I must apologise to those who have been patiently waiting for me to put finger to keyboard and tell my story of this epic race, things have been a bit hectic since I came back from France and I just haven't had the slack to give it the attention it deserved. I've cleared all the crap off my desk, hurled abuse at my tormentors and have a packet of hobnobs and a vat of coffee at my elbow. So yes, the UTMB - where the heck to start?
I will confess to a bit of trepidation before I flew out to Chamonix and that's putting it mildly. You see, I never actually expected to get a place in the UTMB, I put my name into the ballot because I had nine qualifying points (you needed seven for the 2014 race) and was honest enough to realise that I'd probably never have them again. It would have been a travesty not to try and get into the biggest and baddest race in Europe .... believe me when I tell you that I was more than a *little* shocked when I got the notification that I was in. Panic? Let me tell you, I was flapping like a hyperventilating parrot.
I did what I could in terms of training and preparation, targetting a series of races that would give me the kind of long-distance endurance I envisaged would be necessary. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure I got this right but more on that later. I enlisted help from previous entrants into the race and also training support and guidance from a highly respected and very talented off-road runner who was invaluable in helping to keep me on track and my head in the right place. I did a whole lot more core and strength work, hammering the dratted hill climb machine at the gym to the point where it whimpered and tried to hide in the corner when I walked in. You know something? I hate that machine with a passion, but there's no denying its effectiveness; its use resulted in proper Bob Graham-style quads with which to do battle and they were going to be needed. There's 31,800 feet of climb in the UTMB - and of course a commensurate amount of descent - so weedy little sparrow legs weren't going to be much use!
As the day of my departure steadily approached, I was locked firmly in the throes of taper madness, convincing myself that every vestige of fitness had left my body and that the UTMB was going to be an unmitigated disaster. It was all I could do was hold on and resist the temptation to go for a long run over the nearest set of hills. I have to say that things weren't helped by my going to support Helen on the Grand Tour of Skiddaw the weekend before I left, she stomped round the 44-mile course in an alarmingly quick time and came home in 2nd place. I had sat in my van for most of the day drinking tea and idly munching the odd sticky bun. You'd never have guessed that in less than a week's time I would be pitting heart and soul against some of the biggest hills that Europe has to offer.
So, it was up early on the Tuesday morning before the race and off down the M62 to Manchester Airport. It was a dreary, drizzly morning and things got off to a nervous start when I missed what appeared to have been a nasty pile-up right across the central reservation, I must have avoided it only by seconds. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be hurt but it didn't half get the old ticker going. I was nervous, the logistics of the my UTMB assault had been planned with what I fondly imagined to be military precision and I couldn't afford for anything to go wrong or delay me. I reached the airport without further incident, dumped the car at JetParks (very efficient) and quickly got the transfer to the airport. A minor kerfuffle at baggage check-in (who would have thought that two boxes of Torq gels would weigh so much?), but in no time at all I had comfortably parked my lazy backside in one of EasyJet's finest and was enroute Geneva.
Can I just say that getting to Chamonix is an absolute piece of wee? When we were here in May we did it the hard way by hiring a car, struggling through the madness of Geneva and then onwards to my friend's apartment near Morzine. This time, I'd booked Mountain transfers and all you have to do is wobble through to the French sector (Geneva spans Switzerland and France obv.) and be met by the very efficient transfer folks. In no time at all you're in a mini bus and bombing onwards to Chamonix, the whole journey takes maybe 75 minutes. Positives aside, the weather wasn't filling me with much confidence as it was absolutely chucking it down with rain and this was the last thing I wanted. Still, the forecast for the weekend was good, so I had to trust in that.
