Creating Stories // UTMB® 2018From The Field
During coverage of the races of the week-long Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, Tom Hill takes to the trail and creates his own story whilst competing in the MCC.
Champex Lac, around 10am. A runner stumbles his way along the flat, smooth track alongside the lake. Strip away the spectacular mountain backdrop, and it would be a suitable setting for a Parkrun, yet the runner is fighting to place one foot in front of another. Pain contorts his face as he pushes onwards. Watching is uncomfortable; it would be easy to project a story on to the runner – Zach Miller – who’s UTMB race was falling apart in front of him, 123km and 16 hours after leaving Chamonix, still 48km from the finish line.
I could tell you about two years ago. I watched Miller crest Grand Col Ferret at sunrise, with what appeared to be an unassailable lead, only for his race to fall apart dramatically. I could try and put myself in his shoes. After battling brutal weather conditions, racing through darkness, jousting with fellow race leader, Xavier Thévenard as so many other favourites dropped out. Maybe this was his year… until it wasn’t.
Every runner’s story is his or her own though. As much as we can empathise, we aren’t there. During a full week following the race schedule of the 2018 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc – no longer just the epic full circuit of the highest mountain in west Europe, but a total of six races (with youth events also taking place), ranging from 40km up to the mindboggling 300km (and 25,000m of ascent) of the PTL (Petite Trotte à Léon) – I have stood on the edge of the race course, watching race winners and leaders charging through, looking calm, quick and focussed. I have seen the midpack, completing efforts that even averagely fit individuals would think of as barely possible. I have cheered tail-runners, those who complete the largest endurance feats of all, often on their feet for twice as long as the winners. I followed friends via a live tracking app, viewing relative position in real time from the comfort of a bar or my hotel bed. Every one of those runner’s stories is still not my own, not mine to tell.
Watching from the edge of the course two years ago, I resolved that the next time I visited, I would add my own story to the ever-growing collection of others in the 16-year history of the races. I started my tale with a mix of emotions on the start line of the MCC. The new-for-2018 race was established for those who give up their time to volunteer for the other races, for the locals whose villages the races pass through and disrupt and for a small number of others, including me. A glance at the route statistics could lead you to underestimate it, especially when compared to the challenges later on in the week. It would be foolish to underestimate 40km with 2300m of climbing, though. Starting in Martigny-Combe, the route rises quickly to Col de la Forclaz, before plateauing briefly and ramping up once more to the high point at Col de Balme.
Back to the start line and it was hard to tell whether my churning stomach was nerves or the lingering effects of the bout of sickness that had kept me up all night. Not ideal, but I was feeling better than before, and I tried to ignore that the fuel tank was empty. It was probably foolish to set off at my normal pace. It felt easy, and the crowds of locals lining the streets provided a vocal push on the back as the small road, then trail ramped up dramatically. The gradient tickled the boundary between runnable and more efficient to walk, and I swapped between the two, ignoring the strange ‘light’ feeling I had, focussing on measuring my effort and sipping water.
As so often when I’m racing, I lost my sense of place. I was aware of the beauty around me, from chocolate box chalets and meadows to snow-capped peaks far, far above, but only a small corner of my consciousness processed that. For all that I love the simplicity of racing… moving forward as efficiently as possible, always moving forward, I so often regret that I don’t take the extra few seconds to look around. Topping out at the Col de la Forclaz, I was aware of the cool breeze whipping heat away from sweat-glistened skin. Cowbells rang in my ears, thanks both to spectators and the herds of cattle ignoring the conga line of taught-calfed runners moving past them. Cruising along the balcony trail to the start of our second climb, my legs relished the chance to run freely and quickly. It was short lived. Col de Balme is a brute. Steeper than the preceding climb, it was also rougher, with rock steps and awkward terrain to move over and around. No foot placement was the same as the next and I was thankful for my poles, steadying the ship and allowing me to keep driving my legs forward, finding rhythm where there was none.
We crested high a little sooner than I expected, still some distance from the true summit of the Col. Briefly descending I felt a familiar but rare twinge in my calf. I couldn’t be cramping. We were only two hours in, and I otherwise felt good. Chastened and unnerved, I stepped aside the trail, grabbed an energy bar and forced myself to eat it while moving a little slower. Keep pushing. To my right, huge views opened out, but I was so focussed on each and every foot placement as I traversed the flanks of Tête de Balme alpine flowers pushed through, creating a high definition, high saturation palette that bled into my subconscious as I moved. Luscious greens contrasted the pearlescent blue sky. Still, I did not pause to acknowledge. Rounding a corner, the col itself came into view, my trail stretching along, drawing me in. More people began to line the sides of the course again. Words of encouragement bouncing off my eardrums rather than soaking in. A friendly face, a hug, a quick peck, smiles, blurred into one. Moving once more, completing the last few metres of climb. 18km done, not halfway in distance but far more descending than climbing to come.
