Monday 27 July 2009

Number 100 at Davos, but never easy

Finishing the 2009 K78 Swiss Alpine Marathon was one of the highlights of my few years of running. But it was also one of the hardest races I've had. The whole time I had pressure on myself to beat last year's time by as much as possible with the certainty that I would finish no matter what. I had to - this was marathon number 100, I had about 30 friends racing or spectating at one of the events of the weekend, plus I even had a great big medal from the 100 Marathon Club engraved with the date and race name.

So I was never likely to take it easy and was looking forward to really seeing how much I'd improved on mountains. It wasn't as much as I'd hoped and I was still hopeless at running for long periods uphill, spending much time walking. Luckily I've never had a problem with downhill running and made up time on every drop. That's always one of the most fun things about running for me - kamikaze-style leaping from rock to rock on steep, off-road sections, ideally with mountains as a back-drop.

I'd been looking forward to the race for ages since the 78.5km (49 miles) course is beautiful and I've run in Davos the previous two years, doing the marathon K42 and the ultra K78 in that order. The whole event has several other shorter and easier races too, but all are significantly more difficult than running on roads and much more rewarding (see the photos with this write-up for why).

The early morning flight didn't bother me much, neither did the 2h30m journey from the airport to Davos Dorf station. Between the plane and train I'd picked up three other Serpies (Angus, Jess and Ben) and we met up after checking into hotels to collect our race numbers in the slightly underwhelming expo. We'd persuaded Jess to switch from being a spectator to running the 11km race and I also bumped into my first friend from the 100 Marathon Club, Dave Ross, and his new fiancé fact she only upgraded from girlfriend to fiancée the previous day in the romantic setting of the Alps. So a pretty positive start to the weekend.

