In 2012 I had the pleasure of reporting from The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc following The North Face athlete Jez Bragg around the course as he attempted to repeat his 2010 win. (Link to blog). In 2013 I'll be back but to attempt the CCC, a shorter version of the main event featuring a 100km route from Courmayer to Chamonix via Champex with 5950m of ascent

Monday, 9 September 2013

Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix

So with the fatigue fading from my legs and new skin growing on my feet its time to have a look back at my experiences at The North Face sponsored CCC. I arrived late in Chamonix with only an hour of registration left so I stuffed some kit in my race bag and headed off. The queue facing me stretched out the door and a time of two hours was being quoted! A sneaky short cut for CCC runners was opened up and the rest of the process was fairly painless.

However one problem with my late registration was there was only space left on the early Cormayeur buses and so without any breakfast and still with 3.5 hours till the start I was to be found wandering around Chamonix in the half light. Courmayeur was just waking up as we came out of the tunnel into the light of a stunning morning. I quickly forced down two continental breakfasts at the ice rink, taped up my feet which still contained a couple of holes from the Lakeland 100 and wandered off to enjoy the building atmosphere

The start was spectacular and emotional with the national anthems of France, Switzeland and Italy been sung loudly by hundreds of runners before the volume swelled for the iconic Vangelis Conquest of Paradise, unarguably the best start to a race I've been involved in

After nearly being taken out by a stray kerb in the town centre I settled into a good climbing rhythm for a 1300m effort towards the Tete de la Tronche.Within an hour I found myself stuck in a long crocodile of runners snaking my way along single track where oppurtunities to overtake were few and far between. This did stop many of us from going out too fast but I only made an average of 4kmh to the first check point. The short downhills were the worst where I wasted a lot of energy hanging back and braking behind slower moving runners. For me this is the worst part of huge events such as the UTMB but this was a small niggle on a stunning day to be out running in the mountains

We'd seen the camera helicopter chasing the leaders along the ridge and once on the descent to the Refuge Bertone we were able to revel in some amazing ridge top running. the temperature was rising as we turned back east towards Switzerland and the second big climb of the day. I picked a good steady pace up the Grand Col Ferret and began to make up some positions. Once on the other side I let myself go and had a blast on the awesome long and flowing descent to La Fouly. I was beginning to see a pattern with my running. I was faster than the majority of runners around me on the climbs and steeper more technical downhills but felt like I ground to a halt on flat or gently downhill sections. The perils of living and training in the Lake District?

Mentally the long leg down the valley was always going to challenge me so I stocked up on cheese and salami sandwiches and some form of fudge that was like rocket fuel. I managed to keep a comfortable pace and only made one wrong turn - too busy tweeting! The short hill up to Champex (which is always longer than than it should be!) went well and I tucked into a big bowl of pasta chased down with plenty of flat coke happy that I'd clawed back to a sub twenty hour schedule for the first time.

I'd opted not to use a dropbag and use only what I could carry or pick up from the checkpoints so after some more rocket fuel fudge I was soon on my way into the gathering gloom. My blistered heels from my last hundred now came back to haunt me despite being well taped and padded. Concentrating on running with a forefoot strike helped with pain management but is pretty tricky in a pair of cushioned Raptors!

In the darkness I began to overtake plenty of runners in duvet jackets, wooly hats and gloves. In contrast I was still sweating in just a t-shirt but these occurrences happened so regularly I began to question my own sensations believing I was feverish or hypothermic!

The second half of the CCC really just consists of three big climbs and descents. I'd last passed this way in 1993 while walking the TMB with a huge rucksack and my memories were somewhat hazy. The first climb over Bovine was a struggle with bouts of nausea slowing my pace. However in typical ultra fashion it all came good for the second climb to Catogne at 2027m which I felt like I cruised over. In even more typical ultra fashion the wheels came off very soon after and my energy levels bottomed out just before Vallorcine. Looking back I'd become fixated on my watch and neglected my food intake telling myself I'd recover quickly with some proper food at the marquee below. I almost blew it here and despite stuffing my face I was running on empty and suffering desperately from nausea on the easy climb up to Col de Montets. Above me a line of stars were moving in a long line, zig zagging their way up at an impossible angle - the infamous climb to the Tete Aux Vents. I'd managed every other climb without stopping but half way up this wee monster a bout of nausea and dizziness put me on the ground. I forced a Powerbar down my neck and amazingly within 15 minutes was buzzing again climbing well and making up a few of the places I'd lost.

The traverse to La Flegere was unrelenting and the checkpoint came just in time. Hot sweet tea gave me a boost for the 800m descent to Chamonix. My heels really made themselves heard on this and my slow hobble was passed by a few runners but the legs were still strong and as the sun hit the summit of Mont Blanc I managed a good sprint finish to the iconic UTMB arch.

