Challenge – Craziness – Courage
We arrived in Chamonix in the dark, late at night and did not see much of the mountains until the next morning. When I say we, I mean my husband Adam, my parents and myself. My parents came all the way from Namibia to watch me race – very exciting! – since, living in Namibia, they obviously can’t watch me race very often.
When I woke up the next morning, looked out the chalet window and saw the snow-capped mountains all around, Mont Blanc and its magical landscape – happiness and contentment overcame me! It was as if this sense of gratitude, purpose and belonging came over me. Other people may feel it when being by the ocean or in the desert – I feel it in the mountains.
The day before the race was spent packing my mandatory kit, strolling through central Chamonix and registration. Quite interesting, at registration they spot checked four random items of the mandatory kit. The four random items were different for each person. Later on; a long nap, packing the race backpack and dinner followed.
After coffee the next morning, we made our way by car through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur, Italy. My attempt at eating a homemade egg and bacon sandwich left me dry-heaving after a few bites and I had to give in to my nerves – not unusual for me. We walked to the start, which was already buzzing, despite the early hour. I needed the toilet, as one does when there is a lot of adrenaline shooting through the body. The toilet I found near in a sports centre sported a long queue for the gents and none for the ladies, probably a representation of the ratio of men vs. women taking part in this race, … but it also sported a longdrop! Something I certainly hadn’t seen in Europe before.
Since there was some time to kill until the start, I stood in my start pen, talking last minute race strategy with Adam and taking pictures with my parents – their nervousness and excitement being palpable too. The things that stick out to me today include official controllers carrying out random spot checks of the mandatory kit. I remember a lovely couple from Manchester in my start pen – Guy and Stephanie. We got chatting a bit; Guy had done the CCC last year, this year being a joint attempt – Stephanie doing it for the first time. Guy did a great job in reassuring me, and my parents for that matter, that I’ll be fine! Just before the start I received a flurry of messages, specifically from my colleagues. Clearly word had gotten around. I loved reading them!
The first wave went off at 9am and then it was our turn. Just before the start gun went, they started playing the official theme song for the CCC – Across the Mountains by Vangelis – emotions overcame me and I had tears in my eyes. I suddenly realised that finally, finally… after dreaming about it for many years, I was about to realise my dream (or at least attempt to realise it)! I remembered sitting at work last year watching the start of the CCC on my computer via live streaming and now I was standing on the start line myself! I said a quick prayer to the saints of the mountains, sport and travel to support me in my quest.
We counted down to 1, the start gun went and we set off – hearts beating, minds racing. The first couple of kilometres were through the town and the outskirts of Courmayeur, before we hit the forest and the incline increased. The first climb up to Tête de la Tronche (Italy – see the course profile further below) – 10.4km and 1460m of ascending – was long and tough. The heat didn’t make the very steep gradient, crowded with runners, any easier. In fact, I found this climb horrible! It seemed never ending. My heart was racing and I was breathing hard. At one point I had to take a break to catch my breath and eat something, as I was feeling a bit woozy. I did think to myself that if every one of the five climbs is like that, I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end. I was very happy to reach the top after 3:03hrs.
Not long after the top I saw Guy and Stephanie sitting next to the path. Guy wasn’t feeling well and had been vomiting. That gave me a bit of perspective – the first climb was horrible, but at least my food stayed in. Guy had to withdraw two aid stations later due to severe heat exhaustion, but Stephanie continued by herself and finished.
Finally some downhill! But I was tentative. I didn’t want to trip and fall, and I also wanted to save my quads for later. There was still a lot more downhill to come. 50min later I reached the next aid station, Refuge Bertone (Italy; 14.7km and total time of 3:53hrs), which was mayhem. It was like a beehive – runners everywhere! Chaos! There was barely space to move around. From here onwards I was looking forward to seeing Adam and my parents at Arnuva, two aid stations later. It was a long way to go still – over 2hrs, but it drove me on.
