Dick Jones and the UTMB – the sequel
Ok, so it’s the UTMB 2017 and Dick Jones returns to Chamonix for the second time, I fly in on the Monday with my two daughters now aged 13 and 15 to be followed by my wife Lisa (now aged 48) on the Thursday to assume the parental role, Hmmmm. Mice-play/cat away springs to mind. We met Lisa off the transfer bus where she had been sat next to a guy also transferring in to run. They started talking when after some time the guy turns to her and says “You’re not Dick’s wife by any chance?” What are the chances, 2600 runners in UTMB alone and she’s sat next to a running friend Mark Davies who’s been to our house.
Anyway, my first attempt, 3 years previously doomed by an accident 2 days before race day (But we won’t mention that). Riddled with self-doubt and a sense of impending doom, I have never been so nervous about a race before in my life. I don’t know why, perhaps because I knew what I was about to embark on or perhaps the pressure I’d put myself under to finish quicker than the last time.
The issue for me and UTMB is that I don’t feel in control of it, there are so many variables that can affect the race and your performance that I don’t think it’s possible to know if you will even finish let alone predict a time.
Having been on the running scene for a number of years now I have come to know a lot of runners, some of who are also racing this week. I’d pre-arranged to meet up with a good running friend and training partner Katie Roby, Katie and I have been training together for many years, she was running TDS this year so Team Jones was supporting her as well as crewing for myself. Katie’s re-assurance that I’d put the training in went a long way as she’d mostly put that training in with me.
Lisa highlighted the positives to be taken over the past year, I wasn’t injured starting off this time, I’d managed some good PB’s this year, my training had been more qualitative that quantitative, I had better support crew than Team Salomon! Hmmm! and she’s given birth twice!!
The Tuesday evening I meet up with a good friend Rich Fuller, Rich had recently completed 6 iron-men in 6 days so was still recovering yet mentally in a bad place because of the probability of withdrawing from the TDS. We ran sensibly for an hour and offered each other support, kind of like a mini therapy session. If Rich didn’t have a UTMB in his legs he didn’t have a TDS either, he had nothing to prove in Cham and needed to get over it. I needed to calm the nerves down and get on with it!! Shrink duties over.
Ok, such a personal thing, lets start from the bottom,
Trainers: OMG! We could write a whole encyclopaedia on these but look, whatever works for you don’t try and fix it. Personally, La Sportiva’s for me every time, I will always recommend them, I don’t suffer with blisters from them as I have with other brands, they give me the ankle support and drop that I need for my Moretons Neuroma, they have a great toe box protection so if you kick a stone that doesn’t move, you don’t have to work on controlling your vocabulary and finally, they last for more than a month unlike some other brands that I also actually like but need a part-time job to afford to keep replacing (You know the ones!).
Problem with Sportiva’s is that they aren’t that popular which means they are seldom on offer and rarely found off-line. Lucky for me my locals, https://www.likeys.com now stock the brand.
As I said, I don’t suffer with blisters so I can wear cheap socks from Aldi’s £3 a pair, they don’t last that long though. I chose to wear compression socks not because I need to but because I am a lazy git and the mandatory kit permitted long socks instead of full leg covering so guess what? When it get’s cold I pull my socks up (which incidentally I need to do more of, not just running)
I wore compression shorts, my mate is a surgeon and an ultra runner who claims that there is little if any research that suggests compression actually works while performing but guess what, he wears compression shorts too so, Dick wears compression shorts to avoid chaffing, support quads, for comfort, to save time pulling leggings on if the weather closes in and 118-118 shorts is not a good look for Dick.
I set off to the start line commando style thinking the inner lining would suffice but immediately they shot up the crack of my butt almost bringing tears to my eyes. Now, I also use Zero salt tablets which gives me wind so here lies the dilemma, I couldn’t take the risk of running 170Km with what felt like Borat’s mankini on using Zero’s, one fart and the local farmers sheep dogs wouldn’t know if they were coming or going! So, back to the apartment for a pair of wick away, anti-wedge sports briefs.
