“I don’t have any Bodyglide & I swear it’s like a lump of molten rock in my boxers” -
Moi at Courmayeur (Mile 50)
Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how many precautions you take & how much training you do. Manbits are gonna burn. A single strand of cotton fibre lining was at this moment ruining my race, crushing my dreams & making me run like John Wayne.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (also referred to as UTMB) is a single-stage mountain ultramarathon. It takes place once a year in the Alps, across France, Italy and Switzerland. The distance is approximately 168 km, with a total elevation gain of around 9,600 m. It is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in Europe.
This is what Wikipedia says about the race that has been my focus for at least the last 3 years, you have to acquire points to qualify for it by running other ultra races which in turn give you points on completion, the 3 races that I used were the Lakeland 100 (100 miles), Swiss Alpine Ultra (50 Miles) & the Mourne Ultra (52 Miles). I ‘ve been intrigued by this race ever since I read a Dean Karnazes book about 6 years ago and thought 104 miles covering the height of Everest!? Ridiculous. I didn’t actually think I’d one day be running it!!
So myself & Declan entered the ballot (after missing out last year) Declan was my lucky charm here as he got into & completed the Western States this year too. The same fella would get into Fort Knox if he chanced his arm! So we got in – Now what?
I’ll not bore ye too much with the details of my training but lets just say it was filled with variety! T’is the spice of life as they say :)
I just made sure to get as much vert into every run I set out on. The last couple of months involved about 4 long runs in the Mournes of about 20 miles (Usually late at night!) as well as getting up at about 4.30am to run the hills behind Belfast before work most mornings. Moving house and having a new wee nipper about also took their place amongst this hectic oul year, so looking at my training log below, you can see the miles I covered this year -
Injury at Donadea in February really knocked the stuffing out of me with little to no running for 6 weeks. I was only really getting back on track again in May. March was a grumpy month.
June was the house move which effectively wiped out 2 weeks of training but I was still happy enough as I think my training just peaked at the right time coming towards race day. I also managed to squeeze in the Mourne Ultra in June as well as the Seven Sevens in August.
Special mention to the boy Matty for holding my hand round Gosford on those late nights when I needed to squeeze a run in. Th’on boy will never turn down the chance to go out for a loch of mile!!
I’m going to blatantly lie here as if I’m honest & truthful about the gear I had to buy for this race, It could end up in divorce. UTMB has quite an extensive kit list and for safety in the mountains, a lot of it is compulsory. So of course, as I mentioned before, being honest & truthful, I made all the kit myself. By hand.
Shoes – Went with Salomon Speedcross & they were brilliant. Had some wee Noene insoles in them too. Had North Face Ultras & Nike Wildhorse as backup but never felt the need to change.
Socks – Drymax Trail
Backpack – Salomon S-Lab 12
Poles – Yes Poles! Mountain King Trail Blaze – I thought I’d broke them about 100 times! Very light and strong wee boyos, I don’t know how anyone can do this race without them. About 95% of the field use poles.
Shorts – North face shorts + Salomon for 2nd half
Tees – UTMB top + Helly Hanson
I also brought a few buffs, Sealskinz gloves, waterproof troosers, merino baselayer, Montane hat, A Petzl trailrunner headtorch, An Alpkit gamma (Which the mountain Gods stole on the 2nd last climb!!) Bodyglide (It’s like a less messy vaseline) Salt tablets, a box of High5 Summer fruits gels, Nuun Tablets + 1 litre of water carried in my disturbingly flacid soft flasks.
ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT – SO WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?
Have you ever really, really looked forward to something, pined for it and wanted it so much that you would actually lick the side of its face?
I wanted to lick the side of the UTMB’s face. Look, I know races don’t have faces & even if they did, you could probably get disqualified for such inappropriateness. But this is how my post-UTMB brain is expressing itself so please just stay with me.
This notion of face licking quickly dissipated in the last week before the race though.
In truth, I just became so insecure with the whole thing. Had I trained enough? Was the niggling achilles injury going to stop me in my tracks? Could I actually run what is renowned in the ultra community as the most gruelling ultra in the world? I wanted to hide, I wanted time to go backwards. I wanted someone to lick MY face and tell me everything is gonna be OK.
