The North Face Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc, Chamonix, Friday, August 26, 2011

26th to 28th August: 167km, 9500m height gain

Tom Reeves

My race did not begin well as I was stood on the start line at 6pm on the Friday evening wondering where all the other runners were, expecting to start running at 6.30pm. An English guy came up to me and told me the start had been delayed by 5 hours due to thunder storms. As I headed back to the apartment for a long evening filling in time I had a few expletives to say about not being texted this information!

11.30pm 26th August. Here I was again at the start line in Chamonix this time with 2300 other runners and a very large crowd cheering and singing. It was raining but the general mood seemed to be good. I just wanted to get moving I’d been up since 7.30 am and an 11.30pm start to a race is something completely new for me.

Tome having a sit down The first 8km to Les Houches is a nice warm up, very few bumps in the road but also very easy to go too fast as someone warned me at the beginning of the race. So I deliberately kept my pace down even when Joan my wife shouted at me to get moving as there were “thousands in front” of me 🙂 This is a long race and it doesn’t start till you’re 70k into it. The rain was pretty incessant throughout the first night, I bumped into Phil Owen and had a brief chat on the first big pull and also spoke to another chap called Nick who I knew from the UTLD. The first big descent into Les Contamines was fun with lots of mud and people slipping left right and centre. I’m not too bad running down hill so I picked up a couple of hundred places just plodding down through the muddy morass. The checkpoint at Les Contamines (31km) was my first real introduction to what the UTMB is all about. It was really lively, loads of people along the streets shouting encouragement and loads of food and drink. I realised all the spare food I was carrying was very likely to remain in my bag as I ran out of the checkpoint full of coffee, banana and noodle soup.

It was a long first night running in my own little world with just the beam of my torch to guide me but I was quite enjoying being in this little world. The most memorable thing about this first evening other than my accidently stepping on another runners walking pole and snapping it (I ran off very quickly after apologising) was watching the distant flashes of lightening in Italy as we ran up the valley to start the climb of the Col Du Bonhomme. The checkpoint at La Balme (39km) was particularly nice as they had a big bonfire to sit by as you ate your food and drink. It could be very easy to stay around for too long so I quickly got moving again. Dawn on the Col Du Bonhomme (2443m) was very very nice but the pull up to the top was long and arduous. The run down the other side in fresh snow was fun, a helicopter popped up from the valley and filmed us all as we bound down the hill. There was a kit check at Les Chapieux (50km) and I was required to produce my mobile phone!

Soon I was climbing again up to the Col de La Seigne (2515m) and heading into Italy. As I gained height it began to snow I’d had my hat, gloves and waterproofs on through out the night. As it was blooming cold I didn’t want to stop to put over trousers on as I was worried about cooling down so I decided to get my head down and rely on the uphill plod to keep me warm. I reckon I got a few puzzled looks from my fellow runners who were all variously wrapped up in their winter garments and I had only my shorts on my bottom half.

At the beginning of the descent down to lac Combal (64km) an English guy called Richard caught me up and we ran down together. I must say it was really good to have a chat. Even though it’s a big event with a lot of runners it did feel pretty lonely during the night so I was really glad of the company. In the end I ran as far as La Fouly (109km) with him.

Tom on a welcome descent The run down into Courmayer (77km) was hellish the sun had finally come out and it was hot, very steep and very dusty. My legs were well and truly battered and I finally realised I was in for one very long and tough run. We had drop bags at Courmayer so I was able to change my top and socks, again there was plenty of food and drink but I was starting to feel a bit queezy and didn’t eat as much as I would have liked to. The views of the Brenva face of Mont Blanc running along the valley side along to Refuge Bertone (82km) and Refuge Bonatti (89km) at a more or less constant height of 2000m were awe inspiring the vertical rock and the pure white glaciers wow!

At the Refuge Bonatti a very kind female paramedic popped a wopper of a blister on my left foot and dressed it for me (ouch!). I was really starting to feel pretty tired at this stage although interestingly I was at my strongest when climbing and actually quite slow on the downhill sections.

At Arnuva (94km) the checkpoint before the big climb up the Grand Col Ferret I began to feel quite nauseous but discovered dark chocolate and banana with strong sweet coffee seemed to work for me.

Up and over the Grand Col Ferret (2537m) felt pretty good while I was climbing but coming down the other side I started to lose sight of Richard who was descending far better than I was. I waved him on and that was the last I saw of him. The run as far as La Fouly (109km) was slow and steady but I could feel my energy beginning to sap as well as my will power to continue running. This second night proved to be very tough from a mental point of view. It took me around 2hours to run 14 km between La Fouly and Champex Lac and I was so so miserable, it was dark and all I could do was look out for the next marker flag to follow. I ran along with a Chinese lad for a while but I think my foul language every time we hit another hill got too much for him 🙂 At Champex Lac (123km) I put on every item of clothing I had but still couldn’t stop shivering I managed to vomit my coffee back up and texted Joan to say I was going to drop out. She texted me back (this was 1.30am by the way) saying I would be really peed off with myself if I dropped out at this stage so I had better give it some thought before jumping on a bus back to Chamonix. It was tough as I still had around 50km to run and a lot of climbing as well.

As I attempted to drink a second coffee and eat some pasta I noticed a guy sat on his own looking as miserable as I felt (George) I had spoken to at the very start of the race so I chanced my arm and asked him if he fancied running with me. Well his look of gratitude was something to behold so we ran together through the night and the difference it made was immense. Just being able to chat with someone makes such a difference on those night time sections!

The course had been changed due to land slides around the Bovine area so we followed a course which took us what seemed to be round in circles but still included a 1000m climb in it. Eventually dawn hit and we ran up then down into Trient. We had assumed that all the climbing was over on the course so our disappointment was pretty intense when we discovered we had another 700m climb then descent into Vallorcine. The sun was up and it was already getting pretty hot by 10 am when we started the final climb. George was going slowly and told me to push on ahead as I needed to get back to Chamonix in order to then start the drive home. (I had to back in work on the Tuesday).

I made really good progress up the climb and got my second or maybe third or fourth wind on the run down to Vallorcine. I felt I was going very slowly and when an official shouted Bravo to me I suggested I didn’t deserve it as I was so slow. He responded by telling me I was in the top 400 in the race and going strong.

This helped me to push on and when I met up with Joan and my boys at the Col Des Montets I had the bit between my teeth. Myself and George were told that it normally takes around 6 hours to get from Trient back to Chamonix. As well as just finishing this gave me a target to try and beat. In the end I got back in about 3 and half hours so I was pleased with myself for having a strong finish.

Running back through the streets of Chamonix with my boys Matthew and James felt very emotional. Probably due to sheer exhaustion I could feel myself getting quite tearful the cheering crowds were such a thrill as was the support all the way round. It is the people that make this event without a doubt. When you are plodding up to a high col at 3am in the morning and there is a family stood at the side of the trail with a pan of soup or large bowls of tea and coffee telling you how amazing you are it is really something special.

I crossed the finish line in 38 hours and 8 minutes, totally knackered but exhilarated to have finished. The loop around the town centre was lined with people all cheering and clapping.

I ain’t doing it again mind you! Once is enough for me and my family.

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