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Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 2011

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The Training ....

When I was offered an entry into the UTMB by a friend in the The North Face it all seemed like a good idea. After all, it was still 9 months away and I actually already had the points I needed to qualify. So, not wanting to let the opportunity slip away I hurriedly agreed. But, it was several months before the reality of it all dawned on me. In the early part of the year I slotted in a couple of marathons and then a Mountain Marathon at Easter before spending 2 great weeks ticking off Munros. But then the summer term gathered pace and it seemed all I could do to get out for 2 hour runs (this often involved running to or from work) –I did snatch a fantastic run across the 14 Peaks (or 15 or however many there are these days ?!!?) on a rare midweek day-off with near perfect weather. Not really the volume of training that I’d hoped for though given the enormity of the race. I thought a great deal about the race in the preceding weeks. Sure, I’d done plenty of tough races and even some silly length races but I had never actually stood on the start line of a race that was 105 miles. Last year I came close in the Tour Du Beaufortain but that was a mere 60 miles (and I couldn’t help thinking back to how I felt when I finished that one!!). So, this was a race into the unknown. I had, first and foremost, to prove to myself that I could complete it before any thoughts of racing could creep in. It didn’t help that Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was doing the UTMB there was as sharp intake of breath followed by the same advice – don’t be tempted to go off too fast if you want to get beyond Champex!.

The Holiday.....

Pilar and I (and the now 11 month old Griff) decided to clear off to the Alps for the whole of August (bloody teachers eh?). We first headed to Beaufort and coincided our visit with the Trail de Frison Roche (40kms and 2500m+). I felt typically British on the start line at 7:30am - pouring with sweat in the incredible humidity.  But, I raced hard to finish 6th in what was a fast and furious race and impressed myself with my performance over the latter third (made a change!).  It did cross my mind more than once though that I’d be in store for a race four times as long and four times as much climb in just a few weeks time!!

The following weekend we headed to the La Clusaz area and raced in the Trail D’Aigle (27 km and 1250m+) which actually felt tougher because it was like running a huge cross-country course. The pace was phenomenal but again I hung in there to finish 5th not too far away from the small bunch in front. This was just the sort of training I needed to get my head in gear for the UTMB.

The UTMB.....

And so to Vallorcine. I Naively told Pilar that I would “pop into Chamonix to register – see you at lunchtime”. It didn’t quite pan out like that. I hopped off the train and wandered through Chamonix to find the registration building armed with my mandatory kit. I actually didn’t need to look too hard as the queue was snaking its way through the streets and there was talk of a 2-hour wait! So, I baked in the heat of the day but finally got inside the building to find an airport style queuing system going back and forth across the room. 2 hours later I reached the front and was directed to “Numero Deux”. I duly presented my Photo ID & 20 Euro Note and was met with a confused looking lady who then summoned an organiser over. Much finger pointing at me and the computer screen then followed before a third fella came and told me I needed to follow him straight away. We ended up in this room beyond the viewing gallery where I was sat in front of a desk. I waited while the chap finished his phonecall to one of his friends..... about 20 minutes, he then informed me that under Anti-Doping rules I had been selected for a “random” drugs test. Then he leaned forward and asked me “ if there was anything I’d taken that they needed to know about before doing the blood test?”. At this stage you do find it hard not to feel totally paranoid & actually guilty of something! I racked my brains and the best I could come up with was a prescription drug for heartburn – not sure if that’s what he meant?!

I resisted the urge to crack the old joke of “feeling a bit of a prick” during the blood test fiasco (mainly because my French would have got me into real trouble here!!) and complied with the two ladies who took the blood, span it in the machine and then appeared to have a good chuckle at my expense. When the machine pinged they rushed over with a Dulux-style colour chart and did much frowning and pointing. The Doc then wandered over to chip in and turned to face me with a straight “Quarante- Quatre”. My quizzical look simply prompted him to translate it into English - “ Forty-Four”. My continued quizzical look called for further explanation – apparently a normal result (being between 40 and 48). And so I was whisked back to the point in the registration process – got tagged, kit checked, the free T-Shirt and then got out asap.

The weather had been great for 4 weeks in the Alps so it was no surprise when the forecast predicted a potential break at about the time the race started. It was no further surprise when I received a text message from the organisation during Friday to say that start would be put back from 6pm to 11:30 pm that night due to a severe storm that would pass through (bringing very wet and cold conditions, much rain and snow down to 1500m!).  I tried cadging some sleep during the day but I’m simply not good at sleeping in daylight hours and so I resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to have a few strong coffees to wake up a bit – and that’s before the race even started!!