Right, enough facelickage – I feel a wee bit nauseous.
So I think it’s obvious that I had a wee case of pre-race nerves. Stace was like Mickey from Rocky all week…she says to me one morning…
“Here, pass the milk”
“There ye go”
“Pabs, I was just thinking, UTMB is on Friday right?”
“Well pet, I just wanted to say the world aint all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it aint about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward … how much you can take and keep movin forward.”
“Ermmmm…I don’t know what to say to that. I’m pretty blown away actually.”
“Now get me a spoon too would ye?”
What an awesome place this is during UTMB week.
It’s a runners paradise just nestled in a valley overshadowed by the Mont Blanc massif. We were staying in a chalet bang in the middle of Chamonix with a crowd of other NI runners who were all taking on other events that week such as the TDS & CCC. They had all finished their races (Apart from Martin who was doing the CCC on Friday morning) by the time we arrived so they were just basking in their success at this stage.
A great bunch of lads who couldn’t do enough for us including Brian who had laminated and cut out the UTMB route for us to take with us. Such an organiser, everyone needs a Brian Linton in their life. I have a personality that generally just goes with the flow (Or lazy may be a better word!?) so having these boyos about was reassuring.
Thanks for giving up your beds, pastries & coffee lads!
Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
We arrived at the start about 45 minutes before kickoff which in retrospect was a wee bit late as we were fairly far back in the crowd of runners. But nonetheless it was good as we actually ended up meeting up with all the other runners from NI. Dale & Denise Mathers (Dale had an unbelievable run finishing in 32hrs 54mins which would have been closer to 30 hours only for a torn calf muscle – Denise unfortunately had to pull out with sickness at 50km) & Craig Lloyd who gutted out the distance without any poles which I can’t quite comprehend now I look back! Also, Stephen Wallace who as usual ran really strongly to finish just under 42 hours.
The race warms up with some soul stirring classical battle style music by Vangelis which I thought would do nothing for me. Much rather have a bit of Punk or Metal myself but dear me, Once it got started, the lump in the throat and goosebumps took hold. As we ran under the start arch, I actually thought I was going to cry, I don’t even know why. I’m an emotional crater really y’know…It also started pouring down just before the start which continued for about 4 hours. Perfect.
The run out of Chamonix is amazing, with crowds up to 6 deep just roaring and cheering. Parful! The first 8km of the race looks flat on the profile map but it’s probably more like somewhere like Gosford forest to be honest, still it was relatively flat really! The first climb out of Les Houches was tough as we were still getting warmed up and it was all still pretty congested due to us being so close to the start. Dec struggled a bit here & mentioned that he had feck all energy – he’d been on anti-biotics for the week previous.
We marched up together but I got a couple of minutes ahead of him here and waited at the top. Then all I saw was a Dec shaped blur as he was flying down the other side. I followed at this point & it was pure gutters! Just like home. You could tell everyone was being very cautious here as no-one wanted to do themselves a mischief so early in the race. Caught up with Dec again at the Saint Gervais aid station and we both set off on the long climb up Bonhomme. I realised I was getting ahead of him too quickly here & just knew deep down something wasn’t right with him.
Unfortunately, I would find out that he had to drop at 50km, Stace broke the news to me around halfway (Well I dragged it out of her actually) and it rattled me a bit as I knew this race was just as important to him as it was to me. We’d built up to this race together but th’on boy is strong enough. He’ll be back and absolutely annihilate this bad boy.
There was a massive bonfire at the top of Col du Bonhomme which was so warm and lovely, I could have stayed there all day. But being 2500 metres high, I knew I needed to stop drying my backside and get down the otherside. So at les Chapieux, I grabbed some noodly soup and moved on. The climbing on this course was relentless and after hitting Col de la Seigne (2500m again) we left France and dropped down to Lac Combal in the Italian Alps where it was starting to get light for the first time and I could start to appreciate what I was running in!
