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101 kilometres through the mountains in Vibrams

by Editor
Thursday 24th September 2015
Tags  Pip Haylett   |   CCC   |   ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT-BLANC

Run247 contributor Pip Haylett tells the tale of his run from Courmayeur to Champex Lac and Chamonix

What a run.  I don’t think I have ever been more tested physically or mentally, or had that much fun.  Really, truly, in every way, that was an awesome day out.

The CCC is 101 kilometers around Mont Blanc, the latter 2/3rds of the full Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. So that’s 101 kms ‘along’ but also 6kms of ‘up’.

Not surprisingly, it’s not easy to get to run the race. You need to earn the qualification points, and then you need to go through a ballot to be one of the 2100 people running this year.  So it’s fair to say, I’ve been planning this for some time. I got the last two qualification points I needed in December last year by running 45 miles along the Dorset coast (at the time, that seemed hilly), and made it through the ballot, the results of which are published in February.  Then there was the recovery from injury (ankle issues that saw me hobble the Country to Capital and Thames Trot early in the year, and a back knack that meant I missed the Grizzly, amongst other runs), the hours of training, and working with an efficient running coach on form, and a long wait until August.

Then, finally, it was time.  The weather forecast was good, the company was amazing, and the whole place was alive with runners and running.  Early Friday morning, my friend Elieen got up early with me to go to the bus stop, where I met Matt – an old uni friend who I last saw physically in New York in 2003, whilst running the marathon there.  He is a very accomplished runner, who had been on the start of the CCC two years ago, and I was very happy to at least start the race with him.  An easy bus ride (the race organisation is amazing!) to Courmayer, a nervous, and long wait for the toilets, a last minute pee in the park, and then we were in the starting pen waiting to go.

One of the many things I failed to appreciate until the race started was how much of the run was uphill on very narrow / single track trail, that goes on seemingly endlessly up the mountain. 

After the first section around the town of Courmayer, we hit the first of these power hiking, narrow trail, uphill slogs.  As it’s single track, you are in a line of people that snakes up the hill for miles, and unless you stop for a rest, your speed is dictated by the snake.  Its been likened to the conga, as 2100 odd people all march up a hill in a line, with the poles going and legs pumping, and that is almost exactly what it is.  There is little you can do though, apart from hold your place in the line, try not to get within pole stabbing distance of the person ahead of you (in case they stab you), whilst not leaving too much of a gap that the keeno behind you pushes past to take your place.  Honestly, this queue of people snakes up the hill for miles, and one place here will make no difference to the overall results.

CCC Route 2015

Race feature: The focus of ultra runners will be firmly on Chamonix as the first race of The North FaceĀ® Ultra-Trail Du Mont-BlancĀ® starts on Monday, August 25, 2014

It’s a tough introduction to the race, that first climb to Tete de la Tronche, and quite a relief to be able to run some flatter trail when you have finally hiked your way to the top, and can enjoy the downhill section to get to Refuge Bertone.

By now it was getting hot, and the temperature was in the 30s, which made it interesting, from a survival / don’t overheat point of view as well as a hydration / food point of view. It’s hard to eat enough anyway, but when it’s this hot, it's really hard!  Few bits of fly covered cheese and fruit bar things at Bertone, and a cola / water mix fix, and it’s on to the next aid station at Bonatti. 

This was definitely a good bit of the race.  Stunning views, early enough to be feeling good and strong, and nicely runnable… but it’s not long until the big climb up Grand Col Ferret.  More power hiking here, for a long, long time up the hill.  Now it was really hot, and the afternoon was proving difficult for a lot of runners who were starting to feel the effects of the heat.  Things went a bit funny for me, and towards the top of the climb I started seeing orange and purple spots in front of my eyes.  Hoping this was altitude related, I thought it best to get down from the hill as soon as possible.

From Grand Col Ferret, it’s a long and winding downhill track past La Fouly to Champex-Lax.  It is a long way, and it seemed to drag on forever.  I was low on water and hungry, so the soup and pasta at Champex-Lac was very welcome.  55kms and 10 hours in, and I’d finally got to the second C! 

Photo: Nice gentle rolling downhill bit (it gets steeper at the end)

The aid stations were getting more and more chaotic as we went on.  At Champex people are allowed a support crew to come into the checkpoint, but as I didn’t have an active crew, I didn’t have the faff of changing shoes or tops, so managed to pick up about 100 places with a 20 minute stop, trying to force down some more soup and electrolyte drink.

Onwards, and as it started to get dark, there was another big up and down to get to Trient.  As I rolled into this aid station, I was dead chuffed to see my friends out to support me.  I’d decided that they weren’t coming, as it was nearly 23:00, I’d been miles away all day, and they should be either in bed or in a bar... so seeing my team was a great boost. 0kms in, with 30 to go, I needed all the help I could get. 

So, 30kms.  That’s six Parkruns.  My eight year old can do a Parkrun in 28 minutes, so that’s three hours for me.  Well, it could be three hours, if it was a bit flatter.  Out of Trient, there is another big climb up to Catogne, then a escent down to Vallorcine.  Here I struggled big time, and spent at least 20 minutes staring into another bowl of soup, trying to find some energy and some enthusiasm, knowing that there was only one hill left, but it was a big one...

Despite switching my watch to kilometres instead of miles, in the hope that the distance would tick by quicker, I have never known time and distance (2hours 20 mins! 7.7kms, with about 1km vertical) go so slowly as that last hill from Vallorcine up to the top of La Tete Aux Vent.  It’s a long and very steep climb, and by this point I was starving hungry and pretty broken.  My head torch had decided to keep turning itself off, and even with new batteries, it kept on flashing, then dying on me.  Near the top of the mountain, the path becomes more like a scramble over a boulder field, with huge boulders that you have to jump between.  Then it’s another 3.5km of horribly narrow trail winding over the top of the mountain to La Flegere.  This is the top of the perfectly serviceable chair lift, which would have been a much better way of getting up the hill! 

Photos: Bertone aid station. Trying to keep the sun off my neck, not look cool in a backwards cap

At La Flegere, I switched to my emergency head torch and tried to crack on through the last 8km of downhill to the finish.  How I wish that was easy, but 8km of rocky downhill in Vibrams with no padding, tired legs, and a not very bright torch was not as much fun as it could have been.  Despite starting the descent on a ski slope (and smiling at better times with a snowboard on that run in the winter!) the trail quickly became a series of narrow switchbacks, with me catching my exposed little toes on the edge of the singletrack trail, or cursing as I kicked or landed on a stone.

Towards the bottom of the hill the sun came up over Mont Blanc, and the world was a much better place…  The hill was leveling out, and then there was tarmac, Chamonix and the joyous sound of the finish.  Even at 06:45, there were supporter out on the streets, and the cheer of the crowd was quite wonderful. 21hours and 35 minutes, three countries, 101 horizontal and six vertical kilometres, and finally I was able to stop running.

A fantastic adventure, I’m so chuffed to have been a part of that, to have seen such a beautiful trail, and got through it only slightly mentally scarred.  Having spent a lot of the last 30ks thinking there is no way I could do the full 100 miles, I’ll definitely be entering the ballot for next year’s UTMB.

I’m sure there were more people there when I finished than the photo shows!  Thanks to the people that were – you were great. 

Photos: Soup and a failing headtorch. The finish line © Pete Aylward


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