In August of 2014, I ran and completed CCC, a 101km ultramarathon through the mountains of Italy, Switzerland and France. This race is part of the week-long Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, one of the most popular and prestigious long distance trail-running series in the world. This is my report.
I come rushing in from the dripping rain, grab a bowl of chicken soup and slump onto a wooden bench. I’m cold and wet, tired as shit, and mud is smeared all over the place. It’s been raining for several hours and the trails have turned into little brown creeks burbling down the hillsides. Cows graze silently sentinel to hundreds of headlamped coureurs traversing the ridges surrounding Chamonix, its warmth and comfort radiating upwards from the valley below. I really don’t feel like going back out there, but I’m so close to being done.
“One more climb, eight hundred metres. Then 10K down into town. How hard could it be?”
Race day started August 29, 2014 at 7:30am with a flurry of organized transport: first I took a city bus from Taconnaz — a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Chamonix where I was staying — downtown, then a coach to Courmayeur, Italy. The ride was short and mostly spent inside a tunnel beneath the Mont Blanc massive, this being the primary thoroughfare between these two mountain villages. The bus emerged into the Italian dawn and switchbacked down the hill as I peered around wide-eyed and unthinking, just taking in the enormity of my experience. “You’re here, at CCC, the big race,” I said to myself. “You should be so proud. All that preparation. All that training…”
“Holy fuck. 100 kilometres? 6000 metres of climbing? What the hell did I get myself into?”
I was genuinely concerned with this most fundamental realization as the bus stopped and I got up like everyone else and marched toward the starting area. The energy was intense — more like some kind of dance music festival than the start of a footrace — with booming loudspeakers; announcers and spectators chattering in various languages; news helicopters high in the air and little quadcopters hovering over our heads. The starting line was supposed to be organized by bib number, but there were so many runners and so much activity, I picked a spot halfway in the pack and snuck in. Since my confidence had apparently evaporated during the busride from Chamonix to Courmayeur, my strategy for the present was to run conservatively, run my own race, and not worry about my position or that of anyone around me.
Once the UTMB themesong, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, started to play, a warm feeling welled up inside. I lowered my shades and tried to hide the little tears in my eyes. The stoke was so high it was electric.
Three, two, one…
I trotted through the streets of Courmayeur amid an international array of fifteen-hundred ultramarathoners, my aim being generally not to run too fast. It was inspiring to see so many locals out lining the streets, shouting, “Venga, venga! Bravo!”, clanging cattlebells of all sizes and even old bakery ladies slapping breadknives against their cutting boards. We didn’t spend long in town, however, before departing cozy Courmayeur and beginning the first climb of the day up to Tete de la Tronche.
Here I was rather rudely awakened as over a thousand runners attempted to bottleneck onto the first bits of singletrack trail that this race utilizes in great quantity. “Procession” is the word which characterized the first part of this race as we slowly plodded or sometimes stood at a standstill in a long queue switchbacking up the hill. Though confused, I was equally content to trickle up the first climb of the day at this snail’s pace while, looking back, what took us over two hours should have taken less than half that time and only resulted in me being out there longer, at nighttime, when I was tired and when it was raining. Lesson learned.
Once we reached the top of Tete de la Tronche, the procession opened up and we skirted across wide open ridges with the Italian Aosta Valley falling away to our lefts and a storm-shrouded Mont Blanc brooding to our rights. This is what UTMB was all about. This is why I wanted to run this race in the first place. This is why I came here, to run some motherfuckin’ singletrack on some motherfuckin’ ridge in the sky with some bigass motherfuckin’ mountains in the background.
We descended into Refuge Bertone where I was pleased to discover that what’s called an “aid station” in Europe is actually what we refer to as an “all-you-can-eat buffet” in North America. Cheese, crackers, fresh bread, cookies, nutrition bars, dried meat, soup, chocolate, coffee, tea and more were all for the taking by the hungry runner. Thus, I generally spent way too long in these absurdly comfortable aid stations. Second lesson learned: don’t get distracted by the munchies, Tom!
After Bertone, we began the long, undulating traverse along the Italian flank of Mont Blanc east towards 2500m Grand Col Ferret, Italy’s border with Switzerland. Without any sustained climbs, it was pleasant to cruise along and enjoy the improving scenery and weather. There were lots of enthusiastic spectators throughout every part of this fairly remote course, but as I descended toward Arnuva I passed one who stood out. A little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, with blond ringlets cheered, “Allez! Allez, Tom!” and nonchalantly gave me a high-five as I passed. This moment infused me with emotion — for little kids getting stoked about mountain, even endurance, sports is inspiring — and I continued to milk it for motivation throughout the rest of the race.
