I had been planning for some time to successfully enter Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I managed to gather enough points to qualify in 2015, however, was unsuccessful in the lottery. In 2015 I ran some fun ultras, including Cradle Mountain Run in Tasmania, Red Rock Run Coffs Harbour, Northface 100 in Blue Mountains, Glow Worm Tunnel in Blue Mountains, Great North Walk on Central Coast and Hounslow Classic in Blue Mountains. I continued through 2016 with a series of ultras including the Bogong to Hotham, Buffalo Stampede Ultra and UTA 100. I applied again for entry to the UTMB and was successful in the lottery, with the assistance of the double points. Unfortunately, I sustained a stress fracture in my foot, 8 weeks out from UTMB. With hope, I engaged in an expedient recovery plan which included a boot for 4 weeks, another 2 weeks of gentle walks (no running), followed by 1 week of some short runs on the Alter G treadmill. I left for overseas having not run in 7 weeks and feeling reasonably uncertain of attempting my first 100 miler.
The week before UTMB I walked around Venice, did a walk/jog on highest peak of the Lake Garda Mountain Race course and ran 5km around some single trail in Chamonix. Despite the now 8 weeks of not completing any decent running, I was holding onto hope that the last two to three years of competing in Ultras would get me through. I had left the writing of a race plan to the last minute as I really wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to do. In the end my race and nutrition plan was designed to literally make the cut off times.
I was very fortunate and proud to have my wife Jenna as my support crew, and my mother in law assisting with my 3 year old child Poppy. Apparently we breed our runners’ tough on the Mid North Coast with 3 out of the 30 Australians being from Port Macquarie. I was very appreciative to have two other Port Macquarie locals at UTMB, being Craig Robinson and Michael Sheridan.
Craig, Michael and I started at the UTMB (Chamonix) start line together. The obligatory UTMB theme song “Conquest of Paradise” got the senses going. As the start commenced, we were off and….. we were walking. The race had started out very slow for a couple of kilometres as we weaved through the tight Chamonix streets lined with cheering people. As we left Chamonix the trail widened and we ran past more crowds through some single trail. I had never experienced such support from a huge crowd, support to the extent where some keen participant accepted a beer on offer from the crowd, a keener man than me!
I was feeling ok and was taking it very gently on my foot, we ran about 8kms through to Les Houches, a spectacular little town just out of Chamonix. Les Houches was where we were staying and I was greeted by Jenna, Poppy and Nena. I had a quick family hug and headed off to the first of many climbs.
I had met a guy in the park the day before who had DNF’d the 100km CCC course because of the heat; the first day of our 100 Miler was proving to be the similarly hot. Even with a late start at 6pm in the afternoon there where runners ‘going down’ on the first climb. I took it very easy and hiked the first 750m ascent up to Delvent. I took this as an opportunity to absorb the scenery looking back across the valley to Chamonix. Spectacular views was to be the stable meal of the run. I rolled down the single trail hill descent into St Gervais whilst still protecting the foot, I let the pace go a little and it held out ok. The single trail was fun to be back on and the darkness gifted itself upon me about half way down, so I put my torch on and continued the downhill cruise into Saint Gervais happily.
The run from St Gervais to Les Contamines was a gradual climb and this was the second Check Point where Jenna met me. I felt pretty shattered already from the long slow climb. I indulged in some noodles, cake and banana, and drank some soda water and coffee. I said goodbye to Jenna and headed off into the Alpine night.
I ran past a raving dance floor, and took the opportunity to dance a bit – this must have been the coffee kicking in! I headed then to a campfire checkpoint before embarking upon the highest of the UTMB climbs. I possess a UTMB picture of a long light trail up a huge climb – this was it. I settled into a reasonable hiking pace and knuckled into the 1400 metre ascent from Notre Damn Gorge to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme at 2500M. I had purposively tackled the Bogong to Hotham rooftop run in 2016, as the only run in Australia with a decent 1500 metre climb, to try and assimilate this section. I was holding onto the memory of barely surviving Bogong with fresh legs as I climbed steadily. Feeling very tired already, I stumbled into La Balmo which was a bit shy of half way up. It was time for food again so I indulged in some cake, cheese, noodle soup, soda water and coke. My stomach hadn’t been playing friendly at this stage, so energy gels were out and real food was in. I continued my hike up the mountain.
