The ballot for the UTMB CCC opened on the 6th of January – my bucket list race.
As I logged onto my computer, I remember thinking there was no chance of getting a spot through the ballot process – the race had previously been cancelled due to COVID and there would be heaps of rolled over entries. I entered my details and clicked submit, something flashed up on my screen.
I clicked the back button and refreshed the page.
Automatic entry – I had enough ITRA (International Trail Running Association) points from previous race placings to qualify…as elite.
I was in.
100km, 6,100m. At altitude. Across three countries.
And so, the training began.
I felt strong – even through Winter: early mornings, cold mornings, dark mornings. I absolutely loved it. As with any increase in volume though, I picked up some niggles that I needed to work through
Then five weeks out from the race, COVID struck and I lost two weeks of training…- and maybe some lung capacity. But I knew that I’d built a strong enough base to get me through it… right?
The mountains were like nothing I’ve ever seen before – beautiful monsters that look like they’d been painted into the backdrop of the mountain village.
The town itself was alive and buzzing with race vibes, runners, music. Life.
It was magical.
I was there with my mum, sister and brother too, which made it even more magical.
The question kept coming up – did I have a goal? A time?
I was up against probably the toughest terrain of my life and some of the best runners in the world, but I also wanted to enjoy it and have fun. So I would aim for sub-20 and hope for something like 16-18 hours if all went to plan (spoiler alert: it never goes to plan). My main goal was just to finish, which seemed like a feat in itself.
Plenty of opportunity to fall over… which is one of my favourite party tricks in a race like this.
The race itself consisted of five mountains across Italy, Switzerland and France over 100km with 6100m elevation – the first and last mountains were the biggest climbs with some long and technical (and sometimes steep) descents.
It would be hard for sure – but given how much I loved ascents, it was almost my ideal race.
I also had to consider altitude – Chamonix was already 1,000m above sea level and the climbs would take me to above 2,500m, just to make it that little bit harder. We could already feel it when we arrived.
The night before, we sat down and planned the race. My family would join me at the start line and then chase me through the Alps on shuttle buses to meet me at 54km, 70km and 81km.
Amazing – such an incredible boost to the race.
Suddenly race day was here.
The race didn’t start until 9am – but the start line was in Courmayeur, Italy and our shuttle bus left Chamonix at 5.45am.
So we were up at 4.30am, aiming to leave the house at 5.15am to get to the bus.
Coffee, mobility, laughs with the sleepy family.
I had checked and triple checked the point where the shuttle buses left from, worried about dragging my family out so early already.
We arrived at the location – it was empty.
“You’re looking for race shuttle buses?”
I nodded in horror, waiting for him to confirm I’d taken my family to the wrong location.
He circled on a map where they actually left from.
“About a 15 minute walk.”
It was already 5.35am.
We didn’t have 15 minutes.
My heart sank.
What had I done?
“We better move.”
We started to jog – even my mum was jogging. A beautifully panicked warm up as such.
I went ahead, hoping if I found the buses I could at least stall them.
Seven minutes later and I was there with my brother in tow. I didn’t even know he could run.
But Imogen had stayed with mum, who was already struggling with the altitude, let alone running in it.
God I felt awful. What if she didn’t make it to the bus in time?
I wanted nothing more than to watch the sunrise with them in Italy and share the start of the race.
“We have others coming but we went to the wrong location.” I said to one marshal.
“That is ok, get on any bus, there will be more.”
Please let her make it.
Another two buses arrived.
And then so did my mum.
I think I cried.
We jumped on the bus, all a little exhausted and shell-shocked but all incredibly grateful.
Sunrise in Courmayeur was stunning as we chilled for a few hours before the start of the race – eating our pre-made breakfast, drinking beautiful Italian coffee and, ahem, queuing for the toilets multiple times.
8.40am – we made our way to the start line via a jumping photo next to the race sign.
Hundreds of people – runners, supporters, TV, media, photographers.
I was in the first wave – the first few hundred of the 2,200 racing.
I found where I thought I was supposed to be according to my bib number, chatted to family, tried to relax.
“You.” A race volunteer pointed at me. “You are in the wrong section. You need to be at the front.”
