UTMB weekend: the spectator's view

Posted on: 21 Oct 2016

Now that Sir Bolty has posted his UTMB account (and what a fantastic read it was), maybe I should skip on a bit and finally(!) post my view of the same weekend - not that it will be anything like as interesting, I'm afraid............

That Friday evening, like so many others, I was sitting in front of my computer: riveted to the UTMB website, and the string of posts coming in on the Facebook thread; 'Conquest of Paradise' at the ready. I watched in amazement as the huge throng of runners poured through the start, trying in vain to spot one particular flash of orange........... Then off I went myself in honour of our hero. Even this late on in the day, it was scorching hot. I had been checking the forecast for the Swiss part of the race, and it didn't look 'too' bad, a mere 25° or so (plus the possibility of thunderstorms, oh dear), but I really hoped it might be cooler. I paused for a minute at the top of the Bireggwald, looking in the direction I thought Chamonix was, and sent a massive load of good wishes that way. Then I just rambled at random round various woodland paths, trying to stay in the shade. I did do the round of the Vita Parcours which I usually treat as a time trial, but it was well off my best this time. Home, dripping with sweat, 9.1 kms done; something to drink, quick shower, then back to the computer to check for updates. No rehearsal tonight - just my male colleagues had that dubious pleasure. I was reluctant to tear myself away and get to bed, but with a long day ahead, and a potentially sleepless next night, I knew I had to.

Before the theatre season begins, it's usually the case that we work from Monday morning to 1 o'clock on Saturday, and have Saturday afternoon and evening and all day Sunday free. However, they are allowed to schedule Saturday evening rehearsals too 'if necessary'. I was REALLY hoping they wouldn't do so this weekend, as I planned to travel to Trient, one of the UTMB checkpoints, on the Saturday afternoon.......... so of course they DID! Worse, it was originally scheduled to finish at 10 o'clock - exactly the time of the last train I could catch - meaning I would have to get the first one on Sunday morning (at some hideous hour like half past 4). Luckily they amended this to a 9 o'clock finish, so Plan A was back on again. The first thing I did on waking up on Saturday was switch the computer on and check on Bolty's progress. Looking good! Off to the morning rehearsal; on the way home, I was reflecting that all the time I had been doing normal things like sleeping, waking, getting up, having breakfast, going to work, coming back again, sitting on a bus, Bolty had been going and going and going........... The afternoon was again spent in checking for updates (and some photos and videos too!), in between packing and preparing for the journey. J was going too. We would get a train to Lausanne, and another from there to Martigny. We had a hire car booked there from 1.30 on Sunday morning, and planned to drive to Trient, where with any luck we would be able to cheer Bolty through some time in the early hours, before continuing to the finish at Chamonix. Though apparently suffering, he was continuing to reach all the checkpoints within the time limits. Feeling grumpy and resentful, I set off to the theatre for my evening's rehearsal. I had to take my music home afterwards (I needed it at a different location on Monday morning, and I certainly had no intention of taking it to Chamonix with me!) so I was pleased when it actually finished a few minutes early, which gave me time to check the computer again before leaving for the station........... only to discover Bolty had been timed out by the narrowest of margins at one of the checkpoints. A measly 49 seconds! I knew he must have been devastated. I still had every intention of going, however, and gave Mandy a quick call to say I hoped to see them in Chamonix. She said they were on their way back there now, though currently stuck in traffic.......... and that Gerry was looking forward to a shower! Downed a cup of tea, grabbed our rucksacks, and went to catch the bus to the station........... only to discover there wasn't one! - the road was being re-surfaced overnight, and all traffic was blocked off. So we had to run to St Anton, down the hill and several minutes further along the road, and hope for a no. 7. One was coming as we approached the stop, so the run became a sprint, and we just made it, heaving ourselves and our luggage on just before the doors shut. Caught the train okay, and finally sat back and relaxed.
Thinking about the revised plans, I realized I had left the arrangements very vague, and realistically it was going to be at least mid-morning before we could meet up, so I rang again from the train to suggest maybe late breakfast might be a possibility. It went to voice mail, evidently they were already in bed - I hoped I hadn't woken them! Unfortunately, just as I started to speak, the train went into a long tunnel, and it was so loud, I could barely hear myself speak, and the pressure on my eardrums was very distracting too, so the call ended up being very garbled and probably didn't make a lot of sense. (The word 'breakfast' evidently got through, however.)