This climb was long. I looked up to see a steady trail of lights leading into the sky, just like the photo. I would hike to the point which I thought was the top, but it was just a crest blocking the view of more lights leading up into the sky. I eventually decided to let go of trying to get anywhere and just focused on continuing to move my legs. Somehow, after many false summits, I reached the top and scrambled happily through the single trail until it started to descend. I decided to roll through the descent a little faster again, and it felt reasonably comfortable all the way down to Les Chapieux.
I left Les Chapieux and as was still having a few stomach issues and struggling consuming food so I bargained myself some hiking time and decided to hike and slow-jog the gradual ascent to la Ville des Glaciers. The climb through to Col De La Seigne was extraordinarily slow as I dragged my sleepy body up the 700-800 metre climb. A friend of mine, Jamie Vogele, does quite a lot of 24 hour mountain bike riding and he had given me the very sage advice of pushing as the sun came up at first light as it is at this point that everyone is feeling sleepy. Try as I might, I was one of the slow sleepy ones! I scrambled over the mountain surviving my first all night run. It was here that we crossed some ice (which was a new experience for me) and I was thankful that I had taken the Z Poles. I stopped and took some photos as now the sunrise now shone on the extraordinary landscape expanding over the mountain and down the other side.
The unexpectedly rocky “I’m not sure that this can be called a trail” descent from Lac Combal would normally suit my fearless nature; however, I was trying to be sensible and made my way through the rocky ride to the bottom at an unusually slow rate. I stumbled warily into Lac Combal. The steady food diet of banana, watery noodles, soda water and coffee was consumed again. I sat and rested whilst eating before walking off in another sleepy stupor. I tried to run! It wasn’t really working for me though. I resigned to the run hike action around the lake, then back to hike climbing to make the “smaller” 500 metre ascent to Arete du Mont Favre. I took a worried phone call from Jenna half way up the mountain. Apparently my timing chip had failed to register at the last checkpoint and she was encouraging me to get there before cut off. I assured her that I had left Lac Combal about an hour before and was now hiking up some small hill.
Up towards the top of the climb the helicopter kept sweeping past and getting footage. I had seen this on the many UTMB YouTube videos and it all felt a little surreal. I climbed over the mountain and took up the hunt for Courmayeur. Courmayeur was at 77Km; in my mind it was the half-way mark, and by this stage I considered it to be a sensible place to pull out of the race. I was tired and could not possibly consider running another night without sleep. I threw caution to the wind and had a decent run down the mountain. It was sweeping single trail and incorporated some technical dusty sections, I was joined by a Japanese competitor who managed to keep up with my maddened speed as we swept past lots of other runners who were being far more sensible. The foot hurt and I was, at this stage, happy to just contemplate sleep.
I arrived into Courmayeur with plenty of time before cut off. I am not sure who designed the check point but it felt a little nuts. My wife and family had to stay downstairs whilst I went upstairs to access the food and toilet. There was only one toilet for all the runners. Lucky there was only a couple of thousand competitors! Sleep deprivation set in well at this point; I was a little grumpy and getting held up in the amenities for a long time didn’t help. Courmayeur is now officially my longest check point in race history. This was the first, but not last, point in the race where I thought that the Race Director had added in something silly just to make the race harder. Challenge accepted! At this moment I chose to forgo the possibility of pulling out; I ran out of Courmayeur.
It felt like I ran out of the check point straight into the middle of the sun. It was now extremely hot. I gently ran with another Aussie, stopping at every water-well to try and cool down by wetting my clothes, hat and buff – only to be searing hot again within a few minutes. As we continued up towards the start of the climb there had been a steady line of runners heading back to Courmayeur. My instant thought was that I didn’t recall there being an “out and back” part to the course. It was to be a steady stream of people pulling out due to the extreme heat.
I have participated in some extraordinarily hot runs in the past – some 35 degree runs at Cradle Mountain, Great North Walk and Bogong to Hotham. My keen running buddy from Port Macquarie, Philip Robinson, had tried to kill me once on a 50km run in 40 degree plus heat. It was at this stage I was thankful for Phil and the many other ‘heated’ running experiences. Many runners had made the mistake of not taking much water; they soon started dropping like swatted flies. My ridiculous run with Phil had taught me that I was better moving fast through the sun and moving slower through the shade to cool down most effectively. I used this strategy whilst moving through the pack of runners that was now falling apart around me. It hurt me however, I too was dehydrated and disorientated by the time I got to Refuge Bonatti, where I collapsed in the shade.
