Standing on the start line in Courmayeur, this was what the culmination of months of training had been for. I’m not a mountain runner by any stretch, but my aim over the last few months had been to try and turn myself, a self-confessed fairy who likes nice runnable trails, into the best I could be at the CCC. I know I can run a pretty decent 100 miler now, but 100k in the mountains is a completely different ballgame, and whilst I didn’t think my training could have gone any better, I knew I was going into unchartered racing territory for me.
The weather forecast had been shocking all week, but the weather on the start line turned out to be perfect; cool with the sun trying to peep through. However we’d been warned that the forecast was going to change dramatically later in the race, with rain, snow and freezing temperatures forecast. With 2,155 runners and Vangelis playing, the atmosphere on the start line was electric. We were counted down and at 9am we were off; 62 miles, 21,000 feet and three countries between me and the finish line in Chamonix.
Courmayeur – Bertone
The race starts with a quick ‘sprint’ around Courmayeur (and it was a sprint for some who took off at their parkrun pace!) before heading up onto the single line trail outside town. I’d been warned about the human traffic jam queues in this first section, but as your start pen corresponds with your ITRA ranking, I was in the first pen and generally everyone around me was moving at a similar decent pace. There may have been more congestion further back, but I didn’t encounter any of it, and really with a race that starts off with a 7 mile/4,000 feet climb you do want to be setting off quite conservatively!
When we reached the highest point, it’s a couple of miles steep descent to the first aid station. I know that my weakness (and the reason I’ll always be more fairy than mountain goat) is my descending. Uphills I find nobody ever passes me and I reel people in and overtake them, the more technical downhills are a completely different ballgame and, despite this being something I have really worked on in training and I have improved a bit on, I’m still a complete amateur, which was so apparent as all these European mountain goats sailed past me on the first descent. 9/10 for goat-ness on the uphill, 4/10 on the downhill.
Bertone – Bonatti
I’d recced the route a few weeks prior to the race which was invaluable for course knowledge and pulling together a pace plan. I’d agreed with my coach to aim for a sub 21:00 hour finish time (but not to get too hung up on it as it would be very dependent on conditions/weather) and as I thought there’d be more congestion up to Bertone, I was comfortably ahead of schedule. However with over 50 miles of mountainous terrain ahead of me, it was way too early to be thinking about finish times.
I knew from my recce that the next section to Bonatti is undulating and very runnable, but with freshly tapered legs the last thing I wanted to do was get carried away and start hammering the downhills. My rule of thumb for the first half was that I wanted it to feel that it was ‘easy’ – if I was finding it hard, I was pushing too hard. Even at this early stage of the race the field had spread out, and I felt like I was skipping around the Alps like the happy mountain goat I’d been training so hard to become. 9/10 for goat-ness..
Bonatti – Arnouvaz
After Bonatti, I knew it was another fast and runnable section down to Arnouvaz. There was the odd technical part, where I reverted to being a bit of a fairy, but overall all the specific training had definitely increased my mountain goat levels. My coach had said to me that over and above my finish time, he wanted me to enjoy the whole experience, and already I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear, thinking how lucky I was to be able to do this.
As well as support on the course, the reception as you arrive at each station is phenomenal, with hundreds of people cheering you in as if you’re the race leader, and I made sure I high fived every single little person and thanked everyone who cheered ‘Allez allez Sarah’ at me. All I could think was ‘surely running 100k over mountainous terrain shouldn’t feel so easy and be this much fun?!’. Another 9/10 for goat-ness.
Arnouvaz – La Fouly
The second significant climb of the day follows with a 2,500 feet ascent up to Gran Col Ferret, the highest point of the course. As was the pattern of my entire race, it was on the uphills where I gained lots of places….and then promptly lost them all on the downhills! The perfect weather conditions we’d had up to now, turned on the ascent to Gran Col Forret, and as we said goodbye to Italy and sunshine, we said hello Switzerland and the start of pretty much relentless rain for the rest of my race.
The descent to La Fouly is of varying degrees of runnability, and the only bit I struggled with was the section after La Peule – I’d loved this in our recce but knew it would be a completely different experience if it was wet and muddy and it was here I took my first real fall of the race. It’s then a fast downhill into La Fouly and I gained quite a few places here before entering La Fouly to more ‘Allez allezs’ and cowbells. It had been another strong section, with an 8/10 for goat-ness (2 points deducted for my fall).
La Fouly – Champex
More ‘fast’ running followed (when I say ‘fast’ it’s very relative and I’m talking ‘fast’ in my mountain terms, but several 9:something miles flew by). I categorically believe that the way to run a good ultra is to get to the half way point with it feeling easy and like your race hasn’t even started. And at 30ish miles that’s exactly how I felt. My legs felt as fresh and strong as they had done at the start, I was taking in plenty of calories and my stomach felt great, in fact the only thing that was starting to ache was my face from smiling so much!