Leaving Arnuva, we began the long slog up to 2500m Grand Col Ferret, one of the highest points in the race. I sprinted along the river flats and soon encountered people struggling to ascend the (only) second climb of the day. I trotted up the moderate grade at a pace I might employ on Tunnel or Sulphur Mountains in Banff — hills I run in entirety — then put hands to knees and powerhiked, passing a couple hundred resentful runners along the way. The masochistic quantities of vert I’d put into my body over the summer had prepared me, and standing on top of the high pass overlooking Italian Val d’Aoste on one side and Swiss Valais on the other, I felt fresh and unfazed.
Surprised as I was to see people struggling up the col, I was equally surprised to see others hesitant to move quickly down its extremely runnable backside toward La Fouly. It was here that I experienced my only bout of stomach upset, bolting down a hard-packed gravel trail with me and everything inside me (including a lot of gel) being repeatedly hammered by freefall and then impact. I clasped my fingers and pleaded; looked skywards to the ultrarunning gods and prayed for them to save me. Then as fast as it came, my nausea retreated and it was back to snapping pics and putting one foot in front of the other, in that order.
Leaving Champex, it began to get dark. The temperature was warm but it was drizzling so I made the (perhaps absurd) decision to remove my damp singlet and wear my Gore-Tex shell with no shirt underneath. I did this to preserve my still dry midlayer shirt which I would surely need later when it became colder and wetter. As can be imagined, soon I was damp on the outside with rain and literally dripping with sweat inside my shell, so the waterproof quality of my ~$500 jacket was more or less nullified. Since the race, I’ve reflected on this decision which made me very uncomfortable for the next few hours but ensured I wouldn’t be hypothermic and unable to finish later on.
The sun set as we started the march up to Bovine. No one who has not run a UTMB race — or at least run around these hills after dark — can understand the horror inherent in greeting enormous, munching cow faces grotesquely illuminated by one’s headlamp. The mood was spooky, like some sort of zombie film, with thick mist hanging over the damp soil which hundreds of trail-running sneakers tilled with squishy fart sounds each footstep.
The trail was profoundly wet and rivulets of muddy water followed the path of least resistance wherever it could be found. My descent into Trient thus took on a form of locomotion closer to downhill skiing, or sliding into home-base, than running by any means.
My shoes hit cobblestone and I jogged toward the aid station when I heard someone shout my name. On this side of the world, there was only one person who knew me or my name and I was stoked to see him. Louis Marino, in whose flat I was staying in Chamonix, had been leading a multiday tour around Mont Blanc, and after his clients had wined and dined he waited around in the rain to catch me without knowing for sure that he would.
I stopped and talked with Louis and some drunken farmer (for these aid-stations were lively social events for locals who lived in the semi-remote pastures) while simultaneously toweling dry the inside of my jacket and donning the midlayer shirt I’d preserved until now.
Louis asked how I was feeling and I had to admit I was feeling fine. “Fine?” he said with some skepticism. Not even a little tweak? Strain? Sore spot? He surely wondered which form of hard drug I’d been abusing to get me through this race. Meth? Maybe crack. It was uncanny, and I recognized this, but I felt okay. I was cold, wet, mentally tired and, sure, physically fatigued but for all intents and purposes I felt fine.
“DO WE HAVE A TOM AMARAL IN THE CROWD?” I then heard over the loudspeakers.
For the second time in twenty minutes, my head perked up like a deer in highbeams. Apparently, two people in Europe knew my name. I lifted my hand sheepishly.
“HEY TOM, THIS ONE IS FOR YOU!” said the announcer, then this came on:
The aid tent at Vallorcine was total and utter carnage, with runners sprawled everywhere… Some were slumped head down on the tables surrounded by food from the checkpoint, clearly having lost the battle against tiredness. — Hong Kong Trail Runner
Around 1:30am, I ripped down into Vallorcine like some sort of crazed mountain-running automaton, grabbed a bowl of chicken soup and slumped down onto a wooden bench. I crushed one bowl of soup, then another, shivering, still dressed in shorts. There was only a comparatively small amount left in the race. From here, I had an 850m climb to the top of Tete aux Vents on the Aiguilles Rouges then an eleven kilometre descent into downtown Chamonix. Eight-hundred metres is nothing, I reasoned. I can climb eight-hundred metres in my sleep. In the peak of summer, if I only climb eight hundred metres in a day, I come home all depressed and bummed because I only climbed eight-hundred metres that day. But this climb was the CLIMB FROM HELL.
The stumble up Tete aux Vents/Flegere was hideous. There was a lot of cursing; that last hill is sadistic and makes anything else I’ve ever done in a race pale in comparison of difficulty. – Anton Krupicka
By this point, it was three in the morning. Rain had been falling for over six hours. I’d been awake for nearly twenty-four and running for eighteen. This last climb of CCC — and UTMB — was some of the steepest and rockiest slogging (that isn’t technically “scrambling”) I’ve ever encountered, a borderline third-class staircase of jagged stone steps meandering steeply up the mountain and into the dark.
