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My run of the CCC®

by Editor
Friday 6th September 2013

Race report: Gemma Bragg shares her experience of the 2013 CCC®

In 2010 I went out to experience for the first time what has to be one of the most inspiring and captivating running events in the world.... the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc... a six day ‘running  festival’ consisting of 4 different races around the Mont Blanc Alps. 

  • La Petite Trote A Leon (PTL)- 300km and 24 000m of positive height gain. (Raced in groups of 3 with a 138hr cut off time)
  • Sur Les Traces Des Ducs De Savoie (TDS)- 119km and 7250m of positive height gain. (33hr cut off)
  • Courmayeur- Champex- Chamonix (CCC)- 100km and 5950m of positive height gain. (26hr cut off)
  • Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc- UTMB (The queen of the courses)- 168km and 9600m of positive height gain. (46hr cut off)

I was out there supporting my husband (then boyfriend). I had never been at an event like this, let alone crewed for one of the front runners. Due to bad weather that year, the TDS was cancelled, the CCC course was shortened and the UTMB went ahead but was then stopped after 30km, only to be restarted after much deliberation first thing the next day (a shortened version). The PTL was the only race that was able to run without disruption that year, having started earlier in the week.

The event was amazing and I was blown away by the ‘running spirit’ and community out there. The support from all the volunteers, local people ringing their cow bells along the streets well in to the night... it was quite mesmerising and the beauty of the mountains unforgettable.

I decided that I wanted to be a part of this. I would need to train, having only run marathon distance before and not having a lot of climbing in my legs this may take a little time, so I aimed to race the CCC (the UTMB’s sister) in 2012. 2012 came and I was ready... anxious/ nervous/ excited were just some of the emotions that I experienced. Unfortunately due to the mountain weather and storms that year the CCC course had to be changed (the third consecutive year of weather disruption). It was now to be 84km and 4000m of positive height gain. I was disappointed but also slightly relieved as this was my first ‘big run’ and the figures now seemed slightly less daunting than before. The race didn’t let me down; it was amazing; -10 degrees a lot of the way, with heavy snow. By the end of the race I was running with four base layers, running leggings, waterproof running pants, waterproof jacket, two pairs of gloves and two thermal hats! On my last climb that year, which was up to Catogne (the usual last climb of the race had been changed due to the weather), I was nearing the top and there through the snow in the dark was a little mountain cabin and outside stood a man with a huge jacket on playing a horn, which bellowed around the mountain. It really was quite surreal, I thought I may be going deluded, but it was real! The snow was falling in front of my head lamp and settled on the tops of the trees, what a special place to be and how lucky I felt to be a part of the experience out there in the beautiful mountains.

However this was not the full course, so in 2013 I decided to head back to Chamonix for the full CCC route. I felt more ready this year; I’d had a steady batch of training and had also come out to the Alps to train on the course, so felt more comfortable with my navigation around this beautiful place.  

When we arrived in Chamonix on the Tuesday evening before the race on the Friday, the atmosphere in the town was already electric and there was a huge buzz and feeling of anticipation and excitement amongst the runners. For many their first time, others returning to improve on previous attempts, some there to support their loved ones, everyone there for their own reasons, their own stories, their own journey.

Friday 30th August- Race day! The race was to start at 09:00hrs in Courmayeur, luckily I had managed to hitch a lift to the start, otherwise I would have had to get a coach which left Chamonix at 06:00hrs - I was already going to be sleep deprived, so I was pleased to be able to start the race a little more refreshed! We arrived in Courmayeur just after 08:00hrs, the town was a hub of runners and supporters, people reporting on the sound system, emotional music playing (theme tune from Gladiator was one) and after a final countdown the race began. 

The first climb out of Courmayeur was pretty brutal, you hit a huge ascent pretty much as soon as you leave the town, there is no ‘taking it easy, warming up, settling in’; it’s straight to business! Later I learned that a lot of the runners struggled with the first climb and then did not make it to the first checkpoint in time for the cut off. I had not done the first climb before, as it had not been in last year’s race and I had not included it in my recce route. It certainly got your legs early on.

