ULTRA-TRAIL MONT BLANC 2008 By Mark Cockbain
The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc is one of the toughest 100 mile trail runs in the world.
The race starts at Chamonix, France, and passes through Italy and Switzerland as runners circumnavigate Mont Blanc.
The soul destroying course takes runners up and over 12 mountain summits, the highest being Grand Col Ferret at a height of 2577m.
There is total positive elevation on the course of just over 9400m (the height of Mount Everest!)
There are 10 intermediate cut-off times at locations around the circuit, with the overall time limit set at 46 hours.
I started the race in the town square in Chamonix at 6:30pm along with around 2000 other runners.
Each of us was equipped with a backpack containing mandatory survival equipment, spare clothing, torch, water and emergency food. The checkpoints around the course were also stocked with food and water, with two major checkpoints being at Courmayeur (78km) and Champex-lac (123km) supplying a hot meal and access to pre-packed kit bags containing spare clothing and supplies.
After only running a few miles out of Chamonix I came to the first heart pounding climb of 1799m at La Charme.
Most runners used hiking poles to help push them upwards over the uneven rocky terrain, but I had not brought any with me.
I was quickly out of breath and gasping for oxygen as we snaked up the steep mountainside and I pushed down on my legs with my hands to help power me upwards.
The sun was setting as I reached the top, and the view of the Mont Blanc mountain range was spectacular, with the silhouettes of runners dotting the orange horizon.
A long steep uneven leg pounding descent was to follow all the way into the village of St Gervais, deep in the valley below. Here the streets were crowded with locals and supporters cheering us as we grabbed water and snacks.
It was now pitch black as I headed out of the village and up the next gut wrenching climb to Les Contamines, which was a long slow hike, and I was beginning to wish that I had never entered the race! Sweat was pouring out of me as I took step after step up the mountain side following the line of bright head-torches in the distance.
Coming down the other side of the mountain in the dark was terrible, and a powerful head torch was essential as I concentrated on the rocky terrain below, and I couldn’t wait to reach the bottom to ease the pressure from my burning quads.
I could now see that each stage was to begin with a huge mountain climb and I found that at altitude it was much colder and I needed my windproof jacket to keep warm.
After a long night of running, the sun was starting to rise as I arrived at Lac Combal at 65km. I was feeling quite tired, and it was a good chance for me to wake myself up with some strong coffee and freeze dried breakfast. It was going to be a hot day, as the sun was already strong on my back as I started yet another long climb to Arete Mont Favre at 2435m. I was soaked with sweat, but after I had reached the summit another runner told me that we were almost at the first major checkpoint at Courmayeur (50 miles), but it was a very steep descent down to the checkpoint and my knees were in agony.
The cut-off time for reaching Courmayeur was 1.00pm (actually this is the time you must leave the CP) and I had arrived at 9:30pm, so I was well within schedule.
Here we entered a large sports hall and we were given our drop-bags and a hot pasta meal. I changed into a dry t-shirt and let my feet cool off before changing into fresh socks as my feet were already blistering.
I left the CP about half an hour later and headed out of Courmayeur and was again faced with a huge climb on the mountain trail.
It was tough going in the heat of the day and my progress was slowing as I stopped regularly to catch my breath and try to cool down. My feet were burning with the friction of uphill climbing, and at one point I stopped by a beautiful mountain stream and took off my socks and shoes and just sat with my feet in the cool water…it felt great!
After a long hot day, I was pleased when the sun began to set and the temperature had started to cool off. I had managed to reach La Fouly, in Switzerland now and I knew that I had plenty of time to make it to the next major CP at Champex Lac.
However, this stage seemed to go on forever through pitch black woods and small villages and after several hours it was a relief to finally reach the checkpoint at around 11pm.
I rested my feet again and changed socks, and managed to eat something hot, but I knew that I couldn’t hang around too long as my pace had dropped to around 2 miles per hour on some of the hills.
This was to be my second night without sleep, so I knocked back several cups of coffee before I left the checkpoint to keep me awake.
After a few more hours of running into the night, I felt exhausted and my mind started playing tricks on me as I began calculating my pace over and over in my head and whether or not I would finish within the cut-off time.
At 3am in the morning I was cold and tired and just wanted to sleep, and I kept stopping to rest on every comfortable looking boulder.
Staying awake was becoming a problem, but I knew that I needed to stay alert whilst coming down the steep mountainside, as one false move could be fatal.
After what seemed like an endless night I reached Vallorcine at 149km (about 90 miles) at around 7am and I knew that I would easily finish the race inside the time limit.
I took plenty of time to rest here and eat some breakfast before heading off on the final 18km back to Chamonix.
I left the checkpoint running at a fast pace, determined to get as much distance behind me as possible, but of course it wasn’t long before I came to another mountain to climb (a new course addition for 2008!). However, I knew that it would be the last mountain that I would have to climb and I just wanted to get this race finished with now. I had really hated every step of this race, apart from the magnificent views.
I pulled myself up the mountain, desperate to reach the top as the hours slipped by. I marvelled as I saw a little brown mountain goat skipping over the boulders ahead of me with such ease, and I wished that I could do the same.
I eventually reached the summit cairn and I sat down for my final breather before the last long painful five miles into Chamonix.
Each downward step was agony on my feet and knees as I slipped and stumbled on the steep rocky path, but each step was a step closer to the finish.
Beyond the pine trees in the distance I could see Chamonix and I was told by a walker that I only had a few miles left to go.
Down and down I ran until the track eventually turned into a road on the outskirts of Chamonix, and I was directed towards the town centre along streets lined with cheering supporters.
It was a relief to be back in Chamonix town square where I had started from, and all that was left for me to do now was to run a lap of honour around the town hall, before crossing the finish line in 41 hours and 28 mins………… Never again!
For more information see www.ultratrailmb.com