I heard about the UTMB race a decade ago from friends in the running community. They described the steep climbs and scenic Alps with awe. The UTMB race loops Europe’s highest peak, Mount Blanc, and snakes through three countries—Italy, Switzerland and France. When the application period opened last December, I discovered that while I had run long and tough races that might normally qualify me for the event, not all of my finishes earned UTMB points (lesson: check the official list before running 100 miles). Because of this I ended up applying for the little sister of the UTMB, the CCC, a 100K variant.
A month went by and while I had the lottery date on my calendar, I didn’t pay it much attention. I knew that most runners take two, three or four attempts before their name is picked. Despite the odds, after coming home from work I brought up the UTMB website and plugged in my name. To my astonishment my status was “awaiting confirmation”—meaning that I was selected and just had to pay my fees and perform the other qualifying steps. Beyond excited!
For those unfamiliar with the UTMB process and are interested in applying, I recommend reading every single message the organizer sends. And of course, submit your medical waiver as soon as possible. Unlike many US races, UTMB requires you have a screening from a doctor before you toe the line. If you don’t submit the paperwork, you don’t run. Also, read the gear requirements very carefully so you have the equipment they require on race day. They can be military-grade strict.
The CCC is a very tough run. It’s not just that the event has over 18,000’ of climbing on a 62-mile course, but it was HOW the trail climbs, as in straight up. Apparently there isn’t a word in French for “switchback”.
The start was as I expected: thousands of runner toeing the line, instructions in four languages, and a course that weaved through the narrow streets of Courmatour, Italy before ascending the hills and transitioning from streets to single-track trails.
And then we just kept climbing.
Each aid station was packed with actual food. No Cliff bar or gu packets. Instead they had vats of cheese, meat, PB&J and soup. Every runner carried a bowl, cup and spoon that volunteers kindly filled with hot foot at each major aid station. Smaller aid stations had just water and electrolyte drink.
And then we climbed up.
The first thirty miles were as expected: hard. The only surprise was freezing fog at mile nine when we topped out at the highest point on the course, somewhere above 8,000'. While I didn’t feel the elevation, I definitely felt the chill.
It’s this cold now and its 11am?!?
Luckily, the freezing fog and a small amount of rain midway through the course was all the weather we got. It made a descent a muddy affair, but otherwise the weather gods looked kindly on us. From what I saw the previous few days in Chamonix, things aren’t always that pleasant as weather systems can sweep in and out of the valley by the minute.
I knew from the race timing of past years that most runners slow WAY down at night. This was exactly my experience. Once night hit, a combination of tough ascents and tired legs meant that my climbs were agonizingly slow. I recall one section between aid stations of just 5.5 miles. When I finally arrived back at the next shelter I was rendered exhausted. As a chorus, the other runners from Japan, China, France and England and I all complained about the brutal course. Suffering is universal.
How could such a short section be so hard?
My girlfriend Emily crewed me for the last 50k. She bused between aid stations and helped me change socks and get food at each stop. I complained. She kindly rubbed my back and helped me change shirts. I gulped down pasta and then headed back out into the darkness. At 55+ miles in, I knew I wasn’t going to be swept and would make it back to Chamonix. I just knew it would be ugly for the last two climbs of the course.
For me the end of the race was at dawn. While I had dragged for hours, by the time I got to the last 1k of the course in Chamonix I was booking it. My legs pumped as I weaved through old, narrow streets while locals and race volunteers cheered me on. I was tired, but I was hungry for a finish.
Emily ran and filmed these last steps.
We finished arm and arm.
The CCC was probably my hardest race, at least it felt that way when I was trudging uphill in the dark. I’ve finish six 100-mile races, and have done some other strenuous endurance events, but this 100k really took it out of me. Luckily, the sights, people, aid station food and sheer epicness of the course make it an event worthy of a return.
A giant thank you to the race organizers, volunteers, runners and trail gods.