Three years in the making, my 2012 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc started in Courmayeur in 2009. This was where, battered, shattered and unable to take another step, my first attempt at this race came to an undignified end. It was a slap in the face. After all, I’d run the Marathon des Sables that year and figured I had a grip on what this ultradistance business was all about. The UTMB had other ideas, however, teaching me in no uncertain terms that while I’d come a long way from being the bloke who, two years previous, had been unable to run for a bus, there was still an awful lot to learn.
Taking stock as I recovered (it would be two weeks before I could walk down stairs forwards again thanks to quads that felt like they had knives in them), far from wanting to quit ultrarunning, my UTMB meltdown fuelled a desire to finish it one day. Just as every time we run we somehow forget the pain and are only left with the glory, so my UTMB memories took on a distinctly rosy hue.
I knew there was a large amount of mental skullduggery going on here, and while the detail of the suffering was lost, I never forgot it was there, and knew it would be waiting if I ever dared turn up in the Alps unprepared again. That sentiment drove my training, and while the UTMB’s spectre ebbed and flowed as various races and challenges passed beneath my trainers, it never went away.
A return in 2010 was hampered by injury (overtraining + ignorance = all my own fault), while 2011 saw a successful if steady completion of the CCC, the UTMB’s 100km ‘little sister’, which left a clear path open to this year’s main event. For the next year it was everything I trained for as my comfortable limits rose from 50 miles on steady ground to 90 miles across the worst ground I could find, all of which meant that when I turned up in Chamonix, I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
At this point I should have then been slipping into the familiar big race routine of signing on, laying my gear out in the hotel room, and then stuffing my face somewhere nice before getting plenty of sleep but while sign-on and gear prep went to plan, from here on came a big shake up courtesy of the weather that was predicted to be foul and only expected to get worse.
At the first update (extra compulsory layers needed), I was calm. While I’d hoped, based on the law of averages, the weather would be decent – having been awful in 2010 and 2011 surely we were due some respite in 2012? – the realisation averages are seriously flawed when it comes to meteorology was not too hard to swallow. Besides, I knew my gear was good and it had all been tested to the limit in various training races where snow, rain, hail, sleet, fog and gale force winds had all made their unwelcome presence felt for far too long. It wasn’t ideal, but was all part of the challenge when taking on the mountains and so karma remained happily intact.
But when the announcement came that 30 miles were being lopped off the course and that it would be a different route and missing the Italian and Swiss legs of the race, well, that was kick in the stones. When the text arrived, I just sat on the bed in my hotel room and stared at it as I watched my goal vanish in front of my eyes.
I didn’t blame the organisers at all – any tough mountain race is at the mercy of tough mountain conditions and they were busting their balls to give us a race as the weather went south, fast – but to have the chance of a finish taken away before hitting the start line was more than hard to swallow and summoning the motivation to run at all was suddenly very tough.
Not knowing what to do next, I headed down to the hotel lobby and caught up with a load of similarly dazed runners, some who I knew and others I’d never met before, and it was here that some sort of catharsis began breaking through. Because deep down, we all wanted to run, that was what we had all come for, no matter how we felt in the instant aftermath of the route change. Slowly but surely and powerfully, this desire to run resurfaced as the dominant sentiment buzzing through Chamonix as the pent up energies of 2,300 runners bubbled to the surface.
Reinvigorated, I legged it back to my hotel room and began a double time overhaul of my race plan, working out my timings to beat the new cutoffs, calculating my best (and worst) possible pace, and thrashing out a new support plan, route and timings for my wife and her friend who’d gallantly joined me in this foolhardy venture.
By 7 pm I squeezed my way onto the packed start line as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ by Vangelis boomed out across the town and although the course and the distance would be different, the challenge was still going to be enormous. To quote the thousands of supporters lining the route out of Chamonix, ‘Allez!’
Keen to avoid blowing up too early, I started conservatively. So conservatively that a glance over my shoulder after the first mile showed… no one apart from the local police car sweeping the back of the field. At least this meant that as I did hit the singletrack winding down to the first checkpoint at Les Houches, I didn’t have to worry about any traffic jams.
As night drew in, the rain started. There was no point in pretending it was a passing shower as every forecast had told us this one was in for the long haul, so it was just a case of digging in and getting on with what felt like a very long night indeed.
Muddy trails already softened by the previous day’s rains had now turned to pure swamp as 2,000-plus pairs of feet ground their way up and down them, and although some of the most beautiful views in the world surrounded us, they were all but invisible, shrouded in a thick layer of dull mist which pulled visibility down to just a few metres at times.
Checkpoints though remained welcome beacons of warmth, support, soup and camaraderie, although it was only as the race unfolded I realised that all of the really big checkpoints I remembered were from the second half of the course which I had run during last year’s CCC. With this new adapted route taking in the French start of the course plus a new loop, as well as with several of the checkpoints being hastily rearranged affairs, these stops were more functional, crowded and spartan than they would normally have been on the regular route.
At Les Contamines, which was being run through twice on this new course I had the pleasure of not only seeing the leaders already haring back through on their return journey, but also bumped into a certain Bryon Powell of this website who was out getting the race story from the sharp end, rather than from the comfort of a warm monitor in the Chamonix press room, despite it being past midnight. Good work indeed.
From here for me, the rest of the night was pretty much a blur. I remember the rain turning to snow as we climbed high enough at times, as well as some of the worst sleep monsters I’ve ever battled, and a particularly grey, insipid and uninspiring wet dawn greeting us with the promise of nothing but more rain.
By this point, the winners were already home having hammered the course in some epic times and while I knew my finish was in sight, the big question was how much did I want it? After digging around for what felt like an age as I trudged on, I realised I had to take this on with everything I had. Crossing that line with an ounce of energy left would be a waste after everything that had brought me to this point. While my finish was all but guaranteed, how well I finished was entirely up to me. I decided there and then to leave everything I had on the trail.
From shuffling I started jogging, and from jogging I started running and for the next six hours I pushed like I never have before with the final result that I rolled over that finish line in just under 21 hours having even sneaked into the top half of the results in 1088th place, way higher than I could ever have dreamed of.
Happy doesn’t even come close.
The big question now is, what next? Taking on shorter races faster is one idea and was my avowed plan before this race, but another plan is now brewing alongside that one which is coming back to Chamonix for a full-distance UTMB finish.
After all, the weather couldn’t be so bad three years in a row, right?