A race report (and a bit more)
Last week Team Eat.Run.See had the amazing opportunity to be both spectator and participant in what is arguably trail running’s Superbowl and Tour de France rolled into one. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) week in the French Alps town of Chamonix (and surrounds) is a weeklong celebration of all that is trail running. The world’s best ultra trail runners descend on the gorgeous and friendly town of Chamonix to test their mettle against each other (and themselves, the weather and mountain terrain) in a variety of distances, ranging from the (new, relatively short) 53km OCC to the marquee 168km UTMB race.
All in there are 5 events; 4 races and 1 epic 300km, 26,500m (that’s an insane 87,000’) vertical gain multi-day odyssey, called the La Petite Trotte à Léon. The events wind through towns and communities in France, Italy, and Switzerland. The 4 races are as follows:
- the 119km Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) with its 7,250m (23,800’) vertical gain and 33 hour time limit (Thursday evening start),
- the 168km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) with its 9,600m (31,500’) vertical gain and 46 hour time limit (Friday evening start);
- the 101km Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) with its 6,100m (20,000’) vertical gain and 26.5 hour time limit (Friday morning start);
- the 53km Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC) with its 3,300m (10,800’) vertical gain and 14 hour time limit (Thursday morning start).
When the UTMB organization announced the addition of the OCC race to the calendar for the first time in 2014, Bev and I immediately threw our names into the lottery hat. Little did we know, as we sat in our hostel in Cartagena, Colombia, that we would be successful in the lottery and find ourselves on the OCC start line on a gorgeous Thursday morning almost 9 months (and many adventures) later.
Fast forward past all the adventures and runs between Colombia and the Pyrenees, we arrived in breathtaking Chamonix via the center of France along with Richard’s dad and friend, Isabelle, on Monday, August 25th just as UTMB week was getting underway. The atmosphere was already electric as the 300km PTL was getting underway at 5:30pm (with the first arrivals only expected back in Chamonix around 7am on Saturday); there was a palpable buzz in the air as strong, athletic looking people were everywhere to be seen: some catching up with last minute mandatory equipment shopping and others lazily enjoying coffee or beer at one of the many outdoor cafes.
Monday night arrived along with heavy downpours and flat-out miserable weather – we couldn’t help but feel sorry for the 250 odd PTL runners out there in the Alps on a cold, rainy night. Tuesday brought more rain and our visit to the (open air) expo turned into a rather wet and cold affair. We were also rather shocked at the price of gear – on average at least 20% higher than in the US. Cost aside, we managed to find the few outstanding items to meet the mandatory gear list (food reserve and collapsible cups) and were ready for our gear inspection and race bib pick-up the following day. (For those interested see below for the list and how we met the requirements).
Bib pick-up doubles as gear registration, where the race organization checks that each runner has all the mandatory equipment. We arrived early and found a rather long line-up and we wondered how the gear checks are managed. What happens is that as each runner registers they receive a sheet of paper with about half of the required items randomly selected and highlighted. The runner then presents his pack, with the highlighted items taken out for easy inspection, to a race official.
Bev sailed through, but Richard ran into a small issue when his race official took issue with his headlamp which did not have spare batteries, as “required”. We didn’t think the spare batteries would be an issue since we use rather top-end running headlamps that come with 11 hour rechargeable batteries, and cannot accept any spare batteries. Add to that the fact that headlamps that use regular batteries are generally far inferior in quality to the ones that we use, we thought there should be no issue with our headlamps meeting the requirements. After a bit of a delay and a conversation with a referee it was agreed that our headlamps are more than sufficient and Richard was also cleared to receive his race bib.
The rest of Wednesday dragged on a bit as we packed and re-packed our race packs, making sure we had enough race fuel and that all the other bits and pieces were in place for our big run the following day.
3:45am Thursday arrived quite quickly in the end, and we got going with our usual race morning ritual which includes a spot of coffee followed by hot oats with chia seeds and soy milk. At 4:40am, a whole 5 minutes ahead of schedule we started our 15 minute walk down to the bus terminal to catch the race-organized bus to the start in Orsieres, Switzerland.
After a very comfortable, 90 minute bus ride we finally arrived at the race headquarters in Orsieres where we found ourselves a comfortable little spot in the sports center to await the race start time of 8:00am. We were both feeling very relaxed and happy to have time to warm up and mentally prepare for the day ahead.
The start line was amazing: we were in a beautiful little square in this quaint little mountain village (Orsieres, Switzerland), with 1,200 other runners, anxiously awaiting what we hoped would be a great day in the mountains. There was the usual host of announcements and thank you’s (most of which we couldn’t understand), as well as a Swiss horn blowing to herald the start of the race. Before we knew it, cow bells were ringing and OCC14 was underway!
