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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.