Wednesday, 3 September 2014

UTMB CCC 2014 Race Report

The plans to do CCC in Chamonix started in October 2013. A few month earlier I had just come back for over 2 years of injury but was enjoying being back on the trails and anxious to get the 2 points to be able to enter the lottery for CCC. The thought of running in Chamonix with a group of friends at the time was too good to miss and with the lottery results announced in early January 2014, 7 of us started our plans for the coming August. But first I had to focus on was HK100 in mid-January, then I could take some time out before thinking about CCC which would be my second solo 100km trail race. 6100m of elevation in what is some of the best terrain and scenery available.
CCC Elevation Profile
Unfortunately things didn’t quite go to plan. After 6 to 7 weeks rest I got tempted with the Plover Cove Challenge. Trying my hardest and to keep up with a couple of top runners in HK who set a fast pace from the start on the 17km route, I was being dropped and went over on the ankle I had broken years previously whilst in the chase. A 5km hobble out saw my leg in plaster the following day.
I’d like to say I listened to the physio once the plaster was off, but I would be lying and suffered the consequences of trying to get out on the trail too soon, but sitting on the sofa all weekend long is just too difficult. The training in the months up to race day was a bit hit a miss what with the ankle issues along with the Hong Kong heat and humidity, but one has to take what one can get. We had some fun runs as well some that wiped me out early on in the 35c heat and 90% humidity.
Training with crutches

Roll forward to August

I was lucky enough to head to Chamonix 12 days beforehand and a couple of us hiked/jogged the route over a few days. Splitting it up into 30km sections made me a bit over optimistic, although I did wander how far we had gone wrong when I clocked up 114km. Had we climbed one col too many or was this just an added lucky bonus of the course route? I’d like to blame Vince who I did the recce with, known well in Hong Kong for his expertise at navigation, the only person I know who can stand outside his apartment block stone cold sober and be unsure whether it is the right place. However this time, it was my fault, and I was going to find out where I went wrong on race day and it wasn’t good. On my legs at the time, I would have preferred my additional 14km any day as they were somewhat flatter.

Overlooking Mont Blanc Range from Lac Blanc
Race day
Friday 29th August came all too quick and we were all up early in the chalet and on way to the buses to take us to Courmayeur. There was a sense of both excitement that the day had come, mixed with nervousness of what we were about to undertake. The weather looked perfect, not too cold, but a layer of cloud to keep the sun out and avoid the sun exposure which had been my biggest worry. I had had the best night sleep in the past week, not think about the race at all and felt good in the morning. We were at the start line with an hour to spare, Nic, Milos and I found our space in the first pen and soaked in the atmosphere, there was a sense of fun as we joked with runners around us and the elites in front danced to the music blasting on the load speakers. Romain, Claus & Vince were at the start to cheer the runners from Asia and taking photos for Asia Trail magazine.

Arriving at the start line in Courmayeur

Soon enough 9am came and after the 3 national anthems of the countries that the race goes through we got under way. The start was fast, the first 1km did a loop through the town, the streets were full of supporters cheering, the atmosphere was fantastic. But then a sharp right hand turn and we were up off the 3km of road to the trail head. When I recce’d the course a week previously my plan was to walk the road hill, but I was carried away in the moment and ran the hill slowly along with all other runners hoping I wasn’t going to regret this later on the course.
To Tete de La Tronche and Arnuva
Once on the trail the pace slowed down, but was still high compared to the pace I was used to climbing hills in Hong Kong. The first hill is a tough 1350m over 10km, double the bigger climbs I was too. I had set myself an ambitious target to get to the top and hoped I wasn’t going to burn myself out in the process. I felt good going up the first 500m and put myself  behind a runner that was setting a good pace. I felt comfortable until the second steeper part of the climb where I found myself being dropped. I had thought I was a relatively good climber, but boy I was wrong and being outclassed on the first hill.

The last 500m ascent of the first hill the path steepens and climbs a lateral moraine to Col de Sapin before the short last climb to the summit. My legs were dead towards the end of the climb and I was worried I had over done it. I was just in my target, but I felt dead. 10km and I scrapped all future time targets from this point on. There were a lot of runners in front and I was surprised at how fast the pace had been up this gruelling climb and needed to focus on not burning myself out on the next sections of the course. I would relax on the downhill stretch to the next checkpoint 5km away.
I reached Bertone Hut in 2hrs and 20 minutes to the shouts of encouragement from Vince and Sam who were waiting there to cheer us all on. It’s always great to see familiar faces on the course whilst running and encouraged me on and to stop thinking about my aching legs for a while. I took a decision to go straight past the checkpoint without stopping, I had 1/2L of water and if things got back I knew there were several streams to fill up in. I almost regretted my decisions when I caught a glance of cake on the table, but forced myself not to take a second look.

