Part 1 of this 2 part series on the UTMB OCC can be found here and covers my preparation for the race.
I got out of bed at 3.30am, an hour and a half before my bus was set to leave Chamonix for Orsières. I had laid out all my kit the night before and all I had to now was obsessively triple-check I had everything on my list and collect any provisions I wanted to take to the start line.
I ate a bowl of porridge topped with banana and prepared a shake made from Kale, Avocado, Kiwi, Banana, Goji Berries, Blueberries, Pumpkin and Chia seeds. I drank that with my porridge and made another shake which I packed to take to the start line, knowing that I would have nearly three hours between leaving the house and starting the race.
In retrospect, I wish I had had a lighter breakfast. My stomach was unprepared to digest that much at such a peculiar time of the night and for the rest of the day it never felt quite right.
In town there were rows of buses waiting to depart. I jumped on the first one, no one asked for tickets or which bus time you had chosen. Everyone shut their eyes and tried to get some sleep during the 45 minute journey. I noticed the guy next to me had picked up one of those temporary transfers of the course profile on his forearm and wished I had done the same. Do it, if you get the chance. I saw a lot of people wearing them throughout the day.
In Orsières, where the race begins, everyone congregates in a small hall and kills time until the rest of the runners arrive. You can get some coffee or join the long line for the toilets. Toilet management was pretty key at this point as there is only one in the hall and with a couple of thousand runners in the race this wasn’t a scalable solution. Top tip: there are a lot more of them, scattered around on the way down to the start.
The start line was a sea of nervous and excited faces. The drones buzzed low above our heads, capturing the scene and beaming it back to the ultra trail headquarters and out to the internet where those back home were able to watch. I adjusted my pack for the thousandth time and rearranged my number. I wore it on my front and I would hugely recommend the same to all runners. Lots of people wore them on their hip but they bear your name and the flag of your country and having them on your front meant people could see where you were from and localise their support! I really enjoyed shouts of “Go on GB” or “Bonne chance Ian” as I was running, putting an even bigger smile on my face.
As the gun fired, we snaked out of the town at a typically over ambitious starting pace. School kids lined the streets for the first few hundred metres, hands outstretched for limitless high fives, revelling in their allowed truancy. People clapped their running mates on the shoulders and wished each other luck, cracked jokes, veered off to find the nearest tree. I was grinning from ear to ear: so excited to finally be doing it! So much training and preparation, mental and physical, had led to this point and here I was, 54 kilometres, ten hours, and three peaks between myself and the finish line. It was stunningly crisp and clear, cool but warming up towards what would become a 30° day without a cloud in the sky! I felt incredibly fortunate, knowing how unpredictable the weather can be.
I’d read that the first few kilometres are really busy and slow so I’d purposefully positioned myself reasonably near the front. Even so, there really were some slow kilometres and maybe for the first couple of hours you couldn’t run at the pace you wanted to. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise as it saved energy for later but it certainly added a big chunk of time to a reasonably easy section of the race.
The initial part prior to any trails wound up through tiny Swiss villages lined with support. It was like a scene from the Tour de France. They flew flags of support and whooped with joy when they managed to see their friends, set out deck chairs and set about enjoying life.
One of the first surprises came soon afterwards when we reached the first incline, still on a tarmacced road: everyone walked! I really hadn’t expected it. I’d figured that on the steeper parts it would be faster to hike but hadn’t really anticipated that people would be so quick to take to hiking on very runnable terrain. I kept running but it was impossible to get round people so I quickly resorted to dropping into line. In retrospect this probably just proved how naive I was to the entire race. Clearly people had their own strategies on how to complete the race as fast as they could.
It was a relatively gentle first 7km up to Champex Lac (relative to the rest of the race, steeper than most of London) and I was feeling great. I ran along the banks and enjoyed probably the only truly flat part of the day, stopping to take photos along the way. I wasn’t running for a particular time and had no guilt stopping to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
Champex Lax was the site of the first checkpoint: a tent with a few benches and water and energy drink reservoirs. The tent was surrounded on both sides by support and a contingent of British supporters gave me a great exit. From there we began our first real ascent as we headed up towards La Giete at just over 2000m.
The going wasn’t too bad, initially very steep as we scrambled up a narrow trail for one or two kilometres and then out into a long, meandering path up the side of the mountain. This became the most spectacular part of the run, the views were breathtaking and I was still fresh enough to be able to focus on enjoying it, taking some photos and chatting to others along the way.
