Having the strength and confidence to let rip on a technical down hill, three quarters of the way into a 100km race in the middle of the night is probably the best thing ever. To trust your body and your shoes to bring you down 800m of switch backs and into the aid station ready to finish your dream race…that is trail heaven
It was around this time (end of August/start of September) in 2017 that I found myself on the UTMB website looking at qualifying races to earn points because I had a new dream. A few days earlier I found myself glued to a live stream of an event I hadn’t heard of just months before. There were people running around the Monte Blanc massive in France over days, non-stop. Up and over mountains and the views were amazing. I had never seen anything quite like it. The reason I found myself watching it was that I had recently discovered a trail group in London called “Wild Trail Runners” and one of the leaders was competing in the CCC race. A 100km route from Courmayeur to Champex-lac to Chamonix (Italy, Switzerland and France) with 6000m in elevation gain. I tracked her progress along with all the elites in this and the longer full UTMB race. At some point I decided this was to be my goal, this would be my aim for the next few years. I had to go to Chamonix and take part in the CCC.
To put that in perspective, at this point I had run one road marathon and had a trail one coming up in October. I had zero experience but I figured that I had time. I goal isn’t a goal if it isn’t a bit scary right. I also had a really bad fear of heights, what could go wrong right!
I spent 2018 collecting my points. At that time, you needed 8 ITRA/UTMB points to be able to enter the ballot. Points were awarded to races for difficulty and distance. I completed Race to the Stones 100km and The Brecon Beacons Ultra (46miles) with both awarding 4 points. I entered the ballot and wasn’t picked. I was gutted but I had my first mountain race in Europe already booked in the Eiger E51, this would give me a taste of what would come. I also did The Cumbria Way Ultra as my commiseration race that year.
In 2020 I entered the ballot again, I now had plenty of points and more experience, but was again rejected and found a replacement race in Bulgaria. I was really gutted but I knew I had a guaranteed place for 2021 as that was the rule then (2 fails followed by automatic). Of course, covid hit and everything was cancelled.
In 2021 I finally received my entry after some weird ballot process but ultimately deferred it to 2022 as I was unsure of the travel restrictions in the summer but I was glad I did.
To embark on an adventure as big as this takes preparation of the body and mind. For someone that can get scared just crossing a motorway bridge how could I possibly run along single track with sheer drop offs? How could I climb and descend 6000m in under 26hours? These are questions I constantly asked myself since 2017 but a goal isn’t a goal unless it’s a bit scary (he repeats). Without moving to the alps to train I would have to do something different and in 2021 I did. Our country doesn’t have a lot of really big climbs but we do have the Lake District and northern Pennines. I made a choice to try and train up north when I could. This involved 3 trips in 2021 including 1 race (Grand tour of Skiddaw) and then 3 trips in 2022 including and other race (Lakeland 50). During these trips I practiced climbing and descending on rocky and smoother trails. With each trip a got a little bit better and more confident on the fells, able to judge better foot placement and understanding the terrain. I became less scared of the heights with scrambling experience, pushing myself that little bit more each time to allow more freedom of movement.
I arrived in Chamonix on the Monday of race week. Excited and not that nervous to be honest. I had already decided that this was a race to enjoy, I did have a rough time goal to keep me well ahead of the cut offs but that was a guide. I also knew what the first climb would be like from a recce in 2019 so my plan was simple. If I could get to half way in a decent time it would be all good. So I relaxed into UTMB week and enjoyed it to the max. I only did one short hike/run on the Tuesday but did walk around town a fair bit. Hanging out with friends, going to the expo, taking a cable car up to Aiguille du midi for sunrise and the best part, seeing so many amazing people finish the TDS and OCC races. Even though I was pretty relaxed I think my brain had trouble switching off and sleep was hard at times.
