Friday, 5 September 2014

UTMB 2014

Having failed in 2014 to gain entry into Western States again I made other race bookings for the year. Everything was sorted until my entry for UTMB came up, I had got in through the lottery. I cancelled the LL100, the C2C and The UTMB became my "A" race.

Training for this was going well up until 4 weeks out when I suffered a minor burn out. Being so busy trying to run a business and training had taken its toll. I was working 7 days a week, doing 10 hours labour a day plus my hill training of an evening. I was knackered! I was getting up, working, training, eating and sleeping. I got a couple of heavy migraines 4 weeks out which is a sure sign I was run down then I picked up a cold and chest infection. With 3 weeks to go I missed my last long run and had to settle for shorter high intensity stuff. I actually worked 35 days on the bounce before finishing on the Sunday before the race so I had a few days to chill out before we flew out. All my planned visits to the Lakes and Brecons went by the way side and little did I know what an effect this would have on my race.

This race could be done cheaply I suppose but I didn't find it cheap at all. When you start totting up I probably spent £1.8k total for my wife and I although only I ran. There was race entry, hotel for 5 nights, flights, insurance (used dogtag for specialist insurance), transfers, eating out, new kit, spending money whilst out there, the list goes on and on. We treated it as our summer holiday so I'm not complaining.

My room with a view.
We flew out from Heathrow on Wednesday morning and had a nice enough journey using BA for flights and Cham express for our transfer. The weather had been awful on the Tuesday but as we arrived the sun was shining the beauty of the Alps became more apparent as we got closer to Chamonix. I was in awe as I stared out of the mini bus window at the gorgeous mountains passing us by. After an hour and a half transfer we were there dropped off right outside our hotel and checked in. After a lengthy wait we managed to get sorted and got to our room. No, no, no this room was not good enough, no window! I can't stay in the Alps and make do with skylight especially after all the money we paid. Back downstairs and kindly ask to be moved. "We only have one other room and its a bit noisy", fine we'll take it. It was lovely, a view of the station one side and Mt Blanc out the other.

I decided to get my kit checked in straight away so I was free on the Thursday. I chucked my kit together and headed for the check in. Below is everything used or carried during the race.

Raidlight  Endurance 14 ltr pack: After trying many packs in the run up I decided on my very old and faithful pack. I can't get on with vest type packs, doing a physical job means I haven't got a typical runners physique and they rarely do up across the chest especially when full. A lot of runners had small packs and some looked like there was no way they had the mandatory kit. Any way my pack was perfect for the job. Heavy but perfect.

Water supply: I used a standard bottle for water kept in the bottle holder of my pack and a slim-line bottle shoved in my pack for emergencies and to make up the mandatory water requirement. Worked fine and only had to crack into my small bottle a couple of times.
Hows that all going in that bag?

Mobile: Iphone that has to work in all countries all the time so I took an external battery aswell, Mandatory.

Personal cup: I bought the Salamon cup which is tiny so didn't use it. What I did is to get a beetroot juice carton and cut the top off, folded up and shoved in my pack. You do need something if you want coke or tea etc because there is no cups after about the 4th aid station. Worked perfect. Mandatory.

2 Torches with spare batteries: My main torch is a Silva Trail Runner 2 used with Lithium batteries. This torch works fine and is very comfy with a good light beam. My back up is a Silva Siju which is fine but only as a back up. Mandatory

Survival Blanket: I bought the cheapest, smallest conforming blanket available at the expo. Mandatory

Whistle: On pack. Mandatory

Bandage: I had a small roll of self adhesive bandage stuffed in my pack. I also carried 2 stretchy tubey grip bandages in case my knees packed up. The roll was mandatory but the tubey was not.

Food reserve: Carried Gu gels,a Snickers and an Eat Natural bar. Mandatory. I got this majorly wrong but more about that later.

Waterproof coat: I carried my Hagloffs LIM which I carry on every race. Has never let me down. I also carried a disposable poncho for the first time which went over me and my pack when faced with a shower. Worked brilliant and will defo use it again as it so much easier than unpacking and putting your coat on and off. Coat mandatory, poncho not.

Long trousers or over the knee shorts and long socks: This one was the hardest to decide on and I actually changed 10 minutes before leaving for the start. My final choice was to wear compression shorts and have full compression tights in the pack. This was the right choice as I wasn't cold and didn't need to change. Unless you wear tights in the UK you'll be fine in shorts. The long trousers were Mandatory.

