UTMB CCC 2018 – Part Two – The journey into the unknown!

Michelle Maxwell Coaching, Marathon, Nutrition, Psychology, Racing, Running, Ultra Marathon

The bit you’ve all been waiting for, the gory details of the race itself, but first let’s look at the kit list.

The CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) is one of 7 races in the week-long trail running extravaganza based in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in the French Rhone Alps. It is the only race, apart the UTMB itself that travels through 3 countries, over 5 Alpine passes and several other large lumps over the course of the event. The CCC is easier to gain the necessary UTMB points for than the full 170km UTMB race, but it should not be under estimated, with its 101km and 6,000+ metres of elevation, and of course dreaded descending. The kit list is large, understandably, and this year we had a basic kit list and then two extra lists which the organising committee could instigate at anytime up to the start, as the weather in the mountains can change in an instant.

My new purchases to cover these lists, were proper waterproof trousers, up until now I have survived kit lists with my son’s age 11 Regatta over trousers with taped seams, but obviously not of great quality. Finding small waterproof trousers to fit me, as we all know I am the size of a small child!!, was a huge challenge, but the Montane XS ones fitted perfectly and ticked the good quality box too. Next up another thermal layer (in addition to my merino wool top), a quality new head torch as mine was old and the strap broken, spare headtorch, down jacket, eye cover, poles (not on the kit list but absolutely essential and totally saved me falling several times) and new trainers to sample. Laura Francis from Likeys Frome (whom I now coach too), was on my list like a shot and I had parcels arriving left right and centre from the Frome and Brecon shops. I settled for Leki Micro poles as they were very light, Haglofs fleece, Hoka Challengers ATR4 to start in mainly because they are so comfortable and the trails had been very dry, with Scott RC Ultras in my checkpoint spares bag, the LED lenser MH10 rechargeable head torch and of course spare battery and the tiny back up head torch Petzl Elite. The rest of the list was normal mandatory kit you’d expect, first aid kit, foil blanket etc. We also had to have the Live Trail Runner App on our phones with an SOS and Abandon button!!

The journey begins
So to continue, my back! I managed to get a physio appointment, many needles later I emerged semi confident I would be OK but still in lots of pain. Next to finish packing 3 children’s gear and all my race gear and some ‘normal’ clothes into hand luggage and one hold bag! I must admit I had to reach for the Ibuprofen, something I’m not happy about taking just before or during an ultra, but I had to get to the start line at least. Fortunately, my travelling anxieties were all for nothing and the flight was on time, my poles arrived with our hold luggage, the hire car was good, and we arrived at our fab Airbnb accommodation by lunchtime. After relaxing a while and admiring the view, the kit check and registration. I was always worry about this part of any race, but it was all fine, and I was tagged with a lovely, but rather annoying green CCC bracelet, pack tagged and number picked up. We popped to see Ryan at the Tailwind Nutrition kiosk and then it was time for chilling and eating.

The start line
I’ve pondered hard how to write the next part and have decided to stick with emotions and feelings rather than too many facts, as the emotions are still strong in my mind. I opted to go to Courmayeur on the race bus, that way I could say goodnight to the kids and wake up in race mode without having to be Mum in my pre-race routines. This was the right choice as Chris only just made it to the start line with the tunnel queue. The atmosphere was tense as I sat in the sports centre café eating my porridge pots and banana and drinking my tea. Chatting to an American lady and Portugese couple about the course and route changes. It was soon time to deposit my street clothes bag and get in the pen. I was delighted to see fellow Chippenham based runner Mark Hooper in the pen, he looked as nervous as I felt. Three waves lined up on the Courmayeur street, I was in the first wave, 2200 starters in total. The anticipation was overwhelming and then I spotted Chris and the kids on the side. The atmosphere was electric with announcements in 3 languages and booming music, and then the final count down from 10 in Italian. Oh my, the tears began to stream, my legs felt like jelly, oh my!!

