Cool, Calm & Collected. That was my event moniker in the days leading up to this year’s CCC race (101km, 6100m+ following the Tour du Mont Blanc route from Courmayeur in Italy around to Chamonix in France). “Yes, rest! Read, meditate, walk and look forward to it. You’re due a good Alpine performance and I’ve got my senses tingling that it’ll be this one” read the message from Jamie, an old running friend from the Lakes and now living in Chamonix, who would be crewing for me on the day.
I had to agree. Some thought I wouldn’t be competitive again 5 weeks after a 100 miler and others tried to talk me into choosing one or the other. I nearly didn’t toe the start line of the Lakeland 100 this year in favour of making the most of my time in the alps with a stronger build-up to the CCC (I haven’t entered next year’s Lakeland 100…). I knew in my own body a week after that race that things were different this year. I was surprised how well I bounced back, so I just kept a low profile in the build-up to this race, headphones on, staring at the ceiling. To those who asked if I had a time or position in mind, I’d answer with a smile: “Not really, it’s ultra-running, anything can happen”...
I have a long history of disastrous European performances. I’d almost resigned myself to forever being a bigger fish in the smaller bowl of UK trail running. I sat down after the TDS last year and tried to get my head around what had gone wrong for me in the past and what it would take to be truly competitive over here, amongst the world’s best. Things are a lot different abroad and it’s difficult to adequately prepare both body and mind for the challenges of race day by training in the UK. I had done my homework and couldn’t think of any stone I’d left unturned in the lead up to this race, having taken the plunge to move out here when the opportunity arose in June.
After a turbulent few days wondering if the route would be changed in light of the bad incoming weather, on the start line I was ready for whatever events unfolded on the day. Things felt different now and I knew I wasn’t kidding myself. From my mountain bike racing days, I know the difference between telling yourself you can do something and knowing you can.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I held back early on and paced it well. At the top of the second main climb, Gran col Ferret, I was 36th. But the reality of the situation tells a different story. Only an hour in I was hurting badly. I found the initial pace on the first few road kilometres manageable and was running with the front group, heart rate high but well clear of threshold. Once the gradient kicked up and the poles came out however, I was hoping to settle down into a more manageable effort. But I just couldn’t seem to get going, heart rate often beginning with 17-, for an effort I’d usually see a happier 16-. I even began struggling with asthma, something that used to plague me during my junior mountain bike racing days, but have since learnt to control and was sweating heavily in the warm conditions. After loosening his shoelaces, eventual winner Hayden strides past with seeming ease.
Relieved to reach the top with UK runner Harry Jones I’m able to back off a bit and let others fly past me, hammering their quads. ‘Just run your own race’ I think, reminding myself to keep my effort, nutrition and hydration in check from mile one. Too often I’ve fallen victim of competing with others too early on and fallen foul of my efforts later. Not today. A niggle in my right Achilles that flared up a few days before the race got a good working on the rutted singletrack to Refuge Bertone so I backed off, aiming to get to the next major climb in good shape, conceding that I would always lose time to others on the more runnable sections. Several passed me during the next hour or so, but I was happy to let them go. There was a long way to go to Chamonix.
Leaving La Fouly after the long descent to get there, we were faced with a seemingly endless road diversion that cut out most of the lovely singletrack to Praz de Fort which had suffered from a recent landslide. Two others catch me and despite trying to run hard I was now in a sorry state, a debilitating stitch adding to the despair. I thought of my friend Will behind me and how he’d probably love ‘positively wind milling’ down this, as he would put it. I wish I felt the same. I have two DNF’s to my name and I’m ashamed to admit it now but I was contemplating collecting a third at the upcoming Champex Lac aid station and throwing in the towel half way. The body wasn’t so bad but the mind was unravelling and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand the downward spiral. I reasoned that it may be good to ‘save the legs’ for the upcoming Ben Nevis Ultra in two weeks and tried to think of an empathetic Facebook post to rationalise my choice. Maybe I was just destined to never cut it out here, despite my best efforts and will.
