Friday, 1 September 2017

CCC 2017

The UTMB CCC – 1 September 2017


I have been a little in awe of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) races ever since we just happened to be in Chamonix during the third edition in 2005.  It was a considerably smaller affair then, but I recall quite clearly my incomprehension that anyone could run for that long, or that far, and climb all those mountains, without stopping or sleeping.  These people represented a different species from me.  Of course that was long before I had any interest in endurance events, and if you told me then that one day I would be part of that same set of races, I would asked for one of what you were taking.

The UTMB week also holds special appeal for me because in many ways it is my “home town event”.  Having spent considerable time in Chamonix over the past 15 years, I know well many of the trails and mountains, and once I started doing ultra marathons, it was only natural that UTMB would nag away at my consciousness.  So having accumulated sufficient qualification points, I put in a speculative entry last December not expecting to be successful in the ballot — I understand that it is a one in five chance for someone like me.  But then I heard that I had been allocated a place, and this became my focus and target for season.

Of course I had not entered the UTMB itself — that is just for the superhuman or insane (or both, yes I am talking about you Andy) — but it’s little sister, the CCC: Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix.   At 100km and with 6,150m of vertical climb, it represents approximately the last two thirds of the full UTMB route, starting in Courmayeur in Italy, progressing though Switzerland and finishing back in France at Chamonix.  However, don’t be misled by the "little sister" tag, the CCC is still a daunting prospect, and easily the hardest race I have ever entered.

The atmosphere in Chamonix for UTMB week is just extraordinary. With 5 different races taking place during the week there were over 8,000 competitors from more than 70 countries, plus their families, supporters, crew, and the associated circus of kit manufacturers, retailers and assorted corporate sponsors. It must surely be the largest global gathering of those with an interest in ultra trail running, and you could just taste the excitement as you walked down the Rue Paccard. Mere mortals like me get a bit of a buzz from passing a familiar face, and then recognising it as belonging to one of the gods of trail running: Kilian Jornet signing autographs, Nicky Spinks doing an interview, etc...

My training and preparation had gone well, with the exception of the Centurion South Downs Way 100 mile race in June (see here) which represented my longest “training run” for the CCC.  I had had major problems, and although I did finish and struggle over the line, my performance was a disappointment and this had knocked my confidence.  I had just had one of those bad days, and was fearful it could happen again. 

I try to have an objective for each race: for this one the primary goal was to finish within the cut-off time (26 hours 30 minutes), with a secondary target of finishing within 24 hours (just because that time has a natural symmetry), and I had prepared a schedule for a sub-24 hour finish.

After a week of warm sunny weather, the long-range forecasts showed horrible thunder storms and heavy rain for the race days.  Fortunately the storms came early on the Thursday, and whilst this soaked all the trails, at least the forecast had improved to a reasonably dry day, albeit followed by heavy rain at night.  We had received notification that because of the poor weather forecast the organisers might be considering switching to an alternative, lower and safer route.  Thankfully this was not necessary, although there was one last minute adjustment to the normal route for safety reasons, but more of that later.

The Race

At the start line in Courmayeur
On race morning Sarah drove me from Chamonix through the tunnel to Courmayeur, and we got there nice and early which meant I was near the front of my starting pen.  Where you start is dictated by your bib number, which in turn is based on your previous race history and times.  I was in the last pen which meant I would be starting in the third and final wave at 9.30am (the first wave of elite runners goes at 9am).  I tried some gentle stretches on a tight left hamstring that was concerning me  it was the same injury that contributed to my problems at SDW100. I decided it was too late to do anything about it now: I hoped it was just one of those phantom injuries you get before a race, but I was a little worried.