Views from the trail between Bertone Hut and Bonatti Hut

My legs were dead, the first climb had taken it out on them as I had gone up to quick and made a decision to take it easy for the 12km to the start of the second large climb as I knew the second half of the course was going to be tough. I’d like to say that I enjoyed the views of the Mont Blanc massive on this stretch that we had seen the week before when hiking it, but 15km in and I was knackered and don’t think I had the energy to look up until I reach the Bonatti Hut. I dug out a cliff bar to get some energy in for this stretch and only a quick stop at Bonatti to fill the water bottles. I took a cup of the nutrition energy drink they had the checkpoint and almost threw up. It’s amazing how disgusting someone can make a ‘nutrition’ drink taste. I tried it again in Arnuva mixing it with other things, but this didn’t help. Other than that the checkpoints were fantastic and the helpers at them were so friendly. I am always amazed and very grateful at the generosity of people that devote their time to support at aid stations for a crazed bunch of individuals who spend their free time running up mountains in all sorts of weather. Also, the number of people on the route at this point cheering and offering words of encouragement was fantastic and help me forget my aching legs.

Grand Col Ferret & down to the Foully
I now know why this is called the Grand Col, and it’s not just because the views are grand. It was a big climb and I can’t say that I felt too grand about 2/3rds of the way up it. I tried my hardest to keep up with one of the many strong ladies on the course for the first half, but resorted to plodding the second half knowing there were still 3 killer hills in the second half of the course. The strength of all the Europeans runners on the uphill’s amazed me. I was struggling to keep up with them, but possibly they were going out too fast.

View across the valley on the climb up Grand Col Ferret
Coming up to the Col and the border with Switzerland I knew there was a long descent that I could just let gravity take me down keeping my legs for the flatter parts lower down in the valley to Praz de Fort. An 18km descent from 2537m. The first 5 km were a non-technical descent and I was surprised to be passing all the people that overtook me on the climb up. Reaching La Peula I hit the part of the course where we had gone very wrong on the recce the previous week. I was almost out of water, and what I thought would be an easy 2 or 3 km stretch by a river before a road turned into a much longer stretch of technical undulating trail. I had a bit of a sense of humour failure when we rejoined the path I recognised only to be taken off it on another undulation, but I was slowly gaining places on people that had taken me on the hill. At a small chalet I contemplated filling my empty bottles with water in the water fountain, however many others must have run out of water and I didn’t want to queue, it was only 2km to La Foully into which I ran with another runner who was starting to suffer an energy low as had not eaten anything. This reminded me to pick up food in the checkpoint. Coming into the village and the checkpoint the atmosphere was fantastic with the street lined full of people cheering. The checkpoint appeared pretty empty, I took on board lots of orange pieces and took a few square oat cakes covered in chocolate. Water bottles filled and I headed out for the next stretch to Champex feeling happy to be 42km in. I noticed that I was in over 200th position but did not focus on that.

To Champex
My original plans when doing a recce where to push the next 8km downhill before the climb to Champex, but I was nervous of my legs not being able to take me over the 3 climbs in the last part of the course so opted for letting gravity do its work. I don’t recall much of this section. The trail was a mixture of dirt track and forest trail with the odd undulation that followed the river to the start of the climb to Champex. I made good progress and passed quite a few people on this section. I stopped worrying about my legs and focussed on Champex. At 54km, this was a psychological barrier of being over half way on distance and climbing. The 4km climb through the woods up to Champex seemed longer than I remembered, but this was the first hill that no one passed me. I crossed the road at the entrance into the village and headed up the last bit of trail to the checkpoint when I heard familiar voices of Tim and Jane who had been on holiday in the region and come by Champex to see me come through. It was great to be cheered on by friends and I did a quick checkpoint turn around before heading out past the lake where Tim and Jane were waiting again. I was about an hour down on my ambitious target and my legs were starting to feel a bit better. With a bit over a marathon to go and 3 killer hills I was gaining my confidence that I could bring this home.