Once again the trail snaked out in front of me. A vast view opened out in front. Even I, lost in the process, was distracted from the act of running. The entire Chamonix valley presented itself, Mont Blanc literally shining to my left. Had I wished, I could have plotted my entire remaining 22km against the backdrop, but I had already refocused on the flowing singletrack guiding me down to the valley. A few metres later and my right leg shocked in pain. Then my left. Quads, calves, the arches of my feet. I let out an involuntary yelp, and crumpled to the side of the trail, waiting for the agony to subside slightly. Gradually the tight knots of muscle fibre relaxed and I carefully lifted myself upright. This isn’t meant to happen. I looked out once more across the valley floor. What only a few seconds before promised fun, an opportunity to relax and the road home now felt like a daunting task. I tentatively, gently, softly lifted one leg and placed it in front of me. Twinges of complaint shot through my legs, but they didn’t lock solid. I moved my next foot a few inches forward. A shuffle became a gentle walk, as runners flew past, some issuing a quick “ça va?” while disappearing before I could respond with a lie. Things were bloody well not ça va. Not at all. I broke into a run. Angry at my body. Somehow thinking that I would be able to beat it into submission. I am a motivational poster. My mind is stronger than these feeble legs, or the feeble stomach that chose last night to rebel. I made it a few paces before my legs were sniped from underneath me.
And as I lay in the dust, humiliated, humbled and still a long way from home my race ended. There though, my story started. Once again, I fought to relax, tried to embrace and accept the immediate pain, knowing that the sooner I did, the sooner the initial cramp would fade. Sitting in the dust, I reached inside my race pack and opened two gels, swallowing them both at once, swilling down the sticky cocktail with flat coke. Pushing myself up on my poles, I repeated my tentative start, jogging baby steps until my legs would once again give way. The worst bout saw me fall in front of a spectator, who rushed to massage my legs, stretch them out and pop a salt tablet under my tongue. I sat there with him for a few minutes, watching runners flood past. I felt no jealousy for how freely they were moving. I was no longer racing, it didn’t matter. Instead, I enjoyed the companionship of a stranger for a fleeting moment. Looking out with different eyes at the view in front of me, I took the time to recognise all the places that were familiar to me. Stories from my history. Ski trips, bike rides, climbs were presented for me and now I had the time to reminisce.
Races are for running though, and for completing. Head down, breathe, move. 100m without pain, another 100m. If I allowed myself to move to fast, I would get warning shots; harsh whips and snaps of pain across my legs. Despite that, I was still moving forwards.
Reaching each village, words of encouragement perforated deeper. I processed, treasured and gave thanks for each “Bravo!” and “Allez!”. The course would punctuate glorious forested singletrack with twisting streets through old towns, passing shuttered gites and chalets, flower boxes overflowing, water fountains bubbling. Bouts of cramp would punctuate my own pace. Time would stand simultaneously stand still and speed up as I was brought to a halt. Sometimes mere metres would space apart these electric shocks, other times kilometres seemed to tick by, albeit agonisingly slowly. In between the pain, I was able to enjoy being in this wonderful valley on a special day.
Feed station helpers would top up water bottles with the thought, care and love of a parent feeding a newborn. They would encourage you to take just another biscuit or lump of cheese, linger over the Haribo (AKA “Morale-ibo”), before cajoling you on your way with another “Allez”!
If you keep moving forwards, no matter how slowly, you’ll eventually reach your destination. And so I did, embracing the flat run in to Chamonix, more than ready to twist my way through the narrow town centre streets to the finish line that I have watched so many cross over the years. And as I widened my stride, just a few hundred metres to go, I saw it. The biggest mountain of the day. A huge set of metal stairs spanned the road between where I was and the finish. Pedestrians crossed below, but racers had to climb two flights, cross the road and descend again. My legs virtually started cramping in anticipation. Eyes closed. One step. Allow my next leg to rejoin the first, too timid to step beyond. Dry throat. Keep moving. The descent is almost as agonisingly slow. I feel the eyes of hundreds of well-wishers burn into me, and the collective relief as I reach the bottom and begin to run again.
The incredible thing about the races during UTMB week is the reception every single runner receives as they finish. Regardless of the mountain passes they span, every runner crosses the line in the centre of Chamonix. I fell asleep most evenings hearing applause drifting through my open window. Families of those racing, tourists and passers-by join together to clap through each and every person, from first to last. It’s impossible not to find a little more pace with a wave of applause pushing you towards the finish line. The previous 39.9km were forgotten as I made my final few footsteps. In time, I would analyse what went wrong, make plans for next year – there’s always a next year – but for now the moment was worth savouring
Zach Miller didn’t get that final round of applause this year. He kept pushing until the pain in his right leg was so bad he could no longer move. In the end he was helped away from the race course with a suspected stress fracture. He may not have received his finisher’s vest, or achieved what he had set out to do, but he had another chapter to add to his UTMB story – one which feels a long way from being completed.
As presenting partner of the UTMB® Columbia Sportswear collaborates with the organisation team, volunteers, partners and athletes in connecting active people with their passions by testing and developing its innovative outdoor technologies in the most demanding conditions. For more information visit www.columbiasportswear.co.uk/columbia-montrail