Race report: The North Face athlete Jez Bragg gives us an insight into his 2013 The North Face® Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc®
I think we were all interested to see how my body would respond to UTMB this year after a punishing winter in New Zealand. I honestly didn’t know was in store, so I went into the race with an enhanced mixture of nerves, excitement and apprehension.
This year’s UTMB journey started around mid-May with a sneaky late entry, a perk from being a previous winner, albeit some grovelling was required due to the lateness. Whilst it was late to be making a decision to enter from the organiser’s point of view, from mine it felt way too early. Only two weeks earlier had I really started to make any sort of progress with my training, by that I mean stringing together runs of 10 miles or more. Trust me, that was massive progress after a tough spring spent piecing together a sick and weary body. I think it must be in the ultra runner’s mindset that if you can move at all, you can run a long way, and if you can run a long way, then why not enter a long race…? Don’t ask me to explain the logic, there isn’t any, but perhaps it’s just that simple inner drive which enables us to do what we do. There I was entering one of the least forgiving races in the world ultra calendar, and certainly the one with most eyes watching. Well, why not hey?
Anyway, to cut a long story short, by the end of June at the 50km Cortina Trail race in the Dolomites (baby sister to The North Face Laverado Ultra Trail), I was still far from ready but vowed to persevere and I proceeded to work my way through a rather hectic schedule of training weekends away in the mountains, sandwiched between a busy spell at work. You may already have read one or two of those training accounts on Run247 (HERE). One or two epics in their, as usual.
I definitely did progress well over the summer weeks, inspired by some incredible spells of weather, most notably in July for a 2 day trip around the Ramsay route in the Scottish Highlands. When you get several consecutive days of complete visibility across the tops of the Munros, you need to count yourself lucky, and boy did it feel special. So I was running pretty well in training, albeit the days were only up to 10 hours or 50 miles maximum, but I had yet to test myself properly in the racing environment, and there were still plenty of unknowns likely to be uncovered in the second half of a hundred mile race. It was that latter factor which worried me the most; it’s the strength in the core of the legs, once the fresh stuff on the outside is stripped away, that really counts, and translates into success or not.
So here we go again, the UTMB start line for my 7th time….
Photos: The hardest part is controlling emotions at the start – fighting the hype and build up © Pete Aylward
My race strategy would have been clear to those who noticed me standing three rows back at the start line, with 50 or so runners in front. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any intention of finishing with those 50 runners in front of me, but I know from experience there’s a danger of getting carried away at the start of this race, and my bumpy race build-up didn’t give me the confidence to go out hard. This race was all about getting a solid performance in the bank, and a platform to re-build my long term racing plans from. I had to be Mr Conservative and go out steadily to stand any chance of getting round in a respectable time. Boring, I know.
So my race plan was a concoction of ultra running clichés which I would always quote to newbee ultra runners to avoid disaster: eat and drink well, focus on remaining in control and run you’re own race, not to the pace or schedule of those around you. Whilst I’m the first to admit it’s all a bit boring as a race plan, you can’t ignore the drop out statistics from previous races; so many runners, including the elites, fall foul of the race. It’s easy to get sucked in and spat out the other side. And that includes me for the past two years of course.
The hardest part is controlling emotions at the start – fighting the hype and build up – which is a famous part of the race. When you’re standing on the UTMB start line in Chamonix town square with 2,300 other runners behind you all charged up, the crowds cheering and Mont Blanc bearing down of you, it’s easier said than done. Trust me. I have to say though, I did feel pretty mellow at the start, with complete acceptance this was the only approach that would work, and so it had to be done. I also felt it would be far more enjoyable, which it thankfully turned out to be.
Photos: Remaining calm at the start © Pete Aylward
I ran alongside Wolfe, Foote & Krupricka down to Les Houches, all of whom were also taking it very quietly to start with. Pretty much all the way along that section of easy riverside trail there were runners making ‘bursts’ to move ahead of us. Really?! Are you sure?! We chatted a little, mostly sharing the sense of relief in escaping Chamonix for the peace and quiet trails at last, and also a sense of amazement in the goings on around us.
Those guys soon took off on the first climb up to Le Devrelet (13.6km), but it was still way too early for me. I soon settled in to my uphill hike; trying to get my climbing gears going as quickly as possible after a lengthy taper. In parts it must be one of the most steeply graded climbs, but maybe it just feels that way from the intensity of having loads of fresh runners in close proximity, jostling for position early on.