One of the toughest parts of this section was how exposed you were. There was no tree coverage and this was really the only section like it. The wind picked up and buffeted us around as we ran and hiked higher and higher up to the peak. You reach the highest part a few hundred metres before the mini-checkpoint at the top of La Giete.
At the actual checkpoint there was a small group of officials offering refills and scanning us in. The atmosphere was great, everyone was breathing heavily but no one looked in bad shape. We’d finished one of the three peaks and the sun was shining bright. Next up was a 5 or 6k descent down to Trient: the first real descent of the day and a good test for the thighs.
I started off strong, hanging with a French group and hitting a really strong pace. The trail was reasonably steep with lots of switchbacks and gnarly root-laden trails. I was enjoying it so much that I had to rein myself back in to avoid injury. It’s so easy to run beyond your ability on the downhills. I’ve always fancied myself as a pretty good bounder but I pretty quickly realised that those alongside me who were at a completely different level and any attempt to hang with them would end badly.
Trient was the first opportunity for me to see familiar faces. My parents were waiting just before the checkpoint and I ran in feeling great. I stopped to chat with them despite their insistence I keep going, I wanted to enjoy myself and take my time. I’d thought Trient was at 18km so I got a real boost when they told me it was actually 24k, not too far off halfway.
I jogged in to the checkpoint and stopped to reorganise myself. This checkpoint was much more fully kitted out. There were oranges and bananas, cheese and saucission (this is the alps of course), soup, flat coke, water and energy drinks. There were also a few rows of benches where you could have a quick rest.
I went straight for the cheese and sausage and then finished up with an orange, and then another. They were sweet and thirst quenching and a perfect antidote to my drying throat. I refilled my water bottles, stretched out, and then was on my way again.
The next part of the race was one that had been concerning me the most, the middle of three mountains and what looked to be the steepest. It certainly proved to be a real challenge. I had thought I would be able to make the summit without stopping, and it had been going nicely, but I gave in about half a kilometre short. It was brutally steep and endless, one of those climbs where you think you’ve made it only to reach the crest and see another come into view.
I had always backed myself to be able to complete the race but at the same time I knew that I had never put my body and mind through this before and I was very much in the unknown. Instinctively I felt like this peak was going to be the key section of the race. I had run the final peak in training, and knew if I could just conquer this one I’d be on the home straight.
When I reached the checkpoint at the summit of Catogne my lungs were screaming. I dropped my bag and lay down in the grass, breathing heavily and closing my eyes, letting the sun warm my face. A medical volunteer came across and asked me if I was alright and I gave him a weary thumbs up backed by a smile. He told me to get some water in me and to get on my way, Vallorcine wasn’t too far away.
Vallorcine! I couldn’t wait to be there, that was almost home turf. I’d see my sister, brother-in-law and niece, I’d only have 18k to go and it would all be familiar. It was starting to feel much more real and achievable.
I rested for a few more minutes and then, before giving my legs too much of a chance to stiffen up, set off on the 5k downhill to the next checkpoint. I thought the previous downhill had been steep but this was a real tester for the legs. With one kilometre to go before Vallorcine we exited the treeline and dropped a staggering 500 vertical metres! Steps became three-foot jumps and the winding cut-backs became shorter and shorter.
The crowds in Vallorcine can be seen from a distance and the music drags you in. I stopped to chat with my family when I arrived, thrilled that I had run 36km and was still feeling good enough to crack jokes. I went into the checkpoint tent and had a proper sit down and stretched out, munching on orange quarters and saucisson. Others were looking a bit more sheepish at this stage, working hard to get as much out of their rest period as possible.
When I left I kinda wished I’d done the same. There’s a very easy few kilometres out of vallorcine where it undulates slightly but is never too steep. I’d run it before and cruised it. This time my energy was really starting to lag and running on the flat was starting to become hard work. On the uphill you’re kinda forced to hike it a lot because of the terrain, and the downhills are very runnable. The flat is strangely where it really gets tough.
When a cyclist passed me and started a conversation I realised I’d started to lose my voice, it came out as this ridiculous high pitched gasp and my eyes began to water immediately! He didn’t stick around long for the great chat.
I’d been preparing for the short, steep climb before the ascent to Flégère. The last time I’d attempted it it had really taken it out of me but this time my expectations were properly set. I got my head down and slogged my way up the set of narrow switch backs dotted with breaking steps, scattered stones and tree roots. When we reached the mini-summit I looked right to the direction the UTMB runners would take, utterly grateful I could take a left and go downhill instead. Only one more peak to go!
