First off, what is the CCC?
Well it’s the final 101km of the Tour du Mont Blanc route which circumnavigates the Mont Blanc, beginning in Courmayeur, Italy and making its way through Champex in Switzerland before finishing in Chamonix, France!
The CCC is considered the “little sister” of the 171km UTMB route, but with over 6100m (20,000ft) of elevation gain it is a serious challenge. The route has numerous high altitude (+2500m) passes and brings you to remote and difficult areas, especially if the weather is poor.
Getting to the start line is quite an effort in itself as you have to gain sufficient qualification points to be able to enter the lottery system. Having accumulated the necessary points for the 2016 edition I was unsuccessful in the lottery but thankfully my trip to Italy (Trail del Chinghaile) last November allowed me to apply for 2017 and I was one of the lucky 2000 runners selected. With the draw taking place in January, I had plenty of time to put a plan in place that would allow me to build up to the race and the 100km distance.
Having completed The Race in March, I decided to focus solely on getting the body ready for the demands of one of the toughest trail races out there. I had previously built up my race distances having run half and full marathons on the road before moving onto ultra trails with 56km, 75km and 90km respectively, so the jump to 100km wouldn’t be too severe. However the long ascents and descents in the CCC would strain the body to a higher level than before.
I wanted to make sure I had structure to my training so I worked closely with Michael Black who overseen my weekly mileage and set out an excellent plan that would see me reach the race in good shape and more importantly, healthy and injury free! So my training consisted of a real variety, daily runs of 10-20km including specific strength work on hills, easy recovery runs and of course long back-to-back weekend runs. Coming off a good base from The Race, I was able to start out with fairly good mileage, clocking up somewhere between 70-90km in the first few weeks and building up to a solid block of 180km. My longest training run was 56km with lots of elevation, followed by a 25km the following day. It’s difficult to replicate the elevation gain of an Alpine race so I regularly would run to Muckish from my house then climb it 2 or 3 times and run back, madness I hear you say, but needs must!
With the race starting on Friday morning at 9am, I decided to travel to Chamonix on the Wednesday to avoid any stress and get the registration process sorted early. Chamonix is a mecca for trail runners and alpinists and with the UTMB in town the atmosphere was unreal, its the Tour de France of trail running with the races being broadcast on live TV, helicopters overhead and streets lined in the many small villages.
The main concern for the organisers before the race start was the weather, with low temperatures, heavy rain and snow forecast for the higher passes it was possible that they would have to change the route to a lower elevation to avoid risking the safety of the runners. Thankfully though the normal route was confirmed by text message at lunchtime Thursday, with the simple advice of “mind the cold”!
Thursday was spent knocking about Chamonix as I watched the finish of the OCC 54km race and seen some of the worlds best including Salomon athletes Marc Lauenstein and Emelie Forsberg. I also met the Hoka athletes Hayden Hawks and Tim Toffelson out for a quick jaunt on the trails!
An early start saw us drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayuer where the sun was shinning. I relaxed in the car while making some final gear checks, reassured myself that I wasn’t mad and headed towards to the start line in the town center. I cut things pretty fine time wise but I didn’t want to be standing getting shivers on the line, so as I approached the crowd lined streets I met two of the pre-race favourites and worlds best, Tom Owens from Scotland and South African Ryan Sandes. Red Bull athlete Sandes won Western States this year and I grabbed a quick photo before jumping the barrier and getting into the first couple hundred runners, needless to say that was the last I seen of Owens or Sandes for the day!
Before I knew it the countdown was on and bang, we were running through the streets with a helicopter flying overhead and everyone trying to stay in a good position without going into the red in the first 1km in a 101km race. The route goes up hill from the start, with an elevation gain of 1435m in 10.5km.
To put it in perspective, Errigal is 751m above sea level. With the car park being at 220m, the actual climb of Errigal is roughly 530m, so pretty much 2.5 Errigals in the first 10.5km.
