Wednesday, September 5, 2012

CCC 2012 race report

UTMB, the world's premier ultra trail run around Mont Blanc massif, has been a goal of mine for about five years. Running CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) first seemed like a good idea as it follows mostly the last part of the UTMB course. It would also be nice to visit Chamonix for the first time and experience the festive spirit of 10th Anniversary of UTMB.

UTMB 10th Anniversary logo was everywhere in Chamonix.
I was a little worried about the bad weather that had ruined the previous two editions of UTMB, but what are the odds of that happening three times in a row? Almost zero I thought.

Mont Blanc (4808m), the highest mountain in Western Europe.
Well we didn't get bad weather, we got absolutely horrible weather! When I saw the serious weather forecast and warnings from the race org, it was obvious that changes to CCC and especially to UTMB course would be likely.

The weather warning we received before the race.
I even considered not starting the race for safety reasons. In the end I trusted the race org though. The huge UTMB machinery has learned to adapt to weather conditions, just like a good mountain runner.

I watched and followed online TDS runners, who had started already on Thursday morning. They were dropping like flies before winter. 833 of 1465 participants DNFd (57%), including three friends of mine.

So when packing my gear I tried to err on the side of carrying too much. In this kind of weather the going would be slower anyway. I forgot all time goals and focused on 1) safety, 2) having fun and 3) finishing.

I had no crew, so I packed six layers of clothing for upper body instead of the recommended four. This must be a new UTMB record!
  • TNF technical t-shirt
  • thin long-sleeve technical shirt
  • Columbia Omni-Heat long sleeve shirt
  • long-sleeve fleece shirt
  • OMM Kamleika rain jacket with hood
  • Marathon de Paris blue rain poncho with hood (I saw a couple of these on other runners too)
  • 3 pairs of gloves (1 thin pair that wasn't even used, 1 thick non-wp that got wet, and 1 cheap wp winter working gloves that saved my fingers from freezing)
  • buff (around neck/face)
  • technical beanie
  • warm TNF beanie 
For the lower body I had a bit less:
  • short technical underpants
  • 3/4 Raidlight tights
  • 2XU Calf Guards
  • OMM Kamleika rain pants
  • thick running socks (2 pairs, but why bother to change as they would have been soon as wet)
  • Hoka One One Stinson Evo shoes (excellent as always, no blisters or other issues)
These 5€ WP winter gloves I picked from a supermarket saved my race!
In addition to this I had all the official gear like phone, emergency blanket, whistle, plastic cup, 2 headlights with spare batteries, 1 litre of drinks (1 bottle of water, 1 bottle of SiS isotonic gel), food (Clif Gels and ShotBloks), a roll of elastic tape and the bib on an elastic belt so it would be always visible in front.

I also carried antiseptic wipes, bandaids and Vitamin I (ibuprofen) just in case. Fortunately I didn't need them.

I didn't weigh my Raidlight Olmo 20L backpack before start, but I could tell it was pretty heavy. It goes without saying I also had my trusty Mountain King Trail Blazer lightweight aluminum sticks with me all the way - wouldn't go to any steep muddy/snowy trails without them.

When I took the bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur through Mont Blanc tunnel after 8am Saturday it kept on raining. Around 9am we were left on a parking lot, where it was about a 1 km walk to the start. We organized into three starting groups at 10:00, 10:10 and 10:20. I was in the middle one.

It was announced that the CCC course would skip the first (Tête de la Tronche, 2584m) and last (La Tête aux Vents, 2130m) mountain passes. I was relieved to hear they finally made this decision, and asked Marko from Slovenia how long he thought this shortened course would be. He answered that it would probably be about the same as last year, 93km or so.

After our start the rain stopped and the weather turned nice, sunny even. I had to stop to take off clothes, like many others. Climbing the 810m up to Refuge Bertone wasn't cold at all - it was just perfect weather for a while. 1:13/4.89km later I reached the refuge, reduced my clothing a bit more and heard a lady call my name and speak fluent Finnish. So I wasn't the only Finnish competitor after all, Janina just currently lived in Spain (I didn't see her again, but I learned afterwards that she abandoned in Trient).

In the beginning the trails were in better condition. 
The trail to Refuge Bonatti was very runnable, but there were so many people it was difficult to go as fast as I would have wanted. More and more clouds appeared all around and obviously soon the bad weather would take over.The 7.38km with only 426m of ascent took me 2:33. When I reached the aid station, it was so crowded that I just kept going towards Arnuva while the weather stayed good. It was only 204m more climbing in 5.23km.

Arnuva A/S was also very busy, so I just took some snacks and headed for the biggest mountain today: Grand Col Ferret (2527m) only 4.45km away. That wasn't easy though as it meant 796m of climbing in mud, rain, sleet and snow. It soon started to feel really cold, and I was happy to have all those garments with me. I arrived on top in 4:40 and my fingers and what not were freezing. There wasn't any scenery, just white blizzard.

After Arnuva (the last A/S in Italy) the weather started to deteriorate as we approached Switzerland.
Interestingly this was estimated too dangerous for UTMB that would start later the same day. Actually we CCC runners got to enjoy much more of the standard UTMB course than those poor UTMBers, who were ordered to run merely 103km in France only - and all of it below 2000m! I was happy, 21.95km done and 2239m climbed so far!

