It is 6.30pm on a balmy late-summer evening in Chamonix in the French Alps. Along with 2300 other competitors I stand on the start line of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Before us lie 166km (103 miles) of running and walking, and a net climb and descent of 9500m. This is equivalent to 4 marathons plus seven times up and down Ben Nevis. We have a maximum of 46 hours to complete the course, any slower and we are eliminated. The statistics from last year's event suggest that half of us won't make it to the finish line. The race starts and finishes in Chamonix following an anticlockwise loop around Mont Blanc via Italy and Switzerland tracing a trail that normally takes a week to complete.
Accompanying me on the event is a Harold Pinchbeck Christopher watch which needs to keep perfect time in order to ensure that I stay within the time limits for each checkpoint that are designed to eliminate slower competitors, but also to be rugged enough to withstand frequent clashes with rocks and immersion in water.
The music on the PA gives way to a countdown "trois, deux, un, Alleez!" and we are off. The route takes us on a tour through Chamonix town centre where the crowds are pressed against the barriers all cheering on the runners. The race bib bears the runner's name and nationality so I receive especially loud cheers from the British support which only serves to spur me on and I embark on the first 8km (5 mile) stretch a little too fast than is sensible with such a large distance yet to come.
We pass through a refreshment stop and are soon on the first climb. It becomes clear that climbing is something of a forte and I am able to pass a great number of runners in the course of the 800 metres to the summit whereupon I offer myself warm congratulations on being so good at going uphill. However as soon as we start the descent it rapidly becomes evident that climbing is only half of the story, runners bound past me as a tentatively pick my way down, thighs burning and ankles aching.
We reach the bottom of the mountain and enter St Gervais which has been lit with burning torches and is bursting with enthusiastic support, there is little time to enjoy this though as the time cut-offs are in everyone's mind. We rush off towards Les Contamines 10km away and only around 300m higher-up so comparatively flat. This offers a great chance to make-up some time so I push on and am able to get through the checkpoint with an hour to spare, a useful buffer in the event of problems later-on.
The race starts in earnest now though with around 1300 metres to climb towards the Col du Bonhomme. Never was a mountain so inappropriately named. It is 1am by now and the clouds have come in and it has started to drizzle. We all scramble-up the mountain and as the field thins out near to the top we struggle to identify the correct route peering into the mist with our head torches for the reflective route markers. Once over the summit we start our descent. The rain, although not strong, has turned the shale into a greasy treacherous surface. Runners stream past me descending with apparent effortlessness as I gingerly pick my way down turning over my ankle a number of times in the process. As the rain gets stronger the route becomes more indistinct and the runner in front of me takes a wrong turn which is blindly followed by me and a number of other runners necessitating a detour to re-find the route and uncharitable sentiments towards whoever was responsible for marking out this section of the route.
I enter Les Chapieux at 4am within 2 hours of the cut-off but with a worrying pain developing in my right foot. Some cake from the feed station is consumed hungrily and I head off again with 1000m to climb to Col de la Siegne 10km away. The ascent is long and slow, the temperature has dropped quite rapidly and ahead of me it is difficult to get a feel for how close we are to our goal. One can only see the path via the never-ending chain of head torches bobbing up and down as the route loops to the summit. The closer we get to the top the stronger the icy winds become and I stop to put on an additional couple of layers. Spirits start to drop, it has become bitterly cold, my stomach is suggesting that it will adopt a 'selective approach' to what is on offer at the refreshment stops, and the runners continue to stream past me on the descents.
As dawn breaks however the stunning glacial scenery becomes evident, mobile phone reception permits a morale-boosting call back home and by the time I enter the checkpoint (CP) of Lac Combal which is flying the Italian flag my mood has improved considerably, helped still more by a bowl of soup and slice of cake.
am only really permitting myself 10 minutes at the checkpoints so I move off again with the next target being Courmayeur, an Italian Alpine resort 13km away (but more significantly with 450m of ascent and around 1350m of by now painful descent). A foot injury which I had worried about has so far not surfaced but my right ankle is becoming increasingly sore which adds to the misery of the descents. I push-on and enter Courmayeur with two hours to spare. There is the option here of grabbing some sleep but as I still feel relatively fresh, the loss of an hour against the clock in exchange for attempting to sleep does not appeal.