But I liked where I was.
I followed him and he took me literally to the start line.
The elite wave indeed.
I looked around me and wondered whether I was:
a) the only one with a body fat percentage over 15%
b) the only one wearing odd football socks because they were nice colours
c) the only one carrying enough potatoes to feed a small army even though it made my pack that little bit bulkier.
I felt small in a very big pond of very good athletes.
“Smile Jess, just enjoy this incredible moment.” Imogen must’ve sensed my nerves.
She was right. So right.
Fake it until you make it.
I smiled and waved at the cameras, took a few deep breaths and chatted to a few runners around me.
This wasn’t about the other runners.
This was what the last few months of training – the sacrifices, the dedication, the 100km+ weeks I’d put my body through.
This was my moment.
My coach had told me the first half of the race was a warm up to the second half – and who doesn’t love a good 50km warm up? I needed to not go out hard, save energy in the legs for the final three climbs – especially the last steep ascent and final descent back into Chamonix.
I needed to pace myself.
The countdown began and I said my goodbyes to the family.
“See you in Champex-Lac.”
I smiled, the thought made me so happy.
And then we were off, downhill on the road, at pace.
And before I knew it, we’d hit the gradual climb that would take us to the trail, and to the first big climb.
I needed to get ahead a little, to try and avoid the bottleneck I’d been warned about.
God damn it was humid though and I felt the pangs of a headache gnaw at me from the altitude. I was also sweating more than I normally do.
We’d run maybe 2km when the people around me started to get their poles out, still on concrete.
I figured I should get them out while we were gently creeping up and still moving.
Another kilometre or so and we hit a trail and I could see where the climb was going – a zig zag up a mountain. Stunning.
I took a photo, then a selfie – and noticed how beetroot red my face was.
I was overheating.
I stopped, took my layers off (the thermal seemed like a good idea at the time). T-shirt only, drank water.
And the views as we climbed, golly.
Single track, and a queue. But a moving queue. This would form a perfect pacing for me, I wouldn’t go out too hard on the first climb – because I couldn’t.
I chatted to a few people, then realised most people were already in their pain cave on the climb, surely someone loved climbing as much as me?
I managed a few overtakes as we zig zagged up – my legs felt good. The altitude made the breathing that little bit harder as I ascended but I took deep breaths and just kept moving.
Golly what a climb.
I put some music on – motivation. Pushed harder as the pack spread out a little bit.
This was fun.
This was beautiful.
It was actually so beautiful I just wanted to stop and take photos.
Over an hour of climbing had passed, I’d cooled down, found a good pace, managed a few more overtakes where there were two single tracks side by side, and avoided some falling rocks from runners above.
Then suddenly we were at Tete de la Tronche.
The first 10km of climbing was done and I was on track at two hours.
I filled up water and ate a CLIF bar as I moved, not wanting to rest for too long so early on.
“Jessica Short, let’s go get it.” Said one of the volunteers.
I do love having names on bibs.
I smiled, let’s indeed.
The next section was flat and then into downhill – beautiful single track with views over the vast mountains of Italy and Switzerland.
I put my poles away and cruised down, found a running pack at a good pace and we ran through the mountains. Some technical, some just nice.
I looked ahead and could see the clouds had darkened and were rolling towards us.
The rain was light at first, refreshing – especially after overheating earlier. But I watched as a wall of rain headed our way across the mountain.
This was it.
I continued on, resisting the urge to put on my waterproof (mainly because I hate wearing waterproofs).
Then it turned heavier, so quickly. And almost sideways as the wind that brought the rain to us whipped us too.
I stopped – we all did, and put our waterproofs on and I grabbed my poles back out to provide some stability.
It didn’t occur to me to put my waterproof over my pack which proceeded to get soaked through (goodbye powerpack, hello soggy potatoes).
I tried not to think about the thunder, or getting hit by lightning.
The single track quickly turned from dirt to mud to rivers and I tried multiple times to take photos or videos of how crazy it was – but my phone was too wet to even unlock at that point.
In fact, I was too wet, soaked – my feet, my clothes, there was not one dry part of me.
