Well, this was it. All the training so far this year, all the many hours on a treadmill, the 2,000+ km of running, the 60,000+ metres of ascent led to here. And here I was, standing far too far from the start line at the Place du Triangle de l'Armitie.
The journey to get there hadn't been without its ups and downs (both metaphorically and physically), but I was here and I was feeling fit and ready to go. The weather had been pretty rubbish and, with snow and extremely low temperatures forecast, the organisers made a last minute change to the course – we would no longer go over the random boulder field just inside Italy and we were due to make a “direct ascent” from Col des Montets missing out the Tete aux Vents
From the start I was pushing reasonably hard to get ahead of the crowds before the first climb after Les Houches. I caught and passed Caroline McKay as we ran into Les Houches, before I settled into a steady but strong rhythm going up and over the first climb to Saint Gervais.
Feeling good, the crowds here buoyed me on, with countless high 5's as it appeared the whole town had lined the streets; and after a quick stop for a bowl of salty noodle soup (the first of very many) I was on my way again.
Les Contamines came and went, with the realisation that I'd just passed Sally McRae and Amy Sproston (2 of the very elite women's field) - so I thought I must have been doing OK.
Then the climb up to Col de Croix du Bonhomme which always seems to be a low point for me, this time being no different; but the reasoning for that is always the same - fuel.
I was trialling a new sports drink ("Maurten", if you're interested) which is particularly hard to dissolve as it's so concentrated. The 2 bottles that I'd pre-mixed in Chamonix from the start had gone, but now part way up this second climb I realised that I'd spent the last couple of hours drinking only water and the fuel was just a gloopy sticky lump at the bottom of my soft flask.
And it was here that the wheels began to fall off; not even 50km into 170. I'd been unknowingly digging ever deeper into my energy reserves to maintain my pace, and in a 100 miler that's unsustainable. Arriving at Les Chapieux I was bang on my target time, crossing the Col de la Seine (the next checkpoint just 10km and 1,000m away) I was 15 minutes down.
It was cold coming over the Col, really cold. But I was still one of the few runners in shorts, as that’s how I prefer to run. At the Lac Combal aid station runners were coming in shivering and, just as I was leaving, the medics rushed to the assistance of someone who had collapsed and was in a particularly bad way.
One relatively small climb and I was on the steep technical descent down into Courmayeur, where I was hopeful that the organisers buses had managed to successfully transport Keziah. I was particularly careful on the descent but still managed to kick a root which sent me flying headfirst towards a sheer drop! Careful Rich, there’s a long way to go yet.
Through the melee of suporters, picking up my drop bag I was elated to see that Keziah had indeed made it. I grabbed some pasta and set about changing into warmer, drier clothes; I dumped the Maurten and swapped it for some bags of Mountain Fuel that I had as backup. Keziah went to rinse the congealed lump of sports drink out of my soft flasks; she commented that it must’ve been really cold out there having found the only sink in the gents toilets, not sure what that meant…
Despite it being 7am, I thought a quick 10 minute power nap was in order so I found a quiet corner and closed my eyes. Seemingly almost immediately Keziah said it was time to go, so I hauled on my race pack again and off I went.
In spite of the extended stop at Courmayeur, I had no energy climbing up to Rifugio Bertone; the damage that I’d done to myself from running the first half under-fuelled was irreparable, so I knew from here on in any times were out of the window and I was just battling to finish.
By Rifugio Bonatti a storm had rolled up the valley, bringing an icy wind and snow. The waterproof trousers and jacket (a rather lovely birthday present from K’s parents) were on – and much needed.
With more and more time slipping away, I was starting to get seriously cold and my head went too; leaving me contemplating a DNF at the Arnouvaz checkpoint. The only reason I didn’t pull out here was the lack of phone signal, and I knew that Keziah would kill me if I dropped out without at least discussing it with her.
At this point the organisers weren't allowing anyone to leave the checkpoint unless they were wearing everything they had with them. I put on everything item of clothing I had, including the emergency rubber gloves (don't ask), and there was nothing left for it but to head off into the clouds and climb through the snow storm into Switzerland. The trail down to La Fouly is normally great fun – 15km of steady descent – but this time I was hating it. I was cold, wet, miserable and I’d had enough.
As soon as I had service on my phone, I texted Keziah to say that I was pulling the plug and getting the bus back to Chamonix. She replied straight away that she was waiting at Champex (the next checkpoint after La Fouly) and that we should talk about it there – I checked my spreadsheet and that was at least 4 hours away with the speed that I was running, there was no way I was going to make that.
