I just returned from a week in Chamonix where I was going to run the UTMB CCC and spend some time in the mountains, enjoying the atmosphere of this unique event. Since starting freestak, I have rekindled my love for taking photographs and Chamonix on UTMB weekend is an ideal place to try a few things out. So I set myself a challenge of capturing some on-the-fly portraits of people finishing the UTMB. I wanted to try to find the look that encapsulates the pain and exhaustion of running 160km with 9000m of vertical climbing, often over more than 40 hours, with the elation of finishing and seeing friends and family (and the prospect of a cold beer only a few minutes away!) Here is some of what I came back with:
The London marathon is less than three weeks away and it has really crept up on me this year. That is partly due to the fact that Freestak has been getting busier and busier and I have not been training as much as I should have been. But there you go – 13 April is the date and I have to accept that there are no miracles in endurance sports and especially marathon running: you get out what you put in and all the gels and stretches and last minute core session in the world will not make up for not training.
So my focus has changed – in previous years it was always all about the spring marathon. Now I am looking a little further ahead. I have got a few races in the diary that I am very excited about and my aim is to translate that excitement into action and get some spring training going, possibly starting with a 26.2 mile training run around the streets of London on 13 April.
Racing focus for 2014
The first race that I have got an eye on is the Coastal Trail Series Classic Quarter on 7 June. I am going to ask people to sponsor me for this race as I will be running it in memory of my Nan. It was as Julie and I were driving to the 2013 edition of this race that my Mum called to say that Nan had passed away. Unsure what to do, we ended up starting the race, but we had only had 90 minutes sleep before the gun went at the start and I was in a terrible state emotionally. At half way – around 22 miles – I was done and had to drop out. This year I am back to honour my Nan and give this race my best shot.
Then on 5 July Julie and I are in France for the 60km La Montagn’Hard which we both ran last year and we absolutely loved it. It is brutally hard in terms of elevation gain – there is barely anything flat and we will climb over 5000m in 60km. It is a wonderfully organised by the denizens of a small village called St Nicolas and has such a wonderful relaxed, informal atmosphere that I can’t wait to have a crack at it already. I just wonder whether my adversary Denis from last year will be there.
But both the Classic Quarter and the Montagn’Hard are warm-up races for the main target for the summer – the UTMB CCC. This was the race that Julie and I took on last year. We were doing really well together before Julie fell and cracked her already-damaged knee, which meant that her race was over by 78km.
This year I think we are both determined to have a really good go at the CCC. I want to get around in under 17 hours. Last year the winner finished in 11 hours while I took over 24 hours. 17 hours seems like a touch but acheiveable target.
Getting the kit right for 2014 Ultras
And one of the things I have to refine for ultras in 2014 is my kit. Specifically my shorts. Last year I wore a pair of tried and tested shorts that I thought would be fine. But it was very warm and after 9 hours of running in the heat, with slightly damp shorts from sweat and water that I had spilled on myself, my inner thighs were rubbing raw. The chaffing was agony. Honestly… I was really suffering.
So in the middle of the heat of the day I threw my shorts in the bin in a public toilet and pulled on my tights for the next 15 hours. The pain was still intense, but less bad in the tights. I was hot though and I felt really stupid: I was in danger of DNF because my undercarriage was sore!
So this year I am on the hunt for the ultimate ultra short. The team at inov-8 (thanks Lee!) have just sent me a pair of their Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts and from only wearing them for a few hours around the house tonight, I think they are the business – I think they might be just what I am after.
inov-8 Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts
The shorts have a really comfortable, high waist band. They come with a wide, double thickness gusset that will keep certain important parts of the anatomy warm. There are a couple of useful pockets at the front that are designed to take a gel or two. And they are made from a really comfortable, stretchy man-made material. Most importantly, they are tight and will stop my thighs and nether regions from rubbing (especially if I pair the shorts with the utterly amazing RunderWear from the team at RunBreeze).
Performance vs. appearance – what matters more?
However there is the aesthetics to take into account. Now the reason I started running in the first place was to try to reverse the effects of years of bad living. So my body-image has never been great. And tight shorts are never the most flattering look. Don’t get me wrong, the inov-8 shorts look great – it is just me in them that is the problem.
Some people – my wife included – have suggested that a pair of baggy shorts over the top make for a much more flattering look. But then I have done my best to get ‘shights’ – that is shorts over tights – trending and not for good reasons. I think that wearing something baggy over your tights – or you tight shorts – confers no performance benefit whatsoever and so must purely be a vanity thing. I want to be focussed on performance and believe that runners should not worry about how they look – just about how they perform.
