I could feel it coming and had to find somewhere quickly.
Unfortunately in a hot sweaty tent crammed with runners refuelling after already covering 55 mind blowingly brutal kilometers, the organisers had obviously forgotten to set aside a throwing up corner. I made a dash for the exit with my mouth clenched firmly shut but only made it as far as the table where volunteers were serving up coke and fizzy water, before the noodle soup which had decided it was leaving my stomach found my mouth shut and took the high speed diversion out my nose and all down the front of my warm mid-layer shirt. I made a second dash for the exit and found a convenient pile of wood chippings next to the timing mats at the entrance just as my stomach emptied for a second time. Looking up, slightly dazed, and being careful not to cross the Out mat which would signal me leaving Champex, I noticed the people at the Retiral table eyeing me up. Self-consciously, I wiped the worst of the puke off my shirt, got some more sparkling water poured into the folding cup attached to my backpack by a length of elastic, switched on my head torch and headed into the darkness before I became too tempted by the Retiral desk or one of the officials took the decision for me.
Champex Lac sits halfway up one of the big climbs in the CCC and it had been a struggle to get there. As I left the aid station I passed the bus half full of runners for whom enough was enough. It looked warm and dry compared to the heavy rain lit up by my torch. For a moment I contemplated heading back to the tent and stopping, but gave myself a shake and thoughts of pulling out vanished. There were people waiting for me to finish and I didnt want to be on that bus.
The CCC or Courmayeur-Chamex-Chamonix to give it its full name, is a 101K race through the Alps. It is part of the famous UTMB series of races and here I was, only half way through, travelling at a snails pace and about to head into the mountains in the dark. This was hard: 2 hours and 40 minutes to run 10K hard and it was about to get harder.
The day had started brightly enough. The trip to Courmayeur in Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel had been pretty smooth and I was grateful for the company of fellow Scot Carol Martin on this trip as I pondered the splendid symmetry of a drive under the mountain before running back over the top. At Courmayeur we met up with Random Scottish Punters Terry, Silke and Malcolm who were all to run fantastic races. As the race started we were cheered on by epic cheer leaders George and Karen – George had somehow contrived to borrow the biggest cow bell you have ever seen and was swinging it lustily as only George can.
The climb out of Courmayeur is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The CCC route varies a little from UTMB at this point, CCC climbing higher over Tete de la Tranche. The first 500m or so of climbing was not too bad and once above the tree line the views over the Italian side of the Alps were stunning. I kept an eye on the altimeter on my Garmin and it kept climbing. After about 6500m I could really feel the air begin to thin. The climb was at least as steep as anything you could encounter on our Munros back home in Scotland and every time you lifted your head you could see runners high above you. The scary part was if you lifted your head once more there were still runners even higher. Eventually a little respite was gained from the climb as we reached a rather exposed col with big drops and big scenery on either side, but sure enough it steepened further before another lung busting climb to the top at just over 2500m. The first 10K had taken 2.5 hours and had climbed 1500m. It was going to be a long day.
Our bibs were scanned by some hardy volunteers right on top of the mountain and without much fanfare it was over the top and downhill to Refuge Bertone some 3 Kilometres away and 500 metres below. In my race plan I had intended climbing conservatively and then using the downhill to pick up some time. I had climbed well enough but by the time I readed the top I was really feeling the altitude and was struggling to run the downhill. My brain wasn’t sharp enough to process the rocky underfoot conditions and my legs were numb from the climb. As I lumbered gingerly down the 500m descent, I was quite intimidated by large number of runners who overtook me at breakneck pace throwing themselves down hill with what seemed to me like reckless abandon. By the time I made it down to Refuge Bertone the sun was splitting the sky and I realised I was sweating like I had never sweated before. I took my pack off and discovered it was soaked through. I refilled my bottles, grabbed some coke and coffee and removed the t shirt I was wearing over my Helly Hansen base layer. At this point someone nudged me and my cup of coffee went all over my white shirt leaving a large mucky brown stain all over the front. When I took off this shirt I realised it weighed a ton with sweat so rather than carry it in my pack for another 50 miles I ditched it, knowing that I had another long sleeve top in my bag as per the mandatory kit list.
