It has been a couple of weeks now since I ran the furthest and for the longest that I have ever done before. It has almost taken me this long to get my head around the whole event and work out what I want to write about it. But before I get into the event, here is a bit of background.
How I ended up running the CCC
When I met my wife, Julie, she was not really a runner (well, she had not competed in races thus far) and I was an out-and-out marathon runner, constantly seeking the flattest and fastest courses and training to get into the best possible shape I could, to attempt to run 26.2 miles as fast as I could.
But, much as with our shared love of jazz, despite having very different favourites within that style of music, we found that we could happily do our own running and there would always be cross-overs. In running those cross-overs turned out to be over ultra distances and exclusively off-road.
Whilst Julie had never actually competed in races before we met, she did know all about competitive sport and in fact had hiked the Sierre-Zinal course a few times in her youth, as part of the walkers section of that iconic race. So it was no great surprise when we discovered that once we were in the mountains and moving for whole days, our running intersected and we found something we could do together.
Once you go down that route – and especially if the aim of doing the races is to spend time together being inspired in the mountains – it is not long before the iconic Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc comes into view. Before we were married we promised ourselves that one day we would give that race our best shot.
In preparation for that ‘one day’ that seemed to be coming around very fast, my wife enetered us into the ballot for the shortest of the UTMB weekend’s races – the 102km CCC from Courmayeur, via Champex to Chamonix. I was pretty sure we’d be safe because the ballot system meant that we were not likely to get a place, so you can imagine my (ahem) delight, when we received the email saying “felecitations” – we were in!
Training for the CCC
With the prospect of running 102km with 6,000m of vertical ascent through the mountains, I did think that some preparation would be required. However that is easier said than done to be honest and I was suddenly trying to convince myself that a marathon training programme, peppered with some longer races, would be sufficient. To be honest, I worried that my biggest problem would be the amount of time I would need to stay awake, so perhaps setting up our business, freestak, would be perfect preparation for that…
The best things that we did, as far as I am concerned, were three races and a weekend of running:
1) The Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Classic Quarter – this was actually a DNF – my first ever – but it taught me that sleep is not essential, at least not in the short term. The day before the race I had some terrible news and as a result ended up getting 90 minutes sleep. By the time I dropped out at 22 miles, I had only had 90 minutes sleep in 40+ hours and whilst I felt terrible, I could have carried on physically. It was the emotions that I was experiencing that put an end to my race.
2) The Adidas Thunder Run 24 hours – in terms of total distance, this was, again, not really fantastic preparation, but I did run 40km and hard. And I really only had 4 hours sleep in two days, so again I had proved to myself that I could operate on very limited sleep. Plus, the mud was unbelievable so I knew that I could deal with less-then-ideal conditions.
3) The Montagn’Hard – a 60km mountain race near to Chamonix with 5,000m of ascent. This was real running in the mountain. It took me 11 hours to come 21st and I was really working the whole time. I learned about hiking hard. I learned that I am not all that good on the downhills. I learned that stopping occasionally and taking in the view is better than any performance enhancing product. I also learned what a 900m climb actually feels like… bloody tough basically!
4) The TORQ Trail Running Team weekend. This was something that we organised at freestak on behalf of a client, taking six winners of a competition to Chamonix for a weekend of running under the watchful eye of ultra runner and all round mountain expert, Julia Tregaski-Allen. This involved plenty of running and not a lot of sleep, over three days – the first day was a marathon with about 3,000m of ascent!
On top of that, I did manage to get some great runs in, while Julie and I were in Chamonix: the Vertical Kilometer course a couple of times: a 48km training run one day: quite a few two-hour runs before breakfast up the sides of the valley: a few runs up to the Brevant and back down. It all added up.
To the start line
So by the time I was on the start line for the CCC, I was feeling reasonably confident. Sadly the same was not true for Julie, who had fallen whilst on a training run a month before and really smashed her knee, almost certainly trapping and bruising soft tissue under her patella, which was causing quite a lot of pain. We just had to hope that things would be OK.
The start of the CCC, like the UTMB and the other races in the series, is a triumph. Extremely well coordinated, but without feeling contrived, there is Vangelis and waving of hands and sticks and crowds and a general feeling that something really epic is about to begin. As we crossed the start line, I was as excited as I was nervous, which is a wonderful feeling to have.
The race is underway
The CCC broadly follows the route of its bigger brother, the UTMB, with one major exception – the first climb up to Tete de la Tronche. Having decided to start slowly to try to give Julie’s knee a chance, we found ourselves right at the back of our wave – the second of three. That was fine, except that those at the start of the third wave, made up the 15 minute handicap that they had and were soon trying to get past us on very narrow, very technical trails. That was made worse by the fact that at a couple of points, the trails were so technical and narrow that we were queuing to get through pinch-points, which for a competitive type like me, was torture.
Still, once that first climb was out of the way (it took 4 hours by the way!) the field started to spread out and we were able to start moving at our pace.
Sadly, like a car stuck behind a tractor on a narrow country lane, which suddenly opens out into a dual carriageway, once the trail flattened slightly and we were able to start moving, we hit quite a decent pace, but there were still many runners around us, and Julie caught her toe on a rock or root and tripped, landing slap bang on the knee that had been injured before and winding herself at the same time. That, to be honest, would probably have finished most people’s races there and then. We had been running for 5 or so hours and now Julie was hurt again. Impressively after a couple of minutes, Julie was up again and moving as fast as before, with me running behind constantly urging her to take it easy and give herself space to the runner in front so she could see obstacles on the trail.