With the amended and very civilised earlier start time of 4.30pm, it was nice to get a decent chunk of the race under my belt before dark, allowing a bit more time to settle in before the start of the night time headlamp bubble. After the descent from Le Devrelet, Saint Gervais (20.9km) was as noisy as ever, and barely a stop off for most runners. A British friend of mine even jokily suggested I was hanging around too much in filling my water bladder. Surely a wise investment of time in my opinion, but it gives you an idea of the pace and the intensity early on. I was now settled in position-wise (66th), no longer losing places to the hares and potentially about to start gaining. It would be the beginning of a planned long haul up the leader board.
I know all the course very well now, having been round upwards of a dozen times in both the race and training, but particularly the trails in the Saint Gervais valley and up to Les Contamines where we have stayed on several occasions. There was a new section included on the approach to Les Contamines, a loop up and down the hillside, which I suspect is to make up for the omitted section before La Fouly later on. Clearly it’s not the done thing to make the race any easier! I still didn’t feel very settled by the time I reached Les Contamines (31.2km, 63rd), but I did just about feel in control which was the important thing. My legs weren’t feeling smooth, but they were working fine and moving reasonably well, better uphill than down. On the climb up to Col du Bonhomme, I moved up to 49th place, and enjoyed an hour or two running alongside Rory Bosio, my team mate from The North Face, and the eventual ladies winner. I knew at the time I was witnessing something special, she was looking so strong, fast and relaxed, and she went on to smash the female record and finish 7th overall. What a stunning performance.
From this point onwards I was pretty much running solo and it was dark. There was potential to feel mentally negative or sorry for oneself, but rest assured there was no danger of that, I had so much hunger inside to follow through my race plan. Now and again I would catch up to a runner ahead, and they would hang with me for a while, before I would move through. I was only overtaken once or twice from that point forward and generally on the descents where I felt slightly awkward. Slightly stiff, inflexible, legs may have been the result of all the climbing in training. You can’t win really….
I planned a series of distractions to help keep me relaxed and running within myself over the course of the race. I would geek-out and track altitude on my Garmin Fenix, follow my wife’s progress in the CCC via the SMS update service and listen to some tunes on my iPod. The latter is something I’ve never done before in a race, but it definitely worked as a method of finding ‘flow’ and not over working.
At Les Chapieux (50km, 49th) I had planned to have a more substantial feed, but I really didn’t feel like it, so I grazed on fruit, flapjack and then topped up with gels intermittently on the trail. I knew from previous years the food provided would be no good for me, and especially so this year given my newly found gluten intolerance. So the sandwiches I carried remained intact, but I really didn’t feel like I needed them.
The descents continued to be my main weakness; I never really felt able to capitalise on the opportunity to run faster and bang out the miles efficiently. That frustrated me, but there was little point doing anything but accepting the situation. Under a clear sky with just a slight breeze, it was a beautiful night to be out. Looking back from the final pass between France and Italy, Col de la Seigne (60.2km, 41st) it was the classic UTMB sight of a string of headlamps meandering for miles back down the valley. It gave me an idea of the spacings between runners, which were still fairly tight at this relatively early stage of the race. If I had stopped for even 10 minutes, I would have found myself 20 places back. Don’t worry, no danger of that.
Having crested Arete Mont Favre (68.9km, 31st) I was excited about having some of the psychologically harder sections of the race under my belt, with some beautiful runnable sections through Italy and Switzerland to come. It was also all downhill to my first major support point at Cormayeur, albeit steep, dusty and loaded with degrading switchbacks. I had hoped to arrive at Cormayeur (77.7km, 29th) closer to 9hrs 30mins elapsed, but I was about 25 minutes adrift of this target. I was a little disappointed but knew there was 5-10minutes in the extra section they had put in, and it had been a slightly rusty start from me.
I didn’t stop long in Cormayeur. I changed socks in an attempt to cure one or two nagging hotspots, replenished food supplies in my pack, caught up with what was going on at the front end of the race and grabbed a re-hydrated expedition meal to eat on the hoof before departing to plenty of welcome support. I got some odd looks tucking into my foil pouch of grub whilst plodding up the road climb out of Cormayeur, but hey, it seemed like an efficient use of time and I had to eat.
