CHAMONIX, France – The forecast called for dire conditions: rain, freezing temperatures, possibly snow. The CCC and its already formidable, punishing 101-kilometer course from Courmayeur, Italy, through Champex-Lac, Switzerland, and ultimately to the finish line in downtown Chamonix was projected to be a slow, soggy, sloppy sufferfest – at least for the non-elite mortals at the middle and back of the pack.
Then again, nobody was promised perfect conditions, and anyone expecting an idyllic half-loop around Mont-Blanc had set themselves up for failure.
For six hours, however, we were given a gift of sunny skies, cool but comfortable temperatures, and the opportunity to admire the lush green mountainsides and snow-capped peaks while running and hiking through the Italian Alps.
Now, 18 miles into our 63-mile journey, we stood at the base of our gateway to Switzerland, the Grand Col Ferret, 2,500 feet above us. A thick, white fog eased over the Col, quickly erasing the top from view. A bone-chilling wind began to whip, causing Alex and me to stop and pull out our jackets before proceeding upward. Moments later, the first drops of rain pelted us.
For four years we’d dreamed of running this race. Now, with 45 miles to go and a thunderstorm closing in, the Alps were about to turn this adventure into an unforgiving and unforgettable journey.
FOUR YEARS IN THE MAKING
Four years ago, Alex and I toed the starting line of the Meet Your Maker 50-miler in Whistler, B.C. It was Sept. 1, 2013. We’d met three days earlier, and we were there along with a collection of mutual friends who had traveled to Canada for the race. It was my second 50-miler, and Alex’s first. The event, which dissolved the following year, was a two-point qualifier for the UTMB races. The CCC, the UTMB’s 101K offering, had captured my imagination thanks to previous hiking trips I’d made in the Alps. I told the group about it, and everyone was at least loosely interested. At the time, two points were required to enter the CCC lottery, so that race would get us in as long as we finished.
Alex and I both finished – she in 12:56:59, me in 14:19:36. Moments after the race I was carted off to the emergency room with an irregular heartbeat. Alex waited by my side in the ER, using her nursing experience to make sense of the medical jargon for me while also bringing me comfort with her presence. We didn’t end up entering the CCC lottery that winter, however Alex and I began dating a few months after the race.
Fast forward four years. Both of us requalified for the lottery with its new seven-point requirement (Alex through the VT 50-miler ant VT100, me through the VT 50-miler and VT 50K). Now, on Sept. 1, 2017, Alex and I found ourselves in the Alps, recently engaged and ready to do what we talked about four years earlier: run the CCC.
“THE CONFIDENCE INDEX OF THE WEATHER FORECAST IS LOW”
The sun was shining as we stepped off the train and strolled into downtown Chamonix on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 30, and made our way to our hotel. A snow-covered Mont-Blanc loomed high above the city, but thick clouds were already creeping in on the summit and foreshadowing what was to come. A day earlier, the UTMB twitter feed sent out an ominous notification:
Ultimately, we didn’t have to wait until 10 hours before race time to find out if we’d run an alternate course or the regular route. A decision was made on a rainy Thursday afternoon when another notification was released via twitter:
There would be rain on race day … lots of it. Snow was also in the forecast for the high country, and temperatures were projected to plummet into the mid- to low 30s during the overnight hours of the race. Scenarios like this are precisely why UTMB has a list of required gear that all runners must carry. Ideal weather isn’t included in the entry fee. The mountains will throw whatever weather at you they please; it’s your responsibility to be prepared.
SUNNY, SPECTACULAR ITALY
A steady rainfall outside our window lulled us to sleep Thursday night, but it subsided to just a drizzle by the time we awoke at 5 a.m. Friday morning. We dressed quickly, ate breakfast, donned our raincoats and headed to catch our bus to Courmayeur. Rain pelted the bus all the way to the Mont Blanc Tunnel. When we emerged into Italy, however, the rain was gone and clouds were dispersing as the sun rose. We weren’t completely in the clear, but we were going to be gifted a few glorious hours of running and climbing under clear blue skies.
The scene grew more spectacular as we arrived at the starting line. Spectators lined both sides of the streets through town, stood on walls and packed the balconies of hotels and restaurants to get a good view of the runners.
