THE NORTH FACE ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT BLANC 24-26 AUGUST 2007
As I spend most of my life bullying people into signing up for one or more of our team challenge charity events, I felt it was appropriate that I in turn should set my own personal challenge and so I registered for the North Face event back in December 2006. All 2400 places had been taken within two days of registration opening, a tribute to the popularity of this extraordinary event.
I had attempted the event in 2006 and was not aware of the cut off times and was withdrawn halfway round the course which was infuriating. I vowed to return the following year and complete the unfinished business.
2007 has been a remarkably busy year for Events and Activities Ltd with two new members of staff joining the team and two new events joining the calendar. In total we have raised £3.5 million for fifteen different charities through seven events. I had great difficulty in fitting in a training regime worthy of the immense challenge ahead and with two demanding daughters of 3 years and 15 months I had the perfect excuse to do as little training as possible. My training was sporadic and inconsistent and was made up of taking our new team through our full portfolio of challenges from the Rob Roy to the Maggie's Bike and Hike. My longest training session consisted of taking a kayak one mile across Loch Tay [with Black Spaniel, Mungo] and running/walking six Munro's followed by 15 miles around Loch Tay and back home all in 12 hours.
I also learnt while registering for the North Face that the organisers had decided to extend the route from 156k to 163K. How considerate I thought and I later learnt that the Mayor of Saint- Gervais persuaded the organisers that the event should also be taking in this historic Spa town.
The North Face Tour Du Mont Blanc [www.ultratrailmb.com] is equivalent to running four full 26.2 mile marathons back to back and climbing Mount Everest [163k with 9000m of ascent]. The overall cut off time was set at 46 hours and there were 29 refreshment and check in stations on the route. Competitors were not able to have supporters helping throughout and we had to make do with the provisions provided which were adequate and consisted mainly of, Tea, Coffee, Noodle soup, cheese, salami, biscuits, chocolate and water. Some of the stops just had water and others just check in monitors. Competitors were also aloud to deposit two bags of extra kit at [Courmayeur] 77k and at [Champex Lac] 122k.
My wife, two daughters and a brace of parents in law arrived in Chamonix four full days before kick off which enabled me to become acclimatised to the altitude. Three days before the event I went for a 12 mile acclimatisation run from Vallorcine [where we were based] up to a height of 2400m. I strongly urge anyone considering taking part in this event to travel out a few days beforehand to acclimatise and become familiar with the terrain.
Registration at the main sports complex in Chamonix was well organised and efficient. We were given a thorough kit check, competitor number, special microchip on a wrist band and an update on changes or problems with the route. I purchased two long Austrian Graphite walking poles [not telescopic as they tend to break easily] and a special endurance ruck sack with side and belt pouches. This also contained a three litre camel back reservoir with tube. We all had to carry two head torches and two sets of spare batteries together with waterproofs, Pantaloons, [tight running lycra trousers] thermals, hat, first aid kit, whistle and emergency rations.
At 6pm, 2400 runners from all over the world congregated in Chamonix central square to rousing and dramatic music and speeches. The weather was perfect as the sun had dipped behind the spectacular mass of Mont Blanc and the awe inspiring Glacier Des Bossons and Taconnaz. The count down took place and we were off. It took me ten minutes to cross the start line as I was determined not to be caught up in the typical rush of adrenalin that occurs when you have hundreds of people eager to show off to the thousands of supporting and cheering spectators. The atmosphere was electric and all 2400 of us were setting off on this amazing adventure not really knowing what was ahead of us [unless they had completed in the previous year]. The first 8k to Les Houches were flat and provided the perfect gradual warm up before our first major hill [La Charme 1793m]. We had been issued with map charts showing from left to right all the distances, names of villages, check points, cut off times, heights and altitudes. [similar to looking at one of these programmes on a running machine in the local gym except this was a 46 hour programme not a thirty minute one].
Two hours into the event and very few of us seemed to be talking, you could feel the concentration and hear the determination and heavy breathing as we ascended out of the first valley. It was now dark and hundreds of head torches sparkled and twisted up up and over the La Charme ridge. Hundreds of sticks tapping the paths, groups standing to the side changing into warmer clothing, teams adjusting kit, putting on head torches, endless peeing into the bushes. I felt sorry for the women competitors [7% of the field] who usually had to disappear into the undergrowth for a pee.
[14k into the event] I remember looking back down towards Chamonix from la Charme after two hours and remembering that I still had 44 more hours of non stop running/walking/climbing and descending ahead of me. When you are in a large group it is so important not to catch the herd mentality, always trying to keep up with a certain group or feeling concerned that you are dropping behind. One had to keep reminding oneself that 50% of the field would not make it to the finishing line and that it was all about energy conservation, personal mental control, a positive attitude and an awareness of one's energy levels at all times.
