I have been home nearly a week now from my trip to Chamonix and my completion of the CCC. My elation at completing the event has been wrestling with my despondency for the brutality of the course and although I know I have achieved something I will forever look back on as a valid achievement, it is the first race I have done where I have said ‘never again’ and that sentiment hasn’t faded in the following hours/days.
(If you don’t want to read my ramblings I will summarise here: Went somewhere awesome. Ran a brutal event. Finished it. Came home with blisters. Should you have a spare hour, read on).
The view from our room. Mont Blanc.
Where shall I start? Chamonix. What a mesmerizingly beautiful location. Surrounded by mountains, filled with Alpine lodges and a really exciting buzz about the town as the UTMB fever had taken hold, Greg and I landed and were expertly whisked to our accommodation; The Runners Refuge, a fantastic chalet run by and for runners, and therefore was alive with the anticipation and trepidation of the forthcoming weekend. Also present were Radek, a Polish guy also running the CCC, David, a Peak District runner who was to conquer the mighty UTMB in impressive time and a Honeymooning American couple who were also here to enjoy the full UTMB. The chalet was run by Chris and Carl, a great couple and the fact that Chris was also running the CCC helped just slightly with our logistics, as she knew where and when we were to register and when to beat the queues.
Registration on the Thursday gave an insight into quite what a massive undertaking the whole weekend was, registering, kit checks, number collection, goody bag collection all on a well organised and slick conveyor belt of organisation.
Come race day, with maybe a beer too many the night before, a 5am alarm call seemed excessively early, with 4 hours to kick off, but breakfast wouldn’t eat itself and final kit checks satisfied the OCD freak in me. 6am heralded our hosts Chris and Carl arriving to take us to the bus point where we caught the bus from Chamonix to the start line in Courmeyeur, the other side of Mont Blanc in Italy.
The Pre Race Cheesy Photo
Once at Courmeyeur, we shuffled around with 2 hours to kill. The morning brightened up to become a fresh but clear morning, and as 9am approached we squeezed into our starting pens. I had obviously predicted my start time slower than the elites and speed freaks ahead, as our pen got held until 912 am before we set of, some 10 minutes after the racing snakes ahead.
The view of the start from my pen
As we ran through the town, I got my first experience of the tremendous support from the spectators, cowbells rang and shouts of “Allez! Allez!” deafened the streets. The town streets soon gave way to steeper roads in turn giving way to a steeper single track. With poles in hand I joined the snake of runners as we climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed up the first ascent. Steep as hell, and relentless as it kept going. Back home in Shropshire there is no way of replicating such a long climb but being stuck in traffic helped prevent me redlining my way to the top and provided a steady start of the race for me. The occasional widening of the track allowed the odd overtake but in the main I paced myself sensibly here. Once at the top of Tete De La Tronche, some 2h17m hours later (!!) my legs were happy to change pace and drop into a run. The views were unreal, it was just like the old films where they were shot in front of big matte paintings, I felt like I could reach out and touch the scenery, it was breathtaking and otherworldly.
The view back to Courmeyeur from halfway up the first climb
No sooner had I changed pace to a run, I slipped off the trail, off a small ledge and thankfully grazed my right thigh as I fell. Had I not caught the edge I would have tumbled down a fair drop and had a much shorter race. I pulled myself back up and got back on the pace. I soon came to the first aid station, Refuge Bertone, and sailed straight through. I still had water and was feeling strong. The next section to Refuge Bonatti was glorious, and afforded such amazing views of the valley, with France over the ridgeline to the left, and Switzerland over the horizon ahead.
France over the left ridge, Switzerland over the far ridge, Italy underfoot
Towards the end of this section, I started to feel a little weary, but I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind. I filled my water bottles up at the aid station and was out of there quickly. it seemed to me that people were stopping and socializing at the aid stations, maybe I’m ignorant but I wanted to keep moving.
The run from here to Arnuva was fairly fluid, I was moving in a group of about 5 of us and we kept the train moving silently and efficiently, as we caught sight of the next big daddy climb, the foreboding Grand Col Ferret. Flying through the aid station at Arnuva, the ground soon rose up under my feet and I was climbing again. Knowing this climb to be another grinder, I dug deep and tried to find the right gear. As the path became switchbacks, the gradient got nastier and nastier and it was all I could do to keep moving, there was no right gear! I saw a familiar face, Simon Freeman, he of Like The Wind magazine and we chatted for the rest of the ascent. I like to think we boosted each others morale and it was certainly good to speak to someone after nearly 6 hours inside my own head.
The next section, from Grand col Ferret down to La Fouly was an overdue runnable section, cruising downhill, by now I had started to lose track mentally of where I was and was half expecting to come into Champex Lac, as I knew we were in Switzerland due to the trail markings, but I had overlooked the first Swiss aid station of La Fouly. When I got to La Fouly, I looked at the profile map and realised I still had an 8 mile section to Champex Lac, but thankfully most of it was downhill.
