Only a handful of people know this, but I ended up taking part in one of the most prestigious trail running races in the world because I lucked out on a gin fuelled ballot entry upon discovering I had accrued enough UTMB points to qualify. ‘Bugger it, what are the chances?’ .. I believe was my train of thought at the time. ‘Oh bloody hell, shit the bed’ was my reaction when I got news that my ballot entry was successful. Furthermore I was quick to take note that people’s reaction to my exciting news was along the lines of ‘oooh playing with the big boys this time!’ .. what did they know that I didn’t?!
I turned 40 this year and wanted to achieve something big on the ultra running scene to mark this hefty milestone. So it seemed that the stars were aligned and a mountain ultra marathon in the Alps was to be the momentous occasion that marked my 40th year. Oh shit.
The UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) is a race series which happens at the end of each August in Chamonix. It’s arguably one of the most significant events in the trail racing calendar and is made up of 7 races throughout the week, all varying in distances from 15km (YCC) up to an astounding 300km (PTL)!!!
I was to take part in the CCC, billed as the little sister of the big UTMB (170km) which starts in Courmayeur (Italy) goes through Champex (Switzerland) and finishes in Chamonix (France). It takes in 101km (62 miles) , 6100m (20,000 feet) altitude and 5 mountain summits along the stunning Trail du Mont Blanc.
The build up
First thing that was apparent was that I live in flat Warwickshire and the Burton Dasset hills just wasn’t going to cut it. To add to this, in January whilst taking part in the Country to Capital 43 mile ultra, I’d sustained a hip injury which was still very much present. So all in all not a great start to my training. I was already having physiotherapy and whilst I had some time on my hands, I decided to focus on that before getting stuck into training. Furthermore, I took on a running coach, Mags Dempsey, a reputable and experienced ultra trail runner and coach, who really helped me to reaffirm my running foundation in preparation for the gruelling training which lay ahead (once I’d fixed my hip).
So how do you train for mountains when there are none within a 4 hour drive from where you live? Well apart from the obvious hill reps, you make friends with your local stair climber and find some decent listening material, because that bugger is going to get you through a big ass chunk of your training. I started with 15 mins and built up to 45 mins before throwing on an 8kg weighted vest and built back up from 15 mins again. I can’t say I loved it but I definately felt the benefit which in turn encouraged me to stick with it.
Other aspects of my six month training plan involved a lot of functional strength work (explosive movement, unilateral weighted exercises), strength endurance (very high repetition with light weights) as well as seeking as many hilly trails as I could find. I purposefully fatigued my legs and then ran on them to get used to moving forward at a decent pace when tired and heavy legged. I didn’t love this either but again felt the benefit.
I also flew over to Chamonix with a friend Jon who was also training for the Eiger 50km mountain ultra and we recce’d part of the route together. My highest volume week was 70 miles and I also took part in a couple of events (Endure24 and the Petzel Wendover Woods 50km night run) to vary my training. On holiday in Spain my husband joined me one morning to climb La Concha, 1215m and my final big effort was a 20 miler, followed by a 12 mile trail run on back to back days which went surprisingly well - a positive note to end 6 months, 1100 miles and 85,000 feet of training.
The build up to race week was a huge emotional rollercoaster. By time I got to my two week taper, I was exhausted and ready to rest. For the first time I genuinely felt satisfied that I’d done as much as I could given family, work and other time commitments. Therefore my taper was comfortable and I didn’t worry that I hadn’t done enough.
That said, I still worried about everything else and had let myself get into a negative head space, thinking that I didn’t belong at the start line and that everyone would be faster, stronger and more able than me. I had put so much pressure on myself and I could feel my focus slipping away.
Back in March I attended an Alps training seminar where Neil Thubron talked about the importance of having a WHY. Because when your head starts to wander into that dark negative space and your body is in the pain cave, you need to be 100% clear as to what your drive is to pull you back towards the light. Without a WHY you risk getting lost in that cave and losing sight of the finish line.
My WHY? My children, Leo & Mayana. I want them to know that hard work pays off and no matter how many times you fall, you get back up, dust yourself off and move forward. My husband and I try to teach them that life isn’t always easy and there are things that you need to work harder at. I wholly believe that when you find what really sets your soul on fire then you’ll somehow make it work.
So with my focus reaffirmed, I was ready to take on CCC.
UTMB week was here!
Race week had arrived and myself, my husband Richard, and our two children set off on the long drive down to Chamonix from our home in south Warwickshire. My parents and in-laws flew out to join us within a couple of days.
