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).
The CCC (or ‘wee girly race’)
Blindness! Vomiting! Dehydration!
Do 4 mountains, get the 5th free!
Must end Saturday 30 August!
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
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
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),
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