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Friday, 17 May 2013

CCC 2012: Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix on 1,5 shoe

It started dramatic and would get worse from there. 2,5 days before the race I received a txt from UTMB organization: 'TDS, CCC, UTMB Attention! Weather forecast: rain, snow at 2000 m, wind, cold. Temperatures dropping below -5 C. Have winter clothing'. 1,5 days before another txt followed: '.... conditions are expected to be very cold and difficult. 4 layers of clothing necessary....'. These warnings were folloPwed by nights with terrible thunderstorms and constant hard rain. I had been dreaming of a race with superb views, charming villages with loud crowds, steep climbs with fantastic views and cowbells. I was a bit scared of the distance and especially the height meters (100 km, almost 6000 height meters). And now the weather added an extra challenge it seemed… what was I getting into exactly?

In order to at least stand a chance, the day before the race I went shopping to get some warmer clothes. And yes, you got it right; I was not the only one. Good day for the outdoor shops in Chamonix!

Friday raceday!

Weather looked gray in Chamonix but when the bus driving me to the start in Courmayeur came out of the tunnel, a sound of relief went through the bus as the Italian sky was blue! This did however not last long. Sky turned slowly gray, the speaker at the start area kept saying a lot in French, Italian, followed by a short English translation where the most used word was extreme ... so when shortly before the race it started raining my idea of starting in t-shirt was soon replaced by adding sleeves and rain jacket. As everybody else. An hour before the start another text from the organisation came in: 'CCC: Start 10 am Courmayeur. Winter conditions above 2000 m, cold, wind, snow. Course without Tete de la Tronche and without Tete au vent'. Quickly looking at the course profile. This meant the first and last peak were taken out.

Before the start nerves disappeared and I felt ready for this adventure, my toughest race ever. I was well dressed and how bad could it be? So 10 o'clock we started! A nice small round in Courmayeur through the enthusiastic crowds followed by the steep 800 m climb to Bertone. Very crowded and more or less walking in a queue up the mountain, which forced me to take it easy as the plan was. I arrived after 1:07, so my speed was slower than 5 km/h. Quickly something to drink and off to Bonatti.

Then disaster happened: my shoe touched a stone and somehow ripped open on the top front just behind the toes from the right to the left (only the sole kept it from being split into 2 parts). And this was only at 6 km of the course. I cursed, stopped and tried to repair it with sports tape. Na├»ve. The tape held about 5 minutes since everything was wet. So I decided to try to run carefully to the next hut and see if anything could be done. The volunteers in the hut were extremely helpful. I was put on a chair and they taped my shoe together with gaffa tape. Good; I felt better and started to move to Arnuva, but …

2 minutes later all tape was gone...... What to do? I had trained a year for this race, was feeling extremely strong and now it seemed to be impossible to finish due to bad luck. Spend a fortune on gear and now my gear was letting me down.... My race was over before it had started…. But next point for getting a bus back was 7 km away in Arnuva, so extremely frustrated I decided at least to make it to Arnuva, while running very carefully, ensuring not to bump into anything with my right foot, since that could be the end of my shoe and the race. During this 7 km my thoughts went through my options besides quitting: I could get some new shoes somewhere – well, not too many shoestores around this route, but maybe somebody would quit with my shoesize… ? I started also seriously wondering how far I could run on just one shoe.

The weather turned uglier. It started snowing with the snow coming in horizontally due to the hard wind. Steep decent down to Arnuva and my shoe was still working, so why not try to get over the worst pass, Grand Col Ferret, then at least I had tried that. Then I could quit on the other side in La Fouly. Shortly the thought of calling my wife to get a new pair of shoes to Champex half way the route popped up in my mind, but I did not believe I would make it on these shoes to Champex, so I did not make that call.

So plan was to pass Grand Col Ferret and quit. Quickly something to drink, some energy bars into my pockets and off we were. A long climb, but I managed to keep moving well; even passing some runners. The higher we got the more white the landscape became and colder it got. Hard wind, snow, very limited view. When arrived on the top I immediately started to move down to get to some warmer area. Taking it as easy as possible in order to save my shoe, I made it to LaFouly, which was a crowded post. The shoe seemed not to get worse and I felt still extremely well and now the relative easy part to Champex came, so I changed my mind about quitting and after some nice hot soup I moved on. The path from here was easy wide roads most of the time, so no worry for my shoe. The hill to Champex was quite a climb though. I regretted not to have made the call for new shoes here, but I started to believe I had a chance to finish the race with my current shoes.

In Champex I felt quite good, except for freezing, so I decided to quickly continue after some pasta, soup and clothes change. Some other runners got support here and large bags of dry clothes got brought in for them. I was soaking wet and in my backpack I only had 3 dry things left for a full night of snow and rain: my newly bought (thanks for that) thermo shirt, a wool hat and my supposed to be waterproof gloves. I changed to those, put full raingear and headlamp on, so I was ready for the night. That felt better, but still felt a bit jealous with those runners with crew. Need to get support when possible next time.