Whilst I sat shivering in La Fouly, trying to warm myself up with bowls of noodles, cheese, biscuits and any other food I could force inside me; Keziah negotiated the organiser’s buses again and met me in La Fouly… I may have had a 30 minute snooze while I was waiting too. My coach, Donnie Campbell, and the outstanding Dave Murdoch both called me for much needed pep talks; not sure who told them I was struggling though……
So, buoyed by seeing Keziah and another change of clothes, I set off down the hill towards Champex. My UTMB was still on.
The rest of the race passed in a bit of a blur, with the headtorch coming out for the start of the second night just after Champex. The climbs became a familiar pattern of unzipping various layers as I got too warm, before promptly zipping them all back up again for the decents.
I was able to press on, making reasonable progress now, and finishing times started creeping back into my head. I figured out that I could probably still finish in around 36 hours, which I worked out would be 6:30am on Sunday; so I took the conscious decision then to back the pace right off and take my time through the checkpoints. I’d finished 2015’s TDS in the middle of the night, and decided that with all of the negative from this race that I wanted a daylight finish and the rapturous welcome back into Chamonix that the UTMB is famous for.
The UTMB had one more final sting in the tail waiting for me though. The “direct ascent” from Col des Montets to La Flegere, was nothing such. I left Vallorcine with enough food and water for a 700m climb; what we actually had was a 500m climb, then a 300m crazily technical descent (pretty much all the way down to Argentiere) and then another 500m climb to the ski station. I ran out of food and water on the final climb, nearly having a massive sense of humour failure, but trusting in the reflective flags marking the course towards Chamonix. I’d started hallucinating by this point too, seeing people and animals coming towards us, and I don’t know how many times I ‘saw’ La Flegere but it was just shapes in the trees. That's not happened to me before, it was interesting to say the least.
On the last descent I got a bit of speed up, overtaking about 20 people. Regardless of the rest of the race I was going to have a strong finish.
I hit the outskirts of Chamonix and could hear the cheers of the crowds, the announcer on the PA system. Everyone cheering and waving me in; it was brilliant. Karen and George spotted me just before the final short loop to the finish straight, before I managed to spot Keziah nearly jumping over the barriers to give me a sweaty hug.
I trotted under the finishing arch 39 hours and 41 minutes after I’d started under it, punching the air with the relief that I’d done it – and I had another gilet to add to my fledgling collection.
From 2537 starters, 849 didn't finish. But I did, in 710th, and I couldn't have been happier.
The gilet will be coveted, as my 2015 TDS one is still – but it will be more of a reminder of the journey it took to get there.
So what did I learn from all of this:
Don’t try anything new on race day – I’d used the Maurten drink in training, mixing it at home, but hadn’t practiced using it whilst refilling bottles on the fly. Doing some research, I think the high mineral content in the Chamonix region water may have stopped it dissolving too. I’ll keep trying with it, as when it works it really does work, but will have to look into maybe having some pre-mixed in drop bags around courses (and have some trusty Mountain Fuel in reserve!).
If you don’t respect a 100-miler, it’ll kick your ass – I’d cockily said at the start that I was planning on finishing on Saturday (given the delayed start, this would’ve been 29 ½ hours). I’m confident that I could run the UTMB in under 30 hours; but maybe I should’ve focussed more on taking it steadily through the race, staying more in the moment, rather than worrying about finishing times before I’d even started.
If in doubt, EAT! – if you’re lacking energy, eat. If you’re feeling tired, eat. If you’re feeling down, eat. If you’re feeling sick, eat. If you’re in any doubt, eat! You’d think I’d know this by now, but fuelling is still the weakest part of my running; ultras can be as much of an eating competition as they are a test of endurance.
When things don’t go to plan (and they won’t), don’t give up – Less than a third of the way in when things started to go wrong, I knew I still had a finish in me. It was always going to be tough and I’m so glad that I was stubborn enough to carry on when I wanted to DNF. I’m also eternally grateful to Keziah for not giving up on me (and for snitching on me to Donnie and Dave, prompting their phone calls…).
So what’s the plan for the rest of the year?
Some rest. Getting back into a little bit of mountain biking (a week in Spain and then a 24 hour endurance race). And then one more race to end the year.
After that, it’ll be an extended rest while the plans for 2018 are formulated, concocted and agreed… watch this space.