Just before the off
As we waited, we were warned by the organisers that although it was sunny and mild in Courmayeur we should be prepared for very cold weather and strong winds on the peaks — how right they were.  The feeling at the start is just amazing: we had the national anthems of the three countries through which we would travel, and the UTMB theme tune (Vangelis' Conquest of Paradise) — it all got quite emotional. 
Happy to be running at last
The snake climbs slowly up
I had wanted to be at the front of my wave in order to avoid the worst of the queues going up to Tete de la Tronche, the first and longest climb of the race to the highest point.  As it worked out, the front of my wave soon caught the rear of the second wave and I was stuck in a queue the whole way up.  Occasionally it was possible to pass, but it was risky and tiring to do so.  This enforced slow pace meant that this was the only leg of the race on which I did not outperform my target times, arriving at the peak in 2 hours 38 minutes, within one minute of the schedule.

Getting closer to the top of the Tete de la Tronche
Refuge Bonatti
Once at the top, the run down to Refuge Bertone was wonderful.  An excellent trail for running, liberated to be free from the queues, I progressed quickly along a ridge with amazing views of the Mont Blanc massif to the right and the Courmayeur ski area directly ahead.  It was simply the best feeling.  I had no need to stop at Bertone — I just filled up with water, took a couple of photos and grabbed some chocolate to munch on the climb out of the refuge.  The balcony run up along Val Ferret, past Refuge Bonatti and then down into Arnouvaz was equally delightful.  Gently undulating with nothing too steep, the sun still warming my back without being unduly hot.  Just perfect.

Views of Courmayeur ski area as we climb up the Val Ferret

Feeling good coming into Arnouvaz
Reaching Arnouvaz in just over 5 hours, I was feeling pretty strong.  I could still feel the tight left hamstring, but it was getting no worse.  I had also had some quad cramps at the top of the first big climb but with the help of some salt tablets I had now run that off.  More importantly, I realised that it was around this time on the SDW100 that it had all gone wrong, but in contrast, this time I felt good, strong and happy.
Starting the climb up to the Grand Col Ferret

Very cold and foggy at the top of the Col Grand Ferret
The climb from Arnouvaz takes you up to the Grand Col Ferret, the second highest point on the route, the border with Switzerland, and probably the most exposed col we would encounter.  Shortly after leaving Arnouvaz the clouds came in and it started raining.  Half way up we ascended into the fog, and as we reached the col the cold wind was cutting.  I had ice crystals forming on my gloves, but fortunately it was better for us than the UTMB’ers who suffered horizontal driving snow at this point 24 hours later.

The fog stayed with us most of the way down to the next aid station at La Fouly, but apart from that it was it was an enjoyable run — good conditions under foot and great to get the legs moving again.

I had read about the famed noodle soup, so I decided to try some at La Fouly.  It was so good  — warm and salty — that I had three bowls.  This was probably a mistake as the next section was 10km of gentle downhill on roads and tracks that were eminently runnable (I clocked 5 minute km pace here without really pushing it), but the noodle soup was sloshing around uncomfortably inside me.  There followed a sharp and rather nasty 400m climb up to Champex-Lac.  Compared to the other climbs on the route, this is just a tiddler, but for some reason it felt to me one of the toughest.  Maybe it was the cumulative impact of 9 hours with only one short stop, or the psychological effect of really wanting to get to the half-way aid station at Champex where Sarah was waiting for me.  Either way it was my lowest point of the race.

Starting to get dark and rain falling as I leave Champex-Lac
By this stage I was about 90 minutes ahead of my schedule which meant that Sarah had had to leave Chamonix early to drive around to meet me (and therefore miss Andy at the UTMB start), but as my ever-efficient crew she was there waiting and ready.  She really is brilliant at crewing — quick to ask what I want to eat and drink, in no time my order appears in front of me, with my drop bag ready and waiting, and water bottles filled before I could ask.  She asks the right questions to check I am doing OK, but does not go over the top with either praise or encouragement.  After 22 minutes I was off and running again — well walking actually so I could let the food settle, and she and Blue accompanied me along the lake shore.  It was now getting dark and very cold — I had to put on my warm mid-layer as well as my outer waterproof, and kept both on for the whole of the remainder, including the uphills.  As I said farewell to Sarah and Blue, and headed off into the forest, it started to rain again, quite heavily this time.