Most of my friends were staying in a hostel about a mile from the centre of town, so the evening downpour persuaded them to stay indoors while I met people staying more centrally in the main bar on the Promenade. Was great to get into the spirit of the event and I always love the anticipation before a big event. I'd managed to help to persuade quite a few people to race it, mainly the ultra, so much of the chat focused on that and how the heavy rain and recent snow would affect the course. We were also celebrating the recent victory of two mates in the Gobi March the previous month, Dave and Diana. They'd run together the whole way and Diana had won.
Before I got too carried away with the Swiss Weissbier, we all called it a night in preparation for the 8am start. It was still raining heavily but the forecast showed some improvement, not that mountain forecasts can be trusted much.
After a good night's sleep I was nervously excited, as I should be before any decent race. I met up with a sea of Serpie running vests at the start, not just ultra entrants, but Serpies doing all distances who were either supporting or taking part in one of the other 8am start races. The sun was vaguely shining through and everyone was in a great mood. There was a slight panic when one girl (who shall remain nameless) realised she'd left her race number back in the hostel a mile away and there was just 20 mins 'til the start. But she made it back on time and we were all lined up in the huge crowd of starters.
I planned to run as much as possible with Mark Braley, who had raced the K78 with me the previous year. He has a habit of zooming off at the start (his 10k PB is within a marathon) then slowing down, so we planned to pace each other and to therefore have some company throughout the earlier stages of the race at a minimum. However, the pacing mainly involved me trying to rein him in as we set off at 6 min miles, not a pace we expected to be sustainable in the slightest.
We did stay together for most of the first 18km or so, although I spend much of it trying to keep my pace down and only seeing him in the distance. The first section of the race goes to Filisur and is undulating but not as mountainous as later on, plus it has a net drop of 500m (1,700ft). During a particularly fast section of downhill roads (rather than trails) I caught him up and noted that my Garmin was showing our pace around what we do for 5k. Again, not very sustainable, but it was fun and we were able to keep going without being out of breath at all.
I got too caught up in the speed and let my race plan go out the window temporarily. I just wanted to enjoy the ease of running down a good section and saving a few mins from my overall time. Of course, it doesn't really work like that and going a minute too fast early in an ultra can lead to losing many minutes later on. But while it was easy, I didn't think I'd be losing too much later on.
This is where I got too cocky and really didn't need to be overtaking so many people. The race doesn't start until the last quarter so gaining positions early on is completely meaningless...particularly if the people I overtook were in the K31 race which stops at Filisur. I kept up the pace as the course flattened and we had a railway track crossing at 19.5km. The crossing involved weaving in between a narrower section and almost turning back on myself. For this sharp turn I foolishly using a piece of wet wood in the rack to take the weight of me twisting. The slimy surface had no grip and my leg flew from under me like slipping on a banana skin sideways. I crashed into the fist-sized rocks around the rails at full speed and right in front of a crowd of people.
It happened so suddenly after I'd been cruising so comfortably but my first thought was that I still had 59km left to run so was anything seriously damaged? I could stand up, my head hadn't hit any rocks and the adrenalin masked most things. But I could feel a lot of bruises along my right side and chest as well as nasty cuts and blood flowing freely from my right palm.
The spectators wanted to make sure I was ok and were trying to help me up and direct me towards the medics at the water station just ahead. But I decided the best tactic was to see whether I could still run. I could, although this started as a slow limp. Quickly I realised that limping 59km would lead to some serious muscle imbalances as my body had to make up for the poor posture, so I needed to try to run as normally as possible and just ignore the soreness. After a few minutes this wasn't too difficult but was very annoying.
In total I was probably only down for 20-30 seconds but I was running more conservatively and slower from that point. The race had become more serious in several ways - getting a decent time had just become tougher and finishing could even be an issue. There was no way I'd drop out unless I was incapable of continuing, but the wet conditions made a second fall much more likely.
With my slower pace, Mark came into view behind me after I'd broken away previously. I expected to see him join me at my side but at the next water station a few kms later he stopped to drink while I kept going thanks to having a Camelbak to keep me hydrated. My leg and side was loosing up a bit as well and running with a normal gait wasn't an effort, it just ached a bit. Maybe it'd all work out fine after all?
Filisur came soon after, marking the lowest point in the course at just over 1,000m (3,300ft). Ahead was a non-stop 1,600m climb to the top of the first pass, merely a half marathon away (now that would be a tough half marathon!). It started with a section of reasonably steep windy road up to Bergun, where the K42 marathon starts and then continues basically along the ultra route to the finish.Runners kept leap-frogging each other as some alternated between running and walking or just varied their speed. The women's winner came past me at this point and was slicing through the field making the hill look very easy. I blame the flatness of London on my sloth uphill, but when you see the quality mountain runners you have to stand back and appreciate their fitness and technique. They've worked hard to be able to run uphill so fast and it's impressive.
Just before Bergun the road temporarily flattened to give me a breather. I knew there would be plenty of Serpies waiting there as the K42 starts 3.5 hours after the ultra and I was going through town just over half an hour before their start - enough time that they hadn't moved towards the start line yet. Running through the cheering crowds made me put more effort in and to try to look stronger than I felt (especially for the photos). The Serpie support was great and gave me a big boost. There was literally a tunnel of Serpies to run through and I couldn't help speeding up, even though it was a relatively steep road. Of course, as soon as I passed the crowd I slowed my run back to race pace, but it's difficult to not play up to the crowd.