The worst part of the course followed. The long technical climb to Bovine. It started snowing more and more and got dark halfway. It was hard to navigate with hard wind and a lot of snow coming down (in Denmark this weather would lead to a warning from the police not to move outside). Stopping was not an option since it was freezing cold. When I arrived at the hut, I was done. The shoe was not an issue anymore, but this was getting simply a bit too extreme. I was supposed to have a nice run in some mountains, see starry skies in the night and here I was in the middle of a snowstorm, freezing my butt and other body parts off….. I wrote to my wife: 'this is f**** crazy. Heavy snow. Hard to see anything. Everybody freezing. Rescue working busy with trying to heat up some bad cases...'. But stopping here would mean walking down anyway to the bus, so I continued.

The way down was difficult, since the path had changed into a mud stream and my broken shoe was completely open, collecting a lot of mud…. I took it easy. Parts where the wind was gone were a bit magical though, with big snowflakes coming down. Felt like white Christmas, but experienced in wet summer clothes. Very happy to make it to Trient. From there I knew I would make it, I would finish the thing, even if it had to be on one shoe. One more climb and then a relatively easy way to Chamonix. I took it very easy, to avoid getting too much mud in my shoe. I found out that fast hiking was the only way of keeping from freezing too much, as everything was wet and my waterproof gloves were not waterproof. Very happy to see Chamonix and getting over the finish in little less than 19 hours. The warm shower was one of the best ever!


- my body coped with the distance surprisingly easy. The poles helped me a lot.
- CCC is a bit too crowded to my opinion. Too much running in queue's
- perfect organisation.
- even though one has bad luck, one can finish (bad weather, shoe problems) J

So nice to have it done, but I have dropped my initial plan to go for the full UTMB (160 km), since I the weather is typical bad and I rather run a race where I actually can enjoy and see the environment without freezing too much. So maybe again Royal Ultra Sky marathon next year, but lets see what I figure out

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Royal Ultra Sky Marathon 2011


It was quite easy once I had seen the YouTube video: Royal Sky Ultra Marathon, 54 km 4000 height meters, was the race to run when on holiday in North Italy (the alps close to Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso and Matterhorn). I convinced my wife that we could spend one day of our holiday there. Actually she decided that it could be cool to do the short version herself.

I signed up and then the first problem started. How does one train for such a race, living in a country where the highest point is something like 100 m above sea level……I was born in the Netherlands, highest point about 300 m above sea level and moved to an even flatter country…. The only thing I could think of was to use the only hill in the village we live. So there I was running up and down the hill, through the sandboxes in the playground on one side and putting as many obstacles on my course to jump over. That should do the job, I thought, since how much harder than Swiss Alpine marathon can it be? It is 25 km shorter, but has the double number of height meters. O boy, what did I know….

3 days before the big day, we arrived in the race area and decided to have a look at the start. Well, the start is around 2000 m over sea-level and to get there one needs to drive over an extremely - bad road while the incline reaches many places 20% (or more it seemed). It was raining, the car was suffering severely and when we finally arrived at the lake where the start is, my motivation had lowered to the minimum. If this is the road to the start, then what can I expect from the race? We walked the first 300 meters up to a hut on the route to get a feeling of the race. Took us 50 minutes. That gave a feeling of how fast we should be moving to get to the first cutoff (after 6,5 km and 1000 meters up). My wife had decided to try to walk it. She would take it easy though, since being pregnant. The days after my motivation returned fortunately.

The race

The race started at 7:00, but one needed to be in the start area at 6:00. Reason not totally clear, but with that road it seemed a good idea to have some extra time.

At 7:00 the start gun went off. About 200 runners take off, including my wife in the end of the group. The first 1 km is flat and I can run. I am sticking to the middle of the pack. As soon as the first mountain starts overtaking gets hard/impossible. The time I overtake some guys, cost me a lot of extra energy. When I pass the hut we had walked to, my watch says, 24 minutes. Plan was to pass here in around 30 minutes, so I decide to take it easy to the first pass and keep in line with the other runners. Need to keep aware of the poles of the other runners though, since they point in all directions … I do not have poles myself. It keeps going up and up. I keep drinking since I am sweating a lot. Views are fantastic! Getting close to the first pass, I notice red drops on some stones. Is it red energy drink or some runner has crashed? I reach the top in 1h:34 (cut off is 2h00). Beautiful cakes and tea at the top. Amazing these volunteers, carrying this up the mountain for us! 

Then the downhill starts. My hope to run is shot down immediately. No path, just big rocks, where the only way down it to jump from one stone to another. Patches of snow… at some point the fellow in front falls and slides down 25 meter. He manages to stop with help of the poles. Hmm, maybe I should have poles…. Path keeps being tough for quite some time. I can see on my times that I am moving slowly. I hoped to use 9 hours for the race (since how much harder than my worst Swiss Alpine marathon time can it be…). But I am losing ground already. Well the course will get easier later, won’t it? I get past the first difficult part and finally can run a bit again.

