Last newsletter we featured an interview with Andrew McDowall who was just setting out on his UTMB / European adventure. He did superbly - here's his race report.
30th - 31st August 2019
Loop course, Chamonix, France
171kms, 10,061 metre climb, 10,061 metre descent
Strava GPS link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2669138482
Absolutely bananas. That’s what first kilometre of UTMB is like. it’s Friday and at 6pm on the dot we’re off - surprisingly smoothly considering there are 2,500 of us - through the streets of Chamonix. Both sides of the road are packed with pumping crowds and you feel the best you’ve ever felt running in your entire life. Floating, smiling, high fiving, laughing - absolutely on cloud nine. One enterprising bar was even offering runners free beer - 500 metres into the race. It looked tasty… but not yet.
Section 01 - Chamonix to St Gervais - 20km
Easy flat first 8km to Les Houches and then we hit our first proper climb - about 800 metres. Probably the most significant thing to come out of this section was the sudden and quite scary realisation that this course was nothing like what I had trained on back in NZ. The uphills were fine - in fact, they were fine for the entire race. No, it was the downhill from Le Delevret into St Germain - about 1,000 metres - that gave me cause for concern. I wanted to take it easy and save the quads - but it’s just so steep and for so long that you’re braking hard the whole way. Most runners around me took a different approach - total abandon at full speed. Like, ‘woah, see you later’ fast. I just don’t seem be able to descend like that. I tried a few times and was pretty sure the next step would be my last - this is clearly a major weakness for me and something I will need to work on for future mountain events. Looking at the stats I lost 73 places just on that descent (on fresh legs!)
Section 02 - St Gervais - Contamines - 10km - Total 30km
Short section but a bit gnarly. Super super hot and muggy too. Into night now but the air is still thick. I’m overheating and find myself coming into the aid station at Contamines feeling all of a sudden very tired and overwhelmed. My left ankle has flared up and I’m in a bit of pain. Stomach not enjoying the heat either. Only 30k’s of easy running and I’m feeling spent - what is going on!!?? Fortunately I get to see Emma here for the first time and I know she’ll help me get back on track both mentally and physically. The tent is rammed with runners and crew (very strict rules for crew at UTMB - only allowed in five minutes before runner arrives, only 1 crew) but Emma has found a quieter spot for us and I take a few minutes to re-find my happy place.
Section 03 - Contamines to Courmayeur - 50km - Total 80km
Right. So, reset and off again. I’ve just put the next 50km into one section because really, it’s all a bit of a blur. The climbs are huge but I quite enjoyed them - often passing 30 odd people on the way up - only to have them all go flying past on the following descent as I struggled with both my body and the terrain. Trying not to land hard on my ankle I was constantly off-neutral balance and I knew that at some point this would become a problem but couldn’t really do anything about it. Some amazing support still - to have people cheering us on at 4am over 2,500 metre passes is just astonishing - there was even a harpist playing at 2,000m! The descent into Courmayeur from Checrouit is only 4km but drops 900 metres. I was in absolute hell. Stomach pain, ankle pain, right knee now starting to scream. 30 people flew by - it felt like 100 - very demoralising. This is my second support stop with Emma. I’m super cooked and I even say to her ‘If this wasn’t UTMB, I’d pull out right now’. But it is UTMB. So quit your moaning.
Side note: The aid stations at UTMB are incredible. Considering the amount of runners involved, the execution is flawless. Plenty of food and the main two hot food items - soup with noodles and pasta - are meat and dairy free. Hallelujah! I ended up having soup+noodles at every aid station from 40km onwards. My collapsable ultraspire cup got a workout of its own. All the volunteers involved were simply amazing. Hats off and thank you.
Section 04 - Courmeyer to Champex Lac - 47km - Total 127km
Instant 1,000 metre climb was made easier by good company - chats with people from around the world all trying to communicate in various languages. I’m probably offending everyone around me with my attempts at français. Then relatively easy running along a plateau which included one of the most demanding pit stops I’ve ever had. At Refuge Bonatti (we’re in Italy now) I discovered the only option was a squat toilet - having destroyed quads while three Italian ladies stood in total silence outside the door made this extraordinarily challenging - but not as challenging as the following climb up to Col Ferret. HOT. like, hot like I’ve never been. I thought my legs were going to collapse at any point. Mid afternoon and totally exposed just baking in the oven for hours. Finally made the summit and we’re in Switzerland! 1,500 metre descent now (you guessed it, 10 more places lost - at the time it feels like many more) down to a very pretty postcard perfect Swiss village (complete with Ferraris in the drive) before a surprisingly tough climb to beautiful Champex Lac. Feeling surprisingly chirpy as I arrive right on 24 hours.
Section 05 - Champex Lac - Chamonix - Leg 44km - Total 171km
Just three peaks to finish the job - easy right? ha. On the drop down to Trient at 143km (after the first of these monsters) I started to get my now-familiar hallucinations. I saw a chap exiting an aid station in the middle of the forest - neither of these existed. I was very disappointed to discover the real aid station was at least another hour away - and a very painful (my knee was 9/10 pain) and difficult descent at that. Everything just got weirder and weirder as the second night wore on. On the final climb to La Tête aux vents I saw a lady in a bikini lying on a rock. Then some cheeky bugger put a giant Tigger on a fold out chair halfway up just to mess with people - I’m sure that one was real but actually I haven’t checked with anyone else so…. maybe?? Everything is kinda moving strangely in the corners of your vision. Surprisingly I was still relatively awake but at no point was I convinced of actually finishing until about five kilometres out from Chamonix. I decided to just go for it and suck up the pain because I really wanted this over with - dawn was arriving on the second day, I had been awake for nearly 50 hours and a lot of that was not vintage fun.
Popping out of the forest into Chamonix I saw my old mate Geoff Higgins - who had guttingly had to pull out of CCC the day before with illness - waiting with camera in hand to accompany me the last 1.2kms to the finish - I really enjoyed that bit - it really is amazing how suddenly nothing really hurts when you’re that close to the finish. At 5:44am on Sunday, 35 hours and 44 minutes after leaving the exact same spot, it’s over. Emma is there and damn does that finish line hug feel good. My great aussie mate Stephen Redfern is also there - finishing 4 hours earlier but staying up (how!!??) to see me come in. Bloody marvellous.
Worth it? Without a doubt. Reflecting on it a few days later you get a much better perspective on the experience as a whole. I’m still very sore - feet are huge and my right knee has swollen up like a balloon - but that will pass. Yes I’m disappointed it took me so long - I am quite competitive after all - but in the end that doesn’t matter so much either. I am astonished at the speed the elites can go at - and am in awe of fellow kiwi Scotty Hawker's third place finish in 21:48 - that is just so fast on that terrain. In the end it was just awesome to be a part of something that I’ve wanted to do since the day I heard about it many years ago. Job done now, time to put the feet up… for a week at least. Cheers UTMB!
Spring energy gels - not sure how many…. maybe twelve?
Heaps of soup and noodles and 1 x pasta
Fruits nuts…. general aid station stuff.
Garmin Fenix 5x+ watch recharged at each aid station with Emma
Altra Lone Peak 4 and Olympus shoes
UD PB 4.0 Mountain vest
Black Diamond Carbon Z poles
Fenix HP30r head torch with spare battery - lasted the full night for each set of batteries - really impressed with that.
The usual thermals, jacket, pants, buff etc… didn’t really need any of it as was so warm even in the middle of the night.
Next stop is the world 24 hour champs in Albi in October.
Cheers for reading! -Andrew