Feeling newly elated and with the earlier fall virtually out of my mind, I focused on the remaining 1,300m of vertical ascent to the highest point. I used my Garmin mainly to tell me my altitude rather than distance and found it helpful to know how much of the climb was done and how much was ahead.
As I remembered from previous years, the roads and tracks were mainly runnable for the next 10km or so and I managed to avoid walking too much until I hit the last 700m of ascent where the path gets noticeably steeper. Everyone I could see was walking, except one long-haired and orange-tanned man just ahead. He was jogging but going at the same speed as the walkers which just looked like a huge waste of energy.
This is the part of the course most people love (and hate) the most. The scenery gets more mountainous and the number of trees drops to none eventually. Snow patches also started appearing and the temperature was clearly colder than lower in the valley. I was glad of my two layers as it only got colder as I climbed. It can be hard to fully appreciate the view while the calves scream at you and your heartbeat races, but I was well aware that being there was something special and that I'd made a very good choice for my 100th marathon.
I kept thinking how tired my legs were and also got some minor cramps in my calves which I had to stretch out, which normally isn't an issue for me. I managed to overtake more people than overtook me but I was disappointed that my recent hilly races hadn't helped me deal with the climbs more. Challenges like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or the mountainous US 100 milers now looked even more daunting, but also more tempting.
Eventually I saw the top of the pass ahead and above. I was 10 mins quicker than the previous year so had still managed to force a little more from my legs even after my crash. I was exhausted and my legs were painful from fatigue. When I started running down the rocky path on the other side, I felt a new lease of life and the tiredness ebbed away. The change of which muscles were being used made all the difference and I was back into race mode, overtaking people again.
This high section of the course between the two mountain passes lasts 7km and drops 200m before climbing back to over 2,600m again at Scalettapass. It was cold, exposed and difficult terrain to get a footing in due to the rocky, muddy and waterlogged path. But it's one of the best parts of the race and after Scalettapass it's just over 18km left and that involves almost no uphills and a drop of almost 1,100m.
Concentration has to be at 100% along these sections at the top otherwise a misplaced foot happens too easily. After the race plenty of people had cuts, bruises and limps to show that the slippery conditions had taken a few other victims.
I managed to only get overtaken once, by the female winner from the previous year and 2005, a local runner. She was powering along the uphill towards the second pass, but not as quickly as the leader of the K42 marathon who zoomed past, having caught up about 40 minutes on me over the 24kms of his race. He flew up as if he hadn't just done a huge climb already. But after that pass it was steep downhill and I knew that hardest part was over.
I stuffed my face with food at the water station at the top then set off down the steep paths. I could see far ahead and there were a few runners strung out over the path as well as plenty of hikers and supporters. It's amazing just how many people make the effort to hike far into the mountains to support their friends, family and everyone else who runs by. Cow bells and shouts of 'Hopp! Hopp! Hopp!' let you know it's definitely Switzerland.
The next few kms were all sharp declines, zig-zagging down the barren slope. I loved it and kept leaping around as if I hadn't been running all day. The second major shift of the race from steep climbs to steep descents again helped ease up the seemingly non-stop hammering on the calves. But it only shifted it to the thighs which soon started feeling it after a few hundred metres of going down the other side.
Soon I was tired again, but the rocky paths soon transformed into grassy, tree-lined paths with a gentler slope. I just kept focusing on the next runner ahead to try to catch each one, but the last 10k went by without seeing anyone behind or ahead. There were only a couple of tiny hills left, but they were still a bit demoralising. Then the last few km were started off by the 75km marker and the path entering the woods before popping out just above Davos for a tarmac road down to the stadium.
Just as I approached the entrance to the stadium and was exhausted from a prolonged sprint finish, I saw two more Serpies, Lou and Gav, with a big camera. I was spurred on for an extra last bit of effort and to not look too drained in the shots. Then there was just half a lap of the track to go past the big crowds. I couldn't help playing up to the crowd once again (I never can), slapping hands and reacting to the louder cheers with every extra bit of speed I could muster.
It had been tough, one of the hardest days of running I've had. But the fact that it had been hard, as well as beautiful, meant that I could appreciate the effort it had taken to get through it. I was limping immediately after stopping but was happy to have got through in one piece and to have lowered my time from the previous year by 12 mins to 6h51m and 15th man.
I spent the next few hours watching other Serpies and friends come in (that's Dave and Diana finishing below). Almost everyone had had a great race and really enjoyed it. Many had been converted to trail running, mountains or ultras. The beers through the afternoon were well deserved all round.
Apart from cleaning ourselves up and going out to the pub to celebrate, I just had one more thing left that day. Since the Chairman of the 100 Marathon Club was also running the K78, we'd arranged for a small presentation of my medal for joining the club at the finish line at 9pm.
At that time there were about 25 Serpies gathered round as the sun disappeared over the mountains. We cheekily used the winner's podium for the presentation and I was honoured to have so many old and new friends around to make the occasion more special. After a tiny speech several bottles of champagne appeared from nowhere, including one to spray podium-style. I was taken aback and felt like I was lucky to have good friends to share the day and the moment with. Some great photo opps occurred too, including me pouring the champagne from the stage into James 'Mr ultra-long ultra' Adams' mouth. Trying to get hold of that shot now.
The rest of the night went quickly but I was so tired and sore I couldn't stay too late. Davos had been a fantastic race, just as I expected. And it reminded me that distance running is never easy and can always push you further than expected. I hope that my future trail races in the US live up to it, but I'm sure there'll be plenty of top experiences still to come. And after so many people had such a great time, I know a lot more Serpies will be enjoying the fun and challenges of mountain running.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Musings on 100 marathons