From here the path meandered along the side of the mountain and there were more runnable sections, but not many. Very deceiving on the course profile! There was also more uphill on this stretch and it was back to power hiking. The views were just stunning and ever changing – quick stops for photos were allowed. As you do in a long race, you meet some interesting and lovely people:– There was the father and son pair running together – just awesome! – Then there was this guy who broke two toes just a month ago! – There were three Portuguese friends running together. One of them had been to Namibia, so there was some reminiscing. They thought it was very brave that I was running this race on my own as a woman. – One guy asked me if I was born like this; if it was in my DNA or whether I just trained very hard. I had to laugh to myself. If only he knew. It’s definitely not in my DNA… It’s damn hard work!
I never stuck with one person or group of runners for the sake of it. If they were faster, I let them go. If I was faster, I overtook them. That’s how I preferred it – I wanted to go at my own pace.
After an hour and a quarter I reached the next aid station, Refuge Bonatti (Italy; 22.1km and a total time of 5:11hrs), and made a very brief stop. I still had plenty of water in my hydration pack, so just had some coke, some cheese and sausages, and off I was again. The course was undulating at best. But I was in the Alps, what did I expect?!
Now I was running fuelled by the knowledge that I would see Adam and my parents at the next aid station – a great motivator and driver, when you’re running by yourself for so long. For the last 2km the route dropped sharply into Arnuva (Italy; 27.3km and a total time of 6:10hrs) and I could hear Adam shout my name – and my legs immediately felt lighter. Great excitement on both sides… my parents had lots of questions. How was I doing? How was I feeling? If I was tired? Was I hurting? I was good and still smiling. I took a bit more time to refuel here before the next climb – oranges, cold cut meats, cheese, dark chocolate… There was a lot of food on offer. My dad expressed concerns about the next climb, being long and very exposed to the sun, but for some reason I was not too concerned. There was no optionality anyway, if I wanted to get to the finish line.
I said good-bye and set off again. And yes, it was hot! The entire climb was exposed to the sun and I could feel my calves getting burnt. Stupidly, the only place I didn’t put any sunblock on – I was wondering if I’d ever learn that?! Lots of people took brief refuge in little streams and troughs along the way. For me it was still manageable, but I now felt like I deserved a “treat”, so took my iPod out and listened to some rock. This climb was not near as steep as the first one and I found it much easier, as I found a great rhythm and just kept moving. Slowly. Steadily. I didn’t stop much at all. Just one foot in front of the other. With rock music in my ear. I reached the top of Grand Col Ferret at 2537m altitude after 1:30hrs (now in Switzerland; 31.8km in a total time of 7:40hrs). The views from up here were stunning. Snow-capped mountains and glaciers on the one side and lush green valleys on the other. I made a very quick pit stop behind some rocks and started the descent. It was cold up there anyway and no food or water, so no point hanging around.
The first part of the descent was very runnable and it felt good to move a bit faster again. You still had to watch your footing, as it was very rocky at times. We curved around the mountainside and wow! What a beautiful view of the valley below in sunset. How privileged I am to be here and to be able to do this. It was just so spectacular! – The descent continued at varying gradients, but again, the final stretch dropped down more sharply and was very gnarly with roots. I took it easy – I didn’t want to fall, but also didn’t want to thrash my quads yet, as I knew more downhill was awaiting me. I arrived at next aid station, La Fouly, 1:27hrs later (Switzerland; 41.5km and total of 9:07hrs), beating my family to it. They had 100km around the mountain to make up and it was always going to be touch and go. But they clocked in 2 minutes after me – elation once again. I refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some food and coke, and chatted to my family for a bit while finishing off the food. Adam read me some comments and quotes from my friends and wider family. They were hilarious and really cheered me up.“This hill is your bitch.” “Kat is having such an awesome run that Morgan Freeman should narrate it.” “Marathoners say the sky is the limit; ultra-runners say there are footprints on the moon.”