Again, I didn’t stop long, the aid stations were starting to look more like war zones than social gatherings and I wanted to be part of neither. The route here followed a river downhill, and it was apparent that the wet and stormy August had caused a lot of plenty of rocks to be washed downhill in the floods which had long since withdrawn, but left many of the paths littered with boulders. This section was enjoyable and I managed to keep a reasonable pace as we meandered downhill. We ran through a few little villages and were greeted with the occassional “Allez! Allez!”, or at least the French runners were. It was quite apparent when some of the locals saw the Union Jack on my race bib they chose not to cheer me on. I understand that as a nation, we British don’t travel too well, but this just helped motivate me forward. The down became an up, and it got steeper, the clouds also started to darken the sky here and at 9h08m into the race I landed at Champex Lac aid station. I knew that I was now 34 miles through and had just over half the climbing behind me. I got some Pepsi and sat down. I was destroyed. I knew I needed to eat, as I hadn’t been sticking to my nutrition strategy; I just couldn’t stomach the gels I had with me, and I craved fruit. I stared despondently into my drink and summoned the energy to get some pasta. Now that I had stopped, I got cold. I wrapped up warm and prepared for the next leg, wondering how the second half of the course would pan out. I hadn’t considered quitting at this point but I wasn’t sure how I would propel myself over the rest of the course. I took the time to ring my wife back home, and just hearing her voice was enough to drive me forward. Before I knew it, my legs were taking me out of the aid station and I was moving again.
I was now in the longest section of the course and the rain was here to stay, as we climbed the hill known as ‘Bovine’ (because the summit, is full of cows), the switchbacks kicked in again. Up, up, up, up, up into the dusk, time to turn the headtorch on. I soon learned that my faithful old Petzl Myo XP was not up to the task, the light from headtorches behind me were so bright, they cast my shadow in front of me, even where my torch lit the trail ahead. I had to let people pass when they got too close as I was tripping on rocks and roots in the dark. This theme continued frustratingly for the rest of the race.
The switchbacks finally ended and in pitch black, the clanging of cowbells warned not of spectators but the big docile beasts that stood in our way. It’s pretty creepy for your headtorch to just shine of hundreds of eyes when all you can hear is cowbells clanging. I was glad to hit the next checkpoint and have these beasts behind me. The combination of tired legs and my poor headtorch slowed my descent past La Giete as I cautiously picked my way down some of the more hazardous sections.
I got into the Trient aid station and was craving a hot sweet tea. I had two, I carried the second out as I preferred to be moving than sitting, but I kept missing my mouth, so I jettisoned the drink into the darkness and plugged on. I simply can’t recall any detail about the second to last climb. I remember the path that lead to the switchbacks, but it was more of the same. Digging deep in the dark, and trying not to fall over.
The aid station at Vallorcine provided more hot sweet tea and oranges. Lots of oranges. The familiar sight of sunken jowls and staring eyes littered the area and I didn’t stay long. I moved swiftly up the next approach to the climb, it was uphill, but gentle, and my rhythmic pounding saw me advance past some broken travellers. Then I saw it. The last climb, Col De Montets, up to Tete Aux Vents. Well, I saw a dark blackness against the dark black sky. But the tell-tale zig-zag of lights leading all the way to the stars reminded me that the last climb it may be, but it won’t be easy.
Without getting repetitive, all I will say about this climb is it broke me. I could not keep moving. My quads felt like they had nothing more to give and the climb was asking for too much. There was no way of quitting even if I wanted to, it was simply easier to move with the flow, rather than turn around and go back down, but I did flirt with the idea. I steeled myself that once I put the steep section behind me, and that time would come, however far off it seemed, then there was a gentle ascent to the next check point and then it was downhill. The ‘gentle ascent’ was too wet and rocky for my legs, and I slipped and stumbled like a drunk taking the long way home. By now, it was all mental, as I had no physical left to give. Others stumbled all around me and in a small group we picked our way to the check point at Tete Aux Vents. The descent to La Flegere was no picnic on shredded legs but once in, I was out again. Why were people sitting down here, it was 5 miles downhill to glory?
As I tried to pick up the pace, my legs could move, but weren’t very responsive to the hazards, and I continued my stumbling routine. So close to the finish, I slowed to make sure I finished rather than plunging downhill to my demise. I was eyeing up a 20 hour finish and knew I wouldn’t make it, but I knew I wouldn’t be far off. I vowed to buy a better headtorch as soon as possible after the race.
The singletrack became a gravelled road, which, after an eternity became a tarmac road with streetlights. Chamonix awaits. Still using my poles, I ran through the early morning, desperately searching for the bridge that we cross as I knew that from there it was a simple trot through the town to the finish. Despite it being close to 0530am, the streets were littered with spectators, family and friends of my fellow runners, and they cheered me on like lunatics. “Finish strong, no matter how hard it feels, suck it up…” that’s what I tell myself at every race, and that’s what I did.
20h21m26s that was my CCC. I came 413th out of 1423 runners, and got my finishers gilet. I then seized up and shivered for the next hour as I tried to eat, but my stomach didn’t fancy it. It didn’t fancy the victory beer much either, but I drank it.
From fairly early on, there was a nagging pain around my heels and ankles. My grey socks were now red. My heels were now open wounds, it was a joy to get my flip flops on, and I wandered the 2 miles back to the chalet.
My minging and swollen ankles
With no sleep, Greg and I headed back into Chamonix that afternoon to watch the winners of the UTMB come through. Francois D’Haene set a new course record in less time than I took to do a much shorter race. I tried to stay awake as I sipped my beer to watch him come in, but I can’t say I was 100% awake!
Francois D’Haene winning UTMB
UTMB 2nd and 3rd (or join 2nd) Tofol Castaner and Iker Carrera coming into Chamonix
Stairs were an issue for a few days, but the biggest hangover from the race is my blisters. A week later they are still sore. It has been a week of flip flops and compeed plasters. It’s not all misery though, I have upgraded my headtorch for the upcoming Longmynd Hike, and am now the proud owner of a LED Lensor SEO5.
A finishers gilet and a new headtorch. Lucky me.
When these blisters have healed, there’ll be some Longmynd Hike recon missions happening before the next event on Oct 4th.