Saffas tackle the iconic UTMB ultra trail race, with Glen Watson braving the mountains in the 101km CCC race. He looks back on the highs and lows …

Posted on Posted in News

I think the idea of running UTMB came to me at the launch of Ryan Sandes book, Trail Blazer, in early 2017. In my copy he wrote “I hope to see you at UTMB, Live your dreams.” Now, how could I not accept such a challenge?

I decided to enter the CCC which is known as the “little sister of the UTMB”
The CCC is 101 km with 6 100 metres of height gain. It starts from Courmayeur, Italy, is semi-autonomy and has a 26hrs 30 mins cut off. Deciding to do the race was the easy part. To enter the race I needed to qualify, which requires 8 points from two races that the UTMB committee has ranked. Once you have that in the bag you enter a lottery and hope for selection.

I chose to do Skyrun which is a 65km traill run starting in Lady Grey and UTCT which is a 65km and completing these gave me the 8 points I needed.
The draw was done in early 2018 and I was lucky enough to be selected. On receiving the news I made a frantic call to Coach Neville for advice and to develop a training plan for me. This would be my first 100km trail run, being a comrades runner it was the 6000m of elevation gain which that scared me far more than the distance.

Training was on track until July when I strained a calf muscle. No running for three weeks and naturally some panic and frustration as the only medical advice is, to rest. Fortunately I have a stationary bike and with lots of physio I was back on the road again within three weeks with no further problems. Apparently you need to be patient in these situations.

Friday 31st August, being race day, came far to quickly and with 1500km and 21000m elevation training behind me, the big question remaining was, had I done enough? Flying into Geneva and looking down at the mountains all I could think was WTF have I got myself into? The Alps are big mountains, bigger than anything in SA! Driving into Chamonix the mountains surround you and tower above you in such an intimidating way.

Race registration and compulsory kit check went off without any problems - much the same as our races here in South Africa. I had decided that it would be best to stay close to the race start in Courmayeur to avoid an early morning start. The organisers arrange buses to take athletes from Chamonix to Courmayeur on race morning which I didn’t think was ideal.

The start is organised in three waves to help the fluidity of the race. Start times are calculated according to your ITRA's performance index. I was in wave two.
The start line at the centre of Courmayeur is tinged with an atmosphere that only Italians can provide, a rare emotional moment to the music of Vangelis and the singing of the three national anthems of the counties we were going to pass through, the first of a couple of times this race had me in tears.

The first 10km quickly leading to 2500m altitude was basically a single track hike with not much opportunity to pass, however, once on top it opened up with some great running and one of the most beautiful panoramas of the Mont-Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses as a back drop. The first and second checkpoints refuge Bertone and Bonatti went past without issue but then came (32km) Grand col Ferret climb (2537m) which marks the entrance of the race into Switzerland. The temperature had dropped to freezing, mist, wind and rain - not favourable running conditions, in the least. It is in moments such as these that I remember the words “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear” and quickly appreciate the value of quality cold weather gear. At this point, I kept telling myself that I just needed to survive to Champax Lax in one piece. This was at 56km and would be the fist place I would see my second and be able to take assistance (and of course, some comfort)
 I arrived at Champax after 11 hours of running, soaking wet. Wow! there was nothing like seeing my wife, Veona, waiting for me with a dry change of clothing and a hot cup of chicken soup - the second time for a tear or two. After about an hours rest I set back off into the dark, cold, wet night. Looking up I could see the headlights of those ahead of me, like worms climbing and snaking up the mountain. With 60km and only 3000m of climbing done I new the next 40km would be tough in itself, let alone the additional challenge of running at night. The next goal was to get to Trient at 72km, which was the next assistance point. Running was slow but I arrived with no problems apart from being exhausted and this is where the race becomes a massive mind game. It takes every inch of will power to leave the warmth of the aid station and run back into the cold dark night, and time kind of stands still as you move through the darkness. 

The next stop was Vallorcine at 80km and by now I had been running for 19 hours. I thought the worst was over, but little did I realise that the last 21km would take me another 5 hours! The climbs are relentless, but even worse are the steep agonising downhills. It was during this stretch that I truly understood the saying “if you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life run a marathon, if you want to talk to God, run an ultra”.

Finally running into Chamonix in just under 24hours and seeing Veona waiting for me on the finish line was one of my most memorable moments and certainly the biggest and finest personal achievement.

A special thanks must go out to the awesome ladies at Parkmore Health and Wellness centre, Megan and Cayley for all the sports massages, pilates classes and grucox, Megyn Robinson my great physio from Wellbeings physio, Coach Neville for all the advice and encouragement and last, but not least to my amazing support crew, Veona who was able to follow me around
Mont-Blanc the whole night, crossing three countries by bus - you are amazing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × three =