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Difficult conditions underfoot - Pip Haylett's UTMB!

by RunningPip
Friday 14th October 2016
 
 
Exactly a year ago, I distinctly remember thinking;
 
a) there is no way I could get up Tete au Vents (an 800+m climb, the last big ascent in both the CCC, and the UTMB) if I had run an extra 40 miles on top of the 60 I had just run in the CCC, and 
 
b) don’t do this again in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.
 
Selective memory is a wonderful thing.
 
The run started well.  Leaving Chamonix at 1800hr, the 2,500 runners avoided the 32 degree heat of the day, and set out from the town centre heading south into the hills.   From the route profile, the first 10 kms or so looks reasonably flat, so I was expecting a nice warm up and an easy first section.  Unfortunately, when you have to fit mountains that have 1000+m of ascent onto a route profile, the smaller hills do get a bit lost.  Coming out of Chamonix you are straight into it, and you crack into the first set of leg worrying hills on the way to Les Houches.  
 
I had a vague idea that I’d like to finish in about 35 hours, as that is plenty long enough to be running.  My logic was that I have run 100 miles in 21 hours, so adding an extra 10 hours for the hills would not be too far off?  So, my plan was to start at a pace I could maintain for the whole race, not get carried away, and ideally still have a bit left in the tank for the second half, when it gets really hilly.  Nice and relaxed, I got into a nice, happy zone, thought I was moving well, and really enjoying myself.

UTMB trail 2

Even early on, lots of people were asking about my lovely shoes, and ‘how are your feet?’, and ‘are you crazy?’, ‘you’re really running in those??’  Of course, I talked a lot about how good the Five Fingers are, being perfect for this type of terrain, and that I’m sure I’d finish with all my toenails and no blisters.
 
As the sun starts to set on Friday evening, the hills start to get bigger.  The first few checkpoints flew by… Saint Gervais, Les Contamines, La Balme, all glorious checkpoints full of energy and laughter at the early stages of the run.  I tried to get through these quickly, taking on water and food but not hanging around… there would be plenty of time for that later in the race.  

UTMB walking

The first of the really big climbs goes up Col du Bonhomme.  It’s a hill that starts roughly 20kms into the run, lasts for 20kms, and goes up about 1500m…. a high mountain, with some steep slopes, and a summit that never arrives. Lovely stuff for a boy who lives in a flat place.  By now it was dark, so the view is restricted to the beam of the torch, and then the sight of literally hundreds of torches snaking along the mountain trail above and below.  It’s quite an amazing sight when, looking up, what you think should be stars are actually head torches of people higher on the trail than you.  Finally we hit the top, and started the long descent.  It’s a real challenge to not overcook the downhill sections and kill your quads, but fortunately, as it was dark, and I was wearing shoes with no padding to speak of, going downhill fast was not really an option.  Quads saved!
 
The next set of hills came with some unexpected snow sections – again, perfect for my shoes with very thin soles – and then a downhill section that doesn’t appear to be a path at all, and is just a load of big rocks dumped on the hillside.  These must be horrible in any shoes, but in mine, they were really quite hideous.

UTMB snow

This descent was accompanied by sunrise, and the world was starting to look and feel much nicer.  I met a lovely man called Alan on the way into the next aid station, and I kept bumping into him for the course of the race. The sunrise came with some amazing views, stunning mountains accompanied by a cloud inversion, which, when you are trying to remember to enjoy yourself and focus anywhere apart from the achy legs, really does help.  Trying to remember to be ‘in the moment’ and smile a lot is much easier when there are fantastic mountains to take your mind off it.
 
