The Cormayeur – Champex – Chamonix (CCC) is an ultra trail race that is part of the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) World Series. This is a mountain race that starts in Italy, crosses Switzerland and finishes in France, taking runners through a distance of 100 km, including 6100+ meters of elevation. The race track takes the shape of a horseshoe around the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. More than 1700 runners are attracted to this race, from more than 10,000 that jointly come to the Chamonix valley every year at the end of August. The event is rightfully called “the Mecca of trail running” for a reason.
The following provides you a pretty good idea of the challenge:
I’ve first came across the UTMB when I fell in love with trail running, as I heard of countrymen Carlos Sá and his adventures of long, arduous runs in the French Alps. The skill and effort required to complete such an event was so beyond my imagination, that I packed it mentally in the “mythical” category of running races. Awe increased year by year as I watched athletes from all over the world come to the event. I naturally started following them on a yearly basis. Admiration escalated to the highest levels as I practiced in communities of runners which had been there or were planning to. Challengers of mental and physical limits, people aiming for the extraordinary, dreamers of hope, fantasists of alpine ranges, of unending valleys and ridges.
I started small. The Douro in Portugal, the Eiger in Switzerland, Zugspitz in south Germany… oh I started small… but the dreams kept getting bigger and bigger! Madeira in the island of everlasting spring. The heart wrenching Pitzal in Austria. I got the taste of it and the joy of the experience. And so, also I started dreaming that, one day, I could be on that world stage, running in the most beautiful of all trail running routes…
The CCC dates back from 2006 and so much has been said about it. Countless words about the beauty of the race and the challenge of its course. Numerous blogs describing its segments, the steep climbs, the panoramic views, the tough descents. Boundless portrayals of achievements, of disappointments, of resilience, of laugher and tears. So many images, moments, feelings, immortalised in snapshots captured by the avid photographer or eventually a spontaneous camera. Which got me wondering… how can I add to this portfolio, with my own narrative?
I’ve spent a week now ruminating on everything I lived in this event and decided that best would be to share with you the range of emotions I felt throughout this event. So here it goes:
A one of a kind. Incomparable. A stage of its own. A place like no other. A race that demands proof of skill and madness, through a system where you commit to running similar challenges to test your value. The most beautiful of settings in Europe for practicing the sport. A theatre of dreams.
I knew that after breaking my collarbone last year, it wouldn’t be easy to prepare myself for this. I’ve put all focus on my recovery, pushed through the physio, was disciplined to perform all the exercises I was given. So grateful for being able to get back. Danke Silke für die wunderbare Hilfe! In the course of a year, I ran the mind-boggling amount of 270+ training sessions, logged more than 3,400 km (farther than running from my home in Germany to my parents in Portugal) and 43,000+ meters of elevation (nearly 5 times the height of Mount Everest). Big thanks to Paulo Pires and beAPT, you are maestros of your game.
So… on the weekend of the race, I felt pretty calm really. So relaxed…
I felt like… I got this!
There’s a vibe in town. An unexplainable energy. A resonance common to all runners. Truly inexplicable as it can be felt but not necessarily interpreted. Everyone here has gone through the same process, comparable endeavours, similar training. Our desires, our ambition and our goals are akin. No one here is an amateur any longer. Sure, we all have in mind our own projection of what we feel our own race will be, from the fastest elite runners to the slowest getting to the finish line fast. Yet… we all want to reach it and live the dream. A sweet and mysterious fellowship connecting us all. A common fabric to us all, felt in each eye to eye look and without a single word being said.
The music of Vangelis has been, for very long, the tune of choice in UTMB races. They’ve become a hymn of the event and Across the Mountains a symbol of the CCC. Add to it the Fate Has Smiled Upon Us from Marc Streitenfeld and you have a set which, for someone acquainted with the race, makes heads turn, hearts vibrate and minds wonder. Now, that being said, imagine that cocktail at the start line, the warm voice of the speaker talking about how we were “about to embark on a great adventure”, “had been waiting for this moment to arrive” and would “be about to live a great dream“… what a moment of epic proportions! A-ma-zing!
On the first uphill, to Rifugio Bertone, the weather forecast came true. Three hours into the race and about to reach the aid station, the sky poured down. Wow! The gutters of the building shaped the massive volume of water into a flow that seemed like a river… Waterproof jacket on! Refill! Off and get moving! Little time here, as it is paramount to keep warm. Mud and rain for the next 15 mins. Then an abrupt stop. The weather can change so fast in the mountain… and one has to be prepared for any scenario.