We leave the check point through a town square which has a PA system and a number of supporters. Because the field is well spread the announcer is able to identify the runners individually and in my case gets the crowd to cheer me on by name "Forza William!". It is a great feeling to hear this and spurs me up the next climb. The sun is now out and it is developing into a very hot day in the lee of the wind so the 800m climb feels immensely hot, added to that the path is very dusty and with hundreds of runners stirring-up the dust I feel like I am swallowing far too much of it. My throat is sore and I have a distinctly gritty taste in my mouth. Seeing a competitor continuing up the slope with his ankle at an unusual angle shows me that things could be much worse and I arrive at the next CP in positive spirits.
The next 10k are all relatively flat and offer stunning vistas of Mont Blanc, perhaps because of this epic scenery and feel-good factor, all of the competitors around me up their pace and we are soon through the next CP and engaged in another descent, this time to Arnuva at the foot of the daunting Grand Col Ferret.
Grand Col Ferret is not especially high with an 800m climb to negotiate, but it is swept by fierce icy winds that threaten to blow any unsecured items to oblivion. I am able to make good time on the ascent and reach the summit in good shape. As the summit also represents the Italian-Swiss border I am now in my third country in 24 hours (which is how long we have now been going).
There follows an 8km descent which is getting no easier and I arrive in the little Swiss village of La Fouly at 8pm tired, with burning thighs still managing to maintain my 2 hour buffer against elimination but only through being faster on the ascents.
We are now well into our second night in the open and it is on the 15km stretch into the Champex Lac that I start feeling more fatigued. I leave La Fouly with a protesting body that is reluctant to resume its earlier pace and is noticeably colder and more shivery. It is taking my brain longer to process thoughts and it is more inclined to flights of fancy than it should be given the task still before me. At one point I catch myself drifting into sleep only to wake up a couple of metres later and berate myself for being so stupid. I hit myself on the arms and legs in order to try to force myself to re-focus. This is not regarded as unusual in any way by a passing Italian runner who tells me he thinks that he may have sleepwalked around 100 metres earlier in the evening.
It is now midnight and en-route to Champex we pass through a number of villages with residents still on the streets offering their support despite the cold, the ungodly hour and the modest one-per-minute throughput of competitors.
I enter Champex with my 2 hour buffer marginally reduced and consume around a litre of tea, the brewing of which I have supervised using 9 tea bags. This certainly has the desired effect and although rejuvenated I leave daunted by the challenge to come. Bovine is a now legendary climb amongst Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc competitors. Not especially high (there are around 700 vertical metres to climb) but over a route so steep and punctuated with boulders, streams, and tree roots that even the prospect of it causes a number of competitors to abandon their race at Champex.
We embark on the ascent that at times seems more like rock climbing than walking. My shoes get torn, my hand trodden on and my watch is bashed against the rocks (but registers not a scratch). As we have no idea of when the route will level out all we can do is put one foot in front of the other. As soon as the route has finally levelled out I blunder into a bog which reaches above my ankles and results in grim faced chuckles from the other runners.
I head from Bovine towards Trient, another 850 metres of vertical drop over a distance of 5km (that feels like 10km). As before, I am gingerly picking my way down using my walking poles as brakes whilst seemingly hundreds of runners stream by. At this point the fatigue sets in again. Thinking that the CP must be close at hand I start to imagine signs of it in almost everything, my whole mind becomes focused on the checkpoint: at one point I become convinced that a strangely curved tree is the checkpoint, at another that a sheep shelter must surely be the feed station. I tell myself to pull myself together and after a seeming eternity I enter the village of Trient for a 6am breakfast of fruit cake, energy gel, mushroom soup and more tea. My time cushion is again slightly eroded but I tell myself that the race has only another 10 hours to run and so long as I can maintain the uphill pace then I should be able to hang-on during the downhill sections.