With so much to do in the Chamonix valley, the days passed fairly quickly and before I knew it, it was the eve of race day.
Race admin day, two days earlier had mostly gone to plan other than when I realised I’d left my hat (part of the obligatory kit list) at the chalet and went into a hot panic. I’d heard that the UTMB organisers held no prisoners when it came to obligatory kit and as such I found myself grovelling and pleading with the unsuspecting volunteer before she looked at me like a crazy person and told me it was fine - I just had to sign a waiver to say that I might be spot checked for my hat on race day. In the meantime I’d sent a panicked text to my husband who’d in turn asked his dad to grab his hat from his car and quickly courier it to the registration centre. They arrived at the centre, sweating profusely from the mad dash, with hat in hand, just as I was leaving.
And so, there I was, stood on the start line in Courmayeur having said an emotional farewell to my family. I’ve only ever seen my dad cry less than a handful of times before, but I believe I caught him wiping a tear away as I hugged him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
My hands were shaking, palms sweating and breathing shallow. Yet I couldn’t help but smile with excitement. The compère did a fantastic job of getting the crowds going and as the media helicopters circled overhead, I was ready than ever to tackle the long journey ahead.
Courmayeur (1200m) is a charming Italian town which sits at the foot of Mont Blanc and as we made our way through the town towards the trails, the atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before - the Italians sure know how to give a sending off! There were drums, people letting off colourful smoke flares, the sound of cowbells rang through the streets as the masses shouted ‘Allez allez allez’!! I also got to see my family briefly and by then the nerves had dispersed, replaced by smiles and jubilation.
Mountain no. 1 - Tete de la Tronche, 2584m
Leaving Courmayeur, the first three miles were a steady climb onto wider trails before the crowd came to a halt as we approached a single track, forcing a huge bottle neck. I stood still for 25 minutes waiting for the masses to filter onto the trail, not a great start. Further single track followed for the next five miles, meaning it was very slow progress to the top of Tete de la Tronche and I was already behind my schedule. The views at the top were truly breathtaking and although I’d previously been there with Jon when we had recce’d it, this time there was true satisfaction in knowing that I could tick off 1 of 5 climbs. Furthermore, and unlike the recce when the thinner air and general shock to the system left me feeling like death, this time I felt strong and unflawed by the 1400m climb to the summit.
During the ascent to Tete de la Tronche, there was sudden noise and panic as a small boulder which someone had dislodged further up the mountain was hurtling downwards, rapidly picking up momentum as it flew towards the crowd. It came flying past my leg and down towards the next traverse at their head level. Luckily the warning shouts were enough to lift everyone’s heads and move out of the way. It certainly woke us all up and reminded us that we were out in the wilderness now, where the environment and terrain were precarious and we had to keep our wits about us.
The pass down to the first aid station, Bertone at 15km is a lovely fast section of trails which split off into multiple tracks which helped to disperse the crowd. For the first time in 3 hours since we had left Courmayeur I was able to find my pace and make up for some lost time on that first ascent. At Bertone I refilled my bottles, grabbed some food, sent a quick text to the family group chat and I was on my way again. Another lovely runnable section which contours along the mountain, offering more opportunity to overtake where it was still crowded in places. All the way along to the next aid station, Bonatti at 22km for another refill and refuel.
I also took a quick comfort break in what was pure luxury compared to the eco toilets which UTMB had invested in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for green but I have my standards when it comes to hygiene. The eco loos provided at the starting village were interesting to say the least.. a wooden hut with a hole to do your business in and then a sack full of wood chip and a scoop to cover up said business with. The stench of the pre race loo was eye watering and I had to hold my breath. So coming across a proper ceramic toilet (albeit a ceramic hole you have to squat over) was pure luxury and too good an opportunity to pass up. A posh wee later and I was on my way again.
The next aid station was Arnouvaz, 5km away and we made our way along a very runnable, albeit undulating pass with a steep zig zagging descent (there are lots of these in the mountains) to the foot of the next mountain we were to climb, Grand Col Ferret. I knew my family would be at this one so I was really excited and made great progress along this section.
There was a fantastic atmosphere at Arnouvaz as this is the first aid station which was accessible by the bus service which UTMB had put on. Therefore there were plenty of supporters here and we could hear the cheering and music as we traversed down the mountain. I had a really warm welcome from my family, although I didn’t hang around for long as I was keen to keep moving. The next big climb was Grand Col Ferret and once at the summit, we would pass the border into Switzerland.
