Sporting History was made on the 16th September 2018. You don’t need me to tell you what happened. On such an incredible day I wrote my own piece of history. I ran a sub 3 the marathon. Something that was never a dream or goal. But something that became a ‘thing’ for me. A monkey on my back in 2018.
Let’s rewind a little. 7 months ago. February. I’d just ran a 3:07 marathon in Muscat and a 3:03 in Malta. My mind went into overdrive. Out of nowhere I suddenly thought I can. I believed. I wasn’t patient though and pushed it. Limassol was the the spectacular climax and crash and burn affect of my naivety and disrespect.
It created this monkey. He isn’t cute. In truth he’s a little mouthy Pratt. He’s loomed over me like a shadow. A shadow that filled me with doubts and fears. What if it happens again, but with more severe consequences? What if I keep trying and keep failing? What if I can’t do it? What ifs. So I did what I do best and blocked it out. Shut it down. I succumbed to the fear. If I don’t try, I can’t fail. And that’s how the next two marathons went.
I found a comfort zone. A safe place. I ran at a pace I could enjoy and where no harm could come to me. Whilst it was great that I could enjoy the marathons in such a way, I wasn’t challenging myself or confronting my fears. A manifestation that I’m almost cheating myself. That has been my norm since. I just accepted it. Maybe one day I’d try again.
There’s been a gap of 5 months since my last marathon as I’ve explored the trails over the summer. September though brought about My next marathon. Berlin. One of the Abbott World Major Marathons. Originally this was going to be my main race of 2018. After obtaining a place I thought I was going to train and go for a GFA (London) time (which annoyingly I’d achieved in Malta until they changed the criteria!!) I then found the trails. This all changed. Two weeks before Berlin I’d now be tackling the biggest physical challenge of my life – The CCC. I had no plans for Berlin once again. It was an afterthought. A secondary race in the shadows cast by the mountains.
Berlin would be special in a different way though. I was in a ‘group’ of 20+ other runners that had formed together through various connections. It was going to be a very social and enjoyable weekend. I was looking forward to that.
As the race approached, my mind only turned to Berlin after I finished the CCC. Two weeks to go. What was my plan? My legs still ached. I hadn’t ‘trained’ for roads or speed. I wasn’t in a training nor taper period. I was in a period of recovery. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last. So I reverted back to the shadows and found a safe option. I decided that 3:15 to 3:30 would be my safe zone. I’d be happy with a time like that. 3:30 was more than comfortable at Helsinki and a time of 3:15 would provide some challenge. Deep down I was scared I’d leg it. You always get caught up in the stampede at the start of a race. So a secondary goal was not to run faster than an average pace of 7:10 mins per mile. That would be a 3:10 marathon pace. Contain yourself was my message!
That’s it. Plan formed. Now to enjoy the weekend…Arriving Saturday AM I bullied my way through the mayhem of what is the biggest race expo I’d ever experienced. I was in and out. Nice and easy. I met up with various members of the group to watch the football and later again for pasta. Spirits were high. Everyone was ready to attack their race. By this point though I’d already made my one ‘mistake’. As I’d run a faster time since I obtained a place at the marathon, I’d had my starting block moved up a place. I’d now be running with 1,000s of other runners capable of a 3:00-3:15 marathon.
Pasta eaten, it was time for bed. Bobby and I were staying on the 6th floor of the Wombats hostel. There is a roof top party every night till 3am. Great. This was our concern. Turned out it wouldn’t be a problem at all. The sudden awakening we got at 4am to the incredibly loud sound of “Achtung!!” Would be our problem. What’s this? What the fuck?! After listening to the German message, we eventually received the English translation. Something along the lines of “Attention. This is the hotel manager. Due to an emergency in the building we request that all guests make their way outside of the building immediately”. A fire alarm. Oh bollocks. We got up and started compiling our race kit. Who knew how long this could go on for! As we were doing so the hotel manager entered our room and started questioning us. Apparently it was our room that had sounded the alarm! “We’ve been sleeping!!” we told him.
race ready far too early!
After about 30 mins of standing around outside I had to laugh as a couple belatedly came out of the lift, with all their luggage and even their bed sheets?! Err OK. Talk about a sense of urgency! We were finally then let back into our rooms. False alarm. Time to try and get some more sleep before we really have to wake up!
Eventually we really did have too wake up. I was ready for the morning. I knew what was needed. One lingering thought from Limassol was that I hadn’t fueled sufficiently. So I’d planned to get 1500kcals into me before I left the flat. That was mostly done trough 4 Quaker porridge oat bars. I’ve recently found these and they are far easier to consume than the equivalent amount in bowls of porridge. I wasn’t going to be caught out this time!
What then felt like way too soon after being woken in the night we were at the event village. Holy smoke this place was massive. It felt like I’d walked for an eternity trying to find my bag drop and subsequent starting block. Penned in, the block started to fill up, it was a busy one! In front of us the ‘elites’ and pros were warming up and the wheelchair racers were setting off. The atmosphere was electric and we were whipped into a frenzy as the front runners were introduced and the count down begun.
The starting blocks filling up
In a flash we were off. The heavy footsteps of 1,000s of runners pounding the tarmac. The thumping built as the crowd gained momentum. Within a minute we were over the line, split into two masses either side of the road, we were off!
The effect of my ‘mistake’ became immediately apparent. Everyone here was fast. We accelerate and were at a sub 7 Min per mile pace in no time. Weaving around the bends and roundabouts the mass of runners stuck together. We wouldn’t be splitting and spreading out anytime soon if at all. This was it. I was in this. I was overtaking people. People were over taking me. I kept checking my watch as the pace fluctuated between 6:40 and 6:55 Min Miles. Over the first 2-3 miles I kept telling myself “run your race”. “Don’t worry about the others”. Despite it all, I felt good. My legs were lethargic, but my body felt strong. My breathing was easy and my heart felt calm. Sod this. Sod my ‘aims’. I’m going for it. My plan was out the window. Sub 3 hours was the goal. If I didn’t get it, it didn’t matter. No pressure. But if I could maintain a 6:50 average pace then I’d do it. If I didn’t then hell, there might be a new PB involved or at any point I could slow it meet my original aims. It was all good. Absolutely zero pressure.