After a couple of minutes rest and rehydrating however, I ran off into the mountains. This section is a bit blurry, I seem to recall moving across the mountain through lots of single trail. I lost my map and times and started to push the run through some sections where I was concerned about losing too much time in the heat. I really didn’t want to miss a cut off. After another dashing descent I finally arrived in Arnouvaz. I was met again by Jenna, Nena and Poppy who I was very happy to see. Tired, fatigued and disorientated I ate, drank and headed back off into another climb.
The climb didn’t look so bad. Just another 700 metre dance to Grand Col Ferret. I pushed a bit on the climb and didn’t feel too bad. I went past somebody’s house that had some phenomenal view of glaciers across the imposing mountain valley. It was all very James Bond like. I kept pushing up the climb convincing myself that 700 metres wasn’t all that hard. As I reached the top of Grand Col Ferret the clouds swept in. I moved over the peak in the cloudy mist. It was now very peaceful and calm. As I headed down the flowing mountain single trail I heard cow bells ringing out I was enthused to think that spectators had made their way onto the mountain to support us crazy runners. I soon discovered that, no, it was indeed just cows. Cows with cow bells. I was still enthused none the less.
I ran down to La Peule adding a bit of speed to get out of the way of the cloud cover that had now become an all-out fearsome thunderstorm. I was pretty sure that running on mountain tops with poles with steel tips wasn’t a great idea. I continued through to La Fouly. The storm raged on whilst I wrestled with other problems. Jenna rang, she couldn’t make the next checkpoint after being mucked around by the buses. Not a major problem though, as more immediate issues were at hand.
I had run into La Fouly with the Petzl Nao2 torch battery from the night before. It is an awesome torch. I switched the batteries only to discover that my back up battery had gone flat. I tried my back up power supply to charge the Nao battery, but as these things go, the back-up power supply was flat too. Jenna also had a back-up power supply and another spare battery, and also my spare Garmin Fenix 3 Watch which I had borrowed from a friend. But I wasn’t going to get my hands on any of those helpful items. I asked a volunteer if there were any places I could charge my battery, she said “are you saying you don’t have a torch?” My emphatic answer was that I had two back up torches but given that I was about to run off into a major thunderstorm on top of ludicrous mountains I really thought a decent torch was a good idea.
Given that I had planned for a slow run I had unusually packed two back up torches. One Petzl Tikka and one Petzl E-lite. I would usually only pack one torch for weight minimisation. Regardless I’m pretty sure the directions for both do not proclaim their usefulness on technical single trails at night, on mountains, in the middle of storms. I had never run with either light through a whole night, my first all night run was the night before so I had no idea how long the batteries would last. So I decided to leave La Fouly wearing my elite torch and Tikka. I used the E-lite first to run down its battery, as it was pretty much useless. I would turn the Tikka on when I needed to actually see anything. I suited up in my wet weather gear up and ran into the storm getting hustled out by volunteers as I had now consumed all of my spare cut off time.
In the second night without sleep there were now runners dropping off the trail for naps. I felt like I had to keep pushing to make up some buffer time against the cut offs. The storm raged, thundered and then disappeared. Wet weather gear off, I continued my hunt for fast runners I could find to run behind who actually had torch light. My right forefoot had become nastily sore and I stopped to take my shoe off and band aided the largest blister I have ever had. It was right on my landing position. I tried to ignore it and ran to make up time. When I hit tar I couldn’t run because of the stress fracture foot. I’m pretty sure it was in some little town here that a lady and her family were handing out coffees. I was eternally grateful. I walked a bit and passed the bunny ears wearing young couple who I had been trailing since the start of the race. They were curled up together in the dimly lit rock walled alley way of a picturesque European town. It looked like a rather romantic way to finish their race.
I moved very slowly to the start of the climb. I had a friendly conversation with a guy who told me he had been making cut offs by 5 minutes. He was a very nice guy but I decided I should get at least an hour in front of him. The climb to Champex Lac looked moderate and smooth on the map. The real life version was entirely different. I buried my sleepy head and climbed the rocky single train into Champex Lac which was a large check point. I ate some food and drank more coffee and soda water. On advice from another runner I visited the medic tent for some recommendations on my blister. I asked should I pop it or leave it? The language barrier proved fairly hard, but I clearly understood the answer “we don’t know, run to the next check point and ask them there”.