As with the previous day the advent of morning brings with it a distinct improvement in mood, everything is possible in the morning, you can see where you are going, you can appreciate the views, the support is greater, but most significantly you can make the morale boosting calls home and receive texts as loved ones awake and check on your progress through the website.
Whatever happens now there will at least be no more nights in the open to suffer and the end is, if not in sight, much closer than it seemed before Bovine. I race up the next 750 metre climb knowing that I will need to buy time for the ensuing descent. Before long the mind is again wandering and I feel myself falling asleep for small stretches and although this stretch is not dangerous I promise myself 20 minutes of sleep in the next CP if I feel no better. We are soon back into France and descending towards the village of Vallorcine which is entered with an again slightly reduced time buffer.
Vallorcine represents the last proper village before the end and although the last stage is about the longest there is still a tangibly 'end of term' atmosphere in the CP. The knowledge that this is now the final push brings with it renewed energy and a rush of adrenaline such that I abandon any designs I had on 20 minutes of sleep and bound off for the first 3km of an 18km stage which starts off flat but becomes increasingly troublesome.
Although this should feel like the home stretch, that thought is soon forgotten when we start on an interminable climb of around 900 metres towards La Tete aux Vents. Countless summits are sighted only for them to turn-out to be false as another comes into view further ahead. The sun is now beaming down through a cloudless sky on the competitors and I can feel my arms burning where yesterday's application of sun cream has worn off.
We reach the final checkpoint of La Flegere with more than enough time in-hand, even at my speed of descent. A carnival atmosphere develops around me on the route down into Chamonix but I can only really concentrate on experimenting with different ways of going downhill that achieve the best balance between speed and pain. As we near Chamonix the support gradually builds-up and as I am travelling so slowly I am able to appreciate this more than most. The last 7km seem to me to be more like 20km and as I near the town and onlooker helpfully tells me "only 2km to go". When one is expecting only around 500 metres to go, being told that you have 2km left is somehow very difficult to bear.
Slowly the trees give way to chalets and then to more substantial buildings, the crowds have now built-up and many of them are attempting to walk or run with the competitors. A lady falls into conversation with me and asks why I chose to do the event and what I will feel like when I finish. It is at this point when I realise that we are about to reach the finish of an epic event and the continuous effort of the past 2 days will come to an end I start to feel the emotions stirring and realise that conversation is not an option.
I start to build my walk into a trot and follow the route towards the centre of town. The crowds are giving the runners a terrific reception and the noise is building up. The music becomes audible and those runners with children present are joined by them on the final stretch. We all salute the support that has been so important from start to finish and turn a corner into the finishing straight. I can barely keep my emotions in check as build-up my speed for the final few steps to the line. I cross the line and pass through the administrative checks and am at last alone and with no more running or walking to do.
I seek-out a discreet bench and take the weight off the feet. The primary emotions are elation and relief but my brain seems unable to comprehend that it is all over, the months of training, the planning and preparation have been worthwhile after all and slightly self-consciously but uncontrollably the tears flow for the next few minutes before I can pull myself together and call loved ones.
I have not slept for 58 hours and my legs have immediately stiffened. The luxury of time allows me to examine my right ankle which is certainly much bigger and more swollen than the left. I feel like I have much of the trail lodged in the back of my throat but I am just elated to have finished. The end of a brutal, unforgiving, relentless event. One that creates cracks in your physical and mental armour, even if you had none beforehand. One that you need a good deal of luck to see through to its finish. Yet also one, that rewards those, who are able to see it through, with an indescribable feeling of achievement.
I look at the clock, my Pinchbeck Christopher watch has kept perfect time to the second and brought me home in 44 hours 23 minutes (one hour and 37 minutes inside the cut-off). Many thanks to Harold Pinchbeck for their wonderful support.
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