“Let’s qualify for UTMB” said Boni Kelly almost two years ago now. “Sure”, I said having no real clue of what that meant.
Fast forward two years and I now know, UTMB, the abbreviation for Ultra Trail Mount Blanc is the pinnacle of trail running events set in the European Alps and centred in Chamonix, France. Qualification for the OCC, the 56km, 3500m elevation race at UTMB required six qualifying points achieved by completing two itra recognised trail races with 3 each or 4 and 2 points, eg a 100km and a 50 km Confused???…. see the UTMB website and go to drop down menu: Runners >Qualifying races and > Calculating my number of points and you will see how many points you have and which races you are qualified for. These races needed to completed and qualifying points accrued within the two years prior to registering.
As soon as the UTMB registrations opened in Dec 2018, Boni, Sonia, Jill and I excitedly completed our online registrations as a “group” hoping for a better chance in the lucky draw ballot that is the system for selection to this popular international trail phenomenon. OMG, what a shock when in Feb 2019 we discovered that we had been successfully selected in the ballot!
With the entry secured the next focus was on training for the event with hills and trail running. Using a program designed by my run coach, friend and fellow RMA member Jodie Cumner, Nerang State Forest, Numinbah, Apple Tree steps and Hellfire Pass became my best friends. I also found core stability exercises on a daily basis, gym strengthening and bike riding 2-3 times/week helpful for building strength and stability.
Boni and Susie the travel experts sorted out our shared accommodation, flights and travel plans, thanks girls!
Upon our arrival in Chamonix we were completely overwhelmed not only by the beauty of the picturesque town and its surroundings but that every person on the street could have been a sports magazine cover model! The UTMB Expo was represented by so many brands we had never heard of and the event organisation and volunteer team were without fault.
Race morning brought the usual chaos and excitement with four excited athletes and equally excited support crew rallying in the early hours to make the 5:15am bus to the start line at Orsieres, Switzerland. Amazingly we met another Australian Athlete, Mike who was also running the OCC so you can imagine the group photo and selfie fun!
The race started at 8:15 am with an easy trot through Orsieres, locals lining the streets and I heard one young boy yell out cheerfully “don’t die up there in the woods!”
The first hill came and so too did the hiking poles, creating a hazard and bottlenecks in the crowded forest trails. The first 7.5 km was beautiful forest, soft underfoot and great running, well that was a false sense of security…what followed were 49 more kms of mostly single track, tree roots, rocks, sheer cliff edges and brutal and relentless climbs.
I ran through CP1 at Champex-Lac demoralised by the absence of my support crew who had been held up by roadworks on the access roads, but I was making good time so picked myself up and pushed on. At 16km marked the start of the climb of 850metres to the top of La Giete where the houses in the village below looked like pinpricks, it was so surreal…
Seeing my support team at CP2 in Trient gave me the lift I needed for the next seemingly endless climb up Catogne to its peak at 2000 m. What the locals described as a non-technical course was completely energy sapping for this Aussie gal but this was well compensated by the incredible jaw dropping views, sounds of cow bells chiming in the fields and beautiful Alpine forests. The checkpoints were well stocked with an assortment of nutritional support and I can tell you the Coke never tasted as good!
I stayed a little too long at CP3 in Vallorcine because I needed to restock everything; water, electrolytes and food. Sonya (aka Mumma P) started to think I’d never get out of there. CP3 to 4 had some runnable bits past mountain streams, mainly along goat tracks and with less elevation which was a pleasant break. I ran through CP 4 at Argentiere knowing I had the final challenging, endless climb to the top of La Flegere and past the ski lifts before the last 8km of downhill tree root and rocky single track torture. “UTA on steroids” was the term I used. The last 2km running through the town of Chamonix and up that finish chute was magical and seeing my support team was emotionally overwhelming. My time was two hours slower than I’d hoped, but given the terrain and climbing I was incredibly relieved to be finished and to my surprise in the top 10% of women in my age category!!
OCC: brutal, challenging and awesome, would I do it again?… in a heart beat!
By Sue Seelig.