UTMB – race report 2104
I’m sitting at the start watching the people go by. People stop, stare and photograph the couple next to me. She is wearing traditional Japanese clothing, he is looking pensive. She asked me earlier to take their photo together before the start. She returned the favour, also taking a picture of me and my lego man, Lego Harrier, given to me by Louis to carry round.
I am alone. Alone but not lonely. As I walk towards the toilets for the fourth or fifth time someone calls my name. I stop but do not recognise the person – should I? “You don’t know me but you’re a Bingley Harrier, do you know Mary Green?” the voice says. I don’t but the name rings a bell and I say as much. “Well good luck”
Luck. I wonder about this, how much will be down to luck in the hours ahead? I glance up at the sky the way we are going and it is dark with rain and moving this way. I cover my vest and move to rain coated anonymity among the rear of the starters.
The announcer whips up the athletes and crowd. Counting down, shouting, sticks up in the air. I am unmoved. This race is special without the need to shout or posture. I am ready.
Last night I arrived at Dave and Angie’s flat and crashed on the sofa. They have shown me around and taken me in. Today I visited Andy and Steve’s place. Andy was out running and Steve’s race finished mid-week.
The rain comes, the countdown comes and goes and we depart. Walking. As good a way as any to start a 105 mile foot race I suppose but I find it frustrating. I high 5 the children cheering in the rain but in truth I would rather be jogging. As we move out of Chamonix there are people stopping to change coats, adjust clothing, fiddle with shoes, go to the toilet.
The pace picks up and I monitor my heart rate carefully. This is no race to start too fast with poorly judged pace. It rains. We run. It rains. We run. It rains.
Then the pace slows and people seem to be afraid of the mud. Being from Yorkshire comes to the fore and I skip through it with a grin. 4 hours is a long time to be running in the rain and it takes me through to darkness. I have another measure of time about my person. Every 4 hours I have planned to take an inspirational quote provided by Sally to see me through. She has given me 10, which should see me through to the finish. I look at the first one and I remember it makes me laugh but not what it was.
Saint Gervais is great, families under umbrellas are out cheering. I blow the MC a kiss as I enter the feed zone and he thanks me. It is dark now and as I leave I have to stop myself getting carried away and slow down. A long way still to go.
The rain eases and I make conversation with a lad from Cumbria who is a doctor and good company. He neither talks too much nor too little and we climb together for a while. I look back from the Col du Bonhomme many times so impressive is the sight of hundreds and hundreds of lights snaking around at least 7 bends behind and above. I am confused as to whether we have already crested one climb and started the next so I am pleasantly surprised to find us starting to go downhill. At the Col de la Seigne I mutter “Oh yes passport “ and make to get it from my bag. A jolly Policeman shouts “your papers are all in order” and waves me through. It is cold in Italy and I descend to Lac Combal quickly where I have my now routine noodle soup with cheese and crackers.
I am still holding back and now have one more climb before Courmeyeur and my drop bag. As I cross Arete du Mont Favre dawn breaks with the sun rising over the snow capped peaks opposite and I start to cry. As I do so my breathing sounds like an asthmatic seal. I breathe through my mouth and all is fine, I breathe through my nose and the seal returns. Still crying I shout at myself to pull myself together and the passing runners politely ignore my tears. I meet a runner on the outskirts of Courmeyeur and we share our surprise at being here so soon. This moment changes my mood immeasurably. I look for friendly faces in the crowds but realise I am way ahead of schedule.
At Courmeyeur I check my feet. All ok, my toe has gone through both socks on my right foot so I change them, the left is ok so I leave it alone. I keep my base layer but ditch the wet mid layer and change it for a dry one. I top up with gels and take my reward for getting this far – music!
Upstairs with with my bag I go and have a proper plate of pasta and a coffee – lovely. As I drop my bag off and plug myself in I am feeling good. I think back to my long training runs where sometimes putting in a little extra effort on a climb, nothing silly mind, can invigorate the rest of the run and decide to give it a try.
I push a little harder on the climb to Refuge Bertone. In reality that just means maintaining a steady pace but by the top I am buzzing. I check my heart rate, still zone 2, and kick on to Refuge Bonatti. Adele and Kasabian are fighting for attention in my ears but in truth they are both drowned out by the smile in my head. Zone 2, easy pace yet I am walloping past people like they are standing still. Time to do some checks – Feet? Ok. Legs? Ok. Heart rate? Ok. Stomach? Ok. Head? Bloody marvellous!
I start to relax some more and speed up with no increase in effort. I’m whooping with delight now and skipping around people, dancing over waterfalls and gliding along the paths. This must be what it feels like to fly. I feel invincible, like I have been plugged in to the ground and progress is effortless. Nothing else matters. At Refuge Bonatti the lady asks me how I feel and I reply honestly “I’ve never felt better”. She seems surprised. Another runner asks me the same and is rather rude when he gets the same answer! He apologises and wishes me well.
I do my checks again and still I’m flying. I wonder if I’ve cracked it. I also wonder how I’m going to explain to Sally that 100 mile races seem to be my ideal distance! Heart rate ticking along and just keep feeding the machine. On the way down to Arnuva I have a descending ‘run off’ with another runner where we take it in turns to lead while passing the groups slowing down ahead of us. We shake hands at the bottom with a sense of achievement and shared adventure – that was fun. I also sneaked a look at the paddle they swipe over you when you arrive and see that my race number is in the 500’s – blimy!
