101km Around Mont Blanc – The UTMB CCC

The CCC is a 101km race that begins in Courmayeur, Italy, travels through Champex-Lac, Switzerland, and finishes in Chamonix, France. It’s one of the most competitive mountain ultramarathons in the world and boasts a healthy 6100 meters of elevation gain and equal descent. The race is is part of the week-long Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc running festival held each August in Chamonix.

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CCC Profile

On race day Steph and I caught an early bus to Courmayeur, Italy from Chamonix where we had been staying for the past two weeks, playing in the mountains and taking in everything the French town has to offer. We walked slowly up the hill to the start line and were immediately impressed by the scale of the event. 2100 runners were milling about the streets, anxiously awaiting the start, with helicopters buzzing overhead. I found my place in the elite starting corral behind eventual 2nd place female, UK runner Jo Meek, and awaited the infamous (and completely appropriate) UTMB theme song, Across The Mountains by Vangelis (click for sound but ignore the cheesy video). As the music flooded the sleepy mountain town, the energy of 2100 runners began to pulse with the anticipation of what lay ahead. For a great sense of the start (and rest of the race) check out this video by Jamil Coury who happened to line up next to me. Keep an eye out around 33 seconds for a special cameo.  

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Pre-race with briefing with crew chief, Steph.

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Eagerly awaiting the start in Courmayeur, Italy.

I felt a strange calm and acceptance as the race began. I took my first few steps and was far less nervous that any race in the past, though this was to be my longest and most challenging run yet. We began climbing up through the steep paved roads of Courmayeur, hundreds of people lining the streets cheering us on, cowbells and all. The pace was quick, far too quick to be sustainable. I was aware of how quickly Europeans take races out and made a conscious effort to run within myself, ignoring how many people went by me. There was plenty of time to catch them later on, but I still had to get onto the trail in a good position. There can be severe bottlenecks at narrow points on the trail early in the race, causing people to stop and wait unless you are at the front of the pack. I jockeyed for position and felt comfortable knowing I was within the top 50.

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The CCC – 101km around Mont Blanc

We climbed quickly through the winding streets. I pulled out my poles once on the trail and switched to a mixed run / hike. This was my first time racing with poles. Although you rarely see people in North America using poles, the steep mountains in Europe almost demand it. 45 minutes later and 800 meters above Courmayeur, I could still hear Across The Mountains bellowing up from below as the last wave of runners were sent off. As we climbed out of the trees we were greeted with our first views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc. I made sure to take in the beauty of my surroundings, slow my effort, and keep things in control knowing there was a long day ahead and temperatures were already starting to rise.

Italian side of Mont Blanc. Source: TrailSetCo Sarah Etyann blog

Italian side of Mont Blanc. Source: TrailSetCo Sarah Etyann blog

At 1:38 into the race I topped out of the first climb, Tete de la Tronche at 2500 meters elevation, in 49th position, right where I wanted to be. My strategy was to start slow, hang back in the pack early and finish stronger, hopefully picking up positions as I went along. I would let the carnage of the front runners that took the race out too quickly play out up front. I let my legs roll down to the first aid-station, passing a few people and took in the stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif, the 4000 meter snow covered peaks, and rolling green hills below. I chatted a bit with the French, Spanish and Italian runners around me. Most seemed very surprised to learn I came all the way from Canada for the race.  

I stopped briefly to fill my water bottle at Refugio Bertone (Aid station 1, 15km) and was passed by what felt like a freight train of 15 – 20 runners. It was hot, 30 degrees and climbing, and I was drinking far more than I expected to be. I let the runners go without worry knowing we had a long day ahead still. Exiting Bertone, I was surprised to see US runner, Jeremy Wolfe, whom I ran with during the 2015 Squamish 50 mile. We ran together for a while on the rolling terrain towards Refugio Bonatti (AS 2, 22km).

At 25km I decided I needed to pee. It wasn’t that I had to pee but I felt like I should given the amount of fluids I’d taken in up to this point. I was completely shocked when instead of urine an unknown dark brown / red fluid was produced. Jesus… I need to start drinking more, I thought, what the hell is going on? Why is it so hot? Just keep drinking, keep eating, keep going.

At the third aid station, Arnouvza, 27km and 1850m of cumulative elevation gain into the race, the reality of what I had signed up for was beginning to sink in. This is so much harder than anything I’ve ever done before, and I still had 74km and 4240 meters of climbing to go.