I went for consistency. This was a big difference to my last attempt where I heavily overloaded the first 10 and then second 10 miles with an unsustainable pace. There would be no letting up today. No room to slow. Just keep going. One thing I’ve learnt from the trails is consistency. Over a long duration your current pace doesn’t matter. The average pace over the distance is what defines your time. So for 26.2 miles I would try to be as consistent as I possibly could.
The downside of my change in approach was that I was focused. Ok, yes that’s a positive. But it meant I cannot recall much of the run. I was constantly checking my watch and monitoring my pace. Constantly processing my thoughts to step up or slow down. Maintenance was critical. Going too fast would burn me out. Going to slow could mean I would struggle to recover the time as the fatigue kicks in later on.
The main disruption to my focus was the water stations. I knew they’d be cups. However, I didn’t want to wear a hydration pack trough out the race. Despite being so far forward in the progression of runners though, each station was an apocalyptic scene. Plastic everywhere. The water areas were flooded with puddles. People crashing into each other and spilling water all over the place. None of that compared to the sound – The noise as thousands of plastic cups were dropped and trampled. Cracking and splitting. It was a horrific sound. It also highlighted the shitty-ness of runners. Come on people, have some tact. It’s not hard to put your empties in the bin or move to the side of the road to drop/throw them. Multiple times this day I was hit by flying cups of water or nearly covered in a persons spit. People really are selfish dicks. My challenge at each water station was to drink enough (without choking myself as I threw the water down my throat) and get back up to target pace as soon as possible. Each stop would be a repetition of this challenge. Some harder than others as the crowds and fatigue varied.
The miles counted down. Things I saw (or remember seeing) were few. Eventually the halfway point was passed. Half a marathon to go. 1hr 29mins elapsed. Same again. It felt like an age for that first half. My thoughts were dominated by nothing else. Rarely did my mind wander from the constant calculations and visitations of that sub 3. I recall thinking back to Vallorcine during the CCC. At that point there was also about a half marathon to go. A mammoth half. This would be nothing by comparison. I could do this. The mental challenge of the CCC was different. Here I could rest in the knowledge of it being over in another hour and a half. That was a real boost.
The second half went by so much quicker. The atmosphere was incredible. The crowd was constant. The noise high and the music amazing. So many jazz and sax bands entertaining the runners and crowds, really lifting the runner’s morale. Berlin nailed it.
I was using all the usual tricks in my head to keep it going, keep maintaining. Counting down the kms. Converting the miles. Planning what I’d drink and when. I took a pack of Cliff shot blocks and took one every 5km from 22kms. I presume they helped. The flavour certainly did. I had a gel on hand (which I never ended up using) and 250ml of High 5 isotonic drink in a soft flask. I was saving the isontonic for the last 10km and to save me from the carnage of the water stations. My mind was focused and planned. 20 miles done. 6 miles to go. Just a morning run commute to work left.
There were two mental boosts for me at mile 20. Firstly an announcement that the world record had been broken. The crowd and the runners went mad. That’s insane! Everyone wanted to know the time. What a day this was. Secondly, another runner started shouting. “Who’s doing this?! Who’s breaking sub 3 today?!”. No one responded. Inside me though I started to believe even more. I wasn’t alone. I realised I was surrounded by other determined people chasing their goals, chasing their sub 3 dreams. I had a brief chat with the guy. We were doing this. We spurred each other on. I kept him in my sights for the rest of the run. He seemed determined enough that he’d make it.
I kept going. Kept adjusting and maintaining the pace. The miles passed by. I knew Louise and Becca would be at 38km waiting with the loudest of cheers. I was ready to look out for them. But first came the Adidas runners cheer zone at 37km. Wow. Just wow. There were hundreds of them. It’s a huge community but amplified at an Adidas sponsored world major marathon. The noise was insane. The roar as runners ran through was so uplifting. I’d now caught up with the 3 hour pacers too. They’d set off before me and I thought that, if I get in front of them and finish, then sub 3 will be certain. So I did. I slipped by and settled back into the rhythm. By the time I reached the girls I was in a strong mental place. I saw them and yelled. They went wild. Lou later told me that, on the trackers they’d been saying “Dai is going too fast. He’s going to fast” before realising “Dai is going for sub 3. He’s not going too fast, he’s on target'”. This made me chuckle. Setting myself some goals and changing them mid-run was clearly misleading for others!
After seeing the girls I powered on. Last 5km. Three miles. Don’t drop it now. But, here came my biggest challenge. I couldn’t tell myself this was happening. I couldn’t rest up. I’d been this close before. 1 mile from the finish it all went wrong in Limassol. Mile 25. I had to get passed mile 25. I had to feel strong at mile 24 (my last memory at Limassol!). I did. Keep at it. Keep believing. Keep focused. My watch ticked over, 25 miles done.
Now. Now is the time! My mind went into some sort of automatic self-diagnostic mode. My brain was sending signals to every part of my body. I could feel the information flowing back and my brain ticking them off. Check. Check. Check. It felt almost surreal as I acknowledged that my breathing was good. In and out through my nose. Deep and easy breathing. My lungs were good. My legs told me they were good too. Heavy, as they’d been all morning. But good. They wouldn’t let me down. My toe hurt. That was the worst response back. It was telling me there would be a blister at the end. A small price to pay. My heart was good. Not pounding. Just pumping rhythmically. My fingers clenching and relaxing by my side. My abs tight and holding me up right. My form felt good. My stride was consistent. My mind was clear. I was focused. 1 mile and a bit to go. Maybe 10mins max. This was on. I checked my watch and did the maths. Don’t drop the pace. Keep at 6:50ish for one more mile and this was mine. Soon I’d be at the Bradenburg Gate. Soon I’d be on the home stretch. That small insignificant bit of distance at the end of a 26 mile run. I told myself it’s nothing. It’s just that ‘extra’ bit runners do in training to round up to an even number. Go. Go.
