Descending from the Stars (Race report – Ultra Trail Mount Blanc)

Posted by on 22 September, 2013
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Descending from the Stars …..

168KM, 9600KM, 3 country’s,  the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc, it has been called the Olympics of Trail running, one of the hardest runs in the world,  but more the attraction was really the Helicopter shots that we saw off the Croix De Bon Home or the Grand Col Ferret in 2011. It was then I decided I wanted to run it. It was a race we dreamed of, imagine the UTMB that would be incredible, Karen , Finbar and I would discuss and be in awe of those who had ran it previously and still am J  It’s a race of running legends, they are all there and apart from my good friend Eoin Keith, I saw none of them until the prize giving the Sunday. Some we didn’t see at all and had dropped out along the way, Seb Chaigneu and Anton Krupicka.image2

UTMB requires 7 points to qualify in 2012 I ran 3 races, Causeway Crossing (2 points), Mourneway Ultra and having to pull out of the Wicklow Round I did the Morenic Trail in Italy in October.(An easy 3 pointer for anyone looking for one) and then the long wait until December to see if you make the lottery. 10500 entered, 2300 made the startline. So I very luckily, first time out made the draw !! Unbelievable, I remember I was online waiting to enter the TDS if I did’t get it and the holar in my office that morning as I with shakes dialled Eoin to see if he was in !! Em to my surprise he wasn’t and I was embarrassed, but sure the Elite just hadn’t been contacted yet. Anyway we booked accommodation decided to do it as a Holiday (2 weeks) and so I started running J Could bore you with the Journey – but we arrived in Cherbourg and I drove to  Chimanoix arriving in the night.

We woke up to incredible views, surrounded by Snow Capped mountains in a beautiful town in the Valley with blue skys filled with Paragliders.  Monday was the first day of the 4 races and the PTL runners were due to head off that night, The town was alive wth Trail runners kitted out in their gear darting everywhere.  Its was indeed a Mountain running Meccah – we headed to the look for the start line, the famous Arch at the start of the UTMB. The week went fast, Queuing for Kit Check on Thursday and a final run around the stalls to get final podwers. The Kit is brain Damage and one you need to finalise in your head quickly. It is checked and it was checked once out on the route and at the start line there was random Spot Checks. So pay attention to the kit list. I couldn’t find any High-5 Products – but everything else is available there. I then sat and had planned some splits that were to let me know how far I was from the Cut offs or was I going too fast. The target for me was 41hrs I felt this was the average time and if I achieved that  I would have done incredibly well. I expected to be between that and the cutoff – but it was really to finish inside the 46 hour Cutoff !!!


One of the advantages of coming early was that I slept, I slept and chilled until 1:00pm then headed with the girls to Drop my 1 Bag for the Courmayeur. I decided to be fully self supported as in I had no one out on the course or no expectation to see anyone I knew on the course. It was going to be way too much hastle for Trish and the girls to follow me. We decided to go for the Txt and Facebook updates option. Which worked perfectly !! After all you also had to carry phone that was on over the  duration of the race. About 3:45pm I said what is a bit of an emotional farewell t the girls (Jules sleeping) and headed to join the other 2300 that had made the Start line. I tried to aim for the middle of the pack. Made it in with ease sitting down among the Italians and the French.  It’s a great sight the anxiety and adrenalin maximizing as the Music fills the air as we watch the Elite runners being introduced, No killian but everyone else was there !! Kept looking to see f I could see Eoin and then saw Billy Reid 6 people to my right, it was pointless the noise was too loud to hear anything we waved and focused on what was ahead ……

Image1Then it was Dix, 9, 8, 7 and we were off shuffling to the start line,  a feeling of oh boy here we go !!! and the shuffle moved faster as we approached under the start arch. As I moved I could feel water coming from somewhere the top of my bottle had a hole and I was running the water was poping out . Noooo, as I scanned the 1000s of people for Trish as I knew I had a spare bottle in the kids buggy. I couldn’t see her and the crowd was moving me along,  we were in a race aterall and I put my finger over the hole, contemplating chucking it away or not – already a delema but I also had a camel bak and so the decision was made to chuck out the water, use the bladder and stick a plaster on it at the first pit stop. On down the road I saw Paul Tierney, quick holar in his direction and then it was a right turn off the road and on to the trail … a hard trail all the time wondering am I going to fast – trying to Judge the people around me – it was an 8km Sprint to les Houches and there was no getting off this train of 4-5 people across moving at a pretty decent Pace. I don’t remember where Les Houces was only that it was the point where we started to climb. I lifted a cereal bar off the table, took the Poles  out and proceeded to climb with the pack. It was here I had an interesting experience of an English speaking guy chatting to a French man. All I head back was please don’t disrespect me by talking to me while we are climbing. Everyone knows you loose 5% in doing this. To be fair the English guy apologised and I tucked in my chin and needed to get buy the grey cloud that was circling. The pace made me realise how hot it was but the crowds kept you moving. Along the  long long switch backs with some pretty descent trail and Fireroad to walk on – it continued for a lot longer than I was expecting.  Not the first time to say this in the report – we climbed to Le Delevret walked passed the Mat again with lots and lots of people banging cow bells and screaming at the people – your name was on the race bib so I had a lot of friends out there, surprisingly there was an Irish flag at the top of the hill, which gave a nice little lift as we went over. On to the first descent the Speed immediately picked up and as I tucked away the poles I caught a stone and hit the Deck landing on both knees ahead of my hands – I was picked up by my fellow runners underneath the arms, thanked them and throbbing and with Blood seeping out as the train continued…. Another place for a plaster I thought, for when I reached the transition. ..17055671

The descent was moving at speed and I ran the pain out of my left knee. The running got crazy at stages as you didn’t know if to over take or not and then having gotten held up for a while you would burst to overtake at any opportunity. Just incase there was another bottle kneck ahead. We blasted down some grassy descents (yes in this 168km race) and then down some really sharp rocky descents !! My Quads were on fire and the descents really required a lot of braking in my case, both to try and not run to fast or into the person in front – it was like a busy IMRA race the start of the WW Trail except with way way sharper descents – that were a couple of KM’s long – as we approached the final descent I was really hoping they would end soon – it was very early in he race and this was really starting to hurt ….. We got down into Saint Gervais – it was 21km and I was hurting like you would after running a half Marathon as we approached the first Major Transition. The noise was deafening as we approached the middle of a town that had tables laid out on either side of the road – I filled the water, stuck a plaster on the bottle and went from table to table seeing what they had, with the crowds it was often hard and eventually I got some Noodle soup and bread – and Coke and moved on out of the transition walking as I ate, I found some bins up the street and put the waste in them. As I walked I was questioning WTF was wrong with me, was it the heat, my energy, the fall, I walked for a while but it wasn’t long before I again took up the pace of the people that were passing me by.  Again we were climbing, poles out and tucked in with some people that were climbing I felt at my pace – its so hard to Judge, and again I was feeling like shite, I thought the walking up the climbs would bring me back, I passed a guy who was actually passed out among 4 of his fellow runners and kind of thought  ok its not just me, this is hard!! Further up the path I had no choice but to sit down on the grass – I decided to stop t put on my head torch and take 2 minutes, I txt Trish to say it was 4.5 hours and I was really struggling.  In my head I wasn’t expecting this – I put my jacket on over my t-shirt and really was just preparing for the night and based on what I had read it was to be a very long climb ahead. Took it off again 2 minutes later…. and continued the plod to  Les Contamines which was the next stop. I was so glad I had the poles. This time I plodded on the sticks slowly than I had went on before. My head was melted and I concentrated on slowing down and drinking an Enduro Drink I had made in my leaky bottle – It was grape flavour and the new taste (never drank it before) occupied me as we climbed to Contamines. I was starting to feel better on approach. The cool air and the slowing down of pace had me recovering.  I filled my bladder and went got Soup, Bread tucks and Cheese and my head together. It was now 9:15 and I sent a  txt Trish to say hey, I have a new strategy, its going to be ok !!! 30km I had a huge sense of relief and it was back in the train.

The first night was upon us and it was amazing to see the lights all come on, the different head torches the gear and here we were all on the large Climb to La Balme and then the Col De Bonne Homme. The Zig Zags were processions of head torches. Ahead as we climbed and climbed and climbed, 100s in Silence only breathing and the clatter of poles off sticks, it was very surreal. I looked ahead thinking the Stars were very bright but after a while you could tell that these Stars were moving and were actually passing a point that was still a long way away to climb. However what was a little more sobering was to look behind and see the 1000’s of lights stretched out behind you down the mountain. You think oh if I have come that far it mustn’t be that much further. Oh how wrong I was, the longest Climb of the race it takes no prisoners – its long and technical in parts, passing over scree, slate and pure rock face.

