24hrs and 28mins to be precise...
My whole year had been about this one race, this one day (plus 28 minutes) and now it's over.
I can quite easily say it was the longest, most exciting, breathtaking, exhausting and mind blowing event I've ever had the chance to do. Now the question is, what was it actually like to run for over 24hrs?
Before the race
I'm going to be totally honest here and tell you I'm not an ideal person for a support team to deal with! I don't like to talk about the race, the course, what my goals are or what my race plan is in the last few days before the race. This was not particularly helpful for the incredible support team that I was lucky enough to have come out with me - my mum (Sue), my brother (J) and my brother from another mother (Luke).
Banana muffins were made (thanks mum!), race bag was packed, kit was laid out and now it was just time to relax. I'm not good at this part either. I got concerned that my legs felt really odd on the day before the race until I realised this is what it feels like when your body is fully rested (it had been the longest I hadn't trained for all year - 4 days).
Stood at the start line I wasn't nervous at all. Then the race started and after 5 mins of flat running I hit the first climb. The nerves kicked in but excited nerves. I wasn't doubting myself in any way, it was simply the realisation of how massive a feat this was going to be to just finish.
The first few hours were entirely climbing. Up and up and up. It was slow but it very quickly became apparent how much my CrossFit training was helping with my ease of heaving on the poles and how strong each step I took felt. I felt great and I found myself overtaking a considerable amount of people. I was surprised to see how many people were suffering badly on the 1st climb.
Reaching the first peak was a surreal experience, the views were beyond epic and I was just loving every minute. This is what I had trained for. My approach to an ultra is not about racing, it's about the experience of enjoying a new unexplored route with a mass group of people who are just as excited about it as you are.
After the first climb came the first descent. This first descent was one of my top moments of the race. The trail was a fast, flowy single track along a ridge that just kept on going. Everywhere you looked was epic.
Soon after I hit the first check point and got my first taste of the classic noodle soup. I didn't hang around long as I wanted to get going and get as much distance completed as possible during the day as I knew the night would be where it got really tough.
The heat really started to kick in and you could see it on everyones faces as runners looked more and more drained.
The mountains kept coming and the views got better and better. I was loving this!
After 60km I finally saw my support crew. By this point I was still mentally and physically in a great place but it is still such a massive boost to see your support crew that I just felt better and better. I was also provided with some serious laughs when my brother was running along with me into the check point, he was out of breath...after 400m!! After a good laugh, some encouraging words, a hug from mum and some food I was off again. I spent a bit more time in the check point but I was feeling good and felt the 15mins of sitting down and keeping my feet off the ground was worth it.
Off I went and before long it was getting dark. This is the point when you realise why this race is so tough. The climbs during the day are tough but there's always an end in sight. At night you have no concept of this and it's just brutal. I did a lot of night running in my training but nothing could have prepared me for this.
It didn't take long for me to really start suffering. The sight of hundreds of head torches winding their way up a mountain will never leave me. You look up from the bottom of the mountain and know you have to spend the next few hours climbing and it is soul destroying. I wanted to just sit down and take my feet off the ground but I had to get going.
As soon as it got dark I noticed a difference in the way everyone was running. Everybody ran in small packs, grouping together with a leader pulling everybody else along, the rest just focusing on the person in front's feet. By this point it was no longer a solo effort. I might not have known anyone in the various packs that I ran with but it truly felt like everyone was helping each other along despite no words being shared.
Before the race I had been told to look out for someone called Trevor as he was a friend of a friend. Now, I never expected to meet this man (for a start I had no idea what he looked like). All I knew about him was he did the same qualifying race as me and he worked for The North Face. Earlier on in the day I spotted someone head to toe in The North Face kit and he had an Endurancelife band on, amazingly it was him! We got talking and spent the next 20-30mins discussing races and how we were getting on before I headed on ahead. I'm mentioning this because later on I saw Trevor again at one of my lowest points. I can't remember much about what he said but seeing a friendly face and having someone ask if I was ok was enough to spur me on again and give me a little boost that meant so much and I can't thank him enough for that...cheers Trev!
The times spent in the check points got longer and longer. The painkillers came out and I was really struggling to eat. The final check point where my support crew could meet me was tough to leave. I spent far too long there but I was a wreck and I just wanted to be with my crew for a bit longer. After being told to eat and given as much encouragement as possible I left. I was cold and it was still pitch black but I was getting there. Every step now was one step closer to the finish.
I had to keep reminding myself to just keep leaning forward. Despite all of this through the night there were moments where I was running and actually enjoying it...just not many!
Finally the light started to return. It was still cold but the sunlight behind the mountains was bringing ever more hope. I had just reached the top of the final mountain when the sun popped out from behind the mountains (moments after the photo above was taken). That moment of the sun emerging will stay with me forever, it was glorious. The warmth from the sun and the realisation that Chamonix and more importantly the finish line weren't far away was immense. I broke out of the shuffle and into a run, loving being back on a slightly downhill single track with the sun shining down on me.
I was 10km away but in my head I was picturing that finish line. I was so close. Then I stopped at the check point to use the toilet. My stomach had been pretty bad for the past hour so I knew I needed to stop. As I stood up from the toilet I felt my achilles go. I couldn't move it. After 90km of running it was going for a poo that injured me!
I hobbled along and used my walking poles to support my weight watching everyone I had overtaken run past me. I carried on and just kept moving. It was frustrating but it didn't matter, I was nearly there. Eventually the adrenaline of realising I was in Chamonix took over and I started running again. I was in so much pain but I didn't care, there was no way I was walking past the crowds.
All I remember about the finish is running through the town with my brother (I can't remember a word he said) and seeing my mum waving a Union Jack flag on the finish line and being greeted with a big hug from her on the finish line.
That was it, done.
I was shattered, everything ached but I didn't care. I had finished and you know what, despite all the lows I wouldn't have had it any other way. It was an incredible, life-changing experience and that's what Ultra running is all about.
Now it's just to think about what's the next event...after a burger or five.