As torrential rain, snow at altitude and freezing temperatures all hit the valley last weekend, thousands of trail runners were lining up on the start line to take part in one of the world’s toughest endurance races: The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).
As we sipped warm cups of tea in our cosy and dry office at Chamonet HQ, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves, who were these guys? Who were these thousands of colourful, lithe, lycra-clad individuals who were actively choosing to spend their weekend running distances of over 100km, throughout the night, in freezing temperatures, climbing thousands of meters in altitude, and most crucially, why??!!
Rather than just shake our heads in awe, we decided that it would be worth meeting up with a few of these inspirational athletes to find out just exactly what it takes to be an ultra-trail runner and why on earth they do what they do...
First up, Kaz Williams - a local Chamonix girl competing in her first CCC event.
Event Details: CCC
Completion time: 20hrs 02mins 51sec
Overall position: 909 (1584 finished…I think something like 1800 entered)
1. First of all Kaz, congratulations! You have just completed your first CCC – tell us a little bit more about what the race actually entails.
The CCC (Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix) is a 100km race with 5998m of positive ascent and pretty much the same in descent. The race starts at 10am in Courmayeur, Champex is around the half-way point with the finish in Chamonix town centre. The race covers the last 100km of the The North Face UTMB course.
2. The weather conditions for this year’s UTMB event were truly atrocious – talk us through what it was like to be out there and were you prepared for the extreme cold and snow at altitude?
Courmayeur calls itself the Sunny Side and it was largely dry for the start of the race which was great. By the first check point at Refuge Bertone, the wind had picked up and it started to rain. Lots of people were stopping to put on their waterproof trousers. As it was my first ultra-event it was difficult to know what to do. The rain wasn’t heavy so I put on my waterproof jacket, I was warm…so I carried on. As the route took us higher the rain turned to snow and there was lots of it! The snow line was at around 1,800m so we moved between rain and snow throughout the entire course, with the rain only easing in Argentiere. The advice from the organisers was spot on. I waited until Champex (which I reached around 19h30) before putting on my waterproof trousers and a warm layer as it quickly went dark, temperatures dropped, and the weather didn’t look like it was going to improve. I changed my peak cap for my beanie and put on a decent pair of gloves.
3. The CCC is an event that you have to qualify for – when did you start running, what events have you done before, and what convinced you to sign up for this one?
I have always been a runner and in the past had entered a few road races. It was only when I moved to Chamonix that I started to explore the trails...and then I was hooked! Living in Chamonix you can’t help but be inspired by the events that take place and in awe of the people that complete these amazing races…and then you begin to wonder if you can do it. There is a world recognised points system for ultra events. I completed the Trail des Aiguilles Rouge last year and it was the points from this race that enabled me to qualify for the CCC. There’s loads of information on The North Face UTMB website about how the points system works.
4. Tell us a little bit more about your training schedule and how far in advance your preparations for the race began?
As the CCC and UTMB are hugely popular races, there are no guarantees of a place. The draw takes place in January and I was lucky enough to get a place in the first year I had applied. As far as preparations is concerned, last winter I did some ski touring. By late April/beginning of May I began to venture out onto the trails, going up as far as the snow line. Training stepped up a gear in June when the weather improved. I changed my training specifically for the CCC. Rather than doing a mega day up the hill of 8-10 hours usually on a Sunday, I did two higher intensity long runs of 4-5 hours but on consecutive days. During the week, I alternated between an evening hike of about 1000m or a 2 hour valley run. For the CCC I did 3 months of good training (I could have done more)…but still made it to a friend’s hen weekend in Sligo a couple of weeks before the race! It’s all about trying to maintain a balance, although I am a light weight when it comes to late nights!!
5. Endurance running is the preserve of a very niche group – what characteristics do you think an individual needs to possess to be successful out on the trail?
It is really important to be, and stay positive out on the trail. Don’t get overwhelmed by the size of what you are undertaking. Break it down into manageable chunks. Having a sound game plan is important as is sticking to it. However things invariably change on the day so expect the unexpected, focus on what you can control and adapt your race strategy. A sense of humour is essential too. I am not an elite athlete. I was not going to win the CCC but I had decided I was going to enjoy it and smile - even in the snow storm!
6. When it comes to kit, what do you carry with you during the race and which bits of gear are essential for endurance running in general?
There is an obligatory list of kit and recommended items for the race. Your bag is checked when you pick up your number and spot checks were being carried out at the start. The incoming bad weather was a major concern and the organisers did send a text to say they were increasing the obligatory 3 layers (base, mid and waterproof jacket) to 4 layers (an extra warm layer like a micro fleece). For me the extra warm layer was essential and the water and windproof jacket and trousers were must-haves! And as these longer races end up in the dark a good quality head torch is vital! We also had to carry a whistle, strapping tape, foil blanket, spare head torch, spare batteries, mobile phone, and a cup…
7. In terms of nutrition, how did you prepare for the event, how did you keep yourself adequately fuelled during the race and what was your first meal after you’d crossed the finish line?
There is so much information out there on nutrition, so it is important to do your research. I found The North Face UTMB website really helpful, especially their recommendations for the days leading up to the race. Having said this, everyone is different as far as nutrition is concerned and you need to figure out what works best for you. I kept it very simple and had 4 smaller meals a day, making sure I was taking on enough protein, carbohydrates, vegetable and fruit. Pasta and a Bolognese sauce is still my favourite pre-race evening meal - you can’t beat it! During the race I took energy bars with me, but the food stations were fantastic and I didn’t have to worry about not taking enough. There was everything from soup, fruit, biscuits, cereal bars, cake and much more! As it was breakfast time when I got home, my first meal was bran flakes with natural yogurt and a sliced banana.
8. What were your emotions and physical state when you finally crossed the finish line?
Because the route had changed, I didn’t know if we were going to be taken beyond Chamonix and brought back in. It was only at the parapente field that someone said ‘it’s not far!’ The last leg takes you past Hotel Alpina, down Rue Joseph Vallot past The North Face shop, into Place Balmat, and then up towards the Mairie where you cross the line. Every supporter that I passed along this route made eye contact, they gave me a huge smile and words of encouragement with such passion. The more I smiled back and said thank you, the more I realised that I was going to complete the CCC…and that’s when the tears came. Friends who had been following the race throughout the night were at the finish, for which I was hugely grateful. I ran the entire race with my boyfriend John. We passed through each check point together, chatted all the way round, giggled at stupid things and sang our heads off in the small wee hours of the night. We watched out for each other, ran through town together and finished strong…we made it round because of each other.
9. Other than crossing the finish line, were there any other stand out events or people that you encountered on the way round?
There were 2 volunteers and a medic at Catogne which was a run through check point. They didn’t want runners stopping because it was so cold. They had a small fire going and music blasting in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. I ran through in seconds but they had already been there for hours, and crucially would be there for many more hours to come encouraging the runners. To me this is the essence of this type of adventure race, the race wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the volunteers.
10. 3 days on – is it a case of ‘never again’ or are you already planning your next challenge?
Never say never! My next challenge is later on this month - The Atlantic Coastal Challenge in the UK. It’s an ultra endurance adventure race that involves running 3 marathons in 3 days. I really enjoyed the CCC…not just after the race, but during the race. Maybe I just was lucky that I had a good day and the right kit with me. It really was a fantastic experience and 3 days on, it is only just beginning to sink in.