Wednesday, 7 November 2012

CCC Race - 31/08/2012

Despite a lot of hiccups, this race the pinnacle of my fell and ultra running to date, and a fantastic experience which I would recommend to anyone.

The CCC (Courmayer - Champex - Chamonix) is on the undercard to the 100 mile UTMB (Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc), which is the greatest prize in European Ultrarunning. The CCC is (usually) a lesser undertaking at 100km and 5,950m of ascent (63 miles and 19,500'), but for reasons which will become clear that wasn't really the case this year!

I drove over to Chamonix with Em, splitting the journey at Laon, halfway. We visited the Canadian war memorial at Vimy on the way down and had a 5km jog around this amazing and haunted place.

We finished the drive to Chamonix the following day - it must be 20 years since I'd been to Cham but the amazing engineering and gradually unfolding views of higher and higher mountains on the drive in from the Geneva direction remain the same. We stayed at the Gite Alpenrose, a very basic but nonetheless entirely satisfactory hostel about 2km from the centre of Chamonix.

We had an acclimatisation day on the Wednesday, getting up early to be on the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi by 7:30am. The views were a bit in and out from the top station, and I certainly felt the altitude, although after a sit and a hot chocolate we both felt much better. Noel, Sandy, John, Prue and Noel's family came up a bit later and we sat and chatted for a while before Em and I set off back down to the middle cable car station, Plan de l'Aiguille. We wanted to do a bit of a shake out run just to experience running at 2000m altitude before the race and to get our legs moving after the journey.

We jogged up the marked track to Lac Bleu,  a meltwater lake, and then dropped down rough mountianside to pick up the track which traverses along (and up and down a bit) the Alp under the Aiguilles to Montenvers. This was a total joy (even the zig zags which took us up to the overlook for the Drua nd the Aiguille Verte).

I was shocked at how far the Mer de Glace (glacier) has retreated since I was last in Chamonix. Nonetheless we decended by the telepherique and the several hundred steps and did the touristy thing in the ice caves before climbing back up (no telepherique for us on the up leg) and taking the train down into Chamonix.

On Thursday we registered for the race and spent the day lazing in cafes and looking around the trade show (I bought a new inov8 waterproof, more of which later). We had a huge meal in Jeckyll and Hydes to set us up for the morning. The weather deteriorated during the day and for most of the evening it simply pissed down. We really felt for all the guys out doing the TDS, the weather ultimately was so bad we didn't wander over to Les Houches or the finish to see Dawa Sherpa lead in the field in the mid evening.

We were up early on a grey cold monring to walk into Chamonix for the bus over to Courmayer. The Mont Blanc tunnel was a new experience for me, and we emerged from the Italian portal into brilliant blue skies and sunshine. It was still cold though so we made our way into the Sports Centre and got a hot drink. At some poitn I received a text saying that the race would be run without the initial summit of Tete de tronche or the final peak, Tete au Vents. This wasn't entirely unexpected given the weather forecast which was for a lot of rain and snow above 2000m. We chatted with a runner from the States for a bit, and had to queue for ages to get to the loos, which were totally overwhelmed. After a while we made the move up to the start.

Of course by now it had started to spit with rain but this was hardly going to put a dampener on our spirits as the build up continued with a lot of loud music and shouted commentary. We had no idea (I must have missed the French announcement and I don't think there was an English one) but the elite 500 were going to set off at 10am, followed by two further groups at ten minute intervals. We were in the second group. I don't know how they figured this, perhaps from our qualifying event time, but it was probably about right.

After the elites had started we were edged forward to the start line, chatting to some other British and Irish competitors. Then we were away in a mass of runners through the narrow streets of Courmayer, passing a band, and then a bunch of primary school kids samba drumming. After 2km of tarmac and cobbles we were onto a forest track and then quickly onto almost singletrack zig zags up through the forest to the first checkpoint, Refugio Bertone, a 770m climb. I felt good, climbed comfortably and was a little way ahead of Em as we reached the checkpoint. I decided there was plenty of time and waited for her to fill bottles. I managed to stop my Garmin by accident here and wouldn't realise for the next half an hour, but hell,

We had a quick chat, decided to run at our own pace, wished each other luck and then I was away along a great singletrack traversing path towards Refugio Bonatti. Somewhere along here a cold wind blew up, cloud started to drop and the first flurries of snow came on. I only had a base layer and my Mercia T shirt on, but I pushed on thinking it would pass.

