Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc 2012 - Kind of!!!

The UTMB is probably seen by most of those who enter it as Ultra Trail/mountain running's World Cup or Olympics. A bit like Ironman Hawaii is to Triathlon perhaps. Chamonix is the place to be at the end of August every year and it was evident from the moment we arrived just how big an event this has become. Every second person on the street had that familiar weather beaten face and sunken cheekbone look that is "de rigueur" for people involved in the sport. With a total of 4 races over the course of the week, and  participation numbering in and around the 6000 mark, there was an unmistakable air of simultaneous nervousness and excitement on those same faces. 

I'll first say a few words about the lads I got to share a memorable few days with. I travelled over with Barry Murray, Eoin Keith and his girlfriend, Helen, as we were all staying in an apartment Barry had sorted for us right by the Aguille de Midi cable car. It was the perfect spot and just a 10 minute stroll to the start line. Karl, Barry's dad had also made the journey and we met Diana Hogan-Murphy on the plane so there was a good group travelling out together. Jeff and Aoibheann, 2 friends and fellow hill runners had headed out to Chamonix earlier in the week and were tying in a holiday with spectating, and very kindly offering support at different points along the course. Jeff is possibly the most enthusiastic (and serious) person you could have supporting you in a race. He switches from a laid back, placid sort of lad to a man with a demonic look in his eyes and a focus on the job that Roy Keane would be proud of.  Between himself, Aoibheann and Helen, there was plenty of roars of encouragement at the aid stations. Dan Doherty was also living the good life for the week and it was great to catch up with him as I hadn't met him since our Lakes trip last March. The guy is a machine and we all expected him to blitz the course, all the more so after the race was shortened, given his speed at that distance. However, after a blistering start, he had to pull out at the 40k mark when he tried to deposit the contents of his stomach on a race marshall at the La Balme checkpoint. Cruel luck for Ireland's most talented ultrarunner. It didn't stop him being really good craic for the rest of the trip though.  On the Thursday Ultra Running hardman and local legend in  my eyes (and many other people's I'm sure), Adrian Tucker raced in the extremely technical TDS race consisting of 112Km's and over 7000 Metres of ascent. Adrian had barely run a step in 2 months because of Plantar Fasciitis and had tried to keep fit on the bike. His hopes were not high, given the challenge ahead but he proceded to finish in 24 hours and 184th position out of a starting field of more than 1200 runners.  And with a drop out rate of about 50% because of the difficulty of the race, it gives one a good idea of what the guy is made of. This meant he had now completed all 4 UTMB events!!! The first time I met Adrian was back in January 2011 when he was good enough to let me follow him around the Art O' Neill challenge. I  hadn't Recce'ed the course and my navigation is "questionable" to say the least. He has been a good running friend ever since. Kevin Grogan also ran the TDS but had to drop out at the halfway point. Kevin does a good job of adding to the stereotype that all ultrarunners are nutters. He was due to have an operation on his knee and was keeping the race quiet from his doctor. Another real character from the local scene.
I met up with Stuart Air, who I had first met in the Lake District in May when he helped navigate me around a Bob Graham attempt. He was all ready to go on Thursday, having spent the previous few months living the dream around the Chamonix valley, only to be struck with food poisoning late on the eve of the race. Talk about bad timing. The poor guy was heaving his insides up well in to the early hours of the morning, only to defiantly take to the start line in true ultrarunning "hard Bastard" fashion and went on to do a cracking time.

Now I really was looking forward to this event because I had barely given it a second thought until the Lakeland 100 dust had settled. This was great as I hadn't spent all year waiting for it to come around,   so there was no chance to create that "for Christ's sake, Hurry the fuck up and be race time" feeling that I have suffered from in the past. However there was a really deep fatigue still hanging in there in my legs after that trip to the Lakes. And this was magnified by the fact I always feel that way anyway before a long race. So my expectations were a little dulled as a result. However it didn't stop me worrying about whether the race organisers would modify or delay the race start with the reports of impending bad weather....for the third year in a row!!! What were the chances. The sun had scalded the place for the previous week only to desert us the day before the race was due to start. Heavy snow and strong winds were forecast for the higher points on the course and everywhere else it was expected to be cold and wet. Now personally I would put up with that type of weather, and it probably would have suited us Irish lads given the summer we'e had but to be fair to the organisers, they had to consider the 2500 people they were sending out on the hills and how the majority of people would take 35 to 40 hours to complete the challenge, even if the weather was perfect. So they took the hard decision to modify the course, making it aproximately 110k accoring to some people using Garmins, and a cummulative ascent of 6000 metres. So it would still be a decent run. But it wasn't UTMB!! I struggled for a little while to motivate myself for this, especially given the decision was only confirmed at lunch time on the day of the race. Of course everyone was in the same boat so it was no excuse.

