Jack Gammon - Journey to UTMB - Part 3
Hello again everyone! And I say hello ‘again’ in the vain hope that some of you may possess the frankly bombproof grit required to have actually read the first two of my blogs (I guess some of you are ultra runners, so you can do grit, right?).
If you’re not up to speed with the first two, I don’t blame you, you probably had some Cheddars to eat or some paint to watch dry… I will say this, though. You missed a treat! And you’ve only got yourself to blame. The first two episodes kicked off like the Da Vinci Code, people. Twisting and turning! With heroes and villains locked in mortal combat and tales of dragons living atop mystical mountains.
Er. OK, well none of that is true, and fear not you haven’t missed a huge amount. Unless, of course, prattling middle aged man goes on about race is your thing, then you've got some sweet ‘you time’ catching up to do.
So, I say none of the first bit is true. That’s not exactly the case. Let’s investigate.
Firstly, the ‘wittering on about a race’ bit. That one's going to prove correct.
I haven’t actually spent much time talking about UTMB itself up until now and I certainly don’t want to alarm any of my ‘er cough’ regular readers, but if any of you detect a subtle shift in my tone this month then you may be noticing a couple of things I feel need addressing.
To get us started, there may actually be some FACTS! Big, fat, juicy, facts (you guys deserve them after all you’ve put up with). Some of them will be my facts, some will be facts pinched from people who have done the race, and some will be facts shamelessly stolen off the internet. There may be facts that I get wrong but facts they will be! And they won't be far off and it's just a bit of fun, right? But I promise to do my best.
Puts on serious journalist hat and fires up Wikipedia.
The second little shift I’m hoping you’ll all feel this month is to realise (even through my scrambled writings) just how much I am in love with UTMB. I am a middle-aged suburban bloke who couldn’t be further from Kilian and his crew if I tried but maybe that's part of the reason that watching the small town of Chamonix explode into a rainbow of ultra running every year gives me goosebumps.
So, like anyone who is in love with anything (or anyone for that matter) I hope to talk thoughtfully and respectfully about the race this month. But don’t fret, normal snack-based self-deprecating buffoonery will return the moment we’re all through this together.
So, dry your eyes and hold on.
In my partially true intro I mentioned mystical mountains… Now they definitely exist!
Sitting here in my warm living room tapping away on a laptop it’s easy to forget just how frankly ridiculous the UTMB course is...
32,808ft of total elevation gain!
Now I’m not going to get all football pitches/heights of Snowdon on you because I’ve never really found that very helpful but rest assured this is an almost unrivalled amount of climbing for any mountain race (a quick google of the hilliest bit of my hometown gives us an almighty 400ft+ over an eight-mile walk. Damn Warwickshire's flatness!).
‘Houston we may have a problem’
The UTMB is also a relatively young race. It's hard to believe that this juggernaut of trail running only started in 2003 with a handful of runners. When you look around at the carnival that ensues in Chamonix every year it feels like it's been there forever.
The route itself follows the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking path which is a full loop around the Mont Blanc mountain range, usually completed in seven to nine days by half-competent hikers (UTMB participants are expected to bang it out in 46 ½ hours. The winners do it in a mind-blowing 20 hours).
My brief synopsis of the course follows. All I ask of you is that you loosely keep in mind that the tallest mountain in the UK is Ben Nevis at 1,345m.
The race starts amid the hanging baskets and cowbells of the ski town of Chamonix (1,035m) and almost immediately launches up the Col de Voza (1,653m) to reach Les Contamines (1,150m), which is where we find our first life base (ooh, a fact!). Life bases are big marquee-type areas that are dotted around the course in the more accessible (or indeed the more dangerous sections of the race) where runners might need more aid. These life bases ‘pop up’ temporarily just for the race to compliment the more permanent rifugios, which are mountain hut/cabin affairs that remain open all-year round to cater for hikers and skiers.
The life bases are staffed by the race team and volunteers to offer food and drink and comparative warmth if the weather is kicking off (picture a heady mix of the Glastonbury dance tent the morning after a big night and the yeasty smell of wet Labradors and you're in the right ballpark). Although after 40 hours in the mountains I would imagine they feel like the Savoy Grill honing into view when you see the lights twinkling in the distance (thank you volunteers for all you do).
The course then climbs up to the Croix du Bonhomme at a rather mind-boggling (2,479m) before snaking back down into Les Chapieux (1,549m) only to...guess what? Yep, you guessed it, climb back up again to the Col de la Seigne (2,516m) which brings us into Italy, our second country of three.
Oh, did I not mention that?
UTMB is one of the only races in the world that traverses three different countries! Now there’s a fact for you to impress your (non-running) mates with over a pint and a Scotch Egg.
The race then follows the ridge of the Mont-Favre (2,435m) before descending down into Courmayeur (1,190m), where you can grab some hot soup to power yourself up to the Refuge Bertone (1,989m) and on to Arnuva (1,769m) before being frankly assaulted by the highest point in the race, the utterly terrifying Grand Col Ferret (2,537 m), which also marks the border with Switzerland (hello country number three).
