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Four runners and the UTMB - an inside view, Part 2

by Editor
Tuesday 9th September 2014

It has been a 100% success rate for our four Run247 contributors at the 2014 The North Face® Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc®

Jez Bragg (JB) Kirsty Reade (KR) Robbie Britton (RB) Gemma Bragg (GB)
Jez Bragg (JB) Kirsty Reade (KR) Robbie Britton (RB) Gemma Bragg (GB)

When did you arrive in Chamonix ahead of the race?

Jez Bragg (JB): Wednesday, two days before race start.

Robbie Britton (RB): Sunday before

Kirsty Reade (KR): I got there the Wednesday before and had a few gentle walks and nice meals, I registered, checked my kit lots of times and generally experienced the wonder that is Chamonix in race week. 

Gemma Bragg (GB): On the Wednesday, two days before the race.

Your race day food intake up until the start?

JB: Normal really. I find my normal diet combined with a cut back in training works fine to get fully charged up before the race.

RB: Simple & self made due to stomach issues

KR: I went for a decent breakfast (croissants, bread, fruit juice, tea), then some pasta for lunch. I didn't go too mad. 

GB: No major change to normal. I dont go in for this carb loading or depletion stuff, think my body wouldnt take to a big change in diet very well!

What time did you get up on Friday and did you cram in any extra sleep during the day?

JB: Around 8.30am. I find it impossible to sleep during the day immediately before UTMB race start - I basically just hung out at the apartment where we were staying, trying to stay relaxed.

RB: 8:30. If you share an apartment with Shona Stephenson (inov-8 Oz) you get up when Shona gets up.

KR: I managed to sleep in until about 9am on race day, then I had a little lie down in the afternoon but was way too nervous to actually sleep.

GB: Woke naturlly at 08:30am and didn't sleep in the day. I don't find it easy and felt too nervous - however, I did spend most of the day on the apartment floor doing pilates stretches, as I was worried about my stiff back!

Photos: Gemma and Jez on the rainy streets of Chamonix, soon after the start © Pete Aylward

Between the start and checkpoint one, what was foremost on your mind?

JB: I was looking forward to finding some 'trail space'. Early on in UTMB there is way too much jostling for position by runners who will undoubtedly finish much further back. The pace was frantic as usual - to a certain extent you just need to go with it so you don't get left behind, but it's very easy to over cook it. Patience is key! I much prefer to have my own space to run in, so I don't tend to enjoy the first few legs of UTMB.

RB: Keeping an eye on Timmy Olsen & Jez, I didn't want to be ahead of them.

KR: Rain! It chucked it down for the first few hours and my main thought was 'please stop!'. The prospect of running in rain all through the night wasn't a good one. But it stopped after about 4 or 5 hours.

GB: I think really just getting going, getting into the race and settling in - it had seemed a long time waiting for this moment and I always find the starts are a bit overwhelming, too many people going at a super speed.

Photos: Kirsty and Robbie out on the trails © Pete Aylward

Did anything go really wrong, and if so how did you react?

JB: I fell badly on the descent to Les Chapieux. I had a badly bruised side, and impressive cuts on my hand and knee. It wasn't great for confidence descending at night. I had to try to block out any negative thoughts and get back to strong running. I also messed up on salt intake which caused problems in my quads.

RB: My pole snapped in half just before the climb to the highest point at Grand Col de Ferret so I laughed and tried to use my remaining pole like a gondola and punt my way up.

KR: My feet went really wrong. The rain and mud turned them into blistered cocktail sausages early on and I had real problems with them. I had 3 stops to sort them out (blister plasters, tape, new socks, change of shoes) at Courmayeur, Refuge Bonatti and just before Champex but in retrospect I should have stopped earlier, once I could feel the onset of blisters. I've never had such big problems with my feet and there were times when I didn't think I would make it to the end because of them, which would have been enormously annoying. 

GB: One of my water bottles flew out my backpack just as we were running out of Chamonix at the start, it could have been a disaster, but I worked against the sea of runners and managed to grab it back off the floor without any trip ups. It was lucky I realised straight away, as without it I would have been really stuck. I also wore super thick socks as I thought they would give me extra cushioning, instead they resulted in me losing both my big toe nails on the first descent, as made my trainers too small - big error. From then on every descent hurt and I had to scrunch up my toes to make it less painful, I also did have to take pain killers through the race, which isn't ideal - but I wasnt going to let my big toe nails stop me!    

If you had to draw a graph of your emotional state during the race, what would it look like? (Flat, spikey,...)

JB: Even downward slant.