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But you just get into a rhythm with the people head feeling good that you haven’t had to stop at any point on loading the fluids as you go.  I hit the Col De Bonne at 12:30 and I already had to change a battery on the head torch.  The quick stop had me with fresh legs and I had one of the most enjoyable descents off a mountain in the dark I ever had. The terrain was bone dry and with the sticks firmly tucked away I descended passing from light to light as I over took people on the way down. This descent was better than previously as you could descend at a relaxed pace. I was surprised to pass so many people and as we descended down into les Chapiuex. This was the first time I had a look at where I was time wise and was surprised to see I was 2.5 hours inside the cutoff. I didn’t know where I was position wise (972) but was comfortable with the pace and all that was in my head was the next climb, again in the dark I moved off on my own tucking in behind some racers and going with their pace up the hill, again in silence. This was the way it continued and as we hit the Col Chercroit it was starting to lighten. The headlight stayed on as we started to descend down into what were very sharp, sand steep descents. This took a lot of concentration to move at speed and again I seemed to be passing people easily along the descents. The concentration took my mind off that we were approaching the bag drop. People were very polite moving aside when they felt foot steps approaching. A lot of people were trying to use poles on this descent which just seemed to be slowing them down. It was again a long hard descent that I had was glad to pop out of out onto the road for the run into the large Sport Center in Courmayeur. My target was to try and hit here at 15 hours, with the belief if I had done so I was doing really well as I would slow terribly towards the end. The Plan was to spend an hour here. from all the people that I spoke to Greg, Adrian and Blogs from people like Aisling C it seemed the right thing to do. Their wasn’t a lot of people there, there didn’t seem to be a lot going on. I loaded with pasta and water rehydrating totally before the Sun got strength. Doing 14hrs 15 min to hear was sensational for me, I did txt a few people. Surprisingly I wasn’t mentally tired but just had a feeling that I was going to finish it and now was starting to wonder about times. But I knew I really couldn’t judge that or think of that until I had hit the first big mile stone (Grand Col Ferret, 99km,, 2537). I changed socks, runners and T-shirt and after an hour I headed back out into the Sun. I was mindful what happened the day before so I wanted to ensure I was up high by time the Sun shone brightly again. I remember I had went to check my position but the guy couldn’t tell me. Probably just as well as it would have been a distraction ( I was 632 ) I had jumped a lot places from descending.

17102668The race went on I miss-judged that the refuge Benoti was a food and drink stop and only that I had a backup in the Camel Bak water wise I could have paid dearly. This was the only time I ate food from my back pack and it was purely because I had ran out having misjudged that it was just a time dip rather than a food stop.  As the sun shone hotter we climbed and we climbed from Arnuva to the Grand Col Ferret.  No illusions it was a long long long climb in the sun but the rawness of the surrounding snow capped mountains meant there was plenty to distract you from the race. For me the climb, the stop on top of Grand Col Ferret and the fantastic descent is the most incredible place without doubt I have ever been/ran. The scenery is stunning and the views will stay with me forever. We had the pleasure of a helicopter for Company as we bombed down the mountain face, this was 100km into the race and I think you are so overcome by the scenery all the pain subsides and you are flying – I did stop at the top to take a picture – the money shot – it was what I had come for. But the bloody thing didn’t come out on my phone !!! The proof I was flying was confirmed when I saw that I had overtook 40 people on that descent, going from 601 to 566 position. This was the point that I knew I was going to finish the race and now curiosity was starting to build on woul di make the 41 hours. You really do have to push it from your mind.

Champex lec was the next milestone, and I had made a decision that I would eat well there, soup, bread ham, as with almost a marathon left , it would be easy to loose energy. It was 17:39 and I got a txt from Trish to say Eoin Keith was finished !!! The f*cker I thought to myself , he is finished and then as I added the hours I thought my god what a time. I then got a second txt Eoin had said to be careful going up Bovine it was the worst climb of the day. I sent a message back saying it was next and I would see them all at the Finish line. Expecting at that stage to be finishing around 8:30-9:00am. Eoin’s finish definitely gave me a lift and his words of warning had prepared me for the worst.  Bovine is a very technical Climb. But when Eoin tells you its bad, you are expecting the worst. The worst was a bull appeared in front of me on a narrow single track as we were running along, I stopped not knowing what to do only to be passed by an Italian runner who whacked the Bull with his hiking pole which caused the bull to jump back up the ditch!! Class lesson learnt.  Again the descents were fast and people were walking and hobbling down them. I felt bad passing these people as we all have been in a similar pain at some stage in a long race, legs just shot !!!!image 7

Down into Trient I was now in 461 position and when I turned on my phone again on exit of the transition I had received some really nice messages from people who had been tracking me online. These again lifted me and I was away still running. It was 28 hours into the race now and as I knew the night would approach soon I had filled my taped bottle with Coke. Caffeine was going to be important to get through the darkness.  I put on the head torch the Jacket over my t-shirt and we were climbing again. This time I was alone. No lights in front and no lights behind it was me and the mountain and it felt great. I guess when you leave trient you know you are going to finish the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc and its really that what starts to carry you over the next few hills. In saying that this was the part of the race where peoples wheels really started to come off. The Climb up Catogne seemed to have a lot of people trying to take catnaps on the Climb. Unfortunately for them everyone was waking them up asking where they ok. The organisers ask everyone at the beginning of the race to assist any racer along the way that may look as if they need help. That this should take priority over racing, so there isn’t much chance of sleep on the trail.  It’s a hard slog but 3 hours later we were in Vallorcine.

