Last week the North Face UTMB series was held in the alpine mountain mecca of Chamonix, France. This annual event sees thousands of competitors arrive in anticipation of their race, whilst taking in the atmosphere and endless celebrations as various events start and finish as the week progresses.
Throughout the entire week, runners returned to Chamonix at the end of their adventures in various states of exhaustion and elation. Crowds lined the streets for over an hour to see the elite athletes finish each race and yet there never seemed to be a shortage of supporters or passers by to cheer competitors in as they finished way down the field. The sense of achievement as individuals realised their ambition was a stark contrast to the bewildered daze they may have adopted some time afterwards, walking around Chamonix with their red finishers gilet and lining up for a well-earned coupe de glace or ice cold beer. Amongst the many hundreds of other visitors and locals wondering the streets of Chamonix, some oblivious to the buzz and hive of activity as they sat discussing their ascents of Mont Blanc or other alpine peaks, it was easy to spot those who had pounded the trails as they hobbled around with their kit and wristbands.
And then there were those who hadn’t finished…….too unwell to continue, too sore to contemplate another ascent…..too slow to reach the checkpoints in time for the cut-off. Each of these competitors also had a story to tell…..some were elite athletes predicted to come in the top ten…..others were highly experienced at ultra-distance running…..some had maybe underestimated the race and could not possibly continue. The whole week was a marvel of endurance, ambition, dedication and pure adventure. Those individuals running some 42 hours after the start of the final race and well beyond the finish time of the winners were still entitled to the same celebrations and sense of achievement as anyone else.
So where did I fit in?
First and foremost was my role in support of Reuben who was running the TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) representing the Torq Trail Team. This was his first alpine event and no mean feat – a total of 119km and 7260m ascent which he achieved in an amazing time of 29h31m. It is easy to underestimate the role of the ‘Accompanying Person’. We too had woken at 4am on the morning of the start and had relied on text updates – some through the night – whilst we estimated the finish time and planned our days around this. His brother Edward and I had cycled 8km out to Les Houches to wait in surprise and push him to his limits as he made for Chamonix. Seeing Reuben run most of the last 5km, more than many other competitors at this point, was a very proud moment – not least as he packed away his poles and made a heady sprint for the finish, running to cheers and applause as he made his way through the main street in Chamonix. I followed on the bike, totally taken in by the moment – as if it was just the two of us – after all, we had been preparing for this event for nearly 12 months.
Once our own celebrations had been completed, focus turned on my contribution to the week – something I had been planning since January but which I still felt a little unprepared for. So at 1pm on Friday, I turned up for the UTMB Medical Brief. After being handed out a North Face bag, t-shirt, fleece gilet and jacket (much to my surprise), I sat in a room and listened to an entire brief in French! I can follow the jist of some conversations – that ability I guess is from years spending holidays in France although it is very easy to suddenly have no idea what is being discussed… The medical aspects are of course very similar and so at the end of the brief I raised my hand and posed a question, in French……and at that, I was in and hooked.
My first post was on the Friday evening at Les Contamines, roughly 30km into the UTMB or rather, the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc. This race, the highlight of the week, is a 168km tour of the alpine trails circling Mont Blanc and totals over 9000m of ascent in its entirety. The race had started in a frenzy at 4.30pm with over 2000 competitors heading out of Chamonix as jubilant spectators and supporters cheered them on their way. I had missed the start and ended up on a bit of a detour trying to find the lift that had been arranged – turns out I had misunderstood the conversation back at the brief and thus the chance to see the start from the VIP box. Not a good start for my language skills!
Once en route with my team for the evening (Fanny, a student doctor and Yveline, a nurse) we made conversation – a mix of french and english – and talked about the evening ahead. Once at Les Contamines, we set up the first aid tent with various medical supplies and waited for the first arrivals. Before our work began, we had a quick graze from the food station – a little cheese, bread and saucisson with coffee – little did I know this was going to be my last chance to eat for about 4 hours!
Just after 7pm, the first elite runners arrived through the checkpoint. No sooner than 10 minutes had passed and we were out in the area sectioned off for competitors and their families, helping out one of the runners who had collapsed. It was quite a shock to the system – the speed at which the cameras and media intruded to pry on one of the favourites, the rapidity of conversation and the sudden phone calls made back to Chamonix and the medical person in charge (PC Secours). Once in the sanctuary of the first aid tent, we were able to carry out our jobs and as we did, more and more competitors appeared for help.
It was a brilliant evening – we saw over 40 competitors in under 4 hours – at least 15 of whom abandoned the race for a variety of reasons. The day had been hot with hours spent queuing at registration and wondering around Chamonix in preparation for the start. By 8pm, many individuals were suffering with exhaustion, vomiting, GI upset and viral symptoms – somewhat indicative of the fact they probably shouldn’t have started the race in the first instance. One runner had flown from the USA only 2 days before, feeling unwell on arrival into France with cold-like symptoms. Perhaps not the best preparation for a 168km race….