Rolling into Courmayeur, just about half way round, I was feeling pretty good!  A bit sore and tired, but generally pretty good.  I’d been moving well, and overtaking a few of people, especially on the downhill sections.   My feet were in good shape, no change of socks required!  I spent about 40 minutes in the aid station at Courmayeur, mostly in a queue for a toilet.  Much to my dismay, it turned out there were two free toilets in the next corridor that I hadn’t spotted...  but it was good to have a rest to be honest.
Pip trail
As the morning wore on, the heat really started to build up.  Now the hills were continuous, and you pass through some amazing scenery around Refuge Bertone, Refuge Bonati  and Col du Ferret.  I really did not enjoy the very hot climb up, but loved the decent from the top of Ferret, it’s a really runnable downhill section that takes you to La Fouly.  At some point on the way down here I bumped into Alan again, and we chatted for a while before both realizing that we were quite behind expected schedule to get to Champex Lac at the time our respective support crews expected us… so we both turned it up a bit, and went a bit harder to make up the time.  What that means is he legged it off and I tried to go a little bit quicker.
 
Normally, when running distances, my legs start to hurt a bit, then they start to really hurt, but most of the time they settle down into a consistent ‘hurting’ place, which is just manageable, and I can run through it.  But around this part of the run, things were starting to go wrong.  At some point along this narrow single track section, I caught my left little toe a few times too many on the outside edge of the trail.  One of the (few) downsides to wearing shoes with toes is when you kick something, especially the edge of the trail, it really flippin’ hurts.  It can also twist your knee, and I did this many times as I cruised down into the La Fouly.  Trying to speed up to keep up with Alan, my left knee started to hurt quite a lot.  I was starting to hobble, and the 14km from La Fouly to Champex-Lac took a lot longer than expected.  This was a sign of things to come.
 
I finally got to Champex, and found Lou, Sam and Toby, my support crew.  I spent 20 mins with them, eating pasta and chatting about the race so far.  There was thunder all around, and it started to rain just as I left the checkpoint.  Sam ran with me for a mile along the lake, which was great, before I headed off into the rain, and Sam got into the car for the drive back to Chamonix.  This was one of the best bits of the race for me.  I’d seen Lou and Toby and run a bit with Sam, it was dark and raining, and it just felt really great to be alive and out in the mountains.  However, I also knew my knee was not working properly.  I knew this next section would take me at least 12 hours, there are 3 big climbs, we were running up to the top of some very big hills carrying walking poles… in a huge thunder storm.  Maybe, just maybe… I checked my phone to see if there was a text from the organizers calling the race off, or at least shortening it?? But, alas no.  Then my phone ran out of batteries, so even if they had sent one, I wouldn’t have known.
 
The second night was tough.  I couldn’t bend my left knee anymore, and was having to use my right leg for all the step up, or step down actions associated with going up and down technical, rocky mountains.  I started to really slow down.  As I became more of a moving chicane, my head torch ran out of batteries.  Running just on emergency light on the decent to Vallorcine, I was trying really hard to enjoy it, but by this point, I was just hanging on.  With one last climb to go, I had given up all hopes of a finishing time, and was now just hoping to finish.  
 
As the sun rose for the second time in the race, I started the last ascent up Tete au Vent.  Although still hideous, this climb is far nicer in the daylight, and I was able to drag myself up it with one working leg.  Hobbling along, this section took ages, and the descent even longer.  I was walking by this point, pretty much in tears, and really struggling with my knackered knee. 

UTMB finishing

The finish is such an amazing, literally awesome experience.  I’ve never felt such a range of emotions at one time.  As I got close to the finish I was met by Lou, Sam and Toby, and the boys joined me to run the finishing straight with me.  I was able to pick it up a little bit, and pretend to run the last few 100 metres, really just trying to keep up with the boys.  
 
I finally crossed the line in 41hrs 44 mins 39 seconds, a very happy boy.  I’ll never forget that finish. The crowd was amazing, and I was chuffed as a very chuffed thing to have got around the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.  Okay, my left knee was in bad shape, and my right ankle was very swollen, having done all the work for the last 20 miles, but what really surprised me was the mental exhaustion.  It took about a week before I could put a sentence together, which I put down to a combination of missing 2 nights sleep, and concentrating on not falling over for 42 hours.  But I also left a little bit of me up there somewhere I think, there were some dark moments on the second night when I really could / arguably should have stopped.  I’d love to do it again though.  Oh, and my feet were fine once they had dried out.  No blisters, all toenails intact, as expected.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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