Warm layer: I carried and wore an Ice breaker Merino wool base layer 260g. Merino wool is fantastic and in my eyes the best clothing you can have. You don't get cold or hot or smell like a urinal. Mandatory.

Cap or Bandana: I carried both and usually always do. Mandatory.

Warm Hat: Same Berghaus hat I've had for years. Mandatory

Warm and waterproof gloves: I carried fingerless gloves because they are my preference but for mandatory reasons I carried light weight silk glove liners and black marigolds.

Waterproof trousers: Berghaus Paclight Goretex trousers. Rarely get worn but in this case mandatory.

Passport: Mandatory

Poles: Black Diamond Ultra Z poles optional but one of the most important items I had. So important that I couldn't have finished without them.

Handwarmers: The teabag type. Not mandatory but I have a problem with cold hands so carried them just in case.

Scaps: My electrolytes.

Pro plus: My caffeine hit.

Gurney goo: Foot lube

Spare socks: Merino Wool.

I wore;

Inov-8 290 race ultras, t-shirt, compression shorts, salomon cap, buff on my wrist, drymax socks with Gurney goo, Rock tape on various bits and my Suunto.

My drop bag contained a change of clothes, shoes and gels etc. My crew/wife carried similar.

Queue for Reg
I joined the back of a very large queue leading into a sports hall to get my kit checked and collect my number. It took a good hour to get into the sports hall and the front of the queue. I had to keep checking kit as I was so worried I'd forgotten something, too late now though I was called forward and handed over my passport. The lady tapped at her computer and looked at her screen quizzically, shit I thought what is wrong but within a few seconds a print out appeared and I was ushered on. On the print out I was asked to provide my long trousers, phone and water bottles. Kit checked passed and relax. My pack was tagged, my number handed over and the treasured wristband applied. I was out of there. I had a look around the very good expo and bumped into Peter Bowles, who was going to do the CCC. Our paths had crossed many times so it was finally good to have a chat and wish each other luck in our respective races. That evening we met some other UK runners and supporters for a few beers and a chat, we then headed back into town to watch some of the early TDS finishers come in.

Check in done
On the Thursday we did some sight seeing and went up on the biggest cable car in town. Not a great idea for someone as scared of heights as me. This thing was mental it virtually went vertical up the mountain but I just got on and didn't look down. The thing is, when this behemoth went over a ridge and crossed a pylon it started swinging. Oh my god what is going on, this is awful! I nearly passed out. Having said that it was a lovely trip after all and very beautiful indeed.

T minus 2 hours.
I had a great nights sleep and woke at 7ish on race morning, little did I know that would be the last sleep for at least the next 50 hours. We had breakfast and a walk around town trying to kill time but all I wanted was the start now. Town was slightly quieter as the CCC was under way, we grabbed a sandwich and headed back for me to get ready. The nerves were jangling but I just kept telling myself it was like repping Ben Nevis 10 times which somehow made the task seem a little less daunting. I was ready but just before leaving my room I decided to change from 3 quarter shorts to above the knee compression shorts. We walked down to the start line 2 hours early and there was plenty of room so I took a seat on a kerb and waited. Soon it was heaving and my wife had to walk away because it was just so manic. With an hour to go there was not a square inch around me but every so often someone would tip toe over everyone and squat into a non existent space. We had a few drops of rain which made some stand to don their coats which in turn made others surge forward, within seconds like a giant wave we were all forced to our feet and packed in like sardines. All the elite runners were now in the front pen and we all moved forward. I was so worried about this start as I thought if I lost a bottle or a stick I would never be able to stop and pick it up. As the music blared with minutes to go the sky opened up and it was lashing down. I took the decision to get my poncho out and get covered as everyone got packs off and rifled round for their coats. We were now down to the final minute and the Vangelis tune played, then the countdown and we were off. The start is manic, people jostle for position, crowds scream at you, and all the time you are careful not to fall.
Not long now.

The further out of town we got, the crowds dissipated and I was able to have a pee stop, two hours on the start line had taken its toll. The pace was fast as everyone wanted to crack on and the trail was easy. We soon reached Les Houches about 5 miles in and crossed the main road, before we knew it we were heading up our first climb. It was a steady climb up but by this time it was hammering down and my poncho was no longer cutting it and I was getting chilly so I stopped and put my coat on, after about an hour we reached the top. I felt good as we started to descend but it was steep, grassy and wet. My inov-8s were untested on this terrain so I took it steady thinking a fall would just end my race. The amount of people passing me was sickening, some were literally sprinting past me. We reached St Gervais and the party atmosphere was in full flow, screams of Allez,allez,allez filled my ears. This was amazing. I refilled water had some coke and onwards.

