UTMB – OCC – Ultra trail Mont Blanc by Emma Bennett

The OCC race is 56km long and has 3,500m of ascent with a total cut off time of 14 hours. There are 5 check points and each of these have individual cut of times you have to meet also.

I’d wanted to do this race for a long time. I didn’t get in for the first two years. You have to collect enough qualifying points in order to enter, which I had, but then you have to apply via lottery. If you don’t get in for two years you then have a higher chance of getting in the next year. So for those two years I didn’t get in, I did the Cortina trail in the Dolomites and the Eiger Ultra Trail in Switzerland instead. In the third year I got a place on the OCC and my great friend Nicky said she’d come with me for moral support.

Nicky ‘the Legend’ and me

The day before registration we were supposed to fly out to Geneva but the flight got cancelled. So on the spot we had to decide what to do. I was starting to flap that we wouldn’t make it in time for the registration but Nicky said she was prepared to do the 6 hour drive through the night from Basel to Chamonix if first flew to Duesseldorf, then took an onwards flight to Basel. Nicky is a complete Legend for doing this.

We arrived at our ‘digs’ at 2am and made it in time for the registration the following morning at which point I also had my bag kit check done. Our chalet was so lovely and cosy and right in the heart of Chamonix where the race finishes.

Our Chalet and my snoopy who has accompanied me on all my races (I’ve had him since I was a little girl).

On the morning of the race we had to be at the bus stop at 5am in order to take an hour long journey to the start line at Orsieres. The journey was very hilly with lots of bends. Once we got there, everyone piled out in their amazing ultra trail wear and I looked at them all and felt like I didn’t quite make the part. The start was in this small beautiful street in the village and the adrenaline started to kick in.

After they started the race everyone was walking initially as there were so many people and the street is so narrow. The start is at 8am and the school kids are out with clackers and cowbells. In fact all you can hear for the first two miles is the sound of cowbells which is so amazing. Once we were out of the village we came to our first climb – Champex Lac, which is a 7.5km climb to get to the first check point.

The first part of the climb out of Orsières
Inside the first checkpoint – a cow shed

That first climb was a really narrow trail, going in single file through Forrest. You can’t really see where you are going at this point as you are surrounded by trees but it was very steep, climbing 1500metres in the first 10k.

Bovernier

The next bit was flat but you know you have more ups to go, so you just put one foot in front of the other and remember to stop and drink in the beautiful views. Everyone was running once on the flat and then the next steep climb came up to a point called La Giete at 2,000metres around 18km into the race.

We then descended down to Trient where the second checkpoint would be. The descent was about 5km, not too steep but quite gnarly with lots of roots. It was open and so we had glorious views of the mountains.

A bridge up high just before Trient

The village of Trient, which was picture perfect, had a beautiful church and it was also where I saw my friend Nicky at the check point. She wasn’t allowed to pass me drinks or food but she was always there with a hug and a smile and it really lifted my spirits to see her.

Stunning views from Trient – the dam in the distance up high

The race is so international. There are so many languages there that you could hear when you were at the different checkpoints. There are equally moments where you are out there running and its so meditative and quiet. All you can hear are the sounds of peoples feet and breathing.

After the second checkpoint I started to feel a bit sick and struggled to get water or food in me. The next climb was 5.5km and about 1,000m up plus it was hot so I knew I needed to drink so I didn’t get dehydrated. I forced myself to drink and then I started to feel a bit better but I still wasn’t quite right. I used my poles which helped on the ascent. I looked around at one point and wondered if others felt as bad as I did, but no one was talking at this point; everyone was dealing with their own demons and making their way up the hill.

I got to the highest point which was Catagone at over 2,000m. After that we descended 5km, 940m and arrived at our third checkpoint in Vallorcine. Nicky was there again, which was lovely but I still couldn’t eat anything. I felt like I needed to be sick. I refilled my water though as I knew I needed to keep drinking. I also started to get cramps in my quads after that last descent.

I remember the views being amazing at this point, I saw dams below us, but they were up high which was strange to see. It was an awe inspiring place to be, to be able to see all around you amazing views and to know you are nearly half way. The whole run is just one amazing long view though with sunny skies, mountains and streams.

One of the many beautiful streams along the way

After this there was another little climb up to Argentiere on top of the mountain, and I started to feel a lot better at that point. I came down again to the checkpoint in the valley of Argentiere (most of the checkpoints are on the way down or in the valleys). This was around 40km into the race and I managed to eat something, which was a relief as I’d gone 2 hours without any food or gels at that point. I had a couple of bowls of noodle soup and some some cola. It sounds disgusting and I don’t even normally drink cola but it was definitely needed!

After the yummy soup stop there is another climb and its completely awful. Its very steep and 5km long. It’s also covered in scree so its slippy and your legs are already fatigued. I got to the top of that and there was another checkpoint. That 5km took a really long time – like an hour and a half or longer which gives you an idea of how steep and difficult it was. The views at the top were worth it though, utterly breathtaking. The checkpoint there was called La Flegere and is a ski resort.

What goes up must come down! Of course you then have to descend again and the next 7km descent was as steep as the previous ascent had been. I’m a strong downhill runner but this was tough! There were lots of roots and things to look out for. It started off as a ski slope and quite narrow, then it was rocky and there was also scree again. I fell over on this descent but thankfully landed on my bottom with no injuries. Luckily I live near the Peak District and do a lot of technical downhill training, which really came in to its own in the really tough downhill bits.

This last descent took us all the way down into Chamonix. I didn’t realise there was another 1km to go after you get to the village. Its like there is a mini start line and then finish for this 1km. I couldn’t believe it but the adrenaline kicked in but I managed to sprint it, passing a number of people along the way. I was running on the sheer feeling of elation and listening to the people cheering. It felt great at the end and I was so pleased I’d got over that really bad dip in the middle.

At the end of the race we were all given a free beer but I couldn’t drink it; in fact I couldn’t drink or eat anything for many hours after the race as I started to feel really awful again. I did recover later on in the evening though and at 11 o’clock that night we went out to watch the people who were doing the big race start. And then it hit me; how are they going to do more than double what i just did?

Next year I’m looking forward to an Ultra in the Pyrenees – bring it on 😁

Me at the finish line – elated

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