My journey back to UTMB
In August 2022 I’ll be heading back to the French Alps to take on one of the hardest ultra races I’ve ever tried. I’ll be documenting this every month, to motivate myself, and as a record that i at least tried. There won’t be much in the way of my usual work related stuff in these blogs, though there will be some data and nocode stuff along the way, but these will be a by product of the focus on running.
A brief history of my running and how I failed on this race 7 years ago.
I am not an athlete, despite what my twitter profile jokingly says. There is nothing special about me physically. Growing up I was probably slightly above average at sports. I was captain of the u18s cricket team, county levelish at badminton, a mediocre left back on the school team and I won the egg and spoon race. Oh and I hated cross country running.
When I was a teenager I got into rock climbing and was reasonably good. Then I got into playing in bands, drinking and smoking. Mid 20’s I got back into outdoor sports, again rocking climbing, hill walking, canoeing, but I still smoked off and on and drank too much.
On 9th October 2009 I was sat in a bar in Chile. I was overweight, unfit and tired after a couple of years on the road. I threw a nearly full pack of marlborough lights in the bin, and decided I was done with smoking. That was the last cigarette I ever had or ever will.
When I got back to the UK a few months later, I was determined to get fitter. I wanted to get back into rock climbing, and decided there were two things I needed to do
- Get stronger
- Get lighter
The getting stronger aspect meant some climbing specific training (forearms, fingers). To get lighter I decided to run. It started off as a 1km run. That was hard enough. But I kept at it to get lighter. The more I ran, the stronger I climbed. I topped out climbing at 7c+ (V10 for you americans).
The weird thing was, the more I ran, the more I liked it. And I became reasonably good.
I started running in 2010
By 2011 I had entered and ran a 1.22 half marathon*
By 2012 I had ran a 3.03 marathon**
By 2013 I had ran a 100km ultra
I did this all without really having a clue what I was doing. I just went out and ran. So when a friend said he was entering this ultra race in France, i thought to myself, yeah why not. So I entered, and I got in through the ballot system.
2014 — Failure
So it’s 2014, I’m off to race in France. What I now know is this race is one of the biggest and most well known ultra races in the world. Thousands of people descend on Chamonix for a week of ultra running. People spend a couple of years training for these races. They are long (70–100 miles) and big (9000m of climbing — think everest in total) with tough trails, altitude, huge changes in weather. I did not know this at the time.
What I did know was that I had to be in Chamonix with some running stuff (all the mandatory gear listed). So I bought an old VW T4 van and spent a few weeks knocking together a camper from plywood, carpet and some rudimentary electronics. And then I was off!
We spent a couple of weeks driving through france, eating and exploring, with bit of climbing and a bit of running.
And then I was there, in Chamonix, without having had a second thought about things like ‘booking a campsite’ or having a GPS device, or checking what the course actually entailed. But I lined up anyway
So things I notice from this (the only picture I have from that race) is
- They are some funky asics shoes, definitely not designed for long ultras in the alps, but how was I supposed to know
- I’m wearing some ronhill leggings (which I still to this day own…)
- I have no running poles (more on this in a later blog)
- I have such a naive look on my face
On the way to the race I had broken the tube to a water reservoir I intended to use. I attempted to buy a replacement in france, which was not possible, so ended up using a camelbak one with the really difficult twist to open mechanism. A trivial change which would have a huge impact some 14 or so hours later.
The race started ok, a big climb to start. I noticed that every other single runner had poles. This was new to me. Check point 1 was a brief one, as I’d started the race behind a lot of people and couldn’t get past, so the cut off was tight. In and out, no time to fiddle with that camelbak twist open which was a pain.
Onto the next check point at 30 miles. It’s really cold. Grab a few things, couple of drinks. Hands are cold so struggle to open the camelbak to fill it. It’s ok though I thought, it’s not like it’s hot.
Onto the next check point 45 miles. It hot, so very hot. I try to chug down some drinks,
but in hindsight I’m already fucked. I haven’t eaten in about 2 hours. My body is breaking. But i get myself up, and set off.
What follows is 2000m of ascent straight from the checkpoint. Then it gets dark. My headtorch is crap. The mountains are big, I am slow. I can’t take in any food or anything to drink. My stomach has shutdown. But I will not stop. I see people strewn across the mountain side with foil blankets. They are done. I carry on, down a roped section. I stumble on. My pace, what little I had, has gone.
I make it to the check point. I try some food. I throw up. I stumble around incoherently. I sit on the floor. I try to get up to carry on. I throw up.
I am done. DNF.
Over the next few years, I run a bit, but nothing seriously. I have my first child, life takes over.
I am done with running ultras.
A few years pass, my daughter gets a bit older. Life gets a bit easier. I start running again, just for fun. I enter a few races, the races get longer. I find myself having points to enter again. I do, I get in. The pandemic hits, and the race gets put back two years running. Probably a good thing for me.
And now, here I am. This year I believe it’s happening. I’m going for it. I’m older, probably not as ‘fit’. But I am so much wiser and stronger in many other ways. So i’m going to do this race with my mind and my body. Starting with building a training plan.
So one blog a month from now on. Each blog will be a look back over the last months training, and one thing I’m doing to prepare, such as equipment, strategy, other races, mental training etc.
*although this is no world record, it’s pretty bloody fast and seems incomprehensible to me now! My fastest in the last few years is 2 hours
**ah so close! Sub 3 hrs is some arbitrary time for a marathon that is ‘good’ . I couldn’t care less now, but I cared then.