Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc 2018. Distance: 170.1km, Ascent:10,000m, Location: France, Italy, Switzerland
We caught up with our founder and CEO after his successful completion of the 2018 UTMB.
See the interview here...
WORLD SUMMIT OF TRAIL-RUNNING 27 AUGUST - 2 SEPTEMBER 2018
What made you want to do the UTMB?
To be honest I can’t remember the specific point where I decided I wanted to do it. Lucy (Paul’s wife) and I had been going back and forth to Chamonix for climbing trips in the summers and found we were watching the finish one day. I asked a few questions about it and quickly found that it was THE race in the Alps and a slightly mystical challenge that needed a lot of hard work just to get in and even then, only half of the runners completed it. It felt like the perfect thing to really push and test my physical and mental stamina.
How did you prepare and qualify for it?
It’s quite a unique race from that point of view. You can’t simply apply to run it, there is a whole host of things to do before getting to the start line. The preparation and qualifying started about two and a half years ago for me. Once I decided I wanted to do it, I started entering the various qualifying races to obtain the appropriate points and ran a whole host of mountainous routes.
I also did quite a lot of gym work with John Ruffell Fitness. John helped me focus on strengthening the connective tissue of my muscles, knowing the sorts of impacts my joints would feel. We worked on our programmes depending on my feedback from various qualifying races and mitigated my weaknesses through strength training. He tells me that I no longer have flappy feet, which I think is a good thing!
My preparation mainly consisted of running a long way regularly. Back-to-back runs and hungry runs were essential to condition the body to keep going beyond 24hrs of exercise. The most important advice I would give anyone who gets a place in the UTMB is to get out to the Alps and run the route over a period of 4 days or two weekends. Incidentally Mountain Mindset can arrange that for you!!
What was the hardest bit about training for UTMB?
My worst moment in training was when I DNF’d (Did not finish) the Oner on the Dorset Coast. Its 80miles along the Jurassic Coast and is brutal. In fact, the company that organises it is called Brutal Events. It was much hotter than I expected during the day and I ended up getting quite dehydrated. By the time I reached Lucy at the 50mile checkpoint I was a mess. I was stumbling about and jabbering incoherently, I couldn’t stop shaking. After about 30 minutes of Lucy trying to get me back into a state to carry on, we took the decision to pull out. I was gutted but it was a great lesson in adapting to the conditions of the race which I made sure I did during the UTMB’s changing weather.
And how did you feel when the start finally came around?
Wow! Just thinking about it makes me get emotional. All the training, the sweat, the pain, the time, the commitment, the support from Lucy had finally got me to the start line. It felt like a huge milestone on its own and the race hadn’t even begun.
The start pen is packed with people chattering in about 90 different languages and everyone is clearly excited. The rain was a bit miserable and everyone was shuffling about to get warm and comfortable.
Once that start song (Vangelis Conquest of Paradise) starts, it is like a switch for all the runners. There is a sudden focus from everyone and silence as the magnitude of the challenge sinks in. As I crossed the start, I remember being really happy just to be there and super-focussed on what I was doing.
Talk us through how the race went?
Chamonix to Contamines 31km
The first few KM is a bit of a mess with people and kit all over the place. It’s quite flat/downhill to Les Houches and you just have to keep your cool. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed with the event and start tearing off but that would be disastrous later. The climb out of Les Houches over the Delevret is a mass of people and there tends to be a lot of queuing at the bottle necks. It was really nice to see our French neighbours on the climb for a quick high 5. Descending into St Gervais was very wet and left everyone worrying that if the weather stayed like this foot problems would quickly start ending individual races.
The Contamines checkpoint was manic with people everywhere. Luckily, John Ruffell was ready and waiting with food and kit to get me on my way. The main problem I had was that my arms were soaked from sweat and rain. Knowing that it was going to get colder I changed into a warmer merino top for the night and John dried the inside of my jacket to minimise the wetness. These actions paid dividends later that night as other people pulled out with hyperthermia.
Contamines to Courmayeur 49km
This section starts with the first big climb up to Col du Bonhomme and Refuge Croix du Bonhomme. Lucy and I had recce’d this earlier in the year so I felt confident knowing the route. The pace is reasonably fixed up this section because the pack is still quite bunched with limited places to overtake. Even if you could overtake you’d be stuck again in 10 seconds. When we got to the refuge everyone was manhandled out so that people didn’t hang about and get cold prior to the slippery descent to Les Chapieux. I followed a lady down to Les Chapieux who set a good pace for me and helped me keep focussed. It’s always handy to have someone in front of you on technical bits in the dark, it helps you anticipate the terrain.
Once in Les Chapieux the kit check was quick,and the checkpoint had a fantastic party atmosphere about it. I rested for about 10 minutes here to hydrate and eat ready for the next big climb up to Col de la Seigne and the descent into Italy. The forecast was for very cold temperatures down below freezing so high energy levels were going to be needed.
Close to the top of Sienne, my headtorch died and when I grabbed my spare, that was dead too! Changing headtorch batteries high up the mountain in the dark was quite a struggle. I had to use the light of passing runners to get it done so it took ages. Every second not moving here was a second closer to hypothermia and I was getting nervous that a stupid battery problem could end my race. Fortunately, the headtorch beamed back to life and I was off again hitting the top of the Col as the sun was rising. The views into Italy were fantastic. As I set off for the descent, I dropped my headphones and only realised about 100m later. Going back up to get them was quite disheartening but I was glad I bothered. All in all a bad admin phase.