Alex and I filtered through the crowd and sought our place behind the starting line. Alex had battled patellar tendinosis for four months, so her running miles had been drastically limited leading up to the race. She hoped to finish, or at least make it to Champex-Lac. We’d planned to run and hike together and share the journey, but we didn’t realize we would be in separate starting waves until that moment. Her bib number (3594) placed her in Wave One; mine (4758) landed me in Wave Two. Alex asked me to try to find her on the trail, which I agreed to do. We snapped a quick photo, shared a kiss, and then separated to our starting corrals unsure when we’d see each other again.
As I found my place in the pack, a helicopter hovered overhead with a camera crew hanging out the side capturing the excitement. Soon, an announcer led a 10-second countdown, and then hollers bellowed from hundreds of runners as Wave One surged forward and began winding its way through the streets of Courmayeur. Fifteen minutes later, the process repeated and it was my turn to pass under the starting arch.
The first mile and a half wound through the streets of Courmayeur. It was stunning to see such passionate support for the race. Hundreds of people lined the road. Locals rang giant bells, the clatter echoing through the streets. The city’s soul was on display, and it was truly awe-inspiring. My adrenaline was pumping, and I had to consciously restrain myself from pushing the pace unnecessarily. This was going to be a long day, long night, and even longer next morning; no need to burn out early. I settled into an easy trot and soaked in the scene as I made my way into the upper part of town and eventually onto singletrack where a bottleneck of runners brought the pace to a near standstill.
There was very little running during the next four miles as I tackled the race’s first – and biggest – climb, a 4,700-foot march up Tête de La Tronche. We’d caught up to the tail end of Wave One, and a conga line stretched from far up ahead to way down the mountain behind me. The crowd dictated the pace, but the climb came easily for me. I got more than 100,000 feet of vertical gain between June 1 and mid-August, so my legs were well prepared to go up.
I reached the top of Tête de La Tronche after 2 1/2 hours, paused to soak in the panoramic views on both sides of the ridgeline, snapped a few photos, and headed onward. Grassy mountainside and dirt singletrack marked the three-mile path down to Refuge Bertone, the first aid station. It felt good to open up my stride and run for a bit after a few hours of hiking, and it was nice to get a little breathing room from the logjam of runners. The footing was good enough – and the weather still cooperating – that I could gaze down to Courmayeur to my left and admire Mont-Blanc to my right without breaking stride. As far as mountain running is concerned, this was just about perfect.
After about 35 minutes of cruising downhill and weaving through some switchbacks, I arrived at Refuge Bertone (15 KM). I intentionally took a few minutes to take in some valuable calories. I opened a Gatorade packet and dumped it into my soft flask before having a volunteer fill it with water. I pulled out my packable cup, guzzled some Coke, and then snagged some cheese blocks and dried sausage off a table. Fuel was in me; it was time to move on.
“Hey Chris!” I looked up from stuffing my soft flask into its pocket on my pack and saw Alex walking toward me. She was grinning. I figured she would handle the early climb just fine, but I worried about how her knee would do on the downhill. Now I got my answer. The climb was great; the knee was a bit cranky on the downhill. All in all, however, she was in good spirits and eager to proceed.
After 15 kilometers apart, we would enact our plan to tackle the Alps together.
We set off together at a steady hike through a series of ups and downs and marched our way to Refuge Bonatti. We shared a mile or two running, hiking, and chatting with another American runner, Glen Young, and before we knew it we arrived at Refuge Bonatti (22 KM). Alex and I refilled our bottles, grabbed bowls of broth and took seats on a bench in the shade. We took about 15 minutes to eat and catch our breaths, and then we headed on to Arnouvaz. It was just 5K to that aid station, and most of it was downhill. Those miles went by fast, capped by a series of switchbacks that dropped us down about 800 feet in a mile to the aid station. About a quarter-mile before arriving, my right heel caught a rock and I rolled my ankle hard. Pain shot through my foot and up my shin. It could have been worse, but at 16.84 miles into a 63-mile race I was concerned that this might linger and end my day early.
A few minutes later, we arrived at Arnouvaz (27 KM). I ate a banana and a couple orange slices, housed a piece of chocolate and a cup of Coke, and downed a bowl of broth. I also refilled my soft flask of Gatorade. This stop was quick but efficient. I didn’t want to linger long; just standing at the aid tables allowed my ankle to tighten up and my shin started to throb. I knew that as long as I kept moving the ankle would work itself out. Besides, that had been the lone hiccup on my day. I’d reconnected with Alex, and she was feeling strong; Both of us were managing our nutrition well; the weather had been perfect – beyond our wildest expectations – and we were a quarter of the way done.
We were about to put Italy behind us and move into Switzerland.