It was harder too, running in the mud and water, balancing. Energy consuming.
I slowed – mostly to prevent a face plant.
There was very little I could do except hope that the rain passed soon and I could dry off during the rest of the run.
I hit the small but steep descent that would take me down to the first proper aid station – with food and energy drinks, and some shelter.
And then just like that the rain stopped, and cleared, as if nothing had happened. Leaving only soaking wet trails and soaking wet runners.
The aid station – Checkpoint 2: Arnouva.
I’d hit 26km in four hours – super happy with the pacing and timing, despite the slog through the rain and wet trails. I was on track for 16 hours.
The aid station was buzzing full of people swapping wet clothes, readjusting soaking packs, and eating.
I looked at the food – a selection of biscuits, cheese and meats. Nothing that was Jess friendly.
Having suffered through gastro during a race in America – and never wanting to experience that discomfort again, I thought it best to stick with my soggy potatoes.
They were very soggy.
I did a body check – all felt good, if not a little wet. The headache had subsided as I’d adjusted to the altitude.
I left the aid station, still soaking wet, knowing I was heading for the second climb up Grand Col Ferret (the Italian / Swiss border) – approximately 5km of steep-ish ascent followed by 20km of descent.
The climb was steep but switch-backy and more beautiful single trails. With the storm passing over the views were even better – spectacular, in fact. Huge mountains, the biggest I’d seen – we were surrounded by them but also on one of them.
I was in heaven.
The top of Grand Col Ferret did not disappoint – such incredible views of Italy and Switzerland, I wanted to cry. Others around me were also stunned to silence, happy, content. The climb was so worth it.
I knew now was the real challenge for me – the long 20km+ descent into Switzerland.
I had practised my downhill, strengthened my ankles, and was more than happy to take a face plant or too along the way. I just hoped my body would be able to hold up.
I began with a gradual descent at first along a single track with views of mountains for miles. Gradual at first then building speed, but not wanting to completely trash my quads for the rest of the race.
I felt so strong.
I hit a check point a few kilometres later but didn’t stop, continuing on the beautiful single track.
It took my breath away.
The first 10km of down was absolute bliss, and at 40km we hit the beautiful Swiss town of La Fouly – and an aid station.
I knew I could feel the beginnings of what I had self diagnosed as bursitis in my left foot (disclaimer: not bursitis, a neuroma) start to make itself known with the continued impact of the downhill.
I’d expected it, and I knew I could manage that pain. I also knew everything would start hurting a little over the next few hours. Nothing would hurt as much as everything else at some point.
I only stopped briefly, wanting to keep the momentum of feeling good and heading down towards Champex-Lac where my family would (hopefully) be.
I grabbed a cup of coke and headed out, devouring another CLIF bar – berry flavour.
But I could only manage half.
Was it the bar…or my body?
I put the bar away and continued onto a forested single track that cut into the mountain edge, quite narrow, and sometimes quite technical. And a very steep cliff to my right.
Don’t fall Jess – or fall left at least.
Just don’t fall.
Flashes of pain in my knee.
I stopped, gritted my teeth.
More pain, familiar – like someone was axing the side of my knee.
I kicked the dirt in frustration.
I had done everything the physio had told me since my last 100km – the strengthening, the stretching, massage, cupping.
I was close to having a hissy fit right there.
I was coming undone.
“Come on Jess.”
A few deep breaths.
If it was back, I knew it would mostly be on the downhills, and I was most of the part through the largest one.
I also had poles – I could use them to take the pressure off my knee for sure.
I could do this.
I had this.
I continued on as the pain flashed intermittently through my knee whenever I bent it too much.
I focussed on the scenery – and trying not to fall off the side of a cliff or face plant.
At 48km we hit another beautiful Swiss town – Praz de Fort, I shuffled myself down the road and through the streets with people cheering us along.
I love people.
It was a fabulous feeling and it was absolutely beautiful. The foot and knee pain was almost forgotten.
I also knew a climb was coming – the climb to Champex-Lac and to family, and food and a little bit of rest.
I could do this.
The climb did not disappoint – no pain in my foot or my knee.
I was back.
I picked up the pace to make up for the lost time on the downhill.