The steep switch backing trail heading out of Cormayeur didn’t feel great with a full stomach, but it was another 6 hours of running before I could get more of the same, so it was worth the temporary discomfort. It was a rather lonely existence for mile after mile with no fellow runners, ahead or behind, making it feel less like a race and more like my own personal journey against the clock and the mountains. It’s amazing to think after starting the same race as 2,500 other runners I was completely on my own with no one in sight.
My number one objective that remained sharply in focus all along was to string together a solid run on the course and dispel the demons of the last two disappointing years. Like all the races and challenges of this magnitude, it really just comes down to how much you want it. The fire was there, that was the important thing.
Section by section I set milestones and targets for myself to work towards. Now just inside the top 20, I targeted overtaking one person per sector, with my sights firmly set on the top 10. I would also set time goals based upon rough timings from training runs on the course, and looked forward to milestones such as making the pass across the Gran Col from Italy to Switzerland, and seeing the fishermen relaxing by the lake in Champex. There’s no shortage of special moments on a journey like this around Mont Blanc.
The next milestone to focus on was seeing the wonderful Lizzy Hawker who I knew would be at Refuge Bonatti (89.9km, 21st). I got the warm hug I was looking forward to, then moved on with sights firmly set on the Grand Col. More lonely running, no one to latch on to and get a pull from, it had to come from just me. At the base of the climb I succumbed to the cold breeze for the first time. Up to that point, I just about maintained warmth wearing only my race T-shirt despite the single digit temperatures, but now it was time to get the shell jacket out and avoid wasting any energy on heating the body. Swirling cloud, cooler temperatures and continuing darkness made the Grand Col (99.5km, 19th) feel moody and atmospheric. It’s the highest pass on the course and somehow always feels so much more significant than the others. The top was truly inhospitable; perishingly cold and exposed. Those poor volunteers! I barely broke stride when having my chip scanned at the top, keen to get down out of the clag that was making my head torch largely ineffective, bouncing back in my face. Below the cloud it was a different day; dawn had arrived and with it some welcome daylight, less wind and a nice cruisy trail all the way down to La Fouly (109.5km, 18th). Ahhh, and welcome to Switzerland.
Photos: Stocking up at the Champex Lac checkpoint. Arriving at Trient with Aite Tamang
On the descent I passed hikers enjoying an early morning stroll in the sunshine. Typically they would step to one side, say a few words of encouragement and facially express their sympathy for what I was evidently going through. I suspect the look in my eyes spoke volumes. No need to feel sorry for me. It’s my choice to be doing this – no, really! I felt my body was starting to go numb now, the mounting discomfort in my legs just became accepted. But I was just going to complete the job in hand of one step after another, all the way back to Chamonix. How hard can it be?
The section down Val Ferret valley from La Fouly to Praz du Fort along the side of the river should be a complete blast. I moved well down there, but never feeling quite fast enough. What do you expect Jez, after 70 miles of mountain running? Where were all these other runners ahead that I was trying to overtake?
The higher I marched up the rankings, the harder it got to catch people, and the less inclined they were to concede their places. I was starting to switch out of my relaxed mood, and becoming a little more aggressive about my approach. It didn’t result in much change of speed, but I definitely had to work that much harder to maintain the pace and be satisfied with the splits. To be expected of course. I arrived into Champex (123.6km km) in 16th place, continuing my march up the rankings, place-by-place.
Champex is a big milestone, and looks on paper like the back of the race should be broken, but it’s not really. The race cranks up a massive notch at this point with around a marathon distance still left to cover, involving three major back-to-back climbs (800m+ each), to complete the journey back to Chamonix. All on trashed legs.
The first was up to Bovine on a newly cut trail providing a seemingly steeper, but much smoother, route up to the high pastures. The Bovine climb was historically quite rocky and technical, but the new route does away will all that. I’m not sure I liked it much; my calf’s certainly didn’t. I was dragged up the final part of the climb by spotting a young Nepalese runner ahead who seemed to be struggling a touch. Admirably he latched on to my tail after I overtook him and we had a nice blast together down to Trient. Having someone on my tail definitely helped the pace, and I wondered if my race had suffered from my largely solo run thus far.
