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Underdog

Chasing the UTMB Dream // Damian Hall
Photography: ©UTMB // Andy Jackson // Summit Fever Media

The sky is lightening; a thick swirl of murky grey. Just enough to let me turn off my Petzl. But then, once over a small brow, on again. Round the corner, off again. Signs of prey are fantastic motivators. We are all hungry. It’s a fight for survival.

A spec of light pierces the gloaming. A head torch, far above. Climbing, steadily, up the mountain. My prey. But there are two head torches behind me, too; lower down, closer. I’m their prey.

I want the person ahead to see my light. To worry about it. For it to nag him, wear him down mentally. At the same time, I don’t want the two runners below me to see my tell-tale light, if I can help it, for the same reasons.

The sky is lightening; a thick swirl of murky grey. Just enough to let me turn off my Petzl. But then, once over a small brow, on again. Round the corner, off again. Signs of prey are fantastic motivators. We are all hungry. It’s a fight for survival.

Running 100-mile ultramarathons, and especially through the night in mountains, does strange things to your mind. Well, my mind, anyway. Maybe the others just thought, ‘Why is that idiot turning his head torch on and off?’

It was my fourth consecutive Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) and I wasn’t coming back next year. I had to make it count this time.

UTMB had become an obsession I felt unable to control at times. It’s not just a 105-mile race in the Alps with 10,000m of vertical gain. In mountain ultrarunning, it’s the Super Bowl. It usually has the strongest line-up of any trail race in the world, this year including Kilian Jornet, US speedsters Jim Walmsley, Zach Miller and Tim Tollefson, 2017 Western States winner Ryan Sanders, Spain’s three-time Trail World Champion and Olympian Luis Alberto Hernando, and anyone who was anyone in the sport. They are mostly professional, full-time runners. Younger and faster, many live and train in the mountains, and don’t have families impinging on their workout time. I was trying to be like them. But I live in the Cotswolds, with my wife and two young children.

There are more than 2,000 competitors on the start line at UTMB. Usually about 800 don’t finish. I’ve experienced hail, snow, and sub-zero temperatures in the race, but also baking sunshine and 30˚C+. But it’s not the weather that causes the biggest difficulty for most Brits. It’s the damage those long mountain descents do to leg muscles, especially quadriceps, which scream out in agony. I love it.

I love the level of competition. I love the course, all those big hurty peaks. And I love the crowds, who turn out in their thousands to ring cowbells up in the mountains right through the night and shout ‘bon courage’ – I only got an E for GCSE French, but I assume that’s something positive – then give each runner a deserving hero’s welcome in Chamonix.

I’d improved each year, from 29th to 12th. But last year was close enough to the hallowed top 10 that it nagged at me every day for 12 months. At my first UTMB, the top 10 men and women had stood on a podium afterwards. I gazed at them like they were gods, superheroes, not believing what they had done was possible for a mortal. But each year I got closer.

Training for UTMB had overtaken my summer. Again. I promised my wife I wouldn’t do it again next year. I had to get this one right. However, I didn’t just want to break into the top 10. I now felt like I had to.

I’d idiotically mentioned my ambitions in magazines and let others mention it on social media. My great friends Ellie and Matt Green from Summit Fever Media were making a film called Underdog. An influential race preview named me as someone capable of cracking the top 10. British runners were coming up to me in Chamonix saying, ‘Good luck for top 10!’ It all felt a bit much. And I’d brought it on myself.

I barely slept the night before. Unlike previous years, I was nervous.

When the day finally arrived, the weather forecast helped relax me a tad. It was perfect: rain and temperatures below 0˚C. Just like the Brecon Beacons, where I often trained.

Chamonix was electric. Huge crowds, 2,000-plus runners. A sea of smartphones held aloft. After the goosebump-triggering Conquest of Paradise, we were off.

The race is famous for kamikaze-fast starts, but I also felt I needed to be more ambitious early on – carefully so. It’s a fine line. It can ruin your race. Two hours in and things started to feel difficult. It was time to back off. It was dark, raining, and my legs felt empty. My mindset was going south.

I felt disappointed, but couldn’t pin down why I was struggling – although I did get passed on the climbs two or three times, which annoyed me, as the uphill sections are usually my strength. I knocked back some soup at an aid station and headed back into the mountains, reminding myself there were still 20-plus hours to go. Anything could happen.

It was cold, with drifting mists, flickering stars, a big white moon, snow gleaming on the mountains, frost glittering on the ground, and a long zigzag of torches behind me. I gradually felt better. In fact, I realised I felt ace. It was time to hunt.

I was stunned when, around 3.00am and 45 miles in, just before the descent to Italy’s Courmayeur, I passed US star and race joint-favourite Jim Walmsley. I didn’t pause to chat.

