Monday, 5 September 2011

When Dreams Come True

It’s difficult to describe the events of last weekend. Normally after a race, you can summarise it fairly concisely as the events happened over a relatively short space of time. The UTMB is different. I have been trying to come up with a phrase that would give it credit, that would convey the physical and emotional extremes that it puts you through and the sheer scale of the whole event and the best I can come up with is “EPIC”


I do not intend trying to put down every detail of the race from start to finish, to do so would be a physical challenge in itself and I do not have the appropriate literary skills to do it justice and so what follows is a summary of my race and some of the highs and lows that made this one of the most amazing experiences of my life.




Ready To Go



The start of the race was delayed by 5 hours to allow a storm front to pass over but it was still raining heavily when we set off on Friday night at 11:30pm. 2,300 gortex clad runners elbowing their way through the centre of Chamonix to the cheers of the equally bedraggled crowds until we eventually disappeared into the darkness. Despite the huge number of runners, it is eerily quiet with everyone lost in their own thoughts and the mix of nationalities and languages preventing much conversation.
I trotted along at a steady pace trying to take in the atmosphere and get my head around the fact that this was actually it. This was the race I had been thinking about for 2 years and that had kept me awake at night for the last month as I went over and over the possible outcomes.
The rain continued to fall making the ground increasingly muddy and the first main climb out of Les Houche and down to St Gervais was like something out of It’s a Knockout with runners slipping and falling all over the place. St Gervais was my first taste of a UTMB checkpoint and it was amazing. 3 o’clock in the morning and there is a full on party happening. Music is blaring, there are people everywhere shouting and waving and runners looking startled as they emerge out of the darkness into the bright lights of the town centre.

The checkpoints are all pretty much set up in the same way with two rows of tables, one with food listed as “salty” one listed as “sweet”. There is also tea, coffee, coke, energy drink and soup. They are fabulous and I was initially somewhat taken aback as to what I should eat. I went for the soup in the end and some cake, cheese, ham, dark chocolate and coke (breakfast of kings!) and this was generally the pattern I followed at each one.
Feeling re-energised I set off out of the checkpoint and immediately bumped into Ian King. Ian had started last year but was a victim of the poor texting service when the race was stopped and then re-started the next day. He was back to complete some unfinished business and I am delighted to say that he went on to finish in around 44 hours looking strong.
I was running comfortably and reached the next checkpoint, filled up with what was becoming my standard fare and then ran on. I had lost track of Ian through here and left on my own unsure if he was ahead of me or behind me. The first main climb was looming however and so I found my rhythm and headed onwards and upwards.
The Col du Bonhomme sits at 2,500m and was the first real test of my climbing skills. On the early part of the climb, I was struggling to stay awake and found myself staggering from side to side as I kept dozing off. Luckily, the next checkpoint appeared and, full once more, I continued on the steepening climb into the gradually lightening sky. I actually found this climb not too bad and went over the top feeling quite please with how it had gone. The descent, however was a different kettle of fish and I gingerly plodded my way all the way down the other side for what felt like an eternity with my knees protesting at each drop.
It was now fully light although still cloudy and quite cool with no sign of the sun offering to make an appearance. Into the next checkpoint, fill my boots (not literally) and off out again onto a long road section gradually gaining height. Not long out of the checkpoint, John Malcolm appeared beside me and the two of us shared our experiences so far and pushed along the road steadily passing people the whole way. John and I would end up running together pretty much all the way into Courmayer (half way) from here with each of us taking turns to keep the other going.
We left the road and set off up the next long climb and again I was feeling strong and set a good steady rhythm although John was finding the climb hard and so tucked in behind me. As we got higher, it started to get colder and eventually the snow came on. By the time we got to the top, it was a full on blizzard and I was wearing all my gear including hat and gloves. Not wanting to linger, we pressed on over the top and started the descent down and out of the worst of the weather towards the Lac Combal checkpoint. Just before we got there we met up with George Reid who was having a tough time but still going strong so the three of us came into the checkpoint together.