An uncomplicated change in Lausanne; but the connecting train stopped after only one station. We thought at first it had broken down, but then an announcement informed us that the delay was because 'someone had fallen on the line' at the next station. This didn't go down at all well with a rowdy group of young men, who started shouting and complaining. One particularly obnoxious guy pressed the alarm button, and then proceeded to harangue the guard who came to see what the problem was, only quietening down when the guard threatened to call the police. The same guy then decided it would be 'fun' to pass the time in pestering other passengers. A couple of giggly teenage girls went along with it; then he turned his attention to us, pretending he was an official and had to check our tickets. I made the mistake of saying in English, "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about", thinking that would floor him. No such hope: switching to broken English, he continued the same tedious charade with even more persistence. I began to get really ratty; it was late, I was tired, I just wanted to sit in my corner and be left in peace. But eventually he got bored and went back to loud non-conversation with his cronies, and finally the train started moving again.

It was about ten to 2 when we arrived in Martigny; now we had to locate the car. J belongs to a scheme called Mobility, whereby a limited number of cars are available at stations and other strategic places. (I think Martigny had 4.) They range from Micro (Smarts) to vans, but are always red. J. usually goes for a Budget or Economy model if one is available, but this time he'd reserved a bigger one, with the idea of being able to fold the seats down and sleep in the back. Coming out of the station, he was about to head right, but I spotted a car park over to the left, and that was where we found our chariot. Martigny was like a ghost town as we drove through it, not a person to be seen. I tried to navigate, while J got used to the unfamiliar car; getting out of unknown towns is always the trickiest part, but more by luck than judgement, we ended up on the right road, and soon found ourselves climbing up towards the Col de la Forclaz, looking down on the lights of the valley floor increasingly far below as the road wound up and up. Soon even they disappeared from view, and it was just the silence and darkness and the paler ribbon of road ahead. The silence was broken for a while by a repetative pinging from the car. No idea what the problem was, but it stopped again as inexplicably as it had started, fortunately - it would have been really irritating if it had continued all night!

Finally the road flattened out, curved right, and widened into a car park. We were at the summit. As we pulled over and stopped, I thought I saw figures going by at the other end. It took me a few moments to register that these were the runners passing through on their way to Trient - somehow I had not expected to see them here. There was a man in an official-looking jacket standing by another parked car, so we got out and walked over there too. It felt decidedly chilly up here; I was glad now of my fleece. Like an army of ghosts, the runners trickled by in ones and twos, mostly walking, the occasional one still bravely attempting to run. I felt sorry for the ones all on their own - I thought it must be so lonely, so hard to keep the motivation going. If they were lucky, they might at least have the speck of light that was the headtorch of the runner in front to follow. Many seemed momentarily unsure where to go here, despite the plastic tape, and as the man in the jacket had retreated back into his car, J. took over the directing (in whichever language seemed appropriate - German, French, and English were okay, but the Italian and Spanish were very inventive!), while I backed him up with applause and calls of "Bravo!" Some of them were communicative, responding with comments and thanks, others seemed deep in a world of their own, drifting past like somnambulists. There was something surreal about the whole scenario, standing up here in a deserted car park, under a canopy of glittering stars, watching a race in the middle of the night. I have seldom seen the Milky Way so clearly - it was breathtaking. And in the distance, the train of tiny lights snaking away up the next mountain as the runners headed towards Trient. After a while, another man joined us in spectating. He seemed quite knowledgeable - at any rate, we overheard him telling someone it was 3 kms to Trient, so J. adopted this comforting piece of information into his directing patter. (I did forbid him, though, to say " 's'isch nümmer wiit" - 'it's not far now' - I thought that would be cruel! At this point they had some 140 kms behind them, and still another 30ish still to go.) From time to time I walked about a bit, back along the road to see the path they were coming down. After a while, the gaps between the runners grew longer, and it seemed like a good time to move on. The other man was still there on applause and direction-indicating duty, so I didn't feel too bad about leaving.