I crammed another of the Energy Bloks into me before the uphill begain again. My water reserves were running low. I should have stopped at one of the streams and refilled but I had just wanted to focus on getting to the top and dealing with the consequences there rather than delaying any more the ascent. Don’t take this approach!
I started to really struggle on the way up to Flégère. The switch backs weren’t too bad as they are fairly steady but as we finally came clear onto one of the lower pistes the effort really hit me. All that remained was to hike up one last hill: a red run in the ski season.
At this point I had cramps running up the front of my shins and serious stomach pains. A fellow runner opened up a conversation with me but my voice was all but gone. I managed to squeak out a few words but it was such hard work that I just wanted him to head on and leave me. Thankfully he did.
I stumbled into the tent a pretty broken man! I wasn’t sure what to do. Rest? Just go for it? My stomach was in agony and my head was spinning. I managed to refill my water bottles and find a spot on the bench. The day was winding in at this point and the cold was really starting to hit. Whereas in all the other tents there had been a very positive atmosphere I was now surrounded by people who looked as rough as I felt. I sat and just sucked in air, unsure of what I should do.
There was some chicken noodle soup being served and I decided to take a bowl. I think that came to be probably the best decision of the day! Immediately my stomach started to feel better and I felt the warmth inside of me. I decided I would go outside and do some stretching, see if I could rid myself of the cramps.
Outside, on a patch of concrete next to the ski lift, I twisted in agony as my attempts at stretching turned into serial bouts of cramps! It must have looked hiliarious. Both hamstrings cramped and my feet took it in turns to follow. I didn’t fully realise it but I was seriously dehydrated. 10 hours of running in ~30 degree weather will do that. I thought I’d been taking in enough water but it was clear I hadn’t been. I had no option but to pick myself up (slowly) and start on my way. My feet were really starting to struggle and the rocky road didn’t help. There was nothing to be done about it though: only 7km to Chamonix, and all downhill!
I started slowly but picked up pace, letting gravity do all the hard work. It’s a pretty nice run down along tree-clad trails and past Chalet Floria where the staff were out cheering. It was a long time since there had been any support now with Vallorcine feeling like a lifetime ago. With 5km to go I broke into a bit more of a stride and started to feel really good again, not something I thought I’d be saying after running 52 kilometres.
When I hit the road at the top of Chamonix there was nothing that could take the smile off my face. I was broken and finished but I knew I could make it around town to the finish line. My family were there cheering outside the Balcons du Savoy and they raced off across the field to the finish line as I made my way around the streets.
The atmosphere was electric. Stunningly so. All I wanted was to be able to finish strong: no walking in Chamonix!
During the descent from Flégère I had had no idea if I would be able to hit that goal but now, with the tarmac beneath my feet and the crowds once again lining the streets and cheering, I knew it was possible. I started to run, not just fall gracefully down the mountain, kicking my heels and taking in the moment as much as I could.
I spotted my parents on the finish line, gave them a wave, heard my name and number being called, crossed the line and stopped dead, hands on my knees, heart pounding and lungs sucking like crazy. I had done it! I couldn’t quite believe it but I knew it was true. I got hugs from all the family. What a great support team! I needed them so badly, doing it alone would have been so much harder. I wanted to thank them but I didn’t have the air in my lungs to speak and even if I would have I had by now almost entirely lost my voice.
My heart was still going at a pace I didn’t know was possible. My eyes were bordered by huge bags and my pupils were simply dots in a sea of blue and red-flecked white. I couldn’t take it all in. The hard work was done and the pain was seeping from my legs and my lungs. I was devoid of energy and was fighting back tears: overcome by that feeling of having nothing left to offer but being so overwhelmed by floods of emotion that your eyes become the only point of release.
That feeling stuck with me for the rest of the day but the fact that I had finished it didn’t sink in until the following day really. Not until after my first beer, not until after I went to bed after one of the longest and hardest days of my life, not even after lunch the following day where for the first time in months I didn’t need to care in the slightest what I ate. Even as I write this I sometimes can’t quite believe it.
The OCC doesn’t rank very high in the grand scheme of challenges that you can take on, it’s probably seen as a gateway event to bigger challenges but, for a regular guy living in pancake-flat London, training alongside a regular 9-5 work week and 5-9 after-work week, it’s definitely a hell of an achievement. This could be start of bigger races or just end up being the biggest race I’ll ever do: either way I’ll take it and be proud of it.
Once again, a huge thanks to my Parents, my Sister, Brother-in-law and Niece for being able to come and support in Chamonix; my work colleagues for watching me online; and most of all my Girlfriend for putting up with my running schedule and for always supporting! Couldn’t have done it without you!