Many would say the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) festival in Chamonix is the holy grail of trail running. Races of varying distance and difficulty take place throughout the last week of August, contested by some of the best athletes in the field. In addition, there are thousands of other runners who (like me) have qualified to be there by gaining UTMB points at other races and then entering a ballot for places. It’s proper bucket list stuff. After five years, including three attempts in the ballot followed by a Covid-induced delay, I was finally here for the OCC (Orsières – Champex – Chamonix) race and couldn’t quite believe it!
Registration the day before the race at the sports centre in Chamonix was pretty efficient. We had to take along all our mandatory kit for this; some people were checked at random, most weren’t. We then collected our numbers, were fitted with a wrist band and given a really nice UTMB tech t-shirt by Hoka, who were sponsoring the event for the first time. I didn’t visit the race expo, as I think wandering around those can be quite energy-draining, but there was certainly lots of official merchandise on offer. I spent the rest of the day carb loading on fine French bakery products, plus a spot of sitting down sight-seeing on a chair lift up to see the Bossons glacier.
Although it’s the ‘baby’ race of UTMB week, the OCC is no pushover. With 3,500 metres of ascent over 55K, it’s a decent day out! The race starts in Orsières in Switzerland, from where runners make their way back to Chamonix. So the day begins with a 5.30 am bus ride to the start! There are various pick up points on two routes through the valley, and the campsite where we were staying had a stop really close by. The journey took about an hour and twenty minutes, during which time the sun rose spectacularly over the mountains. The weather was set to be hot, and although I’d tried to train in the heat when I could, I was nervous about it. There was quite a bit of hanging around after we’d arrived in Orsières. The race started in three waves at 8.15, 8.45 and 9.15. As I wasn’t off until 9.15 I had over two hours to kill. I can imagine that if the weather had been bad it would have been a bit miserable as there wasn’t really anywhere to shelter. Luckily I managed to find a café to grab a coffee and a croissant, and it was also nice to meet a couple of people I knew from Twitter.
By the time our wave set off it was already pretty warm. We were sent on our way with cow bells ringing and school children cheering; it was all very Alpine! The course is pretty much four climbs and descents with not much flat, so we were into the first (and shortest) climb up to the village of Champex Lac at about 1500 metres. There was a bit of congestion here, but not too much – probably thanks to the staggered start – and I go into a good rhythm with my poles. I was already sweating like a beast though! The valley floor began to fall away and I felt pretty good. I knew I’d have to take things steady though, as there was much more climbing to come.
At Champex Lac (7K) there was a drink station, where I had some Coke and cracked on. I really enjoyed the stretch alongside the lake there. I’d seen it on coverage of the UTMB races so many times and there was a lovely refreshing breeze. After descending from here we were into the next ascent up to La Giete at about 2,000 metres. Support was great as we passed through villages, with people ringing the biggest cowbells I’d ever seen! I was surprised that I was finding the climbing OK; it was good to know the specific ‘mountain legs’ strength work I’d done in training seemed to be paying off.
After a long and spectacular descent we reached Triente at 23K. As I approached the village, a young guy at the side of the trail saw me and shouted “Come on Team GB, f***ing ‘ave it!” which made me laugh. Triente was the first aid station with food, and I was interested to see what would be on offer. There was a range of both salty and sweet snacks, and I sampled some really nice local chorizo. Unfortunately there was nothing wrapped, so you couldn’t really take anything for later. I made use of the loos there and took a piece of cake to eat as I set off again, as I knew the biggest climb was coming up. Steve had ridden out to Triente to see me, which was a great boost.
The middle section of the OCC course had been changed this year from previous versions. The new route now goes up the Col de Balme, where it crosses the French border, and maintains height for a while before descending to Argentière; the old route had gone a different way via Vallorcine. As I trotted along a flattish road section out of Triente, I spotted a British runner coming back in the opposite direction. When I asked if he was OK he said “I got to the start of that steep climb and thought ‘My legs aren’t having it’. It’s just not my day. I’m going back to the aid station”. This was slightly disconcerting, as I then saw two other people doing exactly the same! I knew this climb was going to include over a kilometre of elevation, but got into my ultra mindset of ‘Just keep moving forwards’ and it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought – long, but not super tough.
