Wednesday, September 14, 2016


This is the face of someone who has been running across mountains for 24 hours, realising they still have the equivalent of the Wasdale Horseshoe to come. It is the face of a person stupefied by their voluntary participation in such madness. It is my face, on Saturday 27th August, 140 km into the UTMB.

Rewind a day, and I was standing in the main square in Chamonix, on the elite start line of arguably the world’s most prestigious 100 miler, the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc. I’d never known anything like it. People surrounded me on all sides, packed against the barriers, leaning down from balconies, lining the street ahead. The atmosphere was electric with excitement, anticipation and fear. I waited there, amongst 2300 other runners, contemplating the challenge ahead.

For there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a challenge. I was aware that this was unlike any fell race. It was going to be less technical, more runnable, hotter, and longer - 65 km longer in fact, than anything I’d raced before. The unknowns were both intimidating, and exciting.

Since arriving in France two days previously I’d had a drugs test (my first ever, but apparently routine for the top 100 runners), received a ‘how to use poles’ demonstration from Nicky Spinks, and spent a significant amount of time wallowing in the river beside our chalet, trying to cool down. I’d repacked my kit several times (incredibly, I still managed to arrive at the start line lacking a spare battery – luckily my fantastic mum was on-hand to sprint to the car), and had eaten a good number of fresh baguettes under the pretext of carbo-loading. Now all that remained to do was wait...

I counted down the final ten seconds with thousands of others, and then the sea of runners surged forwards, and I was carried along the streets of Chamonix with crowds of people cheering on all sides, ringing bells, shouting ‘Bon Courage!’ and ‘Allez!’. We reached the outskirts of town, and still people lined the path, picnicking, barbecuing, drinking, and even offering free pints as we ran past. I spotted Damian Hall in front, and joined him for the easy first 8km to Les Houches, chatting all the while – so much so in fact, that another runner asked incredulously ‘Are you two going to keep talking all the way around?!’.

Damian pushed on as we reached the first climb, and I settled into what I hoped was a sensible pace, without really having a clue. With Damian gone, I chatted instead to a fellow Czech runner (I’m half Czech), and the climb passed quickly. We ran along a track with fantastic views of sunset and mountains to the left, and I was grinning with the joy of it, and for a moment I spread my arms like a child learning to fly, laughing out loud as I started the descent. I tried to follow the advice of UTMB veterans, and took it steady on the descent, so as to save my quads (n.b. they were trashed by Trient anyway).

The next checkpoint, the town of Saint Gervais, was amazing. One would have thought we were finishing the race, not 21 km into it. It was what I imagine riding the Tour de France must be like. Supporters lined the road either side, 5 person deep, with little children leaning in, reaching out open palms for ‘High 5’s’. I did my best, swerving from side to side to meet them, but eventually gave up, there were just too many. 

(photo Andy Jackson)
I stuffed some cheese and crackers into my mouth, followed by a slice of cake, and ran on out of town and into the cool shade of evening. The running was easy, but I was wary of how far there was still to go, and tried to be conservative. Walking one of the up-hills, I heard in the darkness to my left the friendly voice of Jezz Bragg, and we chatted for a bit on the run up to Les Contamines (30.7km). After a short road section we reached Notre Dame de la Gorge (34.6km), where I was amazed and delighted to people dancing around bonfires, singing and partying the night away. Somewhat reluctantly I tore myself away, and started the long climb through the darkness to Col du Bonhomme. The trail was a mixture of slabby rocks, and hard packed sandy trail, all pretty straightforward and runnable, but most people were just walking. Whenever I was overtaken I tried to watch how the person was using their poles, so as to improve my technique. I seemed to be making reasonable progress, and passed a lady on the ascent, although I had no idea where I was lying in the field overall. As we reached the top of the climb I looked behind me, and was taken aback, and rather thrilled by the sight of a seemingly unending trail of head torches, stretching into the distance from where I had come. There was a slight breeze at the top, but I was still amazed when runners around me started stopping to put on extra layers. These were tropical conditions in comparison with Scotland!

A straightforward winding descent took us to Les Chapieux (49.4km), where I enjoyed some excellent salty noodle soup, and passed a brief kit check before heading out again, running slowly along a gradually climbing road. In front of me a zig-zag of torches traced out the route, heading up to Col de la Seigne. I spent some time as I jogged along, trying to work out where the torches stopped, and the stars started. I’d begun to feel a bit tired by this point, and I was glad of the distraction afforded by the somewhat more technical terrain on the next climb, Col des Pyramides Calcaires. I crossed the one (and only) bog of the UTMB route, after which there was an interesting section of boulders before the descent to Lac Combal (65.8km). Feeling pretty worn out already, I was alarmed at the prospect of what was still to come. To my relief, Coca Cola did the trick, and I powered up the next climb, enjoying myself once more. As I moved upwards, I emerged from the thick cold fog of the valley and found myself looking down on a nighttime cloud inversion, snow capped mountains above a sea of silver. It was extremely beautiful.

As I started the descent to Courmayeur (78.8km), my head torch started to flicker, but I pushed on, hoping that its light would last just long enough. It didn’t, and I was suddenly thrown into pitch-black darkness, just 300m from the edge of town. With some fumbling around, whilst losing about 5 places, I found the spare battery, and was back on my way. 