Ever since I started running, back in 2005, I've had a focus on marathons and ultras. When I first entered the Marathon des Sables I expected it to be a hobby and just something to keep me fit. I even remember saying once that I thought I'd probably do around 10 marathons in my life and had no desire to do 100 and join the ranks of the 100 Marathon Club.

But after maybe six months of running I found that there's something extremely addictive about getting up at stupid o'clock on a weekend and running a very long way. Even more addictive to race against other people and test myself. And the most addictive element is the improvement and satisfaction from seeing progress month by month. It's also taken over much of my social life and I mainly spend free time (in Europe, at least) with runners, especially from my club, Serpentine.

So something which was intended to keep me fit and give me some new challenges has become so much more to me. I now can't imagine my life without running, although if something happened to stop me, I know I'd find the nearest equivalent, whether that's cycling/wheelchair marathons etc.

It didn't take long to work out that I would end up doing a lot of marathons and that I would, inevitably, join the 100 Club. It became even more obvious when I switched my focus to ultras early on, so marathons are necessary training runs.

This July I've had more cause than usual to consider my goals since I've had two significant events. Firstly, I completed my 99th marathon or ultra at the Tanners 30 miler at the start of the month. At the finish I felt a sense of relief that I'd be on target for my 100th at the Davos K78 ultra in the Swiss Alps at the end of the month. No dangers from DNFs screwing up my calendar or injuries making it impossible to fit in enough races.

My second event of the month to get my mind whirling was the knee injury I picked up after a 'football marathon', a 12-hour tournament for charity just two weeks before Davos. In hindsight it wasn't worth the risk, but I hardly ever play contact sports and wanted one last chance to playing football before moving to the US soon where a game of 'soccer' would be much harder to arrange. But I'd done it in two previous years and managed to avoid injury. This time a bad tackle caused a niggle and a kick near the end of the tournament started me limping.

The knee problem didn't phase me too much since I'm generally an optimistic type and all the running's made my body recover much quicker than it used to. I've had several races where I've finished and been certain I've injured something, rather than just pain from fatigue, but then been very pleasantly surprised to find that it cleared up within days and barely interrupted training.

This time I knew I had two weeks to heal and was pretty certain that the muscle behind the knee was damaged, rather than the ligaments or complicated mechanics within the knee. Muscles tend to heal quickly for me so it seemed like things should be fine. But the Davos race is a mountain race over unforgiving terrain. I managed to jog every day after the injury, but only very slowly and only on concrete or a treadmill.

It's now a week later and I managed to get back to racing yesterday, with a 10k followed by a 1k immediately afterwards. Not my best performances but the knee was solid and barely hurts even if I bend it oddly to test it. It needs to be perfect within another six days and I have a 1 mile and 3k race before then to confirm how it feels.