Soon after, we passed through Trient, and briefly considered stopping off here too. But wherever the checkpoint was, it wasn't there by this road - all was dark and quiet, no sign of life. Besides, the car park was full. So we drove on. A few minutes further on, seeing a lay-by at the side of the road, we pulled over, folded the seat down, and tried to sleep in the back of the car, heads pillowed on our rucksacks. Somewhere in the darkness behind was the sound of a stream rushing by; a very occasional car passed by on the other side. I had brought a little fleece blanket (unseasonably proclaiming 'Merry Christmas', and sporting a scene of frolicking snowmen), but even with that, and with all our clothes on, it was cold; and the seat made a hard ridge right under my ribs. We persevered for a couple of hours, but neither of us actually slept. Finally, stiff and chilled, we gave up, put the car back together again, and with light beginning to seep back into the sky, drove on in search of breakfast.

Vallorcine was the next place we came to: site of another checkpoint. A checkpoint would have portaloos, would it not? - and this being the next item on my to-do list, I walked down to investigate, while J stayed with the car. I found some rather pleasant wooden ones, a great improvement on the usual rickety plastic version - they even had a bucket of wood shavings for putting in with the other contents, very eco. I did a quick tour of the rest of the checkpoint, noting grilled sausages, Glühwein (the combined smell of which made me feel vaguely bilious), but nothing resembling the kind of breakfast I had in mind (I was thinking more 'coffee and croissants'), and applauded a few runners passing through. Back at the car, I remembered having seen a bakery as we came into the village, and that it had its own parking spaces. Closer investigation revealed that it was also a cafe......... but closed. A notice on the door said it opened at half past 7. There was a light on inside, though, and someone moving about; surely they would open early on an occasion like this? Apparently not - the door remained resolutely locked, though we were not the only hopefuls who tried it. I did think they could have made an exception for this one day though, the demand was certainly there. I temporarily made do with a squashed cheese sandwich I had found still at the bottom of my rucksack, and we passed on the waiting time going back to the checkpoint to see the runners coming through. Amazingly, some were STILL running......... though most were looking very weary now. Returning to the cafe, we found it finally open, and feasted on hot coffee and pain au chocolat (still warm, and so delicious, I had to have another), while eavesdropping on a couple of French-speaking runners at the next table - part of a relay, as far as I could make out.

So.......... on to Chamonix, driving at random in search of the race. Spotting a hobbling runner, evidently a recent finisher, I accosted him to ask for directions. 'Just up there' he indicated. Not knowing whether there would be car-parking possibilities further on, and seeing a space in the meter-zone here, we left the car and explored further on foot. Rounding a corner, we saw people standing, and heard the sound of a loudspeaker.......... and yes, there were runners. Following the direction they were going, we found our way to the archway at the finish. After hanging around there for a while, we walked back along the course a bit, but soon returned to the more picturesque town centre. The sun had yet to make it clear of the mountains, and the streets were mostly still in chilly shadow. Gradually though, sunlight began to inch its way across the ground.

I took up position on the plinth of a statue of some Chamonix worthy which the sun had already reached, its warmth pleasant on my back, and settled down to some serious cheering and clapping. Fascinating to observe the various runners, and their responses to knowing they were now so close to the finish. Some were euphoric and hyper, others seemingly too weary to care. Many were brandishing flags, some of countries I didn't even recognize; some, I noticed, had mascots dangling from their rucksacks. I particularly remember one little oriental woman who looked quite improbably neat. While other runners were muddy, dishevelled, sweaty, dressed in whatever wild combination of clothes had come to hand in 40 hours of running, she looked as though she had just popped out for a gentle 5k before breakfast. Even her running style was neat.

