I can’t really recall when exactly I got the crazy idea to sign up for 100km race in the Alpine mountains. All I know is that sometime during the 2013/14 winter the idea crossed my mind. I had more than enough qualifying points from LT70 and MSIG Lantau50 for the CCC race. So I decided to try my luck in the UTMB lottery. I did not expect to be one of the lucky ones, it was more about improving my chances for the lucky draw for 2015 race.
Few weeks later the lottery results were out and I was in. And as I quickly found out so was quite a big group of other runners from Hong Kong.
I planned to take a bit of rest after the end of the winter season in HK and then start my training at the end of March. Unfortunately after managing to survive the entire racing season without any injury a pain in the hip area appeared out of nowhere during my rest weeks. Therefore the early stages of my CCC preparation were just some easy hikes and practice with poles. The pain was neither getting worse nor better during these hikes so I decided to suck it up and start running about 2 weeks later. It took few more months of running through the pain until it suddenly went away during or after a hot 40km training run in mid June. From then on I went full steam ahead with my training generally involving 2 early morning mid week 20+ km hilly runs, 1 long Saturday run and some follow up run on Sunday morning, roughly 80-90km per week on the trails of Hong Kong and pretty much nothing on the road. But no matter how hard (and slow) you train in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong summer nothing can even remotely simulate what awaits in the Alps (as we were to find out).
So finally after 5 months of training it was time to head to Europe. After spending few days in Slovakia I arrived in Chamonix late on Monday, the week of the race. I originally planned to hike the final part of the course from Vallorcine to Chamonix on Tuesday but the rainy weather cancelled that plan. With the benefit of hindsight I am really grateful for that…
After 3 days of relax, rest, one easy jog and a cable car trip to L’Aiguille-du-Midi it was time to get serious.
Early morning wake up, final check of all the compulsory and “voluntary” gear, some breakfast and then walk to the other end of Chamonix to catch the shuttle bus that would take us through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to the Italian side of Monte Bianco – to Courmayer, the starting point of the CCC – my second 100km race.
The atmosphere was just unbelievable, like nothing I have experienced before. I was lucky to have number starting with 3 – it meant I was in the first group almost at the front of the field together with Nic and Dominic. Race briefing, Swiss, Italian and French national anthems and off we were to the tunes of Conquest of Paradise from Vangelis. All I heard in my head though was “The End Of The World” by REM (that was in my head since I woke up in the morning).
The race started very fast through the streets of Courmayer. Quick glance at my Garmin revealed a pace well below 4mins/km. My brain was still functioning well at that point, after all I was only few hundred meters into the 100 km race. Message to the legs was clear – slow down. And I did even knowing that I may get stuck in the crowd once we hit the narrower trails on the first climb.
I kept on running though and only switched to walk at the beginning of the steeper climb at the end of the town. I settled into a comfortable pace and kept on going uphill. I had no time schedule to follow, I did not care what those around me were doing. My goal was to finish and I did not want to finish my legs on the first climb.
I felt very good on the first 10km long climb to Tête de la Tronche (2584m). Maybe because I was conserving a bit too much energy, I don’t know. But surely I had no urge to overtake anybody and charge ahead. I saw the super Tilly about 100 meters behind. But unlike me, once the path widened closer to the summit she charged ahead and soon disappeared in the distance. I reached the top at about 2h18mins, feeling fresh.
I jogged down few hundred meters from the top and paused for a minute or two to adjust my backpack, took a picture or two and went on.
Soon however I started to feel spasms in my right thigh and almost exactly on the 13km mark the first serious cramp hit me (in the right thigh). There was not much I could do about that other than slow down a bit. The cramp went away but the pain remained. And then almost synced with 14km beep on my watch the same cramp attacked my left thigh. I did not panic as I knew from my past experience that this would sort out itself after some time but I had to slow down a lot. And REM song attacked my brain again, this time “Everybody hurts”…
Soon the Refuge Bertone pit stop was in sight. It was great to see and hear Vince just before the the checkpoint as well as Romain with his drone. At the checkpoint Martijn caught up with me and ran ahead once we were on the way again. I refilled some water at this checkpoint, had a sip of the sports drink that was on offer and ate few pieces of some muesli bar with chocolate (chocomuesli I named it). My legs were still hurting so I had to take it a bit easy but otherwise it was rather smooth ride to the Refuge Bonati checkpoint at 22km (4h05mins). It was drizzling and windy as I approached the checkpoint and while refuelling I also put on a light windbreaker.