RB: Flat to Courmayer, upwards to Trient, low from there on.

KR: Wow, very spiky! The first few hours in the rain were very hard, but then it all went pretty well until Les Chapieux, when I went through a very tired phase (I was nodding off while walking uphill). I had my husband and some really good friends out there supporting me and I was really focussed on getting to Courmayeur as I knew they were there. That was a definite highlight; it was fantastic to see them. Then I had a really good stretch from Courmayeur to Champex. Again, I knew my friends would be there and I'd run that stretch a few weeks before the UTMB with the Trail Team. The last 3 climbs were very hard going. My feet were really painful, my quads were starting to go, the downhills were getting harder and it seemed like very slow progress. Then, of course, when you finally reach Chamonix your emotional state takes a massive upswing! That finish line is like winning the Olympics. There's nothing like it in my experience. 

GB: Definite peaks and troughs, I recon it was pretty spikey!

Photos: Gemma and Kirsty at checkpoints © Pete Aylward

What were the most memorable highs and lows?

JB: Sun rise on the Grand Col was incredible, then I really enjoyed the descent down to La Fouly. From Champex onwards I had real problems with my quads. The Bovine climb was a complete embarrassing crawl. But I managed to hold it together thereafter. I was up to around 15th place at one point, and moving well, then suddenly my legs decided they'd had enough and I had to tough it out.

RB: Seeing Mont Blanc in the morning light just before Refuge Bonatti. She looked fantastic. Realising it was 21km from Vallorcine instead of 11km like I had thought. That hurt my head.

KR: Highs were definitely that incredible finish line, seeing my friends out on the course, getting to Grand Col Ferret (the highest point) and taking my shoes off at the end! Lows were some of the really tired points, a couple of dodgy phases where I felt sick, the hideous climb up Tete aux Vents and taking my shoes off at the end and seeing my feet!

GB: Highs: Seeing the sunrise on the first morning and running into Courmayeur and seeing my dad after what felt like a long first night out there on my own; seeing Jez in Trient, running through Chamonix town to the finish and the realisation that I had completed the UTMB. Lows: I felt really sick in Champex amd was apprehensive about leaving there and going into the second night. I found the descent into Vallorcine pretty long and tough and felt tired at that point.  

What was the best advice you had been given ahead of the race?

JB: Keep smiling. Easier said than done.

RB: Start slowly and within yourself and finish strong (Mr. Jez).

KR: I had loads of really great advice about staying positive, nutrition and kit from my coach, Mimi Anderson. Robbie Britton gave me some great advice the night before and that was to treat eating like you treat everything else and make yourself do it. If your legs hurt you push through it and keep running, you don't stop, so why stop eating? If you feel rubbish you've just got to force the food down and push through it. My nutrition was much better than it's ever been and that's because I had Robbie's words in my head. 

GB: To not faff at checkpoints, to enjoy it, to smile lots and to think of all the people supporting you and the training you have put in for this race! 

Any hallucinations?

JB: One or two. A tree stump became a beaver. Don't ask.

RB: Tricks of the eye more common. Tree roots and things in the bushes looked like elves, people, dogs etc but only for a split second!

KR: Yes! I ran the last third of the race with Gemma and strangely we had a lot of the same hallucinations: animals at the side of the path etc. I also kept seeing words on the stones on the ground. Running for two nights without sleep isn't something I'd recommend!

GB: On the descent to Vallorcine every piece of bark or wood became an animal that was staring silently back at me as I crawled past! 

Any unusual cravings?

JB: Unfortunately not, I didn't really crave food at all, I had to force it down.

RB: Lacto-free Cheese on Toast. All that French cheese and I couldn't eat any. First thing I ate back at home!

KR: I followed somebody all the way up a massive climb with a Nestle Crunch bar sticking out of the back of his pack. I really wanted it. Not really any unusual cravings but I got a bit obsessed with the fruit tarts they serve on the checkpoints. And I would sell my soul for fizzy orange at any point along the course. A farmer gave me some orangina and it was a moment of bliss. 

GB: Not that I remember

Photos: Kirsty in Courmayeur © Pete Aylward

The biggest surprise?

JB: The humidity. It was deceptively warm and humid throughout. Early on we had several hours of heavy rain which made it feel like salt wouldn't be necessary. As a result I didn't take enough on board and ended up very dehydrated, despite drinking loads of water.

RB: The UK support & community out there. Just brilliant.

KR: The massive drop-out rate this year. I was really surprised when I heard how many of the elites had dropped in particular. 