I was met in Chamonix and taken to the apartment I'd rented for the week, somewhat unbelievably I was in, done and dusted before 1.00pm. Very efficient. The apartmental rental was pretty expensive, but couldn't have been better situated - it was right in the middle of town in the Le Mummery building, maybe 200 yards from the race start and in immediate proximity to the Sports Platz and every outdoor shop you can imagine. The UTMB office itself was immediately opposite and I had a grand view of the mountain side and a little balcony of my own to watch the world go by. My plan was to spend as much as possible of the next three days resting (preferably asleep), so seeing as Helen wasn't flying out until Thursday, I decided to hit the Ultra Trail Salon (= Trade Fair) and bash the credit card while I was unsupervised.
|View from our apartment in Chamonix|
|Some of the best off-road runners you'll ever meet - and me!|
Race day arrived. Helen had arrived late on the previous evening and brought a bit of sanity and calm with her, God knows I needed it. I was in total faff mode, I'd packed, re-packed and packed my race pack again and again, I knew exactly what and where everything was and could recite the precise contents of my drop bag. You can receive outside assistance at 5 seperate places on the course and Helen planned to be at all of them, I'd bought a UTMB bus pass for her (30 euros) that would take her through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur in Italy and it was here that I would find my drop bag. A good place for it too, it's the logical half-way point (sort of). In theory, she would know exactly where and how close to schedule I was. I'd worked out a sub-40 and sub-42 hour schedule based on figures from previous years, but had no idea how this would pan out in reality. I'd signed up for a text service (10 euros) that would let her know every time I went through a checkpoint, but of course that depended on there being cellular coverage - something that's a bit difficult to guarantee in mountain ranges! I forced myself to lie down and rest but it was hard and I was as nervous as hell - way more nervous that I was before my successful BGR - and at around 2.00pm I was force-fed a large plate of pasta by an irritated Helen. Eventually, there was nowt for it but to get my kit on, lubricate every possible moving bit of body and make my way to the start.
Did I mention that it was raining when I arrived in Chamonix? The next few days brought blue skies and perfect weather, just what was needed. The forecast for the weekend was good too, unfortunately there was a narrow but nasty band of wet weather sweeping down to the South-East and it was going to go straight over Chamonix and the Southern tip of the course. Bollocks, talk about the fickle finger of fate! Although I had all the wet weather kit you could desire, like everyone I was hoping for a straight run of decent conditions as it would make survival much easier. Talking of survival, the stats for the UTMB make for sober reading: Since the race was first ran (I think 2003) it's averaged out that 67% of runners finish within the final time cut-off. And bear in mind that it's a screened and selected field (you have to do some fairly significant races to get the necessary points for the UTMB), so in theory anyone who toes the starting line is experienced enough to look after him/herself and cover the whole distance without major organ failure. That's the theory, but the reality is somewhat different and that 67% average proved to be damn nearly spot-on for 2014. I desperately didn't want to be part of the 33% that failed.
The town square in Chamonix was packed solid, a seething mass of humanity who were all focussed on getting round this behemoth of a race. The weather front was coming in fast and dark, menacing clouds gathered right above us. Helen was doing her absolute best to keep me calm and my friend Hanno from Pennine Fell Runners had found us and looked just as nervous. Who wouldn't be? The rain started, accompanied by some appropriately sombre music from the humungous sound system that was filling the entire town with noise. I put on my lightweight pertex jacket, hoping that this was just a light shower (it wasn't) and took my place in the crowd. This was it: Months of anticipation and planning, it was now me versus the mountain and as the rain started to come down in torrents I had no idea who was going to be the victor. This video gives a good perspective.
|UTMB Start 2014|
The rain continued to pour from the sky and as we passed Le Delevret (CP2/8.6m) I spotted a guy I knew from Wharfedale Harriers, we'd ran part of the Calderdale Hike together earlier in the year and it was a very fortuitous meeting, we ended up sticking together for a good part of the race, a bit of mutual support is a wonderful thing and I'm sure he was as pleased as I was for some company. We came off the muddy trail into Saint-Gervais (CP3/13.1m) and were well inside the time cut-off, but the rain was beginning to bounce off the pavements and getting worse. The little pertex jacket I'd been wearing just wasn't up to the job, so although I hated doing it (the air temperature remained quite high), I had to get my proper waterproof out - and of course, I was completely soaked by not wearing it earlier. Bad move Martyn. We pushed onwards, wanting to make a few places up before the big climb we both knew was coming and thank God, the rain started to ease, but of course the conditions underfoot were pretty hideous. CP4 at Les Contamines (19.2m) was the first "assisted" stop and I was overjoyed to see Helen yelling my name as we emerged from the darkness, what a girl Once we'd been through the food and drink bit, she was right there with a dry top and extra gels to shove in my rucksack, I wouldn't see her now until the next assistance point at Courmayeur. I had to make sure I had everything I needed .... a quick kiss and I was off again into the night.
