Lying on my face in dusty scree in the half-light of the morning, the thought did cross my mind that I might not make it to the finish line.
The CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) may only be the ‘little brother’ of the UTMB, but it’s still a tough 101K ultramarathon with 6,100m of climbing. I only had 3K to go, but I had an aching knee and now blood on my hands.
Twenty hours earlier, I was in good spirits as I waited at the start line in Courmayeur with 2,100 other runners. It was sunny and warm – a perfect day for a long run in the mountains.
It turned out to be the warmest UTMB weekend in its 14-year history, leading to high numbers of withdrawals in each race. Runners struggled to cope with temperatures of up to 35˚C at 1,000m: in the UTMB 42% of the 2,555 starters failed to finish, while the 119km TDS (Tour de Ducs de Savoie) had a similar drop-out rate of 41%.
I previously ran the CCC in 2011, but that year there was a five-hour thunderstorm, which led to the course being changed to avoid snow on the higher peaks. That’s the nature of competing in the mountains – it’s extreme, it’s challenging, and that’s why it’s so appealing.
If I did learn anything from five years earlier, it’s to pay heed to the saying, “It’s an ultramarathon, not a sprint.” I deliberately kept myself in check and started slowly, even stopping to say hello to my Pip and the kids.
In retrospect, I should have started faster as the first climb is single track almost all the way for 1,400m vertical, with few places to pass. You travel at the pace of the person in front of you and I hit the Tete de la Tronche at 2,571m in 1,221st place.
After that it was undulating with a slightly wider track for 17K to Arnouvaz. I kept my aid station stops brief, topping up with water at the Bertone and Bonatti Refuges. Those quick changes and some overtaking saw me gain over 300 places in this section.
Next up was the 768m haul up to Grand Col Ferret – the second highest point on the course at 2,537m. This was the hottest part of the day and I made a beginner’s mistake by not topping up with water on the way down. By the time I reached La Fouly, I’d run out of water almost an hour before, and at only 41km in I was questioning how the hell I was going to get to the finish.
As anyone who has run an ultramarathon will know, in every race you have your ‘down’ period. It’s a phase that will end and, fortunately, with the sun now going down and freshly rehydrated, I came through.
I picked up another 47 places to 758th as we moved down the valley and then up the short climb to Champex. Just over halfway at 55K, I was now on the figurative ‘downhill’ section of the race. I had some pasta and changed out of my sweat-soaked shirt into a thermal long-sleeve top for the evening section and the challenge of running in the dark.
Going uphill is my strength. Another 11K and 850m of vertical later, I reached La Geite in 614th place. Descending to Triente, for the first time I noticed that my right knee wasn’t working properly.
I already knew my descending was useless – pretty much every downhill, lithe, mountain-goat types skipped past me. This is something I need to do more work on if I ever take on this type of race again.
Still, I knew now that barring a fall or serious injury I should make it to the finish – now just 28km away. All I had to do was a couple more climbs and, more worryingly, a couple more steep descents.
Triente to Catogne was a 727m climb that I enjoyed. It was unbelievably warm (I later learned that in Chamonix it was 18˚C at 5.30am!), but I kept drinking and forcing myself to finish off my final few gels. On the descent to Vallorcine I dropped a few places, but by the time I started the final climb to Flegere I was up to 539th.
I just loved that final climb. I popped my final caffeine gel at Col des Montets and steamed up the 870m to La Tete aux Vents. This section is very hard work, with the path mainly uneven rocks and no ‘trail’ as such. I would have preferred a more powerful headtorch, but I yomped on, trying to pass as many runners as possible, as most would surely overtake me on the final descent to Chamonix.
I haven’t drunk Coca-Cola for over ten years (I gave it up through hypnosis after an addiction issue – 2 litres a day wasn’t good for me!), but I slugged back a couple of glasses at Flegere for a final sugar and caffeine boost.
I could see the lights of Chamonix flickering away through the trees. The distance wasn’t an issue, but the 835m drop was on my mind.
To start off with it went pretty well. The dirt path wasn’t too steep and gently wound its way through the trees. Then the switchbacks started! By now my knee was not co-operating. I tried changing the angle of my steps down, leading with my left leg the whole time, or sideways with my right. Maybe it was because I knew I was near the end, but a nagging ache had become genuine pain.
To make it worse, runners kept overtaking me. Theoretically all you want to do at this stage of an ultramarathon is to get to the finish, but having not been ‘competitive’ for 97K, I now wanted to finish as high up the standings as possible.
And then I ended up on my face. Trying to keep up with people who could see where they were going and were actually running (note to self: new headtorch required), I stumbled over some rocks and hit the dirt. There was some blood on my (other) knee, left arm and hand. Superficial and ‘pas grave’ as I answered another runner who asked how I was (but didn’t stop).
I was very slow over those last few Ks, but figured if I did make the injury worse, it would be worth it to cross the finish line.
I have to admit that when I turned into Place Balmat and saw that Pip and the kids had got up at 5am to come and see me finish, I started to blub. The CCC may not be the full UTMB, but it’s still a serious race and a huge achievement. I’m proud to have finished in 465th place (out of 2127 starters), but my lasting memory will be crossing the finish line flanked by my lovely children.
I can highly recommend the CCC, but whatever race you choose (of the five currently on offer), I can guarantee you that it’s an experience you won’t forget. The UTMB weekend is something every trail runner should experience at some point.
Ian is the social media manager for Profeet, specialists in custom-fitted running shoes.
Watch Iain’s video of the race below…