The climb up to La Giète had by now become very wet, muddy and slippery, but fortunately being mostly in the woods we were sheltered from the worst of the rain.  The aid station at La Giète is in a wonderfully cosy barn and many runners seemed to be lingering there — I decided not to stop as I would find it hard to get going again if I got too comfortable.  I was now in familiar territory as I had previously recce’d the route from La Giète to Chamonix, but I was not prepared for the next section of very slippery path with continual trip hazards.  Being cautious on the descent I was passed by many of those that I had overtaken by not stopping, but knowing that a finish was now within my capabilities, I did not want to risk a race-ending injury.

The crowds of supporters at Trient were just amazing and made a massive noise for every runner that approached, an encouraging sound that you could hear from several kilometres away.  It was now around 11pm, there was a public bar at Trient, and I think some supporters had been making full use of the bar for some hours.  The wet conditions were now taking their toll on my feet, and I could feel the dreaded “trenchfoot” blisters starting to burn hot on my soles.  I grabbed a cup of coke and sat down to change into dry socks and apply lashings of Gurney Goo all over my white wrinkled feet.

The ascent out of Trient to Les Tseppes (where there was the usual warming bonfire) and onto the pass at Catogne was one that I now knew quite well, and although it was 90 minutes of hard climbing, it passed quickly and I still felt good.  The run from Catogne down to Vallorcine is usually really enjoyable — just the right gradient and not too technical — but even the excellent studded tread on my Inov-8 X-Talons could not grip in the runny, slimy mud that the path had become.  It really was unspeakably horrible.  It was a blessed relief to reach the bottom station of the Tete de Balme chairlift and join the much more runnable red piste.  Turning off the piste for one more slippery forest trail, eventually the Vallorcine train station appeared, and I had the unexpected boost of Sarah waving at me as I walked into the aid station.

Noodle soup at Vallorcine
I had told Sarah not to bother meeting me at Vallorcine.  I was scheduled to arrive there at 4.30am — I actually got there 3 hours early at just after 1.30am — but either way it was the middle of the night so I didn’t expect her to be there.  However, seeing how hard the rain had been overnight, she was worried that I might be soaked and in need of dry kit, so she had decided to ignore my instructions and meet me there anyway. Simply outstanding!  She sorted me out as usual, and then started crewing for other Brits who were in need of assistance.

In training runs I had run the 200m climb from Vallorcine up to Col de Montets — no chance of that this morning — but it was from here that the route alteration kicked in. I knew that the originally planned climb from Col de Montets up to Tete aux Vents included some very steep sections with steps and scrambles over smooth rocks and vertical stream beds, and probably wisely the organisers had considered it too dangerous in these wet conditions.  Instead we had been instructed to take the route “straight from Col de Montets to Flégère” thus avoiding Tete aux Vents.  Naively I had assumed that this would be less climbing and much easier.  I counted down the metres on my watch altimeter and as we approached the altitude of Flégère I celebrated that the last climb was nearly over.  Nope. The organisers had a nasty surprise for us, and we then decended all the way back down again.  I am not sure what was worse: the psychological damage that I knew I would now have to climb those 500m all over again, or the fact that this was the nastiest, most technical, root covered, rocky and slippery descent of the whole race, all undertaken in a foggy darkness.  After that soul destroying descent, the simpler pain of climbing again was a welcome relief.  I decided it was time for a gel and an energy boost, and whilst it was a slog, I was soon at Flégère.  I didn’t stop at the aid station, but just checked my timings and ran straight through, by now anxious to just get to the finish.