A mile out of Arnouvaz we reached the base of the Grand Col Ferret. A strong wind began to whip us, and sprinkles quickly followed. Thick clouds loomed above, hiding the high point of the Col. We took the opportunity to put on our Patagonia Houdini jackets while still dry, and then began the climb up into the clouds.
SWITZERLAND: HERE COMES THE RAIN
“When do we enter Switzerland,” Alex asked me shortly after we’d summited the Grand Col Ferret and begun dropping down the other side.
“We already did,” I replied, though it was almost impossible to tell. We could see almost nothing around us. Visibility was 25 yards at best, any sign or any course marking indicating we’d crossed the border had been rendered invisible. Gone were the views for miles that we’d savored during our nearly seven hours in Italy; Switzerland was a wall of fog and rain. The precipitation remained light for the moment, at least, which made our Houdini jackets a proper gear option for protection from the elements and temperature control as we ran and fast-hiked down the mountain.
The next nine miles took us down about 4,800 feet, including an aid stop at La Fouly (41 KM) along the way. We spent part of the time chatting with a friendly Italian runner who was a veteran of the course, and the rest of the time trying to determine if the bells we heard in the distance were coming from cows and sheep or the next aid station. About a mile out from La Fouly (the first checkpoint where we would see our friend and crew, Romain), Alex confided that the pain in her knee was intensifying. She was determined to make it to Champex-Lac and would stay with me at least to that point, but she wanted me to know her race was probably over. She could climb for days and drop most runners in the process, but the downhills were devastating to an angry patellar tendon – and this course had 20,000 feet of downhill to compliment the gain. After a quick bite to eat and refilling of bottles at La Fouly, we headed on for Champex-Lac.
The next five miles were downhill and mostly on pavement, which made the distance pass quickly despite putting greater pounding on the body. Soon, the rain increased from sprinkling to steady as we passed through Praz-de-Fort and closed in on Champex. After crossing a busy road, we returned to singletrack trail – now a few inches deep of slippery mud – and spent the next two miles going up. The 1,350-foot climb to Champex-Lac (55 KM) was frustrating. The mud made footing awful even with poles for support, and the rain was getting worse. More than that, I was hungry. My stomach had been fine all day, but now it was empty and beginning to bark at me. I needed some substance. Fortunately, we were arriving at the course’s largest aid station, and there was plenty of food to be had.
INTO THE WET, DARK NIGHT
Darkness fell as we sat at a picnic table in the sheltered Champex-Lac aid station, scarfing down fruit, cookies, cheese blocks and bowls of broth. It was a little after 8 p.m., and we’d already spent 11 hours on the course and tackled more than 10,000 feet of climbing. All things considered, Alex and I were in pretty good shape. The same could not be said for the guy across from us at the table. He’d been face down since we got there, and stayed that way for a solid 45 minutes. All around us weathered runners patched blistered feet, changed clothes and prepared to head out for the night. We gave our wet clothes to Romain, changed into tights and pulled out our headlamps. After contemplating dropping from the race earlier, Alex was determined to keep going. We’d made it through 34 miles already. We had 29 miles left, and we wanted to finish this thing together.
We left the aid station, only to immediately tuck back under the tent. The steady rain had increased to a full-blown downpour. We dug our rain pants and rain coats out of our packs, layered up and snapped on rubber gloves to keep our hands dry. Conditions were deteriorating fast, and the intensity of the rain was almost blinding as we marched past Lac de Champex and began the 2,400-foot climb up La Giète. This stretch was a mixture of rocky jeep road and singletrack trail. Eventually the rain eased to a sprinkle, which allowed us to temporarily ditch our rain jackets and keep our body temperature comfortable during the 90-minute climb.
The remainder of the overnight hours was mostly a blur. Sprinkles picked up and subsided; a few snowflakes blew around; rain jackets were zipped and unzipped to keep comfortable; climbs were long but not particularly strenuous as slower runners set the pace; downhills were slow and somewhat treacherous due to the magnitude of slick, sloppy mud on the drenched trails. Ankle-deep mud on the descent to Trient (72 KM) turned the course into a slip-n-slide. Later, shortly after crossing the border into France and as the last of the overnight ran was ending, Alex took a tumble and tweaked her knee on a mud-caked technical descent to Vallorcine (83 KM). Through it all, Alex and I stuck together and checkpoint-by-checkpoint we inched closer to Chamonix.
ONWARD TO CHAMONIX!
