The best laid plans! Plan A was a quick trip to the Italian Dolomites, climb a 4000m peak with a couple of speed flyers (Aaron Durogati & Armin Holtze) and film them flying from the summit. All part of an ariel sequence for the BBCs Natural History Unit and their new series Planet Earth II. Hoiwever plan A didn't account for some very unseasonable weather and we spent the week chasing the conditions with little success.
Back in 2012 I was working with North Face when they offered me the opportunity to run a live blogcast from their signature event - the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This iconic ultra circumnavigates the Mont Blanc range, visiting 3 countries and covering 120 miles with 9600m of ascent.
In 2013 I returned with North Face and ran the CCC or Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix edition which covers the second half of the UTMB route while again producing a live blogcast
Fast forward to 2015 and I was lining up in the Square du for the main event which had been upgraded to 10,000m of ascent this year
The race organisers had issued a number of heat warnings in the preceding few days, probably the worst forecast for me. Taking it very easy from the start I loped along at the back of the field enjoying the shade as the sun dropped behind the Brevent. The Mont Blanc range turned orange as I crested the first of many climbs under an amazing sunset. Within minutes the runners all around me were layering up - waterproofs, hats, gloves! The same happened back in 2013 but I was still sweating freely in shorts and t-shirt. In fact I ran the whole race without adding any layers.
Many ultras are sociable events, especially at the rear of the field, but the UTMB is almost unique in that it is run in almost silence. I put my head down and in the cooler conditions began to pick up some places. Sunrise saw me cresting the Col de la Seigne and crossing into Italy. A loop to the north crossing the Col de Pyramides Calcaires on some pretty rocky terrain had been added to increase the total height gain past the magical 10,000m mark.
The checkpoint in Courmayeur was very busy and very badly organised. All the food and drink was only accessible from a small area and their was a 15 minute queue. It meant that I spent far longer than planned getting everything sorted before heading back out into a very hot day
My head torch went back onto my head at La Fouly as I headed back out for my second night on the trail. I developed a nagging calf injury and running repairs were made with the kinesiology tape beneath a street lamp.
I'd been signed up for a sleep deprivation study and had regularly been completing a mental agility test and questionnaire. The researchers from Dunkirk were very keen to recommend the benefits of a 20 minute power nap - not long enough to fall into a deep sleep or for the legs to stiffen up but enough to increase my alertness and performance. Despite feeling ok at Champed-Lac I decided to give this a try in the small sleeping tent provided. The blanket and mattress provided were very comfortable although the noise from the main tent meant I didn't sleep. However it did seem to allow my mind to reset and the hallucinations and sleep monsters that have arrived in previous long ultras were noticeably absent this time. I also stopped a couple of times on the trail that night to shut my eyes and rest my head on my poles for 5 minutes. Again this seemed to reset my head and significantly refresh me.
The route up La Glete had been rerouted to follow the old path which scrambled up a series of rocky steps. This suited me far more than many of the runners around me and together with a Kiwi runner we made good time.
Dawn found me topping the second of the last three big climbs at Catogne with clear skies promising another hot day. However the descent to Vallorcine was all in the shade and I did't hit direct sunlight until the steep climb out of the Col des Montets. The traverse to La Flegiere is always longer than it should be but my descending legs returned for the final descent to Chamonix where I was able to manage a good sprint finish
I wasn't too worried about the time but just to experience and finsh such an iconic event was a real buzz. The head and body had stayed strong throughout and I was surprisingly not too broken. Just a few days later I was mountain biking over Helvellyn!
We've just returned from a quick hit in the Dolomites. The weather has been pretty bad in the Alps this season and we didn't escape as heavy rain put paid to our chances of climbing anything significant. We even tried running away to Arco midweek but if anything the weather was worse although a little warmer! Our weeks cultural tally included the Falzarego Pass war time tunnels & trenches, the tricky Ski Club 18 via feratta, an ascent of Sass de Stria by it's South Arete, pizzas & coffee in the Italian Lakes, wet limestone and hornets nests in Arco and finally a quick visit to Venice!
Please follow the link to John Pickles Photography for some more images.
This weekend I'm working for SkiAscent helping prep Mac & Andy for a trip to the Alps with Mont Blanc firmly in their sights. We spent Saturday battling the elements on Pinnacle Ridge which had turned into a waterfall. Despite this we made a smooth ascent looking at a variety of different techniques for moving together on alpine terrain by themselves and with a guide. We were buffeted around by some strong downdrafts and we were pretty chilled when we got to the top so we quickly bagged the summit of St Sunday Crag and left the planned technical descent of Pinnacle Ridge to another day.
If anything the weather on Sunday was even worse and we decided discretion was the better part of valour. Scratch plan A of Corvous and bring on plan B - Cam Crag Ridge in Langstrath. After a quick splash up the valley we had an early lunch in the howff before braving the torrential rain and gusting winds on the ridge following the crest throughout. We finished the day by retreating to Shepherds Cafe to practice taking coils over a coffee and slab of carrot cake.