The language barrier was difficult at times, not because we couldn’t understand one another, more because they all refused to speak at all as a result!
Of course it also made me paranoid when they spoke to one another as I could never be quite sure if they were remarking on the size of my arse or my terrible haircut. What were they saying? What was going on here?
What if birds aren’t singing? What if they’re just screaming because they’re afraid of heights?
On more than one occasion I would see a couple of runners ahead on the trail and as I would overtake, something you could only do one at a time due to the narrow trails usually having a massive drop down one side. As a result, for that instant while you were running sandwiched between 2 runners that obviously knew each other, I can only describe the uncomfortableness as being akin to when that weird dude comes and stands beside you at the urinal when there were plenty of others to use…
The entire Italian side of the race was just beautiful, it was all done during the daylight hours & was just stunning. I’ll let the pics do the talking more than my words ever could.
I did fall once during the race which for anyone who knows me is an incredible stat! I usually make a habit of being horizontally prone on a regular basis when out in the hills. I just like to feel one with the landscape. The one fall I had was actually pretty dramatic, it was on some slippy rock descending before Grand Col Ferret and I smacked my chin off a boulder from a great height, it made a loud noise, it hurt quite a lot but strangely it seemed to be ok!? I was convinced I should have had a broken jaw or something. Anyway, someone was looking after me there!
Yes, I know. Sorry.
I could regale you with hours of fart stories but I’ll try not to. You see, the child in me just cannot stop laughing when I hear air escaping from someones posterior. This was a regular occurence on the climbs in the race. Although, It seems the other nations represented on the UTMB did not share my amusement or the love of a good oul fart. These guys were lethal, Squeaking the whole way up hills without so much as a smirk.
The reason I raise this at all is in relation to two incidents out there. On one particular climb I was fairly close to a guy as we climbed up a rather steep section of scree. He farted on my head. Yes. ON MY HEAD. Now, me not wanting to fall out with him just shouted “Sacre Bleu!” and laughed thinking good old trailer comaraderie would shine through and we’d have a good laugh. Eh, Nope – he stopped, looked at me in disgust and marched on. How did I get in trouble!?
Another guy played the opening notes to Dallas with his which had me laughing quite a lot, although I held back a bit after the previous incident and said nothing. Still, I was the recipient of a french flash of pure distain. Was I meant to compliment him on his unique & distinctive tones!?
I’ve went on a bit here. Apologies.
BACK TO LE RACE
At Courmayeur,which is roughly around halfway, there was amazing support from the locals. Here, you can get your hands on your dropbag. This is where you can change your clothes into a nicer drier t-shirt and shorts and basically carry out any maintenance that is required after the first half of the race has bate ye. I was most looking forward to the dropbag so I could get some lubrication. You may remember back at the beginning of this report, that I mentioned molten rock & my boxers. Ladies cover your ears and eyes…
I was in a bad way. Initially I was afraid to look in fear that I had rubbed myself into a eunuch. So now was the time to finally sort it out, it was going to be such a moment. I could hear the triumphant trumpets of lubricated victory playing and I was gonna pile that Bodyglide on…then No. No. I could have cried. I didn’t pack my Bodyglide for this station, it was waiting a minimum of 25 miles away at Champex-Lac (Damien – Me & Declans wingman had arranged to meet us there with some last minute provisions). This was the low of my race. I phoned Stace and moaned about how hot my willy was. This was not a proud moment, but it is a moment that could have wrecked the race. The only solution was to change what I was wearing on my bottom half & soldier on. This proved problematic in a packed Leisure centre but I managed. I got some Pasta into me & moved on. Again.
This was my favourite part of the race as it was the highest point up to Grand Col Ferret. Such stunning scenery here again.
The descent down into Champex-lac was so awesomely awesome too. It was about 20km of trail at gradient that was lovely to run on, not too steep but just perfect. Then we were up a bit of a climb into Champex-Lac where Dec & Damien came to meet me & we exhanged some manhugs. This was a huge lift to me. I had contemplated 5 minutes sleep here as I’d been going for over 24 hours at this stage but seeing the lads gave me the lift that I felt would see me round the remainder of the course.
