What a journey and what an amazing experience!
Brutal, beautiful and so enriching. Never thought I would write something so positive about a DNF…
The CCC finished for me at Trient, having completed 44.5 miles of the 62-mile course and 12,372 feet of accumulated elevation in 18’45”.
There was a bus load of competitors (abandonnés) milling at Trient. The atmosphere was subdued amongst us all as we sat in a tent waiting to be picked up and taken back to Chamonix. It was almost 5am and we were cold and tired. Yet everyone was remarkably positive – we all felt an enormous sense of achievement as we reflected back on our journeys over the previous 18 or so hours.
Start at Courmayeur
The atmosphere at the start was incredibly exciting: stunning mountain panoramas, music blaring and a helicopter flying low filming us all. I was in the third and last wave to start at 9.30am and as I headed through the start arch, I felt very emotional. All that work and focus towards my ‘A’ event and now I was there.
The first part of the climb out of Courmayeur was broken with two forced stops, as hundreds of runners were bottled up at narrow pinch points. But once we were through the woods the serious marching began. Thank goodness for my poles!
The 4000ft climb to Tete de la Tronche was a baptism of fire. I found myself in a group moving well and was determined to try and maintain their pace. I struggled with hay fever for a while, and was also over-heating a bit and was sweating profusely.
My body management at this point was good, though. I strapped my cap to the front of my sack and put my buff on my head ‘Sahara style’. This helped to soak up the sweat from my head.I also took off one of my XNRG Humanity Direct t-shirts, tying it to the back of my rucksack. The pre-race forecast was for 0oC that night plus rain, so I started in long leggings and two tops. We crossed two streams during the ascent and on both occasions I soaked my buff in the cold mountain water which did wonders to lower my body temperature. So nice.
There was an amazing sense of achievement getting to the top. When I then arrived at Refuge Bertone a couple of miles later, I knew I was in something special. Some soup in my silicon cup, my water bottles refilled and I was off after a short stop.
The next 7km was undulating and I used the break from climbing to get myself back in order, as the climb had taken a lot out of me. Then, from Refuge Bonatti to Arnouvaz, I enjoyed my best section, covering the ground at what I thought was a pretty good pace. The weather was now closing in and the blue sky was replaced with cloud and rain was in the air. Looking back at the race stats, I lost 183 places over these two stints. I simply wasn’t running fast enough downhill.
Grand Col Ferret
At Arnouvaz, I wrapped up with layers which was just as well. Ten minutes after leaving the CP the heavens opened. I pulled up my hood and had my gloves and waterproof mittens in my front pack so I was quickly snug.
We were in thick cloud and pouring rain as we made the ascent to Grand Col Ferret. The climb was never ending, with visibility down to 50 metres or so, you only saw the summit when you actually arrived there!
Arriving, however, was a real anti-climax. I’ve seen spectacular photos of the view on a clear day, but we could see nothing. Only experience a cold driving wind and torrential rain. I had however, pulled back 117 places – not that I was really racing anyone. I was in the CCC to try and finish but setting up challenges with those around you is an excellent way of keeping you focused on the challenge in hand.
Mud, glorious mud
I knew a good long descent followed and was looking forward to bagging some time, but how wrong I was… The rain had turned the fine dust in to a treacherous mud bath, and I was very quickly flat on my back sliding down the trail.
I’ve always loved my Brooks ASR trail shoes – they’re brilliantly supportive (I’m an over pronator) and comfortable – but they offer little traction in mud. (The line has been discontinued so I am now on the hunt for my next stability trail shoe with a wide fitting option. If you’ve got any ideas, leave me a comment or message!)
I was forced to crab sideways down the trail using my poles in front as brakes and for steering. Forward progress was slow and it was a bit soul destroying as plenty of runners passed by.
Eventually we arrived on solid ground at the foot of the descent and I started running to the next CP at La Peule, and then on to the CP at La Foully, which I knew was only a further four miles after La Peule.
La Fouly was a good check point for me and I felt pretty good. The rain was still falling and I put on my head torch as darkness fell. Running through a forest area, the terrain was good under foot and the time passed quickly by. Looking back at the stats, though, this really was a time when I should have profited from the favourable conditions and run a good bit faster.
The trail then took us through a small village and, although it was dark, a kind couple were outside their house offering sweet lemon tea and encouragement. I was running at this point with a guy from South Korea and the kind gesture and warm tea really lifted our spirits… Until we hit the foot of the climb to Champex-Lac.
Climb to Champex-Lac
I found this so tough, zig-zagging up through the forest, relying on the poles to secure sufficient purchase to pull my tired self up the trail. After the race I saw the video of myself arriving at Champex and, for the first time, I looked (and felt) really tired.
The time was about 11pm and I was off my food, forcing down some soup and some cake. This is when I started to struggle. The next 5km section around the lake and into more woods offered a great running opportunity, but I walked for 3 km feeling so tired.
I stopped for a comfort break, did a systems check, and gave myself a motivational kick. Other than tiredness, I felt good so I started running again – or rather shuffling.
La Giète – a climb too far
From Champex, the climb was almost 3500ft to La Giète on a technical trail which required lots of concentration. The weather had cleared and half way up I stopped for a rest and to eat a gel. I was digging deep – deeper than I had for a very long time. As I sat there looking at the beautiful half-moon, I looked to my left and could see head torches much further up the mountain, so I knew I had a good deal more work ahead of me. After a second stop for some dried dates (which were delicious), I continued my march, eventually arriving at Giète three hours after having left La Foully.
We refilled our water bottles and quickly left the CP; we knew we only had an hour to cover 5km downhill. I thought I was moving at an OK pace but the trail was narrow, strewn with tree roots and drops. Running at night, fatigued, this was probably some of the most technical and challenging running I have ever done. My legs were holding up remarkably well, but I was, with hindsight, probably too cautious on the descent and arrived in Trient just 15 minutes after the cut.
This really was an enriching experience for me. I learned a lot and, whilst I didn’t complete the event, I feel I have grown as a trail runner – and as a person.
First of all, enormous humility and respect to all those who finished. You really do have to take yourself to the boundaries and beyond of physical and mental exertion to succeed. Yet never has a DNF felt so rewarding and so fulfilling; that’s the power of our brutal sport. I would call it ‘tough love’.
I pushed myself hard, but I know there is more in the tank so I need to adapt my training and build on my strength. Running with weight this spring has done wonders for my leg and core strength. So, more conditioning and more miles with more weight will be on the menu for me. As will interval training and speed-work – I missed that ability to pick up the pace downhill.
Apart from my shoes, my kit choice was good. My friend and UTMB finisher Rob lent me a UD bum bag to complement my ruck sack which was fantastic addition, providing more accessible storage for food and gloves when you are out for such a long time.
I do want to cross that finish line at Chamonix to savour the atmosphere and to feel that sense of completing the goal. I also would like a finisher’s blue gilet as a mark of success! So, as Arnie would say, ‘I’ll be back’; I’ll adapt my training and will return a better trail-runner next time.
Good luck to you all with your own running journeys. I’d love to hear about recent goals you’ve conquered – whatever the scale, or if you’ve just had a DNF like me. What are you taking from them? I offer endurance coaching and business mentoring – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.