Updated: Apr 18, 2019
It began as a bit of a lark really, I had been tinkering with a plan to run the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB https://utmbmontblanc.com) which is a 100-mile trail run starting in Chamonix, France, crossing the Alps to Courmayeur, Italy, heading back over the Alps to Switzerland and then crossing back into France and finishing where it allarted in Chamonix. Problem is that the UTMB is generally regarded as the highest profile ultra-distance trail running event on the planet and as a result is extremely popular.
Event organisers allow 2500 athletes to compete but with over 10,000 entries it is a very difficult event to get into. To limit the number of entries the event has a ‘points’ system to qualify each entrant for the draw for one of the competitor places on race day. Depending on the distance and difficulty of a range of trail runs around the world, each event has a point ranking for completion. Each applicant requires a total of fifteen points to be eligible to go into the draw and this must be acquired from a maximum of three (3) races over an 18-month period (this process changes often, but when I was trying to qualify, this was the structure). I had already completed the 40-mile UK trail running championship in the Peak District and the 44-mile Classic Quarter from Lizard Point to Land’s End, so needed one more race before the end of the year to enable me enough points to qualify for the UTMB ballot.
Problem was, I had developed a foot injury under the ball of my left foot that left me wincing in pain if I stood on anything which put pressure on that spot. Not a great situation when looking to compete in an ultra-distance trail run where most of the course is horribly uneven, but I had used up the majority of my 18-month allowance so needed to tuck one more race away or I would be resigned to starting the whole process again.
The search for a race that would give me the points I needed began with some specific criteria in selection:
· As close to home as possible
· As short as possible
· As least difficult as possible
For those not involved in ultra-distance trail races you may well be surprised at the number available around the UK, around Europe and around the world. The selection is enormous but, on this occasion, (with six weeks left in the year) I was limited. I settled on the Endurance Ultra Trail of Templar’s (www.festivaldestempliers.com) starting and finishing in Millau in south east France. The entire race was held up, down, along, in and out of the world-famous Tarn Gorge. Let’s be very clear, this decision DID NOT in any way adhere to the above criteria: For a start it was 70 miles in distance; it was an incredibly difficult and technical course and to get to the start line required me to drive to Bristol Airport, fly to Toulouse in SE France and then drive to the race start.
A desperate man makes desperate decisions and I didn’t have much time to overthink it as I would be racing (surviving) in a little over one week.
The Endurance Ultra Trail of Templar’s is part of a running festival with many trails runs over a four-day period. The Ultra Trail began (strangely) on a Friday morning at 4.00am. I flew to Toulouse on the Thursday and was met at the airport by French surf lifesaving team member Pierre Caley who was based at the French High-Performance Centre in Montpellier and offered to take me up to Millau. The drive from Toulouse to Millau was longer than I anticipated, and it took nearly two hours (remember this as it will be an important statistic for later in the story). I was thankful Pierre was with me as the entire registration process was conducted by a crew who spoke little English. Pierre dropped me at my hotel at 7.00pm. The hotel manager also spoke little English and as he unhooked my room key from the board behind the desk, I noticed that my room (room 17) had two sets of keys on the hook (this will also be an important fact for later in the story).
The next three hours was spent in my room organising my kit. I have done loads of endurance events over the years; run heaps of ultra-marathons; completed multi-day adventure races and kayak / surf ski marathons; done 15 Ironman triathlons etc. (including four Hawaii Ironmans), so I understand the importance of nutrition in ultra-distance events and to get it all packed and organised is super critical.
I hit the hotel restaurant at 10.00pm and grabbed the only pasta meal on the menu. I was super-hungry by this time and really-anxious at the impending start time of 4.00am the next morning which meant waking at 3.00am which left me, after dinner, with four hours sleep before a 70-mile trek into hell. It is not possible to drop straight off in this situation and when the alarm went off at 3.00am it felt like I had only just got to sleep. I had everything packed so just needed to change into my race kit.
This race is held in November and the temperature on this morning was only two degrees, I wandered out of the hotel and although I didn’t have a ride to the race start, which was a couple of miles outside Millau, I knew that quite a few entrants were staying at the same hotel and assumed that many of them would be heading out the same time so would be able to jump a ride to the race start. I noticed a car easing out of the hotel, so I flagged the driver down, he spoke little English but understood what the Aussie idiot was asking him. I piled in with my kit and we headed to the start.
We arrived at approx. 3.50am and I walked straight to the start line and stood with 800 other entrants waiting for the start gun. At that time of year, the light of the day arrives after 8.00am and it gets dark just after 4 pm so 800 athletes with head torches blazing made quite a sight in the darkness. I had a simple game plan to keep the food and fluid going in, stay relaxed despite the impending discomfort and be strong between the ears.
A couple of hours in and my foot was already killing me, but I trudged on, settling into a group of ten runners as we made our way up the first climb. The climbs (there was five major climbs over the 70 miles) were all twisting single track, very steep and long so we were all in single file as we made our way up. Three hours in and it was still dark, my head torch was proving to be quite inadequate but whilst I was running behind another runner I was fine as I could use a bit of his / her light, however, when I was on my own, I was effectively stumbling along in semi-darkness which on a technically difficult run adds significantly to the physical and mental fatigue.