(photo James MacKeddie)

My mum was waiting at the checkpoint and I was glad of a change of food (the crackers, cheese and sausage were no longer going down so easily), gulping down a pot of baked beans before heading back out. As I re-joined the route I spotted a lady in front of me, and I tried to stay with her, but she pulled away sometime on the foggy humid climb that followed. It was light by now, but grey, and I focused on moving along steadily, albeit slowly. The incline lessened, and I forced myself into a jog along a small trod through blueberry bushes and low trees. As I plodded along, I suddenly realised that something had changed, and looking to my left I saw that I was emerging above the cloud once more, this time to the orange and pinks of the Mont Blanc massif in early morning. Enthralled and inspired, I started running properly again, on an undulating path, passing another lady (and thus moving into 6th) shortly before Arnouvaz (96.2km).

The climb that followed (Grand Col Ferret) was hot hot hot, and I got the impression that I wasn’t the only one finding it tough. Part way up I stuck the upper half of my body in a cow water bath, further up I as good as rolled in a stream. The descent, which I had been looking forward to, wasn’t much better, and I dropped back from the runners I’d been with. By the time I arrived at La Fouly I was ready to stop. But I stayed only long enough to drench myself with their hose-pipe, and to consume several orange quarters, before setting off again. For a little while I ran with a group that seemed to know one another, and I was somewhat astounded to realise that a) they had done the UTMB several times before b) they seemed to be experiencing suffering similar to mine c) they clearly considered this normal.

In the mid-day sun the sheltered valley was baking hot, and I survived the run to Champex Lac (124.1km) largely thanks to the frequent fountains I encountered at the roadside. Given how I was feeling when I arrived at the checkpoint, I was amazed to see that I was by no means the worst off. In fact, I seemed to be doing pretty well in comparison! The place resembled an army hospital, with runners lying down on benches, or hunched with head down, staring into space. In the 10 minutes or so that I spent there, only one person left the tent, and I set back out with renewed morale. This was further improved by a quick swim in the lake (much to the amusement of the tourists picnicking on its shores), captured on camera by Little Dave (Cummins), who happened to be supporting in that spot.

Mid-race swim (photo Dave Cummins)
I made good progress on the next climb and the traverse through cow fields that followed, but on my screaming quads the descent went on forever, and I arrived into Trient (140.6km) in a rather sorry state (see pictures, top of page!). To make matters worse, the lady behind me (7th) came in as I was still sitting over a can of tinned pears, although this did at least force me out of my stupor and back onto the road. I started the climb prepared for her to catch me, but determined for it to at least take a bit of effort. To my surprise, she never came, and instead I caught the lady in front (Magdalena Boulet, USA), arriving at the final checkpoint, Vallorcine (150.9km), hot on her tail.

Magdalena must have been re-invigorated by my appearance, because she ran straight through the checkpoint and off along the gently sloping trail up the valley. In comparison, I spent a few minutes there, determined to stick to my race plan and look after myself to get around in one piece. Arguably I should have been more competitive, and not let her get away, but I was just glad at this point to be feeling ok again, and looking forward to reaching Chamonix, just 19km away. Alex (one of my support team), who has crewed at equine endurance events in the past described it as follows, ‘If you were horses, you (and almost everyone else) would have failed the vet check at Champex Lac. But at Vallorcine, you would have passed with flying colours.’

As I started up the final climb, Magdalena was already well ahead. Above us, the clouds were gathering, and the air was close with the promise of a big storm. The first drops fell as I reached the summit plateau. A few minutes later lightning flashed across the sky, a brilliant shock of purple white against the darkening sky. More lightning followed - every minute or so now - and I nervously counted the seconds between the thunder and flash of white, conscious of my exposure, and the carbon walking poles in my hands.

(photo Alex Melbon)
By the time I’d arrived at the summit checkpoint, La Tete aux Vents (158.6km), it was dark, and raining hard. The marshal seemed relieved to see me, and turned me in the direction of La Flegere with a slight push, shouting to be heard above the wind, ‘Be brave, and be safe!’. I wasn’t sure I could do much to ensure the latter (feeling somewhat at the mercy of the lightning still flashing across the sky above me), but I certainly wasn’t planning to hang around. In the cool rain, hopping across wet rocks, I was in my element, and I passed several runners, including the Czech I had befriended 150km earlier. I ran straight through La Flegere (162.2km), and into a thick fog, delightfully British. I removed my head torch and carried it in my hand so as not to be blinded by the white, and started the descent. The final kilometres into Chamonix went on forever, on a winding forest trail, in a small pool of light from my head torch, rain still falling hard. I finally arrived at the edge of town, but still had to run a couple of kilometres in a big loop through the streets, presumably usually lined with supporters cheering, except that almost everyone had left to take shelter, and so there was just an occasional waterproof-clad stalwart watching me pass.

I arrived at the final street leading into the town square, and ran across the finish to the cheers of my support team (mum, Alex, Bo and Alvar), and the many friends gathered there to see me finish. I was drenched and tired, and slurring my words like a happy drunkard. I had finished 6th lady, 51st overall, in a time of 28:34:35.

The UTMB was an incredible experience, and I’m already forgetting the pain, and remembering instead the cloud inversions, the sunrise, the trail of torches, and the man playing his harmonica beside a mountain road in the dead of night. Would I do it again? Probably yes, but not for a few years. For now, I’m glad to be running across boggy windswept fells again, planning the next adventure...