I decided I would ring Mandy at about ten - I didn't want to ring earlier in case I woke them up. When I tried, though, I found I had no network (Sunrise). J is with Swisscom, however, and that was working, so I borrowed his phone.......... to discover that not only were they awake, they were already out and about, and had twice tried to ring ME (and been unable to get through.) I defined my present location as 'Between a statue of some local worthy and a very noisy river', as we tried to establish a place to meet. (So noisy, in fact, since a group of very vocal Italians had joined me on my perch, that I had to move away a bit to continue the conversation.) We agreed on 12 o'clock, by the Post Office.

No real trouble finding the place......... now to find the people. I scanned around, mistakenly looking for orange, when I heard my name - Mandy had spotted me first. Ah......... Gerry's wearing blue: the official UTMB tee shirt. Greetings and hugs; so lovely to meet at last. Soon after, Raj and his family arrived too, and we all set off in search of somewhere to eat. The first place we tried wasn't very obliging, (they didn't do 'brunch' - only multi-course dinners, presumably), but a neighbouring establishment received us with more friendliness, so we pulled 4 tables together on the pavement terrace and ordered. One of our number was still missing, Dave (who had travelled there on the Friday and kept Mandy company on her travels from checkpoint to checkpoint; he was staying at a hotel in Martigny, and driving back here today), so they rang him to tell him where we were, and soon after, he arrived. It was good to meet him too, after the various races when we'd thought our paths might cross, but it had never quite worked out. J had had to dash off a couple of times to put more money in the parking meter (it would only take 2 hours' worth at a time), but Dave gave him a hot tip about a better place to park to avoid this continuing scenario. The food was good, the conversation flowed, the sun was now shining brilliantly, and the runners were still going past. Meal over, we took a couple of group photos before Raj and family departed. Then the rest of us headed to the finish, where we were lucky enough to find a table just being vacated, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching, applauding, and drinking beer. (With a few more photos to document this Realbuzz meet-up.)

A woman at the next table looked somehow familiar, and eventually it dawned on me that it was the remarkable Nicky Spinks - another of my heroines. She had run the UTMB, (coming 12th), but looked as fresh as a daisy. Shamelessly I went over and asked if she would mind being in a photo with me; to which she was quite happy to oblige.

A brilliant runner........ and some woman called Nicky........

The clock ticked ever nearer to the time limit. We were willing them on now, cheering them home. A particularly heartfelt cheer for the one who made it with less than half a minute to spare; almost as big a cheer for the next one, who narrowly missed it, acknowledging what an achievement it still was, whatever some arbitrary figures on a clock said. Gerry seemed quite sanguine about things, but I did wonder how he was really feeling - it must have been hard for him, watching these people complete what he had not been allowed to. He did say something ridiculous about feeling guilty that we'd come all this way and then he'd not delivered, which I assured him was nonsense - I was bowled over by his courage, his determination, and the simple fact that he had done far,far more than most people (me included) could ever DREAM of doing. 'Not delivered'?!!! - I could only shake my head in disbelief. (But I did understand why at the time he might feel like that, and hoped that with hindsight, he might appreciate the true scale of what he had achieved - though I suspect the experience might have fired his ambition even more!)

With things winding up now at the UTMB finish line, and with a long journey home ahead of us, it was time to think about going. I think Dave had already left, but I hope our paths do cross again some time - he's a really nice guy. Quick visit to the bar our beers had come from to avail ourselves of their 'facilities', then it was goodbye to Gerry and Mandy, with an exchange of addresses, and promises to visit. (I'm going to lure our Bolty to an event in Switzerland if it's the last thing I do!) Retrieving the car (luckily J. could remember where it was, as I had no idea now!), we set off back. Over the Col de la Forclaz (no sign now of the previous night's activity), and down to Martigny; returned the car to its parking space; bit of a wait at the station (spent sitting on a bench and sharing our last apple), but an otherwise uncomplicated journey home by the same combination of trains. Arrived in Luzern at 10: exactly 24 hours after we had left. And though it was 'only' spectating, it had felt like the most wonderful adventure - a very welcome break from the grind of work. Apologies again for the ridiculously long time it has taken me to get this written - I got partway, had to break off for a while, and somehow lost the thread - but here it is. Thanks, Gerry, for a very memorable experience. You're a star!

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