As we entered the Courmayeur ski resort and passed the hut at Col Chercrouit I stopped for the pasta and tomato sauce on offer. After all we were in Italy now so it felt necessary and was delicious, a great set up for the steep descent into Courmayeur town to see Lucy and John which marked the halfway point and I was feeling strong.
Courmayeur to Champex Lac 46km
Looking back, I didn’t eat enough in Coumayeur. The descent from Col Chercrouit had taken a lot out of my legs and I should have eaten more. I paid for it on the climb to Bertonne and felt really weak. It was here that Kilian Journet, a favourite to win, had to pull out because of a bad reaction to a bee sting and the associated medication. It just shows that it can go unpredictably wrong for the best runner in the mountains. My recollection of the check point at Bertonne is not at all clear so I must have been struggling here but I guess I recognised that and had eaten because the traverse to Bonatti was really runnable and I can remember the beautiful view to my left for a good 10km. I knew that this whole section from Courmayeur was long and I knew it would be dark again before I reached Champex Lac. The climb into Switzerland was hard and the descent was even harder, going on for over 20km with elevation loss of about 1300m. This particular descent really thinned a few people out. I lost count of the number of people I ran past who had given up and were just sitting on their kit sobbing into their hands.
It was just getting dark again at the bottom of the climb to Champex Lac as we went into our second night of running, I got my head down and just followed the bloke in front of me. Getting to Champex and seeing the crew of Lucy, John, and other friends was brilliant. I had been going for around 30 hours at this point and had quite bad acid reflux and I had been desperate for some milk. They pulled out their best chat-up lines and managed to blag some milk off a local restauranteur, legends! It’s the little things that can make or break it at this point. I was exhausted and a bit delirious in the checkpoint. Lucy could see it, so she let me sleep for ten minutes to reset my brain. I think Lucy and John were at this checkpoint together but I can’t remember. That said, they definitely gripped me and all four of the crew walked with me from the lake as I entered the darkness again.
With over 125km, over 7300m of ascent and 6880m of descent done, it was far from over and I knew that the three hardest climbs and descents were still to come.
Champex to Trient 16km
On my recce about 6 weeks previously, I found this section really difficult in the daylight on fresh legs, so I was dreading it. It was super steep going up and even steeper going down. My knees were killing me at this point, particularly my right knee. I was fast enough going up, overtaking a number of people on the way but my descent was frustratingly slow and really painful. This pattern of reasonable ascent pace and crucifying descent would stick with me for the remaining 40km. More people were dropping out and sitting on their kit by the side of the trail. I could barely conjure up a gentle pat on the back and a breathless “Allez!” in the hope it might get them going again.
As I approached Trient, I could hear the checkpoint, but it took forever to get there, and when I did Lucy was a welcome sight!
Trient to Valoricne 11km
Once at Trient, I knew that if I could make it to Valoricine, I would finish come hell or highwater but Les Tseppes were between me and the next CP. A never-ending, 700m high set of steep switchbacks which needed all-fours at times. I just kept counting my steps to occupy my mind 101, 102, 103, 100 and?? Start again, 1, 2, 3... etc. The track started to flatten out and before long I was descending again, and the pain quickly kicked in. I tried running sideways, skipping, walking, everything but the pain was relentless. My body was screaming “QUIT! STOP!” but I knew I could do it and once in Valoricine I could taste the finish and the sun was rising.
Valoricine to finish 18.5km
Back in the Chamonix valley and in familiar terrain the race route would avoid the Tete aux Vents because rockfall had killed a hiker earlier in the week. Instead we did a kind of zig zag up and down the valley to Flegere. These shorter descents were brutal and steeper than anything we had faced yet. I could barely hobble down them at this point and I wasn’t the only one scrambling down the rocks and tree routes. I’m sure we passed some climbers sleeping in a cave but that might have been an hallucination. As we continued along the balcony the sun slowly came over the mountains, the temperature went up immediately as the mist burned off and we were blessed with amazing views of Mont Blanc. The final climb to Flegere across the ski resort was quick, everyone could feel the finish and started the final push. Getting down from Flegere on the other hand was a struggle, my knees were killing me but weren’t as bad as the Spaniard’s who was going to finish the last 8km going backwards because his quads wouldn’t support his weight going down. The adrenaline started to kick in and for the first time, I imagined myself actually crossing the finish. I managed to get into a pretty good run and went for it with all my joints and muscles screaming at me.
Getting to the end must have been quite satisfying! It seems like a real spectacle, how was it for you?
Gulp! Entering Chamonix was amazing. Everyone was cheering and shouting out the name of the runner closest to them, it really was overwhelming. After a few final sets of steps over the roads the last few hundred metres into town was electric. I was even followed by a British family as I went past the gym. Our friends we were screaming and waving a big Union Flag as I passed them.
Running into town and towards the finish I could hardly believe it was over, nearly three years of emotions poured out as I crossed the finish into the arms of my amazing and beautiful wife. Kingsley Jones from Icicle Mountaineering was also there to meet me at the end and welcomed me to the “lunatics club” as he called it.
What about you crew?
I cannot tell how important a good crew is. Lucy and John were fantastic, they knew what I wanted before I did and maintained a firm but helpful attitude to get me through it. Just knowing they were there waiting for me at each checkpoint was enough to keep me motivated to get to them. They kept telling me how good I was looking but I’m fairly certain that was just to make me feel good. Seriously, I couldn’t have done it without them.
Will you do it again?
Yes! My finisher’s gilet is a bit big, so I need a smaller one!
OMAN by UTMB is at the end of November and is the inaugural race out there so I’m looking