As ever there was a great atmosphere in the Trient (139.6km, 14th ) checkpoint tent and it was a welcome sight to see my wife and family for some moral support. I was hurting a lot – everywhere – but felt mentally solid, like I would finish the job in hand. Whatever happened. Closing in on Chamonix now. Well, kind of. Down then up; straight into the penultimate climb, making the pass back over the border into France - somewhere along this section - I never quite know where. And soon the sight of Vallorcine ski area from the summit checkpoint at Catogne (145.1km, 13th place), and thereafter views of Vallorcine village and the relative civilisation of the valley floor beneath. Like all the other checkpoints the volunteers at Catogne are incredibly enthusiastic and supportive. They know the score.
Getting closer and closer to the finish everyone seems to appreciate the mounting discomfort. The checkpoint in Vallorcine (150.2km, 12th) has greater numbers still, and supporters just that little bit more empathetic. My wonderful crew are there, as ever, but what do I need? It’s the last main leg ahead, the last opportunity for their help, but still around two and a half hours to sustain myself. I grab a litre of flat coke and a handful of gels to take out.
As the level of support gets stronger, so too does my determination to maintain the pace. It’s so easy to crack at this stage, for modest pace to turn into a slow one, and in doing so throwing away the hours of time and effort that have gone before. Everyone’s in the same position, discomfort, battling the little head demons and focusing so hard on the simple feat of moving forward. It’s all a bit hazy now, the focus on sections of trail ahead much stronger than anything peripheral like the mountain views.
Gaining one more place on the final descent into Vallorcine was a welcome lift, but at this stage I feel for my fellow warriors who have been through so much, like me. We exchange words of good luck – there’s plenty of mutual respect. It’s early afternoon now and the sun is out, so hikers are aplenty. The support is welcome, and the sense of genuine and heartfelt support is powerful. Running around the lay by before the climb up to Tete aux Vents who should pop out and offer his support, young Killian who’s hanging out in his van. Now that’s a boost. And then into the final rocky, stepped climb; always the sting in the tail after a long ‘day’ out on the trails.
Photos: The checkpoint in Vallorcinehas greater numbers still, and supporters just that little bit more empathetic. Heading onto the final climb with two runners hot on his heels
The bottom section is lined with spectators. They offer their support, but soon also to others behind. What? There are two runners hot on my heels! One is the Nepalese lad who seems to be fighting to the end. I look back regularly, and have flashbacks to 2010 when the same scenario unfolded – a race up the final climb. I was racing for first then, but this doesn’t feel any less significant given the context. Do your own thing Jez, don’t get rattled, there’s still plenty of time left. At one point he’s within 20 metres, and I almost accept the likehood of getting overtaken.
Towards the top, several false summits pass which I know to expect and one or two runnable sections to help loosen the legs from the stiff ascent. At La Tete Aux Vents (157.9km, 11th) there’s no sign of anyone behind, but my line of sight behind is short. It’s nice to have finally topped out on the course though, the profile is flat and down from here. Oh, easy! Across the contouring path to Flegere (161.5km, 11th), the views of Mont Blanc are simply stunning. It’s a cruel finish to the race coming up high on the valley side again, but the rewards are there to see. With a better opportunity to look out for folk behind I’m still in the clear, so it’s looking more promising I can hold my position to the end. It matters a lot, the emotional energy that goes into a run like this is massive, and unfortunately it’s mere statistics on the results sheet that tell the story over the course of time.
A revised milestone is a sub-24 hour finish and that also looks increasingly achievable. I know from Te Araroa that my mind thrives on self-set goals, so it’s a final one to drag me home. But before that, a fittingly brutal final descent to the finish. Flegere to Chamonix is rocky, ridden with tree roots and tormenting. I’m incredibly paranoid about getting overtaken, and my mind keeps hearing footsteps behind making me feel anxious. But the Chamonix outskirts eventually arrive, and I’m nearing home at the end of my journey. As ever the crowds in Chamonix are in fine voice and I appreciate their support. But I feel a little muted inside, like I don’t fully deserve or want the praise being offered.
On the final section I had time to reflect on the run, and what it meant. It was a little boring and ‘safe’ in many respects, but that didn’t matter. It was business-like really; I had a job to do in settling uncertainty in my mind about future racing potential, and I had succeeded in that. I was content, but not ecstatic. I know I can do better, and I will. I enjoyed the welcome in from the crowds, but it wasn’t a moment to bounce around too much. I’ve reached higher points before, so I guess falling short of that is never going to feel the same, so that’s why I felt a little quiet. I know there needs to be a step on from this race but the important thing is I now have the platform to do that.
Chamonix/ finish: 168.7km, 9,800m +/-, 11th place, 10th male. (HERE)