It was great to be in Switzerland already! It was 9.64km down (with only 268m climbing) to La Fouly, a very familiar town to me as I've run through it during my three Trail Verbier St-Bernard races. I ran hard to get warm again. About half-way down my fingers melted, causing almost unbearable pain.

Starting to appreciate all that extra gear I took.
In 6:06 (total time) I reached La Fouly. To my delight Mrs Keller was volunteering there. I've met her three times before in races, and she is always cheerful, busy and supportive despite working hard long hours in challenging weather. She happens to be Finnish so we chatted for about ten minutes about her recent trip to Finland while I drank hot bouillon as fast as I could. All CCC volunteers were awesome, thank you!

The whole way to Champex-Lac was mostly easy road - familiar to me from TVSB. Actually most of this course would be very fast and runnable in better weather I thought. I covered the 14.07km in 2:27, which is not too bad considering this is the longest stretch between aid stations and it incorporated a crazy muddy 813m ascent. In one of the small towns we passed a CCC-friendly family with their little daughters served us tea and home-baked chocolate cake.

Champex-Lac is a big A/S. Also the queue for food was incredibly long. Somehow I managed to grab something edible with my trembling hands, sat down and added more clothing layers for the approaching stormy night. I took me full 40 mins to have my dinner there. Anyway 45.66 km and 3320m done, time to move on!

It was sleeting! We Finns thrive in that sort of weather. 
The road to Bovine was initially easy, but soon the infamous 945m climb over dishwasher-sized boulders began. Weirdly I thought it was fun! It was so bizarre and absurd that I couldn't help laughing. I also mistook a tree stump for a person, so I was probably getting a bit tired.

As the night fell the rain transformed into sleet and then snow. It wasn't too bad, just the slowest and most technical part of this race. It was incredible how much it snowed. They had forecasted wintry conditions, and they sure got that right. By this time I was wearing pretty much everything I had in my pack except a couple of 50€ bills. I just kept going in the long line of led-lights climbing up the mount endless.

I had no idea that the word Bovine refers to cattle, but I'd soon find out. I arrived at an old animal shelter and went around the corner to pee in darkness. It took me a while before I realized there were cows everywhere staring at me. They didn't look too comfy to me, but I bet neither did I. I rushed in the hut and had anything hot available at the surprisingly well-stocked aid station. Total time was 11:20, 55.35km and 4265m done.

The 6.37km to Trient was the mother of all dark muddy steep downhills. I don't remember much except that many runners passed me. I descended extremely slowly rather than fell down in mud. Mud is just not my thing I guess. I arrived there in one piece, stayed for 20 mins, and left just before midnight for the last big climb to Catogne. It was 925m straight up to 2009m, and boy was it freezing up there. My fingers were numb again, so I just kept following the slow train that would lead me out of there. There was a fire at the CP, but no one dared stop there for a moment. We just wanted down to the relative warmth of Vallorcine five km away. It was 1:30 at night, and I had been going for over 15 hours. 67.06 km and 5450m done.

In this last 746m descend to Vallorcine it was slippery snow before it got good old slippery muddy. I was lucky to find a really skillful downhill runner to follow. I simply repeated each step that I faintly saw in the dimming light of my lamp. My strongly myopic eyes and thick foggy snow-filled glasses didn't help much in the vision department, but I got the job done very well with a zenlike focus. When I finally got near enough to be distracted by the town lights, I slipped and ass-slided down the rest of the slope. I stopped at the feet of a guy welcoming us to Vallorcine (and back to France). 72.17km done in 16:47.

There was a huge gas heater inside and I took my time warming my hands and drying my gloves. I changed batteries for my Petzl Myo RXP light. I was told the rest of the way would be easy, but I didn't want to take any chances. After 30 mins I went out to the yard and warmed myself further in front of a bonfire while talking to a guy there about the lack of mountains in Helsinki.

Just before 5am on Saturday morning I arrived at Argentiere (78.39km), the last aid station with cameras everywhere because the UTMB runners would come this way too. We would share the same 10.04km to Chamonix. I was feeling ok, but felt like walking all the muddy sections - and there were plenty of them. Dawn improved visibility only slightly as the rain kept on pouring.

Chamonix in sight at last!

Exactly 2 hours after Argentiere I crossed the finish line at Le Triangle de l'Amitié in Chamonix. It was 6:53am, 20:42:55 after start. 88.43 km and 5953m done. I was 78th CCC finisher in V2H category (Men 50-59). I have now collected 12 points this year for the 2013 UTMB (only 7 required for the lottery).

Almost there.
1584 of the 1913 CCC participants finished (83%). For example in TDS only 632 of 1465 were able to finish (43%). Tofol Castaner Bernat of Spain won 2012 CCC in amazing time 8:57:04, arriving in Chamonix 3 mins before UTMB start! Alessandro Alboni was the last CCC finisher in 25:12.

UTMB/TDS/CCC/PTL finish in Chamonix.
I was happy and proud to have played a small part in the world's greatest ultra trail running event. The ever-energetic RD Catherine Poletti was right there to congratulate me with open arms as I arrived. She gave me a hug and kiss and told me I did a good job. I replied 'So did you!'  
The day after at Aiguille du Midi (3842m). The weather is fine again of course!


Dreama Lehman said...

Congrats again TrailPlodder, you did amazing! Those conditions were no joke and you fought through them...Good Luck on your next event!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks! See you at races!

Mike Short said...

I am deeply impressed with your journey. Congratulations on a well-deserved finish.

Trail Plodder said...

Merci Mike!