The first climb.
From St Gervais it was fairly runnable to Les Contamines then the climb to Col du Bonhomme. I was fast hiking all the way up passing lots of people and occasionally turning to marvel at the endless snake of headlamps behind. The higher we got the more aware of the altitude I was, getting slightly more breathless, very thirsty and sore headed. We passed the Col on to Croix du Bonhomme. We started another long descent into Les Chapieux, again I was getting pummeled on the descent, I just couldn't get any speed but I felt strong. I think it was Les Chapieux where I was ushered to a table for a kit check. Phone, coat and emergency blanket please. Be warned you will not get through this race if you try and blag it through without the correct kit.

The aid stations held water, coke, tea, coffee, and a salty chicken stock full of noodles. Food wise they had lumps of bread, cheese, salami, cheddar biscuit things and fruit. I was having a Gu gel every so often and a bowl of salty stock whenever it was on offer. In hindsight this was never going to see me through!

As we approached mile 30 I felt good, no sign of a bonk and the legs felt strong. I wasn't due to meet my wife till half way so pressed on. It was quite cold and about 1am so I stopped to strip off my soaked jacket and t-shirt and replaced it with my IceBreaker top, I soon warmed up. The rain had subsided but my feet were pretty mushy so I stopped again and took 5 to change my socks and reapply the Gurney Goo.
Happy to see the sun come up.

We followed a road for a while before ascending again and again I power hiked all the way before losing all my places on the next descent. There was becoming an every increasing pattern of climbs and descents with very little flat running. At this point my knee decided to start being awkward and I had sharp pain shooting through my leg so I got one of my tubey bandages out and strapped it up. This was hard going but doable, I felt ok. The climb up to Arete du Mont-Favre was steep and I felt quite lethargic for the first time. I also felt mentally tired so popped a pro plus and carried on forward. This was at roughly 40 mile, feeling slightly concerned at my tiredness I carried on. After another 6 mile of downhill we reached a plateau and as the daylight emerged I was treated to some beautiful views of the mountains. It was heaven and I had to stop to take some photos. We were just outside Courmayeur but the descent was near vertical switchbacks for at least 5k,  and my quads were feeling sore as we entered Courmayeur.
Plastic cow?

There was massive support in Courmayeur and a chance to get to my drop bag, meet my crew and generally sort myself out. You are allowed one crew member to meet you at designated aid stations and it was a boost to meet my wife and chat about the first half. I was about 14 hours in, 50 mile in and my 35 hr target seemed to be going to plan. I had a full change of clothes and reapplied the Goo to my feet. I moved through to the food hall and got a bowl of pasta with a dollop of tomato sauce. I went over to a table and joined a Brit whose name escapes me right now. I stood, as I have a saying "Beware the chair" which I stick too religiously. I once sat down after running London to Brighton and seized up totally, I never have or never will sit down during a race through fear of seizing up, although now it is a mental thing and signifies giving up in my head. Anyway the sauce on the pasta was horrid and I felt a bit sick so like a fool I slung it and wandered out. Now alarm bells should have been ringing as I had eaten very little apart from bowls of stock aka soup, a handful of gels and a few scaps.