Under the gate I went. The crowds lined both sides of the road. Huge numbers. Huge cheers. Runners everywhere either powering on or succumbing to the moment and stopping. Cramping. Walking. I felt for them. But this was me and my time. I crossed the line. Stopped the watch. It was under 3 hours (2:59:27. Officially). It was close. I’d done it. Everything I’d said to myself to keep going was right. So close. One bad mile, One prolonged period of not focusing and those 30 seconds would have evaporated away. But it was done. And that was it. I went into some kind of blurred, subdued state immediately. Inside I was so happy. But I don’t recall much or the emotions. I don’t know if I screamed or jumped or anything as I crossed the line. I do know I was chuffed to bits though.
It was a long walk to the medals, to the water. I savoured it all. I saw the Runner who’d powered us on and we hugged it out. The long walk continued and I found Jordan ahead. I thought she must have also done it also as she was ahead of me. She’d come so close at 3:01 but had smashed her target and Pb. She was calling Chris. He was coming in just behind us at 3:07. He’d finished. He’d stopped at the medical tent to steady his legs. We walked back and met him after he’d collected his medals. Big hugs All round. He’d smashed his 3:10 target. We said we’d sign up to Boston in 2020. Here we go again…
Over the next few hours the rest of the group finished one by one. We regrouped and celebrated each other’s achievements. Before going our separate ways until later.
I met and saw so many other friends and familiar faces out there that day (and weekend). PBs were shattered all over the place. What a day to be a part of. We celebrated that night. We laughed a lot.
I might seem subdued to those I’ve spoken to since the race. Truth is, I don’t think the realisation has set in yet. I’ve played the sub 3 down so much this year that it probably hasn’t fully registered in my mind just how big of an achievement it is. I am though absolutely ecstatic with the outcome. Not just because of the time and achievement. But happy with the relief that the demons of the past have been put to the sword. The shadow lifted and the mouthy pratt of a monkey no longer is on my back trying to fill me with doubts.
I don’t feel that roads are my place anymore. I’ve nothing to achieve from them. I don’t need, nor want, to improve that time. It won’t provide me with any greater satisfaction. I’ll run road races again for the reasons of it being a world major (one day I’ll do the 6), for covering a marathon on each continent (although that doesn’t mean it has to be a road!) or if I get a place somehow. I won’t be looking for them.
My heart and feet belong in the trails. They’ve consumed me now. I enjoy the challenge more. The freedom and experience more. The camaraderie and more relaxed nature of them. I can go back to the trails now knowing that I’ve redeemed myself. Limassol has well and truly been assigned to the history books and a time of learning and self realisation.
I will take pride in opening my copy of the Berliner Morgenpost and seeing my name written in the newspaper. The time etched as part of my own history on this very historical day for sport.
So it turns out that I’ve been nominated for the personal blog category with the Running Awards. I’d love your support and votes. If you like what you read and you’d like to vote for me you can click this link and find “RunWithDai” in the nominees. Thanks!
A brutal race deserves a brutal review…The CCC is indeed a brutal race.
What follows might come across as yet another moan about yet another race I willingly signed up to. So let me firstly caveat it with the confirmations that I did enjoy myself, I did have a great race, I’m proud of my achievements and I’m happy I did it. Would I recommend the race to someone contemplating signing up, no. No I would not. If you get anxious, as I do, it would also be a definitive no!!
To save reading on (what follows will be ramblings about my trip to the alps as well as the race itself!) the shortest way I can think of summarising why I wouldn’t recommend the race is that it just doesn’t live up to the hype. Whether that’s caused by my false expectations and that my preconceptions were way off the mark I don’t know. But for me it just didn’t stand up to the prestige that surrounds the event. Let me also caveat that the recap that follows is going to be littered with contradictions. I know that. The good things were the bad things. The bad things were often the good things. It is a little hard to separate them.
The UTMB is like the Mecca of the trail running world. A Hollywood blockbuster of an event. I’m generally ignorant of the running world, the elites, events and challenges. But I knew of the UTMB week. 10,000 or so runners, the top trail runners in the world, rigorous qualification criteria, years of training and days of festivities. It’s hard not to know a little about this particular event.
Since I obtained a place back in December, besides being a nervous wreck, I’ve met numerous runners who had, and who soon would also be taking part. I received so much advice and insight (for which I am grateful) and so knew a little about what lay in waiting for me. Everyone spoke of the same difficulties (e.g. congested single tracks) but spoke so positively about the races. However my experience and feelings soon went off on a different tangent.
Let me begin with the lead up to the ‘race’ from when I arrived in Chamonix. I was staying in a chalet with 6 others. Some I knew well (like Yvette who would be crewing me), some I’d met occasionally before and some where complete strangers to me. All shared a passion for running and exploring and each was here for a different reason, be it running one of the events, crewing a Runner, supporting friends, photographing the events or generally absorbing the vibes. This was a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of.
The morning after arriving, myself and Yvette headed out for a run with Alan. He’s a mighty strong and experienced runner. I was nervous of running so far the day before such a big run, but his experience and knowledge shone through when my heavy travel legs started to loosen up. It was also a great way to get some last minute advice from a guy who knows what he is talking about (Alan went on to smash the UTMB course this weekend!).
Post run, feeling refreshed, I headed off to the event village to register. If ever there was an example of the scale of organisation involved in events, it is the UTMB registration process. The application, the website and the pre-race communications are rigorous and meticulous. Constant deadlines for submitting mandatory requirements (think qualifying evidence, medical certificates, contact information, transport services etc.) are the norm and the in-person registration is no different. It starts with a dedicated registration slot. After a short queue your chosen form of identification is used to confirm you as a registered runner and grant access to the registration hall. You are handed a personalised, random generated, mandatory kit checklist and join the snaking queues of checks that lay ahead.
Kit checks in progress
Phew, I passed!
