Trois, deux, un, GO! A sea of 2,543 runners start moving through the iconic starting archway in Chamonix. Emotions are running high through the field of runners taking on the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) – of which 40% will not finish.
The streets are lined with thousands of supporters all cheering us on and the sheer volume of people means we’re walking for the first 500m. I savour the moment, as it gives me a chance to high five friends and soak up the atmosphere, hoping it will spur me on during the moments of darkness to come.
Welcome to the UTMB
UTMB, the big dance, the ultimate pinnacle of mountain ultra racing in Europe. 106 miles with 10,000m of vertical gain and loss – more than Everest – with a 46.5hr cut-off. It departs from Chamonix at 6pm on Friday 30th August running to Italy and through to Switzerland, before making it back to Chamonix. Hikers normally take 9-12 days to complete the route. To even apply to run you need to complete a certain number of qualifying races in an allotted time during the qualifying period – which is basically three kick-arse races in 12 months prior to be valid. Then you go into a ballot, so after applying for three years in a row I finally got in.
I’d experienced FOMO the last two years of watching the race – online one year and in person last year – and now it was my turn to take part. Since finding out for certain I was on the list in Januar,y my mind and training was focused towards this race. I’d trained consistently since May, finding it hard to get going in the early part of the year due to the ongoing winter and snowy conditions in Chamonix making it difficult to get on the trails as early as I would have liked.
My big preparation race was Gran Trail Courmayeur in the middle of July and I was filled with confidence from completing this event, which spurred me on to really give a strong final push in the six weeks leading up to race day. I’d focused on running 50-60 miles per week with 5,000-10,000m per week ascent. One session I wish I’d done more of was downhill repeats, which I felt was really beneficial in building leg strength and sharpening up my downhill running technique as well.
One of the biggest climbs of the race, Grand Col Ferret at 2,490m, loomed ahead of us and we were keen to get up and over it before darkness descended for our second night on course. The weather started to close in on us as we ascended, and just as we reached the summit huge claps of thunder sounded and lightning crashed all around us. With big raindrops starting to fall we quickly put on our waterproof jackets and ran as quick as we could – this was not the best place to be in a storm, super exposed and great for attracting lightning.
The raindrops quickly tuned into a torrential downpour and the path became a sloshy mud pit. Waterproof or not we were both absolutely drenched by the time we reached the midway down point of La Peuty. The next section had become diabolical, with the path submerged in ankle-deep water and mud making the downhill quite treacherous underfoot and slow going. We reached La Fouly just on dark; cold, wet and in need of warm, dry clothes, but we still had another couple of hours to get to Champex-Lac to meet our respective crews.
Finishing the UTMB
False summit after false summit and the climb is done, but I’m not fooled! It’s still a long way to the final checkpoint, Flegere, which is winking at me in the distance. It’s all downhill from Flegere and the trail is scattered with supporters. Three miles now to the finish and I can feel it; the excitement is coursing through my veins. I can’t stop smiling with intermittent welling up, as the gravity of what I’m about to achieve starts to hit.
I feel like a rock star! The streets of Chamonix are lined with people; they’re all cheering for us. High fives are being handed out left and right, and as we turn onto the Main Street the whole town is one big party. The cheering is so loud; I’m looking left and right as I hear my name being shouted.
This was my dream come true; tears well in my eyes as we all hug and kiss and congratulate each other. It was all worth it; the time and commitment it had taken to prepare, with all the sacrifices along the way. I’d been driven to this moment since 2016. That DNF had been weighing heavily on my shoulders for three years; a big monkey on my back that kept chattering away to me trying to convince me I wasn’t good enough to do it.
But I am good enough and that monkey will forever be quiet. Ultras are a team effort, from the time spent training to the actual race, and I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew.
The cold beers in the sunshine together afterwards never tasted so good as we all shared stories of our combined adventures of the past 42 hours.
This is an abridged version of Lucja’s original blog, including more info on the kit she wore, which you can read on her website: https://runningdutchie.org/2019/09/19/monkey-get-off-my-back/
If you liked this article, why not check out Lucja’s reviews of the Hurt 100, the toughest 100 miler too?