The Road to The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc: UTMB final report
On Sunday at 1.30am, when my head torch finally failed descending from Bovine, I still refused to believe that having come this far, the race would beat me. I stumbled and fell in almost the pitch black on the descent down to Trient, desperate to make the next cut off. I was tired but I was running on adrenaline and even at the peril, stupidly, of injury, I was risking everything to finish and not have to go through this and all the preparation next year. Corny I know, but I didn’t want unfinished business with the UTMB which is exactly what happened.
It was an emotional and dramatic start to the race on Friday at 2.30pm, with 2,469 runners standing anxiously behind the start line in the beautiful town of Chamonix. Sombre music was piped over the PA. This wasn’t the sort of race where they played Eye of the Tiger or Living on a Prayer to psyche the runners up, it almost felt like a scene from Les Miserables and you could feel the nervous tension.
It was the best race weather they’d had in four years and there would be no forced shortening of the course which has happened in previous years. Damn. The runners shuffled through the crowded streets, knowing there’d be no sleep until they looped back into Chamonix or dropped out.
We had until 2.30pm Sunday to finish the 100 miles run, with 10,000 metres of climbing – 46 hours in total. I haven’t been up that long since I last attended a rave at The Rocket in Islington, in 1995. No chance of getting lost, just keep the massive mountain that is Mont Blanc on your left, circumnavigating through France, Italy, Switzerland and back to France. Its majestic presence formed a dramatic backdrop to the race.
The first climb came about 14km into the race and was a nice warm up to what, for me, would be 41 hours of ups and downs, literally and mentally. If you weren’t going up a mountain for over two hours, then you were coming down it. All trail running and very little flat.
I used poles for the first time and I marvelled at the very few runners out there without them. Not only were they great for the ascents, especially going up Grand Col Ferret on the Swiss boarder at 2,537 metres, but invaluable on the descents where I lost a lot of time to runners passing me who seemed to be natural fell runners. They seem able to point themselves down a mountain and go for it, whilst I have a sense of self-preservation, shuffling down like an old lady. The descents are the places where you can really make up the time. Most people don’t run up the mountains but those who can hurtle down at speed, are at a great advantage.
The lowest point for me came just before the half way point as I crossed into Italy. I had my partner supporting me at Courmayeur and it was an opportunity for me to take out my frustrations with the race and I was particularly short and grumpy. I’d been on the go for about 19 hours, so a change of clothes and a brief sit down was a welcome relief before continuing.
A few hours later I reached the top of Refuge Bonatti and saw the great ultra-runner Lizzy Hawker, a previous female winner of this event. This year she was forced to support due to injury and I felt, for the first time, like I could definitely finish the race. It provided a great morale boost.
The time passes so quickly and I was against the clock all the way, anxious to make cut offs and by the second night I had little comprehension that I had been on the go for almost 30 hours. I was obviously tired and at times could just have fallen asleep in my tracks.
I passed a check point at midnight and should have asked if there were spare torch batteries – both of my torches had packed up and I was too tired to think logically – all I worried about was that if I asked for more batteries, if they didn’t have them, they’d pull me out the race. That stupid, panicked thinking, cost me finishing the race.
I was left to stumble down the descent in the pitch black, falling several times and waiting for runners to run past so I could at least see which way the path turned. An incredibly kind man lent me the last bit of light from a spare head torch he was carrying but it wasn’t long before that too failed. The painfully slow and dangerous descent added at least 50 minutes and from then on, instead of running just ahead of the tight cut offs, I was really close to being out of time. Finally, at 41 hours of racing and with 9,000 metres of ascent done, I missed the penultimate cut off by 10 minutes. I had come 149km and only had 19km to go. The check point was closed and I wasn’t allowed to go any further.
I had worked towards this for the last 12 months and wondered during the build-up if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So to realise that I was capable but to be thwarted by kit failure is beyond frustrating, but is all part of it. I was on the limits of my capabilities, though I believe I can complete it – I will be back next year to put that belief to the test.
The men’s elite race was won by Frenchman Xavier Thevenard in a staggeringly fast time of 20:34:57 and American Rory Bosio smashed the woman’s course record with a finishing time of 22:37:26.
Of the 2,469 starters, 9 per cent were women and 1,686 finished.
I was 1701 – in the last group of 16 runners to drop out or not make the cut off. I think such statistics might haunt me for the next 12 months. A Marathon des Sables friend, Mark Hobson from Rochdale Harriers finished another of the races run in Chamonix that week, the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-Lax, Chamonix) in a fantastic time of sub 24 hours, all good preparation for the Everest Marathon he is running next month. Good luck Mark.
Follow Gail : @NorsemouseTagged in: CCC, Lizzy Hawker, Mont Blanc, North Face, ultra marathon, UTMB
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter