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UTMB OCC 2017 - Reflection of an EPIC Adventure


56km with 11,500ft (3500m) of Climbing, 4 mountain passes and 1700 runners.

At the end of August every year ordinary people gather at the trail running mecca of Chamonix in the French Alps, to attempt something extraordinary. Everyday regular runners get to rub shoulders with the elite of the sport and attempt to test just how far human endurance can take you.

The Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) running festival is arguably the everest of trail running and has been a long term goal on my adventure list. To even be considered for a place at any of the races at UTMB you first have to earn qualifying points from events that are rated as tough enough to be given a certain amount of ranking points. Once you have enough points you can enter the ballot to hopefully secure a place at one of the four events in the Alps.


For 2017 I was lucky enough to secure a place to run in the OCC (Orsières - Champex Lac - Chamonix) a 56km run through the mountain passes of Switzerland and France. Starting from Orsières in Switzerland the route takes you through awe inspiring and unique alpine landscapes: ultimate peaks on the eastern flanks of the Mont Blanc region, following the franco-swiss border the route goes through nature, ascends and descends epic mountain passes in a trail running adventure the like of which I have not experienced before.


The day of the race started early for me with a 4am alarm as I had to be on a 5am bus to transport me from France to Switzerland. It was a slightly odd feeling driving through the mountain roads knowing that the way back for me was on foot!?! The atmosphere at the start was one of excitement mixed with nervous energy with a truly multi-cultural vibe as there were runners there from all corners of the globe. It was awesome to be able to rub shoulders with the elite runners in the field as everyone mingles and chats before the action begins. With the music pumping out and the MC building up the atmosphere, the heavens decided to cool us all down with a mini downpour…this would be an indicator of things to come.


The gun went and the elite runners started off like they had stolen something from a shop, it was a true sight to behold to watch some of the finest endurance athletes in the world jostle for position at a pace that for most would be sustainable for a mere half mile or so, to see them ascend the first bumps of the course was amazing…awe inspiring to see their easy technique dismiss the ridiculous gradient.


For us mere mortals the early steps through the village were awesome, lined with the locals the atmosphere at the start was truly something that will forever be a lasting happy memory. The early climbs were mere bumps and just a warm up for the severe tests that would face us later in the day, they did serve to string the field out and I quickly settled into a relaxed steady pace, conscious of regulating my effort knowing what was to come. This event has been long in the planning, I had learnt the course, worked out how long the steep alpine climbs could take me, and planned my nutrition so that I was able to maintain my effort over a long period of time. I knew where I could put maximum effort in and where it would be wise to regulate the effort so that I could be efficient, what I had not planned for was the truly biblical weather conditions.


From very early on the low level cloud would prove to be a major factor in setting the tone for the run; the rain went from a manageable shower to a full scale downpour, that was to last for round 8hours, it is safe to say I have never been so wet running, ever!?! Coupled with high winds and unpredictable footing due to the alpine trails, the sheer amount of water meant that conditions under foot were a true test of technique and mental strength. Due to the steepness of the ascents the water flowing down the mountain made the ascents truly testing, with poles being an absolute must to maintain any sort of stability; the descents were just as testing as the water was now flowing with you and each footfall was unpredictable…the conditions were a huge factor in dictating my pace. I was strong on the climbs and maintained a steady rhythm, overtaking many due to my good rhythm; the descents despite being treacherous were a strong part of my run, confidence coupled with sound technique saw me again gain a number of places on each descent.


The true wonder of running through epic mountain passes was a little lost as the low cloud obscured the view, with just a few fleeting glimpses of the awe-inspiring terrain letting you know where you were. The first serious climb would come after the first checkpoint at around the 10km point and was a serious test, topping out at over 2000m it was the second highest point we would ascend to. I felt strong and positive and reached the interim checkpoint at the summit of the climb in good spirits; the following descent was amazing, the clouds broke briefly to allow us a glimpse of just how high we were and the sight of the tiny houses down in the valley where the next checkpoint awaited was a reminder that each descent was going to truly test the technique. I absolutely loved it, the water made it even more testing but I controlled the descent and overtook a number of people, I was still conscious at this point of not totally letting gravity take effect as this would fatigue the quads for the descents to come.


The checkpoint in the valley was around the 26km point and I knew that I would see some familiar faces there, Sarah my wife and my mate Neil were waiting in the torrential rain to get a glimpse of a soaking wet, slightly mad English guy, grinning from ear to ear running through an alpine village. Seeing them was great as it is always gives you a boost, my state of mind was all good at this point, I ate some hot food and quickly got back out on the trails. The next climb would take us into France but the steep gradient meant that the climb would take around 2hours, yes 2 hours of climbing!!


I had broken the race up into bite size chunks as I find this is the best way to manage my mind, and keep my slightly mad chimp under control!! Each checkpoint and each summit was used as a marker throughout the race to tick off little milestones in mind; I ate a gel religiously on the hour every hour as well as trickle feeding myself throughout with real food (liquid porridge, hot soup, ginger biscuits and salty crisps) Tailwind Nutrition in one water bottle and Precision Hydration electrolytes in the other.


