The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, abbreviated now as The UTMB is quite a big deal of a race. Just 5 years ago, I had no what it was. Until I met this guy who completely changed my outlook on what running meant. In the years that followed, what was once just a distant dream had now became a reality. Well I still hadn’t qualified for the UTMB 100 miler, but got a place in its sister race, the UTMB CCC. The race traversed through the towns of Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix in Italy, Switzerland and France . Though 60 km shorter than the 100 miler course, 100 km in the alps is by no means easy. With an elevation of reaching up to 2500m, it was a tall order for this flat-lander (me).
You need to run yourself to the ground a few times to get points needed for the race. Well, that seems grossly exaggerated. But you do need to run a few qualifying races of either 50 km or 100 km to secure qualification points for entry. I was lucky that on my first 100km attempt, I got the points I needed. I registered as a group with some very good friends of mine in Ian, Wei Chong, Duwei alongside new friends in William and Ngin Ping. Somehow, we were just lucky to get in spot in the race on our first try.
More details on how you can qualify for the race can be found on the UTMB website. However, the old points system will give way to a new system for 2018 registrations. So if you’re interested to qualify for any of the races, you may have to think carefully about your choice of qualifying races. Check out this article for a better explanation of the new points system.
In July this year, I decided to get help in the form of coaching from Andy DuBois of Mile27. It felt late in the lead up to CCC, partly because I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the training regimen. The sessions prescribed by Coach Andy pushed my resolved, doing workouts I never would have the discipline to do. But I felt more confident of myself as the weeks ticked off. Training went well until 2 weeks before the trip, when I knocked my pinky toe against the wall. It resulted in a very sore toe for almost a week and almost derailed my race. Thankfully it didn’t.
As with many overseas trail races, planning and preparation is key. But preparation is not all training, nutrition and gear. It should also include your flight details, accommodation and also places of interest to visit. Being the methodological planner that I’ am, here is my workflow on how get ready for travel, training and racing.
- Get a note taking software like Evernote or Google Docs and use it to organize details of your trip. I’ve done up a sample of how my planning notes looks like here.
- If travelling with a group, decide quickly on when your travels dates are. Ideally, everyone travels together, making it more fun and memorable in the process. If not, decide quickly on an agreeable date for the accommodation instead.
- Kayak and Skyscanner are great websites to scout for flight details. For this trip, I booked my tickets on a local website called airfares.com.sg.
- As mentioned in #2, an agreeable date on accommodation dates means someone can start looking around for places. For a race like the UTMB, getting accommodation is critical because almost 8000 other runners will be wanting to stay in Chamonix as well.
- Places you can try looking at include Airbnb and Tripadvisor. Once that is out-of-the-way, you can finally focus on the training.
Getting Geared Up
- Look through the mandatory gear and identify items which you will need to buy. Some are trickier to get than others. For example, the waterproof gloves and the elastic adhesive tape.
- For a race of this scale, consult the advice of peers who have done it before. Most will be more than happy to share their experiences and advice with you. A big shout out to Paviter for making time to see us months before the race!
- The Internet is also a good place to source for race reviews, equipment and course videos. A quick search on Youtube will yield plenty of videos of the UTMB CCC.
- When packing, I recommend bringing your race attire and mandatory gear in your carry-on. In the event that your baggage gets delayed or lost in transit, you will still be able to race. Items like trekking pole however, have to be checked-in for security reasons.
- And a tried and tested advice; do your training runs with the gear and nutrition you’ll use.
- Oh and, study the course profile really well.
The UTMB CCC Race Report
The alarm went off at about 4:30 am. I turned on the lights, washed up and got breakfast ready; cup noodles from Singapore. Something warm and familiar to fill our tummies before walking to the bus pick up point located near the Expo. Our bus promptly left Chamonix for Courmayeur at 6:15 am; my cue to snooze on the bus till I reached. As we were still early, we sat at the visitors center and drank some warm cappuccino to sooth our nerves.