I reached Bonatti soon enough, and just as I was leaving Em came in, we shared a few more good wishes, and I was off along more fast trail to Arnuva. Going down into Arnuva there ws an epically muddy series of switchback, mostly visible from the checkpoint, and a load of support. I was glad of the poles as I passed a lot of folk here. This was the first "full" checkpoint with a big marquee and lots of food, but I passed through as quickly as I could, eager to get stuck in to the toughest climb of the event, the 770m of acent to Grand Col Ferret. It's the same height gain as the starting climb, but I'd been going three hours, I was a bit chilly (in hindsight) and Arnuva (the bottom) is at 1,775m, so there's at least an element of altitude.

Anyway this was pretty muddy at the start, but soon turned into a steep trudge up rocky paths. Gradually it became colder and there started to be snow across the path, and I stopped at about 2,000m to put on my last layer of insulation, a light to mid weight top. As I climbed conditions became more extreme, with quite high winds, driving snow and fairly poor visibility. Fortunately I was going strongly and was able to reach the top of the pass, 4.6km and 770m on from Arnuva in 1:14, a reasonable rate of progress. I was certainly passing people all the way up there. The checkpoint at the top was a perspex mountain shelter with a couple of very hardy guides in parkas scanning our numbers as we crossed the border into Switzerland.

From Grand Col Ferret the initial descent was very reminiscent of the Lakes on a blowy winter day. Fast running all the way down to the mountain refuge at La Peule, where there was no manned checkpoint. We continued on down through woodland and Alpine meadows and woodland to emerge at a wooden bridge over the Dranse de Ferret river. Here I took my first proper break, sitting for a few minutes to eat and enjoying the sound of the river.

A little further down was the village of La Fouly, and the second fully stocked checkpoint of the race. Arriving after 5hr30m of running,  I sat for about 8 minutes, sorting kit and eating a little soup and some fruit. I'd now covered 31.4km (a mere 19.5 miles) but already climbed 2,050m (6,700'). What's more the last five miles had been mostly downhill. The next section was never really going to suit me: a long drag along the valley with relatively little climbing through Praz de Fort and Arlaches to Issert, where the climb to Campex would start.

Just before Praz de Fort my Garmin beeped its last, the overly quick death of its battery no doubt hastened by the cold over the Col earlier. I was pushing on but quite cold I think and I just couldn't be bothered to start the GPS tracker on my phone. I don't remember a checkpoint at Praz at all but there must have been one - I have an official split time from there. I do remember crossing the river on an old bridge with all the traffic stopped and passengers leaning out of their car windows to high five us. It may have been due to the time of day we were passing through but the Swiss despite their reputation did seem to embrace the spirit of the race as much if not more than even the French, and the warm of their support carried me for the next few miles.

Down a gravel road a little was the beautiful hamlet of Arlaches. A lady was giving out hot sweet tea from her front garden and I stopped for a couple of cups worth. No charge, and all do jsut to support the race. It was also momentarily not actually raining here (or that may just be my memory). My base layer (a North Face merino) was giving me serious problems where the weight of my rucksack comes onto my hips, so I stopped just round the corner from the tea lady, swapped it with a synthetic layer and slathered a load of Sudacreme over a very sore chafed area on my lower back.

At Issert we crossed back over the river and started the climb to Campex. This was a bit of a low point. I was glad to be hiking hard up a climb again, but it seemed like we heard the sound of the announcer and the supporter's cowbells at Campex almost as soon as we started to climb, but the ascent itself went on for ages, through a not particularly interesting wood. Even at the top we crossed a road and I thought we were there to face another few minutes of muddy trail before I popped out right next to the huge checkpoint marquee. I arrived in 432nd place having been on the go for ____.

