Jack Gammon: Journey to UTMB - Part 8
I glance at my big wall chart. How on earth did it get so covered in red Sharpie X’s? Where has all the time gone?
I don’t know, but gone it has!
Whilst trying not to sound like a camp 70’s entertainer ‘It’s all go!’ this month, so let's do this! Hold tight everyone for the drug fuelled, police chase, that is Part 8.
It’s a bit of a three pronged attack this month gang and we’ve got a lot to get through, so I’ll dispense with the usual groin jokes and squirrel capers and get straight to business!
Prong 1 - I’m training again!
The rain is bouncing off the windscreen as I sit in the gloomy half-light of the small car park at Burton Dassett County Park.
Now, taking into consideration that there just might be more people than my Mum reading these blogs I should possibly clarify that Burton Dassett Country Park is a little ripple of hills roughly 120ft from top to bottom and about a 20 minute drive from our house. It’s the end of a busy day and I’m knackered, so normally I would be on my second bag of cheddars watching Line Of Duty by now, but it seems we’ve got a race to train for (more on that later) so here I am, pulling on waterproofs and uncharacteristically hoping that the rain gets worse.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I haven't got a brilliant track record when it comes to bad weather. I’ve always said 'I can handle the cold and I can handle the wet' but if the two little tinkers gang up on me at the same time we can achieve a code-red bottom lip situation surprisingly quickly for someone who’s meant to be an Ultra runner.
Now, big mountains bring big weather, we know that. My plan (such as it is) is to get out in as much grim weather as possible over the next few months and try and make friends with the wet stuff a little more, or certainly try and get to a point where we can be a little calmer in each-other’s company even if we’re never to be friends.
So, out I get...
Immediately I tread in a sodden pile of sheep turd and the soaking car door blows back into my face. Sometimes it’s harder to make friends than you’d think.
It’s only a little car park at Burton Dassett and there’s just a handful of cars sharing the storm with me and politely flashing their lights at me to keep me safe (Sorry!? They do what up there?!) I notice a young couple with matching tracksuits (is that a thing?) seemingly chatting away in their steamed up hatchback and I give them the ol’ ‘I’m a bit mad me’ roll of the eyes as I untangle myself from the car door and head out into the rain. I slip away into the night wondering if Kilian starts all his training sessions surrounded by doggers (Whatever the hell they are?) and the smell of sheep poo.
I was looking through my notes from Andy Mouncey the other evening in a bid to try and make sense of things a little more and put my training into some kind of post injury order. Like a lot of blokes (I’m told) I’ve been thinking with my groin recently (Cue boxing ring bell noise. Groin Joke No. 1!) but my personal parts and I seem to be moving slowly in the right direction. It's been a less than ideal period to pick up an injury but I’m training again now and if my groin and I stay friends we could soon be in a situation where we can handle some of the gnarlier sessions needed for a race like UTMB.
As I flick through my scribbled pages I am drawn to a little ‘shock face’ emoji style doodle sitting next to two words… SNOWDON REPS.
Oh Yeah, Why not?
The 3500ft mountain that people take all day to climb to be rewarded with a nice cup of tea at Prince Charles's least favourite restaurant? That Snowdon? We're going to do reps on that are we? Oh that’ll be fun...
You know what, in a slightly giddy sadomasochistic way it actually does sound fun.
What an electrifying way to spend the day!
Look at any walking guide that includes the UTMB course or the original TMB route as it was known before it became an Ultra-race and you’ll notice that it’s billed as roughly a 14 day hike with nice airBnB stops and frothy coffees throughout.
The Catalan super star Ultra-runner Pau Capell banged it out the other day in a mind-melting 20 hours!
So! Reps on Snowdon…
You're Damn right! Where do I sign up?
I guess us Ultra runners may indeed be wired up slightly differently. Vive le difference!
Now again, a teensy little issue with the highest mountain in Wales is that it is indeed in Wales and a good 3 hour drive from us, so out of interest I thought I might bring the mountain to Mohammed (Er... Jack) a little bit and climb it’s 3500ft somewhere a little closer to home for now, just to get my head back into climbing again. I find it can be easy to forget how climbing feels if you haven't been in the mountains for a while. So, with that in mind I find myself in our blustery car park in Burton Dassett...
Not a magic wand, I realise that, but it definitely has its place
UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN...
33, 34, 35!
The sun has well and truly gone down by the time I haul myself up the steepest bit of my chosen climb for one last grunting rep. I am suddenly reminded of my old mate Carlos from music college…
That's odd, why the Pavlovian memories of a young hippie?
I crest the top for the last time through a thick haze of questionable smoke (good ol' Carlos) It’s my track-suited lovebirds from the steamed up hatchback smoking perfumed cigarettes. It appears this particular beauty spot seems to be a popular venue for the local youths to er... unwind.
‘You’ve got stones geezer!’
Tracksuit No.1 purrs at me as I hove into view. It turns out he and Tracksuit No.2 have been watching my demented antics and they're apparently impressed.
Now, my street vernacular isn’t brilliant, but I think Tracksuit No.1 is referring to my ‘Stones’ as in I’ve got balls for running up and down a big hill for hours, but it felt like a nice little moment and made me smile...
- Because a bit of me has always secretly quite liked being that guy that runs up and down hills for fun and entertains Reps on Snowdon. #keepingultrasultra
- The more personal smile...'Yes my drug crazed new friend' I have indeed got stones! Although, strictly speaking a groin and adductor strain they’ve been nothing but trouble recently but they're getting better every day, thanks for caring.
