5:30am Friday 27th August and the phone beeps indicating a text message. Wondering who it could be I get up. it’s from UTMB race control – “The weather forcast is for Rain, Wind and Cold for todays race”!
I’d been agonising about gear choice all week as the long term forecasts varied between sunny and warm to cold and raining. The gear I had chosen was the minimum and the lightest I had, so I decided I’d take another long sleeve as an extra layer.
Temperature was mild at 6:45 when I left the house and even arriving in Courmayeur it was still not cold. As the time crept towards 10am – the start time – the sky grew darker, and light rain began to fall. The atmosphere got more exciting as more people arrived and by the start the noise of the croud was deafening, the rain poured down, thunder rolled around the mountain tops accompanied by Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise booming over the PA, we set off at a brisk pace through the streets of Courmayeur.
Wearing a t-shirt with a waterproof I was fine – slightly warm at times but I regulated the temperature by unzipping, and putting the hood up when the rain got heavy. I kept to my deliberate easy pace – counting breaths to judge my effort. The first climb was going well and I arrived at the first refreshment station a full 10 minutes ahead of my planned time. The route continues to climb and the rain continued to fall. At the Tete de la Tronche, the highest part of the course, I was 15 minutes up on my planned time feeling good, and really enjoying the added challenge of running in wild mountain weather. The wind was strong enough up here to mean that the guys manning the checkpoint had had to collapse their tent.
The decent from here is very steep at first and with the rain slippery. I took it very easy, and as the angle eased increased my pace as the sun started shining. Ref. Bonatti arrived again 15 minutes ahead of schedule and I managed this often very busy stop well for once, getting a soup and drink and not bothering to fill by water bottle.
At Arnuva the lad scanning the bib noticed it was showing the wrong number! He noted it down and let me go, and I dived into the steamy tent for some savory stuff before filling my water pouch, donning my waterproof again as the rain started up once more and heading off for the long climb to the Grand Col du Ferret.
Half way up the climb I get a text from T saying that there is no info about my progress showing up at all and she assumes it’s a faulty chip rather than me not having started! As I arrive at the col, still 10mins up, I try to tell the marshal that the chip is faulty but he already knows and says it’s fine – he enters my number manually and my first time is recorded !
The weather so far has alternated between clear patches with some sun, through light rain to heavy torrential of rain complete with thunder. So far it was totally manageable, in fact quite exciting as it was a totally different challenge. The dry periods allowed me to dry out, so I wasn’t even that uncomfortable. It completely changed the character of the race from the hot sunny weather of previous years. It wasn’t worse, just different!
Into Switzerland and it’s a long downhill to La Fouly. I take a gentle running pace not wanting to overcook it on the downs (it’s the downs that trash you and the ups that finish you off!).
An hour and a quarter later and I’m in the La Fouly aid station. I take longer in here than intended for some reason so although I’m 15mins up when I arrive it’s reduced to 10minutes by the time I leave. The section from here to Champex is longer than you think so I mentally prepared myself for a hard stage. The route was changed because of the wet weather and it cut across some roads rather than take the valley side. The climb to Champex arrived and I set about a good solid pace up to the checkpoint and the huge chaotic tent that was the aid station. This time there would be no one there to greet me, but it meant I could concentrate on just getting some food down me and getting going. I arrived 30 minutes up, but the queue for food was huge! No choice but to wait, and then finally sit down, eat, drink and change cloths. I took off a soaking wet t-shirt and put on the spare long sleeve top I’d added – very light weight, but dry! On top of this a light pertex, and then my waterproof. For my legs I added Calf Compression socks so my legs where fully covered. Full time for the stop was 30 mins (15 mins slower than intended).
As I left it was dusk and instantly obvious that it would be a cold night. The rain was coming down again and I set off towards the climb to Bovine. With head torch on the climb began. It’s steep, and I cross a number of streams which I at first thought meant I was near the top – actually the other years these had just been trickles so I hadn’t noticed them in the dark. The main river crossing when it arrived was now a full torrent – the stepping stones where under water and we had to wade – picking out the stones by torch light, and balance across trying not to think of the drop to our right!