I chose to wear a Salomon-exo running shirt with a super fine Craft gilet over to keep the fine rain off, the gilet soon came off after the first ascent but proved valuable later on. At Courmayer I replaced my shirt for a roomier Nike dry-fit T-shirt. I can’t say which one I preferred but the Salomon grips me under the arms tighter than a standard T.
I upgraded my Garmin Fenix 3 to a Fenix 5, the battery life of a 3 simply didn’t cut it, they boast 50hrs but I was lucky to get 18 out of mine, I complained saying I didn’t expect my Ferrari to perform like a Kangoo, they sent me a new watch but was no better. I upgraded to the 5 which boasts 100hrs on ultra-track, I don’t see the upgrade worth the cash, I really liked my 3 but battery life was poor. The 5 provided longer and lasted the whole race. Happy, but it still doesn’t live up to what Garmin promotes it as.
My jacket was an OMM Kamelika and I use a Petzl Nao head torch, the Nao can be used with ordinary AAA batteries but my Petzl battery pack was sufficient for one night on autonomous mode, if you want to use the full 535 lumens and warn passing ships in the Mediterranean then don’t expect the torch to last. Worth noting, at CP’s UTMB in cahoots with Garmin/Petzl provided charging points and replacement batteries, I just didn’t hang around to use the facility, the clock was ticking.
I also used Mountain King, collapsible race stick’s, hey if they’re good enough for that Jornet bloke they’re good enough for Dick. Super-light easy to fold/use/stow-away. Only point to make, at 2500m and -10 degrees aluminium becomes a trifle cold! If I didn’t need them later I would have considered eating my own fingers off because the nutrition/protein value would have probably been worthwhile and I wouldn’t have needed anaesthetic because I wouldn’t have felt a thing. After some thought I decided that if my laces came undone later I may need my fingers to tie them so decided to opt for a protein bar and live with the pain of finger thaw later. So, if you’re thinking of buying a pair, you may want to opt for carbon fibre pair, also available at https://www.likeys.com .
Stood under the Arch at Chamonix tensions were high, athletes crammed into the start pen like Arabic race horses, dripping in £1000’s of pounds worth of equipment and protruding cheekbones makes you feel very small. Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise booms over the atmosphere to make the hairs stick up on your neck, as if the tension wasn’t high enough. I shut my eye’s absorbed the moment and told myself “nobody made you do this, it’s choice so get on with it” to be honest I was over the nerves by now and just wanted to get started.
So fast forward, surge through an amazing Chamonix crowd ‘Allez allez!!” “Bravo” I spot Team Jones support crew in the crowd, final farewell’s, the field opens up and running settles down, I no longer feel the need to sprint to the toilet with emergency paper in hand.
So, if I dwell on the whole race this account will turn into war & peace (if not already) so I’ll try cover just a couple of interesting points.
Ok, so as we approach the trail to Les Houches I’m hit by a passing locomotive, a French runner simply ploughs straight into me in an attempt to pass, sending me flying into the paths of other runners. Now, I’m a red-blooded south wales male usually in control of my inner-chimp but the cage door immediately flew open and Chimp was out, I ran for the leash and just as I was about to clip the karabiner to his collar the chimp reacted. Red-mist saw Albert- le Blanc short-armed and thrown against the spectator boarding. Only then did I manage to re-house the chimp and fight or flight my humanistic side decided that I wasn’t going to get disqualified for this so flight it was. Everyone around me appeared to support my reaction and Albert continued on his way shoving and barging others out of the way. On reflection I thought perhaps someone had tripped him into me but the way in which he continued barging and pushing re-affirmed my original reaction. My issue here is runners have trained long and hard for this, they’ve travelled from all over the world and spent a lot of money to get here. One individual can ruin all of this within the first mile by this type of behaviour, thankfully I never saw him again and hope he didn’t ruin anyone’s race.
