Monday, 8 September 2014

My CCC race report

I finally got to the start line of the TNF UTMB CCC Ultra Marathon on Friday 29th August 2014. I had entered the previous year but been unsuccessful in the ballot and opted for the TDS race like a lunatic. At the time I stupidly reasoned "How hard can it be". After all, I had done an series of ultra marathons up to 100 miles, Ironman Triathlons x 4 and numerous other crazy events involving endurance and fitness over the last 8 years. The TDS was a great big DNF and another story but here I was at the start line for this years race.

The start of the CCC is a pretty amazing affair. The runners crush in against each other in their respective number sections. I was in the 2nd section presumably due the the times checked in my qualifying races. I was quite happy with this as there is nothing worse than having a greater runner breathing heavily down your neck as he continually tries to pass you on the climbs. The music blares, the crows grow and the nerves really kick in.

Suddenly there is a count down and the first wave is off. Us lesser mortals in the 2nd wave wait patiently for what seems like hours but was only maybe 10 minutes. The frantic athletes pour through the town and receive great applause all the way until the first climb starts.

I made sure I had said the right things to my wife and daughter who were to be my main support crew. I also had 5 other friends who had made the journey to Chamonix and were covered in Union Jack wigs and flags. They also had an assortment of horns, bells and whistles and I knew they would be heard for many hours by an assortment of runners. They have all either competed in races or attended Ironman races and know the value of encouragement and the hell with the French, Swiss and Italian reserve.

The first climb to Tete de la Tronche is long and fairly boring. It's mostly single trail so there are very few opportunities to pass people even if you wanted to. The scenery is the redemption as there were many aspects that were lovely if you took the time to stop and appreciate. I found myself getting very aquainted with the unique contours and colours of the show heel in front of me. Once you reach the top these views are beautiful but I didn't want to stop and take pictures unless I was waiting around or really knackered!

The decent starts on relatively good ground, you can run quite fast and enjoy some scenery as well as the feeling that you are flying across the mountains. Into check point 1 at Refuge Bertone and a rapid stop just for some water and off to the next checkpoint at Refuge Bonatti. Now on the map its looks relatively flat and in general it was but there are always bits where you have to be careful of your feet and stride.

I sailed through that checkpoint and began to look forward to the first major checkpoint at Arnuva. I had seen my mate Max there in his CCC race the previous year and so knew how beautiful it was. All along this ridge we ran, I kept seeing lovely mountains on my left and thought we must be close now. But it kept on and on. the trail was still good to run on and there was an opportunity to chat to a couple of other Brits abut the race and what fun we were having! Little did I know this would be the majority of conversation I would have in this race.

It is a strange feature of the UTMB races that hardly anyone talks to each other! Maybe it's because you have no idea who is in front or behind you unless they speak or you notice the flag on their number when you look back. For many hours in the race I didn't speak to anyone and didn't hear anyone speak either. The French and Italians seem to run in groups of 2-3 and were chatting away in the early stages but even this went in the later part of the race.

Finally the decent into Arnuva started and I could hear the sound of the big bells and horns from my crew. I hope they all know what a lift this can give a runner and I was so glad that their noise wasn't reserved for me alone as they gave a huge lift to everyone who was running and got a mixture of dour looks and smiles from other spectators.

I grabbed some food, topped up my water and got ready to start the next climb. I knew this one would be a bastard as it is the 2nd biggest in the race so I was prepared or so I thought. My crew cheered like crazy as I left and a quick check in with my wife left me feeling great and I began to climb, and climb, and hike and curse. This little climb to the Grand col Ferret went on for what seemed like hours. Occasionally I would stop and look back. I could just about make out Arnuva in the distance and it was crazy to think that a short while ago I had been there and now I was up in the clouds again looking down.

Finally I reached the top and felt really good about myself. I was in good shape and ready to run downhill to the next checkpoint at La Foully. This is where things started to get a bit technical. The roots started to grow from the ground, the rocks started to get a bit bigger and in general it was getting harder. The decent is exposed in places so I made sure I had my windproof jacket ready and reminded myself to keep eating and drinking every 30 minutes.  I had been caught out by altitude last year when i didn't drink for hours and it wasn't going to happen this year.

La Foully checkpoint was where I had some noodle soup for the first time and I needed it. The soup is really just stock with some thin noodles added but it really tastes great and makes you feel much better. The next stop was where I could get some assistance from my wife at Champex Lac in Switzerland and I was really looking forward to seeing her and changing my socks and getting some more food and some vital running love.

