Recently, all ultra eyes were on the UTMB, arguably the world’s biggest ultra trail outing. So it was for Australian Trail Running Champion, Kellie Emmerson, who travelled to Chamonix to crew her partner, ultra trail runner and TRM co-editor, Tegyn Angel. But there was no way Kel was going to fly all that way and not get a run in herself. Luckily the UTMB organisers saw fit to launch a new support event the, Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC), a 53km alpine outing prelude to the UTMB. Here’s her report…
Life is about choices.
Too many of my daily conversations begin with “So where are you off to next?” “I’m so jealous.” “How can you afford to go overseas again?” “Can you pack me in your suitcase?” “How can you get leave from work again?” “I could never run that far.” “I’m too old.” “I’m too unfit.”
I am a normal human being. I work a full time job. I keep fit. I study. I pay a mortgage. I work extra jobs in addition to my full time role to save more money. I get 4xweeks holiday a year. My life is action packed. And busy. But is a choice. And it is so awesome. I have been to many countries, been to the tallest mountains, ran through the most beautiful places.
Life is about choices. And anything is possible if you want it.
So when I found out I had the opportunity to go to Chamonix to play support crew for the 2014 UTMB, I was pretty stoked. However, I had already done the same in Japan earlier this year for UTMF, and the infectious nature of the scene had left me wanting more. So I put up the suggestion of me being able to race as well. I had a pretty jam-packed race schedule for the second half of the year, but surely there was a way? Would the 101km CCC be pushing it, knowing I had a 100km race in Victoria 2xweeks later…? Never fear, the stars aligned and the 53km Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC) was born. Given it was the inaugural year, it was clearly meant to be.
The trail and ultra scene is becoming more and more accommodating to families and crew, most now offering shorter distances to entice everyone to be involved in some way. And everyone wins here. Everyone gets to run, the races draw a bigger crowd, and they get a chance to make more money. Over time, the events grow, and people have the opportunity to take it to the next level and set new goals. Take the Surf Coast Century for example. The main race is a 100km ultra. But there are options for 50km teams, relay teams of four, and then 3xdifferent solo distances on the Sunday. Everyone can be involved. Awesome.
The Europeans have now caught on to this idea. It’s just that their idea of offering alternative challenges is a little different. The OCC was promoted as a ‘beginner’ race. 3300+ metres of vert over 53km… for beginners… are they nuts? Let’s put this into perspective. Australia’s The North Face 100 has about 4200 metres elevation within 100km. Victoria’s Mount Macedon has 2500+ metres over 52km. I would never have classified either of these races as ‘beginner,’ but the Europeans are something else.
“All things have limits, but one should always go beyond them.” (George Guynemer, French War pilot).
Nevertheless, I was pretty excited to be able to run my first international race. The French Alps were very foreign to me, and I am in no way a mountain goat. So it made it a bit difficult to decide on an appropriate position to start within the field. That said I had to remember that I held the 2014 50km Aussie title so who knew what would happen? I ended up crammed amongst the 1199 others about 30m back from the start line.
The start line was very overwhelming. I became really emotional in that moment. That’s never happened to me before. I was surrounded by over 1000 people, few who spoke English, all ready for a huge challenge. Surrounded by thousands more who were just there to cheer and ring their cow bells. I was so grateful for the opportunity to be in that moment at that time. So grateful for a body that allows me to do this, for a mind that chooses to push on when it hurts. So grateful for a partner who shares my crazy love of the trails, of the challenge. So grateful for friends who understand. The feeling was breathtaking.
The next minute we were off! I chose my position well, overtaking a few whilst still getting stuck in a few bottlenecks due to the sheer size of the field. 90% of the field had poles. I had chosen not to take mine, though I am still wondering if I should have. I found them quite dangerous in the first few kilometers. While some people used them straight away others had them sticking straight out of their packs like daggers. You had to be very careful how you overtook people.
The first climb was tough, but bearable on fresh legs. I was in a different world. Suddenly my Glasgow reps seemed so insignificant. It became more of a hiking race than a running race. We climbed and climbed, and climbed some more.
The first check point was about 7km in and was followed by a lovely stroll around a lake at Champex Lac. One of my most memorable parts of the race was here. A fisherman and his ‘fisherdog’ couldn’t have timed it better, as they swung a fish out onto the path in front of me! We all had a giggle as I jumped over the line and ran on, ready for the next climb.
The next checkpoint was about 25km in and was the first point where crew were allowed. Somehow I had made my way into the top ten! Though I knew this wouldn’t last long, I pushed on up the next climb. This one was tough, and steep, but wow the scenery was incredible! Like being inside a painting. I stopped to take some photos. It was getting hot! Runners all around me were struggling. The hill was never ending, save for a huge manure pit at the top, so gross!
We finally got to come back down again, but the trail was technical and did not allow for a fast descent. I ran into the next checkpoint feeling a little damaged but ready for the last 17km. The elevation profile indicated that I had already overcome the hardest climbs right? Wrong!
The final climb was horrific! It was longer than the map suggested, and just kept going and going and going, way above the tree line. There were numerous creek crossings along the way; these saved my life! I dove into each one, splashing my face, my head, washing my hands, cooling down my body temp. We made our way right up to one of the insanely high chairlifts and then it was time for the final descent. Boy this took a while! I was watching the clock, really hoping but doubtful of a sub-8 hour finish. Once the technicality subsided a little, I turned it on, lapping up my specialty. It was a shame it had taken 46km to finally get a good run in! I caught up to a man out for a jog who decided to stick with me right into Chamonix. This was awesome. He didn’t speak English, and I never got to thank him for sharing those last few kilometers, but I loved it.
The final run into Chamonix was something I’ll never forget. As you snake around the township, thousands of people line the streets, cheering, screaming, cow-belling. So much fun and so much relief to have made it, not only finishing but achieving my goal time by just two minutes, 12th female.
All in all it was such a magical experience. Though we only got to go for a few days it was totally worth it and I would highly recommend it, especially with the ‘beginner’ options available. Walking around town it seemed that many couples had taken this option, enabling both to be involved, whilst crewing for the other. It is a shame though that the female contingent remains low despite the huge uptake of trail running in the past few years. Looking at the stats, amongst all races only 13% were women. The average age for the OCC was 41 years- this includes the oldest female at 76, and oldest male at 82! Plenty of time left yet!
Life is about choices. You are not too old. You are not too poor. You don’t just have to crew. Get involved! You only live once, so choose well.
Read Tegyn Angel’s perspective of running the UTMB (he came 99th!) in the latest (out September 18) edition of Trail Run Mag, available as a free download at www.trailrunmag.com/magazines or by subscription on iPad or Kindle devices.