Prong 2 - The race is OFFICIALLY ON
I write this remaining keenly aware of what can happen to things that are ‘officially on’ these days...
Are we officially on? Is this news being delivered in a CHRISTMAS IS OFFICIALLY ON kinda way?
I remember going to bed gently humming Christmas carols on a frosty December night only to awake to the smell of burning tinsel. All I know for the moment dear XMilers, is that all registered athletes (including myself) have received an upbeat email and glitzy video from the UTMB office stating that the race will go ahead.
Frankly, I’ll take that for now.
It could just as easily have been an email saying the race had been cancelled, I’m sure no-one would have been surprised. In the ‘blurb’ there is a long list of requirements and sanctions, spelling out the new format for a ‘COVID aware’ UTMB but nothing we haven’t come to expect as racers over the last year. Athletes will have to adhere to a lot of new rules and guidelines and France are asking for a 'Registration Sanitaire' which from what I can work out is...
- The proof you have had both vaccinations.
- The proof of negative COVID test results at various points throughout your build up to race week.
All hoops that I am more than willing to jump through in order to keep everyone safe and get me under that start arch.
Prong 3 - The UTMB World series
I mentioned in last month’s blog that I wanted to talk about UTMB as an event a little more this month. Well it turns out the UTMB organization have just kindly handed me my headline.
I am not completely up to speed with this one yet (Damian Hall and Ian Corless explain it all in a lot more depth and eloquence on the latest Talk-Ultra podcast) but in a nutshell major changes were revealed this week with the UTMB group announcing they have joined forces with Ironman group 'to boost the sport’s international development' and, together, launch the world’s trail-running circuit: The UTMB World series.
What does this mean?
I’m not entirely sure if I’m honest. I’m not a businessman and I’m not ‘across’ the global marketing strategies of big companies such as Ironman and UTMB but there’s a reason hiding in there somewhere I’m sure.
The new World Series will take in a global calendar of ultra races supported you would imagine by Ironman’s powerful logistical experience culminating, unsurprisingly in Chamonix where the male and female champions across various distances will be annually crowned.
Will WE, the foot soldiers of events like UTMB ever find out the real reasons for a merge of this kind?
Is it even our business?
My boss doesn’t keep me abreast of every decision he makes, and should he even have to?
Just don’t ask me to swim again.
Once again, dear Reader (a pattern is emerging) I haven't got a clue what I’m on about!
But, one thing I have noticed is there seem to be as many people who are unhappy about this merger as there are folk that are excited. I have done Ironman events and they are indeed super slick affairs. Whole towns get swamped by a sea of Lycra and M-dot marketing and if I may make a slight confession?
I bloody loved it!
I did my first Ironman in Lanzarote in 2005 and it was head and shoulders the biggest thing I’d ever experienced sport wise. The flags, the merchandise and the magic of the whole thing…
I was hooked.
I realise the world has changed a lot since then. Everybody seems to be a bit more ‘plugged in’ nowadays.
Has social media made us all armchair experts on big race organizations and their policies? Was I just so starstruck by it all back then I was too busy buying T-shirts to care about the questionable bits?
All I can do, as always, is try and be honest and maybe play devil’s advocate a little.
Would I be banging my pan in year after year, spending hundreds of pounds and dragging my family all over the world to run in these extravaganzas if the ‘extravaganza’ bit wasn’t there?
Am I actually part of the problem if there is one?
I’ve said before, the mountains have been there since the dinosaurs. If you want to go and run in them then (make yourself safe) and go and run in them. I wonder how many people actually want to run in the mountains for the sheer joy of doing it? How many people are after the kudos and the gilet? I certainly think I fall somewhere in the middle.
I think if I lived nearer the mountains I would explore their beauty a lot more just for the fun of it, but living in Warwick and dreaming about these events from afar...
You know what?
If I’m totally honest, I want to be part of the Michel and Catherine Polletti’s UTMB whirlwind and I’m honest enough to say it. The Polletti’s started UTMB in 2003 with a dream, 25 participants and a market stall in Chamonix square to run the timing. It is now undeniably the biggest Ultra trail race in the world and that’s not bad going.
To have the vision and the drive to turn an idea dreamt up in a Chamonix bar into what we now know as the UTMB is inspiring to say the least. The entry process to UTMB is tricky that's for sure and I really hope it doesn’t get trickier with the new merger.
I also hope that we as athletes are treated with respect and care and the big family I’ve grown to love doesn’t become dysfunctional. I’m sure not every decision the UTMB board make will please everybody and maybe they are money grabbing monkeys?
Do they deserve every hard earned penny?
There is no denying that they have created something wonderful in UTMB, something magical, and I for one feel that for the seemingly fair £280 it costs to enter (google the entry fee for Ironman if you want your knees to go weak) I want to soak up every sight and sound and I don’t really mind who’s in charge so long as I feel safe and supported.
If my family and I finally get to Chamonix in August you will be be able to find me in the town square with an autograph book tucked in my UTMB rucksack sporting UTMB foam pointy fingers on both hands.
1x Gilet in medium please.
I promise to be a better person when it’s all over...
Only 2 more blogs before race day! Hopefully.
This months blog is respectfully dedicated to the 21 of our Ultra-running family who sadly lost their lives at the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon in North West China at the time of writing. A savage reminder that the mountains are ALWAYS in charge. My love and condolences go out to their families.
Take care everyone.