The first section of the descent from Flégère is a steep technical zig-zag path through the trees with lots of roots and rocks, and I took it slowly and carefully, being passed by quite a few more courageous or stronger runners.  From Chalet Floria the path widens and becomes shallower, and from here I was able to run the whole way to the finish line.  Time to plan the celebration.  Sarah was of course there to welcome me, and I was astounded to see that our friend Ali had got up early to see me finish as well: 5:53am, 3.5 hours ahead of schedule.  

The finish line!

Reflecting on it all I am left with a strong appreciation of how lucky I am: lucky to have to won a place in the ballot; lucky to be able to run (ok, mostly walk) in such beautiful mountains; lucky to have such a supportive and understanding wife; lucky to have so many friends and family following me at home via the website; and lucky to have the health and fitness that enables me to have been one small part of such an amazing event.

Lessons and observations

Registration: efficient and friendly
I had read beforehand that the UTMB races were too large, too corporate and frankly not very "friendly". It is of course a massive event, and if you want to run in the mountains in peaceful isolation, this is not the race for you. However it was all superbly organised, the logistics were all spot-on, the volunteer marshals and helpers were all excellent, and the aid stations extremely well stocked. If you want to see friendliness just look at how the locals from every village we passed came out to support, even during the night, and how many supporters trekked up to remote places to cheer us on. Whilst it is true that there was not as much chatting between competitors as I am used to at races in the U.K., that might be because you were often unsure as to which language to use to start the conversation. I did meet a number of Brits on the way round and we did have a good old natter. Particularly Richard and Tim Antrobus (bizarrely no relation) with whom I shared the first climb, and Jamie Chaffney with whom I ran from La Fouly to Champex. Thanks Jamie for dragging me up that hill into the aid station, and for finding my watch when the strap broke on that same climb.

Making good use of those poles on a slippery rocky section
Cheat Sticks: this was my first race using poles. To be clear I do not consider the use of poles cheating – if the rules allow them that's fine by me – but I know some do not use them out of principle. My rough estimate based on those I saw around me on the CCC suggests that the vast majority (probably 95% or more) used poles. I found they made a massive difference both on the uphill and the downhill, and couldn't imagine doing the race without them. I did not suffer at all from sore quads or glutes, which means that either I trained superbly, or that I had the poles to thanks.  Ok, I guess it was the poles. The only sore muscles I had were actually in my arms which suggests I probably should have trained more with them before the race.

The Statistics

  • Of the 2,155 starters 1,742 finished with 413 DNFs (19%)
  • 73 different countries were represented on the start line, with the largest number of competitors coming from France (36%), Spain (12%), Italy (8%) and U.K. (6%)
  • The winner (Hayden Hawks of the US) finished in an extraordinary 10 hours 24 minutes
  • I finished in 20 hours 22 minutes and 22 seconds, in 611th overall (28th percentile of starters)
  • I was ranked 35th in the V2H (men between 50 and 60) category (13th percentile of 288 starters) and 38th in all over 50s (10th percentile of 382 starters)
  • Of the 700 starters in the 3rd wave only 16 finished ahead of me
  • I spent 65 minutes in aid stations. I consumed 5 gels but none of Shot Blocs or Bounce Balls that I carried.  Why do I always carry too much food?  From the aid stations, apart from water, I took the following: chocolate (Bertone), crackers (Bonatti and Arnouvaz), noodle soup (La Fouly, three bowls!), pasta and tea (Champex-Lac), coke (Trient), and tea and crackers (Vallorcine)

Celebrating in the finishers' gilet

Race details on the CCC Website

GPS track on Strava

Photos in album on Flickr

Video montage on YouTube

1 comment:

  1. Great read. I am doing CCC on friday this week.

    I think I am in the middle, or first start group. I am a bit worried about how important it is to be towards the front of the group at start. Would you say it is difficult to just make your way to near the startline like 5 minutes before start? Also wonder if there are any dropbags for you during the race? Halfway or something? For food or clotches etc.

    Or are there a dropbag that you leave at the start, which you only get at the finish line in Chamonix?

    So what race is next for you? :)