The mandatory kit list is extensive and demonstrates the enormity of the challenge you are embarking on as you are left to fend for yourself, in some cases over multiple nights, in the mountains of the alps. It highlights the seriousness that the organisers place on health and safety, which is clearly a good thing. Thankfully for the CCC this year there wasn’t a need to implement either of the additional “Hot”/”Cold” weather kits! After placing the required items in a tray, they are checked. Thoroughly. It’s not sufficient to show just your phone, but that it works and has roaming for networks across the 3 countries the race spans. Any old waterproof is not sufficient, the seams are meticulously checked and you sweat nervously whilst your expensive equipment is deemed sufficient enough to progress through the checks. Once you receive the thumbs up you continue on your journey and trade your stamped kit checklist for your bib number and tracker. See, if you fail the kit check, you won’t be allowed anywhere near the race itself! Bib number received you are instructed on how it should be worn and passed on to the wristband and ‘pack’ check. Here you receive a wrist band according to your race and your race pack/backpack of choice is tagged with the race tracker. You cannot change the bag now! Next up you receive your dropbag and and advised on the route navigation, markings and signs you’ll see along the way that need your attention (warnings of danger, wildlife, delicate paths and when to stick to the track and when not to use poles). There really is no excuse at this point for not understanding what you’ll see. Finally, checks, tags and information complete, you secure your bus passes and assistance tickets (to admit your crew to the dedicated assistance checkpoints). There’s also a cheesy photo opportunity (free! Nice touch) and you are done. It really is a military operation but one of the smoothest, if most nerve racking, registration experiences I’ve had.
Post registration we met backup with Alan at the finish line and waited for Hanna (one of Alan’s teammates) to arrive at the end of here race – the TDS. Almost bang on her estimated finish time she arrived with a huge smile beaming across her face and waltzed across the finish line. It was near 11:00am and a decent crowd had formed at the finish line, cheering and whooping the finishers across the line to the chorus of “Allez, Allez, Allez”. More than ever I was ready for my turn now.
The weeks leading up to this weekend were repetitive. The same questions. The same answers. The same feelings. I was ready. I was excited. There was nervous anticipation mixed with self-confidence. I was fed up of waiting. I wanted it now. I wanted to run. One more sleep stood in my way. One more afternoon of overthinking every possibility that lay in wait.
After some lunch we headed off to meet Jana and Maggie. Jana and I planned to start the race together and Yvette and Maggie to crew us together. Some chat about plans and lots of laughter later we said our goodbyes until the morning.
05:00. The alarms are going, coffee is being drunk. The prep was complete. It was time to go. Finally. The morning started nervously as my watch had somehow drained of battery over night. It read 27% and it annoyed me. We met met up with Jana and Maggie in Les Bossons and hopped on the shuttle bus to the start In Courmayeur (Italy). The next time we’d see Yvette and Maggie would be over 12 hours later in Switzerland! The bus pulled up in Courmayeur, and then continued onward to a car park that felt an eternity away from the start. A rushed toilet start and more eating (fuel fuel fuel!!) filled the time as we made our way to the starting pens.
We wouldn’t be starting together after all. A staggered start meant I’d set off at 9:15, 15 mins before Jana. I was sure she’d make up 15 mins on the trails. The first few hours would be all walking and I knew she was eager to get ahead of the pack ready for the single track congestion. I text her to say my phone would be on flight mode (to preserve battery) and to look out for me. National anthems, talks from the mayor(?) and some crowd-hyping later it was time to go. There were photographers and drones everywhere. But also a helicopter cameraman. If ever you needed to know the scale of an event then needing a helicopter to get around kind of tells you how massive it is!!
A sweaty wait
The beginning of The CCC involves a climb out of the town towards Tete de la Tronche. When I did this on the recce run it took nearly 5 hours. It’s pretty much all up hill as you climb to 2584 m along single file tracks. Everyone had spoken about the single file, to try and get ahead of the crowds to avoid being too slow, but the reality is it just isn’t possible. There are over 2,100 runners. Over 2,100 strong runners (they’ve all had to qualify remember!!) and they all have the same idea. Immediately you fall inline. Immediately I experience some of the motions that will become a recurring theme of the race. The tapping of trekking poles as they strike the ground. The stench of sweat from the runners (myself included), the huffing and puffing of heavy breathers and the complete lack of spatial awareness humans have. You almost need to be a trained fencer to avoid being stabbed from trekking poles coming at you from all angles!
As the climb begins to steepen the reality of the congested single tracks became clear. For long sections it is stop and start. So much so that my watch wouldn’t even registered we were moving it was that slow! Your personal space is invaded, continuously. Your view is not that of the scenic mountain views, but of the arse or the runner in front of you. It was one sadistic race director away from being a sporting version of the Human Centipede. It’s basically disgusting. Jana thought the bus smelt bad. The mountains smelt worse as your breathing space contained almost toxic combinations of runner’s sweat, muscle rubs, food reserves and farts (yep, that one was definitely me!). I wanted nothing more to escape the centipede and power on. But I knew the pace was consistent and good for preserving my energy for later in the race.
As you carry on upwards you are repeatedly impaled by trekking poles from the front and rear. You are rear-ended by the person behind you who isn’t watching where they are going and you are shoved by the runners who have a disrespect for everyone and everything around them by barging past. There was anger in me that should not exist in such a beautiful place. The bottlenecks are a real pain. But they have two causes I could see. Not just those runners climbing at a slower pace than the others around them (difficult I know, but it is possible to occasionally step aside to let people past, over such a distance it won’t affect your ability to finish or secure a set time. I was able to do this!) but also those more impatient runners who take any opportunity to barge past, cutting corners, going off track etc. They are the ones who create the funnel effect and cause the sudden stops to the forward motion of the centipede.
Reaching the first summit at Tete De La Tronche, the shackles are broken and freedom is sensed. The pack breaks up and a stampede begins. It was almost like a scene from the Lion King and I was slightly concerned I’d be caught up in a mass tumble as we all started hurtling down the mountain. We didn’t thankfully and the freedom of the trail was a welcome relief. I was running far faster than I probably should, but it felt good. It was just a few kms to the first checkpoint. Running into Refuge Bertone is a very steep and rocky down hill section. I was nervous of falling but far to occupied with my breathing. It dawned on me that, with so many runners stampeding down the mountain, the tracks were dusty and my mouth and eyes were being bombarded with dirt in the air. I was so ready for the relief of the checkpoint.
The was no relief at the checkpoint though. After being ‘tagged in’ (the race had excellent tracking of runners!) it was like being in a war movie as runners scrambled over each other to reach the rations. The fruit and savory offerings on the tables were grabbed in fist loads and water poured everywhere as volunteers frantically tried to please the thirsty hordes. I had to leave there quickly before I started windmilling to maintain my personal space. I was gone. I was outta there!