4am alarm for a 6.15 bus, I followed the usual pre-race protocols before heading out to catch the bus. I was feeling good but sleepy and was hoping to have a nap on said bus but was thwarted when the one I was put on turned out to be the kind with lower seat backs, ugh. The journey takes you under the Monte Blanc massive in a long tunnel to Italy and the lovely town of Courmayeur. I am pretty sure we arrived in under an hour, great, now I have 2 hours to kill until my start (9.15), should have got a later bus ☹. Luckily I ran into Jay, her house mates plus Megan and Ben during this time. So had plenty of people to talk with as we found a place to chill beside the starting pens. I even had my kit checked during this time by a lovely marshal. The atmosphere was great and you could feel the excitement build as it got closer to the 9am elite/wave 1 start. We moved into our pen to get a spot in the middle and it was at this point I could see just how many people there were, we were also joined by another runner I had met out there, Lee, which was great. This guy smashed up his shoulder just 6 weeks before and it was touch and go to if he would make it, so I was super happy he did. Just over 2100 people started this race, that’s the biggest trail race I have been in and that’s why they had 3 waves.
Soon the helicopter arrived, the drones were up, the music was playing and the first wave was off. I bet it looked epic on the live stream! Our group was shuffled forward, the announcer started talking again but I had no idea what he was saying, he did get us to crouch down for some odd waving which kind of annoying as we had to do it twice. I just wanted to get going now though.
Chapter 1: The Conga Train.
Soon the countdown was on and we were off, running through the streets of Courmayeur to much applause. I saw another friend, Spencer cheering on the left and found myself running with Lee as the route wound itself round and eventually out of the town and straight up. Firstly on the road, then on to a wider track. I knew this section would be tough, with the longest climb, 1400m in 9km. As we started the wider climb, I got a couple of messages saying my tracker wasn’t working, this was super annoying. Not the messages, but the fact it was going loopy. The people messaging were obviously worried. I said I was ok and would just sort it out as the first timing point (I think it did just have a wobble with so many people). I was also warned that I would be joining the infamous conga train. Something that forms when you have a large number of runners on single track all slowly hiking up a steep hill. I wasn’t stressed about it though; I was more worried about people who can’t use poles stabbing me. Luckily this really wasn’t an issue and everyone was quite lovely. I just slotted into the train at my pace, taking it all in.
At some point I dropped Lee or he dropped me and I also saw Jay. I took short breaks if I needed to eat/catch my breath but otherwise had a really solid climb. My head was in the right place and I just got it done. As we reached the summit of Tête de la Tronche the weather came in and the rain started. We even heard some thunder reverberating around the surrounding mountains, it was such weird feeling, a little doomsday. I was excited for the run down to the aid station though as I remembered this was super fun and got moving swiftly. The rain though got even heavier so I made the call to chuck my jacket on and I am glad I did as it was getting a little chilly. My plan for the first CP, was a quick in and out, filling bottles and that’s what I did. I arrived pretty much dead-on plan. 3 hours to do 13.5km now that’s big mountain running.
Chapter 2: The Mud
The rain stopped and started and stopped and started for a fair bit of this section. Which made the ground quite muddy in places. It very runnable and my shoes were keeping me vertical. Lee and I continued to swap places back and forth here and we chatted a fair bit too. Usually you have amazing views over to Monte Blanc on your left but the crazy cloud of the intermittent rain and storms was giving an altogether different view to things. I definitely enjoyed this section though, while being mindful of my eating to keep those energy levels up.
After a short climb up to Refuge Bonnati (a timing point with water), where I topped up my drinking bottle it was bit more of a climb before a longish and technical descent into Arnouvaz (CP2). I was being super careful to protect my quads here. I didn’t care that people were passing me I just ran my own race. Arriving at the CP 20mins behind schedule. I obviously miscalculated that section, but not too badly. Again, I was in and out quickly, just grabbing a little cheese and then some banana.
