Last updated: 18-Jan-18
By James Eacott
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is the biggest mountain race of the year and attracts the best ultra runners in the world. This year was no exception with a line up to die for. It is saying something when Kilian Jornet comes second in a race… UTMB, though, is more than one race, it is a week-long festival of ultra running that includes different events. Here James Eacott describes his experience crewing for one of them, the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) for ultra runner, Kerry Sutton.
How do you begin to describe the UTMB or, in this case, its ‘little sister’ the CCC? Firstly, “little sister” is a ridiculous name for such a race but I suppose given the comparison to the UTMB, it is somewhat fair. Nevertheless, the CCC is an utter brute.
Kerry, like 2,100 others, was offered a place on the CCC in January 2017 and we were both psyched. Another trip to the Alps, this time to tackle the most iconic of ultras.
Although her training and pre-race prep hadn’t gone to plan, Kerry was ready to tackle the race with her typical strength and bloody-mindedness. And to be honest, as a crew member, I was pretty chilled. I’ve crewed her loads and seen her push through so much. Sure, I knew it was a hard ultra, but no harder than anything she’s done before.
One of the key misleading things when thinking about the CCC is that it’s always discussed in the same breath as the UTMB. It makes the CCC seem quite manageable and somehow like a beginner’s intro to mountain racing. It’s not. Not in the slightest. Comparing the CCC to the UTMB is like comparing rowing the Atlantic to rowing the Pacific. They are both bonkers, but the Pacific just pips it. The Atlantic is still totally nuts.
During the build up to the race, I studied the maps and worked out where we could meet. I love stats, and I’d studied the climbs and descents of the route. I knew there were five major climbs – totalling over 6,000m of ascent – that Kerry would face during her 101km journey from Courmayeur to Chamonix. Both of us have completed plenty of ultras, including mountainous ones like the Everest Trail Race, so not only was I confident that Kez would smash it (despite less than ideal training) but I also thought I understood what awaited her.
I can’t believe how naïve I was.
We’d spent a couple of weeks in the Alps the previous summer and hiked / run some of the trails. To head out of Chamonix, you can only go up. Like, really up. Unless you’re travelling up or down the valley along the road, the only route is up gnarly trails. Just walking was so tough. But I hadn’t particularly brought these memories forward to 2017 as I didn’t believe that the organisers of the CCC (let alone the 170km UTMB) would really send people up inclines like this.
“Nah, they’ll find some more gradual, runnable trails” thought I.
At 5am, Kez and the crew (myself and two of her kids) woke and got the 06:00am bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy and the beautiful alpine town of Courmayeur. Despite predictions of non-stop rain from dawn till dusk through the whole event, it was a relief that Friday morning dawned with clear blue skies. At least she’d start dry. After copious coffees, croissants and cuddles, Kez made her way to the starting line at 08:30am, ready to rock it at 09:00am!
I stood there, proud as punch, waving her off. I admit I was bright green with envy. What a wonderful day she had ahead: mountain trails, great company, beautiful weather. And all we had was a series of bus rides and long waits. Lucky sod. I was navel gazing and feeling like I’d got the raw end of the deal. (four hours later, after getting some perspective, I felt nothing but relief travelling by bus!)
From Courmayeur (1,200m), the route climbs for 10km to Tete de la Troche at 2,580m. A cheeky 1,400m climbing in 10km. The first 10km of 100. What on earth… We had seen this on the profile, but standing there it looked ridiculous. Studying previous years’ times, we expected the climb to take around 2.5 hours. Again, this stat hadn’t really landed. But now, feeling very much like a gnat at the feet of giants, I began to realise what a serious undertaking the CCC is.
Rather than hire a car, I’d heard excellent things about the bus support network so decided to crew her from the organisation’s bus service. For €30, the three of us had unlimited access to transport in and around the Mont Blanc massif to get us from checkpoint (CP) to checkpoint to meet Kerry. With 2,100 runners in the CCC alone (let alone thousands more across the PTL, UTMB, OCC and YCC), the organisation of buses was a military masterpiece. For the next 21 hours of crewing, I only had to wait for 45 minutes on one occasion. All other waits were less than 10 minutes. It was seamless.
