A Beautiful Dress Rehearsal

I wasn’t exactly full of energy by my first evening in Chamonix but simply being there somehow made me step out the door to run a brief four miles along the gently rolling valley floor where UTMB starts.  A constantly cascading raftable river crossing seemed like far enough and I turned back, having at least partly earned my huge pizza – it seems I’m back on those again.  I didn’t see the sun set behind all those mountains, but I couldn’t not sit on my hotel balcony, unable to take my eyes away from the majestic tableau that towered in front of me until darkness took its hold.  If I’d packed a head torch, I’d have turned it on a bit more just to enjoy a little more of that view.

As the next day dawned in paradise, it was time to get down to business and ‘enjoy’ my first outing on the big slopes.  Local tour company Run The Alps had shared my story with their talent pool of running guides and a few very kindly offered to take me out on the trails.  The first of these was Coline, who met me at the train station, accompanied by a Torben, who was also on a running holiday.  Once we disembarked at Vallorcine, I tested out the knee with a gently ascending 3k or so before the poles came out and we got stuck in with climbing to the Tete au Vents and back down to Chamonix.  This was the last 20k or so of the UTMB course and – just like the next five days – would add weight to the theory that ‘what comes up must come down’.

I’m an average ascender – still with enough fitness to grind out a climb but not the kind of superhuman that would be able to leap gazelle style up the kind of hill that most would hike.  However, I was in the company of such people and – just like Nacho, my Spanish running from the week before, they both ran rings round me and took photos as I struggled to negotiate the terrain.  My efforts were rewarded with the most spectacular views and even though my knee did not thank me, I picked my way down safely and quickly enough to be within the race cutoff time.  I tried not to think about this in the context of having gotten through 150k of mountain already but not hard enough.  Three bag changes had slowed me down and I’d struggled on the technical bits as I knew I would.  This was my first indication that I’d really really be up against it come race day and, later that day, I messaged my support crew to manage expectations.  Getting round this course wouldn’t be easy for a fit and healthy ultra runner with good knees.

But it had been a good four hours of activity and I rewarded myself afterwards with a big baked raclette style dish that included chicken, bacon and what appeared to be half my body weight in cheese, then coffee with Doug Mayer, whose company had kindly done all the logistical thinking and planning for me.  Doug isn’t just an experienced trail runner with what appears to be a limitless capacity to keep going for hundreds of miles, but an excellent writer and his praise of my prose means a great deal.  Almost as much as the lovely gesture of a signed copy of his book on UTMB.  If I ever find myself seeking considered wisdom, I’m going straight to Doug.

Even though we’d only just met, Torben agreed to accompany me on my next leg – the first 31k of the course to Les Contamines.  The paths were better than the day before but it was still a slog in the sun.  Thankfully, Torben had run this bit before and – not encumbered by navigation issues – we pretty much exchanged life stories and talked about all sorts of rubbish in order to pass the time in between the succession of breathtaking views.  Once we arrived at my hotel in Les Contamines, I was done, but this German machine of a runner took the scenic route back over another 20k of tricky mountain path.  Most people think I’m extraordinary for wanting to run all day, but the truth is that I’m not alone by any stretch of the imagination.  Even pre-cancer, I wasn’t at all remarkable amongst this crowd and that’s not even getting into the realm of the natural athletes who are just about able to forge careers from sponsorship and prize money in this emerging and rapidly expanding sport.  I suppose what I’m getting at here is that it’s not just me that’s quite this bonkers.

The next two days provided a contrast to running with company and I found a blissful solitude on the (seemingly) never ending Trail du Mont Blanc as mountain after glorious rocky mountain took me into Italy and a horribly steep and dusty path to the town of Courmayeur.  I arrived in the heat of the day, delighted that my bag (which was travelling separately via a currier) was already at the hotel and I spent the evening massage gunning my poor aching muscles and eating pizza whilst wondering if my knees would ever be pain free.  The brutal toll of descent after descent had rendered my good knee as sore as my bad by this point.

Another day in another country brought with it another trail, this time to the the village of Arnouva.  Again, I was in good company with a few British guides and their friends – Becki, coach Kelvin, Sheridan, Sarah and her trail dog, who was impersonating a mountain goat for the day.  After a difficult but manageable climb, we ran along mile after mile of what was, relatively speaking, a plateau cut into the mountainside.  This was lovely and runnable and I needed to be constantly reminded to turn back and take in the majestic views.

Back to Chamonix and a final mountain, crossing the border into Switzerland with Scottish UTMB finisher Carrie in addition to a repeat performance from the English contingent.  My legs had taken a pounding and my stoma was bleeding from the days of running pressure, but I’d completed 130k that week, with 7,000m of elevation.  Before leaving, I had one more meeting planned, this time with Michel Poletti, the race’s founder.  It was a pleasure to meet him and the man exudes compassionate kindness in addition to a pragmatism that has seen his organisation end up running (pun definitely intended) the most desirable races the sport has to offer.

Back home for a week to recover and ready myself for showtime, I reflected that if I wasn’t ready for UTMB by this point, I never would be.  We all know what future will bring and I won’t exactly be getting any fitter, stronger, faster or healthier.  Ready or not, here I was.


  1. Dear Nat

    Thank you so much for this blog. You are an excellent writer! And, yes, you are also a wise person!

    Much love
    Xoxo 😘

    • Thank you for the kind words – and for your generous donation!

      • You are most welcome!

        My partner, Nicholas Preston, played in JOBB. He has cancer too. So, we have at least two connections.

        I’ll be following your blog and sending you love and well-wishes!

        Xoxo 😘


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