My time of 21:50:21 was slower than I'd hoped for but the vast majority of runners I spoke to said the same thing. The heat of the first day had sapped folks strength and made the night a struggle in keeping going. My recovery has been pretty swift with my legs hardly suffering in the following days. Not usually being a fan of the heat I was very pleased with my performance on the first day. However nausea has been a feature of my previous few races and some more work is needed to come up with a better strategy. Finally my feet were my biggest weakness. A long standing problem with blisters and callousness on the outside of my heels severely restricted my descending pace later in the race. This issue can be traced right back to Ten Tors as a 13 year old! In this event it was the pressure of the edge of the callous pressing into already damaged tissue that was causing the pain. New shoes and some TLC for my feet would seem to be the order of the day.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Enduro Plus Hydration Pack Review

I've used the great looking Enduro Plus Hydration Pack from The North Face for my last two ultras. It only arrived two days before the Lakeland 100 where it did a great job through 38 hours of effort. I then took it to Chamonix for the 60 mile CCC where it again behaved flawlessly.

It's a very short and squat design that sits low on my back and does look a bit strange when fully laden. However it is incredibly comfortable and I've had no issues with chafage or the pack bouncing. My back bears permanent scars from racing with packs with a longer back length but in 165 miles of racing in extremes of heat and 'dampness' I've not had a single problem.

Finishing a soggy Lakeland 100 with the low sitting Enduro Plus under my waterproof

I like my comforts so had it stashed pretty full for both races but with a bit of work its 9.5 litres should accommodate a very lightweight mountain marathon set up. its just a wee bit small for working in the mountains (bothy bag, first aid kit, spare jacket etc) but I'm finding it ideal for most of my own running and cycling adventures 

For me the Boa anti slosh tightening system to secure and compress the water bladder worked as it should but solves a problem that doesn't really exist. Certainly the water bouncing and sloshing about is not something I've ever worried about in any other pack as expelling the air before sealing the reservoir also does a pretty good job. The wire and dial system adds weight and complexity and I had a few issues on the Lakeland 100 when with cold and wet hands kit was snagging on the exposed wires.

I used the mesh pocket on the back for a water bottle on the Lakeland 100 and for my windproof on the CCC and it worked very well being easy to locate with a bit of practice. I find the side pockets on some race packs, which are placed up towards your arm pits, rub against my arms when I'm running but are awkwardly placed when trying to grab a drink or replace your bottle. Placing this feature on the back of the pack makes far more sense ergonomically. On this pack some form of closure would be useful for when carrying gloves, arm warmers etc and a second staggered holder would also be an interesting development.

The included water bladder was very good with a two litre capacity and a large opening. The valve was about average in terms of water flow but it didn't feel like hard work to suck even when working hard and the nifty little magnetic holder for the tube is a great innovation and worked incredibly well. If it's a faff to drink while racing then you won't so little design features like this work incredibly well in the real world. I'm not usually a fan of racing in the heat but coped surprisingly well on the first day of the CCC remaining well hydrated throughout which I can probably attribute to this pack.

The website mentions stash pockets on the chest harness but I think they meant on the waist belt which features two spacious pockets. The lightweight floating harness did get twisted when putting the bag on but once everything was secured then the pockets were perfectly positioned and a pretty good size. An internal loop in th epockets for clipping compasses / GPS would be a welcome development.

The fashion is currently very much for race vests but if you are looking to carry a bit more equipment and like a more traditional pack with some very modern features then the Enduro Plus is certainly worth a look.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Running for two nights!

24 hours after the elite UTMB runners came home hundreds of runners were still streaming across the finish line in Chamonix, many of whom had been running for two nights. Every competitor has a story to tell and a large and noisy crowd gave them all a heroes welcome.
As one competitor staggered across the finish line, bent almost double in fatigue and pain, his wife was heard to exclaim loudly "You're never doing anything like this again!"





Saturday, 31 August 2013

The main event - Action from the UTMB finish line

The North Face paragliding team!

 Xavier Thevenard crosses the line to win the 2013 UTMB in 20:35:57

1st - Xavier Thevenard (FRA)

2nd - Miguel Angel Heras Hernandez (ESP)

3rd - Javier Dominguez (ESP)

 The 2013 UTMB Podium (Miguel, Xavier & Javier)
 4th - Timothy Olson (USA)

5th - Michael Foote (USA)

 1st Lady & 7th overall - Rory Bosio (USA) - fastest lady ever and highest placing!

 1st - Rory Bosio (USA)

10th - Jez Bragg (UK)

13th - Stephane Brogniart (FRA)

CCC Race Report

2013 UltratrailTV - Race report CCC by UltraTrailMontBlanc