Just Like Being at Home


It was now around lunchtime on Saturday and the clouds were finally starting to clear to let us see the landscape in which we had been running. It was quite stunning with high peaks all around and hanging glaciers sitting in between each one. It is not easy to concentrate on your footing when you’re trying to take in such amazing scenery. It was warming up now and I started to shed some of my excess clothing as we climbed up to the next summit. Still feeling pretty good I set a steady pace up the climb with George and John for company. Over the top and the long, long descent down into Courmayer.
The descent starts fairly gently down to the aid station aid but then takes a cruel turn and the drop down into Courmayer itself is s series of never ending switchbacks with the occasional glimpse of Courmayer through the forest which never seemed to get closer. Finally we were spat out onto the road and with quivering, tired legs I trotted into the main checkpoint to pick up my drop bag and regroup.
Courmayer is the half way point in terms of mileage but certainly not in terms of stage in the race. Despite that; as I sat eating my pasta (well, we were in Italy now!) I was thinking to myself “15 hours to here, OK, lets double that to make 30 hours and add 2 or 3 hours to allow for slowing down – hmmm, that’s about 33 hours! Bloody hell I’m going well” How na├»ve I was but in my defence, I was tired and not thinking straight.
I changed my socks and put on a clean shirt before packing up and heading off out the door. I had, however, made one fatal mistake. I had put some Vaseline in my drop back with the intention of reapplying it to certain areas but for some reason decided against it and set off without doing so. I don’t wish to go into too many details but suffice to say, later in the race I experienced some of the worst “butt chaffage” it has ever been my misfortune to suffer!
John had left just ahead of me and George was still in the checkpoint when I left so I was on my own again. On the steep pull out of the town I passed John again and kept up a strong pace up through the forest to the next checkpoint. I was still feeling quite good after my stop at Courmayer so was in and out of the next checkpoint quickly and set off along the runnable path that traverses the valley. It was starting to get cold again as the sun was beginning to set but the view to my left was staggering. Mont Blanc was completely clear and the snow capped peaks surrounding it made an amazing sight in the fading light. The wind was picking up now and with the sun having gone it was getting colder. I tried to pick up the pace to generate some heat as I wasn’t yet back in my warmer gear and found that I was running well and keeping up a strong pace. I dropped down to the checkpoint and set about putting on all my warm gear once more.
By now, I had been going for around 22 hours and although I was still running, I was getting tired, my knees were hurting a bit and I had a couple of blisters forming on my feet and so coming out of the checkpoint I had my first low point of the race. I think it was a combination of the increasing cold and wind and the fading light but for no apparent reason I suddenly started feeling really emotional and before I knew it, the tears were streaming down my face! I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t in pain, I was actually enjoying the race but for some reason, I was crying – go figure.
Anyway, I was setting off up the next big climb but decided that before I did I would call home so I sheltered behind a rock and spent 5 minutes talking to Eve and the kids. It was great to hear them and it gave me the boost I needed to get back in the game.
The light was fading fast and the temperature continued to drop so I put my head torch on and pressed on upwards and onwards. I was starting to flag a bit now and struggled to keep the pace high enough but eventually a glow of light in the distance signaled the summit and after getting my number scanned I dropped down over the top and almost straight away, the wind disappeared. I latched on to another small group who were making good progress down the descent in what was now pitch darkness and despite my increasing fatigue and knee pain, I managed to stay with them as we wound our way down to the next checkpoint at La Foully.
This checkpoint was really busy and, as it turned out later, was where a lot of people decided to drop out. I met up with Jamie Thin and Bob Allison here and we compared our various levels of exhaustion and mood but set off separately.
The next stage to Champex Lac was a very dark section through the woods and my headtorch was used to full effect. However, as an added bit of interest, I had now started experiencing tunnel vision. It was a bizarre sensation and quite worrying at first as I didn’t know whether it was a symptom of something more serious. I decided just to crack on and see what it was like once I got back into some natural light.
After 20 minutes or so I caught up with Jamie Thin and Richard ? and we chatted away as we started the climb up to the next checkpoint, first passing a rather strange mobile disco set-up where our numbers were scanned. We assumed that the food stop would be immediately after but the climb continued and there was no sign of any life up ahead. Jamie and Richard were really struggling by now with both wanting food and sleep so we stopped briefly to take on a gel before carrying on only to come out at the feed station about 5 minutes later.
This is another major checkpoint and as well as the usual food and drink, there are camp beds laid out so that runners can have a sleep if they want. Jamie and Richard both decided that they would go and lie down for 20 minutes but I knew that if I lay down I would struggle to get going again. At this checkpoint, I met up with an English guy called Neil who had done the race last year and was feeling strong so we decided to head off together. Because of the previous night’s storms, they had changed the route at this point and instead of heading up Bovine, we were directed down to Martigny for an alternative climb and an extra 8k. The descent went on forever, and we descended through endless forests dropping further and further before what we knew would be the inevitable climb back up. My knees were really hurting now and the steep descent was hard going but we pressed on and eventually reached the bottom as daylight started to break.
