“And I’ve got you to thank for getting me into ultra-marathons” I said to Phil at the start of the CCC on Friday morning. I quickly reconsidered, before adding: “actually I won’t say that until I’ve finished”.
[I apologise that this post is a little bit long. If you think reading about my run is hard work, you should try running it!!]
The CCC is the “little sister” of the famous UTMB. It is 101km long and included 6100m of climbing. Since taking up long distance running a year ago, I’ve now run the marathon distance a lot, but had only run one ultra before Friday – the 66km Brecon Beacons run last December. That was a walk in the park compared to the CCC.
I said in my last post that successful ultra-marathoning relies on successful eating. For me that meant taking exactly the right dose of long acting insulin (Lantus) in the morning of the race. I needed the insulin to bring down my blood sugar enough so that I could eat plenty of sugar for fuel, but not so much that I was at too great a risk of hypos. I know that my body gets more sensitive to insulin the more exercise I do, but I’d never run over 100km or over 7 hours without stopping. Lantus lasts in the body for about 24 hours. So I decided to split my usual 8 unit dose into 3u at 15:30 the day before the race and 5u in the morning of the race. This meant that the amount of insulin in my system would decline during the race so that if I became more sensitive to it after many hours of running, I wouldn’t be at so much risk of hypos.
As the start gun went off in the Italian Alpine town of Courmayeur we all sprinted off up the road, vying for position among the switch-backs. It was a brutal starting pace. I was torn between not wanting to blow myself up on the very first climb and not wanting to get stuck behind slow runners as the track narrowed. When we were in the forest, I didn’t get too worried about being over-taken: those who moved past me were all breathing very hard. The CCC is quite literally an ultra-marathon and not a sprint so I was content to be a bit slower – I still felt I was heading uphill too quickly anyway, moving at a pace of 1100m an hour of height gain.
The first climb was therefore brutal, both for it’s speed and it’s length – about 1500m of climbing. The descent was pretty fun though. Fresh legs propelled us super fast back down into the beautiful Val Ferret valley with the South faces of the Grandes Jorasses looming above us in the clouds. I had loads of food in my pack and wanted to keep as light as possible so ran through the first two refreshment stations without filling my water bottles or eating – I had just enough time to gulp down two cups of water.
After seeing us off at the start, Emily had jumped in the car, driven up the valley and sprinted up the mountainside to the Rifugio Bonatti (Bonatti is my new mountaineering hero by the way) to cheer us as we went past. She told me I was in 67th place (1950 runners had entered) which I was pretty happy with.
After descending to a party atmosphere at Arnuva, and being lifted by the sight of a huge Union Jack, and also words of encouragement from a hiker as she saw the British flag on my race number “Oh, you’re British. I say! Good show!”, I was feeling pretty good. This feeling was shattered by another monster ascent to the Grand Col Ferret separating Italy from Switzerland. It was tiring heading up, although at least the pace was less frenetic – we were only going at 900m an hour. The long descent on the other side was even worse. I had stomach cramps and every time I forced down the odd jelly baby I could feel my stomach cramp up around it. The vibrations going through my body as I ran downhill made it worse. I descended slower than I wanted to, just hoping it would pass, and that I wouldn’t be seeing my breakfast again.
On the flat ground afterwards, I didn’t feel any better, and was being passed by other runners who had obviously been a bit more sensible during the frenetic sprint at the start. I was just trying to get to the half-way mark, the beautiful Swiss lake-side resort of Champex-Lac. I knew Emily was waiting for me there and that was great motivation. I’d spent about 10km running with a Spanish guy – we’d been trading places the whole way up until then. But even though I really wanted to stay with him on the 500m climb to Champex he just left me for dust and I was overtaken by several runners.
It took me just over seven hours to reach Champex. That was the furthest I’d ever raced before (the Brecon ultra took me 7:10 to finish). My blood sugar had stayed high the whole way (between 6.5 and 10), maybe because I had carb loaded so much and my liver had loads of sugar to dispense into my system. Maybe because I didn’t have enough insulin on board. Whatever the cause, it was lucky because I couldn’t have eaten much anyway. Over that first seven hours I had eaten six jelly babies and a fig roll. A mere 150 calories to sustain me through about 5000 calories of effort. It was amazing I had any energy at all.