From Courmayeur, we realised we wouldn’t get to Arnouva (28km) and then La Fouly (42km) in time, so we decided to head straight to La Fouly. We had a bit of time to kill, so returned to the flat in Chamonix, ate some breakfast, bought snacks for the day and kept refreshing the live tracker page. I saw she’d topped out at Tete del la Troche and passed Refuge Bertone and Refuge Bonatti. Time to head off.
A 1:45 hour bus took us to La Fouly where we waited for Kerry as she descended from the Col de Ferret. We waited. And waited. It felt like an age. “God, I hope she’s ok,” I thought. Runners ahead of her looked cold and beaten and many had that far-away gaze that ultra runners get when they’re in the rough stuff.
Entering the CP in great spirits, we handed Kez a bottle of electrolytes. Before I’d even finished placing the bottle in her pack, a race official launched himself towards us, coming to a halt just two inches from the end of my nose and shouted, “No assistance, no assistance”. A bit aggressive, I thought, but the Swiss do not like rules being broken, even mistakenly. It turns out you can only ‘assist’ at specific checkpoints. We retrieved the bottle and told Kerry we’d see her in Champex-Lac (55km) where we could hand her food and drink.
A couple more buses, and we arrived in the pretty Swiss village and waited. We didn’t get bored of cheering runners. In fact, frenetically ringing our puny tea bell (it’s all we had) between our thumb and forefinger alongside gruff farmers donging their massive cow bells became a fun competition to keep us amused.
Into Champex-Lac, Kerry was starting to feel the pinch. No surprise. She’d nutted out the two largest hills on the course. 45km to go and three “lesser” hills to come. “She’s done the hard bit”, we thought. It was time to get the headtorch on and we cheered her off as she ran along the lake edge and into the hills.
On to Trient (72km) for us. A beautiful village (I’m guessing – it was now peeing down and pitch black), we knew we had an hour or so before her arrival so went in search of food. No cafes were open so there was scant opportunity for anything decent. Thankfully, at the major CPs, the race organisers had caterers looking after the needs of supporters too. What other races do that? A CP for crew members! It wasn’t glamorous but at 11:00pm a hefty frankfurter and bread was hugely appealing. It went down with the ease of a “sausage” that was more “mashed meat bits” than anything with any percentage of real meat, but it gave us the energy we needed to bang boards and cheer runners in.
I sat with Kez in the athlete area (which you’re allowed to do at the major CP’s – another nice touch) and chatted about the next segment. Having realised that these three “lesser” hills were in fact mountains unlike anything in the UK, I prepped her for what looked like a beast of a climb ahead. Straight up and down over to Vallorcine.
Being prepared for what’s ahead is massive in ultras. Skewed expectation is why these last three hills were proving so tough. We had no idea of the scale and intensity of the climbs. As soon as Kerry was prepared for ‘the toughest climb yet’, as I billed it, her mood improved and she left the CP in fighting form.
As she left, we cast our gaze upward and saw headtorches floating around. They felt like they were directly overhead, as if they could fall onto us at any moment. But those flickering lights were kilmetres away, trudging through rain and mud towards the peak at Catogne. How the hell are people supposed to ascend such gradients without ropes.
“Man-alive, I hope she’s alright”. The number of times I thought that, I tell you!
After another bus, we waited in Vallorcine, messing about at the CP in front of the camera – another great touch we’d only just discovered. At the entrance to most CPs, there is a camera projecting live video onto the UTMB Live webpage. With a little warning, even your crew at home can watch you arrive into each checkpoint. How cool is that? To keep ourselves amused, we texted family at home the link to the site and proceeded to dance around at the entrance to the CP as they watched us live from the UK. Yup, we were tired and a bit delirious.
Kez emerged like a gladiator to Vallorcine, the last time she’d see us before Chamonix. The distances between previous meetings were around 10-13km. Short enough, just, given moving pace is little less than 5kph. From Vallorcine, however, it was 19km to Chamonix. I really didn’t want to tell her it would be so long – 3.5 to 4 hours – until we saw her again. On the bright side, it would be on Chamonix highstreet. I really didn’t want to see her go, but after a great chat and a decent feed, we waved her off (with a tear or two) as she strode off to tackle that last mountain.
