UTMB Race blog 2022.
The year to date had been a success, I’d raced shorter and had some decent results but more importantly, enjoyed the challenges that faster efforts bring. Keeping my powder dry and not searching for fitness in June or July that would compromise UTMB. I’d spent time in the Alps and trained well, looked at the route and worked hard on race specific elements that I knew would be important. Probably most crucial of all, I was ready to run ‘a long way’ again after 6 months of veering away from anything over 12 hours. I think fitness gets you so far, then it’s down to your characteristics and who you are that carries you the rest of the way.
We arrived in Chamonix on Tuesday before the race start. We stayed on the outskirts of town in Le Refuge Des Aiglons, an upper market hotel which also offers spa facilities; a sauna, hot tub, steam room and large pool made for a pleasant few days pre and post race. We wouldn’t have been able to afford such a place if it wasn’t for the support offered by Inov-8. There were arguments for and against arriving later to town, a lot of people opt for a week pre-race but logistically it worked best for us to arrive 4 days prior.
I’d heard rumours about the town and the atmosphere during race week, the buzz and the noise, it was a lot. There were brands everywhere and people getting ready for their respective races. I don’t particularly like this side of the coin. I’m quiet and reserved without any fuss but I also understand that if you want to stand on the start line of the worlds biggest race with an elite number pinned to your chest, you have to accept everything that comes with it. I enjoyed interacting with team Inov-8 and we headed for team pizza two days before race day which was nice. Meeting new people and listening to past race experiences.
Race day rolls around and I’m good to go. I feel relaxed and comfortable with what’s about to happen. Pre-race I do 2 runs in town; one mini session of, 1,2,3 minute easy hills and an easy 25mins the day before we start. Jess comments on how relaxed I am, I’ve put myself under immense pressure before and sometimes it’s relevant, but not here. I’d worked with my philologist Steve pre race and highlighted a few techniques to arrive at the start line content. We devised the phrase “don’t race faces“. The amount of quality athletes on the UTMB start line is exceptional and this year I was in no position to conger up some wild race plan. Pre-race I write two slogans on my hand, CCC “control, composure, Courmayeur. W.I.T“ “whatever it takes”. I think these strange reminders are hugely beneficial when you’re in ‘race mode’ and maybe lose site of what you want from a race and why you’re out there.
I’d plotted down 2 splits pre race, the first was at the summit of the first major climb, Refuge de Bonhomme. I wanted to arrive here around 5 hours into my race; I managed 4:55:39. Also at Courmayeur, I’d planned to arrive here at 10:05, I arrived at 10:12. I had studied spilts over the winter and set my sights on these two setting me up for a 24hour race. I’d planned to keep my race simple, no crew and no flashing lights. Get to Courmayeur and regroup from there.
At 17:15, I leave my hotel and head towards the start line with Jess, I’m lucky enough to be in elite pen 2 so I don’t have to queue up for hours to get a reasonable starting spot. I show my bib and I’m in, I greet Mark Darbyshire at the start and we have a brief catch up. It’s 17:40 and the next 20minutes drag. Jasmin Paris is also in the elite pen and we have a chat about our races and she tells me “don’t start too quick, like the Americans.” Slowly the area fills up and in front, past the rope separating elite pen 1 I see the big boys and girls arrive. Killian tucked away in the corner, Jim sneaks in quietly, Pau Capell and Tom Evans also. I’m relaxed and take a minute to whisper the words “succeed” to myself.
We begin the famous clap and 20seconds early by watch, we are off. The start is rapid and it’s difficult not to trip over fellow runners. The town is bouncing as we stride through the centre and out towards the river trail. My watch laps, mile 1 is 6:17, 2 is 6:30ish then it settles and the field is spread out enough to find my stride.
My pack, the Inov-8 2in1 Race ultra vest seems bigger than most, but it fits well and is comfortable at speed before we head up the first climb out of Le Houches. I can see Mark Darbyshire a handful of minutes ahead on the climb alongside Sage Canaday. My pace is controlled and the poles are out. The climb is a mountain road, made up of loose rock and stone. I settle in and find a good technique. A few of the fast early birds are already out, last years second place runner seems to have pulled his hamstring and is limping. Fellow Brit Andy Symonds running for team SCOTT is slightly behind. I’d identified him as someone to shadow in the early stages. He is very experienced and rarely makes mistakes. If my pace was controlled, I was thinking straight and Andy was close, I was on track. At the summit of the first climb there are helicopters flying over head, streaming live to hundreds of thousands all over the world and focusing on the lead lady, Katie Schide. She apologises for the helicopter as it interrupts mine and Marks’ conversation. I’m in control but notice I’m sweating more than the others around me. We drop into St Gervais, checkpoint 1. I was in 49th place here, although I didn’t know at the time. I take 40 seconds to grab some food and top up my water. Mark leads it out but the pace is a little to quick for me so I ease off. At this point I’ve had 2 gels, 2 slices of orange, a slice of bread, a cup of cola and 1L of water. 500ml of that containing electrolytes. I’m happy and heading into a very runnable section of the course before the first monster climb.
