Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB 2014)

Chamonix, 5:30pm. Off we go under the rain. I am at the very end of the pack (in an attempt to force myself not to run for the 1st few km, also it is better for motivation to keep passing people rather than getting passed all the time…). We walk within Chamonix, high 5 many kids. Probably took us 15min before we did start to jogg…A short toilet break already and I keep my easy jog, passing people, probably 10-12km/h approx.




1st climb, everything OK, using my poles. I feel good, too good actually (even here I should have slowed down already! Hard to pace yourself on these long distances when not familiar…). I was probably 2000 position+ at Chamonix and now 899. I guess I’ve caught up with guys my pace more or less.

Steep drop! 1st downhill and it’s nasty. Wet grass, muddy, slippery. Everyone is still very excited and lots of runners together so it is too much like a race, too fast. My shoes are probably too small, or should have worn 2 pairs of socks (with bigger shoes) but I can feel the toes chaffing against the shoes, same on the sole. With the rain, wet shoes, wet socks and such steep downhills it is the best recipe for huge blisters in a few kilometers…but not much to do except keeping going downhill as fast as possible. Quads are also hurting (lack of trail running, lack of downhills, all this is new to my quads and feet…ouch, we’re only 20km into this journey!)

In St Gervais, you can see Seb Chaigneau shaking hands and cheering all the runners under the rain. Really cool.

Les Contamines (one of the 5 stations where you can have external support). With the rain and wet feet this is where I should have called for a change of socks and shoes (but did not have many spare shoes, also only planned 1 support at Champex. But the more support you can have, the better…especially if you do it seriously, which was not my case. fair enough)

La Balme, starting to climb. The rain is gone, almost. And the night has fallen. Everyone is following each other, not much talking. Pretty steep so everyone walking. Get some pasta/soup and drinks at the aid station. Volunteers are always cheerful and smiling.

That was a long ascent…quite slow too, especially because of the altitude. Often need to stop to catch your breath…The downhill to Les Chapieux is also very tricky: lots of switchbacks in muddy conditions. It often feels like skiing with the poles…very difficult to take some rest, many people passing me too. Quads and feet taking a beating.

I can see les chapieux and then I twist my right ankle on some rock. Damn. It feels ok but I’m all warmed up after 8h of running so it’s hard to tell…I dont want to take any chance so I find a small river and put my ankle in the cold water for 10min. Seems ok, not bruised, not swollen, all good to go. Took that chance to check the blisters – still ok, dry my feet and change my socks.

Spare batteries at the aid station but I know i’ve got some (ccompulsory
gear). As usual now, took my soup/pasta, also coke to stay awake, salty stuff and I am off… Rain has stopped and I am all wet. Good time to get a warm dry long sleeve tee on, also toilet stop. Only mistake I made here, is that I should have went next to the fire and dry my feet and shoes. I did not want to waste too much time so I did not…next time better consider it.

Start of the climb on the asphalt, nice…and then back on the trail. Halfway through the climb my headlight stopped working. Put the spare batteries but same story, no light. Damn it! I guess it did not like the previous hours under the rain but it’s bad luck, really. Of course (compulsory gear) I’ve got a spare light but it is a torch. So now I am trying to hold the torch and the pole while looking where to put my feet. Oxygen also getting rare and the ascent really taking its toll.

Until Les Chapieux I felt I was on a 32-35h pace. But with twisted ankle (not bad, but slowed me down), the light story, changing my clothes…) and more importantly I can feel I am really tired now (sure lack of training is obvious now). I am more concerned about making it to the finish. So there is less focus on running but more on trying to stay ok. Quads are really tired, blisters painful, right ankle not so well. Jogging on flats is getting pretty tough. So I try fast walking instead. Much better.

Still night, I like this photo of the aid station at Lac Combal. Everyone is shattered. The usual soup/pasta/coke for me and off I go, walking…running is too painful already (quads, blisters)

The sun is finally out, a fresh new day, giving some energy and motivation. Although the splits are not good and seems i will have no choice but to spend another night in the mountains before to reach Chamonix…

Tough downhill from Mt Favre to Col Checrouit, and Courmayeur…I try to follow the steps of guys passing me and forcing myself to run. It’s painful but there’s no choice! I cannot walk all the time! I dont even stop in Col Checrouit, I took some cheese and kept jogging. I want to get to Courmayeur ASAP! This is where I have a bag waiting for me, with socks, dry clothes, towel…

The final few Kilometers on Courmayyeur are so steep and nasty. So many switchbacks. I was in a small group of (what I felt “insanely”) fast runners, which helped me to forget the pain and pushed forward. At the bottom I was knackered and hoping the Courmayeur (77km) aid station would be the Holy Grail (it is a big aid station with lots of food, even beds to sleep and wifi…real 4-star hotel!)