The mandatory kit list is one of the unusual and scary features of UTMB. There is an exhaustive list of kit which includes things like spare warm mid layer (minimum 185g) and a personal cup. The kit is checked at registration in the sports hall in Chamonix pre race. When you register by showing your passport they look you up on the computer and then print out a personalised kit list. On the kit list are marked 4 random items which will be checked. I got Phone, Head Torches, Waterproof Jacket and warm hat. You then need to take your kit along with the list to a table where a volunteer checks your kit thoroughly. Both head torches had to be switched on to show they work and spare batteries for both had to be shown as well. The phone had to be shown working and the taped seams were were checked for integrity. If everything is intact you can then progress to pick up your bib. If not, you need to go away, get the right gear and come back again. Even more scary was the random kit check carried out pre race in Courmayeur. Race marshalls were selecting runners and going through a full kit check, having runners empty their packs and show all 20 or or so of the mandatory items of kit. Even though my kit was correct I was extremely relieved to avoid the stress of a check.
The section from Bertone to Refuge Bonatti should be relatively straightforward but I continued to find it hard going. By Refure Bonatti at 14 miles in I was suffering from horrible cramp in my gracilis which is the muscle which runs down the inside of your thigh. At Bonatti I swallowed a couple of packets of salt which seemed to ease the cramping. Another climb came next. Those little squiggles on the elevation map turned out to be pretty big ups and downs and still sweating profusely I made it into Arnuva which is the first of the cut off points. I was relieved to see that I was in with a couple of hours to spare because I couldn’t have speeded up any if I needed to. Next up was a big hard climb to the highest point of the course at Grand Col Ferret. Despite the steep and unrelenting climb, I found this much easier than the first.
Grand Col Ferret marked the arrival into Switzerland and the next section was a good run downhill through some pretty picture postcard villages with wooden flower decked houses before a brutal 500m climb up switchbacks to Champex and the aforementioned throwing up incident.
Champex to Trient was another huge climb up Bovine where the only sound you could hear was the odd cow bell clanging in the darkness. One of the things which characterised the climbs was the silence. Despite there being runners nearby almost all of the time, there was very little talking as people concentrated on slowly putting one foot in front of another. In the pouring rain the sight of steam rising from hooded bent over runners was somewhat Orwellian. I had my first kit malfunction when my head torch started to fade rather too rapidly for my liking. I stopped at an impromptu aid station where two little girls were dishing out hot tea outside a farmhouse in the dark and pouring rain and put new batteries in my torch. Again they didnt last long and so the descent to Trient was taken very carefully as I tried to stay close to other runners who seemed to be running with lights resembling car headlamps. Having struggled to refuel in Champex my body was running on empty by the time I made it to Trient and another welcome aid station.
At Trient I managed to eat several bowls of noodle soup, bread, sausage and cheese. I swapped head torches and was relieved to find my second torch was working properly offering a bright beam and set off for Vallorcine only 11K away in quite good spirits. By now my Garmin had packed in, but I didn’t mind as I had consciously decided not to bother with a charger, and as it was only 11K it shouldnt take too long. Wrong! A combination of a steep climb over Catogne at 2009m followed by a 800m slide downhill through wet mud meant the 11K took 2 hr 50 mins! At Vallorcine I took my time and fuelled up once more.