The next section lead to Arnouvaz via Bonatti (which offered a water refueling stop). Both sections were very runnable and ever so slightly less congested. When actually running, I found you often fell into groups that you were at a comparable pace to yourself and the paths on these sections were slightly more forgiving for overtaking – with the exception of the section where one runner got angry with the woman slowing everyone down as she persistently stopped to take photos! It was on this section I met Robin from Cardiff who I started talking to after noticing the welsh flag draped on his pack. We chatted on and off as we continued into Bonatti. It was great to finally talk to someone as the centipede was not only a slow moving beast but a soulless one. Being such an international event, there is far less camaraderie than I’ve come to enjoy on ultras. It simply isn’t as easy to have a conversation when everyone speaks different languages!! Sadly it does suck the life out of the journey and creates the Soulless Centipede.
The brief chat with Robin was also a relief for my brain as I’d realised how much my right foot was hurting. It felt like I had a blister or hot spot on the sole of my foot. Occasionally the impact of striking the floor would burn through my foot and make me grimace. I suspect that bounding over the rocky descent to Bertone was the cause. I made a not to stop at Bonatti and empty dust and dirt from my shoe as a precaution to further agitations. I’d have fresh socks and medical supplies waiting me a few hours away in Champex-Lac to look forward too.
As Bonatti came into sight there was a a steep incline to overcome. I was barely a third of the way up when I was hit with some pretty bad cramping to my left quad. I suffer a lot from cramps. My coping strategy is a stubborn one. I always try to just carry on through it. And so I did. Albeit painfully and slowly I managed to reach the top. Mountain water into my bottles, coke in my belly I was almost ready to go. I decided I needed a toilet stop and was disheartened to find the WC was downstairs in the refuge and also that there was a queue. I don’t know how long I waited but it was some kms later when I was overtaking runners I recognised before like (Robin!) that it must have been quite a few minutes – looking back at the ‘stats’ I lost 35 places at this point!
Not long after leaving the checkpoint the centipede was attacked by bikers. Whilst many hikers and walkers are out on the paths, it was generally quieter due to the event. These bikers didn’t care though and insisted on playing a game of chicken with the centipede and jostling for ownership of the path. It was a bad choice by the cyclists. They wouldn’t be winning this day. On the way down to Arnouvaz I was conscious of my fueling. I’d taken enough food with me and had plenty prepped with Yvette for each assisted aid station, but I knew the climb awaiting me to Grand Col Ferret would be draining. So I forced some more food down as we snaked through the mountain paths, crossing streams and rivers flowing with the energy of the mountains. Arnouvaz was one of the liveliest checkpoints. Supporters lined the entrance and exits and the atmosphere was buzzing. Inside the tent the now familiar scrambles were taking place as you bounced around like a pinball, fisting at the fruit and snacks. To watch me you’d assumed I’d not eaten in days as I squished oranges and smashed bananas into my face, juices smothering my beard. I don’t like bananas but I was eating as much as I could stomach to combat the cramps.
Outside the centipede reformed as we made our way towards Grand Col Ferret. Initially movement was slow up the single tracks as the usual mumbles of ‘pardon’ followed pole stabbing and the invasion of space. We came across signs indicating fragile land and to stick to the track. Signs ignored by many runners who jumped the tapes and ran amok to get ahead of the congestion. Unnecessary and disrespectful. I just don’t see what they achieved with this. Respect the environment! There was a brief widening of the path and I made my move. I hiked onward in space. Happy to breath the fresh air into my lungs.
I was aware it was now mid afternoon. I’d been out here a long time. The forecast was predicting rain and the clouds were starting to form. The climb to Grand Col Ferret would be a long one and I knew, if nothing else, it would be cold and windy up top. I made a decision to stop before starting the climb (up to 2537 m) and layer up. I took out the Allez Micro fleece and switched my cap for a buff. Whilst it was still dusty, it was also time to say good bye to the sunglasses. I regained the places I’d lost through layering up as I powered through the climb. My decision was a wise one. With the turns on the mountain the centipede was attached by the wind and the first droplets of rain. Runners stopped all around me to start layering up and putting their waterproofs on. I carried on and before I knew it I was at the top. I almost missed the tagging of the bib number as I immediately started hurtling towards the downhill. The overcast sky meant it would be dark sooner than I’d like and I wanted to cover as much ground as I could before the light was lost. It was just minutes later that I came to a stop when the heavens opened and I knew I had to get the waterproof out. I’d be soaked through if I didn’t. Minimus Stretch Ultra applied I was off again…vrooom…
When I did a recce run, I loved this section and it was the same feeling here. Gravity and momentum throwing you forward on a forgiving track. For a moment at least I was free again. On my mind, a few miles away, would be the descent into La Fouly. And soon enough I was there, the point where we had cow-gate on the recce and had to go off track, no such issues this time as the cows were nowhere to be seen. As I rounded the cow shed though I immediately encountered another danger. Mud! I wasn’t ready for this. As I raced passed a few more cautious runners I felt my soul jump out of my body as I skidded and slid around the bend. Oh oh. Up ahead there were runners sliding all over the place, like a mass spin-out on Mario kart following a few banana skins being dropped. I tried to run. I was sliding everywhere. A runner, Juan from Mexico, let me passed and was in hysterics as I slid 180 degrees and started sliding down backwards like Bambi on ice, waving my arms comically overhead. How I didn’t fall I’ll never know. We laughed at each other as we slid our way down the mountain. I won’t lie, I was terrified. The gravity and momentum was not a great pairing with the mud! At the bottom the gravel tracks into La Fouly were a welcome relief. Onward we ran to the checkpoint, almost a marathon covered.
Inside La Fouly was the mayhem continued. I joked with the volunteers as I chowed down on the banana, oranges and watermelon before discovering the joys of biscuits and dark chocolate. My taste buds were thankful. I occupied my mind watching a conversation between the medics and a topless runner. He was insistent that he didn’t need the layers. Weird. It really was quite cold, even for me. I was expecting to see Maggie and Yvette here supporting Jana. But they weren’t. I didn’t know why but assumed it was a timing issue. I think I arrived far earlier than expected and Champex-Lac wasn’t too far away. I cleaned my shoes of mud, topped up my fluids and headed back out into the rain, hands and cheeks bulging with chocolate and biscuits. I walked on, danced with the lady from the CompressSport tent who was giving out sweat bands, and munched my way back to the trails.