Chapter 3: Chasing The Ferret
Out of the aid station it was pretty much straight up, up and up some more. We would be climbing to the 2nd highest point on the course at 2537m, which made it around 800m in 4km. The poles were back out and the easy pace was on. This was really nice climb. The Conga train was now more spread out. More like Conga metro. You would be in a little team until you stepped out or jumped ahead. I kept a pretty steady pace here. Stopping when I needed to and pushing on when feeling it. I had caught up with Lee again here. He was struggling a bit now I think with the altitude and was having to take a few more breaks than he might have wanted but I could see the determination in him. Even though I wouldn’t see him again I just knew he would finish.
At some point nearer the summit, I receive a lovely message from my friend Cajsa, which really spurred me on and I was very happy to smile for the camera and beep in at what is also the border between Italy and Switzerland. I had now climbed 2600/6000m, this was a big mile stone and I was feeling pretty good. Next up was a lush downhill, 1000m in 10km! Again, I was careful on the steeper parts to save my quads. It was so weird though as I could feel the change of being in Switzerland. Everything just seemed a little different kind of quaint. After the big drop we were running down a lush valley and I could see what I thought was the Village of La Fouly (CP3) right at the end of it.
Weirdly a sense of tiredness started to come over me and I made the choice that I would have a longer stop here, I also needed the toilet too (most aid stations had toilets which is good info to know). I always believe in listening to your body on these races. 5 or 10mins extra can really mean the difference later in a positive way as it helps reset your mind and body. Running into the CP, I heard a shout of my name and instantly recognised the voice as being Jana. I knew she was crewing her friend but didn’t expect to see her at all as his time goal was 2 hours quicker than mine. She explained he was having a tough time with sickness, which was sad to hear. It was awesome to see a friendly face though. She pointed me towards the toilets, then we chatted as I sorted myself out inside the aid station, even telling me to get a move on lol. It was here I finally noticed that I wasn’t really happy with the food at the CPs. It was pretty much fruit, cheese, ham, crackers, flapjacks and maybe some random hot thing. No bread, crisps, sandwiches etc. It kinda bummed me out as it had gone past lunch time and my stomach had been rumbling a bit. I decided not to let it affect my mood too much as I was still having a fab day. I arrived at La Fouly about 35mins behind schedule but took 16mins sorting myself out. It was around 17.35 when left.
Chapter 4: Oops!
The last thing I asked Jana was, “what is this next section like”. She replied “pretty flat with a little hill at the end”. I then remembered this was the fairly easy section. It turned out to be a lovely run along a river and low woodland, continuing the quintessential Swiss theme but something wasn’t right. About 30mins or so into the running (there was a lot of running) I reached for a couple of Veloforte chews, but as soon as I put them in my mouth something felt off and I had to spit them out. I had eaten 3 packets already with no issue. Then about 20 metres down the road I felt the sickness so stopped to be sick, hoping it was just like at Lakeland but it wasn’t. I was dry retching and it wasn’t nice. After about a minute I stopped and sipped some water. My mind instantly went into problem solving mode. I went through what I had eaten and drank in the last 7 hours. Ticking each thing off. Then it dawned on me, I had been pretty much been carrying 3 bottle of liquid between each aid station. 2 water and 1 electrolyte but had only been drinking 2. It had been really muggy and I had been sweating a fair bit with the effort. Also, when was the last time I had a pee. That was just after the start in the woods before the big climb…oops!
I was obviously dehydrated, not dangerously so but would have to correct this asap if I was going to complete the race. My mantra now was to drink everything I had before the next aid station and if there was a top up place to do that.
The rest of the flat section was a delight. Random people were out cheering, kids were selling lemonade, there were cows with large bells and the best part, no rain. The sickness had subsided but I was still feeling the effects from lack of fluid so I walked to refuel when I needed to. Soon enough I came upon the climb to Champex Lac, the next aid station. It was a woodland climb, a little rootsy in places but not too steep. It just wound its way up and up around 400m to the beautiful village. I was happy, I would see Jules here. But first Spencer was here on crewing duties too, nice to get a cheer in!
