The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc offers five different races over a memorable week in August. This year I decided to do the OCC: the shortest of the five (a measly 54k and 10,000ft of ascent) and the only one that you can do without any qualifying points. It begins in Orsières in Switzerland and finishes in Chamonix Town, nestled at the foot of Mt. Blanc. It was the first Ultra I had attempted and an incredible experience throughout.
I was preoccupied with this race for about six months and during that time I had so many questions I couldn’t quite find answers for, hence this attempt to provide them for future runners and maybe even remind myself if I decide to do it again.
The registration period for all of the UTMB races is open for a three week period in December to January and 2016 is the first year you need to have qualifying points to enter any of the races. These points are earned at ultras you have run in the two years prior.
The registration is a lottery and last year there were 4,000 applicants for the 1,200 places in the OCC. This is one of the reasons they now require a qualifying point for this race. You need to pay a deposit when registering which is returned if you're not fortunate enough to gain a place. The full price was €71 and is without a doubt the best value for money race I’ve ever been a part of. The organisation both on the course and in the town is second to none.
If you do get a place then there are also a couple of really important admin pieces remaining before you can get to the start line (aside from all your training!). Firstly, you need to send UTMB a Medical Certificate. This has to be done a few months before the race. You need to get a doctor’s signature and stamp on the certificate they provide you with which proves you are medically capable of entering the race. This can be sourced from your local GP for a small fee or for free if you happen to know a doctor who can help you out.
The remaining thing you need to do is to book your place on the bus to the start line. The OCC starts from Orsières in Switzerland and finishes in Chamonix. Buses start from 4am and the later, more preferable, ones fill up quickly. The later you leave it to book your bus: the earlier you will have to get out of bed on race day which means lots of waiting around in the cold before the start.
Running is one of those beautiful, leveling activities which anyone can do: all you need is a pair of shoes, a pair of lungs and you're on your way. This maxim unfortunately starts to drift away once you go beyond the marathon, where you start to descend down a rabbit hole of obligatory equipment, nutrition and buying obsessions with the latest technical gear.
There is a required kit list for each of the races of the UTMB, designed to keep the runner safe whatever the weather conditions. Within this list there is still a lot of room for movement. For example, in the OCC you are required to carry a torch though the race is primarily run during the day. The only time you might need to use it is if you are running at the extreme of the allotted time. Of course, you should still absolutely carry a working torch for emergencies but it doesn't need to be the best in class. Alternatively, if you're running the full UTMB where you'll be running through two straight nights it could be the best money you spend.
For many items, spending more often leads to saving weight. I didn't go so far as to weigh items but I certainly kept a focus on how much I would have to be carrying. One of the trickiest decisions I made was on the size of the pack I would carry: knowing that keeping it small would limit myself to only what is absolutely required but needing to ensure I could still fit in everything I was required to carry. You can be stopped at any point during the race for an inspection and it is an instant disqualification if you are missing anything. This is all for your own safety.
The list of kit I used during the race seems like a lot but it packed small and felt light throughout:
Salomon S-Lab Sense 4 trail shoes. Incredible grip and comfort, saved me a few times on the sketchy downhill trails. Would absolutely recommend them: a popular choice amongst the runners at the UTMB.
Shorts, t-shirt. Nothing special. Nike.
Socks. A cheap purchase of Karrimor Marathon Socks from Sports Direct! Great comfort and padding.
Ultimate Direction Vest. The range of running vests is big in both choice and price, with different types of hydration method and storage. I felt this was a great purchase despite it being quite expensive. The last thing I wanted was to be uncomfortable for 10 hours. I took the 7l size and it was big enough to carry everything I needed with pockets in lots of different spots for snacks, your phone etc. Very comfortable, sits high on your back and I was personally a big fan of having the water bottles on my front. This vest also comes with an attached whistle which is a required item.
Running Poles. These are optional but almost all of the non-elites use them. I used a pair of lightweight foldable poles that I borrowed from my mum, no idea on the brand, and she only showed me they could extend taller once I'd finished the race! Still they were the perfect height for ascending and I preferred not to use them on the downhills so I could use my arms for balance. The ups and downs are very long in the Alps so it wasn't a bad thing to stop at the peak and take a moment to put them away. Would absolutely recommend carrying them.
Waterproofs. I carried a hiking waterproof jacket which, whilst lightweight and warm, was too bulky for my pack and took up the majority of space. There are some excellent running waterproofs which fold down really small and were I to do it again I would probably invest more here. The waterproof jacket is a required item on all the races though I never used it as we ran in thirty degree sunshine all day. This was pure luck though as the previous year the full UTMB race had to be shortened due to bad weather. Waterproof trousers are optional for the OCC but required for all other races. I chose not to carry any but I bought a cheap pair that I could have taken had the forecast been worse.
Torch. I carried a head torch bought from Poundland. I probably wouldn't recommend doing that. It worked just fine though I never had to use it in anger. This is a required item as is spare batteries.
Trousers. A requirement. I took some cheap Karrimor leggings and only used them on the journey there.
Cap. Indispensable. I took a lightweight Zone 3 Cap.
Sunglasses. I rarely wore them as often you're running trails with a lot of cover. That said, they're a definite requirement. I went cheap again on these, taking this dhb pair though I wouldn't recommend them unless you're on a budget. They didn't fit particularly well and do feel very cheap. You get what you pay for. They were just fine for the race though.
Mobile Phone, ID, cash - All a requirement.
Survival Blanket. I took one I had received at a previous marathon.
Beaker. They stipulate you have to carry one that you can use for drinks at each aid station. I think it's a great idea, anything we can do to reduce the amount of plastic that gets used and wasted at races is a very good thing. I carried this foldable one which I picked up in Chamonix though I never used it and drank solely from my water bottles.
Adhesive bandage and blister pack. The former is required and the latter is good sense. Thankfully I never had to use either.
Extra phone battery. Definitely not a requirement but I took this lightweight Anker Battery Case as I wanted to ensure I could track my time/distance on Strava as well as stop and take photos when I wanted. Worked perfectly.
Nutrition. I took some Shot Bloks, a Chia bar and a beetroot shot. There are enough aid stations to get by without needing to carry too much food. At the stations you generally have a choice of Orange slices, bananas, cheese, sausage, water, tea, coke and soup. The soup was a life saver for me at the last aid station as my stomach was really struggling.
Water. I didn't take a bladder, instead opting for just the litre of water in two bottles on the front of the vest. There is water at each aid station as well as at the summits and can occasionally also be found en route. In 30 degree heat this was enough, I just had to ensure I finished both bottles before reaching the next checkpoint. I added electrolyte tablets to most of my water.
At the start of 2015 I hadn't run longer than 10k and the memory of my youth as a cross country runner had faded under the duress of a busy and fun lifestyle. As a result my training was pretty steep and not very smart (you can do better!) but I still learnt a few things along the way.
Set yourself some milestones.
For me, the UTMB seemed so distant and out of reach that I needed some stepping stones to get there. I booked myself into a couple of 10ks to start with, then Hackney half marathon in May and the hilly South Downs marathon in June. I also did the London Triathlon in August though this was perhaps more of a hinderance than a help. Triathlons are always heaps of fun but I did spend a lot of time in the pool and on the bike that could have been spent running.
Hit the hills.
Hills aren't the easiest thing to come by in London but any you can get your hands on will pay off in a big way. I ran Greenwich park, Hampstead Heath, Crystal Palace and Swains Lane. They're all relative Tiddlers compared to the Alps but repetition is a good gift and if you can't afford, or are too busy, to get out of the city a lot then make do with what you have!
This is something I didn't do beforehand but in retrospect I would. I hadn't realised how much hiking was involved at the UTMB and it's an acquired skill for sure. The cadence of the elites when hiking at pace is really impressive. It's also useful to practice technique with your poles before the race, finding a rhythm which feels comfortable for you.
Definitely the most important lesson I learnt. When I ran the South Downs Marathon I hadn't really done any hill work and I massively paid the price.
When you run steep downhills your quads go through something called Eccentric Loading: essentially contracting to absorb the impact whilst simultaneously stretching as you complete your stride. This tears them to pieces and the pain can be crippling. Luckily it doesn't take much to harden them up. One hard downhill run and your quads build up a resilience which apparently can last 6 weeks. I did my last big downhill 10 days before and had no pain in my quads during the race at all.
As well as being a joy to spend a weekend in Chamonix it's also pretty much the best training ground you can ever hope for.
I went 10 days before the race and would recommend ideally going a couple of times during the summer. I wanted to tire my quads out and to get some practice running down the narrow, windy downhill sections. I definitely got that! I also got some terrible weather, running the second day almost entirely in a cloud. It was great fun though.
On the first day I ran the vertical kilometre from Chamonix up to Brevent. This was a real eye opener and a true test for the quads. On the second day, on tired legs, I ran the last 18km of the race from Vallorcine, up to Flegere, and back down to Chamonix. I think having run part of the course gave me a big advantage during the latter stages of the actual race because I knew what was remaining and which were the final hurdles. On day 3, I had planned to do a final small run but my thighs were screaming so instead I strolled around Chamonix enjoying the view and then took my flight back.