Soon after I left the aid station, two official controllers came towards me, checked my number and chip and walked on. That was it. Weird. The route was now running alongside the river, and although it was relatively flat, it was not easy to run, as it was very stony. We ran through a gorgeous, very picturesque little Swiss village, Praz de Fort (Switzerland), where children made their own aid station and were handing out drinks to the runners. It was one of these typical, picture-perfect Alpine villages with lots of flower pots, water troughs and fire wood stacked up to the roofs. Shortly after Praz de Fort the route kicked up again for 2km to the next aid station. As we entered the forest, I saw some wood carvings. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I asked others and they saw it too. There was a mushroom, a wild boar, an ibex and more. I found joy in seeing these here in this forest so unexpectedly. It was getting dark now, and being in the forest made it even darker, but I was too lazy to get out my head torch, as the next aid station was not far. The moon was slowly rising – it was nearly full moon – and it looked magnificent.
Walking into the aid station tent at Champex-Lac (Switzerland; 55.5km in a total time of 11:49hrs), I entered a different world. Coming from the darkness, solitude and tranquillity outside, I thought I walked into a beer tent at the Oktoberfest! It was mayhem. It was chaos. It was noisy. It was super crowded. Runners sitting along wooden benches and tables, eating and rehydrating. It was a shock to the senses. I found my family and we sat down in a quieter corner of the tent. I took my time at this aid station. I changed into fresh dry kit, which was great – it instantly made me feel a bit refreshed. It was also really necessary, as I was suffering from severe chafing in the nether regions and it hurt! I repacked my backpack, got all my kit for night out and stocked up on food. Then I sat down, had some warm food – bolognaise! – and chatted to my family. Adam told me about a few more comments from my siblings. Apparently my younger sister said: “Not sure who this Zach Miller is [the men’s winner of the CCC], but I think my sister rocks!” 🙂 And my brother asked about the weather forecast for the night, being very concerned about me running around the mountains on my own in the middle of the night. He made me promise to try and stick to other people. – I really enjoyed these comments; it breaks the monotony and gives you something to remember in tougher moments.
Heading out of the aid station, it was properly dark now and everyone had their head torches on. I felt refreshed and was intrigued to see how the second half of the race would pan out – running through the night being new for me too. The temperature was still quite mild at first, but as I climbed higher, it got colder and I had to put on base layer and my jacket too. The climb, la Bovine, started out rocky and only got worse. The rocks got bigger and bigger. At times I had to pull myself up with my arms over boulders and rocks! It was slow, difficult and horrible! It took all my determination to not look at my watch every few seconds to see how many metres of vertical line I had left – I forced myself to wait at least ten zig-zags. At some point nausea set in and it would not let up. Again and again, bouts of nausea overcame me. At times I felt weak and was shaking. I was entering a different type of challenge now – a challenge of the mind! My trainer had said to me beforehand: “When your legs are tired, run with your heart.” It was here when I remembered his words for the first time and thought to myself: “I think I have to start running with my heart now.” It was time to just suck it up. It was unsettling, but at least I didn’t vomit. It also made eating more difficult and nothing I had with me in my backpack appealed to me at this point. At the time I had no idea what it was, but in hindsight I believe I was not sufficiently fuelled and had not eaten enough – hypoglycaemic.
After what felt like an eternity I finally reached the top, and the going got much easier on grass-overgrown paths. The night was very clear with the moon up high and we had a stunning view down into the valley and the lights of the villages. It was breath-taking and lifted my mood, despite not feeling great. While starting to make my way down again, the course took us past little farms and across pastures. From far away you could hear the ringing of the cow bells that is so familiar in the Alps. Running at night, in solitude and the ringing of cow bells through the valley – I loved it! One of my favourite moments. – I reached the next checkpoint, La Giète (Switzerland), at 67.2km and a total time of 15:14hrs. As this was only a checkpoint and not an aid station, I didn’t hang around and pushed onwards down the mountain. Soon the descent led into woods, where the path was very runnable and I made good time. I ran as much as possible, but took it easy over rocky and gnarly stretches. Despite that, I tripped and fell. Luckily I was able to catch myself on some branches on the side, but my heart was racing.
After running downhill for an hour, I was so glad when I arrived at the next aid station, Trient (Switzerland; 72.1km and a total time of 16:14hrs), and utterly exhausted. I just collapsed on one of the benches, unable to move. It was the lowest I felt during the entire race. Luckily Adam was there, despite it being 1:30 in the morning, and he took over. I was still not feeling great and didn’t have appetite for anything. He brought me some bouillon, something I usually don’t like at all, but at this low point this was the only thing I could stomach. I had two bowls, a bit of cheese and some coke, and felt better. I now had less than 30km to go, but I realised it would also take me another 8hrs or so! But I am not allowed think like that! I had to stay positive.