Views to die for.
The climb out Courmayeur was hard and the Brit who I had ate with joined me I just managed to stay with him but energy levels were low, also my quads were hurting bad, the descent into the half way point had took its toll. My short lived partner pulled ahead and I carried on forward, shit, things had gone bad, this section was hell on my body. I was knackered and in pain. The lack of food meant a lack of energy and as we descended into Arnuva my quads were screaming and I was having serious doubts that I would be able to continue.  I spoke with another Brit on the massive ascent of Grand Col Ferret who informed me that we would be descending for about 10 miles from the top, the climbing I could cope with, the descent I wasn't so sure. Luckily I had a snickers in my bag as I was so hungry it was driving me to distraction. The descent was bad for sure, my legs were on the way out. My knee felt okay but my quads were blown, I pushed on to La Fouly. A lot of people passed me on the descent to La Fouly the feeling of wanting to pack it in was strong, had my wife agreed I would have dropped for sure but no she was having none of that. Basically it wasn't even considered by her. As I left the aid station her bus was leaving which she hopped on along with a wave of runners, people were walking in, quitting and jumping straight on the bus. It all seemed a little weird to me, there was no talking these guys round they were off. As I hobbled through the streets I took the time to stop and get my other tubey bandage out and strap up both painful quads. For the next few hours I hiked, hobbled, shuffled and jogged my way to Champex all the while trying to work out why do I do this sport? What is keeping me going? Why don't I just pack it in and go for a beer. My mental fortitude was being pushed to its limits. I stumbled into Champex and met my wife, and again my pleas to quit fell on deaf ears. I tend to get a bit wobbly when I'm totally shattered and was stumbling around the aid station, I was getting some looks from the medics but thought nothing of it. Only then did an American lady hold my arm and say to me "Don't come this far and get pulled from the race, they are looking at you and will pull you out" I tried hard to pull it together. Whilst in here  I tried to eat but couldn't face any of it, my occasional gel and chicken stock combo was just about keeping me ticking over. I told my wife if I was to carry on she would have to go buy me a sandwich, I had to have a sandwich! She agreed to get one and meet me at the next stop.

Hobbling along
I think I was about 25hours in as I left Champex and started to do some pretty incoherent maths on the race but my logic was, 3 peaks, 30 mile, 3hrs up, 2 hrs down each = 15 hours and I could do this! That did mean however I would be out there all night again. At this point I think I decided I would finish. After all it takes years to get in a position to earn the points for UTMB, it takes at least a year to gain those points, it took 2 years to get my entry and months of specific training to get here, now. I must finish this! As we approached the first of the three final climbs darkness started to fall again and the climb was hard, you look up and see lights in the sky and basically that is how high you will be going. As I neared the top there was a herd of cows getting rather rowdy and following us up the trail. They were making a lot of noise and generally being rather intimidating, I had to shout and clap my hands to get them to sod off. Just before the top I put my head torch on for the second night. There was a gate at the top and I leaned against it and thought, 1 down before shuffling towards the descent. This descent took my ages I could barely step down any more, each time I did I grunted and groaned with the pain. People ran past me as though I was stood still. Dozens of them! This went on for a good two hours. With the night also came the tiredness, just total mental fatigue. Just as I reached what I thought was the bottom we levelled out before dropping again even steeper, down massive steps each one bringing a tear of pain to eye. Before long I reached Trient I couldn't see my wife so was just about to leave as I was still rather wobbly when she ran in. She had just got off the bus with sandwich in hand. We chatted and I shoved the sandwich in my pack to eat en route. As I left I was pulled over by control. Another bloody bag check! Phone, coat and blanket. Bloody good job I had it, imagine a DQ at mile 86. I made a joke about having the most important bit of kit, my sandwich, before heading off again.
Kit Check. Again!

The second of my three climbs was as hard as any but my sandwich half way up helped me along. For some reason I was really struggling to breath on this ascent and kept having to stop to take deep breaths but my chest kept getting clogged up with phlegm and I was wheezing like a pensioner. How much more shit was this race going to give me! The descent was notably harder, at one point I tried to shuffle faster but tripped and fell flat on my face, on rocks and my pole flew over a wall of rock. Shit! I couldn't get up and double shit I couldn't climb over the wall and triple shit I wouldn't be able to finish without my pole! Luckily there was a runner right behind me. Great, I said can you help me, he ran on without a flinch. Fuck this I thought I have got to get my pole or I've had it, so I crawled over the wall on my stomach until my legs flopped over and was able to grab the stick. Then I had to climb back up and over the wall before righting myself on the trail. I'd done it.  The tiredness had hit hard and I was hallucinating quite strongly. Every stone had a face on it, people in bushes and trees with body parts. All pretty normal stuff. I was totally incoherent as I trudged into Vallorcine, shaking, hallucinating and struggling to think straight, all I knew is I'd better get straight out of  there before anyone noticed what an awful state I was in. I walked in filled my bottle had a coke and walked out, 1 climb to go.

Where am I?