On we go
The race continued in a pretty familiar fashion after the fall – up a huge climb, over the top and down the other side. Aid stations and check-points came and went. We chatted and admired the view and wondered about the night ahead. And Julie’s knee continued to get worse.
After a while, other things started to ail us. The first couple of aid stations did not have the anticipated food that seems to be the norm for ultra trail races in the Alps. By the second stop we had been on the go for eight hours and we were hungry. TORQ bars and gels were great, but they weren’t all that filling and we were getting hungry.
My naïve kit choice suddenly started to cause me a problem. I had stupidly forgotten to pack my RunderWear for the trip and had elected to run in a pair of normal shorts and no underwear, just the liner of the shorts. Despite slathering on Bodyglide, the liner started chaffing and within a couple of hours, went from a slight irritation to a raw burning in the nether regions which was extremely painful and distracting.
By the time we were climbing up to Bovine, it was pitch dark and we were hiking up through thick mud. Julie’s knee was really painful on the downhills and we had three more of them to come, each probably being well over an hour. My chaffing was a bit better since I ditched the shorts and exchanged them for tights, pulled as low as I dared to avoid any skin:fabric interface. But it still really hurt. I think both of us started to want to stop.
The big difference was that Julie’s knee was a potentially very serious injury that was getting worse and worse. My complaint was sore nuts. Sadly Julie decided that she had to take the sensible decision and pull out at the Trient aid station.
A real low point
As we approached Trient, I did something that I am really not proud of. I was concerned that if I was to carry on – and apart from the aforementioned chaffing, I felt great – I knew I needed to get in and out of the aid station before the cut-off and I felt we were perilously close to that. So I urged Julie to speed up on what would be her last downhill, so that I could check she would be OK and still have time to carry on. Selfish in the extreme.
By the time we arrived at the check point, I had made Julie cry. It was 3am. I was tired, she was in pain. And I was not thinking about her as much as I should have been. It is all credit to Julie that she made sure I felt that she was not too upset and allowed me to head off for the last 28km.
As I climbed out of Trient, I felt like shit. Physically I felt fantastic and I was hammering up the hill, passing people by the dozen. But I felt really awful for being so mean to Julie and I texted her to say so. She called me – she told me that it was OK, that I was forgiven and that she had managed to get a lift back to Chamonix after the total failure of the organisers to get the buses to the aid stations that those dropping out so badly needed. As with every year, the drop out rate for the CCC was about 40% so this was not a surprise for the organisers!
The final climbs and descents
After Trient, I climbed. I want to push as hard as I could. As hard as my sore crotch and increasing tiredness would let me.
The only frame of reference I had was the pool of light from my headtorch and there was silence. All I could hear was my own breathing and the click, click of the sticks on the rocky ground. Occasionally I would pass another runner and quite often I would pass a few in a group. There was nothing said either by me to them or visa versa.
After a while I lost track of what I was doing. I reached the top of Catogne and started decending. The fatigue and soreness plagued me but after the summit I started to feel as though, with one more big climb to go, I might just make it.
The climb from Vallorcine to Le Tete Aux Vents was excruciating. I hit the bottom of the climb in darkness and looked up to see the snaking line of head torches disappearing ever upwards, but I knew I had to keep calm and simply hike as fast as I could. As I neared the top the horizon started to lighten and looking across the Chamonix valley towards Mont Blanc, a thin, white line appeared as the sun rose on the other side of the mountains. By the time I finally reached the checkpoint at 2130m, I could turn off my headtorch and try to run towards La Flegere in the pale morning light. I really wished that Julie was with me to see the sun rise and know that we only had 12km to go.
The final section of the race was unfortunately one of the low points for me. I was very sore and worried about how close I was to the final cut-off. The chaffing was really bad now and I couldn’t even make little decisions like whether or not to have my jacket on. Worse, probably half a dozen runners passed me as I struggled down the long winding path towards Chamonix.
We finally reached the bottom and hit the roads near to the apartment where Julie and I were staying and where I imagined she was asleep in bed. I was so tired I could hardly think. But with only 1km to go, I tried to be as upbeat as possible and being cheered into the town centre by crowds or people gave me a boost that I really needed. And then finally a friendly face: Dan and Jen from Xempo were there and Dan stepped out to take a picture of me as I rounded the final corner before the finish line.
24 hours and 20 minutes for 102km.
I think that psychologically the CCC is the hardest thing I have ever done. The uncertainty about whether I could finish stayed with me almost to the very last 3 or 4km. Julie dropping out and my reaction to that, was really hard to deal with. The feeling of wretched tiredness was like nothing I can remember having to deal with. But all that made the moment I crossed the line and received my finishers gilet all the sweeter. I had done something that I never thought possible.
And I really feel as though I became part of something special. As I am sure is obvious to anyone who has read this blog before, I love running and all the things that come with it – especially the way that it brings people together and seems, in the main, to bring out the best in people. In Chamonix, during the week-long festival of running that is the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, that positivity is amplified by a factor of at least a million. It must be the epicenter of positivity and shared respect for the entire global population.
The UTMB CCC challenged me in ways that I really was not expecting and that is what made it such an incredible experience. I am certain Julie and I will be back for more pretty soon!