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the aid stations and was carrying a lot of food with me, but the aid stations were the best I’d ever come across in any race (even better than the Berlin 100 which had set the gold standard for aid stations for us last year) and arriving at Champex, it felt like I was entering a pop-up village as opposed to an aid station. I knew it was a pretty long climb and descent to the next aid station, so pasta and cheese and a 15 minute sit-down to sort myself and my kit out for the impending night section was time well spent. 10/10 for goat-ness – I skipped out of Champex feeling on top of the (mountain goat) world!
Champex – Trient
Now it takes a special kind of downhilling fairy to be able to ascend 2,000 feet over 4 miles significantly quicker than descending a similar amount/distance. I’d like to pretend that this was due to my legendary ascending skills, but the reality was my descending was absolutely SHOCKING. The rain was getting more and more torrential; bad weather doesn’t bother me but it was what it was doing to the ground underfoot, turning the trails into a complete mud bath. And I am absolutely AWFUL in mud; the only way to describe me is like a drunken teetering Bambi. I knew from the recce that this was going to be a tricky descent for me as there were a lot of rocks and tree roots, but it was infinitely worse on race day with streams of water flowing down the trails and ankle deep mud. I lost so much time and so many places on this downhill that I started to think I must be in last place – surely there was nobody else left to overtake me?! Even the awful weather and mud couldn’t wipe the smile off my face though – I remember thinking at one point ‘there is nowhere I’d rather be at this moment in time than sliding through mud in torrential rain in the middle of the Alps on a Friday night!’.
Up until now I’d not found the temperatures that cold – I had been doing a lot of running or ‘power hiking’ on the uphills which was keeping my core temperature high, but as I started to move more slowly on the descent, for the first time all race I started to feel cold. Fortunately, La Giete hut appeared like an oasis in the desert (I’d forgotten about this basic aid station on the mountain before I got to Trient) so I quickly put on every item I was carrying as mandatory kit (base layer, gloves, hat and waterproof trousers). I’d bought these waterproof trousers several years ago as mandatory kit for a race, and despite them being to numerous races and up mountains around the world, I’d never actually worn them – one good thing about the shocking weather was that finally they were going to get an outing! 0/10 for goat-ness (my descending was so bad that any goat credits I earned on the uphill were well and truly cancelled out on the descent).
Trient – Vallorcine
Despite the far from ideal weather conditions and tricky conditions underfoot, I still felt on top of the world. I had just under 20 miles to go from Trient, and I didn’t want the race to finish. My legs were still feeling strong and fresh and I hiked up to Catogne, overtaking a lot of the people who’d sailed past me on the previous downhill. However, yet again I lost a lot of time and places on the downhill – in the recce I’d felt like this was going to be a strong section for me on race day, but in the mud I teetered and slid like Bambi, and if it wasn’t for my poles keeping me upright I’d have fallen over umpteen times. I hadn’t checked my pace plan since leaving Champex and I knew I’d lost a lot of time descending, so when I quickly checked at Vallorcine, I was surprised to find, that despite two shocking descents, I was still 30 minutes ahead of a 21:00 finish time. 2/10 for goat-ness.
Vallorcine – La Flegere
After Vallorcine there’s just one more big climb before the final descent into Chamonix and I was actually looking forward to going over Tete aux Vents as it’s more rocky so there’d be less mud. However, due to treacherous conditions on the summit, we were being diverted around Tete aux Vents up to La Flegere. For me this was the worst section of the race (as it hadn’t been part of our recce I had no idea where we were going and it felt like mile after mile of never ending mud, wet rock and tree roots that wove up and down). This was also the first time in the race that I felt like I was lacking in energy as I’d not taken in enough calories at Vallorcine and this section was taking longer than expected. A couple of Clif Bloks perked me up, and even though I thought I was going to miss out on sub 21:00 now, I still couldn’t stop smiling. I obviously wanted to finish in the best possible time I could, but because ultimately I’d had such a fun day and night in the mountains, a finish time of 21:something felt irrelevant in the bigger picture of the whole race. Another woeful 2/10 for goat-ness.
La Flegere – Chamonix
My Garmin had died just before La Flegere, but when I checked my watch I realised that I had 90 minutes to get back to Chamonix in under 21:00. It was game on! I know this section really well so pushed hard on the first steep downhill before getting to the wooded area – every time I have run or hiked through this area it’s been wet and muddy and this time was no different, and again I reverted to a cross-breed fairy/Bambi. However I knew that short of a disaster, I was going to finish before 6am with a time that started 20:something.
I don’t tend to get emotional at race finishes; if I have a good race it’s normally a feeling of satisfaction and a job well done, but on this final descent, I was so unbelievably happy that I had tears of happiness steaming down my face. At this point I gave myself a strict talking to; after coming so far, the last thing I needed now was to lose concentration and fall and injure myself so close to the finish!
I hit the gravel section and then turned into the outskirts of Chamonix. Even at this time of the morning there were groups of people on the street cheering me in. My legs still felt amazing and I ran along the road high five-ing anyone and everyone, overtaking five male runners in the last couple of miles – I wasn’t trying to improve my finishing position or time, I just felt that good, in fact I just didn’t want to stop running!