The bus got us into Chamonix 2.5 hours before Kerry was due to arrive, so we went back to the flat and the kids crashed out. They’d stayed awake for most of the race and were wasted. I watched the tracker for 1.5 hours before waking the zombies and heading to the town centre at 05:00am. Despite the hour, there were stacks of spectators. Sure, nothing compared to what was to come later in the day (the crowds increased tenfold throughout the day), but boy were we loud. We banged, stamped and rattled everything we could get our hands on. The locals must love us.
Waiting at the finish, I was feeling anxious. We hadn’t seen Kerry in what felt like an age, and she still had a horrific climb to tackle. I knew she wanted to crack 20 hours, but that had passed now. The weather had grown progressively grim and her less-than-ideal preparation was taking its toll (though it’s incredible considering the prep she’d done). The minutes passed and 6am was approaching. I willed her on. At 05:55am, she rounded the corner onto Chamonix high street. We were so relieved. She was cheery and chipper and moving well. Round the last couple of corners, the crowds roared and we joined her for the final 100m towards the famous finish gantry in front of the church. Hugs, kisses, tears. It was all over. How the hell had she just done that? That thought continues to sink in even a week later.
I love that the organisers allow – encourage, even – supporters to run the final few hundred meters with their athlete. It shows they recognise what a team effort a feat like this is, not just on race day but in the preceding months. Yes, Kerry could have done the race on her own but supporters are so well accommodated. More than any race I’ve crewed, this felt like a team effort even though she was probably less reliant on me for food and drink than she usually is (due to the long time between seeing each other she had to rely on CP food mostly).
It was so emotional watching the following 24 hours unfold in Chamonix. CCC and UTMB finishers streamed in, hand in hand with mothers, fathers, children, friends and, in more than one case, their dog.
Unfortunately for Kez, she finished at one of the quietest times of day. By 09:00, Chamonix was heaving again, rhythmically banging boards and cheering every single person. Having sat to enjoy a coffee, we thought that going to the finish 45 minutes before the winner of the UTMB was due to arrive would be enough to get a good view. How wrong we were. After some less-than-nifty shimmying up a telegraph pole, we found a spot where we could just film Francois D’Haene cross the line as 2017 Champion, shortly followed by Kilian Jornet. I’ve never seen anything like it. I was an emotional wreck!
That afternoon and evening, we all just wanted to be there, watching, soaking it in. We were celebrating Kerry’s achievement, but we couldn’t pull ourselves away from watching runners arrive into Chamonix. The rapturous applause for each and every one gave me goosebumps. I welled up dozens of times.
I can’t think of a suitable adjective grand enough to describe the race. Epic. Incredible. Wonderful. Life-changing. Even only as a crew member, it was indeed a life-changing experience.
The organisation is simply fantastic. Nothing I’ve seen comes close. They look after the runners and their supporters so well. If you know anyone doing one of the UTMB races next year, I’d highly recommend you go along for the ride. You won’t regret it.
Top 6 Tips for crewing the CCC
- Use the bus network. It was flawless.
- Be prepared. In the case of the CCC, it’s better to know what’s coming. Understanding beforehand that a monumental effort will be required is better than turning up on the day and realising that you need to pull one out the bag.
- Take plenty of food. It’s difficult to find anything decent later in the day and through the night.
- Crewing the CCC is like crewing a 100 miler, not a 100km race. It takes Kerry less time to run an undulating 100 miler than it did to do the CCC so be prepared for a long shift. It’s more like a 100-mile race in terms of time for most runners.
- Book your bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur on race morning well ahead of schedule. We booked late and were stuck on the 06:00am bus, which meant we had 2.5 hours in Courmayeur to kill. Arriving there at 07:30 or 08:00 would have been ideal.
- Get stuck in. Talk to people, cheer everyone and spend as much time in Chamonix town centre as possible.