Once again I knew there would be some decent running on this section and I quickly covered the ground to the ‘tree-lined’ path I loved so much on the recce. As I set off down it a runner went by and some confusion entailed as he looked back and talked. I thought that he had thought I’d said something. Turns out he recognised me from Instagram (As Ron Burgundy would say “I’m kind of a big deal”. I’m not!) and Wild Trail Runners. I chatted with Marc shortly before stopping for a brief walk, letting him carry on. I could sense the evening sky becoming greyer and greyer so stepped back up to run through the scenic Swiss villages of Praz-de-Fort, Les Arlaches and Issert and to the start of the Sentier De Champignons. I knew this path well. I recalled the wood carvings and knew it wasn’t much of an incline into Champex-Lac. I stopped to remove my waterproof again and lighten up so I didn’t overheat as I ran the last bit to the road at which point I packed away the poles ready for entering the first assistance zone. I was welcomed to cheers and clapping and the sight of Maggie and Yvette with cameras in my face. A little trail-jig and Yvette directed me into the aid station.
This is where Yvette delivered her crewing A-game. She tended to all my needs and made me feel at ease with confident wording and assessment of my performance. I was flying. Well ahead of my ETA and explained why they weren’t at La Fouly. We’d managed to find a place by Marc(!) and we chatted some more as Yvette fetched me pasta and coke. I started charging my watch and set out re-organising my kit and wiping my face with refreshing wipes (Tip, Nivea ones are the way forward, my skin loved it!). It was nice to sit down for a moment. Now the time has come which I was dreading – it was time to clean my feet, inspect the hot spot damage, do some general maintenance and get some fresh socks and a clean t shirt. It was revitalising. I felt good! Yvette checked my foot. No visible damage of concern. Some wet wrinkled skin seemed to be the cause of pain. Blister plaster applied I was happy knowing it was nothing to cause concern. I took a moment to record a voice memo to myself (recording the thoughts you are reading now) fixed my charging watch to my wrist (using the new sweat band to hold the charger and cables in place!) and set back out.
Getting that Watch charged…
and the belly filled up!
I’d spent just under 40 mins recovering and needed to get going again. First stop, mandatory kit check. Aaarrgh! I’d just packed it all away neatly! Waterproof trousers, jacket and phone checked and I was allowed back out on my journey. Second stop…toilet. The stomach needed some “free-ing” (I had more eating to do!!). Job done. Third stop…the lovely lady from Bristol who cheered me on. I joked for her to come with me as she cheered and she did! We walked and talked. I think she was concerned when I joked I’d rather be somewhere else. Turns out she has family and friends in Swansea. We hugged as we reached the lake and acknowledged I needed to run again. Faith in humanity restored, a lovely gesture from a stranger and a huge boost. Onward…
Soon after, I had to stop for a forth time. The night had indeed darkened quicker than I hoped and the post-lake path led into the forest trails. I needed my head torch out. Damn. I walked on as I fiddled with the power. It wouldn’t come on. I thought I’d screwed up the locking mechanism, and perhaps I had as the battery was dead. Bollocks. More time wasted searching in the back pack, but soon there was light! Today was being dominated by tech mishaps!
I was wearing the Petzl Reactik torch and it was awesome. As it adapted to the changing light conditions I was occupied and entertained. So much so I can’t recall reaching the next incline! But here I was. Hiking up again. Up indeed, off in the distance I could see the flickering lights of the centipede climbing the towering mountain. It was a long way to look! Head down, sticks out, that’s the way we like to climb. I was looking for distractions again. I liked this climb compared to some of the others, but this would be my first experience of such a climb in the darkness, and I knew it was a long and winding one. The distraction came in the form of watching the rain. A gentle but relentless flow of water coming from the darkness, visible for mere seconds as the head torch lit it up as it fell. It was oddly satisfying and mesmeric. I was disturbed briefly from my trance when I misplaced a footing crossing a stream. Damn, fresh socks were now soggy socks. Oh well.
I’d left Champex-Lac fairly light in terms of fluids. I’d (or rather, Yvette) filled my two 500ml soft flasks but I’d kept the bladder as it was part filled from La Fouly. The checkpoints were fairly evenly spaced over the remainder of the course and I knew up at Bovine there was a water fountain if I needed it. I wanted it! I loved the ice cold mountain water available throughout the route and this one was very much welcomed. A hose had made the fountain more accessible and I refilled, gulping back the icy-goodness. A little further to the summit and it was another fairly runnable downhill into Trient again. But wait, what was this…I hear Queen? Was that “We Will Rock You”? Yes it was. Someone was having a party in the distance. How nice for them. The volume increased as I closed in on the venue and I recalled the same song being played at Arnouvaz during my recce. And then, to my delight, I entered La Giete where the music was originating. Another unexpected checkpoint with water on the go. Brilliant. I took a moment, filled my bottles again, ate some more food, removed my waterproof yet again as the rain had gone and enjoyed Rag N Bones Man “Human” before carrying on. Lets Do This!
I was expecting the checkpoint in Trient to be near the campsite, but it wasn’t. Before I knew it I was being welcomed in by Yvette and Maggie and their cameras. Thank God they were there because the entrance was so confusing. There were runners coming and going in all directions and it really wasn’t clear which way you needed to go. We found some space in the corner and Yvette set about working her magic. She absolutely nailed the crewing. The atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat in Trient, probably because of the weed Alpine techno music pumping out above us. We danced and laughed, taking a moment to enjoy ourselves. I think we’d been fairly organised in what we needed to do at each checkpoint. It was mainly fill my bottles, give me food and make sure I don’t get too comfortable! But here I needed a slight change. I’d noticed, I was hot. Too hot. Not just when running, but when hiking too. I’d brought an extra layer, thicker than the Allez Micro I was wearing so decided to swap the t-shirt and Allez Micro for the Spider hoody. It was the right call. Taking off the Allez Micro I realised how wet (with sweat) it was. If I’d continued into the night with this I would have become very cold I’m sure.
As I was finishing up and re-packing, Jana arrived! The predatory mountain goat had done it, she had made up the time deficit and caught me. Amazing perseverance. She welcomed me with two middle fingers. Lovely. Maggie forced her to eat something before we both set out together, about 30km left to go. Knowing the next checkpoint was “just” 11km away was a great boost. So off we went.
