At 11.30 am on race day I was congratulating Ross on his magnificent sub 20 hours run and 30th place in the TDS race, whilst cheering Catherine (Ross’s wife) home to a 306th place finish in 25 hours 49. Catherine had to walk the last 10 miles showing how well she was going in the early part of the run, so it was a good result for both. Whilst chatting to a very tired Catherine about her run, one of their friends received a Facebook alert on his laptop stating that the start time of the UTMB had been delayed due to a storm from 18:30 to 23:30 hours, this news was a little unsettling. Also in the message was the fact that the end of the run would now be “straight down the valley” instead of the normal Tete au Vent and La Flagere route back to Chamonix. Well I thought; trying to find the positives; at least the route would be a little easier to make up for the tougher start time. However it didn’t turn out that way.
So I killed off the extra time with an attempt at a nap, that didn’t work too well it was more of a lie down in a darkened room. So after watching some TV and noting the rain start to come down outside, I started to think about what clothes would be best to start in. I decided cycling length tights with a t-shirt and Haglofs jacket would suit the conditions best, combined with a thin X-termite’s hat to keep my head warm. I delayed going to the start line until as late as possible to avoid standing around too long in what was now steady rain. The only problem with this was that I was stuck at the back with no gaps at all to move towards the front. I didn’t want to be lined up alongside Killian and co, but I thought that I deserved not to be almost at the back. But it was one of those irking things I just had to block out.
So the traditional UTMB music of Vangelis - Conquest of Paradise was played, a lot of French instruction voiced, whilst I chat offering words of wisdom to 2 of Rosses friends and take no notice of any of the former, then all of a sudden we are off….walking, argh. Look for the positive I told myself; well at least I wouldn’t be setting off too fast. It was a bit frustrating walking in a crush down Chamonix high street, but after about 5 minutes (yes I timed it) finally the road widens and I could run at roughly my own pace. I felt nice and controlled to Les Houches where it was like the Tour De France, as the crowds narrowed the street, what amazing support and at 1am and in the rain. The climb over Col de Voza was good. But on the descent it poured down heavily, and even with my jacket hood pulled on I was a bit cold. This was the only time during the run when I considered putting on my full length tights. What made me consider it was a bit of an oversight on my behalf. My rucksack had grabbed my jacket and raised it above my midriff so the water falling off my jacket was going straight to my nether region. That always makes us blokes feel cold. So I pulled the jacket down and never got cold there again.
After sliding down the slippery track to St Gervais, the welcome was as amazing as ever, the rain was lighter but still it was about 02:00 am, and there was a huge crowd of supporters out to cheer us on. A quick water refill and I was off. On the way to Contamines I got chatting to a really nice Australian Lady called Margaretha. We had a nice chat and I tried to share a bit of knowledge of the route. After about 10 minutes, I reminded myself not to, literally and physically, talk myself into someone else’s pace. So I wished her luck and pushed on (she finished in 34 hours 15 mins well done Margaretha) for Contamines. The rain stopped and a starlit sky was revealed, but in the far distance there were still some flashes of lightning now and again; moving away I hoped.
The climbs of Bonhomme, Col de la Seinne and Mont Favre all went well. I even managed to time the necessity for a comfort break with my arrival in Le Chapieux, which is always a bonus on these long races. The daylight coming on the ascent of Bonhomme was special as 1) this is normally traversed in the night and 2) there was a pretty dusting of snow on the hills. I rounded the top of Col De La Seinne feeling good and also the weather was looking set fair for the rest of the day, I was now feeling really positive. On the lower half of the descent it was quite warm but I decided not to waste time taking my jacket off and just rolled the sleeves up. There was lots of cheering and “Bravos” on arrival in Courmayeur. I got my kit bag and decided that although my feet were pretty good I would take the precaution of putting a Compede on the ball of each foot. It was worth it as I was changing socks anyway. I also had a nice plate of pasta, bodyglided up and that was 25 minutes gone.
The climb up to Bertone is always a tough one. But I led another guy up and we kind of pushed each other which made it easier. Bertone to Bonnatti is a beautiful trail to run. Nice and undulating with amazing views of the cliffs towering up to Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley, it is truly spectacular. It was at this point that I realised I must have been doing well. In previous races I have been running with lots of others here but this time apart from overtaking a few, I was mainly on my own. For much of the time to the end this was the case as well, just overtaking 1 or 2 here and there, although I was more racing the clock than the runners.
I also really enjoyed the descent to Arnjuva, where I steeled myself for the ascent of Grand Col Ferret. This ascent was when I felt at my most tired, it was as if the altitude just took the edge off me a little and so I eased off a touch. But on the descent I was back and enjoying the comfortable running that I kept at all the way to the end. La Fouly is still a long way after Grand Col Ferret and I was starting to run out of water. So I was really displeased when I was overtook (a rare event) by a guy on a small climb through a cow crowded field. He had a guy supporting him with a large bottle of lemonade. That should have been a 1hour penalty. He didn’t even try to buy me off with a swig, cheeky bugger. It made it all the more satisfying to speed past him on the descent towards La Fouly CP.