In 2019 the CCC had a drop bag at Champex Lac for all runners. For some reason, which seems stupid to me, they removed this option. So now runners are allowed to be crewed by one person inside 3 aid stations. This is deeply unfair to anyone who doesn’t have anyone to crew them because you then have to carry your own food for up to 26 hours and they don’t really cater for vegans or people with food issues either. I was very thankful that Jules agreed to crew me the day after she finished OCC.
My plan upon entering was to rehydrate as much as possible, eat hot food and sort my bag out (removing unnecessary kit, swapping to my bigger head torch and stocking up on fuel for the next section). What I really wanted was some squash, alas they didn’t have any but bless Jules, she had brought her little concentrate bottle, so I promptly downed 500ml of that. Then ate some pasta bolognaise and got my bag sorted. This took some time, 37mins to be precise but it was better to be prepared and rested for the 2nd half of the race which I had heard was going to be super tough. I arrived here 30mins behind schedule and taking into account time spent was still about 4 hours ahead of cut off though. With nothing else to really take from the aid stations and the veloforte not sitting well. The plan was gels, gels and more gels between then hot food in each CP.
Chapter 5: Lakeland 50 flashbacks
Just before I left Champex it started hammering (that’s rain) down again, so it was jacket on, again. Head torch was also in place as it would soon be getting dark. I saw Spencer again as left, where he said “just 3 hills to go” but I knew these would be super tough and was a little nervous to be honest.
The run out takes you round the “lac” and out of town for about 5km to a timing point at a little shed called “plan de l’au”, this was pretty easy going. I was following the drinking plan and had drunk a fair bit of water, so that I was able to top up at the point. Then it got nasty, really nasty. The nice ground turned to rocks, wet rocks soaked from the rain and the climb got steep, really steep. The head torch was now on and I was just going up and up. It was an 800m climb in 6km but I was thinking, haven’t I been here before? Of course I hadn’t but the last part of Lakeland 50 was just like this. Streams for paths, darkness, rocks. The internal and external swearing started. I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting this as I have looked at the route a lot but somehow I missed this fact! I kept on pushing though, stopping to take a gel when needed and continuing to drink. But it took 2 hours to do this climb, 2 HOURS!
I was hoping the descent would be fun…it wasn’t! More rocks and even a bunch of stairs that gave me Madeira flashbacks. I got chatting to a Spanish guy call Joaquín who wasn’t enjoying this part either, I mentioned that I reminded me of the Lakeland 50, he said “I know, I am from Kendal”. This cracked me up as we cautiously wound our way into town and the CP. it was now almost midnight, I was now only about 35mins behind schedule. Somehow, even though I hated that section a lot, I had been really consistent. Jules was again at the aid station waiting for me with my bag of Gels. I planned a shorter stop but also knew I was ready for some more hot food. This time it was a yummy broth! I topped up all three bottles, the drinking plan was working and I had even had my first pee stop on that last section, which was a good sign. I switched my electrolyte for coke as I felt caffeine was now needed. Even though I bitched and moaned about the last section I was actually full of energy and excited to carry on. I even said to Jules that she could go back to the flat and get some sleep as I could carry what I needed for the rest of the race but bless her she said she was in for the long ride. And with that I said my goodbyes and headed out into the night, 20mins after arriving.
Chapter 6: Adios Quads
When I was up top on the last climb my head got cold, this time I headed out with my hat in easy reach and I would soon need it, the rain had stopped but the jacket was still on, it gets chill around 2000m.
Pretty much straight out of the aid station I was climbing again but it wasn’t the cold bothering me this time. I noticed some awkward and painful chaffing in my groin area pretty early on, I briefly considered heading back down but there was no way I was doing any bonus elevation right now. I hoped that at the top of the 600m climb would be another timing point with a medical tent or something so decided to just put up with it. The climb was much easer than the last one in technicality but not in steepness and so I just cracked on, downing gels, water and coke to my hearts content. I also was considering the time I would “Hopefully” finish, gone were the thoughts of 20-21 hours and it really didn’t bother me, I was enjoying myself and just didn’t feel the need of extra pressure. So I focused on making the steady progress I needed and soon I was at the timing point, I topped up my water again and low an behold, there was a medical tent. I then had the slightly awkward and amusing conversation of asking for some chaffing cream and telling the women where it was going, much to their amusement. I did of course say I would be applying it!