Mountain no. 2 - Grand Col Ferret, 2537m
Above 2000m the air starts to ‘thin’ I.e. it has considerably less oxygen and pressure. Tete de la Tronche and Grand Col Ferret sit at around 2500m (the remaining three summits were no higher than 2000m) so as you ascend, you can most definately feel the effects of altitude. Shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches are all very common side effects and I experienced all three on both ascents. I had full blown altitude sickness for a couple of days after the recce so I knew I was susceptible (it varies between individuals). Therefore once at the top, I took a couple of photos/videos and swiftly moved onto the descent into La Fouly.
This is where the fun really began! Prior to this point, paths were runnable but still crowded so hard to build momentum. Finally, 8 hours into the race, the crowd had dispersed and the trail had opened up. I was feeling great so decided to have some fun with this one. The trail wasn’t too technical and I was able to just about keep up with the guy in front of me who was clearly an experienced trail runner and appeared to know how to handle the terrain with ease. I love learning from others so I carefully watched his foot placement and weight distribution and followed in his footsteps. It was a fast descent and it felt great to open it up after hours of climbing and hiking.
UTMB give all runners a label to wear on their back which has your name and country flag on it so you’re easily identifiable to your peers. As we reached a brief stop off point I caught sight of his label, ‘Joe Berney’ from Ireland. I thanked Joe for unknowingly pacing me, refilled my flasks and kept up with the momentum. Next stop La Fouly, at 41km, where there would be plenty of food and hot drinks. It was now late afternoon and having spent no more than 8/10 minutes at each check point until now, I was ready for a slightly longer break and a decent feed.
La Fouly was busy and a few people were showing signs of fatigue. Again, supporters could access this area so there was a nice vibe coming into the aid station. I’d forgotten that the CrossCall centre was here - an online platform which allows friends and family to record a video message which is then played for runners as they enter the tent. Just as I was grabbing some food, suddenly a familiar face popped up on the big screen and it was my friend John! I was so touched by his message and as I stood there watching it I could feel my eyes start to well up. Next up was one of my Run Like a Girl ladies, Sophie Lawson, and although the speakers weren’t very loud I could see from her smile and big expression that her message was one of pride and encouragement. I could feel myself grinning from ear to ear knowing that so many people were rooting for me. Then two little faces popped up and it was Grace & George, the children of one of my closest friends, and that was it, I fell apart! Full tears streaming down my face, I allowed myself that moment to be so very proud of myself and I was incredibly thankful for the virtual support.
Two sugary coffees, lots of cake and a heap of chocolate later and I was off again. Next stop was Champex which was at 55km, just over the halfway point.
The Upon leaving La Fouly I heard ‘Hello there Lauren Gregory from the UK, what’s your story then?’ in a strong Irish accent. As I turned around I saw Joe Berney who had unwittingly paced me from the top of Grand Col Ferret. We ran and chatted for a while before I decided that the flat(ish) section was too good to pass up, so I wished Joe well and went on my way.
This next section was incredible fun! My legs felt strong and I had some really good energy so again I opened it up for the next few kilometres. I passed quite a few people and hung onto a few packs before overtaking and joining the next pack ahead. I honestly felt at this point, 40km in, my race had finally started and I was picking my way up the ranks - I later found out I gained 156 places within a 10km stretch. I kept a strong pace for a good few km’s, soaking up the cheers from the locals as we passed through villages and hamlets.
As the climb towards Champex began, I slowed my pace and enjoyed the hike knowing that I’d made up some time and was still feeling good, if not a little tired as the night drew in.
Mountain no. 3 - La Giète, 1884m
Champex Lac (Switzerland) sits at 55km into CCC and is recognised as the halfway aid station even though it’s just over and it’s also the first official crew point where runners are allowed to accept outside assistance. It was now dark and I had my chest light on. I was also hungry and pretty tired at this point so took some time to sit down, refuel and throw on some extra layers. My husband met me there and walked with me for a few minutes before parting ways - I would see him again at Trient, the other side of the next mountain, La Giète, 1884m. I later learned that there was a big drop out at Champex Lac which explained while all of the sudden the field of runners was a little thin on the ground.
I was anxious about going into the night and my concerns were reaffirmed when this next climb was ten times worse than I ever imagined it would be. In hindsight, I hadn’t refuelled enough or taken enough rest time at Champex Lac. I started to feel really light headed and although I knew I needed to eat more, my appetite had gone and I was struggling to swallow any solids. I felt really weak and nauseous and knew that I was in trouble.