I’d hit 50km.
Just under eight hours.
I was still on track for 16 hours.
Although I knew in my heart that I might not be able to maintain my current pace with the ITB issues, if I couldn’t run the descents.
I pushed down the frustration and continued the climb.
Then I saw them.
Flashes of orange and black – the other half of the pair of socks I was wearing.
I found myself trying to breath and run whilst trying to hold back tears.
I stopped and took a few breaths.
Then I called her name.
I ran towards her.
I don’t know who was more excited to see the other.
She had a million questions, and we discussed the race, the ITB and foot issues.
“You’re smashing it.”
We turned a corner and suddenly I saw my brother – beer in hand, and my mum – paintbrush in hand, sitting waiting for me.
It was almost too much.
Lots of hugs.
I headed into the Champex-Lac aid station. It was one of the larger ones and the first one you were allowed a support crew person in with you, and where supporters could look on…and support.
Imogen met me there.
“What do you need?”
A beer would be good.
I took my pack off and sat down for the first time in over eight hours.
God that felt good.
I grabbed coke and bananas, and tried to eat more potatoes. Anything, but I could feel the nausea creep in.
Then I knew why.
My period had arrived.
Luckily, I had packed provisions.
But now I knew the real battle was on.
I wouldn’t be able to curl up in a ball and take some painkillers to stop the cramps or lie down to deal with the nausea and lethargy I knew so well every month.
Would my muscles suffer? Is that why my ITB has started hurting? Would it affect my joints? I knew it had already affected my appetite.
“Jess, you can totally do it. You’re strong.”
My voice of semi-reason (except when Processco is involved), Imogen.
I could, and I bloody well would.
I was ok.
And suddenly we were laughing at it all.
What else could the world throw at me?
I re-strapped my ankle and stretched my legs as she told me about their day, a welcome distraction.
We left the crew section to find my brother and mum – who happened to have a plate of hot chips.
The world was good again.
We hugged and laughed some more.
Imogen and Duncan headed out with me as I left the aid station and ran along the lake, knowing it would remain flat for a while before we headed up again.
I could do flat, and I could do up.
“I’ll see you in Trient.” Imogen said as I left them.
I was beyond happy knowing that.
We said our goodbyes and it was all I could do not to cry again, just to make running that little bit harder.
And so I began, slow at first, finding my rhythm again after sitting down.
The next aid station was in 12km – almost at the top of the climb. My focus was to get there.
The flat was beautiful – along the river, then we climbed into beautiful countryside and I could feel the sun beginning to set.
I saw signs on the trail, warning us of herds of cattle and I had to laugh.
I pushed down the waves of cramps and nausea, put some music on and just kept moving.
Then I saw them – literally herds of cattle.
All wearing cowbells that sounded in the wind or with movement.
I wasn’t sure whether it was eerie or comforting.
Suddenly I had reached the top of the climb – La Giete, another aid station with the tunes blaring.
I tried another bar, managed half, and a gel and block. My appetite was gone with my stomach in knots, but I knew I needed calories. I tried my potatoes, less soggy now. No good, it might have been the first time in my life I did not want to eat potatoes. More gels and blocks it was.
I stopped briefly to chat to the volunteers, all so happy and encouraging, then left to begin the 5km of descent down to Trient.
Oh, the descent.
We were on a single track again, narrow, interspersed with roots and rocks that made it quite technical.
The flashes of pain were back – less flashy in fact and more constant.
Almost unbearable, but not quite.
I leaned on my poles, used them as much as I could to take the weight of my right knee, almost to the detriment of the pain in my left foot which now started to throb.
Because what else could I do?
I tried various different techniques – probably much to the amusement of other runners.
Straight legged seemed to work the best but be the least effective at actually moving forward.
Stop it Jess.
So I just ran, gently, through the pain. And focussed on the trails, and getting to Trient, to Imogen.
And the beginnings of sunset, oh the sunset.
Darkness began to creep and the stubbornness in me refused to put on a head torch until it literally became too dangerous to continue – I had found a rhythm and didn’t want to disrupt it.
