The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc organisers specify and enforce (I was checked twice) minimum equipment that runners must carry during the UTMB, CCC and TDS races
My whole world shrank down to the few metres lit up by my headtorch as I crested the Catogne pass and left Switzerland behind to plunge through the forest into France. The mighty Mont Blanc massif whose spectacular vistas had energised me since leaving Italy that morning had blended into the night and I felt cocooned – conscious of nothing apart from the rhythm of my breathing, the sound of my shoes on the trail and the tic-tic-scrape of walking poles …
Oh, and the Alien creature looming out of the darkness – after 14 hours and 50 miles I guess it’s no surprise that twisted tree trunks took on new forms and echoes became phantom runners as I started to slightly lose my grip on reality.
I had worried about the night section before the race, scared I wouldn’t be able to tag on to the safety of a convoy of fellow runners. In the end I sought out solitary moments – a lone beam of light in the darkness, only able to imagine the Alpine giants towering above me.
A hair-raising 60-minute drop through the trees brought me to the Vallorcine aid station in the valley 770m below – where dancing green lasers and thumping eurotrash beats replaced the silence. Two bowls of noodle soup, some strong black coffee and a few slices of saucisson later and it was back out into the blackness – just another hilly half-marathon between me and the finish line.
The North Face CCC 100km ultramarathon had started at 9am that morning in the Italian town of Courmayeur, where 1,950 pumped up runners waved their hands in the air to the stirring sounds of Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise.
100km Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc CCC ultramarathon – a rare chance to practise downhill running. Photograph: Pascal Tournaire/The North Face
I took it easy on the first climbs – a lung-busting 1,365m to the top of the Tete de la Tronche pass, followed by more than 815m down to Arnuva and a brutally steep 770m ascent of the Grand Col Ferret at 2,537m. I had only been in the Alps for a day and had no chance to acclimatise to altitude – and when the distant bird call I first identified as an alpine chough turned out to be the gurgling sound of my own breathing, I slowed further – crossing the first pass in around 500th place.
Saving myself at the start meant I had energy to run the flattish section through pristine Swiss villages into Champex-Lac by late afternoon – although I forgot about my plan to fill up on pasta at this point and paid for it not long after when I found myself walking along the lakeside, unable to force myself into a jog until a gentle downhill a few miles later.
Check out that well-earned view. Photograph: Pascal Tournaire/The North Face
I spoke to double Western States winner Tim Olson before the race (he came fourth in the 100-mile The North Face UTMB the next day) and he said he tries to imagine himself “kissing the ground” with his feet as he descends steep slopes. My downhill style is a bit heavier – and it was frustrating to lose hard-won places to runners who were better able to work with gravity.
Nevertheless, by the third pass I had moved up to 250th – and overtaking people during the last half of a race is always more enjoyable than going out too strongly and losing places later on. (Thanks again go to ultrarunner and coach Rory Coleman for the tailored schedule and low-carb, diet which saw me lose weight and gain strength in the run-up to the CCC – I don’t plan to go back to eating pasta, potatoes, rice and bread outside of race week any time soon.)
Nick managed to contract ‘walking-pole’ elbow. Photograph: Pascal Tournaire/The North Face
In the early hours of the morning, near the bottom of the final 870m climb to Tete aux Vents, I finally entered “the zone” – existing only in the present, my mind empty, a relentless running machine effortlessly eating up the trail … Unfortunately, no sooner had I become conscious of this thought than the pain in my achilles tendon screamed its return, my poor feet ached and I got my first case of walking-pole elbow – but somehow it still seemed easier to climb ever-upward than to stop.
Another brief moment of bliss followed when I realised the line of headtorches I could see stretching impossibly high above me were actually stars – though the joy ebbed by the time I eventually topped out an hour later to see the bright lights of Chamonix below for the first time since we left at 6am the previous morning to catch coaches through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the start.
A final, fast, steep 1,095m descent spat me out in the back streets of Chamonix and I crossed the line at 3.40am, some 18 hours and 40 minutes after I started.
When I spotted the CCC a couple of years ago I really hoped just to finish and mix it up with some serious mountain runners without looking silly – so to cross the line in 177th and squeeze into the top 10% was more than I had hoped for given my woeful level of fitness not that long ago. All in all, the four events of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc week (the UTMB, CCC, TDS, PTL – to become five next year with a new 50km run starting in Switzerland) make up an epic series of races, with mind-blowing scenery and a real carnival atmosphere.