The physical demand of such a challenge had suddenly taken its toll and every step felt awful. The pitch darkness meant that I couldn’t see how close to the top we were but what could I see was a trail of lights high up in the distance and my heart immediately sank. They seemed so far away and I honestly couldn’t imagine making it much further feeling the way that I did. I couldn’t let myself be beaten by a calorie deficit so I eventually perched myself on a rock and forced a chia charge bar down me, followed by another and also a shot block. I also found some cashew nuts in my pack so scoffed a couple of handfuls of those.
What felt like hours (it was one) later, the uphill hike started to taper off and we started what suspiciously felt like a descent. I genuinely couldn’t believe I’d made it to the top and was now on my way back down! It wasn’t fast and my foot work was a bit haphazard but I eventuality made it to the checkpoint which was an old cowshed set up as a makeshift rave house with music blaring and happy-go-lucky volunteers cheering everyone in.
I was somewhat relieved to see that I wasn’t the only who was slightly broken after La Giète.. the rave house looked more like a safe house for the remaining survivors of a zombie apocalypse, with bodies lying around and a somber atmosphere.
At this point I took a moment to myself and sat down opposite a woman who was fast asleep. La Giète had tested me physically and had now taken its toll on my mental state.
‘I’m really in a bad place. I can’t see how I’m going to finish this, I’ve hardly got anything left to give’ .. this was the text I sent to my husband at 12:30am. After hitting send I put my phone away and rested my head on my poles where I proceeded to cry.
Then there was a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and saw this older gentlemen looking down at me. ‘Get up! We’re going’. It was Joe Berney from Ireland!
Joe fetched me a bowl of soup, followed by another. He didn’t give me any time to make excuses.. ‘are you ready? Follow me, let’s go!’ .. and just like that we left the cow shed/rave house/zombie safe house and he was off with me closely following behind. The gap eventually grew between us but it didn’t matter, Joe had got me moving again and for that I’ll always be grateful to him. I never saw Joe again after that but I’d love to find him to say thank you. Joe Berney from Ireland, my Fairy Godfather.
Coming into Trient and seeing my husband was pure relief and I decided to take the time I needed to get myself feeling strong again. About two miles before Trient, I slipped on a boulder and fell straight onto my arse, and a guys foot. ‘Are you ok?’ he asked. To which I looked up and said ‘oh you’re British, there aren’t many of us out here. Yes I’m fine thank you’. He helped me up and we chatted and ran together until we reached Trient. He’d also had a tough time on La Giète and was worried about the remaining two mountains. He told me that he was probably going to throw the towel in at Trient but by time we got there, he said that he’d found it reassuring to hear that he wasn’t alone in feeling slightly broken and that he was going to give the next mountain a go. I never got his name (he got mine) but again I’m grateful that fate had my arse land on his foot at a time that we could help each other out. That’s the way ultra running seems to go and that’s what I love about it so much.
Mountain no. 4 - Les Tseppes, 2065m
My husband Richard is a bit of legend when it comes to crewing me. He’s done it enough times now to recognise the difference between when I’m feeling a bit tired but still focussed and when I’m tired because I’m not fuelling properly. He was straight on it. He practically ran circles around me fetching food, hot soup, refilling my flasks and making sure I was warm enough. He wouldn’t let me go until he was satisfied that I’d eaten enough.
2:30am, with a full belly and fresh outlook I felt ready to tackle mountain number 4, Les Tseppes at 2065m.
I’ll be honest, it was all a bit of a blur at this point. I’d now been on my feet for 17+ hours, I was tired, delirious and the prospect of another 7/8 hours and still two summits to go was an impossible thought. All I could do was chunk my goals into bite sized pieces and face one hurdle at a time, so that I did.
Upon reflection, I had a lovely old time on Les Tseppes; I spent much of the ascent singing to myself and imagining what it would be like to bring my children back in the snow. I talked out loud to myself, telling my children all about the sledging and how beautiful fresh virgin snow is. I started to wonder about what all the fairies and forest creatures must think about these crazy ultra runners trudging through their territory in the middle of the night. Every now and again I’d catch the upper torso of a shop mannequin sat on the side of the trail, only to look twice and realise it was a tree stump. I was delirious and having hallucinations! This was a first for me and previously I’ve worried about hallucinations being a bit scary but I have to say it was a rather euphoric experience!
Once again I looked up into what I thought was the dark night sky, only to see tiny lights floating up high - except these weren’t hallucinations, that’s where I was headed and it was a long bloody climb upwards. This time I wasn’t flawed though, I was back to feeling okay and I was making good progress. The next stop was the final assisted checkpoint at Vallorcine (now in France) and just one final climb from there before descending into Chamonix for the finish. I was now just a few hours away from seeing my family and the long night (9 hours of darkness) was nearly over.
