Back in January this year I found out that I was successful in securing a place in arguably the most prestigious trail running race series on the planet - Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Throughout the last week in August, members of the trail running community worldwide descend upon Chamonix for a week of races of various distance and elevation. All of them require participants to qualify by earning points at designated races. The UTMB race series is considered the Mecca of trail running and the top of its game in terms of the experience, fitness and skill required to attempt it, let alone complete the course.
The race I entered via the ballot is called the CCC.. each ‘C’ is representative of the three main towns in the three different countries the route goes through; starting in Courmayeur, Italy then passing through Champex, Switzerland before finishing in Chamonix, France. The course totals a little over 62 miles, 6100m of elevation and five mountain summits - participants are given 26.5 hours to complete it.
After the initial giddiness of excitement, nerves and genuine fear, I devised a plan which involved a coach and regular physio appointments as I’d been carrying a hip injury for a while. Self care in general is something I fall down so I knew I had to step this up with immediate effect. Training would involve as many hills as I could find (not easy when we live in a flat-ish country!) and a whole lot of stair climbing at the gym.
The day that the ballot results were released I decided that a recce weekend in Chamonix was a given. So the weekend just gone I flew out there with a friend, Jonathan Zincke, who has aspirations to complete CCC himself next year but also happened to be training for his own mountain race in a couple of weeks. He was definitely the right person!
I have to admit that beyond the initial discussion to agree a weekend we were both available, I left it up to Jon to manage and plan logistics - this isn’t my strong point and he seemed quite happy to plot routes, book transport etc..
The Warm Up Run
We arrived in Chamonix on Friday lunchtime and after a bit of a chill (we were up since 2:30am to catch our flight!) we headed out to explore the local trails heading up to the Merlet Animal Parque - a 7 mile loop with a 670m climb. It was a beautiful evening and I enjoyed the vertical challenge. The trails were all single track and very easy to follow. A few technicals here and there which added to the thrill of it all. A great leg loosener ahead of Saturday’s long run.
The Long Run
I was a little apprehensive about this one and now that I’d experienced what a mountain mile actually looked and felt like, my apprehension had grown overnight. The route was mostly the first 36km of the actual CCC route itself and I knew that the first climb was around 8 miles long and 1400m up. We caught the 8:30am bus from Chamonix, through the Mont Blanc tunnel, to Courmayeur in Italy where the race starts.
The climb to the top of Tête de la tronche is around 1400m and once you clear the tree line the air becomes a little thinner so breathing was laboured and both Jon and I found ourselves having to stop more regularly. It’s also quite exposed up there and just a gentle gust of wind made me shiver.
The ascent was a real eye opener for me and whilst my fitness and endurance is pretty good at the moment, it didn’t take me long to realise that I need to get some hiking practice into my training.
The descent, on the other hand, I was pleased with. Apart from the obvious that down hill running carries less cardio loading, I handed the technicals fairly well and without compromising my pace too much.
Furthermore, I’d heard people say that the downhills are so steep that it’s quite common for the quad (thigh) muscles to ‘blow up’ (not literally, I hope). Whilst I could feel them having to work hard, I had good control and stability and other than a bit of heaviness the next day, I felt good!
Jon and myself both underestimated just how long the original plan of 36km/23 miles would take us, and with the last bus back to Chamonix to catch, we made a decision to skip the second ascent. It was the right thing to do at the time but when the bus was two hours late, we were more than a little bit miffed that we could have stuck to the plan after all. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?
Still, we managed 22 miles, 1750m total ascent and 8 hours on our feet. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we celebrated with several drinks and ice cream whilst waiting for the bus.
The Morning After Run
After a restless night of fast breathing and raging thirst which I later realised was the onset of altitude sickness, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling hardly any achiness or stiffness in my legs. Due to missing out on the second mountain the day before I was keen to get back out for a bit more elevation training before flying back to England. Jon was happy to give it a miss so instead he took the cable car up to Plan Praz whilst I ran/hiked the footpath up to the same point. I knew we didn’t have enough time for me to make it all the way to the top but I was happy to gain another 600m of elevation under my belt. It was a strong and satisfying finish to an extremely tough weekend of training.
So with 8 weeks to go I have my work cut out. My endurance is in a strong place for the distance but my strength endurance for elevation still needs some work. So my plan is to spend even more time on the stair climber, increase muscle strength endurance and get some hiking practice in.
I’ve also felt the effects of altitude sickness upon my return, not a great feeling but I’ll have more time to acclimatise during the week leading up to the big day on 30th August.
To recce that first mountain and get used to the changing terrain as well as get some technical down hill practice is as much as I wanted from the weekend. However I’ve come away with so much more; a new friend, new mountain trail experience and the utmost respect for the mountains themselves and anyone who even considers running in them!
Whilst I’m more apprehensive than ever, I know what I need to do now and that in itself gives me much better clarity. I’m excited and nervous but can’t wait to get back and run amongst those majestic giants that are Les Alps.