The North Face UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) and it's associated races the CCC, TDS & PTL is a huge event, attracting thousands of runners from all over the world and is so popular that they recently upped the number of qualification points for all races and even then it's more than double over-subscribed. Long before I started running seriously, the UTMB held a special place in my heart. I gave my time as a volunteer for the event for two years and I just love the way it takes over Chamonix and how the town gets behind the runners every August. At our first attempt, we failed to get a place in the CCC. It wasn't really a big surprise, but still pretty gutting. Nikki's boss thought she'd suffered a bereavement on the day we found out we hadn't got in, she was that upset! With hindsight, it was probably a blessing. We hadn't been running big distances for very long and had little experience of racing, let alone staying on our feet for more than a few hours at a time. However our application was automatically carried over to the following year and in December 2012 we confirmed our places for this summer.
My battle with pneumonia started less than a month later and it put a bit of a dampener on things for a while. Instead of spending the winter working on a good training base, I was barely able to walk for several months. A special medical certificate is required for the CCC to be submitted by the end of May, so that gave me a focus. I was amazed when my doctor happily signed me off, but knew that I was by no means in the clear. I had started running again in April and by May was up to 20km or so, but the thought of 100km was terrifying. Nikki and I ran the 60km Verbier Trail Grand St Bernard in early July, the difficulty of which came as a massive shock to me and I really struggled compared to Nikki. Understandably, Nikki was concerned that my setbacks this year could potentially put her own CCC race in jeopardy. However, Verbier gave me the kick I needed to knuckle down for a few weeks, work hard and do everything I could to make the CCC a possibility. I had good reason to find things tough this year, but I still wouldn't give up my CCC dream without a fight.
A couple of weeks after Verbier, I started training hard. My plan was simple - speed training during the week (fartlek, hill reps, intervals, tempo), swimming and pilates, then back-to-back long, hilly runs at weekends, with plenty of up and down. I'd never doubled up on long runs before, but it was recommended to me by a few of my UTMB running pals so it was worth a try. Although it did mean my weekends were pretty much taken up by running (which did not please the husband), I varied my routes and running companions and really enjoyed it. The variety of mid-week training kept things interesting and, despite a couple of sub-optimal runs, I could feel myself getting stronger. It felt good to taper off though and as race day approached, I knew I had done all that I could.
I had been warned that the Grand Col Ferret ascent was a bit of a bugger, but I really enjoyed it, again regaining a few places and getting my time back on track. The summit marked the crossing into Switzerland and the views back towards Italy were stunning, however the weather was completely different on the other side, cold, foggy & windy so I didn't hang around. I checked my phone briefly and read a lovely text from Nikki's fiance Alan which really spurred me on. I sent a quick message to Andy, asking him to bring a few extra things to Champex and headed straight down the 1100m descent towards the familiar village of La Fouly. The weather made my lungs very unhappy and I coughed all the way down. I really should have stopped and put a buff round my face, because I was starting to feel this was the beginning of the end of my race. However once I did so at La Fouly, things improved significantly, but I did stop there for quite a while, scoffing bananas, cleaning my face and vaseline-ing up. I didn't get my headtorch out, which was a daft move as it got dark soon after leaving La Fouly and I had to stop and fumble around under a street lamp.
We headed back into a forest for a while and then out through a few small villages. I was motoring now, loving the relief my lungs were feeling from the buff, refreshed from a nice break in familiar surroundings and enjoying relative flatness on the trails. But then the ascent up to Champex felt tough and went on forever. I knew Andy would be there and I just wanted to be there NOW! Arriving in Champex was such an important milestone and it was ace to see Andy & my friend Lucy (with an excellent flag!), but the heat, atmosphere and smell inside the tent was unbearable - probably enjoyable for the spectators, but pretty hideous for several runners I spoke to. I had missed Nikki leaving by a few minutes but it was great to know she was still going strong. There was a dreadful accordion-effect keyboard player, runners and spectators everywhere and it was hard to concentrate on the job in hand. I needed to eat, clean myself, get changed (in full view of far too many people) and get the flock out of there! I managed to stick to my planned stop time and although it was so lovely to see everyone, I just couldn't wait to get out of that tent. Like a mirage in the desert, it was gone and I was back out into the dark and peace of the night.