We stopped at the bottom of the descent and got out of our excess gear as the day was promising to be very warm. After a somewhat unnecessary trip through the woods , we started out on what would be the penultimate climb of the day but what a climb! Up until now, the climbs had tended to meander and zig zag their way to the summits; this one however took a more direct route – straight up. For the next 1,000M we didn’t bend or turn but took a direct line which was to prove the final demise of my diminishing strength. Neil climbed strongly and so I tucked in behind him, put my head down and tried not to look up desperately hoping to see the approaching summit.
Eventually we topped out and after a short break, set off down to Trient, our next checkpoint. It is difficult to say which was worse, climbing or descending. I was in a lot of pain when I bent my knees and so climbing was hard going as I tried to lift my feet up and forward and coupled with the effort required to drag my body upwards, climbing was not good. Descending on the other hand was no better, the impact of dropping down each step was also causing my knees a lot of pain and the blisters on my feet; which had long since burst, objected to being forced forward in my shoes on each step. However, I knew that we were getting closer to the end and so pressed on. I can honestly say that at no point during the whole race did I ever contemplate dropping out. As far as I was concerned, that was not an option and as long as I was ahead of the cut-offs and could walk, I would keep going.
We stopped at Trient checkpoint and refueled before setting off on the final climb. My mind seemed to have gone into a state of numbness and looking up at the next climb, there was no dread or concern but just an acceptance of that’s what we had to do so we would just go and do it. I took the lead on this climb with Neil behind and although not fast, I managed a steady pace for most of the way but was now really struggling with the combination of fatigue and knee and foot pain. I was letting more and more people past now and when the summit finally came it was met with both relief and dread at the prospect of another descent. Neil had been holding back to keep me company but it was clear that he was stronger than me at this stage and so I urged him to press on and I would see him at the finish. So for the first time in around 6 hours, I was on my own and to be honest, that suited me now. I needed to really retreat into my thoughts now and try to maintain a focus on keeping moving. The climb had taken just over an hour and the descent took my 1½ hours of painful shuffling and staggering but the final checkpoint finally came into view and I shuffled in with growing relief that it should be easy going from here to the finish.
After a brief visit to the medical tent (remember my chaffing issues!) I set off into the full sun for the final 12k of trail down the valley into Chamonix. I had hoped that there would still be some running in my legs that would allow me to make up some time here and finish strongly but try as I might, I could manage no more that 20 or 30 strides before I had to stop and walk. The path was a very rocky route and each rock had to be carefully negotiated to avoid having to bend my knees up and forward. When this wasn’t possible, I would wince in pain as I stepped up and over. Occasionally I managed something resembling a shuffle before settling back into my metronomic walk - step, pole, step, pole.
My brain had now shut down and I was experiencing some very vivid hallucinations along this final stretch. Mostly heads and faces along the side of the path which I knew weren’t real but I could stare at them and almost felt like I could have reached out and touched them. There were also the minis. I kept seeing a pair of minis parked up ahead on the trail which was extremely frustrating as each time I saw them, I though the end of the trail was ahead and that I would be heading down into Chamonix for the finish only to get closer and realise that there was nothing there but more trail!
After four hours (for 12k!) Chamonix finally came into view and my heart lifted that it was all about to end. This moment that I had thought about and dreamed about for so long was about to happen. Throughout the race I had not allowed myself to think about the end, it was too far away and too many things could happen, so for the past 42 hours it had been one checkpoint at a time. Now it was here. I knew that there would be friends in Chamonix cheering me in and I also knew that, given that it was 5pm, Chamonix would busy with people. As I emerged onto the street and was directed onto the final run in I was struggling to hold it together. Determined to try and run this last few hundred yards I put on some kind of parody of a shuffle as the shouts of “Bravo”, “Courage” and “Allez” came my way.
I turned the final corner in towards the square and Karen and George were there along with Flip, John, Mark and Helen all cheering and shouting. Karen was talking to me telling which way to go and saying what a great job I had done but I couldn’t speak. I knew if I did I would completely break down and so I kept going. Karen handed me a Saltire and suddenly I was running – not fast but definitely running. I could see the finish line now, the announcer was shouting something in French I couldn’t understand but it didn’t matter, I was going to cross the line; bloody hell, I was actually going to do it!
Then it was over.
42 hours 35 mins (701st out of 2300 starters)
As soon as I crossed the line, Karen George and Flip were there to catch me and let me sit down. I felt completely elated but also completely helpless. They ushered me through the funnel, helped my pick up my gilet and get my wrist band cut-off and then gave me a seat and one of the best beers I have ever had.
I am incredibly touched by the support shown by my friends who were in Chamonix with me. Particularly George, Karen and Flip who despite their immense disappointment at not completing the event themselves cheered and shouted me home with genuine enthusiasm – you are special people; thank you.



Told You I could Do It!