GB: Although I did feel tired on the second night, I was expecting to feel so exhausted that it was a struggle to keep moving but generally I was pretty alert. Even after I had finished and gone back and showered I wanted to go back out into chamonix and soak up the atmosphere, but Jez told me I had to sleep!

What lessons have you learnt?

JB: To be more conscious of salt intake, even when conditions don't suggest it being necessary. I suspect I may also have been slightly 'over cooked' with training. You need to be super cautious the last three weeks before UTMB.

RB: That the UTMB is my kind of work and something I will dedicate a few years to. That the 10,000m downhill is the gamechanger.

KR: That good nutrition can make or break a race, that keeping your feet healthy can make a massive difference, that having a support crew is the best thing in the world.

GB: That the human body is just incredible....

Favourite moment you observed (other racers, views,...):

JB: Looking back on the climbs to see the snaking lines of head torches.

RB: Sebastien Henri ledning me one of his spare poles mid race & Ben Davies charging across the line about 90 seconds within the 46hr cut-off! The finish in Chamonix - what did it feel like to return to the town? Real nice.

KR: Seeing some of the PTL runners coming in after their epic adventures was pretty special. The images from the finish line - parents picking up their children to run over the line with them, runners in total pain but making it across that line - will stay with me forever. My favourite views were the miles of snaking head torches in the dark. Obviously it was nicer to be at the top of a mountain looking down at them...

GB: Running through Notre-Dame de la gorge and people cheering round a big bonfire, all the checkpoints you come into and eveyone cheering, ringing the cowbells. The contrast of going from noise, hustle and bustle to complete peace and solitude. Seeing the tears of people as runners cross the finish line and knowing what that means.

Photos: Kirsty and Gemma arrive together in Chamonix © Pete Aylward. Robbie back in town © iRunFar

The finish in Chamonix - what did it feel like to return to the town?

JB: Magical, as ever. The British contingent in town seemed stronger than ever. Everyone is treated like a hero for completing the event. So whilst I was disappointed with 20th place, it was hugely rewarding to have made it round. 

RB: Real nice.

KR: he finish is absolutely epic. As you run down into Chamonix everybody on the streets cheers you like you're the winner. There are high 5s galore, total strangers are crying, there's the Vangelis music, it's like a film and you're the star. When I saw Simon and Julie from the Trail Team, then my friends Julie, Eileen. Lucy, Tom and Tracey, and my husband Pete I was in bits. It's hard to imagine unless you've been there but it's not just a finish line, it's the end of a massive journey and each runner has been through an awful lot to get there. The relief and the send of achievement is massive. 

GB: AMAZING, so hard to describe in words, a moment I wish I could capture in a glass bottle and hold onto forever, it was the best ending you could hope for to a unique and very special journey.

Would you do it again?

JB: Yes, but probably not next year. I need a break from it, and to try my hand at some different races.

RB: Wild horses could not stop me returning to this race next year.

KR: I wasn't going to but now I've answered all these questions and realised how much I loved it I definitely will. 

GB: Yes! But not for a while, it takes a lot out of you, not just on race day but for months prior - there are other things I want to focus on for now.

Have you managed to catch up with sleep and the calorie deficit?

JB: Oh yes! The week's holiday immediately after addressed those two things.

RB: Working on it as I type and eat lunch. Wee bit tired but on the mend.

KR: No and no. The sleep is hard to catch up on because it's all so exciting and all I dream about is that race. As for the food, I seem to have the munchies constantly.

GB: Definitely, a week's holiday with Jez straight after the race was the best thing for it.

Any injuries or niggles?

JB: Some impressive bruises and scrapes, but everything is healing up well.

RB: Just a bit of a issue underside one foot. Picture to come in my blog. Pretty much unscathed apart from fatigue though.

KR: Fortunately not, though my feet are still really sore.

GB: Apart from five lost toe nails, all seems pretty good and the back niggle I had before seems to have healed itself during the race, definitely a case of pre-race nerves exaggerating the pain.  

When will you try the first post UTMB run/jog?

JB: The week immediately after the race was complete rest. This week (w/c 8th Sept) I'll almost certainly try some runs but I'll probably do more swimming to start with.

RB: Might get out on the bike this week for a gentle spin but walking the Bob Graham Round over 5 days with some friends next week so will be after that I guess. Rest is so important.

KR: I'll probably try a little jog next week, toes permitting. Minimal ascent and descent for a while. 

GB: I havent tried a run yet, so lets hope no niggles develop. Have had a complete rest from running or any sport, apart from snorkelling and bobbing in a pool last week! will be trying a little run this week and see how it feels....


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