And then into the centre of Chamonix; if I live to be 100 years old I don’t think many things are going to beat that feeling of running along the main street, seeing the finish line and then seeing Tom (and our lovely friends Philippe and Francesca who had got up at 4:30am to see me finish – thank you and sorry guys, I’ll try and finish in a more sociable time next time!). 20:30:59. And a respectable 66th female/6th British female out of a field of 2,155 starters. But even more importantly, I had LOVED every single minute of it. I wish I could bottle up those entire 20 hours and 30 minutes as I really think they are going to take some beating.
I’m still no mountain goat (I’d give myself a 5.5/10 overall for mountain goat-ness for my race, and I think in better conditions underfoot I could have risen to a 7) but I’ve definitely ended the summer as more mountain goat than I started, which is what I wanted to achieve. There wasn’t one part of the race which I felt was particularly ‘hard’, it almost felt too ‘easy’ at times. The conditions underfoot made the second half a lot more challenging for me and slowed me down considerably, but that’s the nature of running in the mountains and you have to work with whatever the weather gods throw at you. I always think that if you can look back on a race with complete satisfaction and a big smile on your face, then that’s a good race result, and that pretty much sums up my entire CCC experience.
Some post-race thoughts on what worked for me/what I’d do differently next time:
I made sure I ate something every hour from the start and I didn’t suffer any sickness whatsoever and had lots of energy throughout; the only time I felt slightly lacking in energy was on the detour up to La Flagere and that was because of the changed route it took me a bit longer than I expected. I got my calories from a mixture of Mountain Fuel, Root Active, ZipVit bars, GU waffles, Clif Bloks and 32Gi sweets, and then bread, crackers, cheese, bars, fruit and pasta at the aid stations. Now I know how good the stations are, next time I’d just carry liquid calories and sweets and get my main bulk of calories from the aid stations.
Every single piece of kit I used was superb and more than lived up to its job in some pretty challenging conditions. A few comments on some items that need a special mention:
– The La Sportiva Akasha will always be my go-to mountain running trainer. However, I didn’t envisage there’d be so much mud in the second half, so whilst the Akasha perform fairly well in mud, there are trainers with better grip, but I wouldn’t have wanted to run the whole race in them, and there’s no drop bags for the CCC to give you the option of a second pair. For the UTMB I’d definitely bring a spare pair of trainers for the drop bag at Courmayeur so I’ve got the option to change depending on the conditions.
– With all the rain forecast, at the last minute I changed from Injinjis (my usual go-to ultra sock) to Drymax socks. My feet got soaked for 12 hours and the Drymax were excellent – 100k later and my feet look as good as new (if you ignore all the ingrained mud under my toenails!).
– Waterproofs are a very personal thing (I wore the La Sportiva Hail jacket and Montane Atomic trousers) but I would categorically say this is one area not to scrimp on as they well and truly had their work cut out in the second half, but I didn’t ever feel cold or wet.
– Whoever invented Salomon XT Wings Gloves deserves a medal! Gloves can sometime be a bit faffy to take off in the cold and wet, but this genius invention of fingerless gloves and mittens worked a treat.
And a few final thoughts from me for anyone thinking of entering one of the UTMB races:
– Treat it as a long-term plan. The best advice I read was from Robbie Britton who said for anyone wanting to enter the UTMB to think of it as 5 year plan. Even now after completing the CCC in what I feel is a very respectable time for a hybrid fairy/mountain goat, I know I need another couple of years to be ready for the UTMB to give it the respect it deserves. The UTMB is a completely different ballgame to most other 100 mile races. The fact that my 100 mile PB is 18:39 and it took me 20:30 to complete the 100k CCC speaks volumes. It sounds a bit of a wanky thing to say but don’t rush the journey to get to your final destination.
– Embrace the poles. There’s a certain type of runner who looks down at poles; don’t be that runner. The fact that I would say 98% of the field who I saw in the CCC used poles should say it all. Unless you a very talented runner or a natural in the mountains, you WILL need poles to complete this race.
– Make every bit of your training specific to the race. Virtually every single thing I did over the last few months was to try and make me the best I could be at the CCC. I did have a couple of other races booked (a trail 30 miler and a trail marathon which I just ran for fun/training effort), and whilst they weren’t detrimental to my overall training, in future I’d skip on everything that wasn’t specific to the end goal.
As always there’s so many people to thank for their part in helping me achieve this result:
Likeys for the kit and support; Ian for the coaching (the fact that I ran 100k over mountainous terrain in pretty challenging conditions, and the only thing that ached post-race was my lower right arm from working overtime using the poles to keep me upright, demonstrates how superb and specific the training was); Dawn for keeping my legs in tip-top shape; and Tom for just being Tom.
For now it’s feet up, some well-earned recovery time, a big smile on my face every time I think back on my race….and the thought that hopefully in 2019 or 2020 I’ll be getting a UTMB finishers gilet to join my CCC one.