The Ultra Trail du Mt Blanc 2007
Without any audible noise the race has begun. I stand unmoving waiting for the runners ahead to move forward through the narrow streets of Chamonix to allow me some space to start running. There is over 2300 runners all packed into a very small area behind the start line, each runner with a backpack and most with two trekking poles sticking out of the pack making it advisable not to get too close to the runner ahead. After what seems like several minutes but is probably only 60 seconds I move forward and start running. The first kilometer is through the town and is a stop start affair as we negotiate the narrow streets lined with hundreds of spectators urging us on with their chants of “allez, allez, allez” Somehow I spot Catherine in amongst the sea of faces and smile, it’s the last I’ll see of her for quite a while.
I am setting out to try and run around Mt Blanc. The course starts in Chamonix then crosses the Alps and descends into Courmayeur in Italy, circumnavigating the Mt Blanc massif it passes into Switzerland and then back into France finishing back where it starts – Chamonix.It
is 163km long and involves 8900m of ascent and descent. Last year more then half the 2500 strong field failed to finish so is not a race for the faint hearted. I have to cross the finish line before 4.30pm Sunday and it is just past 6.30pm Friday giving me 46 hours to complete the course but I am hoping for somewhere between 30 and 34 hours, ideally finishing in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The path leaves the town and I start on a gently undulating track that follows the river Avre which flows through the town of Chamonix. As soon as the race leaves town it resembles the race for people with bladder problems from Monty Pythons Flying Circus. Men are ducking off into the bushes left, right and centre. There were no toilets at race start and by the looks of it there were some athletes pretty keen to get this race underway.
Back to the task at hand I try and find a comfortable rhythm, not too fast for it is a long way to go. I settle into a comfortable pace around 5 minutes per kilometre. I have made the mistake before of going out too fast and paid the consequences. I begin to wonder how the next 48 hours will turn out. Will my legs, particularly my knees survive or will the little niggle in my right knee complain and force me to walk or worse still pull out? How cold will it be overnight? I hate being cold and hypothermia is my biggest fear. The temperature is quite mild at the moment so I am hoping conditions will stay like this. Have I packed all my gear? I have checked, double checked and triple checked everything before the race but no matter how many times I do it I still worry I’ve forgotten something. There was so much to pack – extra layers of clothes, batteries, torches, gels, salt tablets, beanie, gloves, blister packs, space blanket, phone, MP3 player, bandage, Cant do anything about it now so I try and banish that thought from my mind. How are the legs feeling? Did I get the taper right? I spend a few minutes doing a mental check of how everything is feeling and decide I am feeling pretty good.
We reach the first hill, only a tiny one on the scale of what is to come but we all stop and walk up it. Can’t afford to burn precious carbohydrates running up a hill when there is still 160km to go. I gradually weave my way through the field settling into a relaxed running pace of just over 5minutes per kilometre until we reach the small town of Les Houches. There is a large crowd here clapping and urging us on and as we leave the town the first real mountain begins. I stop just out of town to get my poles out as do most of the runners around me. (Upon the recommendations of several people I bought some poles a few months ago and have been amazed as to how much they help going uphill and how they save the quads when descending). I stride purposefully uphill establishing a rhythm with my arms that my legs have to follow. I am feeling strong at this stage and pass a number of people going uphill. The views across the valley to Mt Blanc as the suns sets, alighting the clouds a fiery pink and red are breathtaking. I pause every now and then to take it in. There is no point doing a race like this if you can’t enjoy sights as spectacular as this. At the top of the 800m climb the sun has disappeared and the temperature has dropped so I stop put on tights and another layer on top.
(I discover afterwards that I arrived at the top in 562nd Place)
The next part is a steep descent down a ski slope into the town of Saint Gervais. The descent is steeper than anything I’ve run down in training and I watch as a number of people take off down the mountain as though the finish line is at the bottom. I adopt a more captious approach designed to get me to the bottom without falling over and trying to preserve my quads for as long as possible. This race climbs and descends almost 9000m so no point sprinting down the first mountain. Half way down I can feel my right knee slightly, not painful but an awareness. Not a good sign but as it isn’t painful (.. yet) I ignore it. As the slope returns to a gentler grade my speed picks up and I find myself passing some of the people who
passed me initially. I arrive at the lowest part of the course having descended almost 1000m with quads well and truly warmed up! It is around 9.15 at night and the crowd is also out in Saint Gervais urging us on. Checking my race plan I see I am around 10 minutes behind 30 hour pace. Maybe 30 hours is achievable. Would be very happy with that.