The track out of Vallorcine looked runable but I must confess that I only ran small sections of it. Maybe I was mindful of the big climb to come or maybe I was just more secure power marching in the darkness, but in the distance I could see a line of lights perched precipitously on the steep outline of the climb from Col de Montets to Tete aux Vents. I kept reminding myself that this was the last climb and only 700m but you couldnt help but look at those torches and be awed by how steep and how high they went into the night sky. The climb up from Col de Montets was horrible. Very steep and with some clambering, I tucked in behind a lady who set a great slow but steady pace rather than the usual go-as-fast-as-you-can-then-stop-cos-you-are-dying pace that men tend to adopt (testosterone is not always your friend). We worked up through the clouds and as we neared the top, the sky began to lighten. Some flatter switchbacks gave an opportunity to look below at the head torches still climbing and as dawn broke to reveal a cloud inversion covering the whole valley the view was spectacular.
The remainder of the climb to Tete aux Vents was a bit easier flattening out to normal sized undulations and offering spectaular views of the Mont Blanc range. The views and the relief that the job was nearly done made for an enjoyable hobble in the clear early morning air.
The Tetes aux Vents checkpoint finally arrived with its iconic orange North Face dome tent, but the promised downhill turned out to be a steep and technical descent that seemed to go on forever. I had asked the marshals how far to go and they said 3K to the last aid station at Flegere and 5K from Flegere to the finish. They lied.
Once the track to Flegere eased to a sensible gradient I picked up and passed quite a few people, making a point of running through all of the ice cold streams to cool my feet and legs. There is a final climb up to the chair lift at Flegere but after so much climbing this one was just inconvenient rather than difficult. At Flegere I changed back into my shorts, and finally was able to take off my sick stained warm top and swap it for a cold sweat soaked t shirt. I downed a miniature of Great Glen Ultra whisky, filled a bottle with water and headed out with 8K to go.
I had a good run on the single track which followed the contours of the hill down into Chamonix picking up a lot of places as I passed plenty of people who were quite content to walk it out. Lots of supporters were out walking up hill to see runners and they were all so genuine in their support of what you had just achieved. Through some houses, again with support and then it was across the road and into the town of Chamonix and the famous run along the river. The crowds thckened and I spotted a Saltire waving in the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the flag was attached to friend Norry who had volunteered to come out and watch for me. Norry passed me the flag which I attached to my walking pole making an impromptu flag pole. The cheers from the crowds on the last loop through town were amazing and as I turned the final corner to see the finish arch the Scottish contingent were going crazy, shouting and waving flags. Some high fives and a massive hug from Helen who I thought ws going to burst with excitment and I was over the line. I had finished the CCC.
I caught up with Terry and Carol and was pleased to learn they had finished safely with strong runs. We had all come here with thoughts of using CCC as a precursor to an attempt at UTMB. Our concensus on the finish line was absolutely no way! The respect for the UTMB finishers is absolute, but we were going to have to rethink our ambitions, CCC was so hard that doing more seemed impossible.
I think it took about 6 hours for us to change our minds.
Initially I was a wee bit disappointed with my finishing time of 24 hours and 10 minutes but that didnt last long. CCC is so diferent from anything I have done before and I was pleased to learn that I had picked my way through the field over the second half of the course finishing in 950th place just inside the top half of the field. You really need ot serve your apprenticeship running in the Alps and at times on the CCC I was definitely sent for the tartan paint and the Long Stand. The climbs arent just enormous but they are unrelentingly steep. The downhills are steep and technical in places. The altitude affects you. The path was muddy and treacherous in places. There is 9 hours darkness running with headtorches on technical trails in unfamiliar mountains. There is a massive drop out rate. To finish in itself is an achievement. There is nothing which can prepare you for how big it is.
The whole trip was an amazing experience, all the more so for sharing it with the large contingent of Random Scottish Punters who had made the trip out to run or support. Watching people finish the various races was fantastic. Every single person was given a hero’s welcome. The Elite performances were astonishing. Despite being the hardest race I have ever done by a long way, It is in the diary for next year already whether I am succesful in the ballot or not. CCC was one of those life changing experiences and I am sure Chamionix will become a regular fixture in our travel plans.
Having seen it, UTMB has to be the next target.
As Terry said to me “We had better do it soon cos we are not getting any younger”