I left Champex Lac and strolled out, only to turn straight back around as I had forgotten to fill up any water. Leaving Champex Lac for the second time, I was now truly “back of the packing”. I met up with another friendly guy from San Francisco. We chatted for quite a while. My watch went flat so I decided to pick up the pace a bit to get to Plan De Au. There was some confusion on whether this was a timing point or not. Not that I knew what the time was and the guy manning the post didn’t seem to know. I continued the climb up to Bovine. With blisters now open, I hopelessly tried to avoid getting my feet wet in streams.
I endeavoured to tail onto trains of people on the climb but drifted off into some surreal sleep walking dream. I suffered multiple soul destroying mirages of checkpoints and people, pushing to get to the check point only to find trees and rocks. With another injury playing up I crab walked in a dream towards the Bovine peak. I managed to settle behind two guys that moved across the peak of Bovine at a reasonable pace. We came across a lady being carried off the mountain by the medics. They would have had a hell of a descent to Trient.
I descended to the bottom where I was greeted by Jenna. Now I was a ruined mess of a former runner. Jenna gave me rice cream, I had coffee and perked right up. I left Trient with some somebody saying “have a go at the next climb and then it’s pretty much home”.
I have a run near home, Syndicate Track, from the Promised Lands to Dorrigo. It is one of my favourite places. The climb up Calogne was about the same 900 metre ascent. I decided it was time to have a real push. I speed hiked the mountain, catching up to some groups of people who had left my delirious soul behind on the Bovine climb. Two nights without sleep, and I felt oddly fresh. I continued the charge to the top. When I reached Calogne I slowed down a little for the descent. It dawned upon me that I could actually finish the race and I really hoped the stress fracture would continue to hold out. I continued with an easy descent pace, slipping through gutted single trail on the open mountains through to tight rooted descent trails.
I eased into Vallorcine with the feeling that I had a very real chance of a race completion and met by Jenna, who was also enthusiastic about the likelihood of a finish. I strolled out of Vallorcine with various other runners all with a senses of renewed confidence. I happily posed for photos with another runner whose wife who had run to catch us. She was clearly excited and proud of her husband.
I slow ran/ hiked to the start of what was to be the last climb from Col Des Montets to Tete Aux Vents. It’s another 700 metre climb which looked deceptively easy. I hit the climb at confident pace keen to see if I could replicate the Calogne feeling. It wasn’t the same. The mountain was very open and the heat was now searing again. There was no shade and my head, body and soul began to slide. I eased back which gave a slight improvement but any push and the surrealist feeling returned. By the time I had reached the place at which I thought the check point was my mind was completely glazed over.
The check point wasn’t there and I scrambled through technical trail drifting off to some calm surreal dream. I thought I had died or had a stroke. Maybe I was passed out on the side of the mountain. I hoped that somebody was looking after me. My body seemed to keep moving through the path. I had mirages of mountain goats. I saw an Australian friend come up and say hello, he was on top of Mt Blanc with his wife having a picnic. Surely this was all a dream. I floated over the sprawling spiked rock to a mirage water point that had barely any water. The terrain seemed so ridiculous that it was purposefully designed to make you fail after all this way. I was going to finish this race. I had no map, my watch was flat, I had no idea of the time, I had no idea if I would make cut off, and all I could do was run as fast as I could. I have no idea how my body was negotiating the terrain, but I ran all the way to La Flegere.
Once out of La Flegere there is a steep descent of a road and then beautiful single trail. I hit the single trail with now no care for the stress fracture. I bolted and let the legs and body enjoy the drop down. There were a few runners enjoying the descent and I pushed. I dropped the Z pole over the edge and had to scramble over the ledge to get it. Back on my feet and pushed again. This was a fun way to finish, it was basically an 800 metre descent of craziness.
I rang Jenna and let her know I was close to the finish, she met me with Poppy and Nena, a couple of hundred metres from the finish. I picked up Poppy in my arms, to promptly realise that my legs were not as capable as I might have been led to believe. I gave her back to Jenna until the last 100 metres. Up the finish chute with crowds celebrating. I crossed the line with Jenna, Poppy and Nena. A finishing time of 45 hours and 32 minutes. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty but it was certainly a finish!
Funds were raised for Huntingtons Disease Youth Organisation during this run. You can find out more here https://www.gofundme.com/SimonTurnbull and here http://en.hdyo.org