So why, you have to wonder, do people line themselves up for a 168km race when they are feeling unwell? Perhaps to cross the start line and commit to the (months) of training and then have to withdraw on medical grounds is better than not starting? Expectations maybe……of family, friends and colleagues? It certainly is no mean feat to enter a race thousands of miles around the globe and then not start for fear of not finishing. Maybe they could rely on the medical teams to withdraw them from the race if too unwell…….or they could make it round just in time if they simply walked….. And the amount of money spent on kit…..it seemed every other person had the Salomon S-Lab rucksacks (retailing around £150) or an equivalent as well as the trail shoes, compression socks, vests, shorts and ultra-running poles. The weight of requisite kit to be carried can be minimised with purchasing more expensive equipment – and so many individuals perhaps had this financial burden in mind. Whatever the reasons, people were on their own individual journey and had a story to tell – and it was my job to help them continue that journey wherever possible.
Just after 1pm on Saturday 31st August, the first UTMB runner into Chamonix, Xavier Thevenard crossed the finish line to raptures of applause and celebration in a record time of 20h 34min. The atmosphere was electric – such an achievement on his first attempt – and still looking so fresh. Second and third place followed within 20 minutes…..these three were in a different league – minimal rucksacks, some without poles and none with compression socks. And yet they were home and finished….
So what for the other 2000+ competitors? I arrived at Vallorcine (altitude 1260m) at 10pm to find only 200 people had passed this checkpoint at 149km into the race. By now the clock had been ticking for 30 hours and hundreds of runners had dropped out and at least 1500 were still out on the course. It was going to be a long night….
The first aid post was housed in the train station overnight and together with Romain (a student doctor) and Alain (a nurse), we formed the last of the medical support for the UTMB. A total of 45 people came into the building for attention over the course of the evening – perhaps the same number again just to get a powernap ranging from 15 to 60 minutes. We popped blisters, strapped joints and massaged sore muscles with ‘Decontractyl’ for most of the evening. It was quite different to the initial pitfalls at Les Contamines – this time people were arriving in drips and drabs – sheer exhaustion and despair written across their faces. Tired families followed suit……many perhaps relieved they could take their loved ones home (despite the disappointment)…..others frustrated not to be able to get a seat on the half hourly coaches back to Chamonix…..some just as focussed on the finish line as they had been at the start of the race. It was amazing – all night the crowds gathered, cow bells rang in the moonlight and headtorches drifted slowly downhill from the mountain tops, headed straight for the food tent.
I surprised myself, spending most of the evening laughing and joking in French – where I had the vocabulary stored I will never know…but to have that confidence to tell stories and tales in another tongue was something I didn’t think possible. And even to speak with the locals…..they were just grateful for some rest and attention….
By 8.30am, the runners still coming in were a little more stressed out……the checkpoint closed at 9am…..they had been running all night and feet sore with blisters, joints aching from “mal de descent”, they barely had time to restock energy supplies, seek first aid and set off again. A few were in tears….it was awful to see. Once 9am had passed, runners coming through looked dejected…..their journey was over for this year. Still, a brilliant achievement to have made 149km. And yet for some……so disappointed and frustrated with themselves…… You have to think why but for some losing is not an option……one lady wearing an Ironman cap clearly had the drive and ability to go the distance but can that be translated so easily into the Alps? Maybe next year……
And so we packed up the post and waited for the last three runners and the two officials who had swept up the back of the course and collected all the waymark points. I boarded the bus back to Chamonix…..watching with intent at the many runners drifting in and out of sleep as their relatives sat with a sense of closure as they returned to comfort. For those still out on the course, it was a case of pushing on and testing the boundaries of physical and mental strength now – the latter perhaps more poignant to get across that finish. All that sat between them and glory was 19km and another massive climb…..
Once in Chamonix, I joined in the cheers and applause as runners trickled in towards the finish. I was in a happy daze…….shattered myself from supporting Reuben mid-week and for the time spent volunteering…. As I rounded the corner into the Place du Mont Blanc, I heard an uproar in the crowds. Looking up, I saw a British runner I’d given advice and simple treatment to overnight. He had been determined to finish despite having seized up a little and it was brilliant to see him finish….. And then another competitor who had almost given up with fatigue but who we encouraged to eat, take on some fluids and rest a little while longer…..
And so I returned to the apartment with a big smile on the face and many happy memories of a week spent in Chamonix. And how did I reward myself? Why, I entered the Lakeland 50 race in July next year. I am hooked – who wouldn’t be?