But then I ate a bit, the trail kicked up, hiking poles came out and all was well with the world again. Phew.
It was a relief to meet Jamie and get my first solid feed down and take a few minutes to rest and regroup mentally. After a brief mandatory kit check I left in much better spirits, catching a few runners along the lake front with a friendly Irish guy called Paddy, who lives in California. He was pushing the pace but after several hours I started to feel normal and could hang with him. ‘Cruise the climbs, hammer the downhills’ we agreed as we caught up to a group in front before the next steep section.
We drifted up into the cloud, the poles came out again and immediately I felt the pace lull. My cycling background means power hiking will always be my forte and as much as part of me wanted to hang with the group and stick to Paddy’s plan, I came here to race and getting to the finish line as fast as I could would mean making the most of my strengths. I saw a Hoka jersey leading the group as I passed. It was Harry. “I had a feeling I might see you again”, which I didn’t say to rub it in. A great guy I have a lot of admiration for, doing a lot for the scene and I was hoping he’d have a top-10 run too, but his body language told me otherwise.
I fed off knowing I had broken the top-20. From here there are three large climbs and descents home and I started to feel really strong, putting time quickly into those I passed and trying to be sensible down the slippery descents to maintain my gains.
And that’s how the rest of the race went over the last three climbs that divide the second half: Poles out and push hard uphill making sure not to overcook it, music on, focus, run where feasible, hydrate and consume liquid calories, 100mg caffeine, get to top, stash poles and iPod, concentrate, 80% beans downhill, try and eat something solid, see Jamie at aid station, restock and get real food in, repeat…
Leaving Vallorcine in 14th and managing to run all the way to Col des Montets, as I had practiced during training on tired legs, Jamie tells me there are four guys ahead that all look tired, that I’m stronger than they are. A primal switch is flicked and I’m now in hunting mode, no longer the prey.
“If I was you I’d be focusing on a top 20 finish and being content with that. Maybe, maybe, top ten but it might not be realistic at this point in your career”…
Don’t believe everything you’re told.
I stuck to my rhythm and after such a rough start am now gripped by frenzy, raw with emotion and prepared to fight for every damn minute until I cross that wretched finish line. Immersed in the ultra-race experience that I have craved for several years, running the race I knew I could run, the outskirts of Chamonix appear through the mist below.
The course had been rerouted to a lower-level variant to shelter slower competitors from the forecast bad weather. I’d heard my housemate complain about how technical one section is and he wasn’t wrong. But there’s no holding back now and I pick off three runners who seem riddled with apathy as I wince my way down the gnarly, rooted path, revelling in its audacity on legs that are now feeling the effects of over 5000m of descending.
The last of the four takes some effort to catch. As they come closer into view I make out a Hoka jersey and my heart sinks. Damn I was hoping he’d make the podium. It’s Jorge Maravilla, 2:21 marathon runner and the ‘Happiest Man in Ultrarunning’ according to his website. It’s true! The son of an El Salvadorian migrant and a humble guy with an interesting story, we met while recceing the CCC route with fellow Brit Tom Evans (who finished a stellar 4th) and spent a memorable day chatting and enjoying the scenery in beautiful weather. “Hey Mike!” he beamed with a smile when he saw me approaching. I was almost embarrassed as I passed, did I stop for a chat or push on?! I knew he’d understand I was on my own journey and didn’t have much energy for conversation, so continued grunting my way up the winding trail ahead.
One last push to Flegere, catching another runner on my way and I’m surprised by the lack of response from those I passed. Broken men. Go out as hard as they do and you’ll pay for it later, maybe my difficult start was a blessing in disguise. I rushed through the checkpoint and took a few swigs of Coke from the bottle (sorry!). ‘Go for broke’ the timing plan said so that’s just what I did, taking the risk not to bother with my headlamp and squinting my way through the dim wooded sections, catching one last runner during my graceless tumble back down towards the tarmac of Chamonix.