So with the fatigue fading from my legs and new skin growing on my feet its time to have a look back at my experiences at The North Face sponsored CCC. I arrived late in Chamonix with only an hour of registration left so I stuffed some kit in my race bag and headed off. The queue facing me stretched out the door and a time of two hours was being quoted! A sneaky short cut for CCC runners was opened up and the rest of the process was fairly painless.
However one problem with my late registration was there was only space left on the early Cormayeur buses and so without any breakfast and still with 3.5 hours till the start I was to be found wandering around Chamonix in the half light. Courmayeur was just waking up as we came out of the tunnel into the light of a stunning morning. I quickly forced down two continental breakfasts at the ice rink, taped up my feet which still contained a couple of holes from the Lakeland 100 and wandered off to enjoy the building atmosphere
The start was spectacular and emotional with the national anthems of France, Switzeland and Italy been sung loudly by hundreds of runners before the volume swelled for the iconic Vangelis Conquest of Paradise, unarguably the best start to a race I've been involved in
After nearly being taken out by a stray kerb in the town centre I settled into a good climbing rhythm for a 1300m effort towards the Tete de la Tronche.Within an hour I found myself stuck in a long crocodile of runners snaking my way along single track where oppurtunities to overtake were few and far between. This did stop many of us from going out too fast but I only made an average of 4kmh to the first check point. The short downhills were the worst where I wasted a lot of energy hanging back and braking behind slower moving runners. For me this is the worst part of huge events such as the UTMB but this was a small niggle on a stunning day to be out running in the mountains
We'd seen the camera helicopter chasing the leaders along the ridge and once on the descent to the Refuge Bertone we were able to revel in some amazing ridge top running. the temperature was rising as we turned back east towards Switzerland and the second big climb of the day. I picked a good steady pace up the Grand Col Ferret and began to make up some positions. Once on the other side I let myself go and had a blast on the awesome long and flowing descent to La Fouly. I was beginning to see a pattern with my running. I was faster than the majority of runners around me on the climbs and steeper more technical downhills but felt like I ground to a halt on flat or gently downhill sections. The perils of living and training in the Lake District?
Mentally the long leg down the valley was always going to challenge me so I stocked up on cheese and salami sandwiches and some form of fudge that was like rocket fuel. I managed to keep a comfortable pace and only made one wrong turn - too busy tweeting! The short hill up to Champex (which is always longer than than it should be!) went well and I tucked into a big bowl of pasta chased down with plenty of flat coke happy that I'd clawed back to a sub twenty hour schedule for the first time.
I'd opted not to use a dropbag and use only what I could carry or pick up from the checkpoints so after some more rocket fuel fudge I was soon on my way into the gathering gloom. My blistered heels from my last hundred now came back to haunt me despite being well taped and padded. Concentrating on running with a forefoot strike helped with pain management but is pretty tricky in a pair of cushioned Raptors!
In the darkness I began to overtake plenty of runners in duvet jackets, wooly hats and gloves. In contrast I was still sweating in just a t-shirt but these occurrences happened so regularly I began to question my own sensations believing I was feverish or hypothermic!
The second half of the CCC really just consists of three big climbs and descents. I'd last passed this way in 1993 while walking the TMB with a huge rucksack and my memories were somewhat hazy. The first climb over Bovine was a struggle with bouts of nausea slowing my pace. However in typical ultra fashion it all came good for the second climb to Catogne at 2027m which I felt like I cruised over. In even more typical ultra fashion the wheels came off very soon after and my energy levels bottomed out just before Vallorcine. Looking back I'd become fixated on my watch and neglected my food intake telling myself I'd recover quickly with some proper food at the marquee below. I almost blew it here and despite stuffing my face I was running on empty and suffering desperately from nausea on the easy climb up to Col de Montets. Above me a line of stars were moving in a long line, zig zagging their way up at an impossible angle - the infamous climb to the Tete Aux Vents. I'd managed every other climb without stopping but half way up this wee monster a bout of nausea and dizziness put me on the ground. I forced a Powerbar down my neck and amazingly within 15 minutes was buzzing again climbing well and making up a few of the places I'd lost.
The traverse to La Flegere was unrelenting and the checkpoint came just in time. Hot sweet tea gave me a boost for the 800m descent to Chamonix. My heels really made themselves heard on this and my slow hobble was passed by a few runners but the legs were still strong and as the sun hit the summit of Mont Blanc I managed a good sprint finish to the iconic UTMB arch.
My time of 21:50:21 was slower than I'd hoped for but the vast majority of runners I spoke to said the same thing. The heat of the first day had sapped folks strength and made the night a struggle in keeping going. My recovery has been pretty swift with my legs hardly suffering in the following days. Not usually being a fan of the heat I was very pleased with my performance on the first day. However nausea has been a feature of my previous few races and some more work is needed to come up with a better strategy. Finally my feet were my biggest weakness. A long standing problem with blisters and callousness on the outside of my heels severely restricted my descending pace later in the race. This issue can be traced right back to Ten Tors as a 13 year old! In this event it was the pressure of the edge of the callous pressing into already damaged tissue that was causing the pain. New shoes and some TLC for my feet would seem to be the order of the day.