Darkness wrapped around us like a cloak, but at least it had stopped raining. We quickly dropped down to Notre Dame de La Gorge (CP5/21.6m) and began the long, interminable climb to La Balme (CP6/24.2m) and onwards to the Col du Bonhomme. The track had already been churned into glutunous, slimy mud and making meaningful process was bloody hard work. We were now firmly "locked" in position and it would have taken a completely disproportionate amount of effort to overtake anyone. Trail shoes are definitely the order of the day for the UTMB (I was wearing Brooks Cascadias), but right then I would have sold my unworthy soul for a pair of Mudclaws. Looking at my final time splits, I realise that I lost loads of time here, but what could I do? Until the track widened and conditions improved, everyone was stuck in their relative positions. What I will say is that it was an incredibly spectacular sight, as far as the visible horizon there was along line of headtorches, climbing inexorably upwards. It was some comfort to look behind me and realise that a good proportion of the field was behind me, I wish I could describe it .... it was like some illuminated caterpillar, writhing in the darkness. We finally reached the Col (CP7/26.4m) but we were't finished here yet and there was a further climb across some pretty rocky ground up to the Refuge at Croix du Bonhomme (CP8/27.6m) and the highest point of the race so far at 7,940ft. It was around here that I started to feel a bit tired and the full enormity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks; I was only a quarter of the way through and beginning to fade! What on earth did I think I was doing?
|View from Croix du Bonhomme - impressive eh?|
|Col De La Seigne|
There was a bit of a climb up to Arete Mont Favre (CP12/42.7m) and then on to Col Checrouit (CP13/45.8) where I had one of the strongest cups of coffee in my lifetime, I can recall this very vividly ..... we sat there as the morning sun began to warm our chilled bodies and we contemplated the descent down to Courmayeur and the caffeine coursed through my body like a lightening bolt. I was awake! We set off, keen on getting to our drop bags and some proper hot food, I was also beginning to feel the effects of running in wet, muddy socks for the best part of 50 miles and my back and hips were also suffering due to the constant rubbing of wet and clammy kit. It actually got a bit competitive as we dropped further down the valley, there were some French guys leading the way and every time they hit an even slightly rocky bit slowed massively. I made the effort to get past them, but don't think they appreciated this cheeky Brit scooting past and gave chase I reached Courmayeur (CP14/48.2m) way in front of the Frenchies, but if I'm honest it had probably taken a bit more out of me than was wise.
|Running into Courmayeur ....|
We spent too long at Courmayeur, but it's hard to lever your arse out your chair, particularly when what's in front of you is likely to cause pain and physical distress. Nonetheless, off we went and you have to trek your way through the town centre before reaching the trail that takes you upwards ..... It's my observation that Courmayeur is a lovely place and I would like to go back there one day, preferably under less trying circumstances. A couple of things that gave me a real boost here were some British folks (presumably on holiday) who saw the Union flags on our race numbers and gave us some tremendous cheers, but even better was the middle-aged American lady who [apparently] studied my lycra-clad backside as I passed her on the mountainside, en-route Refugio Bertone. "Nice ass" she said, then after a moment "good legs too". I turned her round to thank her and jokingly said that I would send her a Christmas Card for her kindness. She looked me in the eye and said "Honey, if you have the time I would LOVE to give you my address". So that cheered me up Hey, you have to take the plaudits where you can!