I'm confident it'll be ok, so that takes me back to my original thoughts about what completing 100 marathons means to me. Quite simply it means a lot and it means very little. The importance is because it's a good landmark to remind me of all the great experiences I've had over the past four years and the amazing places and people I've met. I didn't expect to see as much of the world as I have due to running, but I've immensely enjoyed the deserts, mountains, varied cities and trails. What better way to sight-see than to get entire cities covered in a day and with roads closed? Or spectacular (I'm finding I'm using that word a lot, especially to describe Davos to people) mountain views which can only be reached through long hikes or running trails? There are many places I wouldn't have gone to if there hadn't been a race as an excuse - I've even seen much more of the UK than in my pre-running days, covering many scenic corners and hidden gems.

The reason the mark of 100 marathons also means very little is that it is a means to and end, not an end in itself. I'm not hanging up my trainers after Davos, so it's just the start of a long running career. At 28 I'd hope I've got another 50 years of running in me (good genes from longevity in my grand-parents helps) so I know there's so much more to look forward to. My list of races I must do gets longer, rather than shorter, as I keep finding more events which catch my imagination.

Running inspires me and I hope I can take it to as high a level as possible, both in terms of pushing myself further and being able to enter/complete some of the hardest races out there. I'm genuinely excited by the thought of so many events out there and even impatient to do them all, even though there's no rush and they'll eat up a lot of cash over the years.

So here's my main must do list of races I know I HAVE to do, in no particular order. There are plenty of others and if I was restricted to just these I would struggle to get by and would get bored in my training. Happy to have any further suggestions for similar races as there's always a chance I haven't heard of something, even with all the Googling and picking of other ultra runners' brains.

Boston marathon, USA (every year - must do)
Comrades marathon, South Africa - 55 miles (ditto, but less local from the States)
Two Oceans marathon, South Africa - 35 miles (2010)
Western States 100, USA - 100 miles (every year I can get in)
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - 103 miles (2010 probably)
Marathon des Sables - multi-stage, 153 miles (maybe if I can justify the cost again)
PCT 50, USA - 50 miles (2010 then whenever I can)
Atacama Crossing, Chile - multi-stage, 150 miles (eventually)
Gobi Challenge, China - multi-stage, 150 miles (eventually)
Badwater, USA - 135 miles (2011)
Leadville 100, USA - 100 miles (eventually)
Hardrock 100, USA - 100 miles (eventually)
Great Wall of China marathon, China (eventually)
Inca Trail marathon, Peru (eventually)
Hood to Coast relay, USA (soon)
Lake Tahoe triple marathon, USA - 3x marathon (every year)
Goretex Trans Rockies, USA - multi-stage, 100 miles (eventually)
Other mountain marathons/ultras in the US
Plenty of other road marathons

Saturday 4 July 2009

Taster for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – Mont Blanc Marathon, 2009

After the disappointment of the 100k not going to plan the week before, I had one more June race to fit in. I’d not given the Mont Blanc Marathon much thought since it was just another race on my route to 100 marathons (number 98, in fact), but in the days coming up to it, I started to get excited.

I’ve not done many mountain races but have loved every one of them and this promised to be a great course with fantastic views of the tallest mountain in Europe. As I found out a few days before from the profile, it had more climbing than I’ve ever done before, with 2,500m (over 8,000ft) of ascents. And these mainly come in two patches – a 1,000m section from 18km (11 miles) and another towards the finish. So when I got to Gatwick for the early Saturday flight and met up with another Serpie runner, Rob, I knew I was in for a treat as well as a tough challenge.

A few hours later we’d flown into Geneva in Switzerland and got our bus connection to Chamonix in France. It was a scenic drive and less than 90 minutes so it was only midday when we checked into the hotel. Mont Blanc towered over us with rugged glaciers dripping off it like an ice-cream cone. The valley was reasonably warm but overcast so we hoped that the predicted thunderstorms would hold off.