Once we topped out and passed the Tete aux Vents checkpoint (two guys wandering around with a barcode scanner in the dark), I incorrectly assumed (wishfully thought?) that we were on our way back to Chamonix. In reality, we still had yet to hit the final aid-station, Flegere. The long, slippery traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges was taking so much longer than expected that I’d lost track of where I was or how close I was to being done. I simply kept my eyes locked on the trail, knees high and feet moving. The tediousness of watching the ground was tempered by sublimity in the sky, however: an temperature inversion caused the cloud cover to descend into the valley, revealing the lofty, white summit of Mont Blanc standing guard beneath a canopy of stars.
Finally we hit Flegere and I sat there silently, nursing a final bowl of soup. “Okay, that climb was a little harder than expected,” I said. “But now it’s only 10K down into town. How hard can it be?”
Those cruel and sadistic UTMB course designers, they knew what they were doing when they picked this route. They knew the CCC runners would be suffering: cold, wet, tired and hungry, lacking coordination and wanting desperately to finish. UTMB runners would be the same, only worse. They might have selected some soft, cruisy, runnable trail for the last ten kilometres of this race, something like any number of other trails utilized during UTMB. But no, they singularly opted for the most frustratingly rooty, rocky, almost-runnable trail possible.
Back home in Banff, my girlfriend and others followed along online: “Ten kilometres to go, how hard can it be?” they wondered. As painful as the last ten kilometres were for me stumbling down from the top of Flegere, they were surely as painful for my friends staring at my progress halted on their computer screens. When things began to take longer than expected, they speculated that I was injured or walking, which is precisely what I was doing though I wanted nothing more than to be bounding along gracefully like some agile Chamois.
After what felt like an eternity of downhill hiking (something I hate on a good day), the trail mellowed, grew a little wider and allowed me to stretch out my legs and actually run. When I finally spotted the texture of drab concrete lit by the dull, orange glow of a streetlamp, I thought it was a mirage. “Finally!” I gasped cathartically as the rubber on my sneakers left the dirt and met the road. Running on pavement had never felt so good before.
Once off the trail, I had only a few kilometres left to run through the familiar streets of downtown Chamonix. I jogged along, nearing the centre of town. It was six in the morning and everything was quiet. I’d been on the move for twenty-one hours and awake for over a full day. The glow of a new morning was beginning to appear, I was somewhat disoriented and wasn’t really sure what day it was. But here I was at the finale of an event I’d variably lusted after and dreaded; anticipated and trained for; cursed and reviled – the whole spectrum of every emotion – and now it was all over.
Most important to me was the feeling of many years of hard work being examined and me passing the test. I’ve always considered the mountains an arena for challenging oneself, but here I’d travelled to a strange place and set my blend of Canadian Rockies mountain-running against an altogether different grindstone. Summers spent wandering aimlessly in the Yukon, then scrambling in the Rockies in a perpetually lighter and faster manner, had developed into a mature state. The feedback loop I had nurtured between me and my home mountains — the lessons I`d learnt and the machine that had been chiseled out of continual contact with them — was proven to be something that could be exported and successfully applied to epic mountain ranges elsewhere in the world.
I crossed the finish line looking like the embodiment of good running form, then hobbled over to collect my finisher vest – a teal Polartec fleece vest I’ll probably never wear, but of which I’m goddamn proud. I looked back wistfully at the finishing area and iconic UTMB arch like a final glance to a lover one will never see again, then shuffled off alone. Sidewalks normally inundated were vacant and void, save for me in my filthy trail-running garb. I couldn’t wait to brew up some Lavazza, hop in the shower and hit some of that hash I got off that English kid, but I was going to have to find a way home first.
I guess I could run home; it’s only ten kilometres. How hard could it be?
The following is a list of gear that I wore or carried during the race. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc races, including CCC, require several items of mandatory equipment be carried at all times.
- Arcteryx wool cap
- A Buff
- Julbo sunglasses
- Mountain Stride Fitness singlet
- Arcteryx Phase base upper (utilized as a midlayer shirt)
- Icebreaker Merino underwear
- Icebreaker Merino glove liners
- Homemade waterproof gloves (from dishwashing gloves)
- Lululemon Surge shorts
- Lululemon Surge tights
- Lululemon No-show socks
- Mountain Hardware Plasmic waterproof pants
- New Balance MT00V2 trail-running shoes
- Arcteryx Alpha SL gore-tex shell
- Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 2.0 + 2x500mL bottles
- Thermal emergency blanket
- Petzl Tikka XP headlamp
- Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp
- Extra AAA batteries for headlamps
- Collapsable bowl
- Platypus bladder
- Whistle that comes with UD packs
- Adhesive first-aid bandage sold in droves at pharmacies in Chamonix
- Tiny tub of vaseline
- Mobile phone that works in France, Italy and Switzerland
- My North American smartphone, for purposes of taking pictures
- Hammer Nutrition Gel
- Hammer Nutrition Fizz electrolyte tabs
- Some random other nutrition bars I grabbed at the Ultra-Salon which were pretty good…
Things Definitively Not Carried During This Race:
- Trekking poles 😀