I’m standing at the starting line of the biggest event in my race calendar this year, the CCC®. For the first time I will run in the Alps – from Courmayeur, via Champex in Switzerland and further on towards Chamonix. A distance of 100k and with about 6000 lovely vertical meters!
By Carl Johan Sörman
Unlike most of the other runners, I have spent the night on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, in a tent with my family and with a fantastic view of the mountains.
The ultras I have run have usually started super early in the morning, but the CCC® doesn’t start until 9 o’clock, so I manage to get a good night’s sleep.
That same morning we had given a polish runner a lift from the campsite… however, when we arrive in Courmayeur he realizes that he’d forgotten his bib back in his tent! Luckily, mine is securely fastened onto the race-belt around my stomach, number 3094.
Thanks to earlier deeds I’m elite classified and get to start in the first section. The course begins with a loop around the centre of Courmayeur. Then, the biggest climb of the race starts with 10k in which we gain 1400 meters, right up to Tête de la Tronche. As soon as the uphill starts, I start passing runners. Most of my training runs at home start from 200 meters above sea level and climb rapidly to 1200 meters, so this is what I’m used to.
But today, I have a tail of runners just behind me, so slowing down doesn’t seem like an option.
We climb higher and higher up. My light, pattering running steps turn into power hiking. The view is majestic! The movement of my legs unfortunately demands full attention, so I cannot fully grasp the scenery. A couple of strong climbers pass me, but since they are sponsored to their teeth I realize I should ‘probably’ not attempt to follow them! Instead, I do what I can to preserve energy, taking it as easy as possible.
When we reach the top and the trail starts going downhill, several runners fly past me like darts. “What are you guys doing! Are you crazy?”, I think. “The race has hardly begun!” I continue at my own pace, without getting caught up in any insane speed. I’m running at the highest altitude I have ever run at. To my relief, it doesn’t seem to affect me.
During the summer I endured quite a bit of training in intense heat and with jungle-like humidity. It had been quite a task to complete long runs in the mountains during these conditions, but I believe the heat training has compensated for my lack of high altitude training.
After about 30k, somewhere during our second big climb, the field of runners finally loosens up.
I now only have a few runners around me and I can run at a more relaxed pace. Nice. From the sart, the weather had been mild and I’d been running in just shorts and a T-shirt. But suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by clouds. Since I get cold easily, I am the first one to make a quick stop to put on a long-sleeved, warm top, a cap and gloves. This is the setup of clothes which I will wear throughout the rest of the race.
At Grand Col Ferret, by the Italian-Swiss border, I glance at my watch. My target time to reach the top in 4:00 – 4:15h was spot on since my watch tells me that I’ve been running for 4:02h.
We now have the longest descent in front of us – about 20 wonderful kilometers. With ease, I roll down the hill. Like clockwork, I suck on a liquid gel every 45 minutes. And as usual, I have a sports drink and homemade ginger brew in my bottles. Halfway down the long descent I make a quick stop at La Fouly’s aid-station. I fill up a bottle with sports drink and munch on my new aid-station favorite, watermelon. During the whole race I make only quite short stops at the stations. I sense that there are more runners passing me than me passing other runners on the trail, but I still hold my position fairly well.
Alone I leave the village of La Fouly…
…And follow the marked route into the woods. The following 10k turns out to be the most wonderful part of the race, (for me at least). For a long time I’m running all alone. I begin to wonder if I have somehow taken the wrong route, but I honestly don’t really care since the running is so magnificent. And, I do see route markings now and then. On soft, slightly sloping trails in the gentle rain I flow forward.
In the mist, the great fir-trees and the even bigger rocky knolls look like trolls and giants from a fairy tale.
Suddenly, after about an hour of lonesome running, there are runners on the trail again. The long downhill ends, and we start a short climb up to Champex. When I enter the aid-station, I finally get to meet my partner and daughter who are crewing for me. They help me fill up my bottles and hand me gels, and soon I’m out of the tent again.
My body still feels strong, and I take the opportunity to run a bit faster since it’s relatively flat. But soon a new ascent starts, and I begin the third big climb of the day. For a while, I have been waiting for the strong Swedish superstar Ida Nilsson to pass me, and now it’s finally time. She climbs past me, and I follow in her footsteps for quite a while, but when I have to stop to take a leak she disappears up the mountain.
During the climb, I sense a niggle in my right glute. Two months earlier I had to DNF Lavaredo Ultra Trail since, out of the blue, my right glute got bad. But the odd feeling quickly passes and doesn’t seem to return – knock on wood – and I continue with a slight sense of anxiety, forward and up. On the other side of the mountain, when I run downhill again, I pass a Frenchman who is rooting for us. I might be wrong, but I do believe (?) it is the winner of UTMB 2016 – Ludovic Pommeret – which gives an extra energy boost.
Kilometer after kilometer, I run.