The path then mercifully goes down to Praz de Fort (1,151m) via La Fouly (1,593m) before reaching the third life base at Champex d'en Bas (1,391m). Now looking at the map you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the home straight here as the profile shows three lower cols: Bovine (1,987m), Les Tseppes (1,932m) and Trient (at a mere 1,300m).
A shake of the head, a wipe of the eyes, we've got this, three more lumps and we’re descending back to the finish.
Now when I was researching this month’s blog (yeah, that’s what us serious journalists do) I rang Jon Regler (another XMiles blog writer and UTMB finisher who I met at an ultra race a few years ago) for advice and he was kind enough to pull his car over to talk to me about his UTMB experience. In doing so he passed on the rather re-focusing advice that saving some energy for these last three climbs was just as important as the first half of the race, as your body is destroyed from getting as far as you have. In Jon’s words, “each one of those last three climbs is a pretty solid day out in the mountains for the average day trekker”. A pretty sobering reminder of what we’re up against here.
If you make it over these last three lumps and stare out over the horizon (and I mean really stare) I’m told you can see the finish.
Descend into Vallorcine (1,260m), pop back into France crossing Argentière (1,260m) and you're heading down into Chamonix to find the same bit of kerb you were sitting on 106 brutal miles ago. You can now slump/jump/sprint/carry your loved ones through the giant finish arch in the town square. You'll be presented with a logoed gilet and a medal and you can black out in the gutter.
The route varies slightly every year for safety reasons due to erosion or imminent electrical storms and snow but no matter what slight variation you've faced on your adventure if you are one of the Labradors that find your way back to Chamonix within 48 hours then you thoroughly deserve your gilet. Wear it every chance you get. I sure as hell will be if I ever get one.
Chamonix will still be partying long after you have crawled out of the gutter, the town has been absorbed by ultra runners all week and the cafés and bars are full of stories and gilets. There are another six races of various distances throughout race week:
- CCC: Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix (101 km +6,100 m)
- TDS: Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (121 km +7,300 m)
- OCC: Orsières - Champex - Chamonix (56 km +3,460 m)
- PTL: La Petite Trotte à Léon (approx. 300 km +30,000 m)
- MCC: De Martigny-Combe à Chamonix (40 km +2,300 m)
- YCC: Youth Chamonix Courmayeur (15 km +1,100 m)
A lot of people use these as sighting races to learn a little more about the psychological and physiological aspect of being in the mountains for that long before they commit to the UTMB itself. But as my buddy Tobias Mews (author of 50 Races to Run Before You Die and UTMB finisher) says, if you have any FOMO at all then you’ll be toeing the line for the big one before long.
As far as course records go it all seems a little bit fluid for, as I mentioned, the course does ebb and flow a little. The best I can do for now in a bid to put it into context is say that the guys and gals up the sharp end are knocking on the door of 20 hours which, with some quick maths, is a seemingly manageable 11-minute-mile pace.
Maybe you're thinking ‘that doesn't sound that quick’ and I guess in a way you’d be right. But trust me, given what they are up against, the leaders are fast! Very fast! Keep in mind some of those elevation numbers and how slow you might be faced with yet another climb. YouTube search any ultra running descending videos and you’ll be left in no doubt where the leaders make up any time they lose on the climbs. If they clipped a rock at the screaming pace they move at, they wouldn't stop until Switzerland.
There you go people, I warned you. Facts! I hope you liked them. Just a little bit of a warm down to sit through and you’ve made it through blog number three. Well done to you all. You are showing definite character traits essential for ultra running.
So why has UTMB become so important to me lately, I hear you cry… Anybody?
Oh well, I’ll tell you anyway.
It's probably got a lot to do with the savage course I have tried to outline above. It properly scares me to think about what the summit of any of those climbs could be like. It scares me to think about how my mind, body and soul would react to two nights out there. It scares me to think how I would cope with being in country number one with two to go.
Sure, there are other races that hold a similar magic for me. Anyone who knows me well will know how special Western States is to me. I am four times qualified for California's flagship 100 and will keep slinging my name in the hat for as long as my battered body allows me to qualify. But with full respect to WS100 and as immensely challenging as I’m sure it would be, I believe with the right people around me my head and body could lend themselves OK to running 100 miles through a burning canyon.
106 miles through the frozen hell that the Mont Blanc could whip up? I’m genuinely not so sure. I can feel myself welling up a little just thinking about it.
I sometimes think our little daughter Flo loves Halloween more than Christmas. She loves a good scare. I’m not always sure if I agree with her but maybe little Flo is onto something? Is there a fine line between being terrified and being exhilarated? Can we push harder against our own preconceptions of where our boundaries lie?
Further, darker, higher, deeper, hotter, colder. Is that where the magic happens? I’m interested to find out a little more.
And if any of you are bored during Tiers 3 and 2 (1’s a myth, surely?) and fancy exploring some scary dreams, I have just read Running Beyond by Ian Corless and I’m pretty sure there are some big moments for you hiding within its pages. It is a beautifully written book and a great place to start.
Phew! Being serious and heartfelt is tiring! I'm off for some Cheddars.
Keep safe everyone. I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and Santa brings you everything you desire.
I have been very good this year and I was very much hoping you could bring me a phone call from S at the UTMB press office (remember her everyone?). Oh, and maybe some slippers please. That’d be great.
Happy Christmas everyone.