It was a race he’d been longing to do some years now and when Damian Boyle finally got his chance, he was determined to grab it with both hands. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to which both the physical and emotional impact it can have on a person cannot be underestimated.
As the day grew ever closer, Damian could barely contain his excitement, knowing he was finally going to be on the start-line for the CCC race at the prestigious and world renowned Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is essentially the Olympics for mountain trail running. It is a huge event, with approximately 9,000 people taking part across 7 different races of varying distances and difficulty levels.
The one Damian had opted to go for was the Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix route, consisting of a 101 kilometre distance and incorporating 6,100 metres of elevation. The task ahead was going to be an enormous challenge, but a truly spectacular one.
The course for the CCC race touches on three different countries; Italy, France and Switzerland. It follows the Grande Randonnée du Tour du Mont-Blanc across highly technical Alpine terrain, with high altitude climbs up to 2,500 metres in notoriously inclement weather conditions.
Whilst that may not sound appealing to everyone, for any fell runner or anyone who has ever experienced the intrigue of running in the high mountains, it is deemed as the ultimate challenge. The UTMB is without a doubt, the pinnacle of mountain ultra running, and it’s the level you aspire to reach within that realm.
Of course, not just anyone can rock up and do one of the UTMB races. You have to do other mountain races first to accrue of certain amount of points in order to qualify for the event. Due to the sheer numbers that want to take part in these magnificent, once in a lifetime races, it seems the only fair way to allocate the places.
In May, Damian completed the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 50 mile race, which was an ideal training run to prepare him for the CCC. He knew if he could conquer a very technical 50 mile mountain ultra, he would be in with a chance of handling the rigours of the 101km CCC.
Completing the 50 mile distance in 16 hour 12 minutes. Damian finished in 27th place, amassing over 19,000 ft of elevation throughout the course of the race.
In August, Damian took part in the 50k race at the Salisbury 5,4,3,2,1 event, finishing in a time of 4 hours 6 minutes. That put him in 13th place and gave him an average pace of 8:15 minutes per mile. This was an impressive result on a long, tough course and gave him further reason for optimism when approaching the CCC.
The CCC was of course, an entirely different prospect though. Just to make it the finish would be a dream come true for Damian. He was determined to give it everything he’s got though.
Managing to persuade his wife and kids to take a ‘holiday’ in the Alps and crew for him on his journey through the pouring rain was absolutely crucial for Damian.
It gave him that much needed support and, although it meant dragging them out of the their warm, comfortable beds and 5:30 in the morning, it brought about an indescribable experience for all involved, with many highs and lows and some magical moments to look back on.
One thing that did strike Damian from the very start of the race was the sheer volume of people. He’s used to running on his own in the mountains for hours or competing in low key trail running events which has always led him to consider it as quite a niche sport.
This is different though. The UTMB is at the other end of the spectrum. Being caught up in traffic for over 4 hours in a race was something he’d never experienced outside of a big city marathon. At the UTMB, he didn’t feel he was competing in a niche sport any more, he truly felt part of the mainstream.
The first 10k started with a climb immediately up to an altitude of 2,500m. They certainly weren’t looking to ease you into it. Damian had already run for almost two and a half hours before he reached the first checkpoint at 14.9km. At the point he was in 307th position.
The next checkpoint was 22.4km in, with Damian reaching the refuge at 3 hours 27 minutes, putting him in 302nd place. It was then down to Arnouvaz at 27.5km before he headed up to another very high point at Grand Col Ferret. He’d now been running for 5 hours 17 minutes and had already racked up an elevation gain of 2,622m.
The next two checkpoints were on a long descent down the mountain. You could be forgiven for thinking that would be a welcome relief to the runnings but some of the descents were just as difficult as the climbs, being very technical in nature, steep and rocky with the potential threat of tree roots tripping you up on the down.
Once he’d reached the bottom of the long descent, Damian was over the 50km point in the race so he was over half way there. With the legs beginning to tire and the effects of the altitude taking its toll, that was probably only a small crumb of comfort to Damian at the time.