I don’t believe what I am seeing. Many runners take crazy short cuts and run straight down the mountain. This results in some bad crashes.… A guy crashes in front of me, all skin open at the back of his leg and butt. He curses, stands up and runs on…. Another runner is lying down with quite a lot of bleeding from one leg… looks ugly, but he passes me a little later and I never see him again. Wow, I thought I was tough, but among these guys I am a major sissy.

I am enjoying; this is simply great! On the second incline I am one moment not paying attention and I crash. Now I am also bleeding from my leg, but nothing serious. A little later my other leg suddenly disappears in a deep hole which was covered by grass. Ouch! I curse and continue. It is getting tougher again. After the second pass, it is supposed to get easier, but it keeps being tough. Thanks God, there are beautiful depots though with fantastic cakes, chocolate, cheese, and everything else one can wish for!

I get to the bottom of the third big incline. This is 1000 meter up. I walk, since cannot really run anymore. It keeps going up and up. Clouds everywhere. I am suffering and need to have breaks every 100 meters, not being used to the heights. Other runners pass me. I try to calculate how much more meters we need to climb and conclude that it should be around 200 meter more. But that moment the clouds disappear for a second and I can see…. Mountain, mountains and some very very small runners on top… that is not 200 meters but rather 500…. I sit down for a minute, think of crying and then start dragging myself up. 50 meter at a time. Another runner on the way is in troubles as me. We try to talk together but he does speak Italian and I don’t, so my reply goes in English. After being dragging ourselves up like that for 30 minutes he says ‘ Basta’ and indicates he will give up at the next depot. I try to tell him it will get down afterwards, but he says it will go up again afterwards. He is right and I have no idea how I will get there, but somehow I get upset. I get very upset. With that runner, with myself, with the mountains, with the guy who has made this race. ‘I am not going to give up’. ‘They will not take me off this course’. ‘These mountains are not going to beat me’ are the sentences I yell in myself. I start moving faster, leaving the other runner behind. I start repairing myself. Taking snow to cool myself down; eat some food from my backpack and reach finally the top of the pass. Even there they have icetea! Happy to be over the top, I start running again. Making the next cutoff point is my main focus now. 

I crash another time, twisting my right foot badly. Damned that hurts, but I just get more determined and I continue. Next small incline I am suffering again. An older runner passing me put his hand on my shoulder and says something encouraging to me. I must look really bad and I do not have any energy left in me.

When reaching the top I get some text on my phone. My wife did not make the first cutoff; has returned with the organizers, is back at the camping and had a good time. Good, since the race is much tougher than expected and I happy she is safe down. She also tells me there is a price for the runner, who finishes and who has travelled most to get to the race. That’s mine then! And I also would like to have those 2 credits for UTMB. I learn writing a text while running downhill is a stupid idea, leading to another bad crash. I crash another couple of time in the next hour and my ankle hurts pretty badly. I try to follow another runner, who is moving nicely and I study his technique with the poles. They seem handy. Then he starts taking shortcuts and I keep to the path since my ankle will not hold to that.

I can see the road down now, where the next cutoff is. On my way down I twist my ankle several times more. It hurts more every time. This time twisting it before the road my hearing disappears for a minute… disturbing. My wife is at the road crossing with a coke. Great. She walks with me, while I complain about the torture this is. I am still upset and still very determined to beat these mountains. She tells me I am doing well and that it looks good. I am however having troubles to see how I get up the next and last mountain…

The next mountain goes well until half way, and then I start suffering again and move very slowly. There is supposed to be a mountain hut with a depot and every time I think I see it it appears to be something else when I get there…. Finally I make it, after having twisted my foot another time. I sit down, drink and need to do an effort to reassure the race organization that I am doing fine, while thinking: ‘you are not going to pull me off the course; over my dead body’. Now it is just 300 meters up and then only downhill. Those 300 meters go very slowly. I am moving 2 kmh on the inclines…. Very happy to reach the top, I can see I have 2,5 hour until the final cutoff of 13:30. I walk all the downhill, simply destroyed and am very very happy to pass the finish after 12:20. The race organizer comes to congratulate me and I get a microfone under my nose while he asks something in Italian. The only thing I can say is ‘tired’… A little later I get a huge piece of local cheese. My prize. Wow, what a race. 

Final remarks

Great race, which I very much underestimated. The comparison with Swiss alpine is very wrong. Swiss Alpine is a walk in the park, compared to this.

Fantastic organization, fantastic volunteers, great food everywhere!

Yes, fantastic race!

One month after I have to say that I am totally in to mountain running. City marathons seem boring now, so planning to try to get into UTMB (the short one CCC) next year. How fast one forgets the suffering….