“Is this your first race through the night?” Alex asked me shortly after we departed Vallorcine.
“It is!” I replied, noting that I’d paced a few friends through some of the night at 100-milers, but never seen the sun both set and rise during my own race. That was about to change, though. As we hiked along a trail flanked by a road to our right and river to our left, the first glimmers of dawn peeked over the mountains.
Soon, we tucked our headlamps into our packs. Morning arrived, and we had one last climb – well, actually two thanks to a minor course re-route – to tackle before finishing this thing. Heavy rain in the days leading up to the race led the organizers to modify the route for the final climb of the CCC and UTMB. The re-route meant we had two climbs rather than one, and it also meant the most technical part of our course came with about seven miles to go. After 1 1/2 flat miles, we crossed a road and headed up for the first of the final climbs. During the course of about two miles we hiked up 1,500 feet on a series of rocky switchbacks. Eventually the trail leveled out, veered to the left and headed down to what was essentially a boulder field that brought our pace to a crawl. Some drop-downs were far enough that we had to sit and lower ourselves onto the rocks below. The impact of so many drop-downs ravaged Alex’s knee to the point where she needed to take a break. Both of us were concerned it would give out. Finally, after 35 minutes and about three quarters of a mile, we completed the 900-foot descent.
It had been 23 hours, and we had seven miles to go.
The next 2 1/2 miles were particularly frustrating. We had to climb 1,300 more feet. The hiking wasn’t difficult, but it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer to the final aid station. We wound our way through the woods along the side of a mountain for two miles before finally emerging along the rocky edge of a ski slope. From there, we hiked up the slope and saw a mountain lodge in the distance. After hiking up a service road, we reached the building which served as the final aid station – La Flégerè (94 KM), and plopped down into chairs. It was 9:18 a.m. We’d been going for more than 24 hours. The climbing was done. Just seven kilometers and 2,800 feet of downhill stood between us and the finish line.
“Let’s go,” Alex said to me after a five-minute break. The clock was ticking to beat the 26 1/2-hour cutoff. Both of us were exhausted and ready to be done. Alex’s knee was in agony; these last few miles were gonna hurt.
Fortunately for us, the terrain was friendly for the home stretch. After about a mile and a half of mildly technical singletrack, we emerged onto a gravel road that led us down to Chamonix. We could see the city through the trees on our left. The sun was out; what a treat after so many hours in the rain the afternoon and night before. Alex’s knee wouldn’t allow her to run this downhill, but we hiked steadily in silence, marching forward at about an 18-minute pace. We passed tourists, hikers and spectators who smiled, applauded, and called out words of encouragement.
“Go Alexandra! Allez! Allez! Allez!”
“Go Chris! Allez! Allez! Allez!”
“CCC! Allez! Allez! Allez!”
Soon we could hear the finish-line announcer’s voice echoing in the distance. Then we saw asphalt. Suddenly, the trees disappeared from around us and Alex and I were back in Chamonix. A volunteer waved to us and pointed us in the right direction. “One kilometer to go!” she shouted as we passed.
We began to run. We’d hiked most of this thing, but we were going to finish it running. As we settled into a trot we heard a pitter-patter on the pavement and we felt drops. Seconds later, the rain came roaring back as Alex and I ran past the Centre Sportif and into the streets of town. Passers-by and kids gave high-fives and cheered us on. We rounded a corner and saw Romain cheering for us. He ran about a block alongside us and then took a shortcut to the finish as we rounded the final few corners and turned toward Place du Triangle de l’Amitié – the finish line!
Hand in hand, Alex and I ran toward the finish arch up ahead, its purple glow drawing us toward it. Spectators – likely holding down prime vantage points to watch the UTMB winners a few hours later – banged on the signboards and urged us on. The combination of the pounding, the announcer’s bellow, and the heavy rain blended into a thunderous rumble in my ears as we took our final steps, raised our joined hands in the air and crossed the finish line together.
After four years of dreaming, 63.2 miles, and 25 hours and 40 minutes on the trail, we finished the CCC.
We stood under the arch for a few moments, holding each other up in an embrace. “We did it, babe,” I said to Alex, shaking my head in a bit of disbelief. “We did it, babe.”
Going into the race we knew the CCC wasn’t going to be easy, it wasn’t going to be fast, and the Alps were going to test our limits. In the end, we were as prepared as our bodies would allow us to be, we had the proper gear to allow us to continue, and we had enough grit and determination to persevere through the hardest times.
Most importantly, we had each other – and that made the difference.