It is a funny thing, thinking you have trained better than ever but knowing that training is only a small part of the puzzle to racing well. Standing on the start line of the OCC I felt as if I had controlled as much as I could, I had prepared as well as possible…I had used all my experience to get myself there race ready. But was it enough? Did I have the skill and determination to see it through?
57 km with 3300m of climb is a strange distance in my mind. It is both really far, requiring patience, pacing and a good fuelling strategy, but also relatively short, requiring you to push really hard from start to finish with no time to spare.
The course record stood at 5 hours 19 minutes. I had gradually built myself up to racing for 3 hours 38 minutes in Åre a few weeks before. Could I push the entire way? The “Jon of old” could, but he was younger, less calculated, more ballsy. I couldn’t help but ask myself if I could do myself justice.
The race plan was to hold back, pace myself into the effort and let the chance takers streak off into the distance. As it happens no one went and the first hour to Champex-Lac was (almost) relatively relaxed.
I kept telling myself that it’s a long way…to be patient, to chill and simply concentrate on running, I had been pushing harder than I thought though.
Over the first serious climb it became clear that my uphill speed was seriously lacking compared to the top guys. Approaching the top just 20km into the race I felt awful and started to cultivate negative thoughts. It was too hot, I felt crap, I wanted to quit at the next aid station, this wasn’t so fun.
But without injury there was no option of quitting and luckily enough if my uphill legs were non present my downhill legs had decided to show up in full force.
I caught up and gradually flowed past each of the leading runners until I bumped into Robbie Simpson at the front. He exclaimed that there is “no way in hell” he should be leading a downhill so I duly took over, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before he overtook me on the next uphill.
That he did and more. It was now feeling really hot, and I was deep in the pain cave wondering how I would even finish. Negative thoughts returning, I resigned to just move up as fast as I could and stick it out no matter where I was to place. Petter Engdahl also caught me by the top and looked to be getting away until we started the next downhill.
Off I went again and having recced this section I flowed down even better than before. Hitting the valley floor, I was unknowingly in first having past Robbie when he took a little detour.
It didn’t take long for Robbie to come past again after the Vallorcine aid station and by this point I had resigned myself to second or worse. He was simply too strong and could run the final uphill far better than I could. He would win and I would be happy to stand on the podium.
I had to try though. I had to at least put one foot in front of the other and not do any worse than everything I could at that time. So, he got ahead but not by much. As it turns out, everyone was convinced I was still in the race except for me. Entering the aid station in Argentiere before the final climb we were together again, I heard him asking for coke and half registered that this must mean he is running low on gels. Perhaps he could still crack? …but I was still convinced he would leave me far behind on this last and final climb before Chamonix.
Having pretty much given up racing Robbie to the finish, I decided that I would try my very best to run (I had been hiking far too much up until now) the final climb. At least then I could be happy that I tried my best. Once again Robbie got away taking the camera guy with him up the mountain, leaving me to steadily tip toe my way up alone.
The final half of the climb arrived and the steepness increased. That was it…feeling defeated I started hiking having broken the promise to myself of running the entire way up. But magically I started to make up ground. Flash backs came of Buff Epic Trail back in 2019 where I failed to catch Oriol Cardona Coll in a similar race setting and settled for 2nd. Maybe this time there was a small chance of catching Robbie by the top and winning it on the downhill?
As it turned out, there was a chance…but my God it was painful. Reaching the top of the final climb I had a 10 meter lead. Time to reset and hammer down. But if I thought my body was finished 3 hours earlier, now it was really starting to let me down. Twinges of cramp plagued both calves on every step and all my abs were locking up but this was it now. Everything I had.
Rounding the final bends into Chamonix I had only eyes on one thing: the finish line…and the thought of being able to stop, not move and be completely still. After 5 hours 02 minutes and 57 seconds of absolute war with an incredible fellow Brit I was finally done.
Petter from Sweden completed the podium in third and all three of us had run well under the course record. Of course I am happy to win, happy to run well and that the training paid off…but most