Ultra-distance sport is a strange beast -can’t ever think of a long race I have done where I have felt great the whole way. Generally, there is a long period where you need to dig in, if you hang tough, focus on the food and drink and slow the whole thing down. I always find it super important to change the focus; don’t feel down on yourself, no one held a gun at your head to put you in this position, it was / is your decision and you made that decision because you wanted to. Often, when I have been really struggling during long distance, or even shorter, events I have stopped, looked around and half smiled at the shit I have once again put myself into and more appreciated the fact that I have an opportunity to do this (type of stuff).
The race was going well - I was staying strong, was keeping my nutrition levels up and my foot, although quite painful was not getting any worse. I have always run uphill quite well but never the downhill and in long distance running it is the downhills that pose more of a long-term issue that the uphills as they slowly break your body down over time.
We cleared the 3rd climb and now 13 hours into the event, dark was now back, and I was again left struggling with my head torch. Coming toward the bottom of the valley before the 4th climb I was on my own, negotiating the steep descent (pretty much in the dark) when I managed to get my left leg caught in the fork of a tree and somehow managed to slip further down the slope with my right leg effectively creating a wishbone effect. I felt my knee pull away from the bottom part of my leg (don’t ask me to explain as it’s the best explanation I have), another runner coming down the hill after me saw my plight and managed to extricate me from the tree, but I was really hurt. He scampered away (like everyone else connected with this event he spoke little English) 14 plus hours in and two serious climbs to cover, I had an issue. First item was to see if I could run; I could, but it was incredibly painful. The next aid station was quite a way down the valley and I figured that if I could get there, I would be able to get strapped and medicated. Negotiating the final part of the decent was difficult as I could put no pressure on my left leg, so I effectively hopped and fell my way down; the distance to the aid station took me almost two hours.
The medical crew (who spoke little English) strapped me, filled me with Ibuprofen and offered me luck for the final 20 miles. I so needed it. My morale was OK, and the next climb felt good as I was able to get some rhythm and moved slowly to the top. Coming down was a nightmare and in the dark, it became a drunken stumble as runner after runner did their best to negotiate around me. The descent took me four hours and I was desperate for the final trek out of the valley as I knew from the previous climb that the pain would be bearable. Along the plateau at the top I could see the lights of the incredible Millau bridge far in the distance. I was now in shuffle mode and totally sh**g myself at the prospect of the impending descent to the finish. It was going to kill me, but I knew it led to the end and I seriously needed to be at the end.
Even though being on my own stumbling along in a world of painful hell was not ideal, I prefer to suffer alone, and after taking three hours to get down off the plateau, the end was in sight. I crossed the line in 22 hours 50 minutes. As 70-mile trail runs go this was a slow time but considering the drama I had endured, I was totally stoked at getting this bstrd done. Seriously hurt and desperately needing to get back to the hotel, I stumbled out to the road and flagged down a car. I had no idea who the driver was, but he had two choices; either run me over (and the way I was feeling I may have appreciated that) or pull over. He chose the latter and I opened the door and muttered the name of the hotel, he nodded (he spoke little English) and I piled in. It was now 3.00am on the Saturday and my train was leaving Millau at 8.00am allowing me to get to the airport for my 1.00pm flight.
I crawled out of the car at the front door of the hotel and then realised that I had left my key in the room the previous morning. I remembered the words of the manager when I checked in to take my keys with me as the reception closes at 11.00pm. Stumbling down a five-mile single track descent in the pitch black with a half-broken leg, I can deal with; being locked out of the hotel in -2 degrees cold after a 22 hour-run - I struggled with.
I banged on the front door of the hotel for a while but could not find any staff to help me. I kept thinking that someone from the event would show up soon but as time went on, I was beginning to suffer from the cold quite badly. As I walked around the outside of the hotel, I gave thought to heading back to the race site to stay in the medical tent for a few hours to warm up. Suddenly I noticed one of the room windows in the hotel was slightly open; it was a ground floor window, although still quite high off the ground and it was the type of window that required it to be wound open. I found a box near the rubbish bin area and placed it below the window, I managed to fit my hand in far enough to begin to wind it out: For general security reasons it did not open completely, and I had to pull myself up (like doing a chin up) and squeeze myself into the space. I had no idea if there was anyone in the room and when my head got to the point of peering into the room, I was concerned that whoever was in there would probably presume I was trying to break in. I poked my head into the room and looked in; the bed was unmade, and the light was on in the bathroom.
“Bonjour, bonjour.” I called, in my best French. My French was not answered, I reasoned that this dude is likely to be a competitor in my event and that’s why the room is empty! I half smiled thinking ‘how bad a runner is this guy if he was behind me?’ I pulled myself through the window. This was a huge physical effort for me and due to the window width, it was impossible for me to swing my legs through the window, so I had to slide through head first. I eventually fell into the room knocking a laptop off the desk in the process; I picked it up, wound the window back into place and stumbled out of the room into the corridor. I tried my own door no. 17 in case it was unlocked (it wasn’t) and walked down to the double door that led to the office. It was also locked. I was desperate at this stage, so I pushed hard against it and it burst open. Great!