The mind is an extraordinary thing! It plays games and you have the cautious, considerate side to the mind balanced with the brutal no nonsense I will finish come what may side to the mind. You then have the chattering side of the mind, the continuous reassurance that all is on track, am I drinking enough, how are the feet coping, is that a blister starting, how are the knees holding out, the sticks are great, must start eating an energy bar, how are the others getting on, am I warm enough, oh no it's raining and then your mind goes off in a tangent and you start thinking of something far away, family, work, events and then back to the questions and positive affirmations of the mind. Also being aware of the lack of training element plays on the mind, how will the heart be coping after the fourth massive summit and 30 hours into the event?
[20k] Saint Gervais Les Bains was our second food/refreshment stop dropping 1000m from La Charme. Hundreds of locals, supporters and support staff lined the streets providing an exhilarating atmosphere which temporally lifts the spirits before you are once again grinding on along the route towards the next objective, a 22k continuous climb to the summit of Croix Du Bonhomme at 2479m [44k] via two more drink stations. The chattering mind then takes over, you imagine yourself stumbling over the finishing line in Chamonix, who will be there?, will my family be there to pick up this miserable exhausted creature? No I must focus on the next stop and then the next and so on. Every now and then I would exchange and receive encouraging remarks with my fellow antelopes. Well done, Bravo, keep it up, bon chance, good luck, you ok, keep going, have you done this before? It is difficult to hold a conversation as we are all so focused and are moving at different speeds and my French is not brilliant.
Les Champieux at 49k and 10 hours on the track was a most welcome stop. It was still dark and I had been looking forward to something hot. Noodle soup, bread, cheese, Salami and four cups of coke did the trick and I was up and off again after a 10 minute break. I was two hours ahead of the cut off time so was determined to monopolise on this and keep going as I was fully aware that the cut offs would decrease further on as I became more exhausted and slower. A 1000m climb took me over the Col de la Seigne '59k] and out of France and into Italy. The sun was rising and the views looking North into the Glacier de la Lee Blanche and back west towards les Chapieux were quite spectacular.
I arrived at Elisabetta check point, the very station where I was withdrawn the previous year for missing the cut off. I had now been on the hoof for 14 hours and had covered 63k. I was feeling great and still had two hours in the cut off bank. I had one more 500m ascent before the enormous steep descent of 1245m into Courmayeur. The decent was agony as my right knee cap had slipped causing agonising pains and I found running downhill backwards made the experience less painfull. The heat was now intense with zero wind as I trotted down into the sports centre at 11.38am. 77k gone and 18 hours on the hoof with still 93k to go and a further 28 hours to cover seemed almost unachievable. I felt totally exhausted, dehydrated, hungry and in need of a leg massage. The organisation in Italy was chaotic and we had to queue for 30 minutes in order to pick up our spare kit, the signage was non-existent and none of the marshals seemed to know where anything was. More noodle soup, a bowl of pasta and a pathetic tickle of a leg rub after a further frustrating 20 minute wait, a change of socks, T shirt and a further queue for the loo was enough to drive me on and out of this nightmare centre. I had hoped to snatch at least 30 minutes of kip but this luxury was taken up with queuing.
Climbing the 800m from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone in the searing mad dogs and Englishmen heat was the low point of the challenge. I passed at least 30 competitors who had decided to stop and were just returning back down the hill to Courmayeur. The heat had been too much for them and it was so tempting to join them but I was determined to keep going. A week before flying out to France I needed a reason for doing this mad event, I had to have the 'Why am I doing this' factor clearly established, I needed something, a reason to spur me on in the darkest moments of my journey. I had been through harder challenges in the past including selection with 23 SAS so I knew my body was capable of completing but I was also gravely aware that my training had been less than sufficient. I asked my brother in law [Peregrine] to nominate three charities that would benefit from my efforts and promptly sent out emails asking for support. Peregrine had been diagnosed with cancer and had gone through a traumatic period of chemotherapy treatment and I was determined not to let him or the charities down. This was my reason for sticking with it and every time the negative side of the mind intervened I was able to inject the antedote to override and move on.
Reaching Refuge Bertone [81K] was a huge relief and I just had to find some shelter from the midday sun and rest for a few minutes. The twenty minutes spent at Bertone, resting my aching limbs in the shade provided a remarkable respite and I was soon up and on my way. Aware of time running out I ran on any flat or downhill and walked swiftly up hill. I checked into refuge Bonatti at 90K and raced on to Arnuva [93k] making the cut off by only 17 minutes. I had lost valuable time in Courmayeur and at Bertoni and had nothing left in the reserve time bank. It was important to be checked out before the final count down and those that remained at the check point were asked to withdraw. Grabbing the usual slices of cheese, salami, biscuits and drinking a further five cups of coke I grabbed my sack and sticks and just made it out before check point closure. We now faced one of the toughest climbs to Grand Col Ferret at a staggering height of 2537m, an 800m climb from Arnuva.