With soaking wet feet I set off on the final traverse to the check point at 1,900m altitude. The whole character of the race seemed to suddenly change as I left the tree line the full force of the wind and rain hit me straight in the face. The wind was vicious, driving rain into the waterproof through every gap. I was instantly freezing – the wind cutting through my thin leggings and making my wet top layers feel even colder. My first thought, slightly bizarrely, was “How am I going to get over the Tete Aux Vent” (still 2 climbs away)! I took off as fast as possible – firstly to keep warm and second to reach shelter quickly. I was so relieved to find the tent and even more pleased to find there was a small place to huddle inside out of the wind and rain.
One soaking runner looked freezing and was being attended to by a first aider. Another was being shown how to wear a space blanket like a cape next to the skin and then put all his cloths back over it to keep warm. Everyone in the tent was suddenly asking for help to do the same! After a long stop with soup and tea to refresh I exited the tent into the storm again now wearing a space blanket plus every bit of clothingthat I had with me (bar the soaking T-Shirt). Rustling with my space blanket “under cape” I set off at speed again just to keep warm – There is still a little climb before the path starts to drop into the trees again. The trees provided much needed protection, but the steep path was a nightmare of slippery mud, tree roots and rocks. I slithered down and rapidly realised that I was not going to be going over the next mountain – I was still freezing, soaking wet and I would be in serious danger of Hypothermia if I was to go up onto another exposed high mountain side.
I had never abandoned a race before and realization was now setting in that I would have no choice but to do so. Everything I had was wet, and it was all fairly minimal lightweight running gear. I can no spare cloths left, and no way of getting any. I would be lucky to get over Catogne – the next high crossing, but to attempt the Tete Aux Vent in these conditions would be insane (The clue is in the name)! My teeth where chattering now, and much more of this cold, wet and windy weather at altitude would spell Hypothermia for sure.
As I slithered down towards Trient I kept mulling over options. I was on time, feeling fine and all set to make the 20hr target I’d set. The only problem was I had not enough clothing to ensure that I could safely cross the high passes. Each way I thought of it I came to the same conclusion – I simply couldn’t go on. As the reality of abandoning set in my spirits sank, and I slowed, started to feel miserable, and couldn’t be bothered to eat any more. I pulled into the Trient tent, dejected at 11:40pm, and sat down with a soup. It was such a relief to have escaped the tempest and to be slightly warmer again that to abandon now seemed a much easier decision, but I still couldn’t bring myself to actually formally abandon so I just sat there – starring at the soup, slowly undressed to take off the space blanket and dressed again in wet cloths. I took out my T-shirt to see if that would add enough warmth to keep me going but it was totally soaking and freezing cold from being in the bottom of the sack.
I finally did what I had to and handed in my race number. In the 2 hours it took to get back from Trient to Chamonix the storm intensified, and I was more sure than ever that the decision was correct. I later then heard the full news about the other events.
The full UTMB had been cancelled after just 2 hours, because marshals on the Col du Seigne had reported that weather conditions where so bad that they feared that someone whould die if they sent 2,700 runners over the pass.
The TDS, which runs from Courmayeur to chamonix clockwise was cancelled before it began (previewed for midnight) for the same reason
The CCC was also cancelled at about 2am because marshals had already had to stretcher at least one runner off with Hypothermia and conditions where horrendous on the Tete aux Vent, and on towards La Flegere.
It turned out to be an extraordinary weekend for the UTMB! The first time in it’s history that it has been cancelled, a lot of runners went home disappointed. I think the organisers where correct to cancel the event. I know a lot of people think that it should be each runners responsibility to decide when to quite, and I to a large degree agree with that, but with an event of this size it is simply naive to think that this will happen. I feel comfortable in the mountains, I knew the route well and I know my limitation and I knew when to quite, but I felt pretty scared up on Bovine to so quickly get into a situation that could turn lethal. Many others would not understand the dangers, or know the terrain and what it was likely to bring. In the end the safety of the runners is the most important thing, and in the end everyone got back safely and will be able to run again.