Tuesday, 10 September 2013

It's been a long time coming - The North Face CCC

When I started running with Nikki a couple of years ago, we barely knew each other.  At the time I rarely ran with other people, enjoying the solitude of running and thinking that it wouldn't really work to run in a group, all going at different speeds.  But meeting Nikki totally changed things for me, we enjoyed exploring new trails together and before long we started pushing ourselves further.  A year after my first marathon and I entered my first ultra - not much further than a marathon but the 50km Trail des Aiguilles Rouges with +-4000m.  The difference between that and a marathon felt enormous and I crossed the finish line really meaning it when I said "never again".  However, a couple of months later and with enough qualification points under our belt, we decided to go for the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) the following year.

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.

The build up to the CCC went on forever.  It was so exciting going to pick up my race number, watching them erect the finish line in the town centre, getting shopping bargains reserved for runners only and generally soaking up the atmosphere of a town with high expectations.  My mum came over, the sun shone for the first time in years for this week, I watched friends Rich, Kaz & Chantelle successfully finish the TDS and gradually got my head into race mode.

The CCC is named after the 3 towns & countries it runs through and covers 101km with around 6000m of ascent and descent.  It's the shortest of the UTMB races, but is by no means easy.  Nikki & I took the bus through the tunnel to Courmayeur on the morning of the race, meeting mum & Andy there, as well as several other faces we recognised who were also running.  There were 3 different start groups and Nikki & I discovered just beforehand that we were starting at different times - bang went our plans of running together!  To be honest we had discussed at length what would happen if we couldn't stick together, what if one of us was really struggling or injured etc and caused ourselves a lot of heartache over it.  If only we'd known it wasn't even an option!  Although I think those discussions had actually prepared us both well for running separately, so maybe it's just as well we went through that.

The atmosphere was electric, with the usual alpine race build-up of pumping euro-pop mixed with Vangelis.  The first runners left at 9am, Nikki at 9.15 and finally me at 9.30.  We ran round Courmayeur to the tune of hundreds of cow bells, saucepans, anything people could use to make a noise!  Within a few minutes we were warmed up and started heading up the first and biggest climb of the race, towards the Tete de la Tronche.  The headcount is pretty dense at the start of a race so there were a few annoying bottlenecks where we ground to a halt.  The terrain came out of a forest, across a meadow and onto an easy trail that clung to the side of the mountain, criss-crossing streams.  As I rounded a corner the sight of ant-like runners zig-zagging up the imposing mountain ahead clearly marked our way.  Ascending was always my strength in the past, but I had vowed to take it easy as it was only one ascent of many ahead.  I had a 24 hour time plan and summitted the peak and the first control 12 minutes ahead of schedule.

The next few km was an enjoyable downwards traverse to the Bertone refuge with fantastic views.  I maintained my speed, stopping briefly to scoff a bit of soup (tasty bouillon with minestrone noodles) and check my water level.  I had been eating well on the first ascent and wanted to ensure I kept that up for as long as I could, as it was inevitable that I would struggle to eat later on.  My trail snacks of choice for the day were apricots, dried bananas, cashew nuts, a variety of bars and a couple of gels, keeping the latter for energy emergencies only as too many definitely upset my stomach.  Another traverse followed the side of the beautiful Val Ferret to the Bonatti refuge at 22km, where I made up a bit of time but then lost it by stopping to refill water, refuel and visit the toilet.  I slowed down a little en route to the control at Arnuva, taking it easy on the descent and getting passed by numerous runners.  Descents are definitely my weakness and I really don't enjoy the hammering it can give your legs, especially the knees.

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.

So many friends were there to meet me and I could not believe that I had finally made it.  Nikki had made it across the line about 50 minutes previously, meaning she was about 35 minutes faster than me.  We were so overwhelmed by the finish line, people were asking us questions but we didn't really know how we felt, what we wanted to do or if we wanted to eat or drink!  I went for lunch with friends, but it was wasted on me, then collapsed into bed for a few hours, still in all my smelly running kit.  Nice.

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... ;)


  1. Great account Sam. You really are a very special lady. Looking forward to seeing you and Andy next year. Pete

  2. Amazing Sam! Really amazing. So proud of you! You are officially mental and deserve a French passport! Lucy, Nathan and Pixie x

  3. Amazing stuff Sam, beautifully written and I can imagine the fatigue then the elation you felt over the last few miles of the race. Very proud to know you - well done and say well done to Nikki too, it's been great reading about your build up to this dream race and about the other races you have done together.

  4. Thanks all, glad you enjoyed reading! I am having a well-earned rest from running for this month at least. And then, for our next trick, the Everest Marathon... :)