We skirted round the edge of the lake, through the village and back into the forest. The route followed a wide, easy fire trail and then started ascending up towards Bovine. This was one of the few parts of the route I had run before in training and it had felt so steep previously, so I was dreading it. Thankfully in the dark it felt much shorter. I was struggling with both my stomach and head on the way up, stopping for the toilet (and having to fend off an overly helpful fellow runner who followed me to say I'd gone the wrong way!) and feeling really tired. I downed a caffeine gel to try and wake myself up, but it had a limited effect. I was half an hour behind my schedule at Bovine as it had become apparent that my schedule didn't actually include the planned stop times. After negotiating a rogue cow at Bovine (ironically!), I pushed on towards the Col de Forclaz and Trient. It was clear that my headtorch batteries needed changing, but I stuck in the middle of a pack that kept the path well lit. However I was really struggling to stay awake on this section and I was starting to slow down. I changed my batteries at Forclaz and when I got to Trient I was 50mins behind my schedule and just 40mins ahead of the cut off. That was a big shock and I totally panicked, allowing a minimum stop to top-up water, go to the loo and grab some easy snacks.
Apart from my drowsiness, the ascent to Catogne was lovely and the starry night which met us at the top made it worthwhile. However, the descent that followed to Vallorcine was definitely the worst part of the race for me. It was steep and slippery and the worst terrain to be falling asleep on! I thought I was going to fall off the side into a ravine, I was completely terrified. Once I made it into the forest, I was so tired that I seriously contemplated getting my emergency blanket out, lying down and having a sleep. I thought if I could sleep for 5 mins that it might save me! At the same time I remembered how close I was getting to the cut-off. I told myself that if I made Vallorcine with 30 mins to spare, I would carry on, otherwise I should stop. I made it 80 mins slower than my schedule but with 35 mins to play with for the cut-off. According to the deal I made with myself, I had to carry on. I got the volunteers to make me the strongest coffee they could possibly make, literally about half a jar of instant coffee in my cup, downed it, topped up my water and left the tent, knowing exactly what was left to do. I met a lovely English guy called Pete as I left Vallorcine. He was diagnosed with and beat cancer last year and that was his reason for doing the race. If he could do it I thought, then so could I. All thoughts of quitting were now firmly extinguished.
Pete & I chatted and shared wine gums as we headed for the Col des Montets. Flegere seemed a fair distance away and the cut-off still pretty tight so I pushed on ahead of him and up the Tete aux Vents. I had run down this many times, so knew how steep it was, but going up wasn't as bad as expected. I was so hungry but the thought of eating did not appeal and I nibbled on a bar just to keep the pangs at bay. There was a traverse to the control and eventually I could see Flegere. As it got ever closer, I knew the final cut-off was not going to be an issue and I got there with half an hour to spare. Knowing that I would finish, I burst into tears in the tent! I suddenly felt really emotional as I realised what I was going to achieve. I have run the descent from Flegere many times, but it felt longer than ever and my knees were not at all happy, so I had to walk a lot of runnable sections. I passed Chalet Floria and joined the Petit Balcon Sud, where my friends Rich & Steph were waiting and walked down with me for a while. Then as we reached the outskirts of town, I saw Helen S jumping around like a mad woman. She ran with me along the river, past the sports centre where we saw Helen McG & Kaz and up onto the high street. From there on the atmosphere was like nothing I'd ever experienced and was way better than ever expected. I felt like a celebrity as friends and strangers alike shouted my name and clapped me home. As I rounded the final corner I had to catch my breath as I was on the verge of tears, running up the final straight and across the line to a roaring crowd, just under 26 hours since my journey started.
A week later and I'm doing surprisingly well. My legs hurt after the race, but a good massage from the hubbie seemed to work and the following day I was walking with no issues. I did ice my knees in the evening as they felt very sore. I had a few blisters, but no broken skin and absolutely no chaffing anywhere else. The worst thing was aching shoulders from carrying all that mandatory equipment for 26 hours. All in all, pretty good!
I am incredibly proud of myself for making it round, particularly after the year I've had, for keeping going when it got tough and for only considering quitting because I wanted to avoid hurting myself. I'm sad that Nikki & I didn't get the chance to run it together, but I owe her for preparing us both for having to run separately and for never giving up on me. She also ran an excellent race and I am so proud of her - I really couldn't have done it without her. Obviously I said 'never again' on the finish line. But clearly we are already planning our next move... ;)