Adam Campbell Runs the Courmayer Champex Chamonix Race
***This race report was written under intense jet lag, after way too many hours of travel and intense post race fatigue & sleep deprivation!.
"Remember to smile out there!" This message, posted to my Facebook wall by Peter Watson, was my mantra for almost 10.5 hours last Friday. It was good advice that dramatically changed my perception of a rather uncomfortable experience.
I was running the Courmayer-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) race at the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) race festival. Starting in Italy, this 98km mountain run, with almost 5,800 cumulative meters of elevation gain and loss, passes through Switzerland and ends in the iconic mountain town of Chamonix France. The route takes the 1,800 runners up cols, down valleys and through towns and villages along the Mont Blanc massive.
It is not a pristine mountain experience, but rather, it's a spectacle of the sport of mountain ultra running. I happen to like this aspect of the race. For a sport that is often niche and very grassroots and an activity that I spent a vast majority of my time doing alone, almost everything about the race is an over-the top, at times kitschy, experience. A true celebratory event.
All week long, the town of Chamonix is abuzz with runners nervously and anxiously waiting around, strolling the cobble-stoned streets, their necks kinked up at the peaks and glaciers that loom over the town, eating carb heavy foods, whispering rumours about the weather and course changes, debating who will win, wondering whether they have done enough training and if their bodies and minds are up to the task, comparing gear choices and buying the latest and lightest gear options available at every shop in town. As all the best mountain ultra runners from across 62 countries descend upon Chamonix for that last week in August, it became the hub of world mountain ultra running.
Once the races kick off on Monday, the town is awash in the cacophony of the crackly voice of the race announcer and overly dramatic canned music blaring over the main square and a nervous energy permeates the crowds. The streets are lined with sponsor laden barricades and big screen TVs, spread across town, play moments of the race on repeat, or show live splits of races underway, as crowds gather around, mesmerised by the self-induced suffering that is happening on the trails and peaks around them.
I tried to soak in this spirit as much as I could prior to my event. It's what drew me to the race in the first place. I immersed myself in the crowds of amazingly talented runners in town and tried to ask as many questions as I could and learn as much as possible from the incredible athletes that were walking the streets and eating at the cafes and restaurants. The more questions I asked, the more psyched I got. At heart, I'm a huge fan of the sport, so I was geeking out with the best of them.
When I went to pick up my race package on Thursday and doping control took me aside for some blood tests, it was the final affirmation that this race was unlike any trail race that I'd done before.
After a week of feeding off of this energy and months of hard work in preparation for the the race, I was more than ready to go. On race morning, as I drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel from France into Courmayer Italy, I was psyched for my first trip to Italy and to get the event underway.
I got to town early and had enough time to grab a famous Italian espresso pre-race. As I sat in the smokey cafe, sipping my bitter brew and stared around at the peaks in the Aosta Valley I mentally committed to enjoy the experience, no matter what the outcome. I lined up close to the front, but avoided the front row. The spectators lining the streets were 3 or 4 deep and I was engulfed in a sea of geared up runners, all of whom were pressing forward, trying to save a precious meter or two that they wouldn't have to run extra. It made for tight quarters.
When the gun finally went off, the roar of the crowds coaxed people into a ridiculously fast opening pace. I tried not to get caught up in it and slowly rolled my way to the front of the race over the next mile or so. I had looked up previous results and knew that some former top finishers were in the race, so I sought them out and tucked in around them.
I have a bit of a reputation for being a fast starter, something which has haunted me in the later stages of some races, so I wanted to be patient. I also enjoyed the fact that I had some company to run with, so I set off into the first hill with the pack. The first climb was steep enough that it was a mix of running and fast hiking and I was pleasantly surprised that the pace with the lead group felt manageable. I had no idea how I would stack up against the field, so this gave me a real boost of confidence. I began to smile at the fact that I was in the lead group and I did not feel over my head.
As the climb increased, the pack whittled down to about 5 of us. I tried to chat in French with some guys around me, but I was ignored, so I shut up. There was one guy up the trail, but no one around me seemed too anxious about him, so I figured that was his MO and either he was going to crush it, or he would come back to us eventually.
The group stayed tight through the first climb and as we made our way down the mountain, I was once again pleasantly surprised that I could hang quite comfortably with the lead group. My confidence got another boost. I made sure to take some time and soak in some of the magnificent scenery and enjoy the encouragement from the spectators, because I knew that I wouldn't fully appreciate them later in the race, as my mind, body and legs got more tired.