Darkness comes and I’m passing people who aren’t in control of their race. My technique is good and I’m content. Andy Symonds passes me shortly before the next aid station at Les Contamines. Again, his pace is slightly too much so I don’t follow. At the checkpoint I re-stock and grab some food for the long 4000ft climb. No issues to report, I’m saying to myself “let time do it’s thing, patience.”
A few miles along the river and it’s time to climb, I settle early and find a rhythm and pace which suites. I pass a few more runners and can see Harry Jones in front. I turn the screw a little to try and latch on to him and another group but it’s a little too much to ask. I ease off after 5minutes of effort and settle between two larger groups of runners. We’d just passed an aid station halfway up the climb and I grab some salty noodle broth to hike with, more fruit and a cup of cola.
I’m at around about 6,000ft and the HR is higher than I’d like but I stick at it. The sweating had subsided now the night had arrived. 7000ft comes and goes. We hit a false summit then it’s a technical section which pushes to the Rufuge at 8,300ft. My legs have eaten the climb successfully but at the mini checkpoint, I get my bib scanned and take a step to the side of the trail and vomit. Something hadn’t settled from the checkpoint halfway up and was causing sharp pains in my gut. I have to relieve myself and get it out. Warning sign? I’m not so sure.
We then have a 5k downhill section into the next aid station. I’d lost one place during the technical section and headed down content with my splits, arriving 5 minutes earlier than pre-race expectations.
In and out the checkpoint, after a short kit check and another load of food grabbed. It’s a 1 mile road section before an undulating trial takes you high again. I’m uncomfortable now, burping a lot with a dull pain in my abdomen. I vomit again, take note of the altitude, 5,750ft. I’ve had to slow things down, as we climb up towards the Italian border and 8000ft + again fellow runners are streaming past me, I’m okay with this. A rough spell with plenty of time for things to improve and go well. On the summit I’m bad again, I say “right that’s enough of that, no more sickness” I shrug it off and head downhill. 90 minutes pass before the next aid station, I arrive and grab some fruit. I hadn’t eaten for 2/2.5 hours at this point. The orange goes down, I take a minute to sit and chill. It’s then a 2 mile road section before the climb which leads to Courmayeur. Within 2 miles the sickness is prominent again. Very little is coming out, but I’m drained and I’m also loosing fluid each time. I decide to again slow it down, although I couldn’t really go much slower, especially on the climbs. I step aside and people glide past. I’m concerned about my splits but check my watch and everything seems to make sense. 46 miles covered in 9:22. I have 4.5 miles to reach Courmayeur which is virtually all downhill. During those 4.5 miles I lose 18 places. I’m not down or frustrated, these are the cards I’ve been dealt and I have plenty of time for things to develop and evolve. I hear my mind coach Steves’ voice saying “find a way”.
I arrive at Courmayeur and I’m handed my drop bag. I’m drained and energy levels are extremely low but I’ve been here before and came out the other side. My mind is still sharp, I set my alarm and take a 12 minute rest, something that has worked for me in the past. I don’t think I get any sleep but I sit up and head to the toilet. No major issues. I sip on noodle broth and cola, slowly. I change my shirt and do some maths. I arrived after 10:12 mins of racing, 7 minute slower than intended. I’d planned to be in this checkpoint for 10 minutes but I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to use my past experiences and try to reset my stomach and systems. It had been 5 hours since I’d consumed food without vomiting. The lower down I was, the easier and longer the solid food stayed in my system but as soon as we climbed or the HR was elevated I would be in too much pain and discomfort to keep things down. So 5 hours with no food, but 3 hours with no sickness, aiming to keep the fluids in and again let time do it’s thing…
I leave the checkpoint after 38 minutes. The longest I’ve been at a checkpoint for a long time. I’ve accepted that my ‘race’ is over and a 24hour completion is beyond me. I’m okay with it and grit my teeth to leave the Checkpoint. I couldn’t be one of those souls who DNFs at Courmayeur. I was willing to suffer and carry on.