I was glad to get to the top and then descend down into Arnuva to the first big checkpoint. There I quickly grabbed a few pieces of chocolate and filled up my water bladder before heading out for the big climb up to the Grand Col Ferret. This climb was hot and felt slow but once at the top I knew there was a big descent down to La Fouly (the next big checkpoint) where I would see my parents for the first time, who were out supporting me. They were not allowed to help me at La Fouly, but they could cheer encouragement! The descent was great and one that I always love; I managed to pick off quite few runners as I descended and it felt great. I ran into La Fouly and was informed that I was in 250th place out of 1900 starters, so I was pleased about that.

I first began to ‘feel it’ on the descent down into Trient (70km in), it was getting dark by now and I had put my head torch on - I was glad to see my mum and dad when I arrived at the checkpoint. There I changed into some warmer clothes, had some rice pudding and more chocolate and filled my water. My breathing was beginning to get quite heavy due to the altitude and I knew my next big climb lay ahead... up to Catogne, but out in to the dark I went and began the next ascent. This section went with little drama, although I was slower and felt the body shutting down slightly on me. I took a few tumbles in the dark, the descents are quite loose and rocky and when you don’t use poles and only have your head torch to guide you it can become a bit tricky.

I was pleased to hear the music sounding from Vallorcine and reach the final big checkpoint of the day (at 80.9km). Dad was there ready with my bag and once again I fuelled up on rice pudding and chocolate! It was difficult to get anything down, as by now I felt sick and my stomach was churning from all the salt, sugar, coke and random energy fuel I had been feeding myself through the run! My breathing was heavy and I think I was pretty spaced, but there were just 20km to go and one more big climb.

Mum and dad were at Col Des Monte, which is the road crossing after the Vallorcine checkpoint and before you begin the last big climb of 1461m. It was an amazing picture looking up from the road and just seeing a trail of head torches leading up the side of the mountain as far as the eye could see. It was a long and slow climb for me, my body wanting to sleep but my mind as determined as ever! I eventually reached the top, but then it is about 4km along the top of the mountain to La Flegere, before you begin the long descent down into Chamonix. That top section was tough for me, a bit of a battle really, I let quite a few runners pass me and found it difficult to gain any speed as it is very rough, steep and loose up there. I kept falling over and having to pick myself back up again ‘keep moving forward’ were the words going round in my head! I eventually reached La Flegere, it was great to hear the music and see the light from the little tent and be greeted by the ever amazing volunteers, up there in the dark in the middle of the night out of pure kindness. There I had a few mugs of coke and then began my descent.

This descent down into Chamonix is long, and in the dark it is even longer... you can see the light from the town for miles. It is also very steep and the rocks are very loose, so it is hard to run down quickly, especially if you are being guided by just a little light and after already taking a few tumbles during the race I was a little apprehensive. But finally the town grew closer and I was able to speed up through the town and even sprint to the finish - my amazing support crew (mum and dad) were there to greet me, as well as my mother-in-law who had got out of bed and my lovely friend who had raced the TDS earlier in the week and got out of bed to see me come in. I finished running at 04:45am, after running 19hrs45mins, coming 20th lady and 280th overall. A total of 101km and 6100m of ascent, I had done it, it was good to give my parents a hug at the end and let my emotions go!

Photo: All the pain forgotten - time to celebrate

Racing the CCC was all I imagined it to be and more. I will never get over the support of the people all along the route, whether it be on a mountain top in the dark, through the villages, on a secluded path, at the checkpoints....the sound of cow bells is so comforting and the words ‘allez, allez’ will ring in my ears for a very long time! This is an event that really tests you, both physically and mentally and it is by far the toughest thing I have ever done.... but it allows you to recognise what you can do and realise how strong your body and mind can be.

2014.... who knows... UTMB calling.....?!

Click here for results from the 2013 The North Face® Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc®, including all GBR runners!


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