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A long term commitment to The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc®

by Robert Britton
Wednesday 10th September 2014

Race report: Run247 columnist Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team inov-8 and Team Centurion  reports back from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Run247 columnist Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion reports back from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: Pre race - Avec Ma © Big Tone. Coming into Trient © Paul Navesey

Going up mountains is easy, getting down is the killer. The same is true for the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc where everyone talks about the 9800m of climbing and neglects to mention the 9800m of descent that batter your quads, tickles the balls of your feet and throw you downhill into a pile of rocks if you stop concentrating (luckily I bounce).

The UTMB is one of the major events of European 100 mile running, passing through three countries and circling the White Mountain, and being in Chamonix the week before the race is akin to torture, like putting a child in the middle of Alton Towers and saying "wait here, you can only go on the rides on Friday", prisoner to the evil taper monster.

This is one race I was determined to treat with a great deal of respect, being purposefully cautious about my potential finish times before the race, not because I was scared, but because this is the start of a long term project to get to the point where I can compete at this international level. Jez Bragg had told me to start steady and finish strong and for the first half of the race all I cared about was being within my comfort zone.

The hills were walked, the checkpoints taken leisurely, all the food I had made was eaten on time every hour and I was nattering away with the English speaking runners all around me. Admittedly when we got to some muddy, grassy downhill sections the X-Talons on my feet would have been offended had I not enjoyed some free speed, but otherwise everything was easy, just like the first half of a hundred should be.

A wee spot of rain for the starting few miles did add a slight dampener onto proceedings, but we've had that aplenty in the UK. The huge climbs we have less of, but my coach, Nick Anderson, and I had made sure I was ready for them.

Running through the night is always good fun, with a few rocky, rooty descents to keep the mind focused and, with only one fall for the race, I was happy with my Petzl Tikka RXP headtorch, which held out for the whole night. The descent into Courmayer is brilliantly steep, but I managed to avoid the "Directissima" route to the bottom over some of the edges and my Ma was chuffed to see me in one piece at halfway.

I have been guilty in the past of chastising those who say they only run "for the love of the natures" and that as long as I have competition, I don't care if it's a 400m track or a mountain I'm running around for 24 hours, but as the sun rose in the morning, 12 hours into the event, Mont Blanc herself was boldy standing out in the crisp blue sky and I couldn't help but stop and smile.

Courmayer to Arnuva was the only bit of the course that I'd actually had time to recce (I like surprises) and there was a good bit of runnable trail where I felt the benefit of my Font Romeu altitude training and trotted along nicely, looking forward to climbing up to the race's highest point at the Col de Ferret.

Run247 columnist Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion reports back from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photo © Pete Aylward

Upon reaching the refuge Bonatti, named after a man who truly inspires me ("it was impossible, then I did it, so it was possible"), I realised that one of my hiking poles had snapped beyond repair, so when I got to the foot of the big climb I decided to do it in Italian style...well, Venetian, using my single pole like a gondolier punting along a canal. Those thinking this may be a good way to lower pack weight I can save you the trouble, it's bloody useless.

The sun was up now, the Julbos were on my face and the descent from Col de Ferret to La Fouly was just ahead. The downhill is wonderful, but also a bit of a danger for many runners as the easy downhill running may be fun, but it is secretly killing your already tired quads. This section was fast for me, my conservative start paying dividends as, although going no faster, I was starting to reel people in and make up some places.

It felt really good and going through Champex-Lac, La Giète and Trient I was flying, thinking of glory and fast finishing times and not about my race. Going up from Trient to Catogne I forgot one of the golden rules, tried to chase a runner up the hill (not my forte) and suddenly was putting myself into the red. My strong pace had come from moving well on the flat and descents, whilst efficiently on the uphills, but all of a sudden I thought I was Ueli Steck and was trying to fly uphill too.

As well as eating poorly in the second half too, mainly because I had by this point got very excited and, instead of sticking to my game plan of taking my time, had started to rush a little, I was not drinking enough either. It is wonderful to sit here and reminisce, annoyed for such simple mistakes, but it is often the simple things that slow us down. I had forgotten the long picnic rules and thought I was in a running race.

Onwards and seemingly upwards I still had to go, a comically downbeat figure at Vallorcine I had forgotten my poles at the checkpoint and had to return to get them from my brilliant crew (my Ma, Sharon). It was only about 15m back but a camera man was two centimetres away waiting for me to break down in tears.

From here on it was a slog, one last big climb that's a wee bit rocky and then a descent into Chamonix from La Flagere. A couple of mates, James Elson and Majell Bakhausen, cheered me on at the last check and bet me I couldn't "drop a six" for the last mile. So for the plate of chips on offer I gave it one last push at the finish and ran in a 6:26 mile. I never hold anything back for this, but always manage to find something extra for that final sprint although I'm still paying for it now when I write this.

26:48 was my final time and offered that at the start I would have taken your arm off. Now it is all done and dusted I am still very happy with that, although as ever I see room for improvement. UTMB was never going to be a one-off for me, it is a long term project that will see me get closer and closer to the sharp end, year on year, so next time round I will have a time in mind and hopefully make a day of it.

Run247 columnist Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion reports back from The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® - August 29-31, 2014

Photos: At the finish © iRunFar / Bryon Powell. Post race foot © Sharon Britton

What's next? Well currently I'm walking the Bob Graham Round with a school friend and it really is harder that running it, but good fun. The Florence Marathon is calling at the end of the year though and I may have booked somewhere to stay in Les Houches from 5th May next year, who's coming with?


About The Author

Robert Britton

Robbie is a 100 mile runner who is a member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad and Team Centurion and likes to run ridiculous distances as quickly as possible.

To provide enough food to feed a monster running habit, Robbie coaches other ultra marathon runners through www.robbiebritton.co.uk and is also a member of the coaching team at Centurion Running. He likes to dabble with a bit of writing so that others can learn from his mistakes and enjoy the sport as much as he does.

Robbie is also a is a Profeet ambassador.


"Pain is inevitable, suffering is just part of the fun"


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