CHAMPEX, SWITZERLAND, 30th AUGUST 2013
It is early morning, and I am sat with my wife in a café by the side of a track in a remote Swiss village high in the Alps. Steam gently rises from our coffee, and conversation is light. Anxious. We are awaiting the arrival of Nicola’s brother in Champex-Lac, 119 kilometres into the fabled UTMB, and we are worried.
Nicola’s phone rings, and it is bad news. He has fallen and is seriously injured (he has fractured his shin we will later find out). He’s doing what he can to get off the mountain but it is clear that his race is over and he is a long way from help. Distress and anger flood down the crackling phone line. Reception dips in and out. We are miles and mountains away from him. A mild panic sets in as we consider the enormity of this situation. We have no vehicle, there is no bus, access and ability to reach him conventionally is completely absent. And so without further deliberation we quickly and efficiently unpack the bag of supplies and spare kit that we have brought along to meet him with. In minutes I am decked out ad hoc in his spare running gear. I kiss Nicola goodbye and head out of Champex- Lac against the flow of incoming runners. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I am running the UTMB in reverse, heading out to find Paul on foot to try to bring him back to his family and to safety.
That was the first time I ran on the UTMB course.
Soaring mountainscapes, plummeting valleys and gorges, Alpine meadows and snow-topped peaks. I was serenaded in forests by Swiss Horn players and greeted warmly by everybody I came across. I stood and held an injured Spanish runner as he desperately asked for directions and broke down in tears. I passed through isolated villages, climbed rugged trails, descended the sweetest forested singletrack and basked in the absolute glory of this unique and special place. It was a desperate situation that got me out there running, but the most wonderful adventure.
Chamonix 2013, descending Brevent. Picture by Paul Giblin
I eventually reached Paul at La Fouly, having run what seemed like an eternity to get there (it isn’t). He had managed to extricate himself from the mountain on a fractured shin, heaven knows how, and we somehow blagged our way back to first Champex and then Chamonix via bus, inexplicably for free, but not before an entertaining series of exchanges as I tried to procure Vegan food from a French barbeque for him. But that’s another story for another day.
That night, safely back in Chamonix, Nicola and I went down to the finish line to watch the UTMB and CCC guys coming in. I made a promise there and then that one day I would go back, to race, and I would be the one crossing that finishing line.
ORSIERES, SWITZERLAND, 28th AUGUST 2014
It is (very) early morning. I am injured. I haven’t trained for four weeks since DNFing my previous race at 20 miles with a botched hamstring, and I am pretty much as nervous as I get. But I am standing at the very back of a crowd of about 1200 runners in a remote Swiss village, and I am about to run the OCC, the newest of the UTMB races, from Orsieres over the Alps and back to Chamonix. I am about to attempt to fulfil my promise to Nicola from a year earlier. I’m not entirely sure I can walk this thing, let alone run it.
The omens are not good. My leg is Rocktaped to the point where it is more fabric than skin, and I am wearing shoes purchased in a hurry from Accelerate only a few days ago when I had taken the decision to actually go through with it. I bought my shirt at the runner’s expo the day before the race. I’ve even had to borrow Paul’s GPS watch. I am only here on the basis that I might never get another opportunity to do this, persuaded at length to run by my wife and my dad. We are counted down in the village square, the mass of bodies begins to move forward, and something stirs within me. I realise that there is no way I will not get round today. I won’t allow it to happen.
Chamonix 2014, OCC finish. Picture by Nicola Green
I could (and have) write at length about that day, and still never adequately cover the enormity of my experience. (There exists an overlong version of events here which will give you a sense of the occasion if you have a spare half hour). But the short version is that my intended amble over the mountains at the back of the pack took on a great significance at an early stage, I ended up surpassing all expectations and finishing very well, but also went through one of the most important experiences of my entire life. It remains, despite coming in 141st, my most difficult, transformative and cherished day on the trails. And crossing the finish line with Nicola by my side was the perfect finish. And so slumped under the finish banner of the 2014 OCC I made another promise. That one day I would go back again; fresh, fit, light, strong. The runner I have always wanted to be. No deep set damage, no lingering issues, a completely blank slate. And this time I would race it.
SHEFFIELD, YORKSHIRE, 3rd August 2016
Ah, the best laid plans. 2016 has so far seen a lot of progress and a return to the sort of form over longer races I was enjoying in 2011 and 2012. I was even able to win my first focus race of this year at Kielder over the 50k distance. I am a stone lighter, I am stronger, and I have modified my training to become the most efficient and aerobically capable runner I have probably ever been to date. Despite around ten weeks out with injury covering all of May and June, I’m still in a far better place than I was in 2014, and so here I am in the midst of a very intense block of training attempting to get up to speed for Chamonix and the OCC on 25th August. In fact, I’m off to France in less than twenty four hours to get a weekend of running in the very same mountains I will be racing on at the end of the month. I know. Serious stuff right?
Documenting this journey is something I have considered on and off for a while, and only in the last couple of weeks have I decided to press ahead specifically for my new platform on the Accelerate website. So I suppose this post serves as an introduction of sorts to ‘From Sheffield To Chamonix’ – a series of blogs and short films leading up to the race. Welcome! Partly motivated by recently joining the Accelerate team, partly by their recent video competition, partly by my own brother in law’s video series heading into the 2016 Western States. But mostly because I like to play around with photos and videos, and I’m chuffed to bits to be wearing an ‘A’ on my chest. So if you have ever wondered what a build up to UTMB is like, not to mention the whole UTMB experience itself, then stay tuned throughout this month as the bombardment is about to start and the first of four video diaries will be posted in a few days. Less than one month to go. Let’s go racing!
Chamonix 2016? 😉 Picture by Nicola Green