This race was going to be a long hard shift without having to utilise unnecessary energy going a 3 minute round with Klitchco so I again settled down into my conservative pace. There’s still a long way to go. An uneventful ascent other than spotting Joe Grant on the way up then loosing light as I dropped into St Gervais, this place is simply awesome, the crowds are amazing, the music is booming as you run through the CP you really feel like you’ve won the race! Sign me up, who want’s to sponsor Dick then?? Next came Les Contamines and shock horror my legs start to ping again.
Perhaps I should explain, it appears on these long races I suffer with cramp. UTMB 3 years ago, Lavaredo last year and now same again. I try to control it but at 18miles both legs completely locked out despite consciously taking on more salt than usual. I don’t know what I can do to prevent it, I use Salt sticks and Zero’s but still it happens and my clothes are so wet that I could have been swimming in the river. Strangely this wouldn’t happen in a local 45mile race so why does it happen on long European races and so early on. It costs me time and effort, I’m reduced to a walk for longer than I appreciate until I can get the wheel back on the wagon. Maybe an hour later the problem is over and I have no more cramp for the entire duration. If anyone reading this has any advice I’d like to hear it because it’s costing me time and positions.
By now I felt at a low point, doomed, how was I going to pull this back, cramped yet again at 18miles, this years extended UTMB course was going to register approx. 110 miles. Some say cramp is all in the mind, believe me, this was all in the legs!! I’ve had cramp previously so bad, usually post race, that my entire body from waist down spasm’s, I sweat instantly, uncontrollably, wobble around on my cold tiled kitchen floor resembling CP30 in agony. One time following a particular bout of it I’d pushed haemorrhoids out and believe you me I’ve had more pleasant experiences. Hmmmmm. Advice please. (Not sit on a inflatable ring)
I digress, I walk for a section to control the cramp, I neck copious amounts of water, pop yet another 2 salt sticks and take it easy on the next ascent. I manage to get the wheel back on the wagon but unsure how tight the nuts are.
Weather conditions on the tops were atrocious, driving snow, minus -10, rain on the lower sections, views were rubbish bit like being back in Wales really. I got myself to Lac Combal where it was freezing, if I had a UTMB criticism for me this was the coldest CP and there wasn’t a runners tent, amazing finger buffet but you have to sit out in freezing conditions high up to consume it, maybe not so bad after all as I didn’t hang around here and just got a shift on. The sun rose on the next ascent and conditions improved. My legs felt good and I made good progress towards Courmayeur. Here I decided to change my shorts because they were slightly big and I wanted more support for the remaining distance, I had another night to contend with and didn’t want to chance anything. I also changed my shirt opting for a looser fit that I could wear a base layer under if required. I didn’t incidentally, for the remaining I either ran in just my T, or opted for my faithful gilet under my Omm pull over through the bad weather and cold nights. So, change of clothes, protein bar, whip of Sudocreme in places we shan’t discuss in detail and Dick is on his way again.
Sun came out on the next ascent, baking, sweating, burning. Thankfully when I reach the refuge I sit in the shade, the height quickly reminds me how soon cold sets in.
Ok, this stories getting boring, lets fast forward to some low points, in a race like this you get highs and low’s excuse the pun, yes I had some low moments where I found myself moving what felt like pitifully slow where I had to have long word with myself and reflect on my behaviour. This usually works for me but when your brain isn’t working properly, this is most of the time for me running or not, it’s identifying when you are in a deep dark place you never knew existed and knowing when it’s time to have that word. I’m not a bad descender so I make up some of my time downhill, there were times where I was really letting the brakes off and feeling good but in the back of my mind I thought to be careful, twisted ankles are unfriendly and I would need my quads later so on really technical ground I decided to change down a gear for later.