|View above Courmayeur|
It's a long, long descent from the Grand Col Ferret, taking you into Switzerland and through La Peule (CP19/64.1), then down to the big checkpoint at La Fouly (CP20/67.7m). The field had really thinned out by now and I realised that I must have made up quite a few places from earlier in the race, because I'd stomped down this descent at a decent pace. It transpired that I was now back inside my 42-hour schedule, but worryingly my feet were really beginning to hurt and I suspected that things were going to get worse (much) before they got better. I probably spent longer than I needed to at La Fouly, it was here that I noticed that other competitors were beginning to look the worse for wear and I had a lot of sympathy for an Australian guy who just collapsed on the deck, saying that he needed sleep before he could run another inch. I never saw him again, I do hope he made it. I ran onwards, out into the countryside and Praz de Fort (CP21/73 miles), it was about here that I began to recognise parts of the course from our recce earlier in May. From here, it's a bit of slog to Champex Lac and the sun was beginning to set. I was heading into my second night on the UTMB and from what I'd heard, if you had made it this far, then it was where things really began to get tough. Jesus, could they get any tougher? Really?
Helen was going to be at Champex (CP22/76.5m) and I was looking forward to seeing her. Although we'd been there on our recce, I had no idea where the actual checkpoint was, so as I neared the top of the climb I was a bit surprised to see her step out of the darkness and welcome me The checkpoints were much less frenetic this much further into the race and she immediately led me to a bench and got fresh and dry kit out. I could see that she was tired too, but bless her, she was doing her absolute best to get me fuelled and back out into the race. It transpired that I was much closer to Mike than I thought, he'd come into Champex only minutes before me and was having a proper long stop and refuel, I suppose it was a bit more difficult for those that didn't have support at all the assisted checkpoints and I realised I was lucky. In any event, I left the CP before him but had little doubt that he would catch me up before long. I stomped out of the neat little town by myself, it was all a little bit surreal and as I went round the lakeside I found myself hoping that the long climbs that I knew were coming would pass quickly. As is so often the case, my hopes were quickly dashed before the wind.
I had enough about me to recall the tricky section through the woods out of Champex, then joined a few other competitors for the slog up to Bovine via Plan de L'Au. It had seemed a bit of a trek back in May, tonight it was immeasurably worse and my chin was down. I knew I had to get myself together and managed to down a couple of caffinated gel shots, these things had worked wonders for my friend Carol during leg 4 of her Paddy Buckley Round earlier in the year, and I'd been holding off using them until it was an emergency. Now was the time. I'd like to say that they completely re-energised me, but that really wasn't the case. Rather, they gave me enough focus to get down to the job in hand and concentrate on the Relentless Forward Progress that's necessary in situations like this. And it's funny how little things can seem like a crisis ..... I'd started off the first night with fresh lithium batteries in my headtorch, I was convinced they would last for two nights without the need to replace them. Wrong. The headtorch flashed to indicate the batteries were going and turned onto its lowest setting, I could have cried. The diminished light output made things seem much harder and I knew that on the darkened mountain side, changing the batteries was going to be a major effort. The rules state that you must carry two headtorches (or torches) and so I rummaged in my pack and found my emergency light, a lightweight Silva LED thingy, and held it in my teeth while my clumsy fingers changed the batteries. It was clear that I wasn't firing on all cylinders, so made a mental note that I should take care. This was no place to bugger things up or have an accident ..... anyhow, after what seemed like an eternity I crested the col, having passed Alpage du Bovine (normally a UTMB checkpoint - don't know why it wasn't this year) and made my way down to the next checkpoint at La Giete (CP23/83.7m). It was dark so I couldn't quite work out what this place was, but I think it was just farm buildings. I haven't really mentioned the passion of the local people for the UTMB, but here was a very good example of it: I reckon it must have been around midnight but there were two elderly and frail-looking ladies there, each holding out a tray of sliced fruit to me. It would have been rude not to accept, so I took a piece from each and then got down to sorting my feet out, that last section from Bovine over Portalo had been really painful and I needed to do something. The poor old dears clucked with alarm when they saw my battered feet, and helped me peel the backing off the Compeed plasters I was now attempting to stick under my toes. My command of the French language is non-existent, but they made me understand that medical care was available at Trient and I would be OK there. I left with a warm and fuzzy glow, these people really love the UTMB and were grateful that you had come to try and get round it.