Courmayeur to Champex Lac
We were off, so many runners sprinting, I tried to stay calm and keep my pace controlled. We went uphill almost immediately. My back had been giving me grief all morning so far, but as soon as we started the spasms stopped, maybe it was all just anxiety? We hit the trial and began to climb. This first climb up to Tete la Tronche was long and split into sections, long wooded hair pins with the usual roots and rocks, then onto the balcony sections, with boulder fields and gulleys to clamber over. It was already more technical than I anticipated. Slightly frustrating at times with single file climbing, but some good running on the nicer trail sections. I was trotting along chatting to an American chap, feeling happy and calm, then suddenly I was on my face in the dirt! I have no idea what I tripped over as the trail was good there, maybe a pole or foot, but whatever it was I was on the ground in a lot of pain. The chaps around me hauled me up, my sunglasses went awol, but everything else stayed in my pack. I had blood all over my hands and drips on my legs and hands; my teeth??? Nope they were all there I was reassured, but then the pain started. My chin and cheek bone and head throbbed, I felt very dizzy. I stood still and tried to eat something, but struggled to chew. I decided to break my rules and took my emergency Ibuprofen. It helped and I was off trotting, but my face felt very sore and my anxiety reared about the upcoming descents. The trail was very dusty and the temperature was rising rapidly. I was annoyed I’d lost my sunglasses, but did have my visor on, my eyes were stinging though from the dust and bright sunshine. Finally, after single file trotting and walking, space to overtake and make up a few minutes to the top, quite scary looking at the drops on either side, but I was focussed and felt calm; then a tricky, dusty and slippery descent down to Refuge Bonati. I was focussing on the checkpoint and my feet when I heard ‘Go on Mummy!’ ‘Go on Michelle!’, they had surprised me by popping to this checkpoint. I wasn’t allowed assistance here, so Chris had to watch me washing my very painful and dirty face and trying to fill up my bottles with shaky hands. I was soon on my way with a hug and a kiss to keep me motivated and looking forward to seeing them again at Champex Lac, a mere 20 miles away!! The next climb and descent passed quickly, no real issues other than struggling to eat with my sore face and a bad headache. I was pleased with my descending here and even passed quite a few ladies. I managed to eat some melon and nuts at the next checkpoint and drank some coffee. I was surviving between checkpoints on Veloforte Ciocco, Avanti and Classico bars chopped into bite size chunks, Tropical Caffeine Clif bloks and Tailwind Endurance Fuel Lemon, I switched to Tropical Buzz Caffeine overnight. A nice runnable section before the climb we’d all been waiting for up to Grand Col Ferret. It was runnable in sections and not too bad, power walking and trotting with the poles I was holding my own well. Boiling hot though from the bottom to the midway balcony, but then the weather turned, and it turned a such a pace. From boiling hot to freezing rain and wind. I couldn’t get my layers on quickly enough, my first pair of gloves were soaked through in seconds and my legs felt cold but I couldn’t be bothered at that stage to take my shoes off to get leggings on. I soldiered on with the other runners, it was biting cold at the top, zero visibility, no nice views and they said -5 degrees, we didn’t hang around. Oh my god the what were dusty trails had turned into muddy, incredibly slippery rivers of mud. The path was so narrow with a big side drop and we were all sliding around, rather terrifying if I’m honest. I have no idea how I stayed upright, strong arms, good balance and poles got me down the long descent. Everyone was filthy, plastered in mud, many with muddy bums from sliding. We hit the gravel and then some gorgeous tarmac. How I enjoyed this section! Very runnable, I felt my running legs appear, and I started overtaking all those that had zoomed past me on the descent. I was warming up now too, but kept my jacket and gloves on from here till the end of the race. The climb up to Champex from La Fouly was pretty brutal, but I felt strong at this point. I was getting hungry though and could feel the ibuprofen has worn off. My watch was beeping low battery too. The joy of seeing my kids and Chris was overwhelming, I tried not to cry. I was ahead of schedule and 14th in my AG. The kids were amazing and worked hard getting me bits I needed. I changed into my Scott RC Ultra as needed more grip, ate some rice and soup, nuts and fruit. Plugged my watch into the charger, the watch stopped!! It had not done this in training, I was annoyed, my Strava Kudos ruined was all I could think!! I decided to charge it for a bit then switch it on again, but this kept happening through the rest of the day to the point I actually gave up and ran blind. Annoying, but not life or death. I left feeling buoyant and fuelled despite the rain and cold outside the tent and trotted on. Next stop to see the family was in Triente about 4 hours of running in between.