I am so giddy now that I make a mistake. I have arrived at an aid station with hardly any one there and for the first time and I can see all the food. Instead of sticking to what has been working for me – noodle soup, cheese and crackers supplemented by my own gels when running – I pick up some chocolate cake and chocolate and don’t stop long enough for it to start digesting. By the base of the next climb I am feeling sick and have to stop. Three quarters of the way up and I stop again to be sick three or four times. I wait. People pass me and I sit and wait. I am cursing the chocolate I added to my savoury intake – in my head the cause of this. Although we are approaching the highest point of the course I am convinced it was the mix of sweet and savoury that has created the problem.
The annoyance I am feeling about messing up a strong finish is quickly overtaken by the horrible realisation that if I can’t take in any more food my race is over. While I’m contemplating this a man asks if I have any vaseline he can borrow. I do and give him my small tin to take some from. Gingerly he produces a buff that he has stuffed down his shorts and the sigh he gives when applying the vaseline says it all. “Thank you, you’ve saved my race”, he says. I wonder how I will save my own.
I weigh up my options and reach for a quote.
“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most of all”.
I decide that if I walk to La Fouly, sipping water, then this will not unduly stress my body and I can have some food there. It will take me longer than I wanted but will mean I don’t risk upsetting my stomach. I can eat there and go on. That is a long walk, made all the longer by the stream of runners jogging past me on the stretch where I thought I would bound down. This is now turning into a nightmare.
At La Fouly there is savoury food, soup and crackers, that perk me up enough to set me on my way at a jog. I even catch a few people up and I imagine that I am back but Champax Lac is further than I think and the route there is a rather convoluted one through some woods that seems to last forever. It takes so much out of me I can feel people flinching when they look at me, moving many to pat me on the back and say “in ten minutes you will be better, eat and drink”.
I stagger in to Champex Lac and slump. I eat pasta but only half a bowl before it tries to come back up. I force it back down and move out quickly so if I am sick it is not in the tent. I set off with an Italian and a couple of English lads. They have a gilet from a UTMB year that was shortened and they say if they had realised how hard it was they wouldn’t have come back to do the full one. They also add that even though there are only 26 or so miles left there is as much climbing as the Fellsman. Thanks lads, that’s just what I wanted to hear as you jog off in to the distance with darkness closing in!
I have 3 major climbs left and it seems as though I will have to use my arms to carry my legs. They refuse to bend properly and I am finding it hard to walk. Each step up La Giete is painful, people start to queue behind and I regularly move to one side to let people past on the single file path. The way down is worse as I try to lift my feet over the roots. I am having to use my poles as makeshift crutches to lower my whole body over obstacles, listening for approaching runners so I can move to the side in time.
33 hours in and I have my first hallucination. I look down and to the right as I approach a corner and imagine I can see a woman selling flowers out of a wooden cart. I breathe in to speak to her but when I breathe out she is gone. I look down at the stones on the ground and each one is now a face, each one clear and distinct and looking back at me. For some reason Big Sam is there as well among the faces and the animals.
Every step hurts. My whole body aches. My mind is playing tricks on me. It doesn’t look good.
“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most of all”.
I want to get to the finish. I want to get to the finish.
The Cumbrian doctor passes me again and I explain my legs and sickness. “You need some of that energy drink they have to replace the salts and potassium you’ve lost by being sick. I thought it was witchcraft the first time I heard it but it’s true. There’s a free consultation for you.” He runs off, not fast, but faster than I can follow balancing as I am on my sticks. Witchcraft prescribed by a doctor – worth a shot!
I enter Trient and a large man with a voice of authority directs me - “Assistance” he growls pointing to the side.
“No, food” I say back.
“Assistance” he repeats firmly, still pointing.
“No, food” I reply and make my way towards the tent, I wonder if he will force me to the aid tent but he just shakes his head and lets me pass. I must look how I feel.
I drink two mugs of energy drink and have some food. I bump in to a friend of a friend and actually manage to jog out of the station. Brilliant! Energy drink witchcraft indeed and now I’m so pleased that the next climb to a warming fire passes smoothly. I can hear but not see impressive waterfalls as I descend through the darkness to the town below.
At Vallorcine I speak to an eleven time finisher. I let that sink in for a moment – eleven times and I am at the same stage of the race as him. That cheers me up no end. Just before the start of the final climb a Polish lady who is waiting for her husband to come through talks to me, wishes me well and tells me I can do it.
A Spanish man asks me where I trained and I tell him Yorkshire, he looks at me and says “There are no mountains in Yorkshire”. I explain that I run up and down shorter hills several times for the same effect. He looks at me like I’m mad and when I ask him where he trained he says “The Pyrenees” and climbs off in to the distance.
I climb. The sun rises over Mont Blanc. I climb.
At the summit I ring Sally and get through to her answer phone. At least that part of the day is normal and I laugh out loud. I leave her a message and then ring back. Apparently the UTMB facebook updates had stopped so she thinks I have pulled out. I sit a while and watch the clouds clear over Mont Blanc. What have I done? What have I done?
From La Flegere I decide to enjoy the last few miles, I might not pass this way again so I want to enjoy the surroundings to the full, satisfied I will make it. I have one more hallucination on the way down where it looks to me like a woman is leaning halfway through a wall. Until I get there and there is nothing there at all. Nothing.
I could go faster but in truth I know I have finished and there is nothing to gain.
I walk to Chamonix, I walk around Chamonix, I walk to the finish line.
I feel absolutely alive. Steve shakes my hand, Dave is taking photos.
I’ve done it! I’ve done it!
41 hours 14 minutes