The climb up Grand col Ferret is the most demanding climb of the course. Steep in a taunting way with a hill that rolls back as you grind up the switchbacks, the climb seems to go on forever. This also happens to be the highpoint on the course at 2500 meters elevation, a long ways away from the comforts of sea-level which my lungs are accustomed to. At 3:30 into the race I topped out of Grand col Ferret and crossed from Italy into Switzerland. It was amazing to see the more than 50 spectators that spent hours hiking up to greet runners as they crested the climb. Unfortunately the high I got from the spectators was quickly overshadowed by full body nausea and ache as the heat, altitude and dehydration began to take hold.

Grand col Ferret. Just keep climbing. Source: kendallsrunningadventures.blogspot.ca

Grand col Ferret. Just keep climbing. Source: kendallsrunningadventures.blogspot.ca

On the 20km descent from Grand col Ferret I made a decision between stomach churning burps to shift my mindset about the race from a competitive placing to just crossing the finish line. Although I was passing a few runners here and there, my strategy was now to decrease effort, focus on hydration and calorie intake, and not worry about my place or time. Just focus on staying hydrated and taking in calories. But why am I so nauseous? This is awful. No, this is your new reality. Stick with it. It’s going to end soon but for now you have to deal with it. Embrace this. 

I wasn’t the only one hurting. The heat was affecting many runners and a lot of the front runners who had taken things out too quickly were dropping out. I’d later find out that 35% of runners didn’t end up finishing. The race began to feel like a run from water source to water source as we soaked ourselves with farmers hoses and dunked in every drinking trough we saw. Somewhere on the descent to La Fouly a Slovenian runner tripped and fell in front of me. I stopped to help him up, not knowing at that point that we would spend the last 7 hours of the race together.

The pains in my stomach began to subside after La Fouly (AS 4, 42km). I was able to put down a few caffeinated gels and managed a nice pace running to the final climb before Champex-Lac. I passed a few runners, fueled by the thought of seeing Steph for the first time since Courmayeur. The shaded, cool climb up to Champex-Lac was a welcome relief from the relentless 20km descent from Grand col Ferret. I had a strange internal dialogue going up the climb, feeling oddly at peace with the suffering I was in and somehow elated to be out on the trails.

The beautiful Champex-Lac, 2 weeks before race day.

The beautiful Champex-Lac, 2 weeks before race day.

Champex-Lac (AS 5, 55km, 6:58 elapsed, 3360m cumulative elevation gain) is a large and overwhelming aid-station, akin to a beer tent at a carnival: loud music, people everywhere, wood chips on the floor and all. Just as planned, Steph was front and center to greet me as I rolled in with everything I needed to continue on my way. I made sure to take some extra time in the aid station to regroup and cool my body temperature in the shade of the tent. I took in extra fluids and enjoyed some delicious watermelon Steph packed for me. The European aid-station selection of cheese, meats, cake and sparkling water was not going to cut it. At this point I switched from gels to liquid calories (Tailwind) as it was much easier on my stomach.

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In Champex-Lac aid station. Looking withered but still smiling.

Out of Champex-Lac my plan was to switch to race mode. I was feeling relatively OK and Steph and I had covered the remaining 45km of the course in training 2 weeks before the race. Despite how terrible I had felt up to this point, at least I knew the terrain that lay ahead. The last half race is essentially 3 back-to-back 1000+ meter climbs and equal descents over 45km. I ran out of Champex-Lac and pushed up first climb until forced to hike. I picked off a few runners but nausea took over whenever I pushed too hard. My mantra of the day, this is your new reality, embrace it, came to mind and I settled into my hike and climbed up to Bovine at 2000 meters elevation. At the top of climb I was caught by the Slovenian runner, Aljosa. We chatted a bit and ran together on the descent to Trient.

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Approaching the top of the climb to Bovine, 2 weeks before race day.

Trient (AS 6, 72km) is a beautiful little mountain town nestled in a in valley with a pink church in the center. As Aljosa and I ran into the aid station the race announcer started calling my name over loud speakers. I couldn’t understand his French but eventually found out that he was playing Bryan Adams – Run To You in my honour as I was the first Canadian runner. Running out of the aid station, the entire town started cheering for Christopher and Canada which I can only assume was because of the announcer rambling on about me. It was a humbling experience.

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Running into Trient, Switzerland with Steph 2 weeks before the race.

The climb out of Trient was very difficult. The steep, unrelenting switchbacks were testing my weary legs. It was still hot but the climb was mostly in the trees; the shade was welcome. Somewhere along the way Aljosa and I seemingly decided to work together and, without discussing it, we fell in step instead of battling for position. He set the pace on the climb and we found ourselves with eventual 2nd place female finisher, Jo Meek.

