The "Baby" UTMB.
Work in progress: Earlier this summer I was nudged by Doug Mayer to get press credentials for UTMB. At first I dismissed the idea since I didn't exactly have a reason to make the long trek over there - no connections, no experience, no story. But the thought lingered and why not try and make it happen. I had the miles, I had a camera, and UTMB is the biggest race on the ultra running stage. It fit well with my schedule so all I had to do was find a reason - daily videos. Trail Runner Magazine said they would host my videos and I sent that correspondence off to the UTMB media contacts and next thing you know I'm filling out an application. There were a lot of options in the paperwork - free accommodations, "sport" follow package, and most importantly - the option to sign up for any race that you qualify for. This caught my eye and it turns out I qualified for the OCC. Most people hear UTMB and think it's just one race (which it was at one point), but UTMB has become so popular that they created several other races and made it into a weeklong running festival called... UTMB. This is very confusing, even to the locals.
So that's the backstory on how I ended up registered for this race. Logistically, it was on a Thursday, sandwiched between the TDS and CCC/UTMB. I spent Wednesday following the TDS race and didn't get much sleep that night. Not to mention I was missing a couple required items from my run kit (they check your run kit for items when you get your bib and at some of the aid stations). I was up early begging an Italian TDS finisher for his emergency blanket at 4:30am. He kindly gave it to me (thanks Marco!) and I was on a 5am shuttle to Orsières, Switzerland. When I arrived at the start I went though the process of getting my bib and met up with fellow American Nick Yardley. Nick already had his gear together and helped me figure out the drop bag (to be returned to finish) and put the finishing touches on my gear list. For this race I ran in HOKA Speedgoats and had my Osprey Duro 6 pack loaded with the required items (1.5L bladder, tights, rain coat, headlamp, emergency blanket, bandage, and food). I used trekking poles since this was going to have several big climbs.
The specs for this race are about one-third of the UTMB course - 34 miles and 11,500 feet of climbing. I didn't have a ton of confidence since I had just recovered from the Direttissima and didn't have specific training in my favor. The original plan was to just video my experience and enjoy the day. That all changed in the starting corral. I quickly got the race vibes and said bye to Nick and started making my way forward through the sea of people. I was in the middle and figure that was far enough. We waited for 20 minutes of announcements and pre-race hype before they started us. Racers flooded through the start and I was flanked by runners from my left. It took nearly a minute to get over the timing mats and we were shuffling through the town streets. I quickly realized how screwed I was because it took a lot of effort to pass a couple hundred people as we worked our way to the first climb. It was an amazing experience though, to have what felt like the entire town cheering you on. School children were lining the streets with Swiss flags and cowbells (they delayed the start of school to watch the race).
The first climb most runners slowed to a fast hike. I took this opportunity to make my way past another 30-40 runners (total guess) on the short climb (~600'). We turned back and descended back towards town at which point you catch a glimpse of the first real climb up to Lac Champex. At the start of the climb I was aware that I was severely underfueled. I grab piece of bread and jam from an unofficial aid station climbing through a small town around the 3 mile mark. It was really all I needed and let me relax knowing I had a few Untapped gels to get me to the first food aid station which would come up in another 13 miles. Around five miles in I was already super hot and luckily the trail was in the shade for a bit. At the 6 mile mark we hit our first aid station that just had water and coke. I had worked my way up to 131st place but really I had no idea where I was since there were so many racers. The course wraps around the lake, has a short descent and then begins a 2,200' climb. This is when things got HOT. With a late race start (8:15am) we were baking under the 11am sun. The single track was beautiful though and I felt strong on the hikes. We passed through a checkpoint water station at Mile 13 as we dropped down to Trient, our first food aid station that we share with the UTMB course. I had already put back 1.5L in the last hour and put in another 1.5L which I finished heading into Trient. I made a concerted effort to go slow on the descent, using my trekking poles to slow down, in an attempt to save my quads for the later in the race. Near the bottom I tripped on a log that was blocking a steep drop (where not to go) and as I fell, my legs seized up in cramps. I was hoping to push those off until later in the race.
At the Trient aid station I had soup, oranges, banana, and stuffed a bunch of food into my pack. I got out of there relatively fast and was fueled for the upcoming sufferfest. The next climb was very exposed, another 2,200' climb. At Trient I had worked my way to 92nd place and continued to move well on the ascent, passing another 30 racers. I was worried about my water on the climb and topped off at a spring about halfway up. At the top of the climb we passed another remote checkpoint where they had bottled water. The descent to Vallorcine (2,400') was a lot of fun - nice smooth single track. I never opened it up, was conservative, and got passed but a few runners. At this point I was 20+ miles into the race and knew I still had another climb ahead of me. The race was fairly spread out at this point too. I could only see five racers ahead on the descent and a few behind me. I worked with the eventual 3rd place female down the switchbacks and into the second and last major aid station. I ate a bunch of oranges here, drank more coke, and took some food to go. I left the aid station in 56th place and continued to pick off a few racers on the 2.2 mile mellow climb out. I was only averaging 11:25 pace at this point which shows how worked I was. I saw one guy on his phone who had just dropped and that motivated me to keep moving.
Now at this point I didn't really know the course or the course profile. I knew about the previous two climbs and I started to get my bearings as we were approaching Chamonix. I didn't realized that we still had 3,000' left of climbing! At mile 25 the course has a short climb. I was starting to worry about water again but was still passing some runners. But at the top of the climb the cramps really started to set in, full on quad cramps along with some forearm cramping. Made for really slow going, and I was beginning to yo-yo with a few runners who were equally suffering. I thought I was out of water at mile 27 but as I found out at 28 as we crossed a side creek, I still had quite a bit left, one problem with bladders is not knowing your reserves. So that mile was painful but I was in single digits and motivated to wrap this up. But going back to not knowing the course profile, there was still 1,000' of climbing and it absolutely wrecked me. Not being mentally prepped for that effort was discouraging and I struggled.
Eventually the last check point, and summit of the climb, came into sight - La Flégère. I got my water and began the descent into Chamonix. I was passed by three guys who were working together and absolutely crushing the downhill switchbacks. I was still recovering from the cramps and decided I should open it up too. Not long after I stumbled and smashed my chest into a rock. I hit so hard my sunglasses flew off and got lightheaded [note: a month later the ribs muscles are still bruised and my wrist hasn't fully healed]. My knee also hit and luckily the damage was minimal. I got back up and caught the pack of guys, passing them to my surprise. I was out of the technical terrain and picked up the pace, finishing strong with a 7 minute last mile.
What's great about all the UTMB races is that they all share the last half mile through town. UTMB, CCC, and OCC all share the descent from La Flégère. and as you come into down, you get directed down to the river and basically have the entire town watching you as you make your way over the next half mile to the finish. It's an amazing feeling that I doubt any other race captures.
I finished in 37th place with a time of 7:22. After some water I went over to the finisher's tent that was essentially an aid station and I grabbed what I thought was a coke but it was a beer, so I had a couple of those with some food and made my way back to my hotel room. I was worked but still able to move around well, unlike my first ultra experience that left me crippled. In hindsight, a few weeks removed, the OCC was a remarkable experience and gave a taste of what to expect from the big event. I'm satisfied with the result and am looking forward to putting my name in the hat for the TDS or CCC next year!