If there’s a European trail running event that captures the minds of any endurance aficionado, the legendary UTMB® gains the golden spot. With the announcement that Columbia was to support this iconic racing event, I jumped at the chance to take a complimentary entry to the OCC, the baby brother of the 167km mammoth route. At a mere 54 km, the distance didn’t deem itself too daunting, however, on inspection, there was more cause to shudder as it totalled 3300m of alpine ascent. Oh, and this takes place at a starting elevation of 887m from the Swiss town of Orsieres, so it’s safe to say sea level training wasn’t going to cut it.
Thankfully my choice decision to head to Golden for the summer had me training at 1000m. Indeed not significant, but enough to let my legs and lungs know that i’d need to work my body that bit harder. If i’m honest, I was so unsure as to my travel plans in August that I wasn’t overly focused on running, instead my mind was centred on the Epic Israel, a 3 day mountain bike marathon stage race taking place in September. Luckily, the punchy Canadian climbs combined with a number of mountain running adventures gave me some encouragement for my arrival to Chamonix.
For anyone that’s not stepped into the centre of the mountain town mecca that is Chamonix, I can tell you it’s a mardi gras of trail running madness during UTMB. Never has so much lycra and athletic paraphernalia paraded the streets at one time. I’d been here a few years before, supporting a friend on a CCC endeavour and knew the atmosphere was electric. My somewhat overly ambitious mind had in previous weeks led to me to the decision that I would conclude the race with a 400km cycle to Friedrichshafen, home to the largest bike trade show in Europe. With brain-beating detail, i’d packed my bags in various stages along the way, with different friends meeting me at each change over point. Once I arrived and stared up to the awesome Mont Blanc mountain at the foot of our hotel, I had a moment of serious self analysis – was I completely mental to take on this run, then harass my legs to pedal that far? I had a deadline too; I was working at the show so there was no room for dilly-dally!
Registration was precision at its finest. Lined up in military fashion, we were whisked through the stations to sign off the last of the paperwork, then submit to a rigorous check of our kit to ensure we had each and every item on the list. After collecting my number and tagging my running pack I eventually emerged out the other side with everything set to go for the next morning. My choice for a bed was a friend’s van; he’d kindly brought my bike with him together with my kit for the next instalment of my adventure, so I curled up early to get some sleep, which never really happens when you know you’ve got to wake up at 4 am to catch the bus.
Stirring to the sound of my alarm, I quickly kitted up and marched down the street to the line of buses, a parade of fellow runners on my tail. Once onto the bus, we had a good hour’s drive to the start line at Osieres, Switzerland. Two things became starkly apparent. One, I’d anticipated bagels and coffee to greet me at the start line – i’d been given the heads up this was the case from the previous year. None to be seen sadly. Two, I realised i’d forgone my wallet in order to save weight. Oops. I had a measly banana to abate the hunger, followed up by some faux-caramel flavour protein bar, which had the texture of cotton wool as I chewed it over numerous times in my mouth. Not to mention the lack of caffeine, which was an essential part of my morning wake up routine!
Well if I’ve learned anything so far, it’s to just go with it – you can’t stress about what you can’t control and i’d just chalk that one up. I’m certain too the pizza i’d devoured the night before would carb me up just nicely until we’d reach the first food station.
As the running field line up to the start, although my preparations were below par for this mighty challenge, I enjoyed the lassi-faire approach and lack of self pressure. Once speeches had concluded, the horns sounded and the trotting out towards the course began. For the first few kilometres, you’re running fairly flat…for the Alps. We weaved around the trail, with a few sections on tarmac road that passed through quintessentially Swiss villages, supporters armed with cow bells and flags flapping in the wind. I felt great as i’d truly tapered, my body waking up to the movement of my legs at last. As we hit the first few climbs, I did start to wonder how i’d feel later on, as these were mere bumps within the first 10km!
As the singletrack trail emerged after 5km or so, there was a gulp in my throat as the ant-like procession made motions up towards the forest trails. Technical abilities took over here and I found myself floating up the ascents aided by my lightweight poles, which without a doubt, were my number one companion. I’d actually rather run barefoot than go without those magical sticks of support! I was overtaking the eager beginners; a slower, steadier starter, I prefer the race from the back tactic.