Ready for anything!!

Just before the start and Eoin with his bottle of fruit juice. I swear he drank about 10 litres of that stuff before the race!!

Having pissed about with gear all afternoon (and weighing Jeff down with spares), we headed for the start line where we were greeted by a mass of people already camped out waiting for the starters gun. As a result there was a little weaving in and out of people in the first mile or so until things settled down. The first few miles are relatively flat to Les Houche (or Lez Hoochies as Aoibheann and Jeff had renamed it), and I just tried to settle in and enjoy this easier section. I'm not sure I managed that because in reality I felt pretty crap, a feeling that seemed to pervade for long periods of many races this year. I caught up to Eoin before the first real climb after he had started a little closer to the front. But as soon as we hit this climb he slowly started to pull away and it was the last I saw of him until the finish line. His strength is his amazing consistency (among many other things) in ultra distance events, from 24 hour track to 7 day Adventure races. He is an amazing athlete and proved it again this time round.

Back to the race and I generally struggled along for the next couple of hours, hoping I'd start to feel better again soon. The descent in to St. Gervais (I think) was a lot of fun. Just really steep, slippy and hard to see in the gloom under the fog and darkness. Arriving in the town I was greeted by the lad's shouts of encouragement, which was great at the time. I didn't waste any time in the checkpoint, just stopping to grab a cup of coke and a little water. Writing this now has me realising I really didn't know where I was for much of the race. It was dark and considering I was on unfamiliar trails, there weren't too many landmarks to enlighten me. Les Contamines was the next town along the way. It was raining by now and probably the first time I felt in any way cold. I noticed most runers were wrapped up pretty well with full body cover and I wondered how they were managing to keep cool. Of course as soon as the rain began my shorts idea seemed less like a good one and more like stupidity, but once I kept moving it wasn't so bad.

At Notre Dame de la Gorge runners were greeted by supporters keeping warm around a big bonfire. The cowbells rang out as each runner passed and the shouts of "Allez, Allez" seemed to lift my spirits as I began the long climb to the La Balme checkpoint. It was up at La Balme where stupidity slowly turned to lunacy as the snow started to fall. I was starting to get really cold when I followed a wayward course marker into a farmers field and proceded to fall flat on my backside in to the snow. I'm still not sure how that marker got where it did but I wasn't the only one that followed it. Anyway apart from a numb ass, all was ok once we dropped down a little lower where the snow changed to rain again. I really enjoyed this section of the race, knowing that that was as cold as it was going to get so the Armageddon-like conditions that the organisers warned against were not going to materialise, on this course at least.  It was about this time that I had my first encounter with Canadian Ultrarunner Gary Robbins, whom I had had brief on-line twitter conversations over the last year. I knew Gary had suffered a bad injury last year and that he had been unable to run for a large chunk of 2011. So it was with keen interest I had kept an eye on how his recovery was going since he got back running. I know how terrible I would feel to be out of running for so long, so I really wanted to see the guy nail this race. As he passed I said hello and noted his accent when he replied. I then saw his Ultra Aspire pack, which I knew a lot of the guys from the States and Canada were using. I asked "Is that Gary?", as if we were old school buddies or something, and sure enough he answered in the affirmative, and in his typical upbeat, positive tone. I introduced myself and we continued running. And so began hours of leap frogging each other in the standings, interspersed with conversations as diverse as race organisation, how shit we both felt at different times, running gear and Gary's recent engagement to his lovely girlfriend, Linda. Congratulations again guys!