It was a mistake as it went from rain to sunshine very quickly and I was feeling hot. I had to stop and take off the windbreaker. On a positive note the pain in the legs was slowly going away and I managed to nicely pick up the pace and enjoy the final descent down to Arnuva at 27.4km (4h58mins). This was the first food station and I had the first of many bowls of the slightly salty noodle soup. What a revelation . Banana, chocomuesli, water refill, a bit of Pepsi, a bit of coffee I think and off I was ready for the next big climb. By the way, it was Switzerland already.
It was long climb up to the Grand Col Ferret (2527m) but I had no issues and even managed to pass quite a few people on the way up.
Once up there (32km, 6h19mins) I paused for a photo and started the 20km long downhill section.
I don’t know if it was the altitude or what but the moment I begun the downhill jog the pain in the thighs and the spasms bordering on cramps were back. I had to slow down again and switch to cramp management mode for most of the run down to La Fouly. Somewhere around here Adrian passed me. Soon I reached some water source near houses where the good people of Switzerland were helping to refill our bottles with words of encouragement: “2km you eat and drink!” – I hoped this meant that we were only 2km away from the next food stop in La Fouly. For some reason I can’t remember at all the La Fouly stop (42km, 7h37mins). I guess I ate something and had a sip of something and refuelled for the next stretch towards Champex Lac but I have no recollection of any of it at all. This was the toughest part of my day, my legs were hurting and obviously my brain was not functioning properly.
Next think I remember was me on the trail somewhere after La Fouly hearing someone behind me saying “Slovensko” which means Slovakia in Slovak. And here he was, Tomas, another Slovakian en route to Chamonix. We started to talk. He was running just ahead of me and this pacing really helped me to get over my crisis. There was a small village on the way to Champex where another group of nice poeple of Switzerland set up a table in front of their house serving tea, coffee and water to the tired runners. We stopped there for few minutes had a bit of coffee and off we were again towards the mid point of the race.
The uphill approach to Champex Lac was not exactly easy but made much easier by doing it in a “team of two”. My goal was to still feel relatively fresh by the time I reach Champex (56km) and I must say I generally succeeded despite the previous mid-race crisis. So, time 9h52mins, distance 56km. More than half of the distance covered.
I took longer break at this check point making sure I eat and drink enough. I had 2 bowls of noodle soup, few pieces of banana, few pieces of chocomuesli, warm tea, some water. I was lazy to refill my water at the water pumps so I took a green bottle of mineral water and refilled my water bottle and Nuun bootle + a bit of emergency reserve into the bladder. I was wondering a bit why the Nuun tab sparked such a violent volcano like reaction in the bottle but my mind was not in the mood for physics at this point.
I met Rory and also spotted Nora at this checkpoint.
I was not sure how I felt so I decided to head out first and walk to warm up the muscles gradually rather than running that flattish part before the climb up to La Giete. I expected Tomas to catch up with me shortly anyway. Fast walking through the town and along the lake felt pretty good, I caught up with some people and only registered one running person passing me before entering the forest road. There all of a sudden I felt the return of my energy and I decided to run again. One seriously bearded runner passed me here but once ahead of me the distance between me and him was very steady. I assumed I was doing OK. Here I almost paid the price for looking under my feet only – I missed the turn deeper down to the forest and kept on the uphill road instead. I was lucky the person few meters behind me shouted at me. So after about 150m meters of going the wrong way I turned back, reunited with Tomas and there we were ready for the first of the three remaining beastly climbs to 2000 meters above sea and beyond.
It was beginning to rain and it was getting dark. We had no chance to make it to the next checkpoint without the headlamps. We had to stop while we could still see something and install the headlamps on our heads. I also put on again my light windbreaker as it was getting wetter and cooler but I left the front zipper open for some ventilation – I was a bit cold but sauna treatment was not yet required. Somewhere here I took the first post Champex sip from my water bottle. Once I opened the nozzle I felt a blast of CO2 into my mouth. And I tasted something salty – and it tasted great. I realized the green bottles at checkpoints housed fizzy salty mineral water and that also explained the funny behaviour of the Nuun tab in Champex. Some found this disgusting but I loved it. From now on at every checkpoint I would refill my bottles only with the salty mineral water.
We kept healthy steady pace up to Bovine. It was getting difficult though as the constant drizzle turned the surface to deep slippery mud. We disturbed the night sleep of some cows and bulls (we could hear their bells from a distance but could only see them once we were only few meters away). It was a slalom in the dark between the cows, bulls, pools of mud, water and cow crap. My feet were totally wet, not falling on the arse was an art but otherwise I felt very good. We reached the checkpoint at La Giete (67km) at 12h31mins. I refilled some water there and kept on going. I was not however sure how would I get down from this hill. The descent would be hard enough in dry conditions so I was not too excited about the muddy bonus. But somehow we managed to get down to Trient (72km, 13h23mins) in one piece. I was totally wet from the rain my shoes and feet were immersed in mud but otherwise I felt great. At this point I was 100% convinced that I have enough in me to make it to the finish.