So what should I do? Well first thing’s first – ask you, my dear friends. Tights or tight shorts on men: fine or a crime? What do you wear when you’re running, especially for ultras? What is the worst thing you have seen? And should anyone – ever – wear tight white lycra? Help me out here, people, because the inov-8 shorts feel amazing and I think they are the solution to my problems and will almost certainly contribute to me achieving my newly-set summer goals. I just don’t want people to be laughing at me in the street as I smash those goals…
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!
In a few hours I will be setting off on a bus from Chamonix where I am staying to travel through the tunnel under the Mont Blanc to Courmayer, Italy. From there I and Mrs. F. will run back to Chamonix via Champex Lac in one of the races making up the UTMB race series. It is 100km, with around 6km of vertical ascent. It is going to be fun, tough, inspiring and challenging. I can’t wait!
This week in Chamonix
The trail running world – or at least the European part of it – seems to arrive in Chamonix for the UTMB week. Everywhere you look there are man and women sporting amazing looking running kit and very little body fat, parading through the town and generally consuming enough calories to power an army for a year.
For someone relatively new to the ultra trail running scene like me, this is an astonishing and inspiring place to be at this time. And one of the amazing aspects of trail running – and perhaps running in general – is the way that the best in the world seem happy to rub shoulders with those starting out and simply trying to finish the races. So it has been an increadible few days of meeting running royalty for me this week…
First up it was Anton Krupicka, who wandered into the restaurant where I was having lunch. He seemed only too happy to pose for a photo and chat about what will be his first UTMB this week.
The following day I decided to run to the summit of the Brevant with a friend Rob Gabbie. It was a tough climb that took us a couple of hours, but despite the clouds which obscured the view across the valley, for me it was well worth it when I arrived at the summit and there, sitting on a rock, was Sebastian Chaigneau.
He too was happy to pose for a photo and talk about the UTMB. What I didn’t expect was his answer when I asked if he thought he might win:
I don’t care. I am here to run in the mountains and be humble and enjoy myself
Great advice that I am going to adopt for my race tomorrow.
On the way down from the Brevant, I bumped into Shona Stephenson, from the inov-8 team, running uphill. I stopped to say hello and whilst Shona didn’t remember me and made no attempt to hide it (!) despite meeting me only a few weeks ago, she seemed to be pleased to have been recognised. For her, the UTMB is an exciting race: it’s her first attempt at it and it falls on the day of her 35th birthday. She has spoken to the inov-8 people about the race and you can see what she thinks here.
After that, I had the running-celebrity equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel when Mrs. F. won an invitation to a breakfast at the Northface store in Chamonix and knowing what a running geek I am, offered her place to me. Within moments of arriving I was talking to Jez Bragg, who I have met before and Lizzy Hawker (who I have been corresponding with recently and it was great to finally meet her in person). We were talking about Lizzy’s injury woes and how Jez would approach the race after his epic New Zealand escapade, when we were interrupted by someone wanting to say hello (to Jez and Lizzy I hasten to add, not me!) – Timmy Olsen!
So there I was in a group of four talking to Jez Bragg, Lizzy Hawker and Timmy Olsen. Surreal!
Chamonix is ready – am I?
So after immersing myself in the ultra trail world for the past few weeks, it is now time to get down to business. I have felt better prepared for races. But then again, I think that something magical happens when you get on the start line of a huge challenge like this. I am really excited about what is going to happen and the fact that I will be running with Mrs. F. The weather is set fair and I have had enough inspiration and positivity to fly me to the moon. I’ll let you know how I get on…
It would not be hard to argue that Chamonix, France is the spiritual home of trail running and ultra-trail running, at least in Europe (though I would say that it is the global hub for trail running) and one of the strongest pieces of evidence for that, is that this tiny town, tucked in the bottom of a valley bang up against the foot of the Mont Blanc massif, with glaciers towering above it, is home to some of the greatest trail runners in the world: Killian Jornet, Lizzy Hawker, Sébastien Chaigneau… and me for a few months this year.
So I was not hugely surprised – but I was hugely delighted – to see none other than Anton Krupicka strolling into the café where I was having lunch today. I am afraid that I was not about to allow the chance to meet him slip by, so I introduced myself and we chatted for a few minutes about the up-coming UTMB race which will be the first time Krupicka has tested himself on this course.
He was charming, not at all annoyed to be accosted by a complete stranger and really happy to talk tactics (and amazingly about his concerns) for the UTMB. Anton, if you are reading this, I hope that the race goes really well and that your first foray onto this iconic course is a huge success.