(I have lost quite a few places on the descent into Saint Gervais and am in 632nd place).
From Saint Gervais at the 20km mark the next 24km are all uphill. From the lowest point of the course at 807m to the third highest at 2479m.It starts with a gentle 10km climb during which I get into a great rhythm and arrive at the next small village of Les Contamines feeling very strong.
(I picked up 213 places in that 10km and am in 419th position).
It is time to fill my camelback up with water. I have a 3litre capacity and have been going for over 4 hours so supplies are getting low. After an intial disaster caused by not tightening the lid properly I am off ready to tackle the climb to the Croix du Bonhomme. This section is steep and it is a matter of keeping the head down and putting one foot in front of the other. The moon is almost full and illuminates the enormous bulk of the Mont Blanc massif to my right. It is an awesome sight. The glaciers can still be seen under the reflection of the moonlight and on any normal night I could sit and stare for hours taking in the majestic scene. Not tonight however.
To keep myself fuelled I am using a combination of a special sports drink (perpeteum) and carbohydrate gels. Mixed together in a 500ml bottle they form a runny paste which I drink out of every 30 minutes or so. The problem is when you are descending you cant afford to take a hand of the poles to take a drink and when your ascending your breathing too hard to take much of a drink. I say to myself I’ll get to the top and have a drink there but before long realize that the top is over an hour away so pull off the path for a second, get some calories down me then press on. After 3 hours of climbing I reach the top and begin the 900m descent into Les Chapieux – the last major town before the race crosses the border into Italy. This descent is even worse than the previous one and I have Catherine’s parting words of “be careful” in my mind as I make my way down. Several people pass me, a number falling onto the backsides or stumbling awkwardly as they do. A bruised knee at this stage could be the end of the race so I bide my time and ensure I stay upright and wait till the slope lessens then pick up the pace running strongly into Les Chapieux. Checking my race plan again I am now 50 minutes off 30 hour pace so it looks like 31.5 hours might be more realistic.
(I have made up more positions and sit in 370th spot).
It is after 1 in the morning yet there is still a large number of volunteers and supporters cheering us along as we pass through the town. As I leave the town and begin the next climb I decide this is a good time to put my MP3 player to work as it is quite lonely on the course. Everyone is either puffing too much to talk or talking in French. My French is extremely limited (I’m being optimistic calling the few French words and phrases I know speaking French) so I haven’t spoken to a single person so far. As I get out my MP3 I happen to glance at my phone, Catherine has left me a message on there before she went to sleep and so I set off up the 1000m climb to the Col de la Seigne in good spirits, thinking of Catherine and with the music of Pearl Jam, Midnight Oil, Green Day and U2 amongst others in my ear.
In most races I try and break down the distances into manageable chunks. In an Ironman I’ll break the run down into 2km sections. Just run from this aid station to the next aid station 2km away is what keeps me going. This race however is different. It is so long that breaking it down doesn’t work. The next aid station is 20km away with two mountains over 2400m to cross before I get there. So as to not get
overwhelmed by the enormity of the task I eliminate any thought of how far to go from my mind. All that matters is that at the moment there is a mountain to climb. Nothing else matters so don’t think about it. I make my way up the mountain still feeling strong although there is a small ache in my hip flexor and in the back of my right knee that shouldn’t be there. Not painful as yet but just something else to contend with. The path makes its way across a small patch of snow and up to the summit of the Col de la Seigne. As I look ahead I can see the trail of headlights reaching up to the nearby summit. When I look down there is a trail of headlights that stretches far down the mountain as far as the eye can see. It is an unforgettable sight. The summit finally comes, I wave my wrist timing chip over the receiver manned by some poor souls who have volunteered to spend all night on top of this pass in what could be potentially freezing conditions, although I am actually sweating quite freely as the temperature has not dropped to the levels it can do at this height at this time of night.
