The Noth Face Ultra-Trail Tour Du Mont Blanc 2008

29th Aug 2008
166km 9400m
After my completion of the race in 2005 I went to this year’s race with a goal of beating that time. I set myself a target of 32 hours with a fall back of 34 hours if this proved too tough. The route for this year’s race was slightly different to when I first tackled it 3 years ago, in that the course was 11Km and 900m of ascent longer. So I was looking for a large improvement, but due to my other long distance successes I though it to be realistic. My main goal for the year was to complete the Paddy Buckley round so this was a bonus.

On arrival in Chamonix it was as beautiful as I remembered from 3 years ago, and I mused over why it had taken me so long to return. I came up with the conclusion that at the time it was a goal just to finish and it was job done and onto the next challenge. These ended up being the BG, which also led onto the thought of doing all the big 3, of which the next step was the PB earlier this year.

I decided that although it was a bit tougher than before, the challenge for me now was to finish it in a good time. I used all my knowledge gained over the years and formulated a plan based on the likely hot conditions. Part of the plan was to go fairly quick during the night whilst it would be cooler, this would have an added bonus of getting me ahead of the mass scramble at the feed stations. The other part of the plan was to use salt tablets to add to the water (the only liquid supplied in large volumes). But unfortunately I left it too late to order some, and could not find any in Chamonix. Big mistake. My food would consist of mainly energy bars, and energy gels nearer the end, all supplemented by whatever I could grab at the checkpoints.

All preparations were done the bags for Courmayeur and Champex were left with my fresh clothes and food in them. I then spent the day dodging the sun and taking it very easy.

I took my place on the start line which felt more like I was about to watch a concert rather than run for 30 odd hours. The atmosphere was electric and the sun was scorching. Soon enough we were off, walking at first, and then jogging down the road to start our first bit of trail to Les Houches. I felt good and started well. My only issue was feeling like a steak meal from the previous night still hadn’t settled. My back up plan of eating crackers and anything high in salt started well and my progress was good. Col De Voza was the first climb and I found this very comfortable, even queuing at the checkpoint didn’t bother me I just decided the break was nice. Further into the night I got into the routine of filling up the bladder in my rucksack with water taking some food and sitting down for about 4 minutes with a stop watch, so that I didn’t “lounge” around too long.

Lac combal checkpoint was the first time where I felt anything like cold. This was in the early hours and at 6,000 + feet. Which tells you how warm the conditions were? After de gritting my shoes, and 2 bowls of soup I donned my jacket, hat and gloves and continued along the plateau. 1/2 hour later on the climb to Arete mont Favre they all came off again, and no thought after this entered my head to put them back on. The long decent off Mont Favre into Cormayeur got hotter all the way down and it was only 07:00hrs.

A 40 minute stop at the first major ckeckpoint and it was off on the long climb up the valley wall. On reaching the top I started to feel the heat, and had a long 12 minute stop. The next section is more run-able and I felt o.k. apart from I had muscle ache on both sides of my abs making descending painful. Eventually I reached Arnuva and next was the big climb up to the highest point of the course, Grand Col Ferret. I reached the top fairly tired and sat on the trig stone at the top for 2 minutes. The sun by now was beating down.

I descended slowly with the pains in my sides inhibiting my normal efficient downhill gate. I stupidly missed the water stop at Peulaz and ran out on the run to La Fouly. On arriving at La Fouly having drunk small amounts of stream water I felt dry. I immediately drank some water and this made me feel ill. I felt that I could not eat or drink. Simon – a very nice English chap I had previously met at a pub the night before – gave me a salt solution to mix up. I drank this and it worked I felt better. I got up and decided to continue and eat some food whilst I felt I could.

On the longer than it looks ascent to Champex I started to feel ill again, I began to look at my watch and started calculating how long I had to go until the end. The result of my calculation horrified me, 12 hours at this pace and much longer if I slowed down. In my addled weak dehydrated state I never considered anything other than quitting. Once it entered my head it was impossible to ignore, I tried to fight it off, “what else are you going to do, watch other people finish?” no matter how much I fought the demons in my head with thoughts like “this has cost a lot of money”, “all that training”, “all them people that entered but didn’t get in, and at least 1 because you are here” I couldn’t defeat them.

I entered the Champex Checkpoint to cheers of Bravo, alley alley and I felt such a fraud. In my head the battle was lost. When I sat down in the checkpoint area, and felt sick and light headed, the battle was over. I had been defeated. This was a first for me. Up until this point I had never quit on anything. I decided better of carrying on with the 24 hours Paddy Buckley attempt in 2007, after Navigation and other issues, but did not consider this quitting. At first, although devastating, I thought I had made the correct decision in quiting on this race.

Part of the reason for the delay in this post is that I wanted to research and rationalise why I had quit so soon. I had 9 hours to play with on the cut off times, but I could not even think of using them at the time. I think that my lack of a proper fall back “get to the finish” strategy, combined with my successful round in 2005 left me in a state whereby anything but a good finishing time, would be viewed as a failure. The reason I quit at the time was also due to the discomfort I felt. I had salt deficiency which caused all manor of issues like thickening of the blood, so increasing the effort when climbing, and a sickly feeling making eating almost impossible. I have never felt so rough with so far left to go. I now know that the disappointment of watching people finish – who had probably won such mental and physical battles – was much worse than the disappointment would have been had I took sleeps and long breaks and finished in 45 hours.

Lessons learned:

1) Salt tablets are very useful for making sure your salt intake is high enough.
2) Poles won’t necessarily guarantee success but will make it more likely. They will also be good to lean on if feeling rough.
3) Have a back up plan, and never forget how it feels to quit.
4) Sunglasses are a waste of time until Courmayeur – Champex. The valley walls and trees shield the sun most of the way until its dark. A minor thing but lees gear to mess with.

Before the event I thought it may be a few years before I go back and do this again. Now I desperately want to go next year and have another go and hopefully erase this mental scar. I have my fingers crossed that I will win a place in the December ballot.

My distance covered 100 km 6400m
Well done to Lizzy Hawker (right hand side of the photos) who won this for her 2nd time. The first time in 2005 took everyone by surprise including herself. This time - after many great ultra race victories - it was an emphatic win.

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