Two competitors were airlifted off en route to the summit of Grand Col Ferret [Italian/Swiss border] and I never found out what happened to them. It was now getting dark and we were entering our second night in the mountains. How can I hitch a ride on that helicopter? Should I collapse and wait to be picked up? It seems the ideal way to finish this off. No, be positive, keep going. In some ways I felt hopeless as I knew I was at the back of the field but I also had hope and determination to continue. Straight over the summit of the Ferret [98k] and I had no time to stop, it was a race against time and I was now just focusing on the next stage and then the next stage. We now had this dream decent for 20k before are next major ascent to Champex and Mount Bovine. To dream of Chamonix was a blur, a myth and I had almost persuaded myself that Champex [122k] was going to be my limit. I prefer the dark as the temperature is cooler and more like Scotland and I love running down hill and was able to make up some time. The conditions however were slippery and on one occasion I completely disappeared down a slope off the track and ended up in thick thorn bush. The head torch is not brilliant at picking out all the bumps and combined with severe fatigue and sleep deprivation it is easy to fall prey to minor falls.
Again we were fortunate and the moon was shining on the long decent and for the first time I joined up with a French runner and we chatted about a variety of subjects. This was great as it just took the mind off the monotony and fatigue. It was not long though till we parted and I was on my own and back with my internal mental battles about dealing with next phase. 115k and I had overtaken over twenty runners on the descent, I was feeling ok, no blisters, was still drinking lucozade from my reservoir and eating a little and often. Honey Stinger gels, energy bars, oranges, apples, peanuts, chocolate, crisps and water. Little and often is the key on endurance events. Pounding through the woods I came across a group standing over a collapsed runner. The medics had been called and he refused to move and was just not capable of standing up. A classic example of energy burnt out. I offered assistance and food and continued.
The next two hours were vital to the fact that I was able to complete the event. I was having the usual negative thoughts that were gradually overpowering the positive 'will do' side of the mind and then I met a German runner who had been in the event the previous year. He was able to convince me that we had run out of time and that there was no way we were going to be able to reach Champex before the 3.30am cut off. I was secretly relieved and had mentally given up on the desire to continue beyond Champex. We walked together for a while before I shook him off. I had to jettison the negative influence this chap was having on me and the only way to do this was to move ahead at a quicker pace. I was checking my watch every five minutes during the exhausting ascent to Champex, not knowing what was around the next corner or how far I had left.
Thirty three hours on the hoof and I was desperate for some rest. I was hallucinating through the woods, was that a Giraffe, no it's a tree, look at all those animals, strange shapes, keep going, keep moving, catch that person in front, overtake him, next person, run, hurry focus and so the mind rambled on. It was at this point that I had made up my mind to finish at Champex when a fellow runner from Scotland called Jim Drummond [15 times veteran of Scotland's toughest event, the 97 mile West Highland Way Race] overtook me with encouraging determined words, "‘We can still make the cut off but we have to start running" [steep uphill]. We starting chatting and it soon became apparent that we knew many mutual contacts back home and it was at that moment that the belief that I could finish the entire course flashed into my mind. We would motivate and encourage each other in the darkest moments and it was remarkable how the conversation was able to take the pain and suffering out of the equation. We made the cut off by 14 minutes and as we had cut it so fine we were not able to change into any fresh kit [Champex being the second kit bag change over area] It was a question of grabbing handfuls of food, filling up the reservoirs and moving out of the check point literally as the count down had started.
I was now committed to finishing and suddenly the mythical dream of running through Chamonix and crossing that finishing line was a stark reality. Positive affirmations came flooding in, I can do this, I can raise more money for the charities, I will not let Peregrine down, nothing will stop me even if I die in the process, I will finish. It is extraordinary how the mind and morale shifts so radically from positive to negative and I strongly recommend that you undertake this event with a friend and so that you can motivate each other to press on in those many moments of doubt and helplessness.
"Got to have a power nap" Shouted Jim, as we started the long arduous ascent of yet another mountain [Bovine] at 131k, Great idea! We just stretched out in the grass at the side of the track, set an alarm for five minutes and were once again on our way. What a difference that five minutes made, the wonderful sensation of giving those aching limbs and feet a rest. Bovine was not a path, it was more like a rock climb as we stumbled, slipped, swore, fumbled and tripped our way 500m to the top, like Smeigle and Golam searching for the precious gold ring. It was 7am as we approached the summit of Bovine and the sun was just rising, thirty seven hours and still eight plus to go and we now had to race down the hill to Trient to make the cut off for 8.30am. To our relief we saw a village and relaxed our pace, we would be in Trient with 15 minutes to spare but to our horror we arrived at the village and were informed that Trient was a further 3k down the valley. We now shifted into semi sprint mode spiralling down the endless tracks to the Trient Check Point. It really was a race against time, we could see the check in Marquee but the tracks kept zig zagging away from our goal and time was running out. Look, there’s a short cut!, better not take it, might be disqualified, keep moving, come on, come on!