The most noteworthy thing that happened over these miles was rounding a corner on a traversing single track trail, when suddenly a helicopter with a film crew popped out of the valley about 20 feet away from me. The dust from the rotors was suffocating, but I had to laugh at how amazing that was.
As we began to tackle the second major climb of the day, I had my first energy low. This often happens to me 2 hours into runs, so I wasn't surprised. I didn't feel bad when two guys passed me and I had to hike some sections that they were running. I tried to convince myself that they were using up energy that I was saving for later. You have to convince yourself that things will be alright during these low spots, or they can quickly keep heading south. I nursed my way through this section, but this is where the eventual winner gaped me. As we ran up and over the Grand Col Ferret, I was amazed at how many people were up there in horrible weather conditions to cheer us on. I tried to thank them all as I ran past and this really lifted my spirits. Although I'm sure in reality my thanks sounded more like grunts on the windy col.
I summited in fourth and bombed down the track. I caught the second and third place runners, who had about 90 seconds on me, quite quickly. I was clearly descending better than them, so I asked if I could pass and from that point on, I was in second. I made sure not to press too hard, checking in on my effort and being careful not to blow my quads for later, but before I knew it, I had dropped the other two runners and I was out of Italy and into Switzerland.
Once again, this got me quite excited. I was now in the same country as my wife, who I knew was following along online in Davos and I had been training hard in Switzerland for the previous 3 weeks, so I convinced myself that I had a home field advantage. In retrospect, this was a silly thought, still, I love the mind games that you can play with yourself over the course of such a long and strenuous effort. You have to find little positive nuggets and hold on to them, because otherwise the immensity of the effort that you are facing can easily overwhelm you. I essentially ran alone from this point of the race to the finishline, so I had to spend a lot of time mining for these nuggets of positive thoughts.
I nursed myself through the rest of the course. I was apprehensive with the length of the race and difficulty of the course, and basically accepted the fact that I had to run my own race. The frontrunner was slowly putting time into me and all I could hope for was that he would blow up. I clung to this hope all the way to the finishline and used it to talk my way through some low points in the race.
I kept Peter's mantra in mind and tried to get as much energy as I could from the thousands of spectators, hikers and locals who were out on the course, cheering us on. While the scenery is undeniably stunning, what really makes the race stand out is the people. This is a sentiment that I've heard echoed in every post race interview that I've listened to and this is where Peter's advice was so wise. I tried to thank as many spectators and volunteers as I could along the course and with each thanks, I got some energy from that person. I had a little girl grab my hand as I was running into an aide station and she ran with me which was an incredibly powerful and uplifting feeling.
This support extended far beyond the trail. At one of the early aide stations, a volunteer dropped a transmitter into my pack to monitor my progress, because I was one of the race leaders. While I didn't appreciate the extra 80 grams at the time, this transistor was tweeting and Faceboking my position along the course and my wife was keeping people posted online. I heard after the race that my mom in Canada, Lauren in Switzerland, my brother Matt in Bangkok and my dad in Nigeria (yes, I have a very international family) were all on Skype and extending the news of how my race was unfolding to their various networks. It was amazing to retrace the digital footprints after the race and to see how my race unfolded online as I ran along the trail. It's a true testament to the value of technology at modern mountain races. As the hours of running ticked by, I felt fairly consistent, but smiling became harder and harder. The Salomon team, who were crewing for me out on the course, were a well oiled machine and contributed immensely to my performance on the day. The ease with which they helped me restock my supplies and their encouragement was a huge boost.
I really began to suffer about 7 hours into the race and essentially had to hike the 5 km, almost 5,000 foot soul crushing climb out of Martigny (****a detour not on the original route). My quads were beginning to feel a bit shot and my stomach wasn't liking gels so much at that point. Still, the crowds helped me move forward and I was getting feedback that "everyone was looking as bad as me," which was somewhat comforting.
Once again, I nursed my way through this section, as I struggled with the fact that I was walking so much. Although I lost more time to the race leader, I gained time on those behind me, which offered some comfort, so I settled into making sure that I could hold it together to the finish.
I kept it very basic, eating as much of a gel as I could every 20-30 minutes, although I was getting a bit sick of its consistency. I kept thanking spectators and convincing myself that it was cool that with each step I took, I was setting a new milestones in my running both in length of time that I'd been running and in the distance that I'd covered.
