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Taking the easy option? - Running from Courmayeur to Chamonix

by iainm
Thursday 8th September 2011

Race report: CCC® [Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix], 98km/5,600m ascent - Friday August 26, 2011

Iain Martin tells Run247 about his race:

When I was queueing up to register, surrounded by UTMB (166km) and TDS (110km) competitors, I did feel like I was taking the easy option. That probably doesn’t happen very often when you’re about to take on a 98km trail run, but that’s the North Face Ultra Trail for you…

My race, the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) went way better than expected. With a glute tear a month beforehand, I didn’t know if I would even make the start line, but after some great physio (Studio 57 in Hove) and lots of stretching, I was there on the start line in Courmayeur on the morning of 26th August.

It hadn't started too well. Thanks to my four-year-old son throwing another one of his temper-tantrums, I had a terrible night’s sleep and was popping pills to get rid of my serious headache just an hour before the start.

I dropped off my kit bag that would be taken to Chamonix for me to collect after the race (tip – make sure you put a complete change of clothes in), and then found myself a quiet corner near the start where I propped my legs up and had a prompt 10 minute nap!

CCC® [Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix]

Photos © Iain Martin

After a few announcements on course changes and we were off. The start was staggered into three waves, to give the field a chance to spread out before hitting the first climb, which started almost immediately. I was still very mindful of the injury; starting a 60 mile run on the back of less than that milage in training in the previous month.

I took it very easy up the first ascent, keeping my heart rate down and letting people pass me whenever they wanted to. To paraphrase, ‘It’s an ultra marathon not a sprint’.

And it felt fine. I went through the first aid station at Refuge Bonatti (1:19, 1546th), grabbed some water from the second (Refuge Bertone, 2:37, 1526th) and kept pressing on. For much of the way, there were few overtaking opportunities: it was a long line of people jogging along an undulating mountain path.

CCC® [Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix]

Photos © Iain Martin

I was very wary about descending into Arnuva (3:34, 1511th), wanting to save my quads, but loved the ascent up to Col Grand Ferret (5:07, 1515th). This was a long, slow ascent, with no one talking. The only sounds was the clinking of walking poles, and I couldn’t help thinking of Roman soldiers who regularly used to walk these passes back in the day. They probably had the same nutrition on offer at the aid stations – cheeses and saucissons.

Down again for a long way after that, with little respite, eventually to Val Fouly (7:10, 1522nd). The path was beautiful, very scenic, but clearly descending is not my thing: I seemed to find it much more difficult than everyone else.

CCC® [Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix]

Photos © Iain Martin

On the plus side, I was still feeling fine physically, and I knew by now that I was in good enough shape to finish. I just needed to keep myself fed and watered.

The section to Champex involved a longish very boring section on the road, before it detoured via some very pretty Swiss villages. By the time we started the climb up to Champex through a forest, I was gagging for some uphill again. Having tucked into sausage, cheese, chocolate, and glorious salty soup from the previous aid station, I was feeling strong. I’d taken it very easy so far, so started to stretch my legs and gained a few places on the ascent to Champex (9:23, 1400th).

This was an incredibly frustrating stop. It was the last major aid station for a while and with dusk falling, the place was jammed as runners faffed around with their night equipment. I started by queuing for 10 minutes by a sign that said ‘Competitor Check In’ to discover it was a bloody queue for cheese and biscuits. What a waste of time…

I jumped to the pasta section, also grabbed some soup and settled down, doing my best to chew the pasta as much as I possibly could. I was mindful of the fact that I needed to get some solid food in me, but wanted to make it as easy to digest as possible.

CCC® [Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix]

Photos © Iain Martin

I also changed into my night gear, putting my long sleeve 2XU thermal on, a T-shirt over that and a rain jacket on top. A visit to the bathroom and 28 minutes after I arrived, I was out. (Tip - get in and out of the aid stations quickly. I wasted time in Champex that could have seen a sub-20 finish.)

