The Long Road to Chamonix

Race Report by Dave Boothroyd

I’ll apologise now – this is a pretty long self-indulgent ramble, so either make a sharp exit now, or get yourself a drink, a load of biccies & settle yourself down for a long read ….

It’s almost 3 years to the day since I decided that I wanted to do this race. It’s part of the UTMB (Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc) series of races which happen at the end of August, based around the Mont Blanc area. The original UTMB race started 15 years ago and basically runs 170km around Mont Blanc, starting & ending in Chamonix, more or less following the TMB walking route. There are now many associated races (including the YCC, OCC, TDS & PTL) but I wanted to do the CCC, which is about half of the UTMB. This starts in Courmayeur in Italy, & goes via Champex in Switzerland to the finish in Chamonix in France (you have to take your passport with you during the race !)

In order to enter the races you have to get qualifying points by finishing other designated races across the world – I’d got that by doing the Lakeland 50. But you also have to get through the ballot, and as it’s an ‘iconic’ race there are many people who want to do it. In my first attempt I failed in the ballot. Never mind, you get a double entry in the following year, and this time I got in … only to break my collarbone on my last long run before the event. But after sending a doctor’s letter, and photos of x-rays, I was given a medical deferral to this year’s event. So all I had to do was get fit and stay uninjured, which is always easier said than done !

I planned a couple of ultras as build up – the Hardmoors 55 in March, and the North Downs Way 50 in May, leaving a couple of months gap for some hillwork to prepare for the race itself. The CCC is advertised as 101km long, with 6100m of climbing, and at one point I worked out that’s the equivalent of going up & down Snowdon, from Llanberis, 6 times.

So I had a couple of ‘triple Snowdon’ days as training, going various routes up & down Snowdon to getting some elevation training, and to get the quads used to all that downhill.

I managed to persuade some of the family that it would be a good holiday to come & watch me run, so 5 of us made the trip to Chamonix – my wife Liz, daughter Emily, father-in-law David & brother-in-law Rob. I’d decided that I wouldn’t do any running in the week before the race because it wouldn’t get me any fitter, but could get me injured (memories of last year !). So we did a couple of higher levels walks to get used to the altitude (the highest point in the race is 2580m), and had a trip up to the Aiguille du Midi on a stunningly clear day & watched lots of walkers trudging their way to the top of Mont Blanc. The air really was thin up there, just going up a couple of flights of steps took your breath away – thankfully we wouldn’t be getting to that height during the race.

The following day was registration. Not only do you have to bring your passport to prove that you really are who you say you are, but the main part is that they check that you have all the mandatory kit (essential if the weather turns bad during the race)

Then it was race day. A 5 o’clock alarm (followed by 5.05 & 5.10 as backups) led to an early breakfast & the 6.30 bus to Courmayeur. This left plenty of time to chill out before the 9am start. It’s a bit like the London Marathon, because there are different start pens depending upon how quickly they think you’ll complete the race, but with a staggered start. I was in the second wave, so I actually started at 915. There is always a big build up to the starts – they play the Italian, Swiss & French national anthems; they have drones & helicopters flying overhead, and a huge sound system blasting out music before the final countdown to the off. 10 metres over the start line I stopped to say goodbye to my supporters – they were then heading off to a checkpoint further down the course – & then I was really off.

The route out of Courmayeur is basically up, for a long way – you get to the highest point of the whole route at Tete de la Tronche, which is at 2580m, after just over 10km, and it takes over 2hr 30mins due to it being single-track, with a lot of people on it (there were over 2100 starters)

but then it’s downhill to the Refuge Bertone, where you get to the first of many checkpoints where they check you in, and you can grab some food & drink. The trick is to not stay too long in these ! We then basically headed up the valley towards Switzerland, passing many walkers who were doing their own TMB route (but typically over 10 days). All the time we were in Italy the weather was great.

but going uphill to cross into Switzerland things got a bit more moody, and all the waterproof tops came out. Last year, on the way up the Grand Col du Ferret, there were many people suffering from heat exhaustion due to the high temperatures, but not this time – much more being like in Britain ! The Col came soon enough, and then it was downhill, all 20 km of it. About half of the way down, at La Fouly, I had a great surprise as my family had taken the supporters bus to this point, whereas I’d been expecting them at the next one.

Time for a quick chat & then it was off down the road for the other 10 km – up to that point it had all been offroad & my legs had been fine, but after a couple of km on the road they were soon protesting so I was glad when we got back onto some trail again. Short bit of uphill & we were into the checkpoint at Champex. Liz was allowed into this one so we had time for a chat & I had some of the legendary salty chicken noodle soup to top up the energy levels. It was also time for a change of top to a warmer one, and on came the hat & headtorch. I had thought I’d get about 30 mins before needing to put the torch on, but they took us straight into a wood, so it had to be put on straight away.

One of the benefits of this being a big race is that lots of people have taken videos of their races, and then put them onto YouTube, so you can wile away the winter hours checking out the course … except that it’s only for the bits that people do in daylight. So I was caught a bit unawares of the long, steep, rocky trail that then followed. That combined with it raining for most of the leg made this the hardest section of the course. But you know that you’re going to get a low point somewhere in one of these races & you just have to concentrate on getting to the next checkpoint.

Down to Trient then & I broke one of my rules which is ‘don’t sit down’. It’s not just my rule, it’s well known that if you sit down it’s harder to get going again, so it was 30 minutes before I got out of the checkpoint, not that I realised it at the time. I just needed to eat some food, but didn’t fancy what was on offer.

But sitting still doesn’t get you to the finish, and there were only two more hills, so it was time to get going again. This time up Bovine – now I had seen video of this section & it was much more typical track up through Swiss meadowland, complete with cows with those huge bells around their necks, clanging away. Somehow this made this section much easier, although it was a bit eerie hearing the bells clanging in the darkness. The rain had turned the path to mush on the downhill section of this, so I was glad that I had my Fellraisers on as all around me seemed to be slip-sliding their way down the mountain to Vallorcine & the last checkpoint. A cup of sugary tea & then it was the homeward leg, nothing was going to stop me now.

A quick zip up to the Col (more a slow plod in reality) & then we followed a diversionary route due to the potential fog on the official route; this was pretty technical & required good concentration for that time in the morning ! But we soon popped out at the final checkpoint, and although some opted for the hot drink I was looking forward to the finish, so went straight on through the checkpoint & out down the final hill to Chamonix.

It’s become ‘traditional’ to run the final part of the course with your family so Liz & Rob joined me for the last straight up to the big archway that signifies the end of the race.

Just time for some official snaps to confirm that I had actually finished & then it was off to bed !


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