If someone had told me 18 months ago I’d be writing a blog about running a 54k alpine ultra marathon, I’d probably have choked – 18 months ago I couldn’t even run a 10k! But just a couple of weeks ago I finished the OCC, an ultra trail race which is part of the UTMB series. Starting in Orsieres in Switzerland and finishing in Chamonix, France. The OCC might be the shortest in the series, but it is also considered one of the most demanding trail races in Europe.
When I signed up for the OCC, I’d just returned from a summer of alpine trail running – I was clocking up serious miles and my ascent profile was looking ten times as healthy as it had done compared to any running I’d done in Scotland – I had big dreams of eventually running the CCC, and perhaps even one day the UTMB. You can’t just rock up at the start line of these sort of races though, you’ve got to prove you’re actually capable, and the OCC was the place I decided to start. Even for the OCC entry isn’t guaranteed – so I spent weeks with everything crossed that I would get a race number.
Just after Christmas, my prayers were answered, and at the end of August I flew out to Chamonix (my second home) to take my place on the OCC start line – it was surreal, from start to finish, absolutely surreal. Town was buzzing with trail runners and the atmosphere was totally electric – I’ve never experienced anything like it, even collecting my race number was a really big deal – standing in the queue for almost two years, having all my kit checked – even the seams of my waterproofs were checked! Then – I got my race bib – it didn’t just have my race number on it – but my name and country too!
The next day, after just a few hours sleep, I woke up, got ready, and walked through the dark, silent Chamonix streets to catch a 5am bus to the start line. The mood varied on the coach – some people slept, some were agitated, some happy and excited; many had never been to Chamonix before and that was clearly part of the excitement.
At the start line there was lots of hanging around, and it was freezing – so, so cold. I stayed back since I didn’t want to get pushed to move too fast at the start, but it was a big mistake, as soon as the trail turned to steep singletrack I got completely caught in a slow-moving bottleneck. On the flip-side, it might have been moving slow on the steep alpine climbs (almost 4000m of ascent!) that meant I still had the energy to keep going almost 11 hours later.
The route itself was spectacular – even though it was so hot, steep and technical, and every inch of my body hurt – I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be running such amazing trails, with views of alpine peaks and glaciers for the duration. At some points, I felt a bit weird – dizzy, shivery, far too happy; but for the most part it just felt like I was supposed to be there. I can now fully understand why people become addicted to the buzz of running ultras.
The closer I got to the end, the stronger I actually felt – there was one point where my knee gave way on a technical descent and I did wonder if I would have to withdraw, but after the feed station, I just took it easy – until I hit the descents, then I just let rip and enjoyed the last 15 or so kms. The most fun, exciting and exhilarating part of the whole race was the last couple of kms – they were steep, technical and so, so fast – it was amazing. Running through Chamonix toward the finish line was great – the streets were lined and everyone was shouting my name and cheering – it was so surreal.
I can’t wait for the next one.