The rest of the day was lazy with a visit to the expo and the buffet with unlimited alcohol. Rob took advantage of this to a greater extent than I did, but we both got a good feed and needed to walk it off.

That evening I had a light jog along the river while Rob had a nap due to our early start (and probably the beer). But it was an early night to get ready for the 7am kick-off on the Sunday, which was 6am, UK time.

The morning weather was much brighter and we walked to the start to hear over the loudspeaker that the forecast was for a great day. That’s good for scenery and photos but the heat is an issue with all the sweaty, exhausting uphill hikes. However, it’s preferable to thunderstorms which would create rivers in the tracks and make it even harder to force the body higher and dangerous on the way down. That might be relatively easier for the runners with a multitude of walking poles, but not for us.

Once we got going, Rob and I jogged slowly together, intending to take it easy and save lots of energy for the mountains. However, I knew that the first 18km were basically runnable, although there were bound to be some small sections of walking due to the gradient. So I had a plan in my head to not go too easy up to that point or I’d get stuck in a huge queue of people walking slowly up the 1,000m climb. I also didn’t intend to race the marathon and to just use it as a training session for the Davos ultra marathon a month later. That meant I was trying to not get too tired, although it doesn’t matter how slowly you go in mountains as it’ll always take a toll.

I lost Rob after about 10 minutes and jogged in the shade of the mountain, enjoying the views from bottom of the valley. It was surprisingly cold in the shade and I could see everyone’s breath turning to steam. I wanted to get as far as possible in the more comfortable weather and aimed to miss the heat of the full sun on the big climb, if possible.

Then I bumped into Dan Afshar, another British ultrarunner, and chatted to him for a bit. He was training for Davos as well as his main event, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). This 166km (103 miles) race in August circumnavigates round Mont Blanc, going through France, Switzerland and Italy in a non-stop route under a 48-hour cut-off. At 9,600m of ascent it was almost exactly equal to four times the Mont Blanc marathon. That’s a mind-blowing challenge given that I was to find out that day that the 2,500m of climbing would make for the hardest marathon course I’ve ever attempted.

Even this early on, I had seen enough of the area to know that I’d want to race there again. And I don’t like to shy away from a challenge so the UTMB had started to etch its way on to my ‘must do’ list. But the main focus on the day was to get through the mere marathon distance in one piece and love every second of it. I was on track, but wasn’t sure how I’d fare on the unrelenting hills after not doing much hill training, except for the undulating Comrades marathon (1,400m of ascent and 1,900m of descent over 89km).

By the second water station at almost 18km I was cruising and psyching myself up for the huge effort ahead. I had my Camelbak full of energy drink but intended to take on a lot of fluids during the race as well as eating from the later water stations to add to my gels.

Then the big uphill came along, with a turn off the dirt road on to a single track. I saw the competitors ahead of me in a never-ending line of walkers. Some we resting hands on thighs to ease the climb and some used their poles to ease the burden on their calves. It’s certainly an interesting feature of mountain races that sections like this are very slow and that overtaking almost happens in slow motion. The stronger uphill athletes clearly moved through the field and since I was only around 100th of the 1,500 starters, I was also able to overtake the whole way up.

Most of the path was through forest until it got higher and we came through the trees. I looked at my Garmin watch constantly to see what altitude I had reached, knowing that the bottom was 1,200m and the top was just over 2,220m. I promised myself a rest after 500m vertically, but at that point there was a brief respite and I had a half km of flatter then slightly downhill running. So that counted as a rest and I aimed to have no stops whatsoever.

As the path opened out I had views of the mountains which were now showcased beautifully from the higher vantage point. There was another water station at 22km and it was just 200m vertically from the highest point. My legs were feeling fine and so was I so the helicopter which kept circling and filming overhead got plenty of waves from me. The last section of the climb was much rockier and also got steeper. I was clambering over the rocks rather than power-walking. But the pure blue sky was a perfect backdrop for the snow-capped peaks which surrounded me. It had been annoying to be behind runners using poles (or not using them and just letting the points jut backwards with every step). Those runners didn’t seem to care that they might accidentally spike other people with their over-extended arm movements and I had to dodge jabs a couple of times from oblivious Frenchmen.