With that sorted and some comments from me about the wine bottle on standby there I headed back out. It was another 200m or so up to the top and I soon got chatting to an English women from Richmond who seemed to be having a good race too. I was commenting on how much I hated the precious climb and descent and how it was like Lakeland, she mentioned that maybe she wanted to do the 100 next year and I was encouraging her to go for it (as she seemed pretty experienced) and that the ballot was coming up soon. Sadly, I had to leave her though as the course flattened out and quicky went into what was one of the most fun down hills I have done for a while. Not too steep and not too rocky, yes it was time to fly 😉
Honestly, I felt so good, I was running with a French guy who sadly I can’t remember his name but we were both jumping around the switch backs with big smiles and before long we entered the town of Vallorcine and the last main check point and time for a final re stock on gels and coke. I also had some yummy noodle soup here too.
Since Jay went ahead of me somewhere early in the race I had just seen her a couple of times at aid stations, where we had asked each other how we were doing and just carried on running our own races. This time we had a proper chat as she was chowing down on a vegan pot noodle she had her crew bring her. I asked if she wanted to run it in together but she said her leg was a bit effed but we agreed that if we caught each other near the finish, we would. There was quite a bit of banter at the table with a dude from the Netherlands and woman from Qatar (I found that out later). We were all joking that it was just around 19km to go and another 1000m of climbing, easy right! I had come into this CP about 2:50am and left 20mins later. I thanked Jules for being a superstar and headed off for the final push.
Chapter 7: One last ride on the Conga Line
Out of the aid station it was a pretty wide track just going slowly up. I walked some, jogged some and walked some more. I really had no idea what was ahead of me until the tree line opened up and I could see a million (over exaggeration) headtorches going up, up and away. To be honest the fear got me a little. We had to cross a road and on the other side was male runner sat on a bench with two wooden sticks in his hands looking completely destroyed. Either he had broken his poles or made the error of not having any to start with. Either way, this was not a climb I would want to be taking on at this stage of the race pole less.
There really is only one way to describe this climb… actual hell. I joined the conga line again and got moving. It was rocky, steep and some crazy switch backs plus I really had no idea how long it would go on for. The climb pro function on my Garmin had stopped working a while earlier so I just couldn’t tell how far it was, either that or I was having some watch hallucinations, which is entirely plausible. I tried not to let it get me down by taking breaks to eat and drink as it was just too steep for me to do that safely with tired legs. I just kept repeating to myself the mantra “it’s just one last ride on the conga train”. Every so often I would look up and see more torches and curse this hell. I think anyone who has done this climb in the CCC or UTMB will have the exact same thing to say about it but somehow at night it just seemed worse. I am guessing it took about 1.5hours to reach what I thought was the top of this section only to be thwarted. Because it continued across boulder fields and rocky paths further and further. There was quite a bit of swearing now too. I guess if I had a low point in the race, it was this. I knew I would finish barring anything really dumb but I just felt it was so unnecessary!
Just past the actual top I decided to stop. I remembered what my friend Cajsa said “If you get a point when its dark, stop, turn your head torch off and look up”. So that’s what I did, all the annoyance went. The stars in the sky over the mountains were so beautiful with no light pollution. It was a perfect moment and reminded me why I was here, why I went through all the pain of qualifying, all the disappointment of ballot rejection and covid delays. I took a photo, which will never do it justice then said to myself, lets finish this thing. Of course, about 20mins later my torch battery ran out and I had to fumble around changing it.