(I have set a good pace up the climb and have jumped up to 299th place).
I cross the border into Italy (although there is nothing telling me this) and begin the descent. The path slopes down and around on a barren landscape to a refuge hut and then once again climbs back up, this time to the Arete du Mont-Favre. The light is slowly improving and the amazing views are slowly revealing themselves. If anything I seem to be closer to the enormous mountains than before. The silhouettes come into view first followed by the glaciers coursing their way down the mountain. Gradually the glow of the rising sun illuminates the whole scene. It is once again a spectacular sight and it makes one feel very insignificant to be surrounded by the massive peaks. No matter how many times I steal a glance the views always entice me to look for longer. Resisting I push on.
I know I have told myself not to think ahead but this is the last climb before the first major checkpoint at Courmayeur. At Courmayeur
a fresh set of clothes awaits and a chance to rest for a few minutes whilst I reorganize my kit. (You could place gear in two bags which the organisers transported to the checkpoints at Courmayeur and Champez) The big motivator is Catherine would be waiting and I am really looking forward to seeing her. Possibly because I am starting to think too far ahead I begin to struggle to keep up with the group ahead of me. A Frenchman urges me on but I cant keep the pace up so I step aside and take in some more calories then try and get back into a rhythm again. The climbs are brutal, they go on for hours and are unrelenting, usually getting steeper at the top.
Catherine gave me a good luck card before I started in which it commented on the impossible task of nailing jelly to a tree. Every time things start getting tough I think of the card and it puts a smile on my face making me temporarily forget the pain. Finally the summit is crested and I begin running the descent. The descent starts of quite gently and I pick up a few more places. Far below I can see the town of Courmayeur and it looks quite close as the crow flys but it looks a long long way down. In fact in the next 9km I drop over 1200m in height. The path gets steeper and steeper and as I approach the town it feels like I am directly over the town. A ridiculously steep path appears and I follow it down until finally reaching the town at just after 7am.
As I approach the sports centre I see a familiar figure and as I reach Catherine we walk the last 50 metres or so together into the checkpoint. I find out my Mum in Australia is following the race on the net and has texted Catherine with my position and I learn I am in 299th place.
(I am actually in 224th place having caught another 75 people since the checkpoint Mum referred to)
I change my clothes and socks, refill my sports drink bottle and my camel back and in what seems like 5 minutes but actually takes 20 minutes I head back out on the course. A quick chat with Catherine and I am on my way again. I wont see her again till Champex in Switzerland sometime in the afternoon but she has been getting txt messages from the race organizers informing her of when I pass through checkpoints so I know that every checkpoint I go through she will know I am still ok. Looking at my race plan I have slipped behind 30 hour pace but it looks as though 32 hours might be achievable so feeling refreshed both physically and mentally I set off on the long climb out of Courmayuer. I decide not to worry with the predicted race splits anymore, I’m going as fast as I can. If I make 32 hours great if I don’t well I know I’ll have given it my best shot.
As I climb through the town and then the forest I am starting to really struggle for the first time. I had been warned this was a challenging part of the course but on paper it didn’t look that difficult – an 800m climb over 5km. I am finding it hard to keep up with anybody. I realise I didn’t have enough calories whilst on the descent from Arete du Mont-Favre or in Courmayeur and now I am paying for it. I try and get some more into me but it will take a while to take effect. The climb seems to go on forever and as it is through a forested area I can’t see the top. When I finally break through the tree line I finally see the top and curse and swear that it still seems like ages away. Thinking of nailing jelly to a tree I smile, quit whinging to myself and struggle up the last section to the Refuge Bertone checkpoint and aid station just below the top. I sit down and grab 2 cups of coke, 2 cups of maxim, open up a gel and swallow that, eat a dozen or so jelly beans Catherine had given me, have another 2 cups of coke and maxim and then get up and start up the last little climb to the top. My stomach is uncomfortably full but I have some energy back. Note to self to pay closer attention to fuelling myself. In an ironman I just set my watch to beep every 30 minutes and make sure I have a gel, it’s not that easy here so I need to concentrate more.