Climbing up to Les Tseppes was tough. It’s a steep old climb. Most of it we covered in silence. Silence that was only broken up as I muttered profanities at the lady in front of me who had absolutely no control of her poles whatsoever. She was a complete liability, huffing and puffing and groaning away and 4 times nearly decapitating or piercing me with her poles. I couldn’t understand it. Neither could the runner who’d paused on the side of the track and was almost impaled as she passed. Soon the path gave me and Jana the chance to overtake and we gladly put the effort in to get away.
I was ready for the top, ready for my favorite view point from the recce, although knowing it would be darkness and I’d see nothing! We joked about the head torches up ahead and questioned if the stars were more glimpses of the centipede sparkling up high?! The summit came, I knew the path well again and assured Jana there were some good running opportunities up ahead. We paused for a moment as I once again removed my waterproof. We were off. Feet to the ground, let’s make some dust. Down we ran as Jana shouted out from behind me “Pardon, Passe?!” to help free our way. She was eager to run it all, but I knew some steep and rocky parts lay in wait so held us back slightly before the path into Vallorcine opened into a wider stony way. Hard underfoot, but free for movement and overtaking. Down into the green forest we could begin to hear the cars, the river, the trains below us. We kept going. Crossing the bridge into Vallorcine I felt good. I felt strong, I continued running all the way, zipping into the checkpoint as Maggie and Yvette were checking in. Perfect.
Last assistance point. More Food. More pep talks. From here I entered the unknown, the part of the course I’d not recce’d. Everyone talks of La Flegere. How tough it is. All I knew is that I had about 19km left to run. I could begin to rationalise it. A half marathon. Sure, a mountain one, but a half marathon. It hit home when the girls told us it was about 4 and a half hours to go. Oh, Ok then. A big half marathon! But from here, no turning back. Other than a water station up at La Flegere, this was the last checkpoint. Given the pace we’d been running, I could walk to the finish line from here within the cut-off times. Confidence was high. Praying for no incidents or injuries, this was the first time I really believed I could complete the route. We set back out in good spirits. We power hiked most of the first part of the route as it was fairly flat. At this point a strong hike with intent was faster than our average pace over the day and not far off running speed. Within minutes of leaving Vallorcine though I had head torch “issues” again. After trying for a while to turn it back on, I’d realised I was wearing it upside down. Idiot. Then, shortly after, the light was weak and flickering. I needed a battery change! New power source applied the hike could be resumed.
Then, the mountains came for us. The incline began, and it was a steep one. Back into the familiar centipede routine. Head down, poles out, finding any way I could to block out the heavy breathing from those around me. The day before the race the course was changed. Due to a rock fall, the climb to La Flegere was adapted and a route variation was activated. Now we’d need to climb, descend then climb again rather than a continuous climb to the summit. Whilst not the highest point we would climb, it certainly felt like one of the steepest inclines (looking back at the stats now, it is no surprise that my slowest pace coincided with the second of these climbs!).
I hit my low point here. The intensity of the crowd of runners and head torches around me brought me down. My anxiety levels were rising and I was grumpy with the invasion of my space. Once again I had my head in someone’s arse the whole way and someone breathing heavily behind me. I swear I could even smell red bull on their breadth. It was disgusting. I wanted out. The darkness pulled me down further and, as we started the decline (before the final climb), I could sense all the pains I’d been blocking out. The walking at this point was more like lunging as we made our way down. Then I bashed my knee. It hurt like hell. Lunging down I bent my knee into a rock in front. The blunt pain shot through me. It felt like an eternity of agony as we continued down and then began repeating the whole process back up. In my mind I was trying to understand the size of the climb. To visualise the 500m or so of vertical required. It doesn’t sound far, but that’s probably something like 250-300 people (I’ve not done the actual math!) standing on top of each other. That is a lot. I had to adapt my mindset. I needed to to embrace the demons now. To come out stronger, to overcome them, I find you either have to shut them out (like I do with pain), or let them surround you. Let them consume you on your terms. This was my tactic now. I was hyper-aware of them all. The pain, the irritants, the noises, the false summits, the size of the climb, the unknown that lay ahead, the uncertainty of the finish. I focused on them all. I wouldn’t let them beat me. I recalled some advice Alan gave me the previous day. He told me to create a false finish. La Flegere. He told me that the race ends there. Get to La Flegere and you can get to the finish. I did just that. I focused on the summit. I knew it must be close now. I knew Jana was somewhere close by in the centipede too. I couldn’t see or hear her though. I knew I had to carry on alone from here. That my pains couldn’t rub off on here. I kept going. The path widened and I took the chance to break ahead for some space as the climb continued up. False summit after false Summit, I kept sensing I saw the checkpoint, lights in the distance, music, something, anything. Each time I was let down until Finally the tent flickered up ahead.
It was the worst checkpoint of them all. It felt like a place were people go to sacrifice themselves to the mountain or something. The silence was deathly. Chairs lined the tent with deflated runners sitting in them heads held in their hands. The volunteers looked like they had enough too. I wanted out no sooner than I entered. Fill my water I thought. Get fluids because you need to run from here before the mountains claim you too. I was ready to go until another run stopped me. He needed help with his pack. I didn’t want to. But I had too. I gathered his stuff and helped him adjust it as quickly as I could and I was out. It was time to go home. False finish complete. This was happening. I was finishing this race. 8kms or so, mostly downhill. I need to run. Off I went. Running.