It was on this decent when things started to go a little wrong. I began to tighten up, my quads in particular were really giving me grief. I began to sort of sideways shuffle down the mountain and kept mixing up my gait in an attempt to sort my failing legs out. My mind was starting to annoy me with the silly thoughts of DNF and not being strong enough for the mountains. I kept reminding myself that despite not having any mountain training I had done 80k last year in the TDS and that I was strong enough to finish this stupid race.

The mind plays nasty tricks on you in ultra marathons. One minute you are flying and loving racing and everything that goes with it. You feel like a pro and consider giving everything up and just running for the rest of your life. Then the demons of self doubt kick in, slowly at first, the creep up on you and begin to nag at you. I thought of the pain, the sacrifice, the months of training, the crew who had given up their time and money to support me in this race. But those fecking demons say it in a different way. You are not good enough, not experienced enough, not tough enough. Look at the other runners they are laughing at you and trying to fly past you. You try to chase the thoughts away and sometimes they go but at other times they come back even worse.

I decided I needed some music to sort my head out. Shit, bollocks, fuck my Ipod was dead, how did that happen! I cursed out loud and started to rant, swearing at rocks and mountains and my stupidity at running with a dead ipod.

The decent into Praz de Fort which is a small checkpoint before Champex Lac just got worse and so did my mood. I actually looked forward to the climb and the first major meeting point.

I crawled in looking like shit and in a dark place. My poor long suffering wife tried her best to make me feel better but nothing was working. I saw my friends who were also trying to send me encouragement and my daughter who was looking concerned. It was a busy checkpoint and we all knew the night lay ahead. Another lesson was learnt there, prepare your crew, even if they have done it loads of times before ensure they know what to say and when to say it. Not that my mrs go things wrong but some of the things she said were best kept for other times, I wasn't in the mood for a pep talk, some arse kicking maybe but not a rah rah speech but this was my mistake and she was doing her best.

Out came the head torches and on went the change of socks and top. A bit more soup and some coke and I was up and ready to continue. I wasn't finished with this race just yet.

As I left Champex Lac the rain started and the darkness was upon us. On went the head torch and waterproof jacket. It's just a little shower I told myself, a little shower that lasted over 4 hours. The rain made everything a different ball game. Mud started to form and puddles of water everywhere. The trail got slippery and really quite crazy at times. I was climbing now and made good use of my poles and know without them I would not have finished.

The night was a mixture of rain, swearing, slipping, some running, lots of hiking and major mood changes. I climbed the 3rd major mountain into La Glete and the decent into Triente where the next major checkpoint and assistance was. To be fair I was in a better place at Triente and changed my shoes from the Brooks Pure Grit to Salomon Speedcross in the mistaken belief that they would cope better in the wet. A longer than normal hug with my daughter set us both off into tears. I have only known my daughter to cry once before and this really cut me up and I was more concerned about her than myself. I knew it was because she didn't like to see me suffer, she was new to all this and that she must be dog tired too but it didn't make it any easier. My wife was also in tears now and a look of toughness and empathy from a French volunteer made me realise I had to be strong for them as well as myself.

Back into the night, back to slipping and sliding in mud.and climbing again to Catogne the penultimate mountain. Now things were getting really technical and the rain wasn't helping but it was starting to stop but this didn't really matter as the damage to the trail was already done. I had trained in the rain but nothing like this. The rocks were now getting bigger and the roots were everywhere. People were slipping all over the place and for the first time I began to think that I might actually fall and fall badly. That would ruin my race, I had to make sure I didn't get injured. I started to exercise even more caution as I couldn't risk not finishing. My thoughts had long gone about finishing times and glory now it was pure survival.

I can't believe the UTMB runners had to run through this after we in the CCC had already wrecked the surface. They must have been cursing us and the weather too and I give maximum kudos to anyone who managed to finish that race.

Into the final assisted checkpoint at Vallorcine and what a relief it was to see my team again. The lift they gave me in spirit was immense and especially when they said "see you in Chamonix" as I left. I now had to finish, I had done all the hard work and there was just a stupid little mountain left between me and glory!

