It’s one week since the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2012, and again it was an epic. The weather forecasts on the days before the race indicated things would be interesting, with Il Meteo saying snow would fall as low as 1400m on the Italian side of the massif. A string of texts flowed from the organisers saying ‘pack for wintery weather’ and ‘take an extra layer’. The forecasts worsened as the set off time got closer, and the inevitable yet brave decision by the organisers was made. In an incredible four hours they managed to reroute and waymark an adapted course, that avoided all the high passes which would be too deep in snow to cross. The revised course was completely in France, and 103km with 6000m vertical, so whilst a lot easier, still no walk in the park.
The set off had its usual fanfare and old emotions bubbled up as the UTMB theme of the Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis roared out across the town. Soon we were off running through the streets lined with people ten deep on either side, then out and on route to Les Houches. I relaxed and fell into a good steady rhythm and pace. Darkness fell as we ascended steeply to Col de Voza, and the rain started to fall. Heavily. The descent from Delivret into Saint Gervais was muddy and very slippery with all the rain run off, with many runners falling. I was very glad of my heavier poles that I’d decided to carry.
Congratulations to the people of Saint Gervais and the race volunteers for making the food station the most welcoming party atmosphere, despite the rain. It was a great effort, and a real boost, before the muddy river tracks threading the way up to Les Contamines. Many runners were slowing here, but I was stronger than last year, and kept my pace steady. Beyond Notre Dame de la Gorge, we headed up the Roman Road to Nant Borrant and Refuge le Balme. It was getting colder and sleet was falling. I was already wearing three layers but had one spare.
After a quick stop at the fire at Le Balme, to warm up, I headed up to tackle the highest section of the course. The rain gave way to snow, and before long the accumulation was 5cm deep. As I zig zagged higher the snow covered all the tracks and got deeper and deeper. The wind picked up, and I thought that no runner at that location could ever question the decision of the organisers to re route the race. To have gone any higher in the night would have been madness. The trail to Le Signal is rocky, slippery and not too enjoyable on the best of days, so in the early hours of the night in the wind, mud and snow, it was a bit of a battle. My highlight of the night was running in thick fog, with the light from my head torch bouncing back off the cloud, straight into the side of a cow! I don’t know who was more surprised, but I know who was more angry as she ran off, bell clanking, back legs kicking.
Eventually the cable car station emerged out of the fog, before the long cold descent back into Les Contamines. I lost a lot of places in this section, as my muscles had got cold, but eventually I sploshed into the village, and a very welcome food station. On the far side of town the trail ascended forest tracks up and over to La Gruvaz, before wiggling around to Bionnassay. At last it was the end of the long wet night, and as dawn came the rain started to let up. The ascent to Bellevue was horrible, with mud literally flowing down the single track steep trails. A bit tired, and more than a bit grumpy I finally arrived at Bellevue.
Here we got our numbers checked and we were warned about it being extremely slippery and muddy on the descent to Les Houches. They weren’t joking. The pace slowed to a slither. I remember being quite angry at the amount of damage we were all causing, and the mud just got deeper. Seriously deep. It became more of an effort to pull each foot out of the mud, and the clay rich mud grabbed my shoes so well. Eventually we emerged onto the track into Les Houches. I had built a good margin of nearly four hours ahead of the cut offs, so throttled back.
After the food stop in Les Houches we crossed into the Aiguilles Rouges, where I think I know every millimetre of track. We climbed and descended, almost for the sake of gaining vertical meters to make it tougher, but as I passed 84km I knew I’d run two marathons in distance and could ease back more to reach the finish without injury or too much fatigue. The weather improved, but still I ran wearing a micro-fleece jacket as it still wasn’t warm. As I entered Argentiere, I saw Dave and Emma had come to support, for the final 10km back into Chamonix. The trails became even more familiar, and soon I was on the edge of town.
Last year I’d been a physical wreck reaching town, hallucinating and staggering to the finish. This year I knew I could enjoy every second of it. I jogged through the streets, lined with cheering crowds, waving at people I knew, and eventually seeing Sarah and our 4 month old baby Freya on the final corner. I don’t mind wearing my heart on my sleeve on this one, but on any trail race I always have a mental image of what will make me reach that line. Last year it was the honour of getting the finishers jacket. This year it was always a picture of running across the line with my girls. As I reached them, I grabbed Sarah by the arm and we jogged the last 100m through the town square and towards the finish, Freya happily grinning in her papoose, the crowds cheering us on.
Nothing quite beats the surge of emotion and pride as you take the final steps to the finish, yet for me it disappears in an instant as soon as I cross it. I’m a trail running junkie that is always searching for that amazing pre finish high, but the low soon after is strangely hard to bear. All those hours of training and racing, focused on one goal. When the finish line is crossed, I know I need another to focus on.
So my abiding memories of the UTMB 2012 will be the endless mud, the mixture of rain and sweat running down my body, and the warming fires at Notre Dame and Refuge le Balme.
My apologies to the cow for running into you. My admiration as ever at the organisation. My respect at the safety decision to alter the course. My humble appreciation at again being a UTMB finisher. It will always for me be the greatest trail race on the earth.