Thursday, 4 September 2008

Ultra Tour Du Mont Blanc - Race Report

**Warning** This report contains scenes of extreme suffering!

Chamonix was buzzing. Sitting in a street cafe watching the world go by it seemed every second person had a race shirt from some far-flung ultra adorning a lean and highly trained looking physique. I was getting nervous. The race was due to start at 6:30 pm so the day would be spent relaxing, eating(a very expensive pastime here!) and trying to keep out of the hot sun as much as possible. We had lunch then headed to the park for a while. I got chatting to a guy who was running, Fabrice, a Frenchman who lived and worked in London. He was doing the race for the first time and was quite nervous as he hadn't done any training on the hills at all although he was an experienced ultra-runner. We wished each other luck, went off for more lunch, handed in my two drop bags, then it was back to the apartment/shoebox to get changed into race kit.

It was great to be in my kit and looking like all the other half starved trail dogs, I didn't feel so intimidated now. I'd arranged to meet up with another couple of Brits and we'd start the race together, you know, just in case Johnnie Foreigner started any trouble. We hung about the main street for a while trying to keep out of the sun and then with about half an hour to go we headed for the main square where the race starts. The atmosphere was electric! There was classical music blasting from huge speakers so loud it was painful, speeches were going on in French and every now and then the crowd would cheer and raise their poles in the air. It was rousing stuff. We pushed into the crowd a bit and then we were off. Going over the start line at walking pace then running for a bit until it slowed to a walk again then after a bit we were off and running.

I had been a bit worried about an ankle injury which had been niggling for a while and sure enough it started aching almost straight away. I was getting into my stride now and pushing through the crowds, dodging trekking poles as I went, with Iain, one of the Brits pushing on too. The first aid station, Les Houches, was like a scrum, I quickly grabbed a drink and carried on as the road started to climb and climb up to the top at La Charme and then a fast descent to Saint Gervais. Running down the hill the sound of cow bells ringing and crowds cheering signalled that there was a party in full swing and what a party! They were three deep at the roadside barriers checking out the names on the runners numbers and shouts of "allez, allez Richard!" and "bravo, bravo!" had me upping the pace to the food tables. A few biscuits and it was sadly time to leave the party and head off into the dark. This was repeated at Les Contamines with huge,cheering crowds lining the streets again then it was into the night and the climb up to Croix du Bonhomme.

Something struck me fairly early in the race, which was how well the course is marked. Every 50 metres or so there is a luminous marker to lead the way, not just on the tricky parts but on the whole course, all 100+ miles of it! Meaning you can concentrate on the running and the route finding is easy.

I was starting to concentrate on the pain from my ankle. It was getting pretty sore so I took a couple of Brufens and hoped this would do the trick. Iain was out of sight now and I felt like I was going quite slow although I was pushing hard and sweating buckets as it was still warm. The route climbed and climbed more (this was a recurring feature!) and my stomach started to ache now too. I hadn't eaten much so far and I knew this wasn't a good idea but I didn't want to force myself this early on as I thought my stomach might settle on its own. Looking behind and down the hill into the distance was an amazing sight, a huge long headtorch snake stretching out into the night and bobbing around as it chased me up the hill (no I wasn't hallucinating... yet!)

I made a big mistake in preparing for this race, a big amateur mistake. I had a brainstorm one day and decided to change my energy drink from the tried and tested formula which I've used for years now with no problems. The only difference was this one came in sachets which made it easier to carry and mix. I stupidly hadn't tested it on the run and after about 2 bottles of it I was gagging at the taste, not good, don't try this at home kids (or on the trail!) So as a result my only source of energy was the few energy bars I had on me and the aid stations.

The first night was a bit of a blur as I'm not familiar with the course but I do remember the descent from Bonhomme being pretty rocky and steep, which took its toll on the quads, the climb up to Col de la Seigne being pretty brutal and Courmayeur just never seeming to get any closer. I was also noticing the difference not having a support team hand feeding me mashed tatties and telling me I looked brilliant, it was quite lonely not being able to speak French but the soup was good and I was doing ok putting bits of bread in it and eating the resulting mush.

