All too soon the time to go to the pre race briefing came around, and with Team R very much in evidence the countdown to kick off came around quickly. I was just wearing a t shirt and long leggings, carrying the rest of my compulsory gear in and on my pack. I shook hands with an Aussie and fellow Brit, had a spot kit check for the compulsory stuff, and all too soon Ride of the Valkyries was blaring out of the speakers, and we were off.
I was about mid pack, and because of the narrow Chamonix streets and thousands of supporters, it took a while to cross the start line, looking a bit like a school of brightly coloured fish funnelling through a narrow aperture. We walked for the first 10 mins or so as the volume of runners and supporters meant the streets were totally clogged. I enjoyed myself high fiving kids and acknowledging the words of support from the massive crowds 3,4 and even 5 deep both sides. I didn't see Team R but soon after the start they were heading for shuttle buses in order to make their way to the first of the checkpoints.
The first 8k or so was slightly downhill and flat to Les Houches, where we were staying. The temptation of course is to go out hard and fast, if only to get some clear road, but I knew from experience and training that this would be absolutely fatal later on in the very long race. I just concentrated on not going hard in the slightest - a very very easy jog, and then as we headed sharply up into the hills at Les Houches, I walked, enjoying the ACDC tribute band, singing with thick French accents but thoroughly enjoying their moment of glory.
I had bought a little profile map from the exhibition, so that I could a/ see the time barriers b/ see where the 'ravi' points were coming up (great to plan nutrition - how much fluid I'd need, snacks etc) and c/ for my memory - always terrible, so that I could acknowledge exactly what happened where, and I could remember more specifically experiences, feelings and the like. I found it very useful and interesting throughout the whole race, and will definitely repeat the process at subsequent ultras.
Despite being well over 10km into the race, we were still pretty much a procession of lycra clad and faintly whiffy ultra runners, but as we climbed the scenery became even more spectacular. I concentrated on being very very easy walking up the hill leaving the hares to it, and also didn't use any of the facilities at the 1st ravi, just trotted on past. I even took a few photos at Les Houches, and at the summit of Delevret. I realised just how much the bad weather the previous year had not only hampered the experience through the course change, but because I couldn't see any of the views. Things were so different in 2013 - I was experiencing the full magic of the mythical event.
At the summit, we rose through the tree line, and passed through a farm of some sort, with bell wearing livestock unphased by the procession of runners disturbing the peace. The effect of the climb had been to warm me up to the point of sweating, and as we crested the peak it was noticeably cold. I was unsure of whether it was the altitude or the impending darkness, so I stopped briefly and put on some more clothes. This proved to be a silly move as within 5 minutes of cresting the hill and 100m of vertical descent I was roasting again. I took off the extra layers and cursed myself for needless time wasting. I angrily pounded down the hill and overtook those that had overtaken me whilst I was putting on my extra layers.
At the bottom of the hill was the St Gervais aid station, the lowest point of the course at 815m above sea level, and I was 1613/2469 starters. Waiting there were Mrs R and Team Rolfe for a quick kiss and hug having navigated the complicated system of supporters buses. I took water and added my powders to my bladder in my pack, and then off on my way again, but not before Mrs R instructed me to put on my headlamp - none of the same Western States issues for me here! We were 21km into the race, and some competitors seemed to be stopping for a 5 course sit down meal! I was in and out in about 5 minutes.
We then climbed to Contamines, the first aid station that crew could assist at, at 31k. It was also the first time barrier, at 1030pm the aid station closed and anyone that hadn't reached it or left it at that point were 'pulled'. I later found out that by Contamines 123 people had abandoned, about 5% of the entrants. This seemed to me staggering when the entry requirements were so stringent, and so early in the race, but injuries, illness and poor preparation will always weed out a few competitors. When Mrs R and the kids travelled back on the navette about 6 of these runners were on it, looking very sorry for themselves. I rolled into Contamines about 830pm so well within limit, although with a sprained ankle. I don't even remember the incident, but it was bad enough to make me limp, so my crew and I strapped it up with a styrup strap style with an adhesive bandage.
I was battling dark forces before I even got to Contamine, though, and even though I knew why, it was still hard to deal with. Having the family there waiting was a big help, and I even took the time to explain to #1+2 what was going on. Dusk, for me, in ultras is a killer. I am a morning person, naturally cheerful, energetic and productive in the morning. Evenings are for winding down, having a sundowner with Mrs R and/or friends, chilling with the kids, and of course going to bed. The UTMB, however, had barely begun. Even though the mind knew what was going on, the body didn't care and wanted to lie on the sofa and watch a movie, perhaps with some popcorn and a beer. Here was I climbing my second Alp of the day, another 7 ahead of me, and it was getting cold and the body was not amused. I steeled myself - a firm believer of mind over matter, and I continued on my way. I was 1325/2469 as I left, already moving gradually through the field.
I grabbed water as before and added my powders, some restocked trail mix (I made my own with salted roasted peanuts, cachew nuts, yellow raisins and peanut choccy m+ms - totally delicious, and the salt and sweet really go together particularly when on the trail). I was just munching my trail mix every now and again. I also enjoyed a diluted coke or 2 at most aid stations. I already had on my headlamp so switched it back on as I left, and continued climbing.