As I ran into Le Fouly I was greeted by an unexpectedly Team Jones support crew, it was so good to see them and they lifted me mentally. It’s not easy supporting, they had travelled 2 hrs on a bus to see me for 5mins through a CP, I wish I could have spent more time with them but the clock doesn’t stop. I start shuffling through Orsieres on my way to Champex Lac as they travelled past waving at me on the bus. As I ascent towards the final pull into Champex there’s hot food there and by now I needed it, I can hear the music booming over the speaker and Team Jones yelling again, fair play they had arrived here too. I was able to spend a little more time with them here as I was re-fuelling.
The second night approached sometime on the climb following Champex Lac over Bovine and dropping into Trient, I ordered team Jones to go home now and see me at the end as the next section I would be pushing on to finish and would be unrewarding for them. With the darkness came the cold again, it takes seconds once you enter a CP tent to cool off and leaving the tent see’s me shivering uncontrollably and hyperventilating into my jacket to try and retain some heat. In Trient I filled a water flask with tea, it acted like a hot water bottle and would cool off later so I found myself swilling cold tea on the tops, by now I didn’t care.
I was focussed on the finish line, two more major climbs and I was home. The descent into Vallorcine is horrible, it’s technically demanding and steep. With my aging eye’s despite having a good head torch I don’t have the confidence descending at night as I have in the day so again, I took it easy into Vallorcine and worked hard on the climb out, kind of reversed my strategy now.
I had returned to UTMB to right my previous poor performance, I had a time in mind that I would have been happy with but I was well ahead of that. Somehow, yet again my pea sized brain played cruel tricks on me and I thought I was going to loose my time goal. Somehow I found strength for the final ascent from somewhere and pushed really hard to Flagere, as I entered the CP tent to “Bonjour” I walked straight through to “Au revoir!” One final descent back into Chamonix and it was over. Now I didn’t care about twisting an ankle, I threw caution to the wind, I could crawl in from here if necessary so really opened up on my final drop in. through the deserted streets of Cham Team Jones re-appeared and both my daughters crossed the finish line with me for the second time. Game over – blow up ref!
I get this so wrong and so right but soooo inconsistent, I can run 50miles in the Beacons on a litre of water and one flapjack and do a reasonable job and other times forget it. I don’t understand carb’s, complex, sugar spikes etc, I just want to run. This year I didn’t eat much in the aid stations, I had some bowls of soup with noodles in and a slice of bread, I eat two protein bars with hot tea, I had a few biscuits with coffee, four gels and a bowl of pasta at Champex with a small piece of cake that I can remember. I filled water at every stop and remember feeling thirsty for a lot of the run so constantly sipped but occasionally really necked a good drink. I drank from swollen streams and running water spouts along the course, I drank Coke, energy drink, and added some recovery drink to my water once but predominantly I drank water with salt stick tablets.
I remember being in several CP’s where I started smashing watermelon into me, I mean what’s that all about?? How much nutritional value do I get from watermelon?? There’s energy bars, drinks, enough sugar to send you into orbit, biscuits, figs, chocolate but oh no, Dick’s craving watermelon like an expecting mother.
Dick’s walk now makes the Tin-Man look like Usain Bolt. I’m shuffling around like I’ve filled my nappy. Eating is difficult, I have to force food down in tiny quantities and it burns as I swallow both food and drink. My head is spinning and I drift in /out of conversations, one minute I’m fully aware of my surroundings and absorbed in the moment the next I’m on another planet, thinking about it that’s pretty normal for me anyway. I sweat at night through interrupted sleep thinking where is this fluid coming from? I’m dehydrated.
This lasts for a about 4 days and slowly settles down, the calorific deficit sees me eating anything from old ladies to young children, anything that gets in the way really until finally it all settles back to normal then the post race blues kicks in and I start looking for the next race.
I’m not selling this very well am I?
Finally, if you haven’t fallen asleep by now, running something like this requires support and Team Jones are simply amazing, big thanks to them and all my mates who send supportive text messages along the way, you know who you are.