The decsent in to Les Houche on the return leg was a lot of fun. What we did could only be described as mud skiing as the trails had been badly cut up and softened by the previous 24 hours of weather. I should have written this sooner because I'm getting confused as to where, and at what stage of the race, certain things happened. But I do remember that the climb out of Les Houches on the way to Argentiere was the most uninspiring climb (for the first half anyway) of any part of any other race I've done this year. I was on my own now, having exited the checkpoint before Gary so there was no conversation to take my mind off the tiredness I was feeling. The next hour was just road, road, road....road, road...road,road,road. You get the idea. Every time I thought we were going to get back on some trail, there, in front of me up the ROAD, would be another marker to follow. But when we did eventualy get back on the trails, it was well worth the wait. We were now on the side of the wall-like hills above the Chamonix valley, amongst the trees on lovely singletrack, scattered with rocks and tree roots. It was still pitch dark and there were quite a few near misses with my footing as we contoured around the valley wall. Every so often we would catch a glimpse of the lights twinkling below in what I presume was Chamonix itself. I tried to convince myself that Argentiere, the last checkpoint on the course, was within touching distance. But it was wishful thinking. I hadn't studied the modified course so I was unaware that there was another small aid station to pass before Argentiere. When we finally emerged from under the blanket of trees a few hundred metres lower down, we were met by the small checkpoint well staffed by friendly staff. I didn't really want to know how far it was to Argentiere but I overheard someone asking one of the volunteers. 15 kilometres was the answer. This was not quite what I was expecting. I couldn't unerstand how we still had that far left to go. I wasn't the only one, judging by the audible groans around me. A cup of coke and I was on my way again with 3 or 4 other runners who I had shared the previous few miles of trail with.  I thought about it for a moment and realised that, on the upside it would be getting bright soon and hopefully that would help with energy levels for the last section of the race. However, while we were spared another relentless climb, instead enjoying rolling terrain, I again made the mistake of trying to second guess just where the f$%k Argentiere was. We trundled in to what looked like a campsite and I thought  that had got to be it after Dan had told me he was staying in a campsite in the town. The rather obvious fact that there may be more than one campsite in the whole of the Chamonix Valley never really occurred to me! No, this was it and I was nearly home and dry. Not only did this prove to be false, but there was a final sting in the the tail. I arrived at a sign pointing straight on for Argentiere only to find tape blocking the way and a marker pointing up and to the left. This last climb drained me of whatever energy I had left and really did feel like there was just no end to it. Huge tree roots and stone littered the trail and made the going even slower than my already painfully pedestrian plod was taking me. I made up a couple of places on the climb, only to be passed by the fast finishing Rory Bosio, my new favourite female ultrarunner (I'll let ye figure out why for yourselves) on the long and rolling descent in to Argentiere. The checkpoint was heaving with runners, mostly those running the CCC race which had started some 8 hours before the UTMB. Another cup of coke to see me through the last 10k and I was out of the tent and ready for what I was assured was a pretty flat last run in to Chamonix. Given my record of anticipation of what lay ahead, I convinced myself that this was a whole load of bullshit and it would be a slog.

As I left the tent I met Gary again, still smiling and getting some support from his crew. I kept moving and told him I'd see him for beer later. The rain had stopped by now and I tried to enjoy the last leg as I overtook more CCC backmarkers. The familiar sense of relief washed over me as I see-sawed over the last few rolling kilometres. Nothing beats that feeling of knowing you are going to finish a difficult day's racing. Especially when it is a race that you have dreamed about doing, and although this was not the UTMB as we all know it, it was bloody tough for what it was. 13 hours and 51 minutes after leaving Chamonix I met Adrian, Eoin, Helen and Kevin at the finish line and sat down in the cafe that we have helped to bankroll with the amount of espresso we consumed over the course of our stay. The lads filled me in on how Barry had done in the CCC, finishing in 33rd position overall, a fine performance.
Finish line in sight

The next couple of days consisted of being sore, eating, meeting more friends - old and new, drinking some beer, going for a relaxed but painful run on some nice trails, drinking espresso's, eating some more, drinking some more beer, and eating ice cream.

Dan, myself, Gary and Barry enjoying a beer post race

Finally, a big thank you to Jeff, Aoibheann and Helen for their support along the way. It can't have been a very comfortable way of spending a night on holidays, with the rain pissing down incessantly. But their enthusiasm was uplifting when I met them. And thank you too to all those I met over the course of the trip. All going well, we'll be back again next year, and hopefully this time there'll be a few extra miles to enjoy!


  1. Fantastic report and an even better race. What a year you've had.

  2. Great report. Brings it all back :)

  3. I'm doing the TDS this year, and am alos a fan of the trail roc (255), but fear this may not have enough grip as it looks like it can get quite muddy if it rains! What are your thoughts?

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