No masterclass here I'm afraid. Lots of veg, not much beer.
I cut down a lot on the amount of meat I ate and hugely increased my intake of vegetables, particularly green ones. The elite runners I spoke to all said the first thing they cut out was Dairy but I struggled to do that with my love of cheese. I cut out all snack food and instead tried to eat nuts or smoothies throughout the day when I was getting super hungry. I read Finding Ultra by Rich Roll which goes into a lot of detail about plant-based diets and the benefits of them, I stole a few things from that book for sure. In fact, one of my favourites was a glass of water with some vinegar in each morning. It really perks you up and makes you feel better by rebalancing your pH.
I cut down big on alcohol, turning down pints in the pub in favour of Ginger Beer (there's a gaping hole in the market for more interesting soft-drinks!) and removing my semi-regular evening beer or wine at home. This was hard to do, particularly when going out with friends but was one of the sacrifices I think you have to make.
I didn't let the diet monopolise my lifestyle though. There are clear benefits to being very strict about what you put inside your body. If I'd chosen to take on a pure plant-based diet and gone T-total I would have been able to run faster but for me that wasn't a sacrifice I was entirely willing to make. I went on a good friend's stag do a few weeks before the race which probably set me back a long way but I had a great time and to me that was more important. I also enjoyed a nice steak from time to time: my motto was 'Everything in moderation'.
When you get to Chamonix
There isn't all that much you have to do before the start line but they certainly have a knack for increasing the stress level. At least that's how I felt. My advice would be to get registration out of the way as soon as possible so you can just enjoy the atmosphere. The buzz around Chamonix is absolutely superb, unlike anything I've experienced before. We had fantastic weather and there were eager smiles from wall to wall.
In the centre of Chamonix, next to the Saturday market, there is a special Ultra Trail market where you can spend a small fortune on the last minute gear that might give you the advantage out on the trail. There is some great kit on offer and I was nearly tempted to trade up on my waterproof jacket though it turned out fine. You can also pick up every different type of nutrition bar/gel going so don't worry if you've forgotten anything back home.
Registration is over by the sports centre and the queues get really large so I would advise going early. We went at midday and there was a ten minute queue inside the hall but by five that day they were queuing way out of the door. I was getting some decent nerves at this point and registration did little to quell them. Perhaps I've just been lucky in the past with fairly relaxed registrations but this was the opposite. Everything was strict and scrutinised but for good reason as they know full well how dangerous the weather and conditions can be. There was a long list of the race rules and penalties which were comprehensive and severe. They also promoted the importance of taking care of each other which was really encouraging:
1 hour penalty for not immediately assisting another runner who is in need.
Registration begins with an inspection of your obligatory equipment. They only checked a certain portion of the kit list (torch, spare batteries, jacket, phone, whistle) though they did so thoroughly. I had forgotten to pack spare batteries and I thought I might have had to come back later but they let me through after I promised to get some straight after. The man next to me was refused as his jacket had a tear on the inside. He had to go and buy a new jacket before they would allow him to register.
After the kit check you move to another station where they give you your race pack, another station where they take the bag label and bracelet from the pack and attach them, then a final one where they give you a bag with a few goodies in it. This bag, though it wasn’t explained, is the bag you can leave at the start line with anything that you want transported back to Chamonix. There is a sticker inside the bag with your name and race number that you need to attach.
The last thing I wanted to double check at registration was how the buses worked on the day. I don't function the best that early in the morning so wanted to remove any potential stress. I had a document I'd printed out which bore my name and bus time just below the bold words "This is not a ticket". As it turns out this was the ticket. And, as it happens, no one checks at the bus anyway so this was very stress free. I can't imagine the drivers thinking anyone would try to sneak a free bus to Switzerland at 4.30am.
After you're done at registration it really is time to relax and get as much rest as you can before the race. Adorned with your new UTMB bracelet, you can now spot everyone else who will be lining up alongside you. I was proud to be wearing mine even if it was for the shortest race! If I was in awe of those wearing the longer distance bracelets before I began, I was even more so after I had reached the finish line. Incredibly inspiring.
The day before the OCC there are a range of short races for kids and the event has a really nice vibe to it. We sat in the sun and watched them run up and down the learner ski slope next to Brevent. I didn't want to do much of anything except rest my legs. The evening before, I laid out all my kit and made it as simple as possible to get everything going in the middle of the night. After that it was just a matter of trying to get as much sleep as possible, or any. Not easy with the nerves and excitement bubbling up within you for what is to come the following day.