My feet in Courmayeur. Not too bad actually. Right ankle a bit swollen but nothing serious. Blisters on big toes and under basically. I tried to be quick but I will spend 40min there. Changing clother, drying, eating pasta and putting compeed and bandages on the blisters.

Another good climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone. Asphalt at first, then forest. Beautiful scenery and shades under the pine trees. Some week-end tourists are passing me on the climb, ouch…nothing wrong, I am just slow and tired. Plus it’s still a long way to go. Keep steady and walk…

Clearly it is probably the only “easy” “runnable” stretch you can find. Between Bertone and Bonatti. As you can see on the map… but the legs did not agree at all with me! I tried to stick with some small groups of runners. We would go maybe 9 to 10kph for a few hundreds, then walk a bit and repeat. It was taking a lot of energy for me to follow them. Really tired and not used to these distances. Body shut down.

Les Grandes Jorasses

Leaving Bonatti, my backpack feels heavier and heavier. Got bruises on the shoulders. I always have too much drinks, I need to adjust it more reasonably. Also this backpack is not my size (too big, jumping around, even when everything it tighten up). From now on I will take much less drink with me, also I am wrapping my long sleeve tee around the straps to give a layer of protection.

Final KM on Arnuva. Same as before, trying to stick with some groups. Last few km very painful. Right achilles tendon flared up…not good. I walk the last bit alone. Still a long way to go.

That’s a 900m gain altitude ascent. Probably one of the toughest of all. Good thing is that it’s a beautiful sunny day. I am going pretty slow but trying to keep it steady. Legs are gone so I sometimes sit down for 2-3 minutes to catch up my breath and go back.

Of course with my new strategy not to take too much drinks at aid station, and not knowing well the course… I ended up without any drinks while climbing up Col Ferret…which is a long way to go to La Fouly! Fortunately it is not too hot and many small rivers but I should have filled up my reservoir before the downhill (no more rivers…)

Blisters, but mainly tired quads were preventing me from running. It is a pity because it is a 20km downhill from Col Ferret! Less and less runners, and less able to follow them while they passed me. At the top of Col Ferret I had a few words with Dominique D’Haene as his son just won the race in new course record time 20h11. And I could not follow him while he jogged back to La Fouly (he will finish in 37h so it gives some idea compared to my 43h)

Quick stop at La Fouly (finally some drinks!!!! I was so thristy…). Usual soup/pasta/coke and I want to reach Champex asap. 1st to see my parents with some support (spare shoes…), and also because I start wondering about the cut-off time. Runners around me don’t seem worried but that was probably their pace since the beginning and they can keep the pace steady. While for me, i can climb ok but the downhills are so painful and slow that i am losing lots of time…

The last climb to Champex is a nightmare by the way! I also remember telling my parents there’s no way I will be in Champex later than 6pm! and here is was 9pm, 9.30pm…ouch! Of course we had phone calls on the way to make sure about the exact time. Same, lots of text messages from friends from Hong Kong or France. This is pretty cool.

Ok so in Champex I chose to some road running shoes that were 1/2 size bigger, and that was so much more comfortable! I love it…(clearly: take the proper shoes for such crazy race!). I also put on 2 pair of socks to reduce the pain from blisters. Add a few compeed on some new ones too. Also changed my wet shorts, new tee. Felt really good, and ready to attack a 2nd sleepless night in a row!

Only new thing: slight pain on left ankle while walking. 2 pairs of socks were adding some pressure on that front area too. So far so good tho.

they say that once you’ve passed Champex it is in the bag…still i am quite concerned given how slow i go downhill. and i dont feel anything is in the bag at this stage… I’m feeling good uphill, and I dont want to spend the whole night, I want to get this thing done asap, so I push the pace uphill, passing lots of people (that was a mistake by the way!). Checking the Suunto altimeter, the checkpoint should be here any minute but actually we 1st go above 2000+ or 2100+ and then come down to 1886m…damn! A few minutes only about feeling awesome, I start feeling lots of pain on my left ankle (front muscle used to lift your toes). I can barely step my foot on the ground, so I am limping around to La Giete.