I think the heat was getting to a lot of people at this point; I saw a fair few folk sitting at the side of the trail or slumped over their poles looking pooped. Maybe they’d set off too fast or not drunk enough. I was surprised it hadn’t affected me more and just kept plugging away.
The Col de Balme at 33K is the highest point of the course at 2,200 metres. Just before the top we had to climb up a steep rocky slope with a via ferrata-like chain attached at the side for support. Not ideal if you’re afraid of heights! I’m not really, but felt it best not to look at the steep drop on the right at this point.
The next section, along the top of the col, was tricky for me as it was quite technical – a few miles of very rocky undulating trail, including quite a bit of scrambling. Definitely not what I’m good at. I stood aside many times to let people pass me, but at least I only fell over once and didn’t get hurt! I’d been doing pretty well (for me) up to this point, getting to halfway in under six hours, but this part really set me back. It was such a relief when it was over.
At the aid station at the top of the col a few people were lying on camp beds wrapped in foil blankets, and one guy who’d obviously taken a tumble was having medical attention to his bleeding face. “Well”, I thought, “I might not be fast but at least I’m still going!”. It was quite windy, up there, so I didn’t hang around.
The descent from here was probably my favourite part of the race – a long, sandy, curvy trail that was really runnable. Although not many people seemed to be running it. Had they battered themselves too much on the rocks? No idea, but I tried to make the most of it!
It felt great to make it to Argentière at 44K, as I thought that even though I’d be slow, at least I knew now that I’d finish, barring disaster. From here there was just one last big climb up to the ski station at La Flégère before the final descent to Chamonix. I had a couple of snacks at the aid station and set off in the company of a young American chap called Josh. As we chatted and plugged our way up the mountain I was surprised that I still felt pretty good. It wasn’t easy, but I did overtake several people on the way up. It was sunset by now, and the pink light on the snowy mountains looked amazing. As it became darker, people stopped to put on their head torches. Soon there was just a snake of lights moving up the climb towards the illuminated building at the top, which was the final checkpoint. I took a mini Snickers and started the descent. The first few hundred metres of this were good, smooth trail, but then everything got very rocky and rooty, and I lost my head a bit in the dark. Not being familiar with the route, or good at technical descents, I was really worried about tripping over, so proceeded really slowly. Many people passed me and once again I lost lots of time. I could see the lights of Chamonix down in the valley, but they never seemed to get any closer! However, I did hear later that the leading woman had gone flying here in broad daylight, so felt a bit better after that.
After what seemed like ages, we reached the lower slopes of the mountain and I was able to run properly. As we came into town the atmosphere was amazing; hundreds of people lining the route clapping, cheering and ringing cowbells as we ran through the streets. It felt fantastic to finish under the famous UTMB arch as the announcer called my name. The OCC was tough, and ultimately it was slow, but I’d finished! My finish time was 13:17. I’d hoped to get closer to 12 hours, but it wasn’t to be.
At the end there were snacks and beer, and we were all given a fleecy Hoka gilet. A lot of people didn’t seem to be keen on this, saying they would have preferred a medal, but I really like it.
So, was I glad I came? Definitely. This race had been on my bucket list for years. Having said that, if I’d known how tricky (for me) it was in some places I might not have entered! Straight after I’d finished I was disappointed with my time, but now I realise it’s an achievement just to finish and to rise to the challenge of getting through something I’m not great at. I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who take on the big UTMB race, but that’s gone up to a whole new level now! So the qualifying, the ballot attempts, the Covid delays, the travel to France and the getting up before dawn were definitely worth it.
The UTMB qualification system has recently changed and is more costly and complicated now, but if you fancy having a go it’s explained here. Cheers and good luck if you go for it!