The plan was to pop into Chamonix ½ an hour before the race – wander to the start and get cracking. Again, slightly niaive to think that it would be so easy –I didn’t quite appreciate just how big an event this was but was soon left in no doubt when I rounded the corner of the main square in Chamonix. Couldn’t get anywhere near the start line so battled further back and eventually climbed the fence to fall down into the tightly packed competitors the other side. Feet barely touching the ground, arms unable to move at all. The rain pouring down on the 2300 competitors seemed to do little to dampen the spirits of most. This was one hell of race – little wonder that it’s billed as the biggest trail race in the world! When it finally came time to start there was a massive time lag between the start gun and any kind of movement around me – and then, all of a sudden, I was free to run.... I did battle with the runners brandishing batons and tried to start sneaking through gaps –I stopped just briefly where I knew Pilar was waiting to give a quick wave and then I was off.  I haven’t started many races in a Goretex Jacket but it was cold and I was glad that I’d opted for the Haglofs Endo Jacket – if the forecast was right this was gonna be a cold, wet night.

The first few hours ticked by pretty quickly – Les Houches, the climb over to St Gervais in the sleat and then the long slog up the valley to Les Contamines and beyond to the Col du Bonhomme. Couldn’t help but think back to a similar situation in 2007 when I ran with team mates Phil Davies and Ben Bardsley to victory in the Salomon X Race – it was horrific weather then also with snow right down on the col and a pretty impressive thunderstorm to make you run than little bit faster.  The first main checkpoint of Les Chapieiux was welcomed for some hot soup and then off into the dawn on the track to the Col de Seigne. Verglas on the road and then the rocks and everything covered in snow as we headed over the second major pass. Then, the run to Courmayer via Lac Combal and the Favre Arete. Gain, I took a leisurely stop at Courmayer (that advice playing on my mind again!). Well-fuelled I attacked the climb straight after and passed 4 or 5 others. Reaching the stunning Bertone Refuge I was feeling good – tapped along at a healthy pace until the Bonatti Refuge and then the descent in Anurva. The climb up to the highest point on the route, the Col du Grand Ferret, was a real grind. It was also a hell of a long way down the other side to La Fouly. It was as I was arriving in La Fouly that I received another text message from the organisation informing us of a route change after Champex due to storm damage during the night before. Suddenly things became psychologically harder as a result of not knowing where you were going for this huge section. The distance was now longer with a wee bit more climb too. Anyway, it seemed to take forever to get from Champex to Trient where we rejoined the original route. I finally met Pilar at Trient and set off once again, alone, into the night to climb the Catogne. At one point I stopped to rearrange my shoes on my feet as they were getting incredibly painful. As I bent down to adjust them I started swaying and spotted it straight away as the first signs of me falling asleep. I struggled with tiredness all the way through to Vallorcine and then, with the final feed station left behind, I set off on the final leg to Chamonix.  The tiredness got worse and I started hallucinating - a horrible feeling when your brain starts switching off. In this case I stopped at a large puddle on the track, peered really closely at it before I realised that it wasn’t in fact ducks that I looking at but simply rocks in the puddle!! Every large trackside boulder that caught my headtorch beam was a cow until of course I stopped and stared closely at it. And, those pine trees on my left were rows of chalets until I turned to face them also. Got to finish this thing quick!! Probably would have been a bit easier with someone to run with for the final 30 miles but as it was my mind was switching off and I was doing everything I could to keep it switched on. After what seemed like an eternity, the track merged with the tarmac streets of Chamonix and that signified that this was nearly the end. There were few folk around when I finally crossed the line at a little before 4 am but the sense of relief was immense. I managed to get around in pretty challenging conditions to finish in 28th place in a time of 28:22.

Back in Vallorcine I crept into the caravan just before 5 am to see Pilar and Griff sleeping. I too fell straight asleep but it was only a couple of hours before Griff was up and ready for another day – not quite sure what all the fuss was about!!!

Immediately after the race I thought that I’d probably not do it again, once was probably enough of this sort of thing. I’d got around, managed to do the 100 miles and that was what I set out to do. 1 Week on and things are different. I’ve learned such a lot from this race that I can’t wait for December 16th in order to get my entry in again. I feel that I need to prove to myself that I am capable of a better time – perhaps in the region of 24 hours – before I can put the UTMB to bed once and for all.

Copyright Chris Near 2011.


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