UTMB Part 2 – The Race
My first race of 2017 was in April and I got a spot from the reserve list in the South Downs way 50 again. I thought it would be a good one to keep me focused and be a decent training run so to speak. It was a disaster; my left knee became so painful at about 17 miles and for the first time since I’d started running I had to pullout of a race. I limped on to 27 miles and thought of the big picture of, I don’t need to finish this race, I need to find out what’s wrong and get it fixed before September 1st. It was frustrating but I knew I’d done the right thing and from speaking with other runners and telling them I was doing the UTMB they all agreed. One runner who was a sub 24 hour 100 miler told me, ‘start slow what ever you do, don’t go off blazing’, he did and he said the race almost killed him taking 44 hours to finish and you couldn’t pay him to do it again. Note taken mate.
I sought more help and friend of my Dads put me in touch with a superb physiotherapist. It wasn’t my knee it was my I.T. band, glutes and thigh muscles which were putting pressure on my knees so he put me on a strengthening program for the next few months as I had another ultra in Snowdonia in July. I followed the program and was well disciplined, all be it a few beers and a couple late nights here and there. I came straight off tour to head to Wales via the longest train journey of my life and finished the Snowdonia Quarter in 13 hours finishing in 52nd place from 128 starters. I was happy, as I had no knee problems and felt strong, I really needed that race to go well and it did which helped me mentally for preparing for the UTMB.
The rest of the summer was busy with festivals and gigs. I kept disciplined and trained as much as possible alongside my friend and guitar tech JP who is a great running partner whilst on tour. We made the most of the mountains in France and Austria and the trails in Switzerland and Germany through torrential rain and extreme heat and got some decent ascents and runs in. I encountered another knee problem whilst turning around on a steep hill, which really did my head in, and it was to stay with me until the beginning of the UTMB. I had acupuncture and a massage to help it. From all the training and running my left thigh was like a brick and needed some real work. I hoped it wouldn’t cause me any problems during the race. I had one last run out to the New Forest, which ended up with me un-inspired by the long fume filled roads that take you there from Southampton. So I ended up walking through the woods and eating a giant sausage roll for company, my prep work wasn’t going great, I was anxious as hell and just couldn’t quite get my head together.
A few days after the sausage stroll the time came for me and the whole family to pack our things and head to Gatwick for a week in the Alps, I’d thought about going on my own but that would have been stupid as having loved ones with you really helps and they were all acting as my support team. The nerves had grown over the last few weeks and I was really anxious about the race, the thought of the accents was worrying. There are hardly any real hills in Southampton and certainly no mountains!
We were staying at a lovely hotel in Les Houches that I’d previously stayed in when I was last in the Alps climbing Mont Blanc. I couldn’t wait to share the place with my family and folks as my dad had never seen the Alps and I knew this place was picture perfect in its setting. The weather was beautiful when we arrived and it felt special to be back.
Bringing a bit of music into this, so what with Archive and BirdPen having a decent following in France, a friend of the band had let someone know in Chamonix I was doing the race, this then went to someone who was part of the UTMB. Catherine Poletti had been in touch about me doing an interview for UTMB TV and the next morning I saw a tweet from UTMB that said I was live on air in half an hour! It was 9am when I read the tweet and I was sat on the toilet at the time. SHIT! (Quite literally) I thought, something’s gone wrong here. I made a quick call and changed the plans so I could make it into Chamonix and head to the UTMB HQ. I met with Catherine and I felt strange but really excited to go into the hub of it all and see all the people working on the race. I’m used to these sorts of things within my own career in the music biz, but I guess not being a professional runner made it quite over whelming in a way. I was introduced to the two English-speaking commentators Randall and Keith and chatted for a while about music and my running. It felt surreal to be chatting live on air and chipping in on the CCC race that was happening as we spoke (the UTMB has 5 races in all of different lengths taking place over a week). Over the last few years I’d been watching and listening to these two dudes commentating on the UTMB from my home on my laptop and now here I was, right involved in this amazing event. I did another interview for the French speaking channel with a nice chap called Martin which was also a great experience to be able to speak not only about my passion, which is of course music, but also my sometime ridiculous hobby, running, perfect! I left the HQ under glorious sunshine, perched up at a café right where the start of the race begins at Place de Triangle l’Amitie and gathered my thoughts. Slightly overcome by everything that was happening I took stock in my mind, I realised I was now part of this race, by no means as an elite runner of any sorts but as someone, who like most others had dreamt of the race, fought to get the points, took the chance and was now here. I started to feel better about things and thought ‘ I’m here, I’m not scared of the distance, all I can do is try, get my head down, and smile when it hurts’.