Looking up to Champex up the hill on the far side of the valley
To Trient

The section to Trient in my mind I had split into 3, the first bit a 4km flattish section on dirt track to the start of the climb to Bovine, the 700m climb up Bovine and then the downhill thought the woods to Col de Forclaz and Trient. I made good progress on the dirt track with 2 Spanish runners and we passed several other small groups. At the start of the climb I was caught up with a runner I had met on the start line. This was his first 100km race and he lived in a part of France that is relatively flat. I went up 1km of the climb with him, but he looked strong and I let him push on ahead not wanting to blow my legs up too early in this climb. The climb up to Bovine is deceptive, it start off nice and gently on a dirt track, but then after 200m of ascent steepens into something whose description is best I don’t put in words. I can’t say I enjoyed this climb and maintained my focus on my altimeter knowing that at 1850m the trail broke out of the trees to the sound of cow bells on a high alpine meadow.
The climb up to Bovine

Coming up to Bovine
It had started to drizzle a bit as I went over the top, but the path down had not turned too muddy and I made good progress with a couple of French runners on the trail through the woods to Col de Forclaz. A further short and steep descent to the road on the edge of Trient where my father and  a cheerful crowd of supporters were based in the drizzle as I ran past the church to the checkpoint. As with every checkpoint the smiles and encouragements from the supporters put a smile on my face. I headed straight to the water to fill up my bottles and then took several pieces of orange. I quickly caught up with my mother who helped to sort out my sustained energy. It was at this point I noticed just how many people there were in the checkpoint on the benches looking absolutely shattered and changing clothes after the rain. Given it was likely to rain for a while, and to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off to change tee shirt, I decided to move on quickly taking a handful of the square chocolate oatcakes and thanking the helpers on the checkpoint as I left. My strategy to not push after the first climb of the day was paying off as I was managing to pass through the checkpoints quickly where I lot of other runners looked as though they were starting to suffer.

To Vallorrcine
A quick wave to my parents as I went past the church and I was in the last 30km. 100m up the road I got the biggest smile on my face, it was 8pm, an hour later than I originally planned to be at Trient, but I didn’t care about my target. I had 2 killer climbs left, and I knew in my mind that I was going to complete and cross the finish line no matter what. I pulled out some music for the first time and thought of the finish line whilst powering up the first 400m of the climb. This climb I remember from the recce and new it would be steep which meant that height would be gained quickly and it would be over sooner. Well that is what I told myself.
I passed a couple of people stopped to take out head torches, but decided that I was going to get to the top before I got mine out. The last 300m of ascent were a set of steep switch backs and I was happy to near the top of the climb where it started to level out. The route stayed high going through alpine pastures used for sheep grazing during the day and I ran this couple of kms with a couple of other runners. The evening rain had turned the path into a mud bath ankle deep in places where the cattle congregate during the day. Passing the checkpoint near the top it was very tempting to stay and warm up by the bonfire that had been set, however I carried on down what has to be the muddiest and slipperiest descent I have ever done, the final bit down a steep field of grass and mud that I was amazed to stay on my feet. I was passed by a couple of runners as I slowed down through the mud, but was happy to get to the checkpoint in Vallorcine on my two feet rather than sliding down the hill on my backside. 
Catogne on a clear day. A mud bath in the rain
The lack of chocolate oat cakes was a concern, my mind not being able to work out what would be the next best fuel source. But soon enough it focussed in on a vast bowl of dark chocolate chunks and I could move on. I filled up with water, allowed myself to sit down for 30 seconds with my parents and contemplated changing into dry warm clothes. But with 1 climb to go I concluded If I was cold I might go faster. I took a quick look at the computer screen at the checkpoint entrance and saw I was in 115th position. There were a few people in the checkpoint and a quick calculation and I was on my feet. If I could get a head start in front of these other guys, many of whom were better climbers than myself then maybe I could get into the top 100. With that thought I was off out.
To Chamonix
Ashamed to say I walked most of the gentle incline to Col du Montets following another runner. The thought of the final 700m climb that is steep and rocky in my mind, I wanted to save energy for it. A few days before we had been high up on the other side of the valley and Romain had counted 44 switchbacks and that was just the ones he could see.
It was only when I crossed the road to the start of the climb to Tete Aux Vents that I realised how hard it was raining watching it hit the road surface. This was always going to be a tough climb, but I hadn’t imagined it was going to be as bad as I found it. 2 people in front sped off, but I didn’t have the energy in my legs to keep up. 3 minutes into the climb I stopped to ditch the 1L of water I was carrying, my mind telling me that any weight saving had to be a plus and the chances of me drinking anything in the rain were slim. I could always fill up in a stream which is what the path had become in the rain.