No more batteries on my flashlight (which worked well again tonight…). Changing with new batteries i got at Champex and I am off for 800m altitude loss in 4km. Very painful.

Now I am getting really concerned. The pain is stronger and stronger. I am grinding my teeth. Like so many times before I want to jump in a very cold river to cool down all the pain signals in my body! I could have done it (fountain near Trient) but did not…at least for the left ankle. Same as before, taking soup/pasta/coke. I dont want to stop long. Not good. But my left foot is worse and worse. Many people passing me, I am limping on one leg basically. At Trient the volunteer who saw me coming told me to go to see the medical tent but I am sure it will take forever, better not stop. I told him I’ll come back later after getting some food. Of course did not. Regret it many times on the next ascent!

Probably the toughest section for me. Up Catogne and Down to Vallorcine. The pain now is excruciating. I was hoping for some kind of support from my wife on the phone/text but all i got was “pain is temporary, finishing is everything…” this kind of BS! maybe that was better…but damn, that was painful.

Another interesting experience on the 2nd sleepless night is you (at least I did, but this is quite common from what I’ve heard) get a lot of visions. Most of the stones, plants, trees, … become something real. I saw lots of weird animals, lots of runners in the trees, kids, … sometimes it is a bit weird but overall it’s quite funny and creative.

Up Catogne I knew the hardest bit was yet to come: the descent. There was a fire so I left my ankle next to it to warm it up a lot and maybe it would reduce the pain. I saw some guys passing me and I chased them, almost crying on each step as it was really hurting. This downhill was so horrible, it took forever. Also had to changed the batteries again, good excuse to stop but starting again was 10x more painful than last step.

The last steep downhill to Vallorcine, with the sunset…and for some reasons, my mind suddenly thought about the painkiller I had in my bag (dont ask me why I did not think about it before! I’ve got no idea…). I immediately took 2 painkillers and limped to the tent. There I strapped my ankle so it would not move at all. I also put more bandages on existing and new blisters. New dry socks and here we go, again. After 20min of painful walk, I felt better (and then I realized that I had no more painkillers, but uphill was bearable while downhill will be a nightmare without painkillers…why did i take all of them at once! damn!)

From Vallorcine it is 8km up and 11km downhill to Chamonix. The climb to Col Montets is a long walk. Then lots of stairs, but it was do able thanks to the painkillers! Cloudy at the top but once we reached above the clouds you could see the Mont Blanc.

Medical support at La Tete aux Vents! Yes! I explained my case and the Doc gave me 2 more painkillers….yes!!! It is a tendinitis, common with runners not used to such distances, blablabla….

For sure it is in the bag now! It’s only downhill and the pain is reduced thanks to the Doc! Great. Still limping, but enough time to make the cut-off…

Finally! La Flegere! I fill up my reservoir with coke, and go. Dont want to waste any time so close to Chamonix! It is so steep downhill that my quads are once again screaming (and we’re not even running…just walking!). I am so impressed when I see other runners passing me running full speed downhill. Very impressed. Meanwhile I take my time if I may say. Kind of walk/hike/jog on the flat bits.

Me after 2 days and 2 nights in the mountains – welcome to lalaland

I text my parents, I can estimate a finish in 3km. Also text my wife/kids so they can check the live coverage and see me finish in a yellow t-shirt… Everyone keeps cheering along the way, also telling you 500m (while it was more 3km…). I want to finish, forget the pain, forget everything, just run… and I am running the last 1km (maybe 2km, for sure it felt much longer!), quite fast actually! Just want to finish…it’s noon in Chamonix, many people in the streets, lots of spectators, lots of volunteers cheering. I dont think too much, I just cross that line with a smile on my face. Oh boy, that was a hell of a journey!

NEXT TIME (there will not be a next time!) => COME TO UTMB PREPARED! this is NOT a walk in the park!

Thanks to everyone who followed me and supported me during this journey! Many thanks to the spectators and all the volunteers for their cheering all along the way, in France, Italy and Switzerland! Now time to rest and fix all the niggles…

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