After 20min of rest, I forced myself up and disappeared into the darkness again. It was not easy to the leave the warmth and comfort of the aid station. To be honest, the next climb is still a blur to me. I remember it was rocky and had lots of zig-zags, but it was nowhere near as hard as the previous climb. I also remember a British girl coming back down, going back to the aid station, as she could not stop vomiting! At some point during the uphill I wondered why there was this bright light shining through the trees. How could there be a street lamp here?! It was actually the moon! Just before the next checkpoint I saw a big flock of sheep sleeping scattered around on a hillside. They looked so peaceful and unperturbed at our presence. I reached Catogne (Switzerland), the next checkpoint, after 2hrs (77.3km and total time of 18:16hrs). I didn’t spend time here and started the downhill. This downhill made for great running and I really pushed it, overtaking lots of people. Maybe also the knowledge of seeing Adam and my parents at the next aid station drove me on. I ran hard – well, as hard as you can at night on a rocky, gnarly path going downhill. And I fell hard! It was bound to happen. I tripped over a root and took a proper fall. Due to the weight of my backpack I even did a full roll. I got up, brushed off the mud and inspected the grazings – luckily nothing much – and continued down the mountain. But I was shaken and my heart was racing! The last part to the aid station in Vallorcine (back in France again) dropped down very steeply and I was forced to take it steady. After all, I didn’t want to fall again.
As I got off the mountain, reappearing out of the dark (after 82.6km and a total time of 19:20hrs), Adam and my parents were waiting for me, although it was 4:30 in the morning! It was so good to see them. I so appreciated them being there, it was kind of a relief. I think they were also very relieved to see me and that I was still in one piece, but they could see that I was exhausted now. We were all a bit emotional. I took a short break at the aid station; refueled, got a plaster for my thumb and was out again. On the way out I briefly chatted to my family – I would see them again shortly. I had 18km left and it was hard to understand that that would still take me 4-5hrs?! I was again checked by two controllers coming from the other direction not long after the aid station!
On the profile I had seen that the first 2km were gently upward sloping, after which it would kick up steeply for about 700m of vertical. I power-hiked the first part at a good pace. As I was getting closer to the steep section, I could see a chain of lights of the runners going up the mountain. I am not sure why exactly, but this moment of panic just overcame me. It looked so long and steep, and so hard! In that fleeting moment, I was just not sure how I would manage it. I was coming up to the intersection where the main road leads into Chamonix – my family was waiting there for me. From far away I called for Adam and they could tell that I was in distress. I told them that it looked so steep and so long, and that I’m not sure I can do it anymore. Adam immediately said: “You will be fine, there is only this bit left and then it’s all downhill.” and my mother added: “No no, everyone says this climb is not that bad.” Then one of the marshals, who could obviously see I was worried, said: “Katharina – you are looking good. You MUST go to Chamonix now!” I trudged off into the darkness. As I was alone again, I still heard the marshal shout “GO KATHARINA, GO!” It did make me smile. I also wondered about what my mother had said. How, out of all the people, would she know what this last climb was like?! She did not really know the profile and for sure would not have spoken to anybody about it. I guess sometimes mothers just know what to say.
Slowly I climbed higher and higher. I tried not to look up and forced myself not to look at my watch too often. It was tough – rocky with lots of boulder, but not as tough as the first climb during the night. I started overtaking people, including a train of eight people. It’s not easy to overtake people on these narrow mountain paths with a sheer drop on the one side and I could only overtake one or two people at the time. I had made myself a list of people that I would think of if I am not feeling great.– I thought of my colleague who had lost two family members in the space of two months over the summer. – I thought of a friend of mine who had gone through a very tough time and was now seeing the light on the other side. – I thought of my friend Anna who is pregnant and can only go upstairs with lots of huffing and puffing, but is usually very fit too. – I also thought of my Godson Luuk, who I absolutely adore, and his laughing and smiling. All of these made me grateful to be here, to be able to do this and pushed me on.
Closer to the top it was finally light enough and I could switch off my headlamp. I had schemed with my trainer that at sunrise, I could treat myself to some nice food, something different, like a nice sandwich. At the time though, the thought of food did not appeal to me and there was nothing I felt like eating. It was energy gels all the way. Instead, I was just happy to be up here for sunrise and that the sleep monster never came to visit me. I made it a game that the sun was chasing me and wondered how long I would be able to stay ahead of it. It had not appeared from behind the mountains yet. I finally reached the top of la Tête aux Vents after 2:28hrs (France; 90.3km and a total time of 21:49hrs). I thought that was it, but it wasn’t! The next 3km were incredibly tough – much much harder than expected. It was practically a boulder field and not runnable at all. I got very frustrated with my slow progress and gave up on the idea of finishing in less than 24hrs. I was so glad and relieved when I finally reached the last aid station, La Flégère (France), 48min later. It was here where the sun finally caught me. Seeing the first sun rays against the mountains peaks was just stunning. I enjoyed watching how they slowly moved lower and lower into the valley.
I slurped down another bouillon and had some coke. I also saw the 3 Portuguese friends here again, who had passed me at the start of the night. Tortoise vs hare, huh?! I asked the aid station staff how long it usually takes to get down into Chamonix. They said a good hour, 6km on forest paths and 2km in the village. I had 1:40hrs left to 24hrs. Right! I told myself “Vasbyt Poppie” (which is Afrikaans and means as much as “Hang in there, be tough Girl.”) and set off downhill. I ran and I ran hard. The first part was down a ski run and then into woods, which was extremely technical with roots and little rocks everywhere; very gnarly and uneven. You had to be really careful and sure-footed. I pushed it, but didn’t take unnecessary risks and walked where warranted. Besides being fueled by this innate desire to break 24hrs, I overtook more people and that spurred me on further. As I got lower, the technical path slowly turned into an easy-to-run path. I continued running hard. I could feel Adam was getting worried, so I sent him a quick text saying: “Nearly in town.” He later told me that he was getting worried.
There were now also some spectators on the side, cheering us on. Very strange, at one point we ran right through the garden of a gorgeous, quaint café, Chalet de La Floria! I was so confused that I thought I was lost. Then finally I hit the road into the village with half an hour to go. I did not let up on the pace. It felt like a long way through the streets of Chamonix! Eventually I got into the village center, where some people were lining the route, cheering us on. I spotted Adam and my parents, who handed me a Namibian flag. Emotions washed over me. I was exhausted. I was tired. I was hurting. But I was happy. And all I could do was smile. So after 23:39:59hrs I ran into the finish line, spectators clapping and cheering, holding up the Namibian flag with the biggest smile on my face. It was one of the best moments!
During the following night I got up and hobbled to the window of our chalet. We had a view of the final downhill, coming down from the last aid station, La Flégère. I saw a number of little lights dotted along the route – the UTMB runners, of the 160km route. I felt huge admiration for them, out there for a second night in a row. I also felt deep content about my own achievement, and at that point I didn’t feel like I needed to be out there for a second night.What I have learnt from this race: 1) Never underestimate visualisation and mental preparation. My race would have been very different if I hadn’t focused on mental preparation with my trainer. Just imagine yourself going through the motions and also think about different difficult situation, when you are struggling; what you can do to feel better or if it is time to just suck it up. It was absolute key to finishing this race. 2) Think about your nutrition carefully. I thought about my nutrition beforehand, but not enough. Firstly, I took too much, so made my backpack unnecessarily heavier. I also should have taken more variety of different foods. So if you get tired or sick of a certain taste, you have something else to switch to. 3) Think about your kit carefully. If you think you will do such a race again, invest in proper, good quality, lightweight kit. No point in buying cheaper, heavier kit now and then you find yourself investing in more kit in a few months’ or years’ time. And the weight in your backpack definitely adds up! Results & Stats: Time: 23:39:59 Overall position: 866th (starters: 2129; finishers: 1470) Gender position: 88th (starters: 278; finishers: 192) Age group position: 49th (starters: 107; finishers: 83)