Little did I know the cheeky gits had kept the toughest climb till last. Now I experienced a little lunacy in terms of technicality last year in the TDS but this went to a new level now. I was running half asleep, drifting in and out and trying to keep myself awake. I ran through the Col des Montets where a wonderful French girl screamed at me in French to "eat you fucking crazy bastard" to which I replied in my now awful French "I am wrecked" she then proceeded to say the same thing in perfect English and told me to get my ass in gear. She was right, I needed to eat.

I had to eat to stay awake and struggled to open a Clif shot block pack. Why are those bloody packs so difficult to open after 22 hours of racing and at 5am! I chowed down on 3 blocks and had a little mars bar and felt a bit more alive and began the climb.

This climb went on forever. Over bigger and bigger rocks and on constant switchbacks. The daylight was beginning to break and this made things easier to see and so easier to navigate. It would have been a real nightmare in the dark as it was horrible at first light! Imagine stepping up massive rocks, slipping on them and then repeat accordingly for hours on end. I stopped at what I thought must be near the top and took this picture.

It was breathtaking and impossible to describe. I sat there and felt really small and insignificant. Who cared about my race. The sun still rises and sets and shit still happens as well as good things. I took some video and started to climb again, now that I was out of the clouds it was much better visually.

I met a runner who was British who had completed the race 5 times and this was his first time to climb this park in the daytime! He said there was loads of times when you think you are there to find that it's yet another switchback and there is more to climb. He wasn't wrong and it was relentless. This was without doubt the toughest part of any race I have ever done and a major milestone in my mental toughness for the future.

Finally I reached to summit to what i was told would be a very runnable part of the course. All downhill to the last aid station at La Flagere and then onto Chamonix and the finish.

Runnable my arse.

Slippery rocks, mud slides, cascading water, more fecking rocks, crazy French runners flying past at a slightly faster rate but it seemed like they were flying. Then you are free of that technical stuff and through the last aid station. Only about 7k to go and it should be lovely and easy to run. But it wasn't, it was more of the same stuff again except the rocks were much smaller but the roots were back. I had said to myself that I wouldn't let anyone pass me unless they were really flying downhill but the people who did pass me were so much better at decending than me and I really was scared that I would fall and it would all be worthless. I had a number of quite major slips on the big rocks and the really scared me and jarred my back so caution was the best way.

Suddenly I was there running on road, lovely road with no more fecking rocks, roots, mud or water. I came into the town and there was Paul who had also entered the same race. I thought he had kicked my arse but he had withdrawn earlier. I really felt for him as this was his 2nd year of DNF in these crazy races.

He jogged with me to where my friends and family were in the town center and my wife and daughter grabbed me and we began to run to the finish.

The applause from the spectators was wonderful. Finishing with the two most important women in my life was a dream come true and best of all my friends managed to capture it all on film.

I ran down the finishing chute and stopped at the end to bow. In respect to those fecking mountains. You might have beaten me last year but I beat you this year!

My amazing crew were Paul, Burti, Shannon, Alistair, Angie, thanks to Paul Haynes for running the last K with me mate, you will never know how great that was.

My beautiful wife Julie who is always there for me through the training, the racing and all the post race BS that gets talked about, thank you for putting up with me and my lunacy.

My amazing daughter Tamara who I hoped I have inspired a little and given her some precious memories. I'll never forget our hug in the aid station and also that fecking terrifying paragliding we did 2 days afterwards!

So what's next.....UTMB.....I'm not sure even i'm that crazy, but then again......

Final shot is the coveted finishers Gilet, and yes I have taken it off since.....for the odd day.


  1. Very interesting. I would also value your opinion/comments on TDS vs CCC. If we fail to get through the CCC ballot this year, I fear we will take up the TDS option, but I'm not sure what we would be letting ourselves in for. Your experience might help!

  2. The TDS is very technical, I only ran one section and passed over 200 people and couldn't work out why! They knew what was in store and I didn't. The climb and decent are really tough and I would say suited to experienced mountaineers rather than ultra runners. I was scared for my life and sanity on one decent which was in the dark and holding onto a rope for hours and I crawled down this mountain.

    That was too much for me and I dropped out at that checkpoint 80k into the race. I would say do CCC first if you can get in, if not then the TDS is achievable but just ensure you are mountain hardened and not a novice like I was.

  3. Thanks Kev. If we do end up in the TDS (and I'm far from sure I like the sound of it after your scary descent), we will treat it with the respect it clearly deserves, and try to learn from your experience.