The next section is gently undulating (compared with what has preceded it) and I manage to run all the downhill and flat sections and come into the Refuge Bonatti checkpoint feeling much better. As I enter the checkpoint an official spots my nationality on my race number and mentions that there is an Australian volunteer manning the drinks. She makes a fuss of me as does another Australian spectator and I head out feeling in good spirits.
(I managed to pass 36 people with a quick stop in Courmayeur but had lost 13 spots whilst sitting at the Refuge Bertone so arrived at the checkpoint in 201st position)
The Italian section of the course is by far the most remote. It doesn’t pass through any villages and there are far less spectators on the course. Most of the spectators are hikers who just happened to be here as the race comes past. Nevertheless they all, without fail offer there support with the familiar cries of “allez, allez, allez” mixed in with “bravo, bravo”. I try and reply with either “merci” or “grazie” but sometimes it comes out “graci” or “mercie” instead. They probably can’t understand me over the puffing anyway so I figure it doesn’t matter.
The path heads up on the flanks of a valley with the Mont Blanc massif on one side and a series of 2500m plus high mountains on the other. We are running towards what looks like the end of the valley barred by some very big mountains. Looking ahead I can’t see where we can get over this but after a slight downhill the path brings me to the start of the climb to the Grand Col Ferret – the highest point of the race at 2537m. I am hoping my legs will feel a bit better up this climb than the previous two otherwise it is going to be a struggle. I try and set a steady rhythm at the bottom with my poles and hope it will keep me going to the top. About half way up I notice I am starting to keep pace with the people around me instead being passed as I had been on the last big climbs. I ascend 800m in 4km and towards the last part of the climb am starting to pass people. At the top I am sidetracked by the sight of several mountain bikers beginning their descent down the path I had just come up – are they crazy or what! After pondering that thought I decided that perhaps I was the crazy one and perhaps I shouldn’t go around questioning other people’s sanity given what I am doing! I cross the top and head down into Switzerland.
(I have made up some lost ground and am back up to 184th position.)
The next 17km are essentially all downhill and most of it runable. I set off and find out my legs are keen to run. I stride out and begin passing a number of people. I am running around 4.5minute kilometre pace and feeling great. This kind of slope is what I’ve done most of my training on and it shows. I may not be great at the really steep rocky descents (not too many of them in London) but give me a steep path to run down and I feel like I am flying. My knee hurts a little bit and my hip flexor is sore when I’ve been climbing for over an hour but not in any way that is slowing me down. The rest of me feels like it has been running for a couple of hours not eighteen.
Finally the downhill comes to an end in the little village and checkpoint of Praz de Fort. I arrive feeling stronger than I’ve felt for the whole race. In the village I am running with another guy and as we run through the village a couple of kids have set up their own aid station and are offering coke. Both of us gratefully accept and smile to each other about the kids involvement. Around another bend and some kids are at a water fountain encouraging us to drink, we decline but soak our caps in the cold alpine water and cool ourselves down. The temperature must be high twenties and it is very refreshing feeling the cool water soak my head and neck.
The climb to Champez – the second major checkpoint – begins just outside the village. I am getting stronger on the climbs and begin passing people before catching a group of 3 others whom I stick with up to the checkpoint. I have my only conversation with a fellow competitor just before we reach the checkpoint. A Swiss guy asks a question in English to a spectator and on hearing him speak English I immediately break into conversation with him. I turned off the MP3 in Courmayeur so it was great to finally break the silence. A brief chat brought us to the town of Champex which we could hear well before we got there by the sound of cow bells ringing. Catherine met me a little way down the path from the checkpoint and followed me in. She wasn’t expecting me for a while and somehow I have made up two hours, am back under 30 hour pace and am in 152nd place at the last checkpoint according to the latest text from Mum. The news puts a smile on my face and gives me a real mental boost.