I’d written in my previous blog that maybe I didn’t have enough humility coming into this race, and I definitely felt like I was being taught a serious lesson by the mountains at this point. Amazingly, I had actually improved to 57th place by the time I arrived in Champex.
As I arrived in Champex I was greeted with a huge cheer from Emily and our friends Oli and Harry. It really gave me a huge lift and I was totally unprepared for how important it was for my morale to see them. The rest station in Champex was massive. I stayed there for fifteen minutes, ate two bowls of soup (it’s salty so great for hydration), some bread, nuts and sausage. I was desperate for water, and Emily mistakenly filled my bottles with some unknown sports drink. “I can’t drink this” I immediately said – I had no idea how much sugar it had in it. Emily just stood there staring at the bottles and I could tell she was gearing herself up to down 1.5 litres of liquid. Luckily I spotted a sink (which was pretty much under her nose) so she could dispose of the suspect drink and replace it with water. I also took three units of Lantus at the rest station – I was running on empty and I knew I had to start eating more sugar.
The transformative power of a rest stop like this is hard for a novice ultra-runner like me to comprehend. I had just run 56km with 3000m of height difference, and it turned out that my body hadn’t even got going. I left feeling strong and fit, and I wanted to take advantage of every minute of feeling like this, so I even ran up a hill that many others were hiking. I’d also rested long enough to allow some slower runners to pass me and so I was soon overtaking them which felt good.
I was up and over the next pass super fast, ascending at 1000m an hour. I was discovering though that my comparative advantage was on the flattish bits. I was hanging in there on the ascents and passing people as soon as the gradient softened enough to run. The views of the mountain ranges of the Swiss Valais were stunning as I rounded the corner at the top, moody and cloudy in the evening light.
I had a big grin on my face as I met Emily at Trient – 72km in. Despite feeling good, I had realised that resting is key, so I sat down and scoffed more sausage, soup and orange segments (the orange segments were definitely my favourite treat in the aid stations). The small boys who insisted on refilling my water bottles seemed delighted when I high-fived them, and I was off up the hill with a smile.
Running such a long race is a pretty lonely experience over-all. Most of the time one is by oneself. However there were a few runners who I kept passing (and being passed by of course) and I felt real joy every time I saw one of these old friends ahead of me. The exception was a lycra-clad bloke who I passed on the way up from Trient. He was listening to an iPod which lots of people do, but when running in such a stunning place, do you really need it?! Anyway, I passed him as he was looking broken. He had a friend waiting for him as I overtook, and five minutes later he was passing me again with a crazed look on his face. Could he be on drugs?! Anyway, he was destroying himself as he sped out of sight up the hill.
Coming over the top and down to Vallorcine was a bit like coming home. It’s a great off-piste ski area that I know so well covered in snow, and so I loved running down the trail in the dusk. My aim was to arrive at Vallorcine before getting my head torch out. I overtook someone who could barely walk – the third such runner – and finally sped past the crazy drugs man.
Oli and Harry were in Vallorcine (80km in) with Emily and it was great to see them. I had a huge grin on my face. “I’m feeling great, I’m feeling strong!” I beamed. And I was! The drugs guy was sat next to me getting his legs massaged by his wife, looking in a world of pain. I was sad not to see my Spanish friend. More soup and orange segments were accompanied by loud disco music and the percussion of rain beating on the marquee roof – the rain of Biblical proportions that would make my last leg so horrific had started.
I left running fast uphill, still dressed in shorts and t-shirt in the rain. I was on the home straight and I’d run this section on Sunday so knew what to expect. It was pitch black by this stage and I was running into the cloud. I put my waterproof jacket on, zipped up the hood and struggled into my wool liner gloves. I didn’t have enough clothes on, but was still feeling strong so just decided to go as fast as possible and keep warm that way. The path on this section is composed of a load of boulders and slabs of rock, and had turned into a river such was the volume of water falling from the sky. Visibility was extremely limited and all I could really see was mist in the beam of my torch. I wondered if purgatory is like this. At a couple of points I ran past some lost looking souls staggering along the path in full on waterproofs.