My plan was to stay as far up in the pack without putting myself into the red early on, so I kept a close eye on my heart rate and made sure to stay sensible as there was a long day ahead. Unlike a road marathon where everything is about pace, in an ultra trail the terrain dictates how fast you run/hike/walk so you pretty much go on feel all day long and try not to burn too many matches early on.
With a highly competitive field the first 20 or so places are filled with elite runners, those who have marathon times sub 2.30, so I had set myself a realistic target of trying to stay amongst the top ladies, knowing that these sponsored athletes would be running close to 14 hours and somewhere in the top 30-50 runners.
After about 3km the route enters a narrow forest single track and everyone filters into a single file, luckily I had pushed enough to make sure I was with similar paced runners and didn’t have to waste energy trying to skip around and overtake. In this line I stayed for the next hour, concentrating on the rocky and steep path in front, looking up to see if the summit was getting any closer. A lot of people ask “how do you run up that?”, well the answer is we don’t, unless you want to set yourself on fire… we fast hike, somewhere between jogging and fast walking, its far more efficient than trying to “run”…you run what you can and fast hike everything else.
Looking up the mountain I could see the elite runners further up and figured that I was probably at the back end of the top 100. With the line of runners splitting as the mountain grew taller, I found myself in a group of four as we approached the top of the Tête de la Tronche 2584m, with a French, Swiss and US runner for company.
I thought about pushing-on several times as my effort level wasn’t very high but my heart rate was up there for the first couple hours, ranging between 160-175bpm, I put this down to the altitude as my HR didn’t match my effort level as it normally would. The funny thing was, my HR was just as high on the descents as you try to make up ground and the technicality of the trails makes you constantly work so any chance of a “rest” during the downhill is bull!
The next 17km flowed pretty well, with the first water station coming after 15km where I grabbed two cups of coke, a hand full of biscuits, some kind of swiss roll and a quick refill of a 500ml bottle. The race is semi self-sufficient, with refreshments posts provided with drinks and food every 10-15km, so carrying enough fluid and food was crucial as 10km in this terrain could take 2hrs+ and I previously found myself drinking from streams in past races.
The next major climb came as we entered Switzerland and involved a steep ascent to the Grand col Ferret (2537m) where the cloud was low and temperatures pretty nippy! As I had my head down I heard a couple Irish voices shout my name (our name and country flag is on the race numbers) so it was nice to have some home support as well as the ever friendly locals shouting Allez Allez. I had marked this summit as a target before the race as once I was over this point I knew I had 20km of descent towards Champex Lac, where I would then be familiar with remaining 46km as I had ran it before in 2014.
Champex Lac would also be the first opportunity to meet support crew, so my brother Patrick was waiting there with my parents with spare gear and food should I need it. Twenty kilometers of downhill sounds like fun but believe me it is back breaking and your quads don’t appreciate it either! The first 10km was basically like running down the minors path on Muckish before getting into the valley below and onto some gravel roads and eventually paved roads. I was still holding my position at this stage with the same faces appearing from time to time, and I was running along with top American ladies Keely Henninger (Nike), Kelly Wolf (Under Armour) and China’s Kou Li (Team Columbia). By this stage I was just over half ways and had 6.5 hours done, on target and feeling good but a little hungry so in Champex Lac I met Pat and stupidly devoured a lot of fluid and some food. A protein drink, bottle of coke, dioralyte, bowl of noodle soup, couple cookies..maybe too much in one go but I was starting to knock and needed a boost! Pat told me I was sitting around the mid-70’s position. I spent about 3 minutes in this checkpoint and as I headed off I was called for a kit check by race officials.
The race organisers are strict on essential kit and I had to produce my two head torches with spare batteries, my rain jacket and mobile phone, should I have been missing any of these I risked immediate disqualification. My kit was as minimal as I could make it, but with full water bottles it weighted 2.4kg, a hell of a weight to be lugging around for 101km!