The lads pampered me & I finally got that most amazing of amazing things – Bodyglide. The image of me applying it must have been a right sight. At least it gave the lads a good laugh!
It was at this stage that I thought I had the back of the race broke. Not so. Not by a long shot, the final 50km of this race are brutal. It consists of 3 extremely tough climbs up treacherous mountain passes in the dark.
The first one after Champex-Lac starts with a beautiful skirt round the side of a big lake before you drop down then climb and climb. This was so disorienting after no sleep & I actually started seeing things in the rocks. On the decent down the other side into Trient I actually saw the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland lying dead on the trail. Shouldn’t have been messing about as much I though. Stupid Cat.
This was all very real to me. I was thinking that I was on individual missions now rather than continuous climbs to the finish in Chamonix. Very hard to explain where my head was at at this point to be honest. Let us just say focused…
The next climb from Trient and down to Vallorcine was like dejavu. It was dark, it was a mountain and I was now back to an aid station. I was really starting to suffer with blisters on the last 2 descents, after the first one I thought I will just have to persevere but now I was convinced my foot would explode on every landing. I couldn’t go on like this so I headed to the medical tent where this place was like an episode of the walking dead. It took them 45 minutes but they lanced my feet. Ouch. But it worked & after getting both feet bandaged again, I headed for the last climb in great spirits.
Well, they were great until I realised I had left my backup headtorch on the peak of the last climb when I was replacing batteries. And now the ones I had were all duds!! Nightmare!! I knew if I waited an hour, I would have daylight coming through but I couldn’t afford this, I wanted to get to the finish ASAP! So I stopped a couple of supporters t Col des Montets and asked would they by any chance have some AAA batteries…
Complete gentlemen they were too & they actually took the batteries out of their own headtorch and sent me on my way. One of them just happened to be Jez Bragg who finished 20th this year and was out supporting his wife now. The elites are amazing.
I may have been near the finish but my adventure certainly wasn’t over. I had about 700 metres left to climb on rough terrain and my left hip flexor had now decided to completely stop functioning. Completely.
I couldn’t lift my left foot more than 15 cm off the ground & on this mountain, it was knees to chest stuff at times! Instead I had to resolve to climbing with my right leg only and using my left leg to steady myself. Not ideal but I finally made it to the top after some proper rock climbing in places! Oi’m well ‘ard Oi am.
Only the small matter of running about 10km downhill on smashed quads, blistered feet, chaffed chaffed bits & no left hip flexor. I was actually cross when I saw how small Chamonix was from up on top of that mountain. What monster created this race!? Anyway, after scrambling across a load of rock at the top of the mountain and sliding down even more on my arse, I made it to Flégére, the final checkpoint. Finally.
I got a wee bit emotional here & hugged a french guy I had met the previous day at the expo who was carrying out a sleep study at this station. I tried to explain the Cheshire Cat but I don’t know of I got anywhere.
So I began the descent & also began the reminiscing…oh dear, don’t do it!
I thought about Stace & my wee men back home & of course almost instantly cried! Hold it together man!!
I also got thinking about the journey to this point, I don’t want to be clichéd but this race really means more to me than just being a stupid jolly in the mountains. It means all the training was worth it, it means the hours away from Stace & the boys actually had a point – Thanks for putting up with that Mrs, it means setting my alarm for 4am wasn’t mental, It means I actually got to live out a dream. This was a dream for me.
I’ve always been in awe of the mountains ever since I was a wee buck, it was my Dad that gave me that love. He loved the Mournes & I like to think he wasn’t too far away as I was running down those switchbacks into Chamonix. He would have loved that.
I managed to compose myself & arrive back into Chamonix to a fantastic reception of people cheering as I passed. I suddenly was running quite fast then and doing stupid things with my arms.
All the lads were out to see me in which was such a great welcome after 2 very long hard nights of running. You’re all heros. Thanks Nicki & Martin for the stellar photography.
So, I’m sitting typing this and only as I pasted that image in have I realised it.
I finished UTMB. Jakers.