The mountain always has its ways of putting us in our place. When you’re immersed in such monumental, colossal landscape, nature hits us with all its magnificent might. We are so small… Time to be humble. To be respectful of the opportunity that life is. Time to be grateful and appreciate the now. I know of a little number of places capable to creating such emotion. This is definitely one of them.
On (really) long races, nutrition has been a recurring weakness. One I decided to tackle head on this time. Trial and error wouldn’t cut it any longer and I took the advice of seeking a nutritionist. We trained all types of food during training. We found out what worked and what didn’t. I learned…. I learned a lot! About carbohydrate requirements. Where to find them. How to balance sweet and savoury. Especially how to mentally map the amount of food units needed for the race, where to source them and when to take them. We found a system that worked. One that I learned to trust… Thank you César for taking me there!
One has time during these races. A lot of time…
Time to feel the body exercise. To enjoy the view. To eat and drink. To wonder. To wander. To get lost in thoughts. And in the midst of it all, one gets to know wonderful people. I ran the first half of the race with Vitor, a Portuguese compatriot I got to know of, through a common friend, while at Chamonix. We met for the first time at the start line. Coincidences right?
I’ve also met Eric in the uphill to Grand Col Ferret, a 61 year old French athlete that consistently kept a smile on his face and made sure he’d always leave the aid stations ahead of me. Including Champec-Lac where he had time to go to the restaurant for a snack with his wife. If you’re wondering… yes, he arrived ahead of me 😉
Kathleen helped me endure stomach pain. Prior reaching Trient, my body wouldn’t take any more food. Nor water for that matter. Canadian nurse by profession, told me to focus on 3 things: electrolytes, broth and bread. Oh how that would come to help later on…
Carla offered her home with open arms, should we ever come to Madeira island for a race and would need a place to stay. Such generosity…
Trail companions. Buddies. Thank you all! These and so many more. Kind camaraderie from people I had never met before. Wonderful setting where you can give it away and get it back in return for free.
Things go wrong… In my mind I’ve accepted the possibility that something always goes wrong. Which is not to say that I always hope that everything goes well. The battle between these two forces always create an undesired tension, especially when things start going haywire…
So when the stomach had its moment, I increasingly fell into a dark place. A deep cavern tough to come out from. One where after three or four hours of pain, there’s no more mental mechanisms to help getting out of the woods. There’s just pain. Pure pain. Touching despair. Which usually means quitting at some point in time…
Which is where good friends come in!
Stefan came to crew me at the race… such a paramount support, one I imagined but couldn’t phantom how decisive it would be. First at Champec-Lac, when the first signs of trouble showed up. Diligently bringing me intent. Giving me resolve. Literally kicking me out of the aid station when the time was right.
Thereafter in Trient. While I focused on electrolytes, I knew I needed something more. I needed energy. I had been running dry for so long… with an empty stomach but also without hydrating properly (gosh I’m so thirsty!).
I needed time to recover. Yet my mind faltered…
I knew what I had to do. Yet the strength escaped me…
And so I fell in the disciplined approach of Stefan and Paulo. I was ordered to sleep for 30 mins – I had plenty of time for the cutoff – after all, the race had been going, from a timing point of view, very much in line with what I expected it to. Got some rest, got some food (you guessed it 😉 broth and bread) and off I go! Thanks guys, superb support!
I won’t ever forget the look in your faces when arriving at Vallorcine I greeted your loudly with a shout of renewed vitality (“the little bird sings again” you said 😉 ). As I won’t ever forget the expression that “sometimes, in these races, you need to die and to again be reborn”.
To all those present only in my mind during all those hours. My parents. My wife. My children. My friends. The ones happy, the ones struggling, the ones pushing through life, the ones from near and from afar, the ones from old and from new. One way or the other I’ve met them in the past year and we talked about this race. And somewhere along those mountains, I thought about each one of them. Their encouragement. Their admiration. Their apprehension. Their amazement. Wow… each one made me company. Each one was there. So grateful for having them in my life…
The night sky was clear. After all the clouds settled and the blackness thickened, the stars shined so bright… so bright… big, medium and small ones alike… to the point that the line of the horizon, the mountain ahead, could be seen in the silhouette of the missing stars. No moon. Just us, the black and the stars. From nightfall to dawn. A spectacle only surpassed by the early signs of light. First the violets, like a shy mantel coming from nowhere. Then the orange, warming the sky and making the stars fade away. All culminating with gleaming rays of sunlight hitting the snow in the glacier at the top of the Mont Blanc, the city of Chamonix still dormant in the valley, the chirp of restless crickets and awakening birds the only sounds of the world.
Joy. Pure joy. After the fun, the struggle, the delight, the passion, the rebirth… comes pure joy.
Finisher. And a feeling of bliss that no words can describe…