Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

UTMB – 2013 (Race review)

Yep, I know. The race was the end of August. But time has just flown past with training, racing and work. So here it is – some words about UTMB 2013.

For anyone who doesn’t know anything about the race it’s probably the premier mountain ultra in the world. Certainly Europe’s most prestigious. All the best ultra-runners normally attend and this year was no different. UTMB is made up of 4 x separate races, 3 of which are solo events: The CCC (just over 50 miles), the TDS (just over 70 miles) and UTMB (just over 100 miles). No fun-runs or relays here.

Race HQ is Chamonix. For 1 week every year the town comes alive to the sight of tanned Europeans in technical running kit, some tough looking South Americans and the hipster Americans fresh from the trails of Boulder Colorado. There’s a real mix of competitors, from the elites right through to the dedicated distance runners, the weekend warriors and one-time only ‘tick this off my list’ thrill seekers. In many ways it’s how I imagine a big city marathon feels. There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike about such a big built-up event, but you can’t help but be slightly carried away by the spectacle of it all.

The race itself didn’t exactly work as planned for me with more emotional up’s and down’s than I ever expected and my only DNF of the year. So, in tribute to the 10 big up’s and down’s of the race course, here’s some of mine:

The 10 Up’s:

  1. The weather! Compared to the previous year it was glorious, so the added fear of heavy snow storms and wind-chill wasn’t playing on the mind.
  2. The start. It’s absolutely nuts. Like no other race I’ve ever been in. The walk from the apartment alone was just incredible. Blues-skies, a buzzing atmosphere and thousands of nervous / excited runners. I was allocated an ‘elite’ place which meant I got to walk up the start / finish straight into a pen in front of an army of compression-clad runners. Music blaring, photographers everywhere it’s completely surreal. There was space for about 100-150 elite runners so I found myself beside Seb Chaigneau, Terry Conway, Jez Bragg, Tim Olsen, Anton Krupicka and many other ‘household’ ultra names. Only weeks before I was miserably slogging round a muddy field in the rain somewhere near Birmingham – unable to run properly. Now I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best in the world.
  3. The mountains around Mont Blanc are nothing short of stunning. It’s a truly magical place to run with some of the finest trails you could ever hope to grace.
  4. The support you get from people in every village you run through is fantastic. I even had shouts from some who recognised me from other races. Crazy.
  5. The aid stations are generally pretty good. Not what you get in the UK. You’re talking big covered areas with a good choice of snacks and drinks, from sliced fruit and cheeses to cold meats, soup and cakes (most of which I cannot eat). Helps to keep the spirits up anyway.
  6. First light. Seeing the warm glow of a new sun reflecting off the rocky snow-capped Swiss Alps. Breath-taking even through the pain and distress of a race going down the pan. In fact I was so dazed by it I went off-balance at one point and tumbled down the side of the mountain. A lovely French couple saw it happening and ran over to help to me up.
  7. Adrenaline – I tripped at the top of one of the big passes during the night and cracked my shin so hard on a rock that it rattled my whole body. I got such a fright that I immediately picked myself up and ran on giving me 20 mins relatively pain-free. It didn’t last of course.
  8. In the middle of hobbling down a descent some time the next day knowing my race was pretty much over, I heard a friendly voice from behind. I then watched Terry Conway in full flight, enjoying every stride. It was a joy to see after many hours of distress.
  9. Finally getting a signal at the other side of Grand Col Ferret and speaking to my family to hear that Simon was on his way to get me at La Fouly (on foot). I knew then I just had to hang on to the CP.
  10. Spending time with my family in a place I knew they would love.

The 10 down’s:

  1. Spending time in Chamonix and trying to taper – it just doesn’t make sense! Those mountains need to be run.
  2. The start. It’s absolutely nuts. When the gun goes, it’s full-on ‘every man for themselves’ racing. We’re talking elbowing, tripping, barging and sprinting. It’s almost comical. Guys breaking from the back just to get past Anton and Tim for a mile or so.
  3. The realisation a mile or so in that you’re not going to run off the tension / pain in your hamstrings. Yet again I got a little carried away a few days before the race and ran up (and down) Brevent much harder that I should have. The next day my hamstrings were screaming (something I’ve never really experienced before) and it got me extremely worried about the race. It wasn’t that the run itself was hard, it was just that it had exposed an underlying issue – maybe a hangover from the 24 hour ThunderMUD Run. I hoped a few days of rest would sort it but knew before the race I wasn’t going to be 100%.
  4. The crack of rock on shin and the increasingly gnawing pain every time my foot didn’t land on flat ground. Bit of an issue in the Alps.
  5. Accidentally half-filling my hydration bladder with some steaming hot (stinking) bouillon at 3am in the morning in some gym hall in Italy and then tasting it for the next 20 miles or so when all I wanted was some cold water.
  6. Being stunned by the view as the sun rose in Switzerland, losing concentration and balance and taking a serious tumble down the mountainside.
  7. Realising 2 miles after said ‘big tumble’ that I was now without a mobile phone and having to make the decision to run back for 2 miles to try and find it. It was hard seeing so many people pass me as I headed in the wrong direction entirely.
  8. After struggling for the best part of 90km, the climb and descent of Grand Col Ferret with torn hamstrings and a cracked shin was the hardest section I’ve ever covered. It was difficult not being able to enjoy the trails and surroundings as well as letting so many people run past me.
  9. Walking through Chamonix after being dropped off by coach after the DNF. Arriving in the town when the race is still running and not under my own steam was pretty hard to take.
  10. Knowing that I’d absolutely have to return to earn a performance that I’d be happy with. So many races, so little time.

In Short…

Whilst I was extremely disappointed about how it turned out, it was another important experience. UTMB isn’t a race that you can bluff your way through. Yes, maybe I could have been more reserved in the first 20 miles, but racing is what it’s all about for me so it was never going to be anything less than 100% commitment. I wasn’t there just to finish and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

I’ve a lot of people to thank, so in no particular order:

– The #TeamNathanUK family for the continued support – especially “the boss”

X-Bionic in the UK for supplying some fantastic clothing for the race. It was absolutely flawless in the heat of day and the cold of night

– The guys at Napier SES – Geraint and Lesley were brilliant and I can’t imagine there are better environment training facilities (and brains) in Scotland

– Daniel at Glasgow Osteo

– My family – always there, always seeing me through the tough times

 So, I’ll be back in 2014 with a point to prove.

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One response

  1. I remember staying up to silly o’clock in the morning watching your progress on the utmb map, waiting for the tweets when you passed the CPs. All the while thinking I’ve got to go and treat some patients in a few hours….Then rushing into work and turning the computer on so I could check your progress in between patients.

    Then there was a the worry when you seemed to drop from radar. Nicola texting me that you’d been injured/fallen of a mountain. Imagination running wild, but powerless to help because I was in my nice warm clinic in Glasgow. Didn’t feel much use that day..

    But today looking back on your year I’m amazed. From the D33 onwards that made the UTMB your 7th ultra, of one form or another, of the year. The rest and recovery time between some of them was next to nonexistent!

    I think you had a tremendous year with your AWARD WINNING WHWrace and all the others. Now have to wait and see what happens in 2014.

    Bet I have even less hair at the end of it 😉

    February 17, 2014 at 8:48 pm

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