The hotel alarm system was incredibly loud. I ran into the office knowing that on my hook behind the reception desk was another key to my room. It was dark, and the alarm was deafening. I scanned the board with the keys, but my hook was empty (what happened to the spare?) - next to it, was the key to room no.18. I grabbed the key and ran back to the corridor, I closing the double doors behind me; the alarm still ringing as I opened the door to room 18. Yet again, I had no clue if there was anyone in the room - I entered quietly and switched on the light; the room was empty and the bed unused. I noticed the alarm was no longer sounding. My watch said 4.45am, I needed rest and warmth and pulled the duvet over me and laid on the bed, fully expecting the local Gendarme to burst in at any time.
I woke suddenly, looked at my watch, it was 6.45am - two-hours sleep, and I felt dreadful; ill and desperately hungry. The bedsheets and duvet were covered in mud and blood. The housekeepers were going to freak out when they came to room 18. What the hell went on in here? I remember the manager saying that the reception (yes, the one I had broken into earlier) opened at 7.00am so I undressed and took a shower. I wrapped one of the white hotel towels around me and walked into reception. I asked the lady at the desk for the key to number 17 and asked her to call a taxi for me to take me to the train station. To this day I would love to know what she was thinking that morning when a man dressed only in a white towel asked for the key to room 17? I mean, surely, she should have asked where the hell had I been! Maybe working the hotel industry, she has seen it all!
She said nothing and just handed me the key.
I walked back to room 18 and collected my running kit and entered my own room; I dressed and packed and headed back to reception to grab my taxi. It was now 7.15am and no taxi. The lady called another taxi company. No answer. Called another. No answer. I could wait no longer. The train station was one mile away, I knew this because my hotel was located on the side of the main road and on it there was a sign to the Gare saying one mile. I dragged my bag and my sorry arse down the road. This was a struggle. My knee was agony, my foot was in extreme pain and my legs, with a 70-mile run in them, were destroyed. I could see the station and the train, and I moved closer. I entered the small road leading to station my watch said 8am. The horn from the train echoed through the valley. No way. Yes way. It pulled from the station and toward Toulouse without me.
Oh man this was not good.
I continued my walk to the station to check the timetables for both train and bus. There were options, but none got me to the airport in time for my flight. There was small car hire, but they would not do a one-way. It was now nearly 9.00am on Saturday. I had not eaten a proper meal since 10.00pm on Thursday night and was also severely dehydrated. Problem was I was now under huge pressure to get to the airport, and so there was no opportunity to sit down and grab food or drink. I made the decision to head back to the hotel. None of these decisions were easy but I decided to hitchhike to Toulouse. I have backpacked loads around the world and have hitchhiked everywhere and I always carried a sign saying that I was Australian and then I would write the destination. That procedure served me well in the past and it was time to bring it back into play.
Back in the reception of the hotel I asked for a sheet of paper and wrote in thick black felt tip ‘Australian going to Toulouse’; I put my race finisher shirt on in case another competitor was heading that way and ventured on to the side of the highway. The first car sped by with the driver not even looking at me. I saw the next car coming, held out the sign and he skidded to stop in the lay by. I struggled over, he unwound his window and in good English (miracle) he asked where about I was heading. “Toulouse airport”, I said. ‘I will drop you close, you can get a taxi from there.” he said. I climbed into the passenger seat and strapped myself in. The guy drove off like it was the start of the French national rally championship. I kept tightening my belt as we overtook car after car. This was crazy! After 15-20 minutes he looked over and saw that I was obviously concerned at his driving, he smiled and said “I am a detective from Paris we drive like this all the time. Do not worry, I have never had an accident.”
I sat back in my seat and let the detective from Paris do his stuff. At one part of the journey we overtook five cars going up a climb around a blind bend. This was everything my mum had told me not to do. We sped past a Gendarme with a speed gun standing by the side of the road and if the speed limit was 60kph we would’ve been doing 150kph. The detective from Paris swore, drove into the gravel on the side of the road did a full 180 and sped back to the cop with the speed gun. He got out of the car, slammed the door and went over to the Gendarme. I do not know what he said but he was swearing and waving his arms. He came back to the car mentioned something about a bloody idiot and we took off. If you remember earlier in the story, I mentioned that the drive from the airport to Toulouse took around two hours. When the detective from Paris dropped me at a service outside Toulouse, we had been on the road for just over one hour!
Late that evening as I drank a pint back home in Newquay, I told the story back to my wife. It was / is unbelievable but that is how it went down and that is the beauty of taking the hard road. Would’ve been easy to blow the race off and do something else but amidst the hurt and misery was a whole load of stoke and I will truly never forget the detective from Paris.
Oh yeah, the draw for UTMB, I missed out.