My eldest daughter who is 4 ran the mini OCC that afternoon which was a nice moment. After some sweets and food I registered for the UTMB, which took a few hours, I then grabbed a spare battery for my head torch and ran the 10k or so back to the hotel, I was feeling calm and good for the race.
The weather over the next day changed and the rain came hard. The weather can change so quickly in the Alps and with this it can make routes dangerous. Word quickly went round the route would be slightly changed due to snow on some of the highest points. I read on the Friday morning hours before the race would start that two changes were being made, they weren’t massive changes but they were the crossing of the Col Des Pyramides Calcaires and Tete Aux Vents in La Flegere, due to plummeting temperatures of -9 and forecasted snow. Wouldn’t be an ultra marathon without a bit of dramatic weather now would it.
So Friday mid afternoon I got dressed in my ultra trail running kit, checked all my stuff and then with some hugs, best wishes and tears I was ready to go. My wife Nicky drove me to Chamonix for the start of the race. I thought it better to start the race alone as my family, The Manglebird AKA Mike AKA Mickey, and my Sister in Law Vix and Nephew Henry would all be in Les Houches to give me my first cheers, which was 6 miles into the course. After a nice coffee, a hug and some quiet words together Nicky left to head back to Les Houches. I sat at the café listening, soaking up the ambience and watching all the runners making their way to the start, I tweeted a picture of my pack and wrote ‘Right then, lets do this #UTMB2017.’
I stood amongst the runners, sandwiched in tight whilst the commentators were rallying up the crowds when I suddenly realised the female announcer was speaking about a runner who was a “famous” musician and how they thought it was great he was taking part. She said my name and then they played Like A Mountain over the PA. The whole song played, I couldn’t quite believe it really. It gave me strength in that what I do was being played to all these other runners, I also thought, man I can’t not finish this race after all this hype. It was a surreal but proud and lovely moment for me, and one I will treasure forever. Some minutes later the Icelandic style war chant applause came and then Vangelis’ Conquest Of Paradise started to play and the start of the UTMB 2017 began. Slowly moving out under the UTMB arch of Place de Triangle l’Amitie and through the streets of Chamonix I started the race I’d been training for the last 3 years, this was it.
I took it nice and easy and got into a nice rhythm quite quickly running into Les Houches. We came out just near the hotel where I was staying at so that made things feel good for some reason, I suppose a point of familiarity was a comfort to me. It was great to see everyone as I ran through and a quick group hug was had, I was already looking forward to seeing these amazing people in my life again at the various check points along the course, they would give me the strength I needed along the way. Onto St Gervais, by this time with head torch on, where I think I played a gig with BirdPen after climbing Mont Blanc. The atmosphere was awesome here and I grabbed some fruit and coca cola. I thought I was supposed to meet Mike and my Dad here but I was wrong so I dawdled a little bit looking for them but felt ok and was in there in good time. Moving on I knew the next stage of the race was going to get a lot harder with the huge ascents of les Contamines, La Balme, Col Du Bonhomme and then down to les Chapieux. At Les Contamines I was with dad in the aid station and I’d just got one of my water bottles filled with coca cola, I bent over to get some food from the bag and the fizz erupted in my face, I didn’t quite know what was happening at first and then realised, a coke explosion right in the eye, how ridiculous, we laughed. Seeing as this was such a long distance over a couple of days some of the race is a bit of a blur really, I can remember coming down to les Chapieux and there being a big welcoming fire and seeing Mike and my Dad and them telling me I was doing really well. After that it was a big long climb through the early hours, the temperature lowering by each footstep, I kept thinking, when is the sun going to come up, it seemed to take forever, it was so cold and looking up just near the rise I could just make out a dark blue sky starting to appear up with the snowy peaks of Col De La Seigne. Everything was dusted in a freezing frosty white and as we made it to the checkpoint and into Italy the marshals said nobody could stop and that we had to go straight down where it was warmer. I was ok with that and after a long first night couldn’t wait to feel the warm sun. I got down to Lac Combal and had some pasta and a coffee for breakfast, first night done, sun shining and still up for it. I set out again at around 8am and just as I was on the path out my sister in law Vix jumped out of a van, she’d only just made it, I didn’t know she was going to be there, it was a nice surprise so after a quick hug and a photo I was off again chatting to a Canadian bloke with a massive beard, he was mellow and reminded me a bit of E the singer from the band The Eels.