And here the wheels started to come off. I got into the food queue straight away and ate a plate and a half of pasta and a bowl of noodle soup. But part way through the second bowl of soup I started to shiver with an enormous spasm which put much of the soup on the marquee roof. I was pretty comfortable at Praz de Fort, I can only think that I got cold on the way up to Campex, but I was working pretty hard, so maybe I never went through the shivering phase. Anyway I'd not really been cold like this and it scared me a bit because I had no warm kit to put on. A kind French lady broke away from looking after her husband to lend me her gloves, scarf and a blanket and I wrapped myself in these and tried to warm up. Declan Faulkner from Ireland wandered over and gave me a soaking top which he'd just changed out of. I managed to find a heater eventually, get the top dry and get to the point where I felt warm enough to set off for Bovine (it's relative, I was still flipping cold), but I'd spent an hour and a half in the checkpoint instead of the 10 minutes or so I'd wanted to, and lost about 500 places.

I ran up along the lake and then gently uphill along the road to follow the markers into the forest. It was just starting to get dark. The forest roads offered easy running and I managed to keep pace with everyone. Eventually the route turned onto more technical ground and I finally admitted it was virtually dark and put my headtorch on at the bottom of a climb up the side of a waterfall. Here I got totally stuck behind a French lady. We were in a queue of runners but despite me clearly being stronger and faster she was unwilling to let me pass. A guy in front was helping her, it may have been her chap, and she may have been worried about being separated from him on this tricky section, but I was getting colder and colder. I explained to her that I was cold and needed to go faster, but it was no good. Ever time I tried to pass across came the trekking pole and out came the French swear words. I spent about 40 minutes labouring along behind her up a 200m slope I'd climb in 10 minutes in a fell race. When I got to the top I was totally freezing. I passed the whole group within about a minute of reaching easier ground and had a great run in to the Bovine checkpoint along a path though an Alpine meadow which was rapidly disappearing under a covering of snow. My head torch was playing up and somewhere along here I ran into a cow. Hmm. Anyway I got up to Bovine and had some more soup and hot sweet tea. The checkpoint was amazing - just a cow shed full of steaming bodies, with a few naked bulbs for light and a long table with basic provisions on it.

There was no hope of getting warm there so I pushed straight on and ran very hard down the technical and by now extremely muddy track to Trient. It was now totally dark - I took a few chances passing people and my poles saved me once from going over an edge with a fair drop - I know because my headtorch suddenly lit up the top of a tree, right next to me but on the same level as I stumbled. I wasn't quite ready for more similarly steep descending from the Col de Forclaz into the village but I made it down to Trient ok.

I stopped for more hot food in the checkpoint and was ok for about 20 minutes but then realised just how cold I was as the shivering started again. I was seriously worried that I might need outside assistance if I went back on the hill in that state but didn't really know what I could do. I had no dry clothes and there seemed to be no heat source to warm up from, other than the food and hot tea. I tried lots of sweet tea for maybe 45 minutes but that was just preventing me deteriorating and to be honest I wasn't thinking straight by now. In the end my guardian angel, one of the checkpoint staff who'd earlier got me to use my emergency blanket to try to warm up, came back and told me that I should go to the medical room. I thought for some reason that I would be disqualified or forced to withdraw from the event if I'd used the first aid post so had avoided it, but following an assurance from the checkpoint volunteer, I wobbled out of the marquee and across the square to a room opposite the church where there were several broken runners and a busy first aid team.

They got me out of my wet kit and into a couple of foil blankets, then wrapped me in some woolen blankets too. The paramedic suggested I rest for a while and as I started to warm up I realised that this was not it, that I had plenty of time in hand over the cut-offs and that I could possibly continue if I could find a way of fending off the worst of the cold. Fortunately that presented itself a little later as the paramedic came back with some of my clothes which were now slightly drier, and a running top of his own. He put this on me as a first layer, then crafted a coat for me from a couple of foil blankets and a load of micropore. On top of that we put my remaining (wet) clothes as a token effort at insulation and finally my cag. How much easier it would have been if I'd worn a thin fleece and carried a thicker spare. Anyway a final cup of tea saw me on my way again.

I was moving quite well and I teamed up with a French guy and chatted away as we power hiked up the switchbacks through the forest towards Catogne. Towards the top he started to drop behind and I ran on, up into a snowy Alpine wilderness, with the occasional tree and an amazing snowy single track path winding its way across the Alp, passing close by a hut I (falsely) thought might be the checkpoint before curving around a couple of spurs to reach the Catogne checkpoint for real. There was a roaring log fire next to the small gazebo and perspex booth and I lingered for a moment in the warms as my tally was checked and I passed back from Switzerland into France.

The descent was technical, particularly in the upper reaches, and at least one huge drop into a gully was guarded by some red and white tape and a flashing battery roadworks light. I wasn't moving that quickly, but the improvised foil tunic was doing its job and whilst I wasn't warm, at least I wasn't dangerously cold either. I can't remember much of the lower reaches of the descent to Vallorcine except interminable forest tracks linked by short muddy firebreaks, then the small group I was running with popped out just above the village onto a cow field and I took my first and only fall of the race, sliding maybe 20 yards down a steep muddy slope and covering my kit and most notably my chafed lower back with mud (actually it was mostly cow shit but I didn't figure that out until later thankfully).

At Vallorcine someone had rigged a patio heater and I stood  for several minutes with a cup of tea enjoying the warmth, and for the first time in eight hours I was just about ok on the temperature front. I pushed on fairly quickly though, wanting to keep going while I was feeling ok. As I made my way out of the checkpoint the sign said "next checkpoint Argentiere". Now I wasn't expecting this, I was expecting to be climbing up to at La Flegere next, although I did think we would bypass the Tete aux Vents on the way as per the text we'd had before the start. I managed a brief word with a checkpoint volunteer who assured me when I asked "Toute en vallee a Chamonix?". "Toute en vallee" was the answer, and in that moment I knew I'd make it as the conditions low down weren't too bad.

We followed the rack railway out of Vallorcine and up to the Col de Montets, then ran down a steep single track into a gorge and back up the other side. After a further kilometre I came into a quaint village which turned out to be Argentiere. The checkpoint was a marquee by the church. I went almost straight through, just stopping to fill my water bottle with hot sweet tea. I was passing a lot of people, and tried to keep the pace high on the rolling run in towards Chamonix. We popped out of the woods at another village which I mistook for the edge of Cham itself, but then realised we hadn't come far enough. I was pretty tired but I just kept concentrating on running down the next person in front and this helped the time and the last few kilometres go fairly quickly. I finally caught sight of features I knew were Chamonix about 2km from the town, just as a tall runner clad entirely in Salomon gear whizzed past me. He was absolutely motoring. I was spitting nails wondering how someone cold take so long over the CCC then finish that strongly. Anyway there were other runners ahead I was catching, so I got my head down and ran as hard as I could for the finish (I don't think it was that fast). Coming into Chamonix and passing the last few runners in front, there were little groups of people even at 6am cheering me in. What and amazing feeling. I needed it too as the finish was set out so that runners looped through the town and past many of the landmarks before finally reaching the finishing straight. There was a guy in front walking the last few metres with his kids, but I didn't really register, maybe I should have let him finish, but I was across the line too quickly to think about it.

I didn't really have any emotion left for the finish. As soon as I stopped I was cold and tired and just wanted to get into some dry kit. I collected my finisher's gilet (which frankly I could have done with about twelve hours ago), and made my way to the gym to get my kit and change.

Emily had passed me at Campex while I was warming up and run a great race, finishing in 17 hours _____. I texted her to let her know I was done, and she came down to meet me. We couldn't really face a beer but a coffee and a pastry went down well and we headed off to sleep for a while then watched our friends Noel, John and Sandy finish the 100km one country version of the UTMB which the organisers had deemed safe for their race.

It was a great experience, and a race on which I learned so much. The kit essentials I didn't have was anything with sufficient insulation to keep me warm when all my clothes were saturated and also a proper mountaineering cajole, rather than a lightweight racing cag of the type I'd use in summer in the UK. The kit essentials I did have were my shoes (Saucony Peregrines) and sticks (borrowed Raidlight aluminium poles) which saved me numerous times from potentially nasty stumbles and falls in the mud. A film canister (remember them?) full of Sudacreme was the most useful other item. My torches didn't work very well and I've replaced them with an LED Lenser H7 which seems to be better. I carried way too much food, only using a few gels really outside of the checkpoint food. It's definitely better to be a bit slower and carry some real insulating clothing than to have to stop because your hypothermic. Twice.

Oh, and the guy who passed me as I ran into Chamonix? Turns out that was Francois d'Haene, about five minutes away from winning the UTMB. I forgive him now.


  1. Is there some unfinished business here, Jim? I'm all agog. ;-)

  2. I've got to finish my write up, was too busy in autumn running to get it done. No plot spoilers here though!