It was a long and hilly walk just to the start line, much to the dismay of some. But I could feel the excitement of the race as I reached the event arch in the center of town. Our group caught up with the rest of the Singaporeans before the start. After quick photo, I found out that my bib number was assigned to the second wave, while the rest started in the third wave.
Being alone in that pen, I took a spot down the middle and stayed there. Soaking in the race atmosphere and watching events unfold around me. I felt a bit jittery at first, but I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and opened my eyes again. Never would I have imagined being at the start line of a grand European race. For now, I didn’t have to worry much, all the training has been done. All I needed to do was start the race.
I didn’t bring my iPod for this race, so I soaked into the music that was being played at the start line. While the UTMB runners were spoiled with the sounds of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. The UTMB CCC runners were treated to something equally apt and epic by Vangelis, Across the Mountains.
Here we go
15 minutes or so after the elites had started, our wave of runners streamed across the start line accompanied by the music of Vangelis. I followed the runners ahead of me into the streets and alleys of the town. Throngs of people came out to cheers us. From the roadside, to the balconies, to the alleyways, people were all cheering loudly. Many were clapping, banging and clanging their pots and pans and swinging their cow bells.
The words ‘Bravo!’, ‘Allez Allez’ would ring in my ear for hours to come. But for now, those sounds faded away as I began to focus on the race.
The early parts were made of winding roads on tarmac, before finally breaking away into a trail section.
I was really starting to feel the searing heat early on the race. While the shaded trails provided brief respite from the scorching sun and weather, majority of the climbs were out in the open. The bright blue sky was beautful, but accompanied by the unforgiving sun.
It was quite stressful as an Asian, mid-pack runner to be in a ‘hunting pack’ early on in the race. Everyone was pushing as hard as they can to the next aid station. During the climbs on the narrow paths, I had to bravely overtake some European runners in front of me, for I knew the runner behind me would have done the same. I guess at that point, I was worried I would go out a little too fast than I would have liked. Surely, I made progress in the first summit to Tête de la Tronche, where Wei Chong would catch up to me.
As we both started to descent, disaster struck when I realized that one of the soft flasks I had just swapped out for had dropped, meaning that I only had 1.5 litres of water instead of the mandatory 2 litres. I panicked and stopped to check my bag, but I knew it was lost. Not being able to do much, I continued descending but with the worry that if an official should check my stash of water, I could probably be disqualified. The descents were fast and hard going into the first aid station at Refuge Bertone.
It was the first aid station and I took the opportunity to re-focus and re-fill my flasks. Climbing in the searing heat was starting to affect me. I re-filled my Tailwind and ensured my soft flasks were secured by looping the cord around the nozzle. I also filled an extra soft flask and put it in my WAA carrier shirt. The trails further up were fairly runnable as I made my way to the next aid station at Refuge Bonnati. Along the way, I experienced some minor issues with cramps along, but managed to shake it off.
I don’t remember much between Refuge Bertone and Bonatti, other than being focused on the current path. There was a strong climb before we reached Refuge Bonatti, with a queue forming as the electronic timing was down. It was here that Duwei caught up with and passed me on the next climbs. I would later overtake Duwei during the descents before exiting to the next aid station.
I waited for Duwei to arrive before we set off together. Once again, he took off ahead of me while I struggled with the section leading up to Grand Col Ferret. I wasn’t sure why I stopped so many times on this climb. Sure, it was the toughest, but I felt down and out. Perhaps due to the altitude or the overwhelming feeling that the climb was never going to end. The more I looked at it from afar, the more I felt demoralized. Eventually I would make it up to the summit, but the constant stopping ate into my time.
Now whenever I think of a bad climb, I think of Grand Col Ferret.
In order to make up for lost time, I knew I had to run all the way down to La Fouly. I stopped briefly to cool my head at La Peule before charging down. Exiting the trail, I was elated to be back running on the road, pushing a road runners pace before entering the aid station.
