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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Spirit of the UTMB

"Energy, passion & emotion - lay it all down when you’re racing on the trails - then you can have no regrets."

The 8th edition of The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc will certainly be well remembered. It was a weekend of twists and turns, lumps and bumps, a complete emotional rollercoaster for all that were involved. The thing that shone through the most for me was the unique spirit of the event which has been present ever since it first started and was immediately apparent to me from the first year I took part back in 2005. It is hard to explain but the factors of extreme human endurance, the jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine environment and the real ‘purpose’ of the classic route itself all contribute.

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.
I ran down to Les Houches (7.9km) alongside Lizzy (Hawker) and we joked how conditions would well suit the Brits. We agreed that is was actually quite enjoyable – not cold, and quite refreshing. The first climb up Col du Voza is relatively short but is always a slight shock to the system; I tend to find it takes one or two of the nine or ten climbs to really settle in.

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.

It was at the wooden gate on the crest of the Bovine (54.5km) climb that things really started to pan out. There I came across Dawa Sherpa who was in the lead. He was clearly surprised to have company, and perhaps I was a tad surprised to be in his company. We exchanged a few words and I cracked on, thinking that whilst I had overtaken him on the climb, he would destroy me on the descent. Nope – I moved away. One of the guys who I had just overtaken, Julien Chorier, did however re-overtake me so I was now in second. But what I had learnt from that previous section was that I was in better shape than him on the flats and climbs, whilst he was the faster descender.

At Col du Forclaz there were more crowds, and cameras lining the trail on the approach. Friendly faces from The North Face team were also popping up everywhere, providing a great boost for morale. It sounds simple, but simple comments like ‘you’re looking good’ help a massive amount, particularly when you feel like a heap of crap inside. They were convincing liars anyway.

After the crazy steep switchbacks through the woods down to Triente I started to feel excited. I could hear the supporter’s applause from Julian moving through the village and checkpoint ahead. I was less than a minute back, in perfect striking distance. A helicopter appeared and started tracking us from overhead - probably filming. In Triente (60.9km) my crew met me and there was an even greater sense of urgency. Penny helped me re-stock superfast, I was in and out in a flash. Even the prospect of another tough climb up to Catogne didn’t seem all that bad.

I was just a few hundred metres behind Julian on leaving the village and hitting the mountain trails again. I know the climb up Catogne well, it’s not technical and is well graded, but certainly a pretty stiff one. I ran the early part, but as it steepened out I broke into a hike. It was then that I moved past Julien who appeared to suffering somewhat. We briefly acknowledged each other as I moved through. I immediately felt a sense of vulnerability on hitting the front for the first time properly. It was going to be a key turning point in the race. I decided to just keep running my own race, at a pace that felt right. I could feel that my blood sugars and energy levels were low from the fact that every gel I took had an immediate effect, but then started to wear off much quicker than earlier in the race. So I kept knocking them back like a sugar junky......

I tried not to but ended up looking over my shoulder far too frequently. I was pulling away, but slowly. I reckoned I had two minutes by the top of the climb. There were film guys at the top and a remote, basic, checkpoint (65.7km). I didn’t stop. There was a big descent ahead to Vallorcine where I would be back into France for the final push to the finish. Just as I feared, it was a pretty mucky one too. The narrow, grassy, singletrack trail was well trodden from the CCC race the night before, and further rain had helped to make it into even more of a mud bath. Some sections were a bit perilous requiring you to run on the ‘edges’ of your shoes to try to cut in and get some grip. My TNF Singletracks were loving it, and coped admirably. It was like a good autumn UK fell race so I felt at home but I suspect others may not have.

The second half of the descent into Vallorcine followed a route I had not taken before, staying higher to traverse the mountainside before dropping down steeply. I quite liked the novelty of not knowing what was ahead for this part, I was well familiar with the rest of the course. And finally I caught a glimpse of the checkpoint from the top of a long grassy bank which was lined with spectators. I can see why they had all congregated there because it was steep and slippery, ideal for watching runners with shot quads coming a cropper! I survived intact. Phew. Then through the final big checkpoint of Vallorcine (70.6km) with another super-quick, F1 style, pit stop.

I hadn’t felt it was quickest descent so I had concerns over the lead I had built (or not). It was about 3 minutes as it turns out, but that was nothing given what lay ahead; the infamous final climb up to Flegere. I ran well up to Col du Montets (74.3km) at the foot of Flegere. There were hoards of people at the road crossing and lining the first part of the climb, obviously eager to watch the final parts of the race pan out. I felt extremely anxious because my crew had relayed to me the cushion was just 3 minutes. From the crowd applause at the bottom section of the climb I actually felt it was less than 3 minutes. I looked back but couldn’t see anyone behind but was almost certain I was in their line of sight. It was another key part of the race. The climb is steep, technical and relentless. It is also very exposed meaning someone chasing from behind would be motivated by seeing me a short distance ahead. I gave it everything, marching up with my usual loping, long, stride. I felt slow, my legs were badly fatigued and weren’t very responsive. It was a simple result of all the fast descending and relentless climbing of the previous nine hours. "Hang in there Jez" I kept telling myself, amongst other out loud self chants.

Finally I hit Tete Aux Vents (78km), the top of the first section - still no sign of anyone behind. Now a chance to get back to some proper running along the technical section of trail which involves plenty of boulder hopping. The views of the Mont Blanc range came and went as the cloud patterns moved around quickly in the wind. A couple of groups of hikers and supporters were located in remote sections, but generally it was just me, the trail and the beautiful views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix valley at dusk. I started to reflect on what an incredible day it had been. I also psyched myself up for the final sections of the race which I needed to nail to wrap it all up. It was these moments when I did actually properly envisage winning for the first time.

On reaching Flegere (81km) it was time to start really enjoying it, all downhill from here, and I decided to just give it everything I possibly had for the long, fast, final descent into Chamonix. I am probably still feeling the effects of that descent now, I really did blast it. The light was fading quickly and the sections through the woods were probably a touch too dark to be running without a headtorch, but I did, still overly paranoid about getting caught. I just got away with it, although the flashes from the camera guys on the final sections didn’t do any favours for my night vision so I shut my eyes whenever I saw them!

And then finally back into Chamonix town, the destination I had focused all my energies towards over the course of the day. It felt strange being back in civilisation after so many hours of solo running on the wild mountain trails. But it was a welcome sight, and an incredible greeting from the spectators which in my experience is completely unique to this race. The spirit of the UTMB was definitely shining through, crowds several deep cheering and welcoming me back. It was something you can’t really prepare yourself for, and in being the first in the race to experience it, a true honour. I crossed the line with in a final time of 10hours 30mins, seven minutes ahead of team mate, Mike Wolfe of the USA. To round off a perfect day for me and the The North Face team, Lizzy Hawker also romped home first in the ladies race. An awesome result all round, and the Sunday headlines of ‘Triomphe Britannique’ said it all...........

So then, plenty to reflect on and ponder over after this one. I’m not going to enter the debate over the cancellation of the race itself and issues which surround it. For me, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to run a revised, albeit shorter, race and it was an honour to have won that. The race was a great success, not just because I won, but because it was a whole-hearted effort from spectators, runners and helpers alike. A race of the same atmosphere and spirit of the UTMB race was created and all involved deserve a great deal of credit for pulling that off.

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.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Marathon Talk

Martin Yelling & Tom Williams run a great weekly podcast via their Marathon Talk website. Check out this week's episode for an interview with me......