Battling on though, Damian made his way of the next mountain passage, taking him to Champex-Lac at 55.6km. After just under 8 and half hours of running, he was now in 311th place.
More climbing followed before he reached the next milestone at 67.4km. He’d now amassed an elevation gain of 4,290m. Arriving at La Giète in just over 11 hours, he had now dropped to 340th in the standings.
A 5km descent down to Trient followed before it was back up the next ascent to Les Tseppes at 76km. Whilst motoring up this climb, Damian gained as many places as he’d lost over the last 35km of the race, putting him back up to 304th place. He was well and truly on his way now!
It was now 10pm so he’d been running in the dark for a few hours with only a head torch to find his way. Managing not to trip over any tree roots whilst descending in the dark was a minor miracle in itself.
Fortunately, Damian found was able to eat and hold down food whilst on the go, which was a massive bonus. Having said that though, he wasn’t super keen on the cheese and salami they had on offer at the aid stations. He would have much preferred a British style jam sandwich selection. After 13 hours of running though, any fuel will do.
Small things make for big highs at that point in the journey though and Damian was hugely grateful whenever he got to see his family out there supporting him. Even the rain stopping briefly was a high, especially after experiencing 8 hours of it.
By the end of the descent down to Vallorcine at 83.2km, Damian was up to 296th place in the rankings with a time of 14 hours 9 minutes. At the next checkpoint he was at his highest position in the race, in 280th place with a time of just over 15 hours, 87.7km in.
After the next, short sharp climb, Damian had his only real dark moment of the race when he thought he was descending into Chamonix for the finish. That led to a sense of bemusement when the trail then started to turn back up the mountain.
After a little while it dawned on him that he hadn’t been up Flégère Ski Station yet, which meant another 3,000 ft of climbing. Not only was he furious with himself for forgetting to factor in this fairly proportionate part of the route, rather hilariously, he was also furious with the mountain itself and some cursing may have taken place.
This was where he had to really dig deep but he reached the top of La Flégère at 94.1km in 282nd place, after 16 hours and 43 minutes on the go. That took his elevation gain to a massive 6,082m.
Unfortunately the descent from Flégère is notoriously the worst of the entire route, being both technical and steep and also on rocky ground with plenty of tree routes to avoid, if you’re lucky. It was a very tough undertaking on legs that had already been going for 17 hours. He actually found himself making up songs about how much he was hating it on the way down.
When Damian did eventually get down the descent though it was all worth it. That magical moment as he arrived at the finish in Chamonix was one he’ll never forget.
It was around 3am and at that time the streets were almost, but not entirely empty. It was a stark contrast to the packed cafes and bars and the vast crowds out a few hours later cheering everyone else home.
For Damian though, he had his family with him and that enhanced the emotion of the situation that much more and helped him forget the pain and discomfort he was in. It was an incredible moment as he crossed the line and to be able to share it with his nearest and dearest was a joy to behold.
With a finishing time of 17 hours 53 minutes and 18 seconds, Damian had completed the full 100.9km and came in 286th place in the overall standings. Out of 1,622 who made to the line, that was a terrific result. That meant a further 250 or so of the participants sadly never made it that far, but that’s to be expected in such a long and gruelling race.
For Damian though, it wasn’t all about the end result and how high up the field he finished. It was about the journey. It was the experience that mattered most. He loved it all.
The varied terrain helped keep things interesting. There was thick forest, long and heart pumping zig-zigs that Damian proclaims were even steeper than Bournemouth’s versions, rocky and technical descents, high alpine terraces with views across to Mont Blanc and the tumbling glaciers, chocolate box Swiss villages and enchanting river crossings. The CCC had it all.
After the race he found himself drawn back to the streets of Chamonix to spend hours applauding the rest of the runners as they came through to the finish.
Damian would urge anyone thinking of entering a race like this to just go ahead and do it. In fact, it had such a profound effect on him that only 30 hours later he’d forgotten the effort and committed to the full UTMB – the much bigger brother – in a couple of years time.