But the light from my head torch was amazing, lighting up the forest and the trails in such a beautiful way, highlighting the features I would be navigating even more clearly than in the daytime.
My god the descent, which should’ve been fast (or faster) felt so slow. Was I being too cautious?
Every now and then I would pick up speed and be reminded why I was slowing.
Race stopping, breath taking pain.
I remembered why I was going slower.
I hit 70km, I knew I was close.
I crossed a bridge and saw the familiar socks.
We talked about the various ailments of my body as we headed towards the aid station tent.
We laughed as I realised I might have strained my right tricep from using the poles so much to take the pressure off my knee – that would surely be a first in ultrarunning.
And golly the aid station.
Music and dancing and food and laughter.
It was all you could ask for at an aid station.
Except prosecco of course.
I filled my water, drank coke, stretched.
“Have you eaten?”
We tried bananas and that seemed to be ok – although even the 8-10 pieces I managed probably only really made up one whole banana. It would do.
I gave myself ten more minutes at the station. I wasn’t sure whether I needed that time physically or mentally, more.
My legs were restless, my knee hurt and my foot was in full flare up. But what else do you expect at 70km and 4600m elevation?
The stomach cramps and nausea had become less regular, which I was super grateful for.
Mentally I was in a good place, I was happy despite everything. My body, despite its shortcomings, felt strong,
And I was so grateful for Imogen and the volunteers and vibes.
The pain was all manageable.
The ten minutes was bliss – relaxing with Imogen as she told me about the shuttle bus chaos and her dinner and wine.
We looked at the remaining profile of the race.
Two more climbs to go, 30km. I knew the last climb was one of them was the steepest and considered the hardest.
But climbs were good – I could do them, no pain and fast. It would just be the descent down into Chamonix that would hurt, like a bitch.
We discussed painkillers – a somewhat sensitive topic in ultrarunning due to the dehydration your body is already facing and the extra strain the painkillers would be placing on your kidneys.
If I needed too, we reasoned, I would take some prior to the last descent.
My ten minutes was up and I gathered my pack and water and we headed outside.
My sister watched as I began to move my body out of its stiffness, slowly warming into a jog.
She sounded serious.
“You know you can stop if you need to, if it hurts too much.”
There was never any doubt in my mind that I would stop. And she knew that too – but I also knew she had to ask.
I’d thought about this a lot before the race, and I don’t know what it would’ve taken to stop me – maybe a broken bone? But I knew I’d run through that before and it hadn’t stopped me.
This was my dream race.
And maybe we knew that.
I wanted to finish strong, the way I’d started, the way I felt.
We laughed as my shuffle turned into a more acceptable form of running.
“See you at Vallorcine in a few hours.”
My heart almost exploded.
I headed off into the darkness – the next climb out of Switzerland and into France.
It was very similar to the first climb – a zig zag up a mountain.
I think I was the only one running up it at that point. And lunging. Moving, fast.
I felt good.
I was revived.
I moved past a few people, trying to encourage them, everyone in their own pain cave.
We hit the top – a mini station.
“You’re at the top, well done! Enjoy the down.”
I cringed and wished there was more up.
This was my first descent in the dark as I entered back into France.
Reduced again to walking and not sure whether the pain in my knee or foot was now greater. Maybe they were equal. I reminded myself to take on some more gels and blocks.
I felt slow.
I was slow.
It was almost disheartening as those I’d pass on the way up, skipped past me on the way down.
I reasoned with myself that, in the dark, I probably wouldn’t be going much faster for fear of face planting anyway.
I gritted my teeth and continued, occasionally catching my breath as my knee flexed a little too much and the nauseating pain shook me.
I could hear Vallorcine, could see the lights.
Midnight – well past my bedtime.
“I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
Well, that was a good sign at least.
The aid station was electric – but there was a moodiness about it as it was clear people were struggling. The dark, the tiredness, the pain?
I felt nothing but hope and excitement.
I sat on the floor to rest my legs and ate what I could of bananas and gels as Imogen told me about her evening – and how she’d randomly assembled everything she needed to get a 45-minute nap on the floor in the corner of the aid station, with a sleep meditation for full ambience (and an alarm to make sure she got up before I arrived).
So much laughter.
