I’ve waited a long time to write about my Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) OCC race experience. The truth is I didn’t know how to approach this blog. My race experience was so incredible, I found it really difficult to capture in words the true essence, challenge and magic that happened on that day in the mountains.
I had an amazing race and I felt really strong for the first 8 hours or so. I had trained hard in the months leading up to the race. I felt prepared and ready on the start line. As soon as the gun went off, I felt elated and raced hard the entire way, always moving as fast as I possibly could on the terrain.
As well as feeling great physically, I also felt strong mentally. Many aspects of my careful planning and preparation went wrong though, so I had to embrace the change and manage each issue the best I could. I was expecting setbacks, as it’s just what happens in these endurance events.
1. Weather Conditions
Firstly, I had prepared to run in the heat so this bit of the planning definitely was a fail!
Last year I had taken part in a similar mountain race close by in the Alps (the Echappee Belle – 47km race) at the same time of the year and it turned out to be a heat fest, as we ran in a scorching heat wave with temperatures reaching 40C at altitude! So this time around, I had trained and prepared for heat, and I had even included some sauna sessions in the weeks leading to the race. Haha, there was no risk of overheating this year. It actually rained most of the way – sometimes heavy rain, the wind picked up in the passages at higher altitude, the temperatures were cold (it dropped to 5C at 2,000m) and the visibility was reduced as we were running in the clouds. I refused to let the weather conditions get the better of me. Instead I embraced the bad weather, running my heart out as the rain got harder!
The cold did get to me though eventually and I suffered hypothermia in one of the passage at 2,000m of altitude, where it was really windy and raining hard. I started shivering and my hands swelled so much that I couldn’t get my jacket out of my bag, or open any food packaging.
2. Nutrition Strategy
So just like this, BAM, I couldn’t eat because of my frozen hands, so there went my nutrition strategy too! The bout of hypothermia had for consequence to throw off my nutrition plan to refuel at regular intervals of 40 mins or so. I knew my only option was to run down faster so I could get down to lower altitude to warm up, stop my body from shacking, and eat. So that’s just what did just! I sped up!
I felt better as soon as I reached lower altitude of 1,000m or so, even though my hands remained swollen from then on throughout the remainder of the race.
Also, another issue I encountered related to nutrition where tummy cramps during the last half hour of the race. I had no choice than to slow down to manage the pain and to let other runners past me in the last descent to the finish in Chamonix (the same runners I had just passed on the way up when I was still feeling strong). Admittedly, after running happily for the first 8 hours or so, the last 30mins felt like hours. I’m still trying to understand what upset my tummy and caused severe stomach pain (not enough nutrition, wrong choice of nutrition, other…) to try to prevent this in the future.
3. Pacing Strategy
The last aspect which didn’t go to plan was that I was running faster than expected!
That one was a good plan fail 🙂 My pacing strategy had been a complete finger in the air as it was very difficult for me to estimate how fast I could run on such hilly and technical terrain (there aren’t any mountains in southern England where I live). On the evening before the race, Dad, Rob and I got the map out to try to guess estimated time bands for my arrival at each checkpoint.
There were 5 checkpoints in the race and we had planned for them to try to catch me at checkpoints 2, 3 & 4, which were easily accessible. However, since I was ahead of my pacing plan, I arrived too quickly at checkpoint 2 in Trient in Switzerland and my beloved crew wasn’t there 🙂 I knew though that I was ahead of schedule, so I cracked on and kept running in the hope that I would see them at the following checkpoints 3 & 4, which I did! And that was perfect as it was when I actually needed them the most (I was still “fresh” at check points 1 & 2). I was so excited to see them!! They helped me refill my water bottles and open the packaging of my snacks. Phew, this was a huge save as my hands were too swollen to do any of these tasks, and I was getting low on energy! And even though I only spent 2 to 3 mins at each checkpoint not to lose precious race time, the mental boost from seeing them was truly precious. As soon as I was ready to go again, they would wave me off into the mountains for me to pursue the next part of my adventure. A huge thanks to my crew for everything! Also an extra thanks to Dad for “magicking” a pair of gloves at checkpoint 4, after he’d seen the state of my hands in the previous check point.
Overall, these few set backs were far outweighed by my positive race experience.
4. Support Crew
And one of the factors which made my adventure so special was my super support crew. Rob and the Bears were there, as they normally are during my main “A” events. They are my rock and seeing them at the last two checkpoints (Vallorcine and Argentiere), plus at the finish in Chamonix filled me with adrenaline and joy.
And to make it even more special, this year my Mum and Dad had come all the way from Paris to spend the week leading up to the race with us in Chamonix.
This was really a special treat for me as for a large number of years, my Mum and Dad haven’t really been able to be there when I compete in sporting events (there was a little exception this Christmas when they came to visit and I sneaked in a short local race :)). Also Mum and Dad’s presence would provide some support to Rob, who during last year’s race in the Alps, had to look after the 3 little Bears and shuttle them up and down mountain passes to try to catch me on the course, which had been an adventure of its own right for him!
So with all of this in mind, I didn’t want to disappoint my crew who had made big efforts to be there for me.
5. The Finish
And finally, came the finish, which was exceptional and very emotional! Crowds had filled the streets of Chamonix and you could hear the roar from several kilometers up the mountain. I was in quite a lot of stomach pain and eager to arrive. And again my solid crew was there, waiting patiently. My two youngest, Alex (6) and Bella (4), came out of the crows to spur me on and run the final sprint with me. A moment I will never forget!
A perfect finish for a perfect race, even though it didn’t go to plan!
I finished in 8h22, when my plan was to complete the course in 10 to 11 hours hours. Sometimes, it’s good when the plan goes wrong 🙂
Of course, as usual, I’d like to thanks all of those around me who have helped me along this journey. In addition to my fab support crew, a special thanks to all my friends for the overwhelming support, and to my partners and sponsors for the care and help: Strength & Conditioning coach Ali, Running coach Will from 9 Endurance, CimAlp and Totally Wonderfuel.
Photo credits: FlashSports, thank you!
#dare2dream #dare2be #chaseyourdreams