As the sun started coming up from behind the mountains as we started a descent toward the final CP of La Flegere. My quads started hurting, my feet started hurting but I convinced myself it wouldn’t be long now, it was all downhill.
NOPE – there was a bloody ski path up to the CP, that sent me off on a rant again. Like seriously why are they doing this. I guess I was just tired really. I came into the CP all smiles, topped up my water a little to just get me down to the finish as I knew it was a 900m drop in around 5-6km and that could take a l little time. It was 6.30am I was 1 hour 45mins over schedule just for reference.
CHAPTER 8: JON!!!!!!!
Weirdly I left the CP with the Qatari lady I had met in Vallorcine. I asked where she was from because her bib had no flag, seems the organisers hadn’t planned for someone from Qatar coming to play in the mountains. We were both suffering quads of doom and the steep section out of the CP wasn’t helping that much at all but once on the ski slope we could run a bit, which was fun. I knew it wouldn’t last long though as Jules had told me all about the final woodland descent into Chamonix. Soon enough we were off the nice easy track and onto the switch backs. Now I don’t like to moan…well maybe I have in this write up but this track was madness. I am used to rocky. I am used to rooty. But rocky and rooty together was something new. This was seriously technical and my now tired and achy legs were saying nah mate! I was also a little worried about falling off the side too, so just walked. Fast but def not running. The Qatari lady found new quads from somewhere and was off. I just mentally got in the downhill hiking zone until I heard my name being called out from above.
It was Jay! I had no recollection of passing her at any point but apparently had on the big climb. She caught up with me, we had a little chat, she said her legs were gone, I said the same, we agreed to finish together. The rest of this section is a blur. At some point it became less technical, and I could run, which annoyed Jay as she was having an issue but she got on with it anyway. Then I had to hobble and she was fine. We basically swore quite a lot all the way down to the bottom. I think about 15 people or so passed us but that was ok. We were ready for the finish line.
Down out of the trails we had to cross the annoying safety bridge, which I had been told about too. I wasn’t actually that bothered tbh by this point at least it wasn’t rocks.
Then we were on the nice smooth path that runs in and I made us run. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty but it was running. It was just before 8am and people were cheering, all along the river we got claps and whoops. Then the marshals pointed us into the centre of town and it was busier. Lee’s Partner Rebecca was there cheering us in and videoing. Then Jays mate who must have finished much earlier joined us for a bit. We were all smiles, we were doing this. We were going to cross that epic finish line we had dreamed about. I saw Jules, Gif, Jess and Dani cheering on the final part. I felt epic but had no idea what to do. So we just stopped just before the line, did a little dance and then hugged.
What a day, what a race.
The aftermath was swift. We took some photos, I drank a beer put on a bright blue Gillet thing, ate some breakfast, had an ouchy (chaffing) shower and then had a 2-hour power nap. I don’t think I have slept so quickly and deeply for ages. My legs were a bit of a mess for 2 days. I enjoyed catching up on sleep, eating food, drinking wine, and cheering the UTMB legends in.
Looking back on this experience I am so happy. It continues to fill my heart with joy at what a fun day out that was. Yeah, I didn’t race it but as I said before it doesn’t really matter. I had a strong race, I didn’t crash and burn, I problem solved, and I smiled a lot. In fact I gained around 200 places to finish firmly in the mid pack. When talking with coach Mags it dawned on me that doing the CCC this year was perfect. If I had done it in 2019 I just don’t think I would have been ready. The Vertigo was almost nonexistent, the ability to run and hike on rocky terrain has improved 10-fold in the last 14 months. Since starting my coaching with her in 2019 I have improved so much as a runner. I have had to put the work in but her guidance has been ace. There are always things to improve on and I will work on those before the next adventure but for now I am one happy Jon.
I believe that the organisers could improve the race by bringing back the drop bag option and make the aid station food veggie better (IMO). All in all though, I had a great experience.
So very happy to finally complete this goal that has been 5 years in the making.