The next hour goes well, I climb out of town and up to Bertone. What a climb, it’s tough and was tough in training 6 weeks ago. However I pass 4 runners on the uphill and feel good. HR under control aswell. A small aid station greets us at the top and I sip cola and broth, but it immediately comes back. I shake my head and push on. The next 7 miles is on an undulating runnable surface heading towards Switzerland. I call my wife Jess and let her know my race is changing and developing. I’m sad but I had to get back to Chamonix and I reiterate that I’m willing to suffer for this one. The sun arrives and it’s beautiful, my legs are sapped and I can kind of feel my body consuming itself to keep moving. “I’ve been here before” I say to myself. Competitors pass me often and I communicate with them as and when. At this point it felt like the ‘old days’. When finishing races and not focusing on times or positions was normal. I smile to myself and I understand I’m right in the middle of some serious experiment here.
We drop down into the checkpoint at Arnuova below the mighty Grand Col Ferret which is the highest point of the route. I sit down and a volunteer asks if I require anything, I give him my cup and he gets me broth and some biscuits. The broth can’t be consumed and I’m sick on the checkpoint floor. I’m warned by a member of the team to “be sick in a bag please”. I look across at them like a feral animal and apologise. I have to leave and attempt this climb. My wife texts me “last big mountain babe“ I cry a tad. Frustrated as I could feel the mind starting to slip. 9 hours with no solid calories, I’ve got another push in me. One more layer of patience. The climb to the Col takes me a long time. I arrive at the top and start my limp down. There is no bounce in my legs and it’s a walk/run strategy for the next 7 miles to checkpoint La Fouly. The feeling of my body taking what it needs from my reserves are hurting. My concentration drops dramatically on the undulating trail between the Hostel and La Fouly checkpoint, I decide to stop at the next opportunity. Then I change my mind. Then again, “I’m stopping”. This rolls around for another hour in my head. Back and fourth.
The runnable section into La Fouly, a small Swiss village is beautiful. Ancient forest beside a glacier river. Me and Huw had really enjoyed this section during out route recce earlier in the summer. I hit the road and it’s 800m to the checkpoint. I stumble in and sit down, head in hands but sipping water and trying banana and cheese in small bites. I see the checkpoint info and it states it’s 13km to Champex Lac, the next aid station. I do the maths and that’s around 2.5 hours at this current speed. With 11.5 hours of only liquid calories under my belt and the possibility of another 2.5 before Champex Lac my morale drops. The fruit goes in but it’s literally painful when it hits some funky acid in my stomach. Five minutes pass and I’m sitting there deep breathing, trying to lower my high HR. Considering the pace it was worryingly high, my guess is that my body is working extremely hard to fuel itself and I know it’s under strain. A member of the safety team approaches me moments after I’m sick on the checkpoint floor. I had made myself sick here, because the discomfort was extreme. We talk a little in broken English and I explain I haven’t eaten for 12hours. He takes a light and looks into my eyes. I presume he sees some funky stuff going on. I’m feeling like I’ve been Ibiza for 9 weeks. He shakes his head and recommends I stop. I then shake my head back. He left me and I call my wife. Hearing Jess’s voice made me desperate to be honest, I get off the phone and ask about logistics and how I can get back to Chamonix. The staff explain and I’m out. It hurts me to type that now.
70 miles covered, 22,000ft of climb in 16:48mins. Pre-race I’d spoke about my commitment to suffer for this race. I’m ‘good’ at suffering and I was ready to go to a place I haven’t been for a while as my distances have been shorter. I just didn’t expect to suffer so early, so far from the finish. I persevered as long as I could and I’m proud that mentally I adapted my race to suit the situation that presented itself. I got frustrated towards the end and desperate but the stripped back version of UTMB I experienced was strangely enjoyable. Back to basics, the mountains are chewing you up Jack, find a way out and push right to the end. It certainly wasn’t about fitness this time round and I had to show other characteristics to try and crack the code. The equation was a little too complicated this time.
On reflection there were a few other techniques I could have used to try and pull myself out of the hole.
I had headphones in my pocket which I never used. These could have helped me deal with the slow miles better and possibly picked up my mood which could have created a different avenue to go down.
When I was about to drop, I could have made a few more calls. Possibly rang Steve who I trust and maybe he could have whispered some secret spell to keep me in the race.
I could have taken much longer at La Fouly. I was there 20minutes, I could have taken more time to reset and think. If my race drifted towards 30hours that was perfectly fine and I had accepted that at Courmayeur. I just couldn’t do the maths or think clearly.
I could have tried a strong liquid calorie, maybe coffee could have picked me up and got the lazy brain onside again.
I’d like to thank Inov-8 for the support they continue to show me, it’s special wearing their kit. Whether it’s the biggest race in the world or a £5 local fell race, it’s exciting and special for me to be involved with the brand.
I’d also like to thank my wife Jess. We had an incredible week in Chamonix and one of the main things I’ve come away with is how much she embraced the place and the race. Enjoying the mountains with her is something I’ve not been able to do before because it’s not her ‘thing’ but I think this trip has changed that. Hiking together, talking about the route, the mountains and the history of the area was brilliant and we will be back.