Ten minutes after leaving Champex, I had my headtorch on and was on a long undulating descent through trees to Martigny. I gained 322 places in this section, maybe because I’d held back early on and maybe because I felt totally comfortable running at night and in the rain (which started about an hour in).

Martigny (12:26, 1078th) was a bit of a mess. The aid station was a temporary one that had been put up as a result of the course changes. It was just a big tent full of wet people trying to fill up water bottles. A number of racers later complained that there was no food between Champex and Trient – a 5½ hour gap. Maybe, but the race is meant to be semi-autonomous. Fortunately, I still had plenty of gels. (Tip – take a bag with you to fill with slices of saucisson, cheese and chocolate so you can eat on the run.)

The organisers had changed the course to avoid some of the higher cols where temperatures were forecast to fall to near freezing. As it snowed down to 2200m this turned out to be a wise decision. However, the changes meant that we now had a long schlep from Martigny to Col de la Forclaz, a vertical hike of over 1000m. It was raining heavily now, with lightning flashing around above and it was getting very cold.

All competitors in the UTMB events have to carry various items of compulsory equipment, including a waterproof jacket with hood, waterproof trousers, long-sleeve top, gloves, hat, two head torches, whistle and survival blanket. That night I don’t think anyone regretted the extra weight.

The windchill made it very cold by Col de la Forclaz, but fortunately, once over the top, I dropped out of the wind and within 30 minutes I was in Trient (14:55, 1082nd). I spent 19 minutes there, but this time every minute was worthwhile. Psyching myself up to go back out into that heavy rain was testing indeed.

On the plus side I was feeling fine and knew I was going to finish. I’ve no idea where Les Jeurs is, but the timing chip says I passed though there in 15:56 and 1011th. I lost a few places on the downhill to Vallorcine (17:13, 1015th), as my blisters started to bite. I felt fine for strength, but my feet were literally falling apart. Walking on the flat and uphill was fine, but downhill hurt every step of the way. ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body,’ I reminded myself again.

I was keen to get it over now and for some reason I was convinced I could finish in less than 19 hours. I started running uphill for the first time in the race. By Argentiere (18:23, 924th) I’d gained 91 places in an hour, and while sub-19 was clearly unlikely, sub-20 would be fine.

But fifty minutes later in Les Tines (19:13, 916th), on the outskirts of Chamonix, the marked route, which had looked like it was going to be a straightforward flat path by the river to the finish, turned back uphill.

I swore and cursed. Uphill meant more downhills and that meant pain. Mind you, I passed one guy on this section who was clearly in a much worse state than me, wincing with every single step.

I crossed the finish line in 20:16, 931st of 1582 finishers (1906 starters). I could have gone on, but I was happy to find my bag, then my bed. I managed four hours of very interrupted sleep before meeting up with Pip and the kids for lunch.

‘Why would you do it?’ You might reasonably ask. It was the opportunity to test myself, but also to experience the wonderful remote natural beauty that is the Mont Blanc range.

Would I take part again? As I write this now, ten days later, the blisters and body have more or less recovered. I’ve been for a couple of runs and feel fine. Could I finish the full UTMB (166km)? Maybe. But I’ve got no plans to try. My guess is I’ll never do that race, but I’ve learnt by now that you should never say never...

CCC course profile

The course profile (before alterations to the 2011 route!)


Men's results - CCC® - 93km - 5100m D+ (after modifications)

1 Emmanuel Gault FRA 10h10'25
2 Adam Campbell CAN 10h29'33
3 Nikolaos Kalofyris GRE 10h50'17


Women's results - CCC® - 93km - 5100m D+ (after modifications)

1 Virginie Govignon FRA 12h47'11
2 Claire Price GBR 13h08'41
3 Catherine Dubois FRA 13h30'38


All the results on www.ultratrailmb.com

Click here to find out more about the The North Face® Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc® or to register for one of next year's events


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