I did something right at Champex to get my energy back so I tried to repeat the same routine at Trient – 2 bowls of noodles, coffee instead of tea, Pepsi, salty mineral water, bananas, chocomuesli etc. I spotted Regina at the assistance side of the tent. She told me that Martijn and Adrian just left the checkpoint. She also offered to take away anything I did not need to carry on. At first I could not think of anything to dump as I had to keep all the compulsory equipment with me. But after some thinking I decided to change from my totally soaked T-shirt and wet windbreaker into some of my compulsory kit – warm and dry midlayer (aka warm thermal underwear) and waterproof jacket. I pretty much dressed up for the cold and rainy night up in the Alps. I also replaced my wet bandana with a dry one, passed the bag with no longer needed wet attire to Regina with thanks and I went on. Tomas told me that he needs longer break before heading out again. I was on my own again. Two more climbs to 2000 meters and beyond to go.
Next checkpoint in Vallorcine was to be about 11km away so I got myself mentally ready for roughly 5-6km uphill and 5-6km of descent down across the Swiss-French border. After short road section the route quickly turned on the trail and the climbing resumed. I realized quickly that I overdressed at the checkpoint. I was hot and sweating like a pig. I had no option though other than to continue. I at least opened the zipper on my smock to let more air in. The trail was very tricky . Dry at the some places, mostly under the trees, wet to very muddy at other. It was getting cooler as I was gaining the altitude and the warm clothes combo started slowly to feel like the right option. I was passing people on the way up and I reached the flattish and exposed section before the top still feeling pretty OK. I followed few other runners on the final muddy part towards the checkpoint at Gatogne (2009m, 77km, 15h06mins) trying to find some grip on the grass. I haven’t stopped at the top. I only glanced at the large bonfire and started the slippery muddy atrocious descent to Vallorcine.
I was feeling reasonably well and as long as I felt solid ground under my feet I tried to run. My headlamp seemed to dim a bit but I thought there is enough left in the battery to keep going all the way down. I kept running, sliding, hiking down the muddy trail passing yet more people. I remember crossing some rocky stream and then suddenly bam and there was darkness everywhere around me. My headlamp died without any warning while I was running. Luckily I was not that fast so I managed to stop without any incident. I dug out my spare less powerful headlamp from the backpack, turned it on and changed battery in my primary lamp. This whole process took few minutes. When I finished most of the people I just passed were ahead of me again. I did not really care about my finishing position but I was not too happy that I would soon be overtaking them again on that slipper muddy trail. I found out that the side of trail with water running on it offered much more grip than the muddy side. My shoes were full of dirt and I knew that unless I get rid of it I would develop blisters. I consciously opted for the blisters as I was pretty certain that I would not be able to put the shoes back on once I took them off. Although it was rainy night the visibility was mostly very good but once I reached the tree covered part of the downhill trail I hit some thick fog. I could see almost nothing. There were roots and rocks on the otherwise runnable trail and without being able to see them I had to slow down. I could feel that my toenail on the right foot big toe already suffered lots of damage and I wanted to spare the poor fella further torture.
Soon I reached some gardens followed by the final grassy downhill section towards the town. The grass was grippy enough so I could run reasonably fast and after a short road section I was at the final food station in Vallorcine (1263m, 82.5km, 16h10mins). Back in France.
As I entered the checkpoint area I saw Adrian ready to leave. We exchanged few words, he went off and I went in for my last feast before Chamonix. I ate more less the same as before – 2 bowls of noodle soup, banana, chocomuesli, Pepsi, coffee, fizzy salty water. I refilled my bottles and headed out towards the last climb and final 19km. There was to be one more water station 8km before the finish so I hoped that my water reserves will be sufficient. I haven’t mentioned that yet but I was drinking a lot during this race, always thirsty…
There was long more less flat section after the checkpoint that I would normally try to run. But I decided to take it easy to allow all that food in my stomach to settle a bit and also to preserve some energy for what I heard was going to be a nasty final climb. Still I was passing people and once I reached the steeper section on the road I caught up with a larger group that I passed just before we turned back on to the trail. Here the proper climb begun. It was tough but I managed to settle into a steady pace and even on this climb I overtook several people. I was feeling great. It become tougher though the closer I was getting to the top. The rocks were harder and harder to climb, water was everywhere and there was one false summit after another. I could not believe I can still see the lights from headlamps that much further up. This was mentally very tough. I finally reached the checkpoint at La Tête aux Vents (2116m, 90km, 18h36mins) feeling quite spent. I had a short dizzy spell with some funny messages being sent out by my stomach somewhere on the top but brief break with few sips of salty water helped quickly.