The damp, miserable evening had all but consumed the town, but couldn’t dim the fire burning bright within, nor could the deafening crowds drown out the voice in my head: ‘Good work Mike, about time!’. A European performance that I feel does my modest potential some justice at last. I stumbled over the finish line to my name being announced on the PA, amused by the thought of how many people might recognise it. 8th place. The culmination of 62 miles and five turbulent years of anxiety, setbacks and perseverance distilled into one single moment. Collapsing on the photographer’s stage, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Jamie keeping a watch over me, grinning. I stared back towards the finishing straight that I just ran down and did the same.
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Gratitude: Jamie for crewing and perking me up when I needed it most, Scott at PhysioBikeFit for getting my body ready to race, Likey’s for the express delivery of shoes when nowhere else had them in stock, Robbie and Mimmi for helping me out and showing me the alpine good life, sports nutritionist Ben Price and TORQ Fitness for the race nutrition and advice, James at Centurion Running for the continued support via Petzl, Lyon Equipment and Drymax Socks (still no blisters!), Will for sharing the journey and finally my old man, the Chester Whoppers and The Sesh for always keeping it unreal and anyone that ever believed in me, I’m starting to do the same…
Training between Lakeland 100 & CCC.
Week 1: Focus on recovery. Massage two days after, cycling, eating well, ample sleep, yoga and restoration. Attend friend’s birthday party in Coniston the weekend after. Laugh lots.
Week 2: Back to regular running on flat trail. Focus on gym work to restore muscles to anabolic state. 3x sessions. First two focusing on general concentric movement, 3rd more emphasis on single-leg eccentric overloading to prepare quads for alps again. Very sore the next day! Cycling to aid recovery, no running on gym days.
Week 3: Back to Chamonix. 5x back-to-back lactate threshold sessions building up to 8min work interval/2min rest x 4 to accumulate 30mins in target work zone. All efforts carried out on steep (>250m/mile) trails, running with hiking poles for race specificity and to reduce physical impact. It's called block periodisation. Cycling and walk to river for a dip most days for active recovery.
Week 4: Couple of easy days to absorb intensity work, then longer runs culminating in CCC race route recce to Col des Montets over two days.
Week 5: Taper with a couple of shorter threshold workouts running gentle gradients (5min work interval/2 mins rest x3. Rest, meditation and yoga to unwind. Break from social media.
Week 4 & 5 included heat adaptation workouts on rest days: 40min run in heat of day wearing base layer, 5x 8inhalation strides at end. Straight into hot (40°C) shower/bath for up to 25mins.
- Salomon S-LAB Sense Ultra Shoes.
- Salomon S-LAB Sense 5L Pack & Pole Quiver.
- Salomon Sense Tee (racing red, naturally), Boxers & 6M Shorts.
- Drymax Trail Running Crew Socks.
- Suunto Spartan Ultra GPS watch & heart rate monitor.
- Gipron Mont Blanc Carbon 125cm Poles.
- Small ziplock bag to carry electrolytes, caffeine & iPod shuffle, stashed in boxer pockets.
Nutrition consisted of TORQ Vanilla energy drink, TORQ energy bars, gels (limited edition summer shandy flavour is the bomb!) & fruit puree pouches.
If you wanna beat me you'll need to drop some cash at: Likeys, Centurion Running & TORQ ;)
- Salomon Bonatti Pro waterproof jacket & pants.
- Salomon S-LAB DWR windproof, stashed in easily accessible pocket at back (didn’t use).
- Salomon S-LAB gloves stored in easily accessible side pockets (used on Gran col Ferret).
- Odlo ‘Light’ long sleeve base layer & Next women’s tights cut into leggings.
- Salomon Speed Bob Hat, TORQ Fitness ‘Buff’ & latex gloves to pass waterproof requirement.
- Hydrapak folding cup, 2x Hydrapak 500ml Ultra Flasks.
- Ziplock pouch containing foil blanket, self-adhesive bandage, whistle, mini phone, two Peztl e+LITE lights (removed whistles) & spare batteries.
- All carried in an Exped 3L XS lightweight drybag.
- Picked up Petzl NAO+ at Vallorcine (didn’t use).