The first few kilometers saw us winding our way through the streets of the village, small school children and adults lining our route, clapping, ringing cow bells, and yelling encouragement: “Allez, allez!” (Go, Go!).
We quickly started our first climb towards the gorgeous Champex-Lac (Verbier, Switzerland), where the first aid station awaited us at the 7km mark. After only 548m of climbing the aid station seemed to come a little early and we just drank our fill of water using our handy-dandy collapsible water cups (part of the mandatory equipment), and moved through the station within a few minutes. It was indeed unfortunate that we had no real need for an aid station yet, because these Europeans know how to do aid stations! In addition to the beautiful setting, it really felt like a place we should’ve hung out for a while, but we were, after-all, in a race.
The biggest issue over the first section of the course was that it seemed that there were perhaps a few too many runners on course, causing a fair amount of congestion on the single track. To make matters worse, passing people was not easy. We’ve read that European trail runners like their trekking poles, and we were becoming familiar with just how much they like them! It also became clear that while they may like their poles, not everybody really knows how to use them very well, especially as it concerns control of the poles in the vicinity of others.
There were a few close calls with the business ends of poles coming up dangerously behind their owners – perhaps it was a strategic effort to dissuade one from passing them. Admittedly the large number of runners is what makes it possible for more people to enjoy this amazing trail experience, and it is not lost on the author that if the field size was limited to a smaller number we may not even have made it into the race. Additionally, the field thinned sufficiently at around the 5km mark and there was never really any further congestion (which was actually better than at Comrades 2014).
After Champex there were a few kilometers of easy running around a gorgeous inky lake before we started our first real climb up towards La Giete. On our way to La Giete was the first time we ran above 2,000m, and with almost 1,000m of vertical gain over a 10km stretch it was the first real test of our climbing legs. Notwithstanding both of us getting shocked by an electric fence (turns out electric fences are commonplace, used to corral the alpine cattle), our legs held well and we felt pretty good as we started the 700m descent down to the next (this time much more welcome) aid station at Trient.
At 24km Trient represented the first time cut-off, and we were happy to easily make the 6 hour limit with close to 2 hours in hand. This time we soaked up a bit of the Euro aid station ambience, taking slightly more time as we filled up on water again; we had no need of anything else. It seemed that our fueling plan was working again (we had some issues with it during Comrades 2014). Our current strategy consists of Hammer Perpetuem Solids and Gu gels with electrolyte capsules. We generally consume 3 Perpetuem Solids and one Gu gel in every 75 minutes (about 160 calories per hour), alternating the solids and the gels. We couldn’t find our usual electrolyte capsules and had to go with something new; we found Saltstick Caps at the race expo. During the race we took one capsule every hour, and they worked perfectly, and has now become our preferred electrolyte replacement.
Leaving the sanctuary of the Trient aid station was like walking out of your clan’s great hall onto the battlefield, as we immediately started the most vicious climb of the day. The almost 900m vertical gain over the 4km to Catogne took its toll. We felt it, and many of our co-adventurers had problems on this section. Numerous runners took “special” little rests all along the course, and some looked rather pale. But onwards we marched, and finally made it up and over (with the help of our playlists and some dancing by Bev to John Denver, no less!), only to be rewarded with a 5km long, quad crushing, 880m descent into Vallorcine, another most welcome Euro-class aid-station.
The Vallorcine aid-station was the second time cut-off and we now had almost 3 hours in hand, and boy did we take advantage of that as we did a most excellent, Euro inspired job of truly soaking up the vibe. I re-filled our Camelbak water reservoirs and we both enjoyed some time off our feet. After spending close to 30 minutes at the Vallorcine aid station it was time to say good-bye and tackle the last hard 11km section to the final aid station at La Flegere, from where only an 8km descent remained before reaching the finish in Chamonix.
The climb up to La Flegere starts off really easy, with a fairly flat section along a river, and here we lost a bit of time on our potential. Perhaps we soaked up a bit too much of the Euro-vibe at Vallorcine, but we ended up walking a very runnable section. Looking back, both of us just giggle at what we’ll call a slight concentration breakdown due to our brains being starved of glucose. After some time we did remember to start running again and we ended up putting in a really great section of running to just below La Flegere.
The aid station at La Flegere was at the top of a “piste” (Euro-speak for ski slope), literally. We found ourselves at the bottom of a rocky ski-run, with a 400m vertical gain in about 800m up to the aid station. Looking back down the exposed slope at the other runners warily trudging up the unforgiving hill, Bev commented that it looks like we’re in a scene from the hit TV series “The Walking Dead”. The humor worked well and before we knew it we arrived at the last aid station, buoyed by the knowledge that all that separated us from a hero’s welcome down in Chamonix was an 8km descent.
