"Energy, passion & emotion - lay it all down when you’re racing on the trails - then you can have no regrets."
I’m not really too sure where to start with this one but i’ve decided to keep it fairly brief and factual, hopefully offering an insight into how it was for me. So here we go.......
The race got underway to it’s trademark ‘all singing and dancing’ start on Friday (27 August 2010) evening at 6.30pm. Following blisteringly hot days on the preceding Wednesday and Thursday, the weather had however taken a serious turn for the worse on race day. It was grey and overcast with intermittent heavy showers. The overnight outlook was for more of the same. For me, in preparing my head, it was going to be a wet race, no question about that. The weather did however clear sufficiently for the start to be made without too much drama or the literal dampening of spirits. However soon into the race, beyond the traditional raucous send off from the crowded Chamonix streets, the heavens opened and we got drenched.
But on reaching Saint Gervais about 21km in I felt great and I was in the right place position-wise, not battling it out at the front (not my style, well early on anyway), but not exactly hanging around either. I grabbed a quick top up of one bottle but moved through at speed, enjoying every step of the atmosphere in town which is street carnival come Tour du France.
Out of Saint Gervais, back on to the quiet, now nearly dark, meandering singletrack trails on a gentle valley bottom climb to Les Contamines (31km). I picked off a couple of guys, probably settling in at around 15th place. By this point the rain had eased somewhat but the atmosphere was damp and foggy, particularly along the riverside sections where the icy cold glacial run-off met the warm damp woodland air. Nature was certainly in action; it was an evening of big activity in the mountains, and not just from the event. And then the further hustle and bustle of our last party town atmosphere for the night, Les Contamines. I check-in and am suddenly hit by a bizarre scene. The runners out front are all standing around chatting?! It soon becomes clear the race has been stopped for safety reasons, but the precise reason why is unclear. The reports back from the high mountainous sections ahead are that the rains have been heavy, winds are high and there has been damage to the course/ course markers. Utter shock and devastation is the only way to describe the scenes and my personal feeling. To be just standing there chatting to my support crew in a relaxed manner felt very strange; the race had gone in an instant and I had not expected to be talking to people like that for the best part of 24 hours. People have trained and prepared for this race for several months. Many will have dreamt about it and spent every day getting themselves mentally and physically prepared. The scale, profile and difficulty of the race make this essential for success, but then make it so much harder to come to terms with a scenario like this. After an hour or so of waiting around, for me just satisfying myself that they weren’t going to suddenly re-start the race, I returned to Chamonix with my support crew. We chatted and joked, but in reality everyone was gutted, not just me.
Back in Chamonix, I showered and hit the sack, with plans coming together in my head for a 3-4 hour training run the next day to let off some steam. I struggle to sleep, so much flying around my head, but eventually get off and then stir just before 7am. I check my phone; two messages from the organisers – firstly to announce a revised race would be held on Saturday starting in Courmayeur at 10am, secondly to announce logistics.
I was surprised to see that there was a race on even though the rumours had been around the night before. I hadn’t really paid much attention and certainly wasn’t in race mode. I threw some clothes on and headed straight to the hotel breakfast room to find runners to talk to. There weren’t many people around. My initial decision was that I would race - a short race would be better than nothing. But then on reflection, I started to doubt whether it was the right thing for me. Should I save myself for something else later in the year? Would it really be a race? Would the event still be at risk from the weather? How would I be mentally? These thoughts initially reversed my decision before a last minute change back, at around 9am, really just based on a niggling concern in my head that by not taking part I would have serious regrets (how right can a ‘gut’ feeling be).
I had missed the official buses but Bryon Powell from irunfar kindly offered to take me through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur. We exchanged a bit of banter in the car, I don’t think either of us could believe it was ‘race on’ and I arrived at the race start in Italy to beautiful wall-to-wall sunshine which had evidently transformed everyone’s sprits. I hopped the barriers and lined up at the front. Behind me at the start, there were 1,300 other runners, a mixture of ‘fresh’ TDS runners and ‘slightly jaded’ UTMB runners who had been through the turmoil of the previous night. But the atmosphere felt great; there was a clear spirit of determination.