I don’t know what happened here. But I won my battle. My mind had been fighting for I don’t know how many hours climbing to a Flegere, and now my body took over. It’s as if my legs said “Don’t worry Dai, we’ve got this. Leave it to us”. I just kept on running. The decline zig-zagged down. The path was stony but smooth at the same time. The drop off the mountain face was terrifying! I’ve not done much running in the dark. Never mind running down a mountain in the dark but I was flying down (don’t get me wrong, there were people flying even faster than I!). I was amazed. My body and mind were awake to the challenge. My mind matching my legs for effort. I was inspired by the power of the brain. My own body. That it can, and was, reacting so quickly. In the darkness you have an incredibly short period of time to pick a spot to place your foot. To choose wisely. To calculate your path, to execute your choice. To plan ahead maybe just one meter at a time. It was incredible how the body does this. The reaction time and processing power to keep you moving. It really fascinated me. Made me smile even. The enjoyment was coming back. That was until I rolled my ankle, resulting in a hop-hop-hop motion and a complete stop as the air completely left my body along with the profanities. It hurt like hell. Don’t go into shock I told myself. Get back on it and let the adrenaline power you through and deal with the consequences later (thankfully there were none!). I flew past runners with a smile on my face again. I sensed the finish. I must have now been a few miles at most as I dashed past Chalet de La Floria. I just kept going. Again I could rationalise this. A few miles. 20-30 minutes at most. Go go go.
Sprinting to the finish…
There were people up ahead, noise, spectators and supporters in the darkness whistling the runners through. We hit the streets. The temporary bridges (?!!) crossing over the roads. I recognised the path. We were near the race village now. This was it. I’m doing it. I was alive. I was smiling. I turned the head torch off. Run Dai Run. Over the final bridge crossing (seriously why?!). The glow of light from the town centre hit me. I was running through the streets now, people cheering. I smiled, I clapped back, I stuck my thumbs up. Yvette’s screams hit me. She egged me on as I ran. I ran on… and on… and on. The street went quiet and I stopped. What the fuck? I put my arms out in a gesture of “where am I going?” to a guy standing outside a shop. He just looked at me. I heard screaming behind me. A family were shouting at me. I turned and looked at them with the same gesture. They shouted more. I wish I knew the language. I pointed in the direction I was going and they shouted louder. I started running again. They shouted even louder still. I turned back and they gestured me toward them. Bloody hell! As I approached, they pointed up another street so on I went. Then they shouted loud again, wrong way, AGAIN! There was a lorry, coming out from the street where I needed to go. Blocking the fucking path. Seriously?! This was ridiculous. I squeezed past and ran. The small crowd that had formed (it was 06:00 in the morning!) clapped and cheered and I ran toward the UTMB finishers arch. I saw Yvette and Maggie. I was done. I crossed the line. At that was it.
My turn under the UTMB Arch
Literally, that was it. The end. Just like that. The most anti-climax and deflated finish to any event I’d ever done. I crossed the line and stopped, turned around in circles not knowing what to do. No one said a word. No one approached me. No instructions. No “well done”. No “this way”. No anything. I just sat down and waited for Yvette to find me. She came. We took pictures and she took me off to get my finishers. Gillet. I put it on. We went back, Jana had just arrived. Her friends were there. We talked, we laughed. We got cold. Ali gave us a lift back in his van (Thanks Ali!). And that was it. Over 21 hours of torture. The most subdued and depressing finish that was absolutely not worth what had gone before it. The buzz I had built up running down from La Flegere had been sucked out of me like an elephant drinking through a straw. I was spent.
Over the next few days I spent a lot of time talking to people about these feelings. Some felt the same. Some didn’t. It was hard to process. I was grumpy. I was probably even angry to some degree. And that is why I wouldn’t recommend the race. It just wasn’t worth it. All the negatives clouded my memories. Over 21 hours of suffocation through congested single tracks dominated my memories. I still wouldn’t recommend it. Although I’d give this honest account to people who want to know what it is really like. Prepare yourself, don’t get consumed by the hype. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredible experience. But one you can recreate yourself. You don’t need to run it in one go, through the darkness and rain surrounded by strangers. Do it on your terms. In your own time. Stay over night along the way, enjoy the views, make it an experience. So what, you don’t get a gillet? You don’t get to say you’ve “raced it”. So what? I didn’t compete. I came 615th place. It is meaningless. The void I had on finishing left me so empty. For the first time ever in a race I wanted a medal! I never cherish medals. I want functional t-shirts. Here I got that AND a gillet. But I wanted something, some acknowledgement at the finish to say “you did that!”. So no, go do it on your terms and enjoy it. Don’t do it with your head up someone’s arse the whole way. I immediately felt no desires to do it again, nor any of the other races. Yes this is the generic “post run feeling”, but it has lasted longer than ever before this time!
How was the rest of the trip? well, the next morning we woke early to go follow Alan and see him cross the line of the UTMB. He absolutely smashed it and looked so fresh crossing through that arch. I might even have come close to feeling a little emotion inside watching him ‘aeroplane’ toward the line. Later that morning I went for a short “recovery hike” with the group from the chalet. I think they tricked me though as it turned out to be a 6 and a half hour, 15 mile hike up to La Jonction and back. Bastards. That hurt like hell, but sure was worth it for the views. The evening was for the after party and free socks (thanks Stance!) and pizza. It was nice meeting other runners and friends and swapping stories and experiences. Then, sadly it was time to head back to the reality of the city that is London.
Now, here comes the biggest contradiction of them all. Remember I said I wouldn’t recommend it? Remember I said I wouldn’t go back? Well, I still wouldn’t recommend it but writing all that you’ve just read through has made me realise how much I bloody loved it. Shit! As I joked with Hannah – it is a good thing that I don’t have enough points to apply for the UTMB next year…perhaps though, maybe, just maybe I’ll see you there in 2020…..
You’d thought I’d finished writing didn’t you? This is like the UTMB equivalent of a blog… I can’t finish without thanking everyone. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the race in someway. All those friends, family, connections and strangers. To the runners I met along the route, to those who sent me messages of support, the advice and insight I received leading up to the race. To all those that asked me how I was feeling, if I was ready. To all those who congratulated me, to those who asked how the recovery is going. To the other inspirational runners and photographers out in Chamonix last week. Thanks to Jana and Maggie for all the support and company over the weekend. But most of all, thanks to Yvette. She gave up her time to support me. To have my back. She slept less than I did, possibly stressed more than I did. Travelled for hours on end on buses, spent a fortune, cooked me food, eased my pains and made me believe. She never moaned. She never asked for anything. She just wanted to help. I didn’t, and probably still don’t, understand the tolls of crewing, but she owned it. She sacrificed so much for me and I’m so grateful. This wasn’t a journey or achievement of my own, but one shared! Thank You!
Immense support from these two!
One of us nailed it, the other absolutely nailed it! Thank you!