At the top, I took in the achievement of getting there, but used the flattened terrain to speed up. But there’s one thing better than the scenery. What might that be? The chance to run downhill along rocky paths like a maniac, of course. Of all the types of running, downhill over difficult terrain has to be my favourite. You can let yourself go and just fly down, but you have to concentrate completely because you need to see the ground far ahead to plan your route. There’s the adrenaline rush from the speed and the risk, but that risk is completely in your control...unless your legs are so tired that they buckle or don’t respond quickly enough. I wasn’t close to that issue, but it made me think (after I’d got to the bottom, since I had no time to think about anything else while careering down the path) what it would be like to try the course at night or near the end of the UTMB. I don’t know how difficult to would be but I’d love to find out. Of course, in a race that long there’s no benefit to pushing the speed on the way up or down as the game is to conserve energy and strength, but it still intrigues me what it would be like.

I was into the business end of the race with the last 15km, roughly. My body felt ok, but I could tell that the fast run down the mountain would hurt the next day (as it did) due to absorbing so much impact in the quads. I’d been overtaking people non-stop since I’d left Rob near the start, but the field was more spaced out in the latter stages. It gave me something to focus on as I pushed through the undulating section of course.

The sun beat down to make it extremely hot and every extra positive gradient made me sweat even more. I knew that I had a significant climb up to the finish as I’d reached the low point of 1,400m and the finish was at 2,000m. Also, I’d already gone through my slowest marathon time and was still a fair way from the finish. One thing this proves is that this race is the hardest marathon I’ve run, although I’m fitter than I used to be so I didn’t find it an ordeal and was able to enjoy every second.

After a significant steep section in scorching sun I reached the last checkpoint where some Brits cheered me on since they recognised that Serpentine is a London club. I was relieved to have more water and other drinks and downed a few before grabbing some food and eating it without even chewing.

I still had some more climbing to do but I soon heard the PA system from the finish line, which echoed round the valley. I kept up a forced power-walk and my calves were sore, but very bearable. I noticed how the very steepest sections had a very immediate effect on the calves but that the majority of uphills felt tough but ok. There was a short downhill which lost about 50m of elevation but instead of this being a welcome release, I was annoyed that it meant I had to climb another 50m back up before the finish. I often start to resent easy downhills when I know there’s a target height I’m going towards since they just undo some of the effort I’ve put in to get to where I was.

Like everyone else, I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line and then I saw it ahead, but maybe 100m above me. I’d never had such a hard end to a race, but at least I was within spitting distance of relaxing and just enjoying the view. One final push and I even forced a sprint finish, although it would have been the slowest one in any race I’ve completed. The finish line and area behind it had hundreds of spectators cheering everyone on. In fact the whole course had had much larger crowds watching than I’d expected. But once I crossed the line I headed straight for the shaded refreshments – heaven.

The view from the finish area was the best I’ve ever seen in a race and I was glad that I’d have a chance to take it all in while waiting for friends to finish. What an excellent race and what a perfect location. Hard as nails but so very rewarding. They even had beer at the finish.

I managed 25th in 4h43m and even the winner didn’t break four hours. Rob came in just under six hours and commented it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but after a few beers he seemed to be recovered. All that was left was to take a few photos, take the cable car 900 vertical metres down to Chamonix and enjoy the free buffet with even more free booze.

Apart from relaxing back at the hotel, we just had the trip back to Geneva and London to fit in on a jam-packed day. But it wasn’t rushed and it was very easy, and even relaxing, to fit in so much just over a Saturday and Sunday. I’d recommend it to anyone, although it helps just a tad if you’ve done some running and hill walking. I had a 5k race the next day and knew I’d need a lot of rest after such a tough race so that’s what my mind switched to on the plane well as the UTMB.