Rain drops softy run down my arms as I glared at the descending clouds covering Mont Blanc in a blanket of clouds with Conquest of Paradise blasting out over the loud speakers. Two years of sweating, crying, victories and dreaming brought me to the thing I want most, running the UTMB (The North Face Ultra trail du Mont Blanc). Every runner got faced by their first race plan decision before the race even started – do I put my rain proof jacket on and stay dry, knowing that as soon as the race start the high humidity would make it to warm to run with a jacket or do you block out the rain but then risk going into the night, ascending 2500m with wet clothes risking the cold temperatures of the mountains. There is no right or wrong. You need to know your own abilities and weaknesses. You need to trust your training and kit selection and be able to adapt to what ever Mother Nature and the race throws at you. That is why I love ultra running! Most of the races I enter I know that my chance of completing is very high but for the first time I’m lining up knowing that the odds might not be in my favour. Unlike the elite women who can practice in the mountains months before the race, my mortal life consist mainly trying to find the right balance between work, life and the school run, oh and somewhere trying to fit all the training in too.
In it’s twelve year the UTMB offers runners a chance of doing the tour of Mont Blanc individually, non stop and in semi- autonomy. The 168km route, with 9600m ascend takes your through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) starting and finishing in Chamonix with a time limit of 46-hours. To enter the UTMB you have to get 7 qualifying (next year 8-points) points in a maximum of three races. In this race it’s not just the distance which you need to take in consideration but the terrain, weather and how well you’ll cope with sleep deprivation.
Despite working harder than expected far to early into the race, I was still running within my race plan. I knew that this was going to be a race against the clock, pushing myself beyond all limits. The tick-tick sound of hiking poles and runners breathing heavily was filling the cold mountain air. I was sold the dream of breathtaking mountain views but fog and darkness was the reality. The rain drops looked like diamonds when my Silva head torch shone on them, my breath vaporising in front of me made every step a conscious decision. Mentally I’ve prepared myself that uphills will last for hours not minutes, but looking up gazing at the snake of lights, runners, individually fighting their own battle, mentally and physically.
Leaving the well equipped friendly checkpoint at La Balme with the sound of you have five minutes before cut off does give you a reality check. My mind wondering off to how many of us are going to make the next cut off point in time? I tried to push hared. Below, in the gorge I could hear the sound of an angry river. As we ascend the footpath got smaller. Running on a ledge 2500m with a drop on both sides turned my legs into jelly. My question why is there less females running ultras got bluntly answer by the thought I would like to see my daughter grow up. I realise that despite all my night running, training in the Carpathian Mountains I just don’t have the skill to run or even brisk walk over this terrain. I’m feeling fine mentally and physically, but the risk was too big and I slowed down.
I felt relieved when I reach the top. With new hope I looked at my watch. I had 40 minutes left but I have no idea how far to the next check point. But my new found hope got scattered when I realised that I wasn’t brave enough to give it my all down a grade one downhill at 4am after running for ten and halve hours. As the minutes ticked by I knew I wasn’t going to make it. My decision to slow down because I was scared made me loose too much time. There was no more room for error. Meeting up with fellow runners we relaxed a bit more, defeated by the majestic Mont Blanc. I had a wonderful time and met amazing new people. The accompaniment of Sue Foot, a fellow countryman or should I say countrywoman made reflecting much easier and despite saying that I will never do it again I felt cheated. Two years of dreaming of breathtaking sunrises over Mont Blanc and all I got was rain darkness and fog…? I don’t think so. Not finishing has showed me my weaknesses but it also highlighted that the training which I’ve done was good but I need more experience. Mont Blanc I’ll be back as we have unfinished business.
Why do I want to do it?
I want to inspire people and especially mums to show them that anything is possible if you really want it. Being out on the trails gives me the opportunity to clear my mind. When I run I’m not just a mum but I’m my own person. Every decision I make is for me not the family. Training for ultra races can be hard to fit in between work and school runs and unfortunately the race numbers reflect that. Out of the 2434 runners who started the UTMB only 200 was female. Hearing “mummy I need the toilet” as I prepare to line up for the biggest race of my life is probably not the best pre race routine but I compete for experience, not to win and to have fun and I love having my daughter, family and friends with me at races so I have to factor these things in.
The UTMB is a very well organised ultra and it has been called the race of superlatives. The aid stations are frequent well stocked and full of friendly people. The course is lined with supporters even through the night and into the early morning hours.
On a scale of one to ten, give the race an overall rating for organisation
On a scale of one to ten, give the race an overall rating for quality of the course
10/10 but a race all ultra runners should try at least once