The entrance to France was heralded by a lone local stood on a rock in the middle of a field at 2300m dressed in period alpine dress serenading us on his alpine horn. This randomness just made me giggle and kept any negative thoughts at bay…the ironic madness of it!! I had gone around 30km in distance at this point but had been out running for just shy of 6hours…which will serve as a guide of just how testing the terrain was. With the highest point of the course behind me I was again boosted by a brilliant descent into the next checkpoint, sweeping singletrack, with switchbacks a mix of technical terrain, wooded paths and mountain streams to cross and a rousing welcome from the locals…I just couldn't stop myself from smiling. A brief stop and then a section of rolling terrain similar to the South Downs near home meant a good section of running which was great as I could get into a good rhythm, this terrain at a slightly lower level meant that there were a good number of people dotted along the course, despite the still torrential rain, which was a welcome distraction from the final looming climb that was ahead on the horizon.

I had been warned that the final section of the run was the toughest due to the initial rolling terrain and then the killer climb towards the end. So it proved that this ascent would prove to be forever giving, in that it just went on and on and on…mentally I was prepared for this and in my slightly warped mind enjoyed the challenge of the terrain. The steep terrain finally saw us break the treeline and we were on the ski slopes (another giggle moment "were we actually this high") heading towards the ski lifts at 1850m, the final part of this climb proved to be the toughest part mentally as I could see other runners ahead of me and knew how far I still had to climb. I just broke it down into small chunks, just keep going until the next ski slope marker, the next tree etc and despite my internal cursing I made the welcome last checkpoint at the 50km point after 9:43:00 of human powered adventure.


I knew that the final descent into Chamonix would take around an hour and I just could not contain my joy as I ran down the initial ski slope descent (a red run for those winter sports enthusiasts) knowing that I could enjoy this descent to the finish…I let gravity take effect and despite my legs screaming at me to slow down there was no way I was going to give into the chimp now…I managed to gain around 30 places on the decent and felt absolutely amazing running the final singletrack into Chamonix.


I knew that the finish would take us through the race village/expo and through the town before entering the main square to finish. I was so lucky in that I arrived around dinner time, so the town was buzzing and the amount of people to welcome the runners was amazing. The field was well spread out at this point so I had the luxury of running through the streets almost on my own…the noise from people clapping hands on the barriers was like thunder, people high-fiving you as you ran the crowded streets, the music and the announcer screaming your name as you cross the finish line is a memory that will last forever. Crossing the line to see Sarah and my other friends to meet me was absolutely awesome, I felt elated to have achieved a long term goal of running and conquering a small part of the Alps. It is a truly awesome, inspiring and humbling playground that is a true test of endurance, technique and mind management… I absolutely loved it, an EPIC adventure in one of the toughest playgrounds in Europe.


When you stand on a start line, you take a risk and you take on a challenge for what lies ahead. You have done the training, you have prepared as well as you could and you control what you can. You choose to embrace or to explode from challenges. This sport is unpredictable and makes a champion out of anyone who dares to stand on the start line. In the crazy world of ultra running the focus is never on the time, but on the journey and the adventure along the way.




White Star Running - "East Farm Frolic"


Chickens, pigs, cows, superheroes...
That was just the runners that had turned up to participate in the inaugural White Star Running "East Farm Frolic"...a 12hr event that involved running around a 3.8 mile rural lap as many times as you wanted to. Runners could opt for a solo run or participate in teams of 2, 3 or 4 runners as a relay event.

For those that are new to White Star events then the scene could best be described as organised madness...runners of all abilities pitch up in an array of outfits that would grace the shelves of any self respecting fancy dress shop; the thing is that nobody gets a second glance even if they are dressed as a huge inflatable chicken about to toe the line for an 12hr endurance event!?!
It was great to see a wide range of clubs, groups of friends, seasoned runners, newbies all taking to the start line for a rural adventure.

I was in a relay team of 4 from Stubbington Green Runners and our intention was to just run and enjoy the event...we had no plan of action apart from transporting our pink & purple rubber chicken baton around the course as safely as we could (nothing unusual about the choice of baton!!)...we had strict instructions to hand our chickens across to the next runner in the specific "Chicken Handover Zone"...pretty sure I have not come across one of these in any other event.

The course was a cheeky rural 3.8 mile lap with a few good climbs, mud, straw bales, the infamous "Lovestation" and great encouragement from all of the other runners. As a team we made our way around 11 laps before deciding to put our feet up, collect our goodie bags complete with a souvenir rubber chicken and have a well earned cuppa.

It was great to see that the Fareham Crusaders had 3 teams taking part and had even gone the extra yard by actually making a costume for their rubber chicken...attention to detail. A special shout out to 2 other local runners who had decided to take on the solo challenge...Stubby Greens Julie Ashman and Gosport Road Runners Lisa Hennen were ticking off the laps at a consistent rate and were always smiling and loving the extraordinary atmosphere.

If you enjoy trail running and are just a little bit mad (aren't all runners) then any White Star Running event is a must will be guaranteed a great atmosphere, rural miles, mud, hills, an eclectic mix of running attire and some great bling...what more could you want.


Peak Health Runner Blog Creation


Check back here for various ramblings about all things running & fitness...

Peak Health and RunCamp is off to Dorset today to take part in the White Star Running "East Farm Frolic" team relay event...Rural Miles, Hills and Rubber Chickens, should be a blast!?! Event report to follow


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