It’s beginning to get heavy. I hear an intense rattling of cowbells and it makes me believe that I’m getting really close to the next aid-station, but from the top of the next hill I see a big herd of cows munching on green grass.They seem to have little interest in my doings. But a couple of km’s later, after a total of 10h and 22min (8 min faster than my most optimistic estimation!) I enter Trient.
For the last time during the race, I see Ida who quickly eats some real food that her team gets her. Then she heads out before me. I have still not been able to try eating proper food during a race. I had a Snickers early on during today’s race, but it was so unpleasant so I decided not to have any more bars.
Soon after leaving Trient, the 4th big climb starts.
I feel a light stomach pain and I’m getting really worn out. It’s 30k to the finishing line, but it is an easy decision continuing the race. I decide to skip the liquid gels for a while and hope for the stomach to recover. The ascent is really heavy. For the first time during the race, I have to stop for a couple of seconds for a standing rest.
Meanwhile, a Frenchwoman passes me looking fresh and strong, with swift steps and rapid pole strokes. It looks to me like a walk in the park.
I have a confession to make. I have been a stubborn old man refusing to believe in running poles. But now, seeing the French lady – I really get converted – it is time for me to get a pair of poles! The Frenchwoman’s “Allez, allez!” makes me, pole-less, strive forward.
…Behind me, I can see a couple of more runners.
I begin a mind game…
..I have to climb 100 vertical meters before I let anybody pass me. I can restart the game several times without anybody passing, and I understand the others also are having a hard time in the heavy ascent. Finally we reach the top and can start the descent towards the last major aid-station, situated in France’s Vallorcine.
Entering Vallorcine I am exhausted. My stomach is OK again, though. I sit down on a bench and let my crew take care of me. I leave my backpack on as I ask my partner to get me melon and coke, refill my pack with liquid gels and fill up my bottles. I also ask for my head lamp so I can put it on. Twilight is not far away.
I run out on the trail again and my legs feels oh-so-heavy, as they do after sitting down a couple of minutes. But soon they are alive and kicking again. For a change, it’s quite flat for a while and it feels great! The last section of the course is partly modified since there has been a rockfall close to the final peak. At this point I don’t really know what this modification will mean, but I’m hoping for less climbing and a more runnable trail. I was SO wrong. Soon the climbing begins again, and now we’re embraced by darkness and mist.
…Suddenly the trail gets extremely technical as it’s transformed into slippery, big, sharp rocks…
In the fog it’s truly tricky to see where to put my feet. This section is not part of the usual CCC course to my understanding.
A runner in front of me curses as he breaks one of his poles. I move painfully slow. But the goal is getting closer every step I take. I have put my nutrition plan aside. No more liquid gels, only sipping on sports drink and my ginger brew while I dream about real food. It’s 24h since I had a proper cooked meal.
The technical part ends, and the climbing continues. In the dark, it’s hard to guess how far it is to the top, but in front of me I can see the twinkling of a couple of headlamps, striving up, up, up. I laugh and swear at the slope which seems to never end.
The final peak is reached and I trot in to the aid-station. Inside, while having a refreshing cup of Coke, I glare at a sign saying it is 8k and 910 negative meters to the finish. A bit longer than my GPS watch has promised me. Running downhill is really not what my thighs are up for at the moment, but I throws myself out into the darkness for the last time.
It’s not fast, it’s not pretty, but I’m moving forward.
Far below me I can see the glimmering lights of Chamonix. A couple of runners pass me on the downhill. I hope that I can keep enough of them behind me to reach my primary goal – to finish in the top 50. Suddenly, I exit the woods and enter the outskirts of the town. The last couple of meters I run, to the cheering of the crowds, with a big smile on my lips.
I can finally sit down and relax. At the finish area I get some warm and wonderful chai. It’s great to enjoy another taste in my mouth. I have achieved my goal. After running the CCC® nearly exactly as I had planned in advance, I end up in 43rd position overall and with a time of 13h and 11min.
Additionally, I am completely injury-free – I don’t even have a blister on my feet! But while sitting there, relaxing, my legs start to hurt more and more. My daughter does what she can to comfort me. “There, there”, she says, patting me.
And post CCC®?
Well, my body recovered surprisingly fast. After 2 days of rest I could resume my training for an upcoming 110km & 120km race in my autumn racing calendar. Both with a similar course profile as the CCC® (lots of climbing!).
Oh…and as soon as I got back home, after the CCC®, I ordered a pair of running poles, and after having used them in training I can really appreciate them.
They are worth their weight in gold! (Charles went on to win the Montanaro Trail with his running poles)
The CCC® was a wonderful experience, and I will definitely be back next year. I have not yet decided though if I will run the CCC® again or go for the longer UTMB®.
Time will tell…
Carl Johan Sörman – born in Sweden, returned to trail running whilst living in Italy, where he now trains and lives in northern Tuscany together with his partner and daughter. “I have this urge… when I see a mountain summit… I want to get to the top. Running of course.” You can find Carl on Instagram