I expected the section to La Fregere to be technical and difficult but the reality exceeded my wildest expectations. There were places that I just had no idea how to proceed. Rocks, water, mud, jumping down often necessary but impossible in those conditions. It was just unbelievable. And then I looked up in the sky and realized that it is not raining anymore and the sky was totally clear covered with stars. Not that it helped the surface, the rivers of water kept flowing over the steep rocky path (path? what path…).
The La Fregere water station was a bit further than the poster in Vallorcine suggested, at least 2km further according to my watch. But anyway once the nasty rocky road was behind me it was only a short way up the paved road. I beeped myself in (1870m, 94km, 19h27mins) and went in the tent for some drinks and refuelling. I met Adrian inside again. The noodle soup was also on offer so I quickly downed a bowl, refilled my bottles for the final 8km descent to Chamonix and followed Adrian out of the tent.
He quickly disappeared into the distance down the steep slope. I decided not to risk any injury this close to the finish and jogged down the same hill significantly slower. My watch beeped with “battery low” message, my headlamp was slowly starting to dim again and I thought about stopping and getting my spare headlamp ready just in case. I decided to go on a bit further and soon I was on the never ending switchback section down to the town. Here I found a good spot for break, went for my final leak of the race and decided not to bother with headlamp battery any more, it should last. I only moved my phone from the waterproof pouch in my backpack into the front pocket of my smock – to have it ready for some finish line snaps – even tired always thinking ahead…
After this brief pause I resumed careful running down the hill. It was a big relief when I reached the wide runable trail leading down to Chamonix. As long as the surface was smooth I was running but once I saw roots and rocks I had to switch to “protect-my-big-toe mode”. Somewhere very close to the town there was probably the one last stream crossing the path with a tiny bridge on the right side of the path. That bridge would require about 2 meters detour and approximately 0.5m of extra elevation and I was in no mood for that. I charged straight through the stream full steam ahead towards Chamonix. Once on the road I knew it is only 2km or so to the finish. It was an amazing feeling. It was still dark – I managed to beat the sun to Chamonix!
I ran happily the last kilometres through the streets Chamonix. There were few people out that early cheering me and other runners up, few marshals pointing me in the right direction and soon I was near the finish area with bigger and louder crowds. I passed 2 more people in the town (I was not really keen on passing people before the finish but I was running they were walking…) and “sprinted” to the finish – 101km (official, about 102km according to my watch that died about 200m from the finish), 20h43mins25 secs.
It was an awesome feeling, very hard to describe. I guess one has to go through this experience to understand how people feel when they cross that finish line. When I decided some 2 and half years ago to start running again after some 20 years of being lazy I had no idea that decision would lead to this …
Soon after finish I saw Martijn who was the first one to congratulate me. I quickly made use of his presence and let him took my finish line photo. Adrian, Regina and Sharon were at the finish line too. We had quick chat, I went to collect my green “CCC Finisher” vest and then we set off on the walk back to the chalet with some detour to drop bag collection point. On that walk my blistery feet were really starting to bother me so I decided to get the rubbish out my shoes. As I expected, once I took them off there was no way to put them back on. So I walked back in the muddy wet socks only and the shoes went to the nearest rubbish bin… They did their job.
Gear I used:
Montane minimus waterproof pants (did not need them), Montane minimus waterpoof smock, Seal Skinz waterproof gloves (did not need them), Skins long tights (did not use them but at times I thought I should), Schwarzwolf Outdoor bandana, Schwarzwolf Outdoor cap, Schwarzwolf Outdoor warm hat (did not need it), Ay Up headlamp (primary), Black Diamond Storm headlamp (backup), HK100 folding silicone cup, Raidlight drink 0.5l bottle for electrolytes, Marmot 0.5l soft bottle for water, Hydrapack water bladder for reserve water, iPhone + power bank, basic adhesive band from pharmacy, basic metallic blanket, 180g thermal underwear, whistle that came with the backpack
Asics Gel Fuji Trabuco 2 shoes, 2XU compression shorts + my old Reebok pants, Schwarzwolf Outdoor running shirt, Salomon light windbreaker, Black Diamond Z poles, Compresssport calf compression, Injinji toe socks, AMO Ironcatcher sunglasses, Raidlight Light Olmo 12l backpack, Garmin 910 watch
GU gels (until the first food station and then one during each of the 3 final climbs), water, salty fizzy mineral water from checkpoints, Nuun electrolyte tabs (Berry flavour), one salt stick when cramps hit and then the checkpoint food – noodle soup, bananas, chocomuesli, Pepsi, coffee, tea