Champex Lac to Triente
The rain kept coming, drips pouring off my cap and I could sense the darkness arriving, the shoes and sock change was great though and I felt more in control on the slippery trails. The next section was very runnable and enjoyable, trotting along at a good lick. Then we started the climb to Bovine, this was so hard, the fog was so thick, but it was still just about light. I was struggling to eat again due to chin pain and feeling nauseous, maybe from the fall and hit to my head or maybe just lack of fuel. Hair pin after hair pin, déjà vu on every turn, zero views again. The Bovine checkpoint was surreal, a stone barn with music blaring and two lady volunteers dancing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all in my delirious state! It was now very dark, I felt rather anxious about the next probably 8 hours of dark running. Visor off, Rockstar Sports Buff on and head torch and we set off into the wet, foggy darkness. The trail was very slippery again, but with the poles I slowly made progress down the mountain. I have no idea how the many folk that overtook me were running so fast on this technical, rocky, rooty trail, with 42 miles in their legs and zero visibility. I lost all the places I had gained on the climb and more, I began to feel demoralised, lonely and cold. I was in new territory now, my longest time running before had been 11 hours 18 at the SVP100km, when I actually ran nearly 70 miles. I could hear the sounds of the Triente checkpoint, they call this one the party tent. I was not in the mood for a party! I was grumpy, hungry, nauseous, cold, wet and generally pretty miserable. The kids did their best to cheer me up, my watch was still being a nightmare and I was really struggling to eat. Crackers and cheese seemed to go down OK and I was pushed out of the door into the darkness…

Triente to Vallorcine
For me this was the worst stage. The climb up to Le Tseppes was absolutely brutal. So, so steep, slippery, wet and long. I am very strong on the climbs after all the training and gym work, but my quads were burning, my gluts on fire and my calf muscles felt like they would cramp with every lunge upwards. The trouble with using poles is that your arms also get to join in with the pain party, I was not in a good way. Still I was moving well, despite lack of fuel and dizziness. One hairpin loop at a time, don’t look up, oh I did look up, so high up I see a line of lights up to the sky, oh my, head down again, one hair pin loop at a time! Eventually we get there, another random checkpoint with a group of men drinking beer in a hut, or maybe that’s what my brain saw! It was so dark up here and so foggy. I could sense a gaping void to the right of the trail at the top, but could see nothing other than blackness, trotting on in total silence, just the sound of feet and clicking poles. I slipped on the steep descent, but then the easier terrain into Vallorcine appeared, my legs couldn’t run very well though, but I willed them on as I knew what was to come…

Vallorcine to Chamonix
I arrived around 12:30am, this checkpoint was a scene of carnage, runners wrapped in blankets shivering, being sick and general malaise; 525 withdrawls says it all. I was feeling very rough myself. Dizzy, nauseous, just looking at the foods on offer made me retch. I sat with my head in my hands for 20 minutes. Chris was amazing here, the kids were asleep in the car so he busied himself bringing tea, crackers, cheese (that made be properly retch!), I tried a mouthful of rice and soup, nope that was not good. I resigned myself to surviving on concentrated Tropical Buzz Tailwind and water in the other flask. Chris again talked me into heading out into the cold darkness, many were dropping out here, I was feeling rather desperate and very vacant. The kids want to see you on the finish line myself, get out there, I forced myself to step out. I shivered but managed to get a slow trot on to try and warm up. When I recced this section it was glorious sunshine and the view was stunning through the valley, not now, running slower than a snail, but still moving forwards upwards to Col de Montets. This section of the course was changed due to the very sad death of a hiker in a landslide earlier in the week, and the change in weather. Tete aux Vents is incredibly exposed in wet and windy conditions. The alternative route went from Tre le Champs, familiar steep hairpin terrain with boulders and roots, but then they turned us back down again towards Argentiere. This section was absolutely mental, the most technical terrain I’ve ever been on, huge boulders, steep jumps and so many roots. My mind started playing tricks on me, blades of grass jumped out in front of me in weird shapes. There were more folk around me again, overtaking me of course as I dithered down, we got down to then be taken straight back up again towards La Flegere. More steep climbing, but I knew now I was going to make it. I downed a cup of cola at the top, but needed a wee before the descent, so found a rather non-existent rock and thought well they won’t recognise me again!!! I’ve recced this section, it was OK, I was managing to run some sections and suddenly felt quite euphoric. I got into town after what seemed forever descending, to find we had to go over a temporary metal bridge over the road, 3 rounds of steps up and down!! Still I was running, I felt amazing, over another bridge, then the glorious sound of the finish, my kids appeared running with me, I was running faster. The relief was the first emotion, then the love for my kids and husband. I had done it! Not the big goal I’d wanted of sub 20 hours, or even the really super goal of sub 19, but I’d finished, and that was the A goal….The human body is just amazing!