The first half of the climb went well, but as my legs tired and as the fog came down I was having to stop to look for the path and was stumbling over the rocks. I focused on my feet trying not to look at the headlights high above indicating the height gain still to go. The path became less steep the last 200m of ascent, there was a bit of wind and it was cold at 2100m. I was slipping over the rocks trying to avoid the mud unsuccessfully and slipped into a river at one point. After that I didn’t care if I walked through the rivers or mud, the path to the checkpoint seemed to last forever and I was so happy to reach the top. A contour trail and a descent was all I had to the finish line now.
We hadn’t recce’d the contour trail the week before opting to visit a high alpine lake instead. I had assumed being a contour trail it would be a nice run around the mountain. How wrong could I be. This was the worst stretch of the race for me. I was stumbling and slipping over rocks left right and centre resorting to walking most of it loosing quite a bit of time. Given that only 1 person overtook me here I guess everyone was in the same boat on this section at night. My mind was more on my ankles rather than speed and this section seemed to go on forever. I finally reached Flegere where there was the last short incline to the checkpoint before the final 8km descent to town. I stopped just to say thank you to the people supporting the checkpoint and pushed on.

I knew the first 400m descent were technical in the dark as was a steep forest trail full of rocks and tree roots, but I recalled that the last 5km were very runnable on a much less technical trail. On this I got my downhill confidence back and knew it would not be long before I reach Chamonix. Every now and again I could see the lights in the valley below through the gaps in the trees. I was almost there.
I had run this last section not seeing anyone else and when I came off the trail and hit the road at the edge of town all I had in my mind was I hoped my legs would allow me to run the last 1km on the road on the flat. The race marshals were fantastic and really cheerful stopping the cars to let me cross a couple junctions. As I rounded a corner to head towards the river I could hear the shouts of encouragement from Vince and Romain who had come out to the edge of town to cheer me on. I felt strong on the last bit along the river and to the centre of town, as I reached the shopping street I was amazed by the number of people on the street at 1am in the morning still watching runners come in.

I crossed the line in 16hrs and 20 minutes. The torrid memories of my aching legs in the first half gone, I was very happy. It was only 5 minutes or so after finishing when I was about to leave the finish area that I turned round to see the screen and realised I had made it into 100th position.

Happy to have crossed the finish line

This was my first experience of a long race away from the Maclehose Trail in Hong Kong and I had completely under estimated how tough it was going to be. My training in the months up to the race hadn’t been what I wanted due to my ankle and inability to cope with the summer heat, but this course was a tough one. The climbs were much longer than I was used too and the rain had turned the second half into a mud bath and I hadn’t had my confidence on the technical downhills. But sitting on the plane back to Hong Kong 40 hours later reflecting on the day I really enjoyed it and feel a sense of fulfilment to have taken part.

A massive thank you to my parents who travelled out to Chamonix for the week and came out to the supporters checkpoints in Trient, Vallorcine and the end. To Tim & Jane, friends from the UK, who waited in Champex to cheer me on and to Vince, Romain and Claus for their encouragement and being at the finish line with everyone else in the early hours of the morning. It was an amazing week enjoying the Chamonix region with so many runners from Hong Kong. The atmosphere and spirit was fantastic and it was great to see so many participate in the different races.

So what’s next? During the first half I did wander what the hell I was doing racing 100km over several hills, but as I went past Trient the realisation and fulfilment sank in and even in the cold and pouring rain I was happy. I’ve been asked if I would try a 100 miler, but I think I’ll need some more time before contemplating that distance. Will I be back in Chamonix? For sure if I get the place next year. It was an awesome race through some great scenery. I’d like to give CCC another blast or possibly try TDS. The 100 miler will have to wait a little longer, my mind tells me that someone has more chance in persuading me to do PTL than a 100 miler at this stage. Maybe that will change in the coming weeks. However time to focus on the HK race season first.

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