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The Chamonix diaries - Part 4 - Battling through snow and tea in a Swiss garden

by kirsty
Saturday 1st September 2012
Tags  The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc   |   The North Face   |   ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT-BLANC   |   UTMB   |   TDS   |   CCC   |   PTL

Race coverage: Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - September 1, 2012

I'm not quite sure how I can sum up my CCC experience. The logical place to start would be the weather, as this seems to be the main talking point. It was relentless, either rain or snow depending on the altitude, and it led to a couple of course changes. But, as the organisers quite rightly point out: that's mountains for you! Weather is unpredictable, it can change quickly, it can create dangerous situations, and the organisers have a responsibility to make sure that the runners are safe. This is a job that they have to take very seriously and they manage it very well.

To get to the start we left Chamonix in the rain, but when we came out of the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Courmayeur, it wasn't raining and there was even a little bit of blue sky! Needless to say this lasted about five minutes but it was still good to dream. I was all sorted for the start but then I noticed that my number belt had split my running number (which includes the chip that tracks you around the course) and it now wasn't secured. Don't panic, I thought to myself, I'll just borrow some pins from somebody and secure it in the old school way. I was in a place with 1800 runners, they'll all have pins, or so I thought. After asking about 15 people if they had spare pins I was starting to panic. Then I bumped into the lovely Wendy Wu from The North Face and her colleague, who snagged me some pins in about 3 seconds. This was the second time this week The North Face saved my bacon. When the poor weather forecast necessitated the amendments to the recommended kit I found my kit lacking and Helen and Sharon from The North Face gave me much needed advice on what I should buy. This was based on their own experiences running races like the CCC and the Fellsman and the extra layer I bought on their recommendation (the Animagi jacket) was a total lifesaver. The North Face are a company who totally walk the walk, which they showed by having a team of staff do the race.

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - September 1, 2012

Photo: Wet runners at Trient © Pete Aylward

Choice of kit was to be crucial in the conditions. We started the long ascent from Courmayeur up to Refuge Bertone in drizzle, so most people had waterproofs on. However, the rain stopped quite quickly and it was fairly mild on the climb, so the sensible people quickly stripped off their outer layers. I didn't want to stop so soon so I persevered up to Bertone, by which time I was super sweaty. I was very lucky that it remained dry for the next 30 minutes so I was able to dry off a bit by running but it was bad news to start the race with damp layers. Then it began to snow. I definitely learned my lesson with that early mistake so I stopped straight away, put my waterproofs on, set off again, stopped again, put my gloves on. This was to be the routine for the rest of the race - making sure you had the right things on to remain dry and warm. I've never done another race where this was so important.

The waterproofs never came off again, apart from to change into dry layers. The snow turned to rain as we dropped (or slid as it was so muddy) down to Arnuva. So far so good. Then came Grand Col Ferret, a monster climb up to 2537 metres over 5km. If you take my normal 5k time and multiply it by 6 or 7 you might be close to estimating how long that climb took. Think of climbing the height of two Snowdons, then add a bit. The snow was getting heavier as we climbed, and the muddy path made for very frustrating progress. I was very glad to get to that summit, particularly as that meant I was onto the very runnable section down to La Fouly and Praz de Fort.

It was on the climb to Champex-Lac, at around the halfway point that I really started to feel it. I was out of energy, the 400 metre climb felt much harder than it should have, and with 40k left to go I began to entertain thoughts of dropping out. I decided to force down some pasta and coke at the big checkpoint at Champex-Lac and just see what happened as I knew that the next five kilometers through Switzerland were both beautiful and quite easy. One of the amazing things about the CCC is that wherever you are, there will be incredible support. In the middle of nowhere, on a snowy mountain, there was a man serenading us with a trumpet. In every village that you pass through people are out in force shouting 'allez, allez!' or 'bravo!', going crazy with cowbells or even setting up tables outside their houses with tea and coffee for weary runners. I had the nicest cup of tea I have ever had, in a lovely woman's garden in Switzerland. This was just the pick-me-up I needed to put all thoughts of dropping out out of my mind. The downside to this was that I was about to take on Bovine.

Because of the threat of storms at last year's CCC we bypassed Bovine then, but no such luck this time. I found this a horrible climb - rocky, slippy and energy-sapping. Add to this the fact that it was getting dark, the temperature was dropping and the snow was getting heavy and I was becoming cold and fed up. I was hugely relieved to hear cowbells as I assumed this was the checkpoint, but no, it was actually a herd of cows. This is funny now but it wasn't then. When I finally reached the hut I was very cold and decided to change my base layer and bring out the big guns: The North Face Anamagi jacket with my waterproof over it. This was a very good decision that kept me warm for the rest of the race. I was desperate to get off Bovine but it was a long descent of 6k down to Trient and it seemed to take forever to get out of the snow and back into the rain. These are the desperate things you wish for at times like this.

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade reports from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - September 1, 2012

Photo: Kirsty at Trient. Chamonix celebrates the event's 10th anniversary © Pete Aylward

Soup and a change of socks cheered me up at Trient and I was off again, now confident I could get to the finish. I just had one obstacle, well, quite a lot of obstacles, but one big lumpy one called Catogne, a climb of the same height as Bovine. The snow was getting really heavy as we climbed and not for the first time, I was a bit scared and desperate to get off that mountain. I had to just keep telling myself that this was the last big climb and the adrenaline of wanting to get down again helped me find the energy to get to the top.

Next came an evil descent/slide down into Vallorcine, the place where I very nearly dropped out last year. I can sum up the pull of Vallorcine last year thus: I was very wet, they had patio heaters, we still had 20k to go, the 'abbandonement' desk was very inviting. So fast-forward to 2012 and all of those conditions applied, along with one additional one: I was also very cold. The was no way I was going to get drawn in by those patio heaters again so it was in, soup, out. Keeping moving was really important as I found I got cold very quickly if I stopped at all and just couldn't warm up again. Even walking, if I wasn't climbing, was making me cold. I was fortunate that I still had my running legs until the end. If I'd been forced to walk more I honestly don't think I could have finished. I have huge respect for people who were out there for a lot longer than me (the time limit is 26 hours). To keep going all night in those conditions must have been very tough.

We didn't do Tete aux Vents this year (or last year) because of the weather so we were re-routed through Argentiere. Again, I blew through this checkpoint as I was so desperate to stay warm and to get to a hot shower. It was then just a case of digging in to get to the end. Because of the conditions all thoughts of a decent time this year had gone out of the window; it was just about getting round safely. However, when I got to Argentiere with 10k to go and realised that I was almost 2 hours quicker than my time last year it became all about the time again! The great thing about being a bit quicker was that there were more people around as I got into Chamonix and I got so much support as I ran through the town.

It's a very emotional experience to come to the end of a race like this. As Lizzy Hawker said at the press conference, events like this are about enjoying the challenge with the mountain and with yourself. I had that in my head all the way round the course. It was undeniably a huge challenge with the mountain. It threw a lot of things at us this year and made it an even bigger adventure. As far as being a challenge with yourself goes, I know it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced and I'm very relieved and proud to have completed it. Last year, the first time I ran it, it left a huge impression on me and I doubted that was something that could be repeated but I was absolutely wrong.

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About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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