Courmayeur Champex Chamonix (CCC) – UTMB

Whilst undoubtedly the UK’s best trail race was taking place at Eridge this weekend (I hope it went well), it just so happened to coincide with the last races of the UTMB.

I apologise from the outset for the lengthy report, but in the words of Vassos Alexander ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’. However, the shortened version is that I completed the CCC this weekend, (a 101km race which takes place in a horseshoe shape around the mastiff of Mont-Blanc) in a time of 24:11:26 (14 hours behind the winner 😂). If you have the time and inclination to peruse the full version it’s as follows:

Between 26 and 30th August 10,000 runners descended on the French town of Chamonix to run one of the seven races of the UTMB week, races varying in length from 40km to 300km.

I had sufficient qualifying points (and was fortunate enough to get an entry in the ballot) to enter the CCC, a 101km race with 6,100m of climb, and so found myself on the start line in Courmayeur in Italy at 9:00am on Friday 30th August.

Mel and I flew out to Chamonix the Wednesday before the race. The atmosphere in this picturesque Alpine town was amazing and it was quite exciting wandering through the expo taking in the wealth of trail races there are on offer around the globe.

There is a very stringent kit check which takes place when you collect your number. A strangely stressful experience. My waterproof gloves had to be passed by a higher authority before I could proceed. Ironically the weather on race day was blisteringly hot and hence the only piece of equipment I needed throughout the entire day was my head torch!

Not being an experienced mountain runner (this being my third), I was suitably nervous standing on the start line listening to the strains of Vangelis’ ‘Conquest of Paradise’. My nerves were heightened further upon realising that I was in the first wave! An Irish man from Tipperary (a former elite marathon runner) explained the wave allocation – a result of finishing high up in your age category in the ITRA qualifying races. Needless to say I made sure I was at the back of the aforementioned wave!

The first kilometres of the race quickly lead to 2,561m of altitude – the highest point of the race. I didn’t actually find this too difficult (there were much steeper climbs to traverse later on!) Given the glorious weather, the panoramic views of Mont-Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses were stunning. Following this climb, the next 12km were beautifully runnable trails to the third checkpoint at Arnouvac. My only goal in this race was to get around within the cut-off times, so I was pleased to arrive here with 2 and a quarter hours to spare.

Next came the climb up Grand Col Ferret, which marks the entrance of the race into Switzerland. Unbelievable views from the top. From the summit 10km downhill, which should have been easy. Mmm – that’s what I can’t do! All the runners around me, the French in particular (a flag depicting your nationality was attached to your pack), all skipped down the incline with enviable equanimity while I proceeded at a more pedestrian pace. A significant ankle sprain 6 weeks prior to the race, with three weeks of no running, didn’t help my confidence!

Immediately on reaching the bottom we began a steep ascent up to the mid way point at Champex Lac – brutal on the quads. This aid station was teeming with people in all stages of exhaustion (54km in). Fortunately Mel was there to meet me, otherwise I might have been one of the 554 runners who dropped out of the race. After refuelling with pasta and sitting down for a few minutes, however, I donned my head torch and headed out and up the first of the three climbs that made up the second section of the course.

Whilst I could hold my own on the ascents it was on the descents where I lost so much time and so many people overtook me. On the descent into Triente there was a timing station in a cattle milking parlour blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’. It was somewhat surreal running in the mountains at night, particularly when I found myself on my own. At one point I heard bells and thought that I was nowhere near an aid station and that there could be no one around, only to then see in the light of my head torch two cows both wearing enormous cow bells.

At Triente (72km), there was a real party atmosphere with lots of volunteers, tired runners and loud music. Given I was so slow on the descents, I spent little time in the station before heading out for the next big climb. There must have been some amazing scenery at this stage of the race, but the privilege of those views was limited to the lead runners only!

Although not the highest point of the race at 2118m, the final climb up La tete aux vents  at 80km was, in my opinion, the hardest. We approached it from the road after exiting the trail on the other side. I was on my own as I came out of the trail and caught sight of the mountain. It was still dark, being 4:00am, but there were hundreds of head torches stretching up into the night sky. My heart sank as I asked the timing Marshall if that was where I was heading. “Oui! Oui! Allez! Allez!” came the joyous reply.

Hours later, after scrambling up many rock faces and a further torturous descent, I made it to the final aid station at La Fegere. 9km from Chamonix. Despite the pain in my legs and feet (I have never before suffered from blisters), I now felt confident that I would make it to Chamonix. Running through the finishing arch was an incredible experience. There were lots of people spectating and sitting in the surrounding cafes who were cheering. Amazing!

An unforgettable journey and a privilege to have been part of such a brilliant event.
Moreover, despite my lack of experience, I finished 1111 out of the 2132 who started the race and was 9th in my age group – the only British runner in that category so quite a few French women behind me. And, of course, with the points accrued from finishing the CCC I now have the requisite points to try again next year.

Tara