I arrived thinking ‘thank god, another aid station’. After a refuel of hot soup, packed oranges and a re-fill of Tailwind, I headed off into the evening. I changed my sweaty cap into a fresh clean buff, while packing my headlamps into my WAA shirt pocket. A couple of the race controllers scanned our bibs before we made our way along the river towards Champex-Lac.
Just before heading further into the trail I was surprised to see a Compressport booth with guys giving out free armbands and cheering us runners on.
La Fouly to Champex-Lac, though only 14 km, didn’t look as it easy as it seems. I ran through narrow and technical forest sections for the first part, mostly in the still-bright evening hours. But as it went on, I switched on my headlamps and continued into the night. As I made my way out into the Swiss towns, I stopped by a shop house to drink a cup of black coffee offered by a family there. It was amazing to see people up at late into night cheering and supporting runners on. I don’t usually drink black coffee at home, but this would be a much-needed cup, as it kept me awake for the rest of the climb into Champex-Lac.
I reached this aid-station to a large tent of runners and their support crew. As I didn’t have any, I wandered about eating oranges (again) and drinking hot tea. The rest felt good, especially after the long trip from La Fouly. Again I made the mistake of staying too long at an aid station. I spotted Joreen crewing for the rest of the guys and asked if any of them had made it through.
At about 11 pm, I began the long 17 km march up to La Giete before descending into Trient. The climb felt really long, with a French runner lamenting ‘when will this end?!’. Indeed that section, done in the dark, was tormenting on the mind. The never-ending climb finished rather anti-climatically when I passed through a small, inconspicuous gate. That signaled the start of the downhill section to Trient.
At this time, myself and some of the runners knew that we were out of time. So many of us ran as hard as we could downhill into Trient. I had at this point, a pretty bad toe which hurt a lot when it hit the front of the shoe. But I sucked it up and used my strength on the downhills to try to make up for lost time. I eventually reached Trient at 3:40 am, just 20 minutes before the cut off. I was knackered from the descents and sat down on the bench for a while, eating whatever the aid station had left.
I left Trient closer to 4 am and made my way towards the climb to Vallorcine. But by then, I felt jaded. The energy from the black coffee used during the mad descent down to Trient had waned off. It was on this early climb that I doubted my ability to finish in Vallorcine in 3 hours. Eventually, I stopped to sit down and I had to make a decision. A good look at the course map and I grudgingly decided that I wasn’t going to make it.
I turned around and made my way down together with an Argentinian woman, who also decided to stop the race. It was her first CCC as well. On the way down, we were met by officials who cut out a tag on our bibs, as well as the tracking tag on our packs. I felt depressed while waiting for the shuttle bus back to Chamonix, so I decided to make a live video.
I wasn’t expecting much reaction from it, but was taken aback by the support and encouraging words by the people back at home. It really meant a lot to know that whatever effort I’ve made was still recognized, despite a DNF.
I can’t remember what time I reached Chamonix. But I remembered I was cold, having to layer up in my base-layer and rain jacket while hobbling back to the apartment. After closing the door, I sat down on the apartment floor for a good 10 minutes. I was hurting and disappointed.
After resting for a bit, I found out that Duwei too, had to drop out from the race at Vallorcine. He couldn’t push on due to his past injuries. And was more unfortunate to have to take his own transport back to Chamonix. Despite the setbacks the two us faced, Wei Chong overcame great discomfort in twisting his ankle to complete the race.
As Louis told me later the next day, ‘You did well this around! Don’t worry, there’s always next year’. In hindsight, I guess I did a lot better than I thought I would. 72 km in 19 hours was indeed much better than my 30 hour, under-trained finish at Translantau 100. Yet I didn’t finish this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ race and so, I have to come back again and do much better.
I’ve learnt aplenty from this trip and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Chamonix. I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of the people of the mountains and can’t thank them enough for making the race what it is. It’s been a great adventure and I hope it won’t be my last time in Chamonix.
I hope to return. Till then Chamonix! It’s been a blast!