MTD Ambassador Ben Rajan Takes on OCC @ UTMB the holy grail of trail running

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After 10 hours of tag-teaming driving through France we arrived at our
campsite and home for the next 10 days in Chamonix, at the foot of
Aiguille du Midi with a stunning view of Mont Blanc. As with all the
races during Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) week, Spencer and I both
had to earn qualification points to just apply for OCC and CCC
respectively. And then there was the ballot to get through. It had
been a long journey to get there in more than one way but finally we
were ready to go.

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My desire to run OCC (all 56km, +3,500m of it) started in 2015. After
having run my first trail race only a few weeks prior (Maverick
Somerset) I was speaking with some friends who were preparing to run
TDS and UTMB. They couldn’t stop talking about the stunning landscape,
gruelling climbs and electric atmosphere, and when I heard there was a
race that was only 56km I promised myself that I’d get there
eventually. At that time I couldn’t even get my head around racing a
climb more than about 150m let alone 1000m.

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Fast forward two years and that’s all changed. Don’t get me wrong, the
Alps are still brutal by anyone’s standards, and unless you’re a pro
there is little chance you’ll be running much of the climbing. But
with a few trips to Chamonix done and a number of ultras completed in
some of the hillier bits of the UK I was certainly more prepared for
the sort of pain that was awaiting me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the atmosphere of just being there for
the race week. I love trail running for many reasons but it isn’t a
mainstream sport. There aren’t millionaire athletes, there’s no TV
coverage and 99.99% of the public wouldn’t know what an “ultra” is.
But go to Chamonix in the last week of August and you’d struggle to
believe that for a second.

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The first hints start about 20km from Chamonix; big signs hanging from
the lampposts advertising the races. In Chamonix town itself you can
barely remember that other sports exist. Billboards show the faces of
the athletes of the big teams, every sports shop is packed with all
the kit you could imagine, the event village boast hundreds of stands
with organisers from all corners of the world trying to tempt you to
their race next. The town is also heaving with visitors and nearly
every person is wearing trail shoes, or carrying a race-vest, or
talking about which race their doing. According to the registration
details 92 countries are represented across the 5 races (between 56km
– 290km) and all of them care passionately about the sport.

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The races are spread across the week. The frankly insane PTL (290km
pairs race requiring self-sufficiency) starts on the Monday, TDS
Wednesday, OCC Thursday and UTMB and CCC Friday. This means that there
is rarely a lack of someone to cheer or shout Allez! at. And the
support is truly inspiring. One of the benefits of running the “baby”
OCC is that you don’t run over night and this means that support is
always impressive. Going through all the small villages along the
route it felt like everyone was out to cheer you, like it was a real
landmark day in their calendars. Huge smiles and shouts, cowbells,
encouragement in all languages and people shouting your name give you
that extra drive to dig deep when you need it. And entering Chamonix
on Thursday afternoon I was shocked by the numbers cheering me into
the line; I’m not embarrassed to say it choked me up a little.

My own experiences paled into insignificance however when I
experienced the start of the crowning-glory UTMB race. Hundreds of
people line the streets of the course at least an hour before the
start. Four or five deep in some sections, it felt like the London
Marathon, not a sport most wouldn’t know of. And then the elites
started strolling through the crowds, because normally they’re no one;
few would recognise them anywhere else. But here they’re super-stars
about to take on one of the toughest races in the world.

If you expected this to be a blow-by-blow account of my own race I’m
afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. My race went amazingly well. I
managed to start sensibly, eat well, not let the pouring rain dampen
my spirits and cross the line with a huge smile after 7hrs 06mins
36secs and shockingly in 100th position. I couldn’t have wished for
anymore and the support of all my friends out there was really
something special. But alongside the memories of the race and my own
relative success, I’ve returned to the UK with a special place in my
heart for UTMB week and those who make the journey there. That week
where the little sport I love is the main event, where all those who
also feel the same come together and shout and cheer and celebrate.
Will I be back? I hope to be toeing the TDS start line in 2018, but
first, back to the drawing board. Collecting points and crossing
fingers for ballot draws.

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I can’t finish this without mentioning Spencer’s stellar performance
at CCC (101km, +6,100m). Driving around the mountains between small
villages during the night was a real education in how deep some people
dig to achieve their goals. And this was particularly impressive with
the heaving rain and temperature at the tops dropping well below 0°C.
Spencer bounded into all the aid stations full of life and ready for a
chat and a joke, no matter the time of day or the distance covered.
And although a twisted ankle on the last climb may have slowed his
pace dramatically in the final 10km he soldiered on finishing in an
impressive 20hr 44min 35secs and bagging himself a Western States
100mile qualifying time. Hopefully in 2018 he’ll be alongside me on
the TDS start line to show me how it’s done.

justin bufton