my UTMB OCC race experience as broken down by the songs played on repeat in my head throughout
The morning of the race you are shuttled out to the start line at Orsières. I had misunderstood where the shuttle was for the bus (oops, but also, terrible race website organization). After realizing it was much further than I thought, I started jogging to try to make my scheduled bus. Halfway there a kind gentleman, who’d just dropped his sons off for the bus, gave me a ride the rest of the way. A welcome relief and gentle pre-race reminder I was there for the community and experience. Once in Orsières, racers have a couple hours to wait, so on the advice of a friend I spent that time relaxing, putting on sunscreen, and hydrating & snacking.
After the elite wave started, I made my way into the crowds for my wave, but hung towards the back since I still had 15 minutes to wait and no interest in increasing my covid exposure risk. While starting towards the back did allow me to start very measured (read: slow) and pass people all day long, I still can’t help but wonder if I self-seeded better if I would’ve ended up better/faster overall.
I Know I Can
The start of the UTMB OCC race goes through a few small neighborhoods in Orsières before heading up the trail to Champex-Lac. I knew that the finish would be special, but I didn’t expect how sweet this start would be. Despite being a small Swiss town, the streets were lined with spectators and schoolchildren of all ages. I was smiling inside and out as I tried to high five as many kids as possible; their enthusiasm was infectious and I wanted to soak as much of it in as possible.
The kilometers were low effort and felt even slower than I’d planned. In terms of the elevation profile, I knew the first climb was going to be the easiest, and considered it a warm up for the following 3 major climbs. As we started leaving town and heading into the switchbacks up to Champex-Lac, I think we all noticed how much the heat would come into play. Even with a pretty easy pace so far, I was dripping in sweat.
I know I can
Be what I wanna be
If I work hard at it
I’ll be what I wanna beI can – Nas
Going into the race, most all of my training in Chamonix was unexpectedly hot and humid. The closer the race got, the more it became clear I’d be racing on the hottest day of the week, with the latter races benefiting from a cold front. Unlucky me, but at least I was used to it. I went into the race physically and mentally prepared: I knew how I’d feel and what I needed to do to manage the conditions. My goal was not just to focus on eating early and often, but also to really take in copious amounts of water & electrolytes.
I noticed on that first climb up that I wasn’t feeling that great. Maybe I was overly ambitious, trying to take in more calories and electrolytes than my body could handle in the heat. I pulled back on the calories a bit and made sure that for whatever food & electrolytes I had, I was drinking ample water in tandem. It made a big difference and my body normalized once I was into Champex-Lac.
For me, this is where the race really started. I mentally framed the first climb as almost inconsequential, and the rest as the race itself. The following climbs were familiar to me, having done the UTMB version of the course from there to the end in training. I knew what it was going to take and also that I could do it.
Climb after climb
Excitement built as I ran out of Champex-Lac, having the confidence of knowing what was ahead. The next climb was controlled, PRing the time it took us in training and seriously considering stopping to pick mulberries & raspberries like we did in that run (don’t worry, I didn’t, yet..). This was the beginning of the meat of the race, where I really needed to have laser focus on my plan for the heat & humidity.
I both chugged and dumped a lot of water on my head at every opportunity and it paid off, preventing me from ever being overtaken by the heat. I was continuing to pass a lot of people on the uphills, while conserving on the downhills to save my legs for later. People started being affected by the heat and going out too hard, underestimating the conditions and the amount of vertical in the race.
At the same time, as I began more relentless downhill running for the first time to Col de la Forclaz, I realized the fit of my shoes wasn’t quite right. I had previously undone the BOA dials a little (thinking they were going to cause pressure points on the tops of my feet). Now I was suddenly sliding back and forth inside the shoes with each step. I eventually paused in Forclaz to try to find the right tightness, but at that point the damage was already done and I had blisters on the insides of both of my heels that would just now be part of my race.
Getting to Trient felt like halfway in the race – two climbs down, two to go – although I realized it wasn’t quite so in terms of distance or time. Regardless, I made a point to make it the aid station I’d take some time at and prepare for the next climb. I enjoyed a small selection of bread, cheese, watermelon, & cake and reapplied sunscreen. Usually I hate to spend minutes in an aid station, but I knew with the heat and race difficulty it was important to do all the small things to get me through the race feeling good.
If you’re lost and you look you will find me
Climb after Climb
If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting
Climb after ClimbTime after Time – Cyndi Lauper (but for my purposes it was Cimb after Climb instead)
I left Trient and was pleasantly surprised that the OCC route differs from the UTMB one in that it has some longer, flatter running for a time. There was even a refreshing amount of shade once the climb starts! I happened to leave the aid station along with a Canadian guy, and for the only time in the race got to have someone to run and chat with. He was feeling good and it pushed me to some steady running out while I finished snacking and as others were walking more.
We ran/hiked up along raging waters coming down from the melting Glacier du Trient, probably the most breathtaking and powerful part of the course. I lead us up the climb, continuing to pass people and motivated to get to Col de Balme. We were surprised to arrive at the Refuge Les Grands after what felt like a good amount of climbing, everyone thinking we were getting close to the top. It was the heat of the day, and as I looked to see more climbing not quite knowing how long this trail to the col was, it was a very good move to stop and utilize the spigot at the refuge.
Getting to this refuge thinking we had spent a good portion of the time to the col, and then realizing we were still pretty far away, was a little defeating. The course got more technical and started rolling, with false summits and sneaky short descents. Mentally I was ready to be at the Col and to start finishing the race. The race also began to spread out more than it had thus far due to people slowing down for the rocky sections. I felt more alone for the first time.