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En route to Vallorcine

The descent to Vallorcine (AS 7, 83km) was quick and somewhat technical, my favorite kind of running. I set the pace for Aljosa and we ran with Jo into the aid-station where I was very surprised to see Steph. The plan was for her to meet me in Chamonix after Champex-Lac so it was a welcome relief to have her here for me, passing along well-wishes from friends and family at home. It kept me going strong!

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Running into Vallorcine with Jo Meek.

It was beginning to get dark as Aljosa and I left Vallorcine for the final climb of the race, 11 hours and 20 minutes of running behind me and only 19km to go. The climb out of Vallorcine begins gradually but quickly turns steep and technical. As the sun set we chose not to put on our headlamps, moving steadily up under the moon, the snow capped Mont Blanc glowing in the distance. It was difficult for me to comprehend that 11 hours earlier I had started running on the other side of the mountain I was now staring at.

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Final climb of the course, 2 weeks before race day.

I set the pace up the technical rocky climb, every part of my body aching. The thought of getting closer to the finish line with each step driving me forwards. With the stars above it was much cooler and despite the aches and pains I was able to move relatively efficiently. Eventually we put on headlamps when it got too dark and we both started stumbling on rocks.

On the traverse to La Flergie we passed a runner who looked completely defeated, walking like a zombie, gingerly stepping from rock to rock. We offered him help but he declined. He was not the first runner we’d passed in such shape. The course had really taken its toll on those who went out too quickly. As we ran into final checkpoint at La Flergie (AS 8, 93km, 13:33 elapsed) we passed two runners who were taking rest in the aid-station.

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The traverse to La Flergie, 2 weeks before race day.

The final 8km descent to Chamonix begins with a short gravel road section followed by twisting technical single-track and finally onto a steep straight-shot gravel path leading to a paved road into Chamonix. I set the pace and we began to fly with the prospect of being finished so close. My feet began to feel like mangled hamburger meat with the unrelenting downhill pounding. Each step feeling like a toe was going to fall off. My mind was also jumbled. For  some reason I kept thinking Steph was the person running behind me and not my new Slovenian friend whom I’d spent the last 7 hours with. I so badly wanted to stop and turn around to ask Steph how she was doing, if she was in the same shape I was, but kept catching myself, only vaguely aware that I was having a delusional episode. This internal struggle seemed to go on and on.

As we twisted through the dark trees my race almost came to an abrupt end when I went to adjust my headlamp. I lifted my right hand to my head without thinking of my pole sticking straight ahead. The pole went straight into a tree. The butt end of the grip smacked me in the head and sent my headlamp flying. All of a sudden everything in front of me was pitch black. I stopped dead in my tracks, completely blind. Aljosa ran up behind me and found my light. I quickly put it back on and we were on our way, shaken but OK. The good news was that I was now firmly aware that Steph was not in fact running behind me and the mind games I was experiencing subsided.

We finally hit the pavement 1km from Chamonix and the finish line. It was just after 11pm on Friday night and it seemed as if all of Chamonix was out to cheer us in. We wound through town giving high fives and waving to the thousands of people we passed. As we turned the final corner to see the finish line arch in front of the Church of Saint Michel, I ran directly under a Canadian flag hanging above the finish corral. We stopped just before the finish line, taking in the crowds, music, flashing lights and atmosphere that only Chamonix can deliver. I waved to the crowd and hopped across the finish line with Aljosa to stop the clock at 14 hours and 16 minutes in 26th place overall and first North American. I was overjoyed to see Steph there waiting for me.

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Amazing finish line atmosphere in Chamonix. I’m on the left, celebrating with my new buddy, Aljosa.

This race was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The course was far more difficult than I imagined and I went to places, physically and mentally, I never knew existed. The heat and altitude early in the race really got to me but I’m confident that adjusting my race strategy was the right thing to do. By decreasing my effort and concentrating more on hydration and calorie intake rather than what position I was in, I was able to recuperate and finish strong. While I didn’t win the race, or come all that close, this showed me that with a little more focused training and experience, I should be able to compete on the international stage. I’ve taken many learnings from this race and continue to work through what I could have done differently and where I can improve for next time.

The fun thing about these races is there are so many variables and so many strategies that nobody knows what’s going to happen. There is no right way to run an ultramarathon. There are an endless number of things that can affect the outcome of your race and you just have to learn to deal with whatever comes your way. It’s problem solving on the fly. With these races you experience incredible highs and the darkest of lows and the full range of emotions in between. It’s an exceptional mental and physical challenge and that’s what keeps me going back for more.

Thanks to everyone for the support as I took part in this crazy little trip around the mountain.

For those interested here is my Strava data.

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