We made the check point with less than five minutes to spare, grabbed food, water and checked out. We were now heading up the last major mountain [700m] to Catogne, [Swiss/French border] 142k. The sun was beating down on us, with no wind and the track just kept on winding up and up into the clouds. It was frustrating not knowing where the summit was, how much more of this hill to go, Jim was slowing and I kept ahead of him and always in eye shot to spur him on. He had helped me and I was going to support him all the way to the finish. Over and along the top of Catogne followed by the massive descent [740m] into Vallorcine. Once again the pressure was on, we had no time to rest and as soon as the track flattened and dipped into France we took off, spectacular views North towards Lac d’Emosson and over to Mount Oreb [2645m]. It was hot and the adrenalin had now taken over, the thought of missing the next cut off in Vallorcine overrode the pain one experiences when descending after all those miles. A helicopter buzzed backwards and forwards like an irritating bumble bee, camera man dangling from one side and then disappeared to hover the other victims. The sticks were a life saver and an invaluable support during all descents. I overtook over 50 runners en route to Vallorcine arriving 22 minutes before the cut off. It was wonderful to be greeted by the family clan as I refuelled and stocked up for the final 16k assault on Chamonix. Jim trotted in soon after and we left together climbing the final 200m hill out of Vallorcine valley and down to Argentiere.
It was at Vallorcine that all doubts of completing had been removed, the adrenalin had now totally taken over, the supporters and crowds were everywhere encouraging us, willing us onwards. After Argentiere the track seemed to go on forever undulating up and down, another hill, another village, more woods, remote tracks, long fields, more supporters. We were so concerned about missing the 46 hour cut off and quickened our pace, into the outskirts of Chamonix, round the parks, into the town centre, through the cheering crowds and over the finishing line. Jim and I had made it, crossing the line together. It was an extraordinary feeling, not emotional, just a huge relief to have completed the route. We crossed the finish line in 45 hours, five minutes and 58 seconds. I had come 1393rd. 1455 completed from the 2400 that started. It was wonderful to see my family at the end. Their presence and knowing that they would be there had inspired me to finish.
I have no real desire to run in the event again and strongly recommend the following tips to anyone thinking of taking part:
- Firstly training should be well thought through [unlike mine].
- Take part in other endurance events and build up the distances over time. [To be eligible for the challenge you will have to provide proof that you have taken part in similar events].
- Try to find a fellow enthusiast to run with so that you can inspire each other to get out and train.
- Your longest training run should be at least 30 to 35 hours in length but build up to this over many months.
- Sort out and train with your kit.
- Two long Graphite walking poles with leather straps are essential [telescopic poles will not last the course and are less robust].
- A comfortable endurance back pack with a three litre Camel back reservoir, side pouches [easy access to food and water on the move], waist and chest straps to prevent too much movement.
- Learn how to drink and eat on the move and insure you have plenty of energy food and drink in your pack.
- Eat and drink even when you do not feel like it.
- Ensure you are peeing on a regular basis... If not drink more.
- Always maintain a constant body temperature and adjust your clothing accordingly.
I am a total convert to the Lycra running trousers [Pantaloons... like tights]. Plenty of Vaseline and keep applying and no pants. This was the first time I had tried the Lycra and after 45 hours of non- stop running I did not have any chaffing at all!! Amazing! Ensure your trainers are well broken in and change socks every 26 miles. Tape your feet up with Zinc Oxide tape and do this properly. [I ended up with one mashed small toe due to improper application of the Zinc tape otherwise my feet were fine] Stretch the legs as much as possible once they have warmed up and continue to stretch at every check point. Make sure you have sorted your reasons for doing the event as this will assist you to complete. Take away the get out clauses, be determined to complete and run with a friend. Raise money for charity and give yourself a mission.
WHY AM I DOING THIS?
WHO AM I DOING THIS FOR?
IS THIS EVENT REALLY IMPORTANT TO ME?
If you do not have this stuff sorted you will not succeed.
In summary I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, raised over £8,000 for three fantastic charities, The Martin Bennett Trust, Dial a Journey, the Moredun Trust and have achieved the goal which was simply to complete. I could hardly walk after the finish, [knees seized up] and surprisingly had a thoroughly restless night’s sleep afterwards and was fine the next day. I would highly recommend the event and you can even take part in the Half tour Du Mont Blanc [87K] which kicks off 6 hours before the main event which may wet the appetite to return for the big one!