We stayed a little while, amazed at the foods the other runners were inhaling: from salami to heavy looking cheeses and more common trail food like chocolate before we set off to receive our hero’s welcomes in the town below. Bev started to feel a bit cold and decided to switch to her long-sleeve warm layer and Buff (an amazing sheath of fabric to cover one’s head and neck in a number of ways!).
Richard texted his dad to let him know our expected arrival time and we started our way down a rather steep and rocky piste. Even though we both still felt pretty good, the steep downhill was not exactly what our quads wanted at this point, but down we had to go.
Soon, the piste turned into perhaps the most technical section of the course. Our tired quads had to negotiate very steep, rocky, and root infested terrain, a few water crossings thrown in for good measure. This final section did provide another unexpected sight as we passed by an amazing little hillside restaurant and refuge, called Chalet de la Floria. The descent continued, 8km of technical downhill on tired quads takes a while, and finally we were spit out on a road that leads into the village. Coincidentally, this road took us right past the mazot (cottage) where we were staying in Chamonix, so it felt familiar and welcoming after our long day out!
As we got closer to the village, more and more people started lining the road and the final kilometer through the village into the finish was hands down the most amazing running either of us has ever done.
The atmosphere and the support and excitement from the sidelines were overwhelming, we slowed down a bit and tried to really take it all in. As we approached the final corner Richard spotted his dad, camera in hand, on the sideline. We automatically grabbed a hold of each other’s hands and pumped our fists as Richard’s dad snapped a few pictures of us finishing this amazing race.
We continued around the final corner and above the loud applause of the many, many spectators heard the race announcer calling out our names and our finishing time: 11 hours and 12 minutes. We would later find out that we placed 711th and 712th out of 1,200 starters, with 100 people abandoning the effort.
Participating in this event was an absolute highlight for us. The entire week was filled with excitement and anticipation: first we anxiously awaited our race, which turned out to be a spectacular day in the mountains for both of us, and then we were as close as one can get to the amazing and inspiring UTMB action. Watching the UTMB race start, following the leaders online, and watching the winners arrive in person was simply fantastic!
Mandatory equipment required by race organization: (copied from UTMB race guide) – see in bold italics how we met the criteria
The following items had to be taken to the registration venue in order to receive a race bib and be officially registered for the race. It was also a requirement to carry the entire list of items with you during the entirety of the race, under penalty of immediate disqualification if unable to produce the items to any official on course:
- Mobile phone with the international roaming option for the three countries (and in the phone memory the organisation’s security number, the phone must be switched on at all times, do not with-hold caller number and don’t forget to leave with fully charged batteries) – bought pre-paid GSM SIM cards from La Poste (post office) in Chamonix for €9.50 (includes €7.50 of airtime)
- Personal beaker minimum 15cl (gourds excluded) – bought a set of 3 collapsible cups from WAA (the official UTMB retailer at the expo) for €5.00
- Water reservoir 1 litre minimum – used our trusty Camelbak 70 oz anti-dote reservoirs (however, recommend against this since our small Ultimate Direction AK Race Vests were packed to the gills with all the required gear, making it very hard to re-fill the reservoirs at aid stations – would recommend using 2 x 500ml soft flasks in the front pouches for easy re-fills; (we find the original UD bottles uncomfortable in the front pouches))
- 1 torch (torches in good working order with spare batteries) – used our Black Diamond Sprinter headlamps: a note of caution, a little bit of convincing was required to satisfy the registration staff re the “spare batteries” requirement
- Survival blanket 1.40m x 2m minimum – regular space blanket, easily obtainable
- Whistle – regular hiking whistle
- Self-adhesive elasticised bandage usable either as a bandage or strapping (min. 100cm x 6cm) – this one was kind of tricky, however any pharmacy in Chamonix will have it (€7.00 for 200cm)
- Food reserve – we bought 2 Clif Bars each (best bring this from North America – they are SUPER expensive in Europe (if you can find them))
- Jacket with hood and made with a waterproof (minimum 10,000 Schmerber) and breathable (RET lower than 13) membrane mountains – jackets were closely inspected, make sure yours is waterproof (taped seams were a requirement) and breathable. We used RaceElite Stormshell jackets by Inov8 (awesome jackets by the way)
- Long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely – regular running tights should do for this one
- Cap or bandana – self explanatory
- Additional warm midlayer top
- One single midlayer long sleeve top for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 180g (Men, size M) OR a two piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a wind- proof jacket* with DRW (Durable Water Repellent) protection
- Warm hat
- Warm and waterproof gloves