Through La Fouly and on the way to Champex I noted someone running strong just behind me. I was walking the uphill’s so let him past, only to discover it was Ritchie Cunningham. He is a runner that should be well ahead of me, despite the fact that I was having a good run. He told me that he spent 1 hour 20 mins in La Fouly and nearly quit as he was having a bad day. His support team convinced him to carry on. So we ran together most of the way to Champex.
On entering Champex CP an MC announced my arrival over the Tannoy and cheers go up. It feels a bit weird entering a marquee to a load of cheers, you kind of stand there wondering what to do. Senses quickly come back and it’s the usual routine of, water bottles filled nuun tablet dropped in 1 bottle, grab some food to run with, but here it is great pasta so a large plate of beautiful Bolognese is a must. After 15 minutes I am off, leaving Ritchie talking on his mobile to his support. I descended towards Bovine thinking just 2 big climbs left. But 20 minutes out of Champex and the reflective tape, which you follow on the UTMB, guides me to the right. I was sure Bovine was straight on and to the left. Confused but confident that the markers must be correct I carry on, on a lonely long rough descent in the dark. It was here that I started to notice that the cumulative effect of kicking rocks was damaging both my big toes. I carried on following a group of three through a large town and up a climb, being careful, but not succeeding, to kick less rocks. I had to ask them if I was still on the course. They said yes, did you not get the text? We are now going to Martigny instead of Bovine. This was because of the destruction of the drinks station and CP near the top of Bovine by a storm. I had packed my mobile too early and never saw the text message.
Ritchie caught me up on the climb and we discussed what the course is now. We didn’t realise it but we were just climbing up and over a shoulder before dropping into Matigny. Here we asked the CP staff how big the climb is to take us up and over to Trient (and back on the course) he says “1,000”. We ask what feet, knowing that France use metric, we knew the answer, it was 1,000M. I told Ritchie I was going to get a move on, and set off on the long climb. Some of the locals were out with tables and chairs offering biscuits, tea, coffee, pizzas, that really sums up what is so good about this race. The local Swiss had realised the race had been rerouted at the last minute and thought they would help out, again amazing support. The climb went on and on crossing roads then into trees for what seemed like forever. I was glad to make the top knowing after the descent the only significant obstacle is Catogne. I made the descent well and again had the nice, but strange feeling of cheers in the CP. Probably mainly from other runners support teams in a separate part of the marquee. Ritchie came in (sorry if I’m wrong Ritchie) looking a bit spaced out and bewildered. It was the last time I saw Ritchie, I fully expected him to catch me up, but he never did. I made the ascent of Catogne well and was descending pretty well too; even the temptation to warm up next to the fire near the CP didn’t stop me. But towards the bottom a chap told me I was in 48th place. I wasn’t racing until I heard that, it was like by saying that he flicked on my race button. All I could think off from now until the end, was don’t finish outside the top 50. Silly in a way, but it motivated me to push on. But before I could do that I had to sort out my big toes, which on the very rough descent were now very painful and I had to stop to inspect the most painful one. The nail was badly bruised and blistered but not ready to come off with a little wiggle. So to stop them lifting up in my shoe I had to push the nail back in from its elevated position. It was painful and some puss popped out, but it did the trick. So with my shoe back on I didn’t bother to take the other one off, I simply pressed down on the nail through my shoes, again painful, but better than a lengthy stop in the first aid tent at the CP.
I pushed on and went over Col De Montets paranoid of getting caught up. So tried to spot any headtorches behind, I couldn’t so just kept the pace as high as I could. The ”straight down the valley” route was all that was left. One of the CP staff at Valorcine said it was flat. Boy was I cursing him on that last section. It wasn’t flat but a very undulating Forrest track. In fact it was the same end that I did in the 2005 race. But doing it at night was tough. After what seemed like forever I caught two runners up as the route widened and became familiar. We were almost in Chamonix. When they heard me they responded by running quicker, I could tell they didn’t want to be passed as I took a while to close the last
100 meters on them. As I caught them I was thinking I may chat to them for a bit, safe in the knowledge of a top 50 placing. On the last bit of descent I ran alongside and said hi, no response. That said to me race on. So I ran hard and they never even made it interesting. I pulled out nearly 2 minutes on them in the 1 KM around Chamonix and ran across the line at 4.57 am. Doing that allowed me to finish under the half hour, so I was pleased with my adventurous 29 hours and 29 minutes of the UTMB 2011. It was a truly unique course, but probably even tougher than the normal route. The stats suggest it too, 170KM and 9,700M! Finishing in 44th place and 3rd Brit was a real bonus. I knew that if I had a good run I could make the top 100, but didn’t think the top 50 likely. I am really pleased with the run, and it only cost me two big toe nails, what a bargain.