“One more climb Jess. One more descent.”
An 8km climb, some flat at the top then down 6km into Chamonix.
It would be hell on my knee. And my foot. Well, on everything really.
But that finish line was getting closer and closer.
I could taste the Prosecco.
We said our goodbyes as she walked me out onto the trail, then turned to get her final shuttle bus to the finish.
I was suddenly hit by another wave of nausea and cramps, and crouched and waited a few minutes until it passed.
I laughed – it was some effort to get back up from the crouching position.
Come on legs.
I had this.
My shuffle turned into a march, and I grew strength as I climbed – a gentle slope at first along a grassed trail.
I could see the mountain ahead – golly it was big.
1860m big – 5 x Emily Spur climbs.
I crossed a road, and the climb began.
Steep and rocky.
Almost too steep and rocky for poles.
I passed a few people, careful not to go too hard.
I looked up and wondered whether the lights I could see far up ahead were people’s head torches or stars.
Get up there.
Climb climb climb.
I climbed sections that had to physically be climbed, rock climbing with no ropes or harness.
Bit of a kicker after 85km.
But it was so fun.
I think I was the only person at that point having fun and enjoying the climb.
But golly it was never ending.
I put my music on and just kept moving.
It was maybe an hour? Maybe two.
Then undulating for 3km – not so fun.
I tried not to get frustrated with myself, with my body.
You’re fine Jess.
My head torch blinked three times.
I took a moment just to look around me – the stars, the lights of Vallorcine, other head torches.
That was all the goodness I needed, the reflection.
I took out my other head torch – not quite so strong but I knew from here my speed would be somewhat limited anyway.
My stomach rumbled.
That was a good sign – my body was working; had overcome the cramps.
Maybe some normality.
I hit La Flegere – the peak.
All the climbing had been done.
This was the final aid station before the descent into Chamonix.
The finish line.
I took the painkillers and a caffeine gel.
I hit the down.
Well, in a slow and calm fashion.
But I definitely picked up speed as the lights of Chamonix came into view.
I slowed only really on the technical sections to pick a path of least resistance and least impact on my knee and foot. But it was such a long descent and there were moments I had to stop to catch my breath to overcome the pain as the painkillers started to kick in.
Almost there Jess.
It didn’t feel like I had run 95km.
Issues aside, my legs and lungs felt strong.
It was so bittersweet.
But I would get in under 20 hours – the ultimate aim. Despite everything my body had thrown at me.
Soon the steep descents and switchbacks flattened and my heart fluttered.
One last climb – over a bridge.
A friend from Bright.
She was there, I wasn’t hallucinating.
“I can’t stop, otherwise I won’t start again.”
And so she ran with me onto the flat, towards the finish. I had never seen her run.
1km to go.
99km down, 1km to go.
I packed my poles away.
There were people there, in the early hours of the morning.
Still out, still cheering.
The town was still alive.
Now, that was overwhelming.
I was so so proud of them. Of us.
They ran with me, videoing my final kilometre.
“Mum’s at the finish line.”
I wanted to cry again.
I picked up the pace.
We’d done it.
I stopped my watch – 99.96km. Erm.
Nothing in me wanted to do the final 40m.
I saw my mum.
A finish line jumping photo, then we moved away from the finish line to the big screen.
Finally, I took my shoes and socks off – the pressure was too much.
My feet looked mummified.
I finally succumbed to some finish line salami, knowing I needed to eat something (although I do believe Prosecco is a food group…).
And we hung around to watch a few more runners come in, with our Prosecco. Together.
No more running.
Just the matter of a 1km walk home.
The Prosecco would help with that.
I was blown away.
The most stunning of all races.
The most technical.
Maybe the most painful.
But the most fun.
The most love and laughter.
The most humbling.
Definitely the best.
I owed everything to the people who supported me in person and from far and wide across the world, (THANK YOU).
The race belonged to them.
And then the serious discussion…I was dirty as hell, but exhausted.
Did I really need to shower before I slept?
The looks from my family confirmed my fears.
I would have to stay on my feet a little longer…
And next? Rest?
Or maybe the multi-day 4 Peaks Challenge in November…