The CCC (or ‘wee girly race’)

Blindness! Vomiting! Dehydration!
Do 4 mountains, get the 5th free!
10k extra!
Must end Saturday 30 August!

Lucy Colquhoun

I’m not much of a marketer but I suspect there’s a reason they don’t use this approach when advertising the series of North Face ultra races which comprise the Mont Blanc series. The extremity of what people put themselves through only really starts to sink in as you hear individual stories of what people have suffered – hallucinations, hypothermia, all sorts of sprains and tears and unrepeatable digestion problems. This year, as well as the usual litany of potential conditions was the added bonus of 30+ degree heat, which contributed to the high drop-out rate (60% for the UTMB, 50% for the CCC).

This year, in addition to the full UTMB circuit (180k, 9800m climb) and the CCC (98k, 5000m) there was a new race with the maliciously ironic title of ‘Le Petit Trotte de Leon’ – 200km and xm of climb, entirely self-supported and taking most teams 4 days to complete. This gives you some sense of the sadistic glee of the race organisers. So, whilst to the uninitiated a race lasting 14.5 hours may seem long, in comparison it was just a warm up (or, as one friend delighted in goading me, the ‘wee girly race’).

I’d tried it last year, had a fantastic experience but been very disappointed as yet again my navigational ineptitude saw me taking a detour through some woods and up another hill, adding an hour to my schedule. It was unfinished business, so this year I was back to make up.

Friday 29 August, 11 am: ‘The Final Countdown’ blares out of roadside speakers. Good luck messages are being given by various local dignitaries in Italian, French and English. The man next to me starts yogic breathing (slightly disarming) and all around the 2029 other competitors are waiting restlessly, keen and nervous to get started.

The starter’s horn blows and we’re off, racing through the narrow streets of Courmayeur, cheered on by hundreds of spectators brandishing cow bells, saucepan lids and anything else noisy they can get their hands on – these Europeans know how to do it. It’s a stark contrast to some of the races at home, where you’re dodging gormless pedestrians who don’t seem to grasp the fact that a) you’re wearing a race number and b) you’re travelling considerably faster than them and c) you might actually be doing this for a reason.

This year the start of the race had changed, in an effort to thin out the field before we started on the narrow mountain tracks. So for the first 10k we ran on tarmac and wide tracks out of town to the foot of the first climb. This was good news for road runners, but any sense of security given by the speed and gradient was quickly stripped away when we left the road to start the slog to the first aid station.

The first section of the race passed relatively quickly – runners still have enough breath left to chat, some are keen to know your time, your nationality and whether you’ve done it before. People are settling into their pace and preparing themselves for what’s to come. I was really surprised and impressed by how friendly the other runners were, particularly in letting me pass and giving encouragement. There didn’t seem to be any macho anti-girl reactions, which you sometimes come across elsewhere (maybe they were just waiting to see my demise later on…).

It’s hard to summarise fourteen and a half hours of running. Time does strange things, at times stretching interminably as you count each minute, intent on putting one foot in front of the other, at others flying past as you find you’ve knocked off another two hours without really noticing. The spectacular scenery is a wonderful distraction from aching muscles and clockwatching. It gives a fantastic sense of proportion, as you’re dwarfed by the enormity of glaciers, skylines and scale. Later on, when night sets in, this sense of isolation and adventure is even more pronounced as you find yourself alone in the middle of forests, with only spiders and the odd cow for company.

I had a fantastic support team helping me, primarily to provide any additional food I might want but also to give motivation and encouragement in the form of Scottish flags, matching team t-shirts and a selection of very noisy cowbells. The French organisers also got in on the act at Vallorcine, where I entered the food tent to be greeted with ‘Scotland the Brave’ on loudspeaker! Brilliant bit of organisation on their part and it brought a smile to my face (albeit briefly, as I was then violently sick).

The last stages of the race were really tough – the ‘bonus’ climb added in for this year was a killer. 700m of technical switchback climbing and a nice boulder field at the top. I was reduced to walking for five minutes and stopping for 30 seconds to rest, praying it would end. By this stage I couldn’t eat either so did the last c.4 hours of the race on empty. But, having at last reached the final aid tent at the top of the ski station, where I managed a cup of Coke, the end was in sight – the lights of Chamonix were twinkling below and I knew that it was a fast (well, it’s all relative), downhill finish.

I crossed the line just after 1.30 am, carrying the Scottish flag and being met very enthusiastically by race staff, support team and random nocturnal spectators. It was fantastic to have finished and to make it first woman home. The vomiting lasted another couple of hours, and the adrenalin kept me awake for the rest of the night. It was two days before I came down from the excitement and nerves and before the tiredness set in. A fantastic event, amazing atmosphere and one which I’d recommend to anyone with a sense of masochistic adventure. A l’annee prochaine


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