(I moved up a few more spots to 127th position by the time I reached Champex)
Catherine comes in to the checkpoint tent with me (the officials in this race aren’t anywhere near as strict as the officials in an Ironman that she is used to) and we chat whilst I get my drinks and gear ready. She helps getting water and coke saving me from walking around unnecessarily and it is much appreciated. The Swiss guy I chatted to is next to me and offers me some fruit and when I politely decline offers it to Catherine as well! I really wish I could speak French fluently as I feel the camaraderie between the competitors particularly in these latter parts of the course is amazing. I just can’t communicate with them.
I set out from Champex full of enthusiasm with just a marathon to go. It is 3.15pm and I have been going for almost 21 hours. Surely I can do a marathon in less than 9 hours. I have walked one in less than 7 before so how hard can it be. Unfortunately this marathon comes after you have already done 122km and involves two major climbs over 2000m. I start to think of the finish and get a little emotional before reminding myself “you haven’t finished yet so don’t start thinking about it till you’re on the finish line”
The path is relatively flat for a while and I managed to run almost all of it ( a little slower now – around 5.5 to 6 minute k’s)stopping to walk only when I need some more calories. After criss crossing a river a number of times the climb to Bovine begins. It crosses several streams where I pause and soak my cap in and feel instantly refreshed by the cool alpine water. Amazingly I am either getting faster up the climbs or everyone else is getting slower. I am feeling stronger up this climb than any other climb in the race and I pass a number of people and very quickly put some distance on them. The final ascent doesn’t seem to drag on like previous climbs and I reach the checkpoint pausing only briefly for more Coke and Maxim.
(I reach the checkpoint in 105th position.)
At the top my legs don’t want to begin running again but after 100 metres or so they get back into the rhythm of striding out down the paths and negotiating the steep rocky descents as quickly as possible. After the climb up to Bovine the course now drops 600m down to Trient where Catherine meets me again. She wasn’t expecting me so soon and is pleased to see me looking so good ( maybe
that’s not quite correct – looking so good compared to the last Ultra-marathon I did is probably more accurate). A quick chat, a couple of drinks and I am off again this time back up another 700m to the last major climb of the race, Catogne. I have made up more time and am now well under 30 hour pace and still feeling strong.
The competitors are getting few and far between now but I still manage to pass a few more on the ascent. Descending through the tree’s is tricky and I am still slow on the more technical parts, getting passed by a few runners. Once again as soon as the trail becomes more of a path and less a random arrangemnet of rocks I catch up and pass them putting some time on them. It is getting dark and I don’t really want to stop to get my torch out. The next checkpoint at Vallorcine is soon so I aim to see if I can make it there before having to stop and take my pack off. It is very dark in the forest but fortunately just as I think I should really stop and get my torch out before I trip over and injure myself I reach the town. This is the last checkpoint at which Catherine can get to. She has been catching buses put on by the organizers to get around and has spent a lot of time waiting around, not sure when I would be turning up, but seeing her at each checkpoint has given me a real lift. It would be a lot harder without her there. I have a few words with her as I enter the checkpoint and she tells me I am now in the top 100. I can barely believe it. I didn’t even dare to think I could make the top 100. I thought if I had a good race maybe top 200 but only if I had a really good race. I haven’t finished yet however. There is still 16km to go. It is 8.45pm – surely I can do 16km in 3hours45minutes and break the 30 hour mark. (It sounds easy but the pace can easily slow to 15-20minute per kilometre up the steep climbs and parts of the steep technical descents!)
Catherine has told my Mum that she thinks I’m enjoying myself
and Mums reply was “At least someone is”. Mum has been following me all day on the computer and got up at 4am to check on my progress! Catherine’s parents had also been checking my progress on the internet and had spoken to Catherine during the day. The difference support from loved ones makes cant really be measured but I know mentally seeing Catherine regularly and hearing my in- laws and parents were following me gives me a big psychological boost.