As I left Vallorcine I walked for about 50 metres before stopping to ask directions. The path was clearly marked but I just couldn't work out where I was going or indeed where I was. As I walked up the clearly marked trail I thought I was lost, I had lost all concept of what was going on. I stopped to wait for some one to pass, they didn't, they stopped also. This was so confusing. I carried on trying to work out what was going on. At one point I was convinced we were all going to work, to build something, I even considered ringing my builders merchant! We approached a road and there was a line of lights reaching to the sky. I thought how does that road climb that high? Of course it wasn't cars it was head torches. I started the climb and had just about worked out we were in a race so that's what I kept telling myself. Quite often out loud! This did nothing to abate the hallucinations, they were rife everything had a face or wasn't as it seemed, I was completely out of it. In hindsight dangerously so. This climb was a brute, just never ending rocky switch backs. We climbed for hours, straight up. As soon as you thought you were there, you would see headlights even higher. Some of the path you literally had to climb to get through, we soon got into the clouds. We carried on climbing until we reached a rocky summit not dissimilar to Scafell Pike. We followed the markers across the boulder strewn summit for a couple of miles, this was just climbing up and over rock formations. On the bits I couldn't step down I had to slide on my arse, across the rock. This worked well until the rock pulled my shorts up and I slid bare bum down a rock. We had much joy after the race removing the rock from the cuts in my arse. This climb literally took hours in total and right at the top we popped out above the clouds a totally surreal moment for sure. The descent was okay to start, daylight had broken for the second time and the hallucinations had eased, the ascent seemed to have split the field and this was the first time I felt alone. It was nice to shuffle alone knowing I had almost done it, there was nothing could stop me now. During this descent to La Flegere an English voice piped up behind me, I turned and it was my pal Dan. We hadn't seen each other the whole week then finally bump into each other on the final descent. He was struggling with his quads, doing better than me but still struggling. We chatted the time away into the aid station, grabbed a final drink and struggled on. The downhill out of the aid station was steep and I was back to a snails pace. Dan went ahead and I shuffled ever downwards. I soon hit some nice switchbacks, rocky and painful but in the grand scheme of things nice. After another hour or so I reached civilization and things flattened out. I ran into town, literally battered and bruised. I started to feel very emotional but promised myself I'd keep a stiff upper lip. That shuffle was the finest mile or so I ran, I felt on top of the world. Ironically after running round Mt Blanc following a marked course the worse markings were in Chamonix town. I didn't have a clue where I was going but I didn't care, I'd get there eventually. As I rounded the town I saw Jacque and my pal Dave Bowen who handed me the union flag and I ran up the home straight with the flag above my head to screams of 'Go GB'. It was over. 40hrs 15mins. I collected the coveted gillet and went to sit down for first time in 40hrs. Dave asked what I wanted "Cold Diet Coke" my fave. That was the finest coke I've ever drunk. As I hobbled back to the room I couldn't help but laugh at the shit I put myself through for my sport.

OMG its over.
Without doubt that was the hardest thing I have ever done. Anyone inexperienced reading this be in no doubt this is a monster, a big vicious scary monster! I have run a hell of a lot and it took all of my experience to get this done, if you are considering it, consider the CCC first. You are either going vertically up or vertically down. My prep of constant hill rep sessions was laughable really. You need to train in that environment to do well in that environment. I'm glad I didn't drop as I never wanted to have to go back. Now if I do go back it will be because I want to, not because I have to. I have my finish, I have my gillet, it's done

. The time is irrelevant. I love to run but this is not really a running race unless you are elite then even then they must walk those ascents. It is a giant hiking contest. Having said that, it is a must do for all trail runners. The build up, the whole week is trail running heaven and the worlds best runners all congregating in one truly lovely place. Chamonix is gorgeous and so is the Mt Blanc massif.

As usual I got my race wrong, I would have run a good CCC on my prep but it just didn't cut it for the big boy. Quads were blown badly too early, eating strategy was awful, running with verruca's is just wrong and even little altitude can affect you. I thought the key was to bust the ascents and cruise the descents but I was so wrong the Europeans walk the ups to conserve energy then bust the descents and blow you aside.
On the plus side it was an amazing atmosphere, Inov-8 290's are the mutts (they have almost wore out but great all the same), Gurney Goo for macerated feet is great, Drymax socks ain't all that. Merino wool socks are the way forward.

Anyway I did it. Am I going back?

The Gillet!

(not yet anyway);-)

A special thanks goes out again to my sponsor who make life easier with their on going support.


  1. Congratulations. Beautifully written report. I too was there and it was very, very tough! I suspect you will back soon!

    1. Thanks Martin and well done to you too. I may well go back but I have other things on the horizon now.