I had been testing my blood sugar more frequently than once an hour for the entire race. First I was in disbelief at it staying so high for the first half of the race, despite me being unable to eat. After my lantus injection, I could eat about 40-50g of carbohydrate an hour. (Mainly jelly babies, with the odd cereal bar and fig roll thrown in.) However, in the raging downpour from Vallorcine onwards, there was no chance of testing my blood, and my watch had stopped, meaning it was hard to judge the pace at which I was eating. I got through all the easily accessible jelly babies and fig rolls I had to keep on the safe side (this turned out to be 150g of carbs over three hours).
The 7km from the top of the climb to the Flegere lift station seemed to go on for an eternity. I boosted my morale by thinking of Bonatti and his epic North face mid-winter climbs in the ’50s. I wasn’t anywhere near to discovering what suffering was compared to him. So I just slid over the boulders and splashed through the puddles thinking that apart from electric shock like pains shooting up my hamstrings, frozen fingers, no visibility and no idea what my blood sugar was, I was in relative comfort.
I didn’t notice Flegere lift station until I was literally outside it, and just ran straight through the food station without stopping – the finish 8km away and 800m lower was in sight, figuratively if not literally. By this stage my quads had pretty much had enough, so I was content to take it easy. I was aware of a head torch speeding down behind me, and I shouted “Allez, allez, allez!” in encouragement as he passed me. But I couldn’t believe it. It was the crazy, broken, drugs man! Pipping me at the post!
When I finally got back down to Chamonix, all that remained was a 1km loop round the town. I had been going for just over fourteen hours. My other ultra lasted just over seven, and I remember hobbling into the finish line. So I was pretty surprised that I still had loads in the tank on the flat, I sped through the streets of Chamonix, being cheered by supporters and late night revellers alike. And there was Emily to join me for the last sprint up the hill to the church. I ran over the finish line into a wall of cameras and flashes feeling like a superhero. (It turned out they were actually interested in the first placed woman who was finishing just behind me. My parents were outraged. “Didn’t they know they had a Guinness World Record holder crossing the line?!” they said!)
After feeling awful for much of the first half, in the second 50km I had climbed from 57th place to 33rd place and had felt happy and strong the whole way. Even when clambering up a stream, inadequately dressed in the rain. How can the human body even do that?? To finish in 14 hours 27 minutes, and to do so well in an international field of runners was totally unexpected.
My experience of the race didn’t end there. I had a beer at the finish line and chatted with some of the other finishers. I went to bed at 1am and couldn’t sleep. Which was lucky because we were up again at 4am to see Phil finish.
We spent a lot of time in Chamonix in the days before and after the race. We clapped home finishers of the TDS – they had been running for 27 hours and 120km when we saw them. We clapped home finishers of my race – the CCC – hours after I had finished. We clapped home UTMB finishers. Runners finished hand-in-hand. Runners strolled over the finish line savouring the atmosphere – a few extra seconds is immaterial in the context of an entire day spent running. Runners finished holding hands with their children (and even grandchildren). Everyone was shouting “bravo”. The runners who won, came second, came tenth and who finished hours and hours behind the winners were all totally delighted to have finished. It was hugely emotional at the time and I’m getting pretty emotional just writing this.
I normally poo-poo race finishing prizes (I hate the colossal waste of all those medals that must be shipped over from China and eventually tipped into landfill), but I’ve been wearing my finishers gilet with pride around town for the past two days.
Chamonix this week really is a celebration of the human spirit and people overcoming their own weakness to accomplish their dreams.
I’d like to thank Phil for planting the ultra seed in my head a few years ago and being a great friend along the way. Harry and Oli, for being there to cheer me and Phil around the course. And particularly Emily for driving miles and miles, sprinting up hills, motivating me with her smile and carrying all my spare sugar (which I didn’t need!).
Today we went for a walk to stretch out the muscles. “Was the pain really that bad?” said Phil. “Nah, shall we do another one?” I replied. “Yes”, said Phil, “Send me the deets of the Brecon Ultra this December!”