“Life is not a race. Neither is an ultramarathon, not really, even though it looks like one. There is no finish line. We strive toward a goal, and whether we achieve it or not is important, but it’s not what’s most important. What matters is how we move toward that goal. What’s crucial is the step we’re taking now, the step you’re taking now.” Scott Jurek, Eat and Run
On July 27 2015 I ran my first ultra marathon, the OCC (Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix). At 35miles (53km) and with 3,300m of ascent it is the shortest of the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc trail races, and I’ve never experienced a race like it.
Early in the morning 1600 runners packed into the small town square of Orsieres ready to cross the start line. The town made us welcome as local people stood on their balconies and lined the streets to see us off with cheers and smiles. School children high fived the runners as we set off, and we passed through Swiss villages where they rang huge cow bells for us.
The first real climb began through woods to the checkpoint at Champex-Lac. It was a shock to the system, but nothing compared to the next two. We ascended more than 700m in just a few kilometers to a checkpoint at La Giete (2049m), followed by a welcome downhill to an aid station in Trient (1300m). I stopped to eat noodle soup, bread and cheese, before taking on the climb to Catgone (2027m).
The high point of the race for me was my arrival at the checkpoint at Vallorcine (km 34). After finding the uphills hard and making slow progress, I was relieved to be able to get some speed up on the steep rocky descent from Catogne. Crowds had come out to support us, reading the name and nationality on my race number they shouted “Allez Anna, Allez!” “You are looking strong!” I felt strong when they shouted my name and was laughing as I ran.
With four major climbs and very hot sun, the race was tough. There were moments when I knew every runner was feeling it too, all of us silent, digging in. The hardest section for me was the ascent to the final aid station at La Flegere (km 44). In the winter it’s a ski run, in July it was a steep bank of sun blasted white rubble that switchbacked to reveal more soul crushing ascent at every corner. I remember thinking ‘the only way to make this end is to just keep going…’ I almost staggered into the aid station at the top.
From La Flegere there was only 8km of downhill to complete, and the last kilometer ran through the busy streets of Chamonix. I felt a surge of emotion when I realised I was going to make it! I could call myself an ultra runner!
For the whole week, Chamonix was buzzing with runners and their families, and the Swiss and French people made us feel that they were fully behind every one of us. As I ran the final steps of my first ultra race, in a foreign country, there were so many people to cheer me on and make the finish special for me. It’s something that I will remember for the rest of my life.
It took me 10 hours 36 minutes to finish the race, but the experience can’t be measured in time taken or finishing position. Beyond the day of the race, entering an ultra marathon has given me so much. As preparation I solo hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It has given me a belief in myself – that if I can imagine the goal, I can achieve it. I have made amazing running friends in Sheffield.
Ultra running has taught me about living in the moment – being present to enjoy views of glaciers or notice the smell of pine in the sun. I’ve learned that pushing through hard times is tough, but they will pass, and that there’s no value now in fearing what might be to come. I don’t know what my new adventure will be, but whatever the goal I will honour every step along the way.
Race photos are from www.maindruphoto.com