The only downside is the usual feeling of anticlimax after a big race. But the CCC finish provided the final three points I needed to qualify for the full UTMB next year – and the sub-19 hours means I can take my place in the ballot for the Western States 100, although I’ve still only got a one-in-10 chance of getting in.
Before that, though, there’s just the small matter of 270 miles up the backbone of Britain in the Spine race.
There is a bewildering array of choice on the market, so for anyone thinking of taking on one of these races, or something similar, here’s what worked for me:
“Jacket with hood and made with a waterproof (recommendation: minimum 10,000 Schmerber) and breathable (recommendation: RET lower than 13) membrane (Gore-Tex or similar) which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains”
OMM Kamleika jacket – the British company’s waterproof, stretchy Gelanots fabric has kept me warm in the worst conditions. I’ve loved this breathable jacket while training on wet weekends in Snowdonia and the Lakes – but was happy it stayed at the bottom of my rucksack during the CCC. The North Face’s AK Stormy Trail is another good option.
OMM Kamleika Race Pant – the soft fabric means these trousers don’t rustle when you run.
Long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks that cover the legs completely
I’m a recent convert to compression gear and I’m convinced theCompressSport Pro-Racing trail shorts and R2 calf guards helped keep my legs in working condition through 5,950m of ascent and descent – although I had to carry a pair of ¾-length running tights to meet the full-leg requirement. An alternative I liked in training were the Salomon Exo Wings Twinskin shorts, which combine compression with a loose, lightweight outer layer to protect your modesty.
Additional warm midlayer top
“One single midlayer long sleeve top for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 180g (Men, size M)
OR a two-piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a windproof jacket with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) protection”
I went for the second option with a North Face GTD long-sleeved running top and a lightweight Inov8 Race Elite 105 windshell jacket.
Two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries
The Petzl Nao USB-rechargeable reactive headtorch – which self-adjusts according to how far in the distance you’re looking to save batteries – lit up the trail beautifully, until it ran out after five and a half hours. I switched to the far less powerful Petzl Tikka I was carrying as a back-up – although next time I’ll probably carry a spare battery for the Nao.
Personal cup or tumbler 15cl minimum (water bottle not acceptable)
UTMB organisers say they have avoided the use of around 100,000 disposable beakers since they introduced a rule forcing runners to carry their own. The Sea to Summit X-cup is clever and collapsible – although there’s no obvious way to attach it to a rucksack without a bit of DIY.
Cap or bandana
Inov8 Hotpeak 60 peaked cap and Buff.
Warm and waterproof gloves
As someone who can suffer from cold hands I went for the overkill option with Seal Skinz waterproof all-weather cycling gloves, which kept my fingers warm during last winter’s sub-zero temperatures. I had a pair of ski gloves in my suitcase it case the forecast was really bad.
Mountain Equipment windproof beanie with OMM Kamleika waterproof cap.
I wasn’t sure how much saucisson and cheese I could take – so carried a big stock of my favourite flavours of Clif Bars and Clif Shotbloks. A GU Espresso Love gel , with its 40mg of caffeine, helped get me safely and quickly down the final steep descent at 3am.
Survival blanket 1.40m x 2m minimum
Lifesystems thermal blanket.
Adhesive elastic band enable making a bandage or a strapping (mini 100cm x 6 cm)
Standard, from pharmacy
I also carried …
Spotting an orange OMM rucksack was a clear sign you were about to come across a British runner – and more than half the field were carrying Salomon packs. But the OMM Ultra 15 worked well – the two side pockets held a couple of 600ml bottles – one for plain water and the other for water with Nuun electrolyte tablets. It also features a whistle (another bit of compulsory kit) on the chest-strap.
The dry weather meant I opted for plenty of cushioning and stability with Salomon’s XA Pro 3D Ultra. I had packed a pair of Inov8 Roclite 315s in my suitcase for extra traction in case the forecast had been different.
Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z – super-lightweight collapsible carbon-fibre poles. While the elite field is split pretty evenly on whether to use poles or not, the vast majority of the pack carry them.
Rachel C. , PhD
Research Scientist Consultant @ U-VIB
PhD, Doctor of Philosophy in Counseling
NREMT-P (National Registry of Paramedics)
– 911 Medic for over 15 years
– Scientist for over 7 years
– Runner for LIFE
source: The Guardian