At one point as the trail was traversing its way towards the Col de Balme, I put my right foot down where I thought there was a pad of grass on the trail. But it turned out there was no trail there. As my right leg started sliding down the hill, the rest of my body followed. A mind awakened with split second thoughts, I instinctually reacted by putting my left hand down on the edge of the trail before there was no more to grab. I was able to stop my fall, but in doing so jammed the worse of my injured fingers from weeks prior and a shock of numbness and pain shot through it.
I was able to quickly get back on trail and assess myself: my finger did not feel good, but otherwise I just felt a little surprise and some trail rash along my left butt cheek and hamstring. Running resumed as my mind ran amok with scenarios and assessments. I almost never fall while running and certainly haven’t during a race before.
It certainly made me want to get to the Col even more and be done with that section of trail. I was now starting to feel tired and consequently more clumsy, worrying I would fall again now that it had happened once. Looking back, I believe for a few kilometers I wasn’t taking in enough calories, since I thought I was close to the top and was more focused on watching my footing than anything else.
I finally got to Col de Balme and did another head dousing of water and reapplication of sunscreen. One more long descent and then I’d be at the final climb and descent. Coming out of the Col I was still moving well on the runnable sections but was totally over the rolling terrain and ready to descend. As I was all in my head, I came upon the happiest surprise of friends waiting for me along the trail! That inspired me to keep pushing past people and make my way down the descent. It helped that we were starting to get a little afternoon cloud cover too.
the final countdown
In my head, Le Tour was the bottom of the descent from the Col de Balme for some reason. (Ok, my course knowledge was more based on word of mouth than perfectly studying the maps.) I got into the town, having done only half of the descent and realizing there was no aid station (toilet) as I’d hoped. I topped of my water and motored on a little defeated again; somehow, there was climbing in the middle of the descent?! It was what it was and I had to keep pushing forward to find the rest of the descent.
As I arrived into Argentiere, I was happy to see larger crowds of supporters again, knowing it signaled we really were getting close to Chamonix. I took my last great chance to really soak myself and have a couple snacks as I moved through the aid station, while happily chatting to my friends who showed up and surprised me AGAIN. When I saw them the first time I was so caught off guard I couldn’t find my words. I told them about the heat, being ready to be done, and my butt scrapes. All was good and I had made it to the part of the course I looked forward to all day: that last climb and descent I could leave it all on.
I knew that the climb out of Argentiere to La Flégère would be more gradual than the Col des Montets route I’d practiced. I didn’t realize how much of it would actually be runnable. Once more I was a little frustrated, as I’d hoped and expected to get a good power hike rhythm one last time. Instead, I found myself having to push more running, which at least I could still do.
*cue instrumental intro*
It’s the final countdown
The final countdownThe Final Countdown – Europe
When the course finally opened up to the ski slopes, I knew I was on the last, steeper part of the climb and La Flégère was not that far away. At this point, everyone I had leapfrogged with all day was behind me and I had no points of reference. It was as if it was just me and how much I could push myself in a vacuum. Good thing I’m used to that.
I made it to the fire road going up to La Flégère and was elated. This was it. All the climbing was done. I made it to the spot I looked forward to all day. To one of my most familiar spots of the Chamonix trails. I made it through the race and all that was left to do was the final descent. All day I longed to open up and hammer down that last descent.
The top of the trail down from the aid station was incredibly steep and I could really feel my blisters now. Oh well, I’d made the choice to wear new shoes on race day that I didn’t yet have a chance to dial in the fit of. I was just going to have to push as best I could since my legs were otherwise fine. The rest of the downhill was fun and fast-ish once I started getting close to La Floria (with the exception of the silly metal staircase built over Route des Praz, a few swear words were thrown at that).
As I hit the river path into town, I was overcome with emotion. Joy, determination, appreciation, relief. There is no other race like it that has such a continuous stream of people. I was so excited, then remembered I never did find a bathroom in the last few hours. No joke, I very nearly peed my pants at least twice as I ran through to the finish. That and my blisters slowed me a little, but also gave me the opportunity to finish the race the way I started: high fiving as many kids as I could while running it in.
Through the run into town I was greeted by Steve, Cathi, Mike, Usha, Kelly, and other friends. It’s hard to express how magical it was to be in a place so far from home with the biggest cheer crew I’ve ever had. I had multiple friends follow me in on camera, an equally magical treat to have the whole finish through town captured on video.
Mind at peace
My time goal going into the race was very loose, as I really wanted to make the most of the opportunity to spend time in Chamonix and run this storied race. I hoped I’d be somewhere between 8.5-11.5 hours, and expected it might be around 10.5. If it was less than that, closer to 10 hours, I’d be stoked. It wouldn’t match my other mountain 55k times, but this wasn’t a US mountain 55k. I didn’t think about time a lot throughout the race, until maybe Col de Balme because it felt like getting there was taking forever. At that point I started doing a little math in my head but didn’t really know exactly what to expect. I think going into & out of Argentiere was when I started to think a little more about what I could do, though honestly the unknown still kept me from being certain.
Well, I turned up to the church in Chamonix in a 9:49:xx chip time and surprised myself. I believe I was capable of going faster on the day, though I once again decided to race strategically, this time to enjoy the experience and manage the heat. I don’t think I would’ve done much differently, but would love to go back on a cooler day and race it harder now that I know what to expect.
That incredible finish line of the UTMB OCC race, photos from Steve Woo.