I set out running from Vallorcine and see a group of runners ahead. My pace is quicker than theirs and I pass them, hopefully cementing my place in the top 100. The trail climbs up one last time to the Col des Montets and after passing a few more competitors I am alone for the first time in the race. No-one visible ahead of me and no-one behind. It is dark and the path winds its way through a heavily wooded area negating the effect of the moonlight. I dont feel tired but I notice I am starting to hallucinate – seeing people in the woods that I know can’t possibly be there. I’d heard about this before but had never experienced it. It is a strange sensation but it doesn’t slow me down so I am not concerned at all.
This section is undulating and the hills are slight so I manage to run up most of them. I am amazed I am still able to run. I have done over 150km now and somehow my legs haven’t given up on me yet. (I’ve slowed to just over 6 minutes per kilometre but am still running) It is a great feeling to be in control of your body instead of the other way around. In some previous races my legs have sent some loud messages to my brain which were almost impossible to ignore. This time however they are still obeying the messages being sent to them to continue running.
The trail is marked with florescent markings every 100 yards or so, usually hanging from trees but finding the route is becoming difficult and I take a few wrong turns, doubling back after 100 yards or so when I can’t see any markers. I don’t lose much time and still can’t see any headtorches in front or behind so am not too fussed. Descending through the forest I see the final checkpoint at Argentiere which I reach at 9.45pm. There is not far to go from here. Is it 5km or was it longer – I cant remember.
Leaving the tiny village I re-enter the forest and head for home. Running through the forest I once again lose the markers, doubling back I still cant find them. Seeing some signs on a tree that seem to point to a path heading down I follow the path. After having descended for 5 minutes or so I still cant find any markers and am officially lost. This is not how I want to end this race, everything has been going so well. I press on hoping to stumble back onto the trail. I reach a main road and head left towards Chamonix hoping the path I should have been on rejoins this road somewhere. After 5 minutes or so a car pulls over and asks if I am ok – I ask “Chamonix?” and he points straight ahead so I continue, A minute later another car stops and tells me I am going the wrong way so I turn back and run the other direction. I meet another competitor who tells me he is also lost. I keep running for another few minutes and another car stops telling me I am going the wrong way so I turn around again and run back again. Seeing a lady on the side of the road I ask her and she confirms I am running in the right direction and there is six kilometres to Chamonix. – surely it can’t be that far. This is very frustrating and not what I need right now. I have done the hard work and I just want to finish. After 5 minutes or so of running I see the last driver to stop has stopped ahead. We chat in broken English and he tells me the actual path is about a kilometre up a steep road Once I get back on the trail I see some of the group of runners I passed out of Vallorcine just ahead of me. The detour has obviously cost me around 10 minutes or more. I pick up the pace and overtake the group and spend the next 10 minutes catching the rest of the runners that I had already passed. I’m really not sure what time I will do but think to myself surely I didn’t lose that much time – under 30 hours must still be on the cards.
Finally I am back on my own having caught up to and passed all that I had originally passed. The path descends gradually until the outskirts of Chamonix are reached. It is obviously not 5km from the last checkpoint as I have been going for more than an hour. The trail finally flattens and I figure I must be able to see the town soon. It has been 28 hours since I started and my legs are finally beginning to complain loudly. I haven’t got much left. I stop and walk for 20yards then give myself a kick up the bum “You haven’t worked so hard over the last 160km to start walking now – get moving” I break back into a slow shuffle and then back into something that looks more like running and resolve to keep going until the finish.
After what seems like an eternity along a straight flat path I finally see the Sports Hall where I registered before the race. It is less than 2km to go from here. I haven’t seen anybody for over an hour and it is a big lift when I start to see some spectators who enthusiastically call out the familiar cries of “allez, allez, allez” mixed in with “superb”. I give a small wave of my poles and keep running. I am running with the poles in my hands. They are of no use now but it is easier to run with them than stop and put them in my backpack. The crowd starts to thicken and I finally reach the town itself. Every person I pass applauds and acknowledges me enthusiastically. I am starting to smile as I realise I have done it. I run through the streets and the crowd thickens and the cries of “allez” and “superb” get louder and louder. I have a grin from ear to ear as well as a tear or two trying to escape. Crossing the river Arve for the final 200m I am waving my arms in the air happy beyond belief. Rounding the last corner I see the finish line, with both hands in the air I cross the line in 28hours 48 minutes!