As the UTMB race theme music bleared out once again, it was a complete feeling of déjà vu. My head didn’t know where it was. As we got underway there was a frantic pace leaving town, along the cobbled high street, up the hill past the church and on to road climb to the foot of Bertone. If there were any doubt in people’s minds as to whether this would be a race, they were banished in an instant. The race was most certainly on. The race distance would be 88km with over 5,000m of vertical climb and descent, no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination.
I ran at the front to the foot of the Bertone climb but then settled in to my fast hike once we hit the steep switchbacks. The other front runners were only interested in running so I left them to it. Perhaps it was the mindset of a ‘shorter’ race, or maybe just their competitive instinct. In my mind it was still 88km to cover so plenty of trail to race. At the top of Bertone (4.7km) I was probably in about 25th place. The contouring high level trail along the side of Val Ferret is usually a panoramic treat, but a fast pace and plenty of cloud and mist made it feel less so. I was breathing pretty hard from the pace and altitude, as well as trying to concentrate on what was happening amongst the pack ahead. I started to reign in a string of runners and overtook them soon after the next checkpoint at Bonatti (11.9km). Getting up to the head of Val Ferret, before the mini descent to Arnuva, the rain started to fall. I started to expect pretty grim conditions at the top of the Grand Col Ferret.
Arnuva (16.9km) had a great atmosphere, quite a few spectators and plenty of merriment and positivity around. People were enjoying having a race to support, I was enjoying being part of it. I grabbed a bottle refill and headed straight out again, ready for the climb up to the highpoint of the course the Grand Col du Ferret at 2,537m. Speed through the aid station was the order of the day for me. And in doing so I had picked a couple more runners off.
The climb up the Grand Col is renowned as a nasty one, but I actually quite like it. It’s not all that bad in vertical climb, and seems to be over before you know it. Usually the cracking views help, but the only view I had was of the feet of the runners ahead, although they kept changing because again I was gaining places. It wasn’t a conscious push, just maintaining how I had set off.
As I approached the top, the winds got higher and the temperatures colder. We were running very close to the rain/ snow limit. My hands were numb, it was important to keep moving, and that I did with just a brief pause at the top to get my race chip scanned. 9 places gained, now up to 16th.
The descent was fast and enjoyable, a chance to let go and really charge for the first time. Now I did consciously push, the novelty of entering another country, Switzerland, perhaps also helping my spring. Having not really set off with any race strategy, I decided as things started to pan out en route that the section down to Praz du Fort would be a key one, the fast and runnable trail suiting my style. The aid station at La Fouly (30.8km) had plenty of life to it, and there I met my crew for the first time. Refill bottle, stash a load of gels, a bit of chocolate and then on my way - 30 second tops.
I continued to make good progress and reached the bottom of the climb to Champex probably up to around 8th place by now (according to feedback from supporters). Mid-climb I hooked up with team mate, Mike Wolfe from the US. He was going well. We chatted for a bit as we made the climb and discussed how things were panning out up front. He reported a group of 6 or so runners, all fairly close together, who were 8 mins or so ahead. That was music to my ears. Without any agreed plans to do so we ran together, working as a team to push a bit harder than we perhaps would do if running solo. That little bit of extra speed was reducing our gap on the leaders, again great for morale. Reaching Champex in 7th place (44.9km) was a nice little milestone with plenty of folk clapping us through the checkpoint and along the beautiful lake around which the town is wrapped.
Whilst I was gaining regular boosts from overtaking runners, the real positive feeling and sign of things to come was the strength of my climbing. The next climb, Bovine, was a good example. There, midway up, I started to pull away from Mike and overtook a couple more guys. I didn’t feel I was running much quicker, but perhaps just holding the pace well when the others were feeling the strain of the fast first half.
And finally, I think it’s fair to say that the finishing times show the level of commitment made by the competitors, and from a personal point of view, that I would have been pushing hard over the full distance. I guess that’s something to come back and prove next year.
A big thank you to the whole of The North Face team, but especially to Keith, Helen, Penny, Oli, David C and Gemma for all their support before, during and after the race.