Next goal was to get to Courmayeur, I knew the whole family would be there and couldn’t wait to see them and get a little bit of rest, the route down was the first really difficult and quite painful descent, it was hot and the route was a zig zag of tree roots and steep step downs and after 78 km, the legs coming down were taking it hard. I made it down and to Courmayeur where Nicky was waiting with the family, seeing the kids and mum was great and made me feel happy. I took some time and ate some food in the aid station and Nicky told me I was doing great and well ahead of the cut off times, I charged my watch a bit as it was almost dead which was a bit annoying, I hadn’t turned on the Ultra Trac setting so the GPS had really dragged the battery down. After some watermelon juice and a change of socks I headed back out into the sunshine for a big climb up to Refuge Bertone and then onto Refuge Bonatti. I didn’t stay long at Bertone and by the time I got to Bonatti I was starting to feel really tired and a little bit sick and starry eyed. Vix and Henry were there which was great but I couldn’t really say much. I sat and had some coffee, coughed a fair bit and generally just felt spent, nauseas and weird. The weather was also changing quickly, I remember Henry saying, “I think it’s starting to snow”. Rain was definitely coming and it was getting cold again. The next stop was down to Arnouvaz and by the time I got there it was pouring down, the descent felt really long and it’s quite mad thinking that its still at 2000 meters above sea level. Remember I come from Southampton, there are no mountains there. The drink station was really busy and people looked knackered, cold and tad spooked and soaked. People were asking if the ascent up to Grand Col Ferret was still happening because of the awful weather, the marshals said yes it was and that all waterproof and warm clothing should be put on for this part of the race. I had some soup, layered up, got my head together as best I could and braved it back out into the wind and the torrential rain to get to the top of another massive hill and cross into the land of fine chocolate and nice watches that is Switzerland. The weather up was so grim, the hail was burning the side of my face and every time I looked up I could just make out the blurry other runners as far into the distance as I could see, they all permanently seemed so far away and the climb went on and on and on. Funnily enough I made up on 86 places during that section and don’t remember what the top was like at all. That good progress would all fall away soon enough though as by now I was really sleep deprived, my brain was starting to play tricks on me and the next night was looming. I tiredly made it to La Fouly and hoped I’d see someone I knew there, I’d sent a text message to Nicky saying I wasn’t feeling so good mentally and was so tired, I also for some random reason was craving a cheese and ham sandwich and had asked for someone to get me one. Nobody made it to La Fouly so I didn’t stay long and knew if I could get to Champex Lac I could re group and try and get a much, much needed power nap in, sort my head out and carry on. The rain continued the long descent down which for the first time was mostly on the road and was painfully slow and then the climb up to Champex Lac took an eternity. The sleep depravation was in full grim swing and every rock and tree root under head torch light was a grim spooky face staring back at me, the skeleton faced stones kept coming at me as it poured with rain, it was the toughest, muddiest climb I’ve ever done and hopefully ever will have to do. The UTMB was starting to haunt me in the woods and I was hanging on for my sanity. I made it to the aid station at Champex Lac at 9.37pm and fell apart emotionally, it was a real low of the race, but at least I wasn’t throwing up in the bin like the bloke next to me did.