The sun started to come up as I descended to Courmayeur, I still hadn't seen Iain and I wondered how he was doing, he must be having a storming race unless I'd passed him in the dark without knowing. The descent was on another ski slope, steep and quite rough in parts, the pain in my ankle was now lost amongst the bigger sea of pain washing over my lower limbs but my stomach was killing me. I reached the checkpoint at 6:30am, 12 hours gone and I felt ok considering. I got my drop bag and had a complete change of kit, then was just going to run on when I noticed everyone else seemed to be sitting down for a big plate of pasta so I thought I'd better try and eat something substantial and decided to join them. I managed to eat quite a lot before heading off and felt quite good, so I resolved to run as hard as possible out of Courmayeur and keep pushing on until the heat of the day forced me to slow. Ha! the climb out of Courmayeur soon put paid to that! It was brutal, about 3000 feet in 4k so I just slogged it out. I remembered Hugh Kerr telling me that after the climb there was a section of about 12k of good runnable trail so once getting to the top I decided to go for it and ran hard all the way into Arnuva. When I got to the checkpoint I was trashed, I ate some soup and bread and drank loads of coke to fend of the dehydration which was a whisker away. At most of the aid stations I had met the French guy Fabrice who I'd chatted to before the race and we had a moan about how hard this was then headed off together for the monster climb to Grand Col Ferret at 2537 metres, the highest point on the course. The sun was beating down by this point and after about 50 metres of climb I was in a bad way. Fabrice was going much better than me up the hill so I decided it was time to admit defeat. My quads were in agony, calfs screaming and I was hardly moving up the way at all. No... I wasn't giving up... it was time to get the poles out! I started up the hill again with the poles and immediately noticed the difference, it took so much weight off the legs it was unbelievable. We made good time up to the top and I felt much better now, as we passed the tents at the top I saw Iain lying in the shade behind one of them. He said he was finished and was going to pack it in at the next check point so I tried to encourage him to keep going, to get down and maybe sit for a few hours and eat some food and rest then try and get going again. We all started the big descent to La Fouly together, I felt good again so hit the pace but I saw Iain behind struggling and feared he wasn't going to finish. La Fouly took ages to come and I was really in need of water when I got there. Fabrice arrived shortly after and I asked him if it was hot or was it just me, he reckoned it was 30+ degrees, it was hard to tell which shows how disorientated I was getting.
The aid station stops were getting longer now, I had my head in my hands as we looked at the map, another 60k still to go and about 9000 feet of ascent, I said to Fabrice we should concentrate on getting to Champex and forget about the rest, it was only 15k away so if we made good time we'd be doing well. I managed to eat some soup and a few bits of banana and some raisins, washed down with about a gallon of coke and off we went.

It took three hours to get to Champex. The climb went on forever and as usual the checkpoint was at the far side of town just to drag out the suffering a bit more. I was really hungry as I approached the aid tent, almost to the point of collapse, I needed a drink of coke very badly too. The party was in full swing here though, and as I entered the tent a guy shot over to me, said something in French and stuck a microphone in my face! Everyone looked at me and I looked at the guy confused and said grumpily " I don't speak French" he replied, "Ah! English! How do you enjoy the Mont Blanc?" "Scottish, and it's too hot and I'm starving" was my reply. He then realised I wasn't up for much of an interview and left me to my suffering.

I got some pasta and sat down at a table trying to eat when James, another Brit came over and chatted. He was in a bad way too, and told me how hard it was going to get! Then Fabrice came in and joined us and we just tried to eat as much as we could stomach. After about 20 minutes we got up to go and Fabrice ran off to a bin and threw up. As I asked him if he was ok, a doctor came over and told him he must lie down for a bit before he would let him leave the tent so I headed off on my own.

I soon caught up with James and we climbed to Bovine together, the views were fantastic as the sun went down, it gave me a real lift. As we started to descend James was staggering all over the place and told me to go on ahead. I felt ok and held onto a couple of guys running down so made quite good time. I think I must have passed about three runners lying at the side of the trail sleeping it was quite bizarre.

It was pitch dark by the time I got to Trient. I was feeling really down. I sat for ages with my head on the table then drank some coke and had some soup. Trient was mental, there was a party in full swing with a bar on one side of the tent and on the other there was runners lying all over the place, sleeping, puking and looking thoroughly miserable! I was thinking Fabrice must have pulled out when just then he came into the tent, my spirits lifted right away and we discussed how we "only" had two climbs to go and if we stuck together we could finish this race!

Off we went into the darkness again, there was no messing about here as we went straight into a really steep climb. I was getting really tired now and the shadows were playing crazy tricks on me. I kept thinking I saw sheep at the side of the track, I'd see writing on the ground and at one point I'd convinced myself I was walking on snow and I was trying not to slip! Fabrice was pushing hard though, so I kept with him and soon we were onto the descent into Vallorcine.

Vallorcine was very quiet, I suppose it was 1:20am, but they had a patio heater on and it was nice and cozy. There was another couple of British guys there who looked as bad as us, we chatted briefly ate some soup and then left for the final climb.

As we left Vallorcine I was really struggling to stay awake. It felt like my vision was crossing over and I was getting really confused. I said this to Fabrice and he said he was the same, thoughts would come into my head and take on a life of their own until the chatter got so crazy and confusing I thought I was going to explode! Meanwhile Fabrice was in a bad way. When I spoke to him he didn't seem to hear me, and he was stopping a lot to puke as well. We just kept moving forward though, as long as we kept moving we'd get there.

The climb up to Tete aux Vents was torture. It was really steep with high steps to negotiate and it looked like there was a long way to fall if I wobbled the wrong way. This focussed our minds and we made good progress following the bobbing headtorches away above us. Fabrice was still puking but he was keeping up the pace, so I hoped we could get to the aid station soon and get some food to keep us going to Chamonix. After a bit the ground levelled out a bit and there were massive boulders to negotiate over the top, this was hard going because I couldn't seem to co-ordinate my footing in my state of confusion, I just followed the group in front and hung on. Eventually we got to the aid station, I sat down had some soup and next thing I remember was being wakened up by Fabrice saying "come on, lets go" I'd fallen asleep for a couple of minutes.

It was getting light as we descended down the ski slope towards Chamonix, I was enjoying picking lines to follow and it passed the time. It then turned into much better forest trails and people were coming up from Chamonix looking for their friends and shouts of encouragement "bravo", "courage" and "allez, allez" had us breaking into a jog as we sensed the end getting near. I remember looking up at Mont Blanc, this massive mountain dominating the skyline, and realising I had almost completed this crazy journey all the way around it. It was quite some feeling!

As we passed some people they shouted to us it was 1.5k to the finish, our jog became a proper run, and soon we were on the main street, people shouting encouragement, around a few bends and there it was, the finish line at last!

What an incredible journey!

What amazing people and places I'd seen in the last 36 hours 53 minutes and 37 seconds. Thanks to everyone who helped and encouraged me, you know who you are.

Will I be there next year? Try and stop me!!


John Kynaston said...

What a great report!

Congratulations on such a superb run. I enjoyed following the race on the internet over the weekend but reading your report made me realise what a tough race this is.

So well done, enjoy your rest and I look forward to following your progress in the coming months.

John Kynaston

Tim said...

Wow! Fantastic report Ritchie. It must be a runner thing but when I read all about your suffering, I just know I'm going to have to try it for myself. ;-)

Project June said...

Fantastic performance and report Richie; well done.


Brian Mc said...

Fantastic and alluringly harsh sounding. I'll be there in 2009!

I won't be eating malt loaf however.

Davie Bell said...

Great report (novel) Richie super stuff never doubted you for a minute top man!good to see you at Ben Nevis Race, what was wrong you not fancy it?:-)