Finally, as I made my way into the last check point, the skies began to open up and the rain began to fall as the sun was setting. I didn't really know how far I had to go to the finish line, but I decided to push as hard as I could. I didn't allow myself to walk more than 10 steps, before I forced myself to at least try running. I was feeling depleted and sorry for myself, which was made worse when a spectator told me that two guys were making up time on me behind me. This was a great reminder that spectators, although nice to have out there, aren't always the most reliable when it comes to splits and placings, since I found out later that this was far from true. Still, it lit a little fire under my ass and I began to chase the setting sun. I really wanted to beat my way out of the woods before it got dark, because all I had were two very ineffective headlamps (to save weight).
I was running in an exhausted state, in an absolute downpour at this point, on increasingly dark trails, as the temperature dropped, with no idea how far I had to go and was being chased by two imaginary demon runners behind me who were trying to steal my hard earned second place. It was all a bit surreal, but I also started to feel quite good again and was rolling along the dusky trail quite smoothly. I knew that with each step I was getting closer and I could see more and more twinkling lights from cabins and houses along the valley, which acted like a runway and I knew that I was almost in town.
As I felt the trail start to head downhill and I popped out of the forest and onto the town streets, I could hear the announcer calling me forward. I pictured the crowds in town and I ran towards them as fast I could. Once I finally hit the café lined streets, I knew I was home free and basically floated the last 800 meters to the finish, trying to give as many high fives as possible and soak it all in. I caught some familiar faces in the crowds, which really lifted my spirits.
I crossed the line in 10:29:35 and was so grateful to everyone that was there, standing in the pouring rain and applauding my finish. It was a very special feeling and one that I won't soon forget.
After the pomp and circumstance, I was whisked away for more doping tests, still on a high. I was still in my soaked race kit, the rain was pouring and it was cold. Once I was done my testing, I suddenly came out of my high and felt like I was hit with a brick. I began to throw up the tea that I was given and I began to shake from the cold. I somehow made it back to the lobby of my hotel and passed out at the reception. Next thing I know, I'm being carried up the stairs and put in a hot shower, where I continued to throw up. I think that my body was in shock from becoming so cold after the race effort.
I then crawled to a couch and slept for about an hour. I was then woken up by some serious hunger pangs that were cramping my stomach, but at least I felt more stable at this point. I went down to the lobby and the lady at the front desk went out and bought me the best tasting steak frites sandwhich that I have ever eaten. I then proceeded to lie awake all night, my system too wired to sleep, but feeling incredibly satisfied and a bit overwhelmed with what had happened
Gear I used:
- Arc'teryx Accelero cap
- Arc'teryx Motus singlet (custom)
- Salomon Exo Slab team shorts (2012)
- Salomon Exo socks (2012)
- Salomon XT wings Slab 4 shoes(regular)
- Modified Salomon XT Advanced Skin 5 Slab pack
Mandatory gear (every athlete must carry this gear & it is checked along the course):
- - mobile phone with the international roaming option for the three countries-iPhone 4 (too heavy)
- - personal beaker minimum 15cl (gourds excluded)-cut the top off of a Capri sun drink
- - water reservoir, 1 litre minimum- 1 litre bladder with no tube (I used a handheld)
- - two torches in good working order with spare batteries- 1 Petzl e+lite & 1 Black Diamond Ion headlamp
- - survival blanket - standard one cut this down
- - whistle- on the e+Lite headlamp
- - self- adhesive elasticised bandage usable either as a bandage-regular from drugstore
- - food reserve-30 GUs in vanilla, chocolate, Choc-mint & 5 Roctanes, 2 packs of Clif shot blocks, lots of Coke & water (probably only actually ate 22-25 gels)
- - jacket with hood-Arc'teryx Squamish
- - long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely- Arc'teryx Incendo 3/4 Salomon Exo Calf guards
- - warm long sleeved clothing (type "second layer", cotton excluded) of a weight of 180g minimum-- Arc'teryx Phase SL
- - cap or bandana-Suunto/Salomon Buff
- - warm hat-Arc'teryx RHO LTW Beanie
- - warm and waterproof gloves--surgical gloves + Arc'teryx gothic
- - waterproof over-trousers-Arc'teryx Alpha SL