So this for me was the bitch !! So again I left Vallorcine alone, the walk takes you out onto a road and in your mind you are saying this is the last real climb. The thing is there is a road that takes you to the next checkpoint COL DES MONTETS 200 meter climb. So having being lured into a false feeling that must mean the ast climb may be  a gradual climb. But then you see it, I remember just looking up again going, no way, they are climbing to the stars again. Except this time there isn’t too many of them. This is a very hard climb.Anton Killian

Its not that you are tired, its that there is no consistency to the terrain you are climbing. The rock face , the clambering over stones, the stairs in the middle of nowhere and the endless bulging rock formations meant you never got a rhythm. Which meant it went very slow and got very frustrating in parts. Lots of people took brakes which probably explained why now I was moving into 437 position. It was horrendous and it really seemed to go on forever. It really through me as I had no idea how slow I was moving and felt ok maybe 6:00am is the real time here. I scrambled over taking and trying to avoid getting lost at this late point. There wasn’t a whole lot of people on the mountain so it was important to concentrate on the steps and where the next marker was in the dark. Eventually after heading through some plants and shrubs we got to the Control.  11 Kilometres to go and it was only 2:41am!!! There was no way I was going to finish at 6:00am I thought I would get quicker. I had another quick battery charge, this time with the aid of another runner. Again a lovely technical descent over rocks and sharp trail, I was moving on pure adrenalin. With 11km you could let go and run as fast as you felt you could go. I still had energy and moved quite what I thought was quick to the top of a Ski Lift La Flagere. LAST STOP before the finish line. I looked at my watch it was 3:25. I asked the lady how long would it take to get to the finish line from here. She said if you move quick you will do 1:10 minutes. This messed with my head as I felt I could see Chamonix and there 7km left and it was downhill. At this stage of the race descending down a fireroad with gravel which is about as welcoming as rubbing your eye with chilli oil on your finger. It was like a Zombie descent, it was dark and there was 2’s and 3’ of people all hobbling down the hard surface. I passed over 30 people on this final leg. From the hard fire road we moved to some better Zig Zags down through the forest, sometimes over clusters of loose rocks and bolders, after what seem an age of Zig Zags again you are back on hard had gravelly fire road, descending trying not to brake so your quads don’t pop out. I didn’t think I was moving at great speed, but the focus was to just keep on running, soon it would be over, soon I would hit the town, soon I would be finished ….. with not a person in site for the last 3 km it seemed to take a veeeery long time to descend. Eventually I saw the normal road, civilisation at a point that seemed to be way east of Chimanoix. Dix minutes and they pointed left.

17087031Ten minutes to the finish line, how did forest gump do it, 3 minutes running on the road and I felt like I had been running for ever …. I followed the spray paint on the ground which eventually took me close to registration and the barriers. It was almost 4:30. Why are these kids still up, I hear no sound, I hope there are people at the finish line to record my time. Then as I got closer I got cheered on by a few people. It was an awesome feeling as I lifted my body around the final corner, the corner where we had come Wednesday in the daylight. I was back and I was hooping as I waved my sticks in the air, I knew people were tired so there would be no fuss. I crossed the line had my 2 photographs, looked at my time, smiling, and got my chip cut off and handed my finishers prize a jacket.

Its funny when I think back, the finish line was so empty compared to how it was when we had departed. But thankfully the kind lady at the food stall at the back of the finish line had beer. So at last got to put on all the mandatory gear I had carried around for the last 36hrs, I sat down and had a beer and an apple. 10 minutes later the next 2 runners came in, 2 Spanish lads, full of beans and chat.  The Crowds returned again later that day to greet the last 3 runners who were presented on to the stage with the race winners along with of course my friend Eoin Keith receiving his 2nd Place prize.

I had completed the race 10 hours under the cutoff, was probably lucky with the weather and that I had got in some good runs like the Highland Fling, Wicklow Round and the Beast of Ballyhoura as training runs along the way. It’s a race of both physical and mental strength and no navigation :-)  lucky for me things went good on the day, its a unique experience that I would highly recomend and one I hope to complete again.

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One Comment on “Descending from the Stars (Race report – Ultra Trail Mount Blanc)”

  • Torben Dahl
    24 September, 2013, 22:21

    Brilliant report, Richard!

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