After Champex the route rises again and I found myself suffering big time and was starting to slow for the first time in 60km. In a race of this length you have to expect things to go wrong at some stage, either a rough patch, a niggle, blisters, an upset stomach, so I reassured myself that I would ride it out… It was one of these cases where getting sick may have helped me feel better but then I’d be running on empty so I backed off a little, lost a couple of places but gradually after about an hour I came good. Maybe I was digesting my 5-course meal from Champex…I crested La Geite in thick cloud, with cowbells ringing all around I put on my jacket and hat before descending towards Trient for the second last feed station.
Here I barely stopped with my crew, I refilled my bottles and ate very little as I felt the food may have been the cause of slowing before. I was now on the home straight with 30km remaining. At this stage I set about regaining a few places so I upped things a little and started to find a good rhythm on the cloud covered climb to the Categone before descending the red ski slopes to Vallorcine. The check point at Vallorcine was directly opposite my hotel and thoughts of a warm shower and bed were very tempting especially as it was now raining and I still had some 2.5 hours to go in the dark. With head lamp on and determined to finish strong I pulled back four other runners over a short distance as we headed towards to the ski station at Flégère.
The last time I ran this ski slope I had to dip in a small stream of water to cool off, but this was totally different, I was layered up, the wind chill was bitter and visibility was down to about 30 meters. Once at the top there was an 8km downhill to Chamonix, but with such low cloud it was tricky as the light from my head torch was bounching back in my eyes and it was difficult to even see where you should be going. I also knew that there were two runners close behind me and two others just in front so I wanted to keep pushing but the main thing at this stage was for nothing stupid to happen like take the wrong path or roll an ankle. As I dropped elevation the fog gradually lifted and I was soon on the streets of Chamonix with a final 1km run through the streets to the finish line.
What makes the UTMB races so special for all the runners is the amount of support from start to finish. It was just after 10pm and I was running past busy bars and restuarants with loud cheers and appaulse coming from those eating their pizza and drinking beer! The best I could do was a slight raise of the hand or nod of the head to show my appreciation, until finally I passed the statue of Balmat and Saussure and onto the finishing straight where my parents and brother were waiting. Job done..53rd overall in 13 hours 12 minutes.
Overall I have to be happy with my performance, my target of 14 hours was well achieved and I mixed it with some top end runners. I ran a consistent race and had steadily made my way from 78th at the first checkpoint, taking a few places here and there to eventually end 53rd. Yes it would be nice to say I was top 50 or even top 40 but being my first 100km I was happy to get through it in good shape and finish reasonably strong. Another Irish trail runner, Paddy O’Leary (The North Face), who lives in the States put in a great performance to get 14th overall, as did Adrian Hennessy who I got to know during the High Peaks Challenge earlier in the year. I actually felt I could have kept going at the finish, once I had gotten over the dodgy patch around 60-65km I felt good and the legs were 100%, the stomach is still the main culprit and is something I need to dial into more.
Well I’m going to say it..I want to go back for the UTMB 171KM, but this means doing more qualification races and will then require a bit of luck in the lottery, so more than likely it will be 2019 before I can have the chance to race over the full course. The UTMB course is pure torture but unbelievably beautiful and the atmosphere is unlike any other race I’ve done, it is definitely one to work towards. I believe that I’m capable of putting in a strong performance in the longer distance and with the right training, racing and support in place I will definitely give it a go. Of course it would be nice to get a few sponsors or backers to help make these races a possibility and see what level I can bring myself to.
Those of you who train for these ultra events know the dedication and time it takes and without the backing of those around you it wouldn’t be possible. The support from Rachael, my family and work colleagues has always been immense and my thanks to everyone who sent well wishes and messages. In the mean time I’ll let the body recover, eat what I want for a week then slowly ease myself back into cycling and running and tick off a few events locally.