I think at this point I need to say just how amazing my family and friends were as support team in this race, I honestly don’t think I could have got through it like I did without them, they were tired from being up almost 2 nights, driving, trekking, checking locations and progress and generally worrying about me as well and they didn’t falter, this came to it’s full fruit at Champex Lac and Nicky, Dad and Mikes support and guidance got me through it. I had a lot of hours in the bank and it was now time to truly cash them in, I stayed at Champex Lac for almost 2 hours, I managed to get my first running power nap in, changed out of those sodden clothes. Mike had managed to get me that cheese and ham sandwich but sadly the novelty had worn of by that time and I only managed one bite of it, I stuck to the soup and fruit, some more coffee and then went though what was left on the map. I’d always known the last three climbs on the UTMB are really hard and had been looking at them on the map previous to the race, three more climbs and then it’s the end, simple! With Mike and my Dad’s ringing words of “it’s 45km mate, just over a marathon, the sun will be up soon and you’ve done it” Cheers fellas.
The sun did come up and the rain finally stopped, the morning was warm and I felt alive again (coffee is so great) even if it was for just an hour or so. I went on through to Trient, had another power nap under a massive blanket, craved salt and vinegar crisps but had indigestion so couldn’t stomach them at all plus the salty soup was proving difficult as well. Good old anti-acid remedies in the name of Rennies and then back out and on to Vallorcine which would be the last assisted aid station. Most of the runners I met from now on seemed more relaxed, all be it absolutely knackered but mellow with it because most of us if not all of us at this point knew we had time in the bank to finish the race, I met a few Americans and a lovely chap from China as the sun started to shine again. At Vallorcine the whole family was there which was warmly awesome and they brought some fresh pain au chocolates and with coffee it went down a real treat and tasted amazing! Another little power snooze and at 9.22 am said “I’ll see you all at the finish then”. I knew I still had a little way to go but the skulls and ghouls of the rainy brain night in the woods had turned to soft animals and smiling faces, I was still exhausted but able to get my head around it, my legs were still working, my stomach was fine, my hands ached from the constant use of the sticks but I knew Chamonix was much, much closer now.
The final 29 kilometres were basked in beautiful alpine sunshine, the downs hurt and were long and awkward but it didn’t matter anymore. The final climb which was slightly changed from the original route took us to La Fouly which was a long stony ascend up. At the last aid station I had a few sips of coke, a refill of water and then it was just 8km down to the finish. A guy called David spotted my name and asked if I was the guy who was mentioned before the start of the race and about the song that played – he said that it sounded cool. That was nice of him. By the time I set out again it was hot so my pack was filled with everything including my sticks, which I stopped using for the first time in the whole race. I should add my sticks had been superb and certainly helped along the route, they kind of become part of you during a race, they’ve certainly become a very important part of trail running for me now. Coming down into Chamonix I got a burst of adrenalin filled energy and all the pain just went away, a chap I was running next to looked at me said “We’ve done it man” and we fist bumped. I ran freely through the streets high on adrenalin. The support was truly amazing and everywhere people applauded and banged the advertisement signs. With around 150 metres to go on the final bend my Dad appeared and we had a triumphant hug, I was emotional and had waves of near crying with every step, high fives with strangers, peace signs and “cheers” as I came through to the final straight. Just near the finish line I saw Nicky with our 10 month old baby in her arms and my eldest daughter who was shocked by all the noise and excitement so darted back into the crowd instead of crossing the line with me, Nicky followed me under the archway and we hugged. I felt amazing, alive and had completed the UTMB 2017 in 43 Hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds. It was done.
On reflection: I think if you set your mind on something it proves you can achieve things you thought were just a dream or a crazy idea. When there’s something inside you, an instinct or gut feeling that says quietly in your mind “I reckon I could give that a go” then listen to that little voice, it will be scary and daunting and sometimes seem damn right bloody ridiculous but as the saying goes, you’ll never know unless you give it a try. I did exactly that and completed one of the hardest races on earth. Do it.
Onwards good people of the universe!
I am Dave Pen
Some extra photos below: