So the CCC race of the UTMB series of races (http://www.utmbmontblanc.com/) was the primary ultra objective of the year and I wasn’t even sure why. I really just wanted to do the race, without any kind of personal performance goal. The only vague idea I had when I signed up was that I wanted to enjoy it. I then learned that my friend Maija Oravamäki would also be running it and I thought about running it with her. She happens to be the best female trail runner in Finland and I have raced with her in the past and knew that our racing paces should be pretty compatible. During the very positive pre-race training block I did start thinking about perhaps starting to run my own race from half way point on if I felt like it. However, Maija was doing so great and we were having a great time that lacking my own objectives, I ended up adopting hers. Here’s how it played out.
The UTMB runs through some stunning scenery (this particular photo is not from the route though)
So for those that don’t know much about the UTMB, it’s a trail running festival of grand scale. There are 5 main races, with the famous UTMB as the centerpiece. This year, I elected to do the CCC race, which is the “little sister” of UTMB, with 101km and 6,000m+ of climbing around Mont Blanc, going through Italy, Switzerland and finishing in France. It can be difficult to get into these races, with qualification points required and even then most people have to go through a lottery. I managed to get in without the lottery with my ITRA points (https://www.i-tra.org/community/langel.kai/271033/). I already did the UTMB in 2016 and it felt like too big of a project for this year.
The training objective for this year has been to minimize suffering rather than maximizing performance. So in practice a bit more comfortable volume rather than hard workouts. I’ve not been training vast amounts, but had a nice series of trainings for few weeks before the race and everything felt great.
Before the race, we traveled to the south of France and stayed at a friend’s place: (https://www.flystandre.com/ – great place btw, also good for running).
I still had a couple of days of work left, here’s me in action.
But we also managed to have some fun, here’s our pizza night. We also had a great secret party in the forest, Finnish style.
And great food. A highlight was me picking half a basket of mushrooms after the forest party and helping feed everyone the next day.
Also we watched the full moon rise over the South Alpes a couple of nights.
Oh and I did some running too, but it was mostly just resting and tapering.
The CCC starts Friday morning at 09:00 from Courmayer, Italy. There are 1,900 people at the start line, but luckily organized according to their ITRA ranking, so we got to start at the front without having to wait around forever.
Mountains waiting in Courmayer.
The weather looked kind of promising, with cool (but not cold) temperatures and it was looking like visibility was going to improve and we’d get to enjoy the sights.
With Maija just before start
CCC profile with some key events of our race
We started together with Maija and worked our way up the big first climb. At the top Maija put on the afterburners and we ran really fast through the smooth downhill trail. A good chunk of that part I was running pretty near what I thought my limit would be to avoid cramps and problems later on, while Maija seemed to doing really well and probably had to work hard to not go even faster, knowing it’s a long race. I felt ok, but also felt that my body hadn’t yet really woken up and it took 25km or so before things started clicking a bit better for me. This is where we also heard that Maija was in 7th place and we had one lady right in front of us. This set Maija on fire even more and she put on a great effort in the next big climb up to the highest point of Grand Col Ferret. The weather also got really foggy, windy and pretty cold. I was hovering probably on either side of the limit I thought I could put in at this stage of the race and near the top, maybe with 200m more vert to go, Maija disappeared into the fog and I just couldn’t follow. I knew she wouldn’t be far and hoped to catch her in the downhill. This is also where I ran out of gel (km 30) and got a bit worried knowing that I won’t get any more until km 55 where our aid crew was waiting with the goodies. However, at the top things were even more complicated, it was now raining lightly and the fog was really bad. It was time to put on the jacket and gloves. The fog was so bad it was quite hard to run fast downhill and I even got a bit lost in the fog with a couple of trails crossing and no route markings in sight. I just had to go by instinct and luckily selected the right path. Things got a bit better further down and I was recovering energy very well and knew that I could put in some fast pace once we got to more runnable flattish sections. I asked a hiking couple if they had seen a blond girl fly by and they reported her being just 1,5 mins ahead. So I put my head down and went chasing.
Getting to La Fouly, with the Finnish crew waiting. Here’s me probably asking “Have you seen Maija?”. When I heard that they had not seen her, I was shocked. I had not passed her either, but here I am at the next aid station with Maija not having passed. I hope she had not gotten lost. I carried on and soon heard some shouts and could see Maija also running into the aid from behind. She had indeed taken a wrong turn, lost a bit of time but it was all good again. I quickly fueled and hoped to finally get back to running with Maija. I exited the aid station and got back to running and then felt like something was missing … shit, I had left my running poles behind in the aid tent. All right, have to turn around, run back 300 meters, find the damn poles, then get out again. And guess what, Maija was long gone again of course. I heard from the crew that she had said that she’s going to go a bit easy so I could catch her. I knew that wasn’t going to happen as the next section was very, very fast for quite a long time and this would be an important section for her to use her amazing leg speed (ex 2:35 marathoner). Oh well, I thought and there is nothing I can do except to run after her again and do my best in this section also. In the beginning, running wasn’t super flowy, but once we got on the bit of asphalt that we had to do before the next climb, I was moving well again and passing a bunch of people. The fast running got my legs in a nice groove and the next climb was also strong, running up most of it and passing lots of people on my way to Champex Lac. I was guessing that I must be catching up to Maija now, I was moving that well and all the people around me seemed far more destroyed than I was. When I got to Champex, Maija was there also and still fueling etc. I ate my soup quickly and we exited together. I could see right away that it was now a lot easier to stick with Maija and we caught up about the events since we had last seen each other and now went after the rest of the course together. At this point I had decided that I’d run the rest of the race with her, partly to help, but also to get to experience the great run she was putting together with her.
Trient Aid Station
The above video shows nicely how the aid station routine worked with us. Katri was helping me out, so she had prepared some simple things for me (gel, water, lots of backup gear). If everything was well, the stops were very quick, with me quickly downing some soup while Katri changes my bottles. Good stops were < 2 mins and then out. We probably passed lots of people during these quick stops. The other benefit is that if you don’t sit down for long, your legs are ready to go again right away. From Trient I exited a bit more quickly than Maija and walked out the first bit, munching on some cookies and waiting for her to catch up.
Nice video above by Teemu Takkula with parts of our run and the finish. Our time was 14h 14 min, with Maija finishing 5th woman and me something like 77th overall. Not too bad out of 1,900 starters and I certainly had more left in the tank.
So once again, the UTMB delivered something quite epic. Also these big races are not just about the race itself. These events motivate you to train, prepare, think, so in essence, the experience starts well before the gun goes off. The UTMB week itself is great, there are tens of thousands of people in Chamonix, the scenery is stunning and there is great atmosphere, especially amongst the Finns. This time the highlight for sure was to run with Maija again, we both really clicked well together in terms of pace, strategy, etc. We made each other stronger, with her pulling me in the beginning with her fast start and me pushing her a bit at the end once I got warmed up. I totally adopted her objective and ran her race rather than my own and this actually made this race one of the best racing experiences I’ve had recently. Also the race was absolutely problem-free for me, zero issues with stomach, cramping or energy. My VJ Sport iRock shoes performed flawlessly, with amazing grip and none of the toe issues I had in 2016 UTMB (more about the shoes here: http://alltrail.eu/).
While the race itself was great and everything felt good, I was absolutely shattered the evening and night after the race. I for sure had more places that hurt than ones that didn’t: toes, feet, hip, back, shoulders… It was pretty hard to sleep and I only managed a few hours. This race was also part of another project, where I wanted to use various sensors and tools to measure everything I could with the tools I had. I still have to go through all of the data, but I can already see that there are some interesting findings about how the race affected my sleep, for example. I’ll be making another post specifically about that on LinkedIn shortly once I go through everything. Once of the sensors I was using was a running power meter, so I was measuring my output in watts through the race, just checking the stats from my Suunto watch during the race, it looked like we were able to maintain a pretty consistent effort late into the race, with power dropping a little in the last climbs.
My feet and toes look far worse than they actually were. I only had one blister in one toe. The sports I used is different colour in the other foot. I had my shoes on pretty tight and the upper was pressing against the foot, probably causing those weird white spots at the top.
I couldn’t stay out of the mountains, so already on Sunday we went on a nice hike with Katri and on Monday I did a pretty hard training with 15km, 3h+ and 1,500m+ and actually felt really great, especially on the uphill. Of course I was far from recovered and after 2,5hrs bonked super hard and only got back to the ski lift after spending half on hour in the bushes eating blueberries.