Mountain no.5 - Tête aux Vents, 2130m
At Vallorcine checkpoint I tried not to get too comfortable. On one hand I wanted to keep moving and start the final ascent but on the other I didn’t want to make the same mistake as I had earlier. Richard was there and again made sure I had everything I needed. I sat for a few minutes and then went on my way. I’d heard that the ascent up Tête aux Vents (2130m) was a killer climb, and I was anxious about it. I’ll admit that I had a minor wobble, mainly fuelled by sleep deprivation, when I saw Richard pop up at the very foot of the mountain but he gave me a good pep talk and told me to get on with it. I was never going to quit but nonetheless sometimes a good cry is just what you need to do before pulling up your big girl pants and getting the hell on with it.
To anyone reading this who has made the ascent up Tête aux Vents, you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s at this point that the knife is twisted in further. It’s a beast of a climb which seems to go on forever - one of those ones where you think you’re at the top but then it climbs again! I stopped half way up to eat and I also sent a text to the family group chat saying ‘I literally want to die right now .. it’d be easier’. Bit dramatic, I’ll admit, but indicative of just how shit it actually was.
The only saving grace is that the sun had finally made an appearance and my goodness it was a sight to behold - pure majesty as it peered above the mountains, casting its glorious warmth across Mont Blanc and it’s surrounding sisters. With it came new energy, enough to drive me up the never ending mountain to the next timing point. It was downwards all the way from here and although I still had about 13km to go, I was in a good place both mentally and physically. So for the first time in 22 hours, I put my music on and made a conscious decision to enjoy every step forward until the end. Looking back, I can honestly say that in those final km’s I was comfortable and happy.
Much of this section wasn’t particularly runnable (for me anyway) but I was nearly on the home straight now so I picked and meandered my way along the ridge until the final checkpoint at La Flégére. Just 8km from here until the finish line - I could see Chamonix down in the valley and I could feel the excitement building. In flat road terms, 8km would take me around 40 minutes but in mountain miles (downhill included) I still had about 1.5 hours of graft to do.
A few days before the race I had met up with my friend Spencer and his mate Stuart and the three of us recce’d an out and back of the last couple of km’s out of Chamonix. Suddenly the route was familiar and I now knew exactly where I was, thanks to Spencer.
As the trail hit tarmac I stopped and took a moment to reflect upon the incredible journey I’d been on. Not just the last 25 hours but the six months of blood, sweat and tears prior to that. I aloud myself to be unbelievably proud of what I had achieved so far and the enormity of the challenge I had taken on.
In my talks, I always say that the last mile will take care of itself, it’s your victory mile and nothing will stop you when you’ve already come so far. The hard graft was over and all that was left to do now was to soak up the hero’s welcome that Chamonix offers to every runner of the UTMB series, whether they’re first or last. I knew my family were waiting for me and I was finally going to live out my dream of crossing that finish line hand in hand with my babies.
I still can’t find the words to describe the emotion as I made my way through the crowds of Chamonix but I can imagine that it must be what superheroes feel like when they’ve just saved the world. There were cowbells ringing louder than the previous 62 miles put together, roars of ‘Allez allez!’ and ‘Bravo champion!’. People with their phones filming and taking pictures as if I was some celebrity runner and children and adults alike all wanting high fives. Tears of joy were streaming down my face, I couldn’t believe this was happening .. I was about to finish CCC!!
As I turned the final corner, there they were, Leo & Mayana with arms out ready to take my hands and my husband Richard running along side us capturing this wonderful moment on his phone. The finishing arch was just metres away and the sound of the crowd was deafening. Holding my children’s hands tightly I threw my arms up high and head back as I thanked the universe for this utterly magical moment and keeping me safe throughout my journey.
It was over. I had completed CCC and other than giving birth, this was my proudest achievement to date and my family were right there on the finish line to share this incredible moment.
Needless to say we celebrated that night with lots of cheese, wine and laughs as they found great amusement in watching me try to get down the stairs.
CCC can only be described as beautifully brutal. It tested me both physically and mentally, yet in the face of brutality, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the majesty and beauty of the Alps. Only good memories and lessons learned to take away from this experience.
Next stop, Autumn 100 miles in October 2019 and then training starts for the Marathon Des Sables 2020.
I’m running in aid of Hope for Children - if you’d like to make a donation then I’d be hugely grateful, thank you. Link below