The announcer has called my name out is trying to interview me, the conversation goes like this
“parlez vous francais?”
That’s it. Hardly an insightful interview.
I am given my finishers vest and shown to a seat. Catherine is there waiting for me and I give her a big hug. It is over. I am exhausted but elated. I have surpassed my wildest expectations and had an amazing experience. Without doubt the finest moment of my athletic career. It is hard to put into words how I feel. There is a feeling of contentment and deep satisfaction, of pure joy and elation. I have a sense of disbelief that I have made it to the finish at all, let alone in the time I have done and a feeling of pride. It is not a feeling of conquering anything or beating anyone but a joy at having taken part, risen to the challenge and of knowing I have done the best I could possibly do.It is a feeling that will be recalled in the future bringing a smile to my face and a warm glow in my heart. I know that’s a poor explanation but you get the idea that it feels pretty damn good, as it would want to be if it takes running 163km to obtain.
At the finishers table there is a selection of food and drinks available. Catherine tries to talk me into champagne but I barely manage a can of coke. The guy who finishes after me reaches straight for a beer! Not sure how that would go down! After sitting for a while my body temperature starts to cool down and I start to shiver. I have stiffened up but still manage something resembling a walk back to our hotel. As we leave the finishing area a runner whom I had passed recently has just finished. He looks at me and gives me a thumbs up, probably realizing I didn’t speak French. A simple gesture signifying respect and a recognition of a shared experience meant a lot. In every other race I’ve done I have been able to talk to other finishers and share that feeling of elation when finishing for that little bit longer. Here my lack of French prevented that, so a simple thumbs up acknowledging what we had both just done was quite memorable.
I shuffle back to our hotel and Catherine makes me the best ham and cheese toasted sandwich I have ever had. It is the first food I have had for almost 48 hours. Although my taste buds cried with joy at something that wasn’t sweet my stomach wasn’t sure what was going on and it took a long time to finish the sandwich. A quick shower and then into bed before I fall asleep on the couch finishes an amazing couple of days.
I made a quick call to Mum the next morning and learnt I had finished in 74th place overall. (By the time the race was over just over 1400 competitors finished out of 2200 starters.)
At lunch the next day at a café that was on the course about 150m before the finish we watch a number of competitors come in to the finish. They have been going for over 42 hours. I notice tears welling in me as I feel the joy they are experiencing reaching the finish. I am in awe of these athletes, they had spent a second night without sleep and it seemed I had been in a different, easier race than them and I stopped and clapped every one as they passed by our table. I felt almost guilty that I was sitting there eating pizza whilst they where still running.
Not long after two people sat at a table next to us. I recognized one of them as being Dawa Sherpa -a Nepalese born French speaking athlete who came fifth this year and had won it in a previous year. We chatted briefly and he congratulated me, as I did him. Shortly after another competitor sat behind us and had a brief chat with Dawa saying that Dawa was the better runner and he wasn’t sure how he managed to finish ahead of him. We learned that this was the man who finished 2nd. Dawa replied “The placing wasn’t important, being here and competing is what is important”. The man exuded humility and he summed up this race in that one simple sentence.
As happy as I am with my placing it is not the placing that will stay with me in my memory, it will be the view of the mountains and glaciers at sunrise and sunset, the sight of the long line of headtorches disappearing down the mountain, the never ending cries of “allez, allez allez” and “superb” from spectators, the sounds of cow bells ringing out support, the support I had from Catherine and my parents and in-laws, the feeling of insignificance that being surrounded by these incredible landscapes brings about, that feeling of mind and body working together for the whole race, finishing what to any sane mind seems to be an impossible task, the cheers and support as I crossed the finish line, a thumbs up from a fellow competitor, seeing the slower finishers joy in their faces after being out there for more than 42 hours – these will all stay with me much longer than my time or placing and these are the reasons why people do these kind of races.
So what’s next? Well after the feeling has returned to my big toes, the remaining muscle soreness has disappeared and a few toenails have fallen off I’ll get back into running. Not sure what the next challenge will be. Plenty of time to work that out!