I pushed onwards, the pain was very real now and I was not a happy bunny. I still had my faculties about me and knew that I was heading towards the Col de Forclaz and from there I would be able to drop down to Trient without too much difficulty, however it was about then that the much-vaunted hallucinations kicked in and I was initially confused. I kept seeing rooms - illuminated rooms - where there couldn't possibly be any and to add fuel to the fire little black cats were running around by my feet. I'm not easily given to this sort of thing, so it was a bit of a surprise that this was happening and seeing as it wasn't in the slightest bit scary I didn't worry too much about it. I was still glad to get to the Col de Forclaz though, the route intersects a road here and I'm sorry to say that it felt much further down to Trient (CP24/86.8m) than I remembered.
|Col de Forclaz|
|This was as painful as it looks!|
Maybe that little "upright sleep" had done me some good, because I recognised the trail leading down to the checkpoint at Catogne (CP25/89.9m) and was glad to see it, a bit of familiarity always inspires confidence. This CP is not much more than a small hut and you go straight through it, it's so remote that it's not realistic to replenish water/food here. The guys manning it had built a fire outside and a couple of them were curled up in sleeping bags next to it - it must have been around 3.45am - and I would dearly have liked to join them. Not much chance of that though, from here you're back in France and it's a hellish descent down to Vallorcine, losing about 2,500ft in one hit. The route takes you behind and along some ski slopes before joining a pretty tortuous path, quite rocky and strewn with tree roots. I'd thought it would be a tough 'un on our recce and I wasn't wrong ..... in darkness, on sore feet and exhausted legs it wasn't funny at all. Mike had rejoined me by now, but was starting to fade and wobble a bit, moreover he'd reached the point with his feet that I had in Trient and was in real distress - he was going to have to sort that in Vallorcine.
The final stretch of descent down to Vallorcine (CP 26/93.2m) is a steep, quad-crushing grassy slope and you know all about it, it's a massive relief to reach the bottom. Helen was there with a big smile, this was the last assisted CP and from here she would go back to Chamonix and wait for me to finish. To finish!!! This was really on, in practical terms I was in no worse a state than the majority of other competitors around me and a lot better than many. I sat down for a moment as I needed to get some warm liquid into me and and reflect on the God-awful transit over from Trient, I wouldn't have thought it possible to drop into the sonambulistic haze that I did, this was plumbing new depths. Helen tells me that she was worried about me at Vallorcine, as I was a bit quiet and normally you can't shut me up I gulped down what food I could, changed my top for the last time and got out into the first glimmers of dawn .... I had survived another night.
|Pensive at Vallorcine|
|Col de Montets|
|That be Mont Blanc yonder ....|
Chamonix was bathed in the morning sunlight and I could hear the church bells ringing. I was seeing lots more local people out for a morning stroll and every one of them stopped to applaud me and cheer, I lost count of the amount of "bravo monsieur" and "tres bon monsieur, formidable" cheers that I received, it's hard not to be buoyed up by this A couple of Brits saw the Union Jack on my number and were shouting my name, all of a sudden I was feeling a lot better .... Chalet Floria came and went, the beauty of its setting lifting my heart for the final stretch down to the finish. The ground levelled out and I turned into the town and within a few yards was running down the side of the river, past the Sports Platz where I'd registered for the race what, a year ago? I heard a familar voice shout my name and there was Helen running towards me, she must have seen my grimaced expression and realised that I was firing the silver bullet, this was the final stretch of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and she ran alongside me until we reached the main street in Chamonix and I was being cheered and applauded like I never have been before.
Crossing that finish line (104.8m, 31,894ft in 41hrs 19mins) was one of the my best moments ever, arguably on a par with when I reached the Moot Hall after my successful Bob Graham Round. Normal, untalented runners like me will never stand on a podium or have their names recorded in Athletics Weekly or The Fellrunner, so things like this are very important and I felt like I was going to burst. The photographers on the finish line were all pointing there cameras at ME, there was Helen shouting and cheering, how can your heart not sing after something this wonderful? I think the picture below tells the story much better than I can describe it.
|The end of a LONG road .....|