Our first stop was Champex-Lac, a chocolate-box affair with a stunning blue lake at the centre, we were cheered by locals and tourists passing. As our numbers also state our names, often i’d hear a shout out, usually some attempt at a ‘C’ sounding name that rarely was correct, but none the less was encouraging and made me smile. Once through the town, we kicked on to a shared bike trail and then into the first aid station, which was providing only drinks at this point. At 10km in and with a poor start to my eating plan, I did wonder how long i’d last until the next one at Trient, which would be just over 25km from the start line.
Once out of the tent, the first of the big climbs began and I still felt strong as we marched with purpose. The trail’s narrow and rocky terrain meant it was sometimes tough to pass and as intermittent streams appeared, packs of runners would stop to splash with water and escape the scorching heat. Once at the top, the views were spectacular but what goes up must come down, the first of three. Descending down to the first of the feed zones I had mild worry in my mind as hunger was setting in and the heat of the day was starting to strike. Once there, my eyes and tummy grew at the sight of the moreish French food on offer. From cheese and meaty platters, to cake, fruit and bars – I tired not to gorge as I grabbed a little of everything, as well as salty soup, which instantly perked my spirits. Listening to the advice i’d been offered, I took my time to digest and fill up my bladder pack.
Out of the station at Trient you’re almost immediately hit with the second ascent, one that sticks in my mind as I watched many a runner wilt under heat and over eating. Feeling a little queasy, I tired not to look at other runners throwing up at the side. I keep constant footfall and made my way up through the trees, where it eventually cleared and open meadows and views to the fine mountains gave welcome distraction from grumpy glutes.
As we came up and over the hill, a welcome water point was waiting and I sat down on the side, chatting to a fellow female runner and taking a moment to let my aching legs recover. Lack of running form for the downhill was taking its toll and i’d surprised myself on the uphill but the quads were quivering! I decided to take off as fast I could just to get the muscles moving and as the path ribboned down the mountainside, I happily picked up the pace. Flying down to the penultimate resting place at Vallorcine, I remembered watching our friend Kim on this very section, thinking back to how he must have been feeling at this moment in the OCC. Again more cheers and mispronunciations of my Scottish name. Once inside I took my time, knowing the last climb was to be the worst given the stories I’d heard en route.
Smashing in yet more calories worth of continental cuisine, I made sure to drink and drink again. Coming out of the final stop there’s a long, flattish section that leads to the road and skirts the side before you kick back up for the final climb. What’s to note about this is the deceptively incline; it’s not brutally steep yet goes on forever and ever! Huge rocky sections caught me out a few times and I blessed my poles again as they propped me up many a time. Within this section too there are some really tricky, short descents that were almost scrambles and I really lost time here as I picked my way through the tree roots and boulders. My legs were stinging and as much as I could, I kept on trotting but it began to hurt. What seemed endless finally broke out of the trees and kicked up towards the final stop – the summit chairlift. I called out to a marshall after I watched the man in front of me come close to crying when he saw the trail rise even higher; I asked him if it was much further and was delivered typical words of encouragement to spur my little legs on.
Inside the tent and slurping soup, I knew all that faced me was 900m of pure and pretty painful decent. I had words with myself as I hobbled out and decided the only way to finish was fast and to get it over and done with. I reasoned with my body that a quick rhythm would feel much better once I got rolling. In fact, it worked. As I picked up my knees I started passing other runners and felt better with every stride. With 7km of path to follow I hit the final track with gusto and as I cornered on to the tarmac, even that didn’t dampen my goal to get to the finish. I sped through the town with the cheers rising and the atmosphere bubbling as I took a final turn to run into the town centre. A guy running ahead became my target to reach and as I passed him he called out to me to run together – neither of us actually knowing the final distance to the line. As we held hands and congratulated each other, we also amused bystanders who thought some romantic affair had taken place on the trail! I joked back to some comments, clearly still enough energy to have a sense of humour. Running in to the finish, I had a gulp of emotion knowing i’d made the line and it felt fitting to have crossed with someone also super proud to have battled the heat and hills of the day. My friends Jo and Noreen were cheering me in, taking photos with quizzical looks; Jo eager to find out who this mystery man was by my side!
Soon though I was alone, picking up my prize and wandering the streets trying to find Jo. The elation and relief were mixed; the tiredness and hunger kicking in almost instantly. Crossing the line as 12th British female and in a time of 11:06, I was almost bang in the middle of the whole field. I can’t expect much more from no actual run training, but this time I was happy just to have enjoyed the day with truly no pressure, no commitments, just awesome alpine adventure!