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Ups and downs and the relativity of time

by Britta Sendlhofer
Tuesday 1st September 2015
Tags  OCC   |   Orsieres Champex Chamonix   |   Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc   |   UTMB   |   Chamonix

Race report: Run247 editor Britta Sendlhofer reports from the 2015 OCC (Orsieres - Champex - Chamonix)

Chamonix never disappoints

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Chamonix’s charms. The pretty buildings and those magnificent mountains! It’s a runner’s paradise with trails a plenty and a place where everyone seems to be participating in one sport or another.

I’ve been looking forward to sitting in one of the many beautiful street with a view of the mighty Mont Blanc, coffee and croissant in hand, cheering on runners, for most of the year.

Sharing the experience

To make things even more fun, this year I was sharing my time in Chamonix with a bunch of fellow Brits. We stayed in a beautiful chalet, with views of Mont Blanc of course, a lovely base to start our adventures from and return to to relax at the end of the day!

There was great friend and Run247 contributor Kirsty, who was taking on her second UTMB and her husband Pete, who not only captured the action in beautiful photos but who also drove runners and supporters to all the key points around Mont Blanc, often at some crazy hour through the night.

There was the ever smiling Eileen, the best supporter any runner can dream of. Always cheery, she was there to help wherever she could, making breakfast, walking us to the bus or ringing a cow bell at the side of the trail.

Then there were Mel and Lucy, who like myself would be taking part in the OCC and Pip, who was running the CCC.


The OCC is the shortest of the races of the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc®. With around 53 km and 3300 metres of ascent it packs in some challenging climbs and takes participants on a great mix of trails through some breathtakingly beautiful countryside and postcard villages in Switzerland and France.

A generous 14 hour cut-off makes this a great event for the uninitiated to find out what mountain running is all about and the morning start in Orsieres means that few runners require a torch before they arrive in Chamonix.

The generous crowds are eager to get into the spirit of the week and don’t seem to consider the OCC runners any less worthy of their support than those who take on the longer races and so they line the street at the checkpoints and at the finish in Chamonix.

An easy race it is not. It is much shorter than the other events, which could lead some to take the challenge too lightly, but as Kirsty pointed out, it is still a third of the UTMB!

A feast for the senses

On the morning of the race Pete drove Lucy, Mel and myself to Orsieres, where Mel and I still had to get through kit-check and number collection. After a rather lengthy queue for the toilets I had no time to fret before the off.

Unusually calm I joined the back of the field and soon we were off on our journey back to Chamonix.

Apart from the enthusiastic crowd that cheered us on, what is most memorable of the early miles is the smell of the freshly cut hay fields. The scent of the herbal alpine meadow grass drying in the sun was divine! The other senses were not left out with pretty Swiss farm houses and picture-book mountain scenery a joy to behold while the cows with their huge bells providing a constant ringing sound as they shook off the flies.

Photo: The runners set off from Orsieres © Pete Aylward

Ups and downs and the relativity of time

The first climb through the woods on some narrower tracks caused a big tail-back, but most of the runners stayed calm as they shuffled up the slope. There would be plenty of time to make up places and get running.

Checkpoint number one at Champex-Lac, just 7km into the race, was soon reached but it was already clear that the usual measures of time, by which one counts the kilometres pass by, would not be of much use today. I attempted the maths but soon thought better of it.

The most runnable section of the route followed, before we took on the big climb up to La Giete which lies almost a thousand metres higher than the start.

The day was heating up, but for most of the time we ran, or better hiked, in the shade of the trees. Water sources, to cool off or fill up a bottle at, were in good supply from generous supporters on the route, streams or animal troughs.

On the exposed higher ground a gentle breeze kept things bearable.

The long climb was followed by a long descent into Trient, where I managed to fill up with soup, bread and cheese before taking on the long climb up to Catogne, the high-point of the course.

It was a long hot slog up to the top. Walking poles helped to take some of the weight off the legs and most of the runners seemed to be making use of them too. One foot in front of the other as the minutes ticked by. With an average of over 20 minutes per kilometre this was possibly the longest 5km I have ever ‘run’!

I had a quick sit down at the top to fill up with water, take on a gel, pack away the poles and get out some music. Then I forced my tired muscles back to a jog for the long downhill into Vallorcine.

Photo: All smiles in Vallorcine © Pete Aylward

It’s a miracle

Speed is a relative thing in this race, as I have mentioned, but on this 5km descent the impossible happened! The painful niggle in the heel, as well as the tightness in my legs, just disappeared. The legs happily complied when I asked them to run down the trail. I’m not a natural descender and usually get very frustrated as I waste energy fighting the slope, but just this once I managed to let go. Not pushing too hard – I would have paid the price for that later – yet happily skipping past fellow runners all the way, seventy three of them to be exact!

“I wish I could bottle the joy of that descent – I could sell it for a fortune!” I exclaimed at the bottom where Kirsty, Pete, Eileen and Pip where laughing at my enthusiasm.

Knowing that another long descent into Chamonix would follow it made the next long climb up to Flegere just a little more bearable.

Photo: Beautiful trails © Pete Aylward

Keeping cool!

Out came the poles again. The need to keep the heart rate from rising too high determined the pace of the last climb.

It felt a little like a death march, with its respectful slow rhythm. I ran out of water before we reached the top but had managed to keep topped up with food and water well enough. Time warped yet again and it felt as though the summit would never be reached but eventually the final checkpoint came into sight.

I stocked up on water and coke, downed a bowl of salty soup and had a sit down to pack away the poles and get some music on. There were bowls of water with sponges to cool off and I wiped my salty face and cooled the back of my neck. When I look up the guy next to me is sponging off between his legs...

Photo: Back in Chamonix © Pete Aylward

Smiles in Chamonix

After the long slow climb I’m not convinced that this descent will be half as much fun as the last, but I’ll ask the legs anyway. To my surprise they respond and even after ten hours on the trail I’m yet again skipping down the hill without much effort.

Although I can’t wait to reach the finish I don’t want it to end – this rare feeling of effortless running. I sing along to the music (Greenday, Pink, Girls Allowed,…) as I overtake runner after runner and pray that my shuffle doesn’t suddenly switch to a ballad!

As I reach the outskirts of town I pull out the headphones to take in the cheers of the crowds. I’m smiling from ear to ear and gallop over the line.

A big hug from Kirsty, Pete, Pip, Eileen and Lucy who finishes at the same time.

After years of struggling with injury those descents were the tonic I needed to re-discover the joy of running!

Photo: Britta and Lucy at the finish © Pete Aylward

Back on the side lines

The next morning it is Pip’s turn to take on the challenge and later in the evening Kirsty gets on her way. We experience Chamonix and the other towns around Chamonix from another angle now, as we travel to checkpoints to cheer on the runners. Instead of electrolytes, soup and gels we can now enjoy cake and the odd beer!


About The Author

Britta Sendlhofer

Britta, originally from Austria, came to live in the Lake District in 1990.

Always in love with the mountains, the local hills and fells have since been her favourite ‘playground’. She spends much of her spare time exploring the hills – no matter what the season or the weather – always accompanied by her two Border Collies.

While the fells and trails are her first love, Britta has also completed 10 road marathons, before moving up to ultra events. Her biggest achievements are a Bob Graham Round, the Himalayan 100 mile stage race,the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race and the Lakeland 100.


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