Running the downhill hard woke my legs up nicely and I was buzzing when I reached the Courmayeur checkpoint in 13th place. I had fell-running legend and fellow inov-8 ambassador Nicky Spinks crewing for me. Just seeing her gave me a lift. Though she did leave me hanging, initially, on a high five. We hadn’t rehearsed that bit.

The next section is my favourite. Another long climb, then an undulating plateau with the Mont Blanc massif to my left across a huge silent dark valley. I’d promised myself a treat: my iPod. I normally prefer morose, wailing indie. But it isn’t always a great motivator on a 100-mile mountain race. So my mix was mostly 80s tat; power ballads, the Top Gun soundtrack, T’Pau, Phil Collins. I know. Don’t judge me.

It was cold, with drifting mists, flickering stars, a big white moon, snow gleaming on the mountains, frost glittering on the ground, and a long zigzag of torches behind me. I gradually felt better. In fact, I realised I felt ace. It was time to hunt.

At La Fouly, Switzerland, 68 miles in, I found myself in seventh. Seventh! I hadn’t dared dream I’d ever get that far up the placings.

I ran with Austria’s bearded wonder Florian Grasel, who saved my race at the Mozart 100 in June by kindly sharing salt tablets when I had cramp (I’d brought spares this time, in case I could return the favour). It felt like we were a team. Until I pushed on.

I passed another runner in the dark. Glimpsing a light up ahead as the sky brightened slightly, I couldn’t resist a bit of head torch chess as I slowly climbed to the course’s highest point, Grand Col Ferret (2,490m). About 20 minutes later I passed New Zealand’s Scotty Hawker, who’d finished 11th in 2017, pipping me in the final 5k. In a way that was satisfying, but he was having tummy issues. I felt for the guy and wished him well.

At La Fouly, Switzerland, 68 miles in, I found myself in seventh. Seventh! I hadn’t dared dream I’d ever get that far up the placings. The suicidal pros ahead of me had raced each other into the ground and started blowing up all over the place, like a bomb had been dropped on the front of the race.

I still felt pretty good at Champex-Lac, about 75 miles in – certainly better than the previous year, when I’d started to slide into a funk. The two ahead of me looked good, I was told. Less so the two ahead of them, though, Tollefson and Miller. The idea of arriving in Chamonix in seventh brought me to the brink of tears. But I had to keep pushing, concentrate on the basics. There’d be people behind me running strongly. Hunting me.

Indeed, a rejuvenated Hawker shot past me on the next climb. But then I caught Miller. He was limping and babbling semi-coherently. He’d smashed himself up pretty good and was about to quit. Normally I’d try to talk someone out of that. But for him it was the best choice.

I was surprised to catch Hawker again on the descent. He was suffering. I felt bad for him, guilty about taking advantage.

The steep climb to Les Tseppes went on forever and a day. Last year I was being overtaken by snails here and lost my 10th place. ‘Not this time,’ I told myself. ‘Focus. Don’t be lazy. Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.’

The crowds seemed to grow at every major checkpoint. As requested, Nicky had bought me chips at Vallorcine to go with my cuppa tea, chocolate milk, and boiled potatoes in mayonnaise.

The next 2km stretch was only a slight incline. I desperately wanted to hike it, but every time I saw a spectator I forced myself to run. Well, shuffle. I was fifth. I hadn’t ever imagined that was possible. I really liked fifth. But there were still around two hours to go – and I really wanted a sit down.

Inside the last 10K, on the final climb, I was told I had a cushion of 20 minutes on the guy behind. I relaxed. Too much. Just before the last descent I thought I glimpsed a runner behind. I felt desperate, primal.

Just around the corner, I tripped and cut my hand and knee. Idiot! You’re going to throw it all away now, right at the end? So careless. Stay calm. Stay on the basics.

Three strangers quietly joined me for the final descent, zigzagging through trees, with Chamonix in the valley below, never getting any closer.

In the streets, finally, there were hands to high-five everywhere. It was magical. Nicky joined me. She seemed distracted. ‘Erm, there could be a runner about a minute behind you,’ she said. I really liked fifth. Top five is a thing. Top six isn’t. I tried to move up a gear, but I didn’t have another one. Thankfully we were soon out of real estate.

I felt so much emotion as I rounded the corner to the hallowed dark blue arch, but happiness overwhelmed it all. I’d missed my cousin’s wedding to be there. I’d missed my dad’s 70th birthday party for a B race this year. I’d neglected my wife and kids more times than I could remember. I don’t think I have any non-running friends left. It all felt worth it.

Damian Hall is a journalist, coach and runner, supported by inov-8. You can follow him on Instagram, Strava and the usual places and find more info at www.damianhall.info.

Underdog, a film by Summit Fever Media, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Kendal Mountain Festival and can be purchased from: reelhouse.org/summitfevermedia/underdog875


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