and go to the bathroom etc. I set about trying to make up some time, and was at least buoyed by knowing I had ticked off 6 major climbs so far and around 7,000 metres of positive ascent.
Given how close it was going to be, you would again think that people around me would be looking concerned and/or moving quickly to make up time, but still they looked so chilled. I even saw a couple of people pull out their emergency blankets and lay down half way up a climb for a sleep. I don’t see how they could have made the next cut off, but I guess they were feeling like I had been earlier.
I passed a few people through these sections who were having stomach problems. One poor runner was on his hands and knees dry retching. I stopped to assist as did others, but he waved us on. I also saw a guy who was completely bent over to the left. Not just a bit, closer to 90 degrees (only slightly exaggerated). I had read about ultra runners getting this leaning problem just recently, but thought it was the writer just having a laugh, but no sir-ee, this was the real deal. Wish I had taken a picture but this may have been a bit mean.
I started to overtake a few more people. I was hiking the uphills but was pretty consistent at running the flats and downhills. As a general comment the downhills were way more technical and slow going than I thought they would be. Even when I was running every bit I could, sometimes the pace was still only around 10 -12 mins per km. Overall I gained 124 spots in the 17kms into Trient and arrived at 5.36am, about an hour under the forecasted time and 1hr 24 mins before the cut off.
So I had dodged a bullet, was feeling great, legs were still strong and I had made up lots of time. So what do I go and do……decide to have another rest because the last one was so good. With hindsight this was ridiculous. There was no reason for me not to keep going. There was only 29kms left and everything was going well. I didn’t feel that tired anymore so it was indulgent to stop. It was like I was trying to use up every available minute that I had. Not exactly smart “racing” strategy, but that’s what I did.
At the Trient checkpoint the sleeping area was inside a hall and they had volunteers who told you where to lay down and then wrote on a clipboard when you wanted to wake up. I said I wanted to be woken at 6.00am (20 mins rest) but they thought I said ten minutes to six, so I was woken at 5.50am. I think I fully fell asleep in that time. When I got up and saw the time I lay back down for another ten mins and am pretty sure I fell asleep again. Finally I put my shoes on and off I headed. I couldn’t be bothered walking the extra 50 metres to the food tent so left without topping up on solid food. I ran down a small hill before I realised I had left my poles next to where I was sleeping so that was a bugger as I had to trudge back to get them. This reminded me of Buffalo Stampede where volunteers twice had to chase after me to give me back my poles!
The second to last climb to Catogne and down to Vallorcine was fairly uneventful but it was getting pretty hot, and I hate the heat. We really did have all types of weather conditions throughout this race, although we were obviously lucky compared to some years where the course has changed or being cut short due to severe storms.
I made up another 19 places from Trient to Vallorcine and came into this Swiss village knowing I had less than 20kms and just one major climb to go. The most memorable thing about this checkpoint was the portaloos which had sawdust in them, and a little trowel rather than flushing water. Funny what you remember (or not).
Amy and Joel were originally going to meet me at Vallorcine but Joel didn’t want to get out of bed at the stupidly early time of 8.30am (you’ve got to love teenagers) and so they didn’t make it. I wasn’t concerned about that as I wanted to keep on moving anyway.
Vallorcine to Chamonix (finish)
149kms to 168kms
Sun 9.37am to 2.43pm
Position out of 2434 starters:
– Tete aux vents 1456
– La Flegere 1505
– Chamonix (finish) 1427
Near the top of the last big climb. Source unknown.
I stopped to look back at where we had climbed up from.
After leaving Vallorcine I ran along a track which ran parallel to a major road for around 5kms. Then it turns into a very sharp climb (I think they saved the steepest to last), around 800 metres in 3kms or so. It consists of a series of fairly short switchbacks and you have a great view back into the valley. I came across quite a large number of people doing it as a leisurely hike. I was particularly impressed by one couple who were carrying a 2 year old in a backpack and a baby in a sling up this huge mountain. We were in full sun and I’d been moving for 40 hours so it was definitely getting tougher. After around 30 -40 switchbacks (I was counting to begin with but then gave up with a huff), I finally reached the rocky summit. We travelled along on a flatter section for a short while before it started to gently decline. However it was so rocky that we had to walk and I couldn’t get any momentum at all.
We then came across some volunteers who had a tent set up on a summit, and they scanned our bibs. It was 12.19pm and for some reason I thought that this was the last checkpoint and that I now had 8kms of downhill to go. I reasoned that I might be able to do this in the next 70 mins, and just scrape in under 44hours.
Tete aux vents mini checkpoint
Coming towards Tete aux vents
So off I trotted for the next few kms which was still really slow going because of the technical nature of the track. After an hour I was then horrified to see another checkpoint. What the hell!!! Ok maybe this is just a midway stop and there is only 4kms or so to go? Just as I was processing this I got a text from my lovely friend Emma Brown telling me I was doing great with only 8kms to go. NOOOOOO!! there really WAS still 8kms to go! For the whole race I had been very confident that I was going to finish it, and now at 1.23pm I had just over 2 hours to get into Chamonix before the cut off. Yes this should be achievable, but it definitely added a bit of pressure that I hadn’t felt (but maybe should have) for the previous 160.7kms. Apparently 4 people were timed out at this final checkpoint and it was shown on the live video feed – how devastating would that be!
So with that, I was off. I tend to run with my arms sticking out and Emma and Dominic (another running buddy) often tease me about elbowing people out of the way. I didn’t obviously do this, but I did think of their jibes as I screamed off down the mountain as fast as I could. I was lucky as my legs (particularly my quads) still felt fantastic and I was able to pass 70+ people coming down the hill. I had covered around 100,000 metres of positive ascent (including treadmill sessions) in my training, and I felt like this paid off. I laughed when I looked at my time for this section after the race, and realised I was only ten mins slower than Shona, and as quick as some of the females in the top 20. Pity I didn’t get that sense of urgency a little earlier in the race.
Once you come off the trails there is a short section on the road before you get down into the town. Amy and Joel met me on one of the final bends with around 1.5kms to go. We were all so excited and they ran alongside me until right near the end. At one point I had a quick walk as Amy and Joel were running quite quickly and I think I got a bit carried away. The last part of the course winds around the centre of the town which seems designed to get you in front of as many people as possible. It reminded me of the crowds you see at the Tour de France, with so many people cheering, waving flags and slapping your hand. People are shouting out your name and it is hard not to feel like a rock star, even being at the back of the pack.
Finally I was on the home stretch and it was fantastic to be running under that arch and to see the race director standing there – 45 hours, 11 minutes and 24 seconds after I had left. I didn’t get emotional like I did at the start, but that is not to say it wasn’t every bit as incredible as I thought it would be. Joel rang my Mum in NZ despite it being 12.30am their time. She said she could see finishers on the Live Feed so we worked out where to stand and waved to her on camera.
For anyone who is even remotely considering doing this race I would say go for it. It was pure enjoyment from start to finish. With the benefit of hindsight, I do wish I didn’t muck around so much at the checkpoints, and think I could have also pushed a bit more, particularly in the second half of the course. However who knows if I had done that maybe I would have hit the wall, so I know I have to be happy with what I did achieve. It has definitely made me want another go at it though! (Ssshhhh don’t tell my family).
A couple of interesting stats. As mentioned earlier Shona was the 10th woman home in just over 30 hours. The next 30 females came in under 40 hours, and the remaining 74 finishers were all above 40 hours, with an overall DNF rate of 43%. If I was to finish exactly midway through the field of female runners, I would need to improve my time by 2.5hrs.
I got back to Australia just over a week after the race, to find out that my seven year old daughter had arranged for me to speak to her class about my run. When I arrived in her classroom she stood up and said “Good morning 2J, today my news is my Mum”. She beamed as she said how proud she was of me. She walked around the class carrying my pack to show how heavy it was, and interjected numerous times with all the bits of information she knew about the run. And in those moments I knew that it really had been worth it, and that it is an experience that I will never forget.
Thank you (yes this report will end soon I promise)
I know I haven’t won an Oscar or cured cancer, but I did want to thank a few people. I have been completely blown away by all the support and well wishes I received before, during and after this event. I am so grateful to be part of this running community and to have so many friends and acquaintenances who have helped me in so many ways. I know I haven’t listed everyone here, but I really appreciate what you have done for me.
With regards to coaching I was fortunate to have Andy DuBois develop my program and I was able to train with and tap into the immense knowledge of Joe Ward (aka Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo, my Yoda), Matty Abel (so wish I could be as speedy as you) and Adam Connor. Adam might be embarrassed at having his name listed with these other runners/coaches but he has helped so many people over the years in setting up training runs, providing advice and generally being an all round fantastic bloke.
Thank you Tayebeh who I have never met in person but who was always happy to provide advice having successfully completed UTMB in 2013.
Big hugs and kisses to Emma, Dominic, Roger and Hailey for letting me crash their Oxfam team training runs, and listening to my endless dribble about UTMB. The leadup to this event would have been a lot more boring otherwise. Scott, I love the way you connect to nature and take such pleasure from your running. David Brown, what can I say. Tues night hills sessions would have been very quiet if it wasn’t for you. You have an amazingly positive outlook on life, and it really rubs off on so many people.
Thank you to my lovely sister Amy who flew to France to keep an eye on Joel whilst I ran, and holidayed with us afterwards. They argued like a brother and sister (even ringing my Mum in NZ in the middle of the night – I will be in such trouble for writing that), but Joel was still in one piece at the end! Thank you!
Amy & Joel on our post race holiday
Also thanks to Dave, and my Mum who flew to Australia to look after the urchins I left behind, and to Tash, Lucy and Michele who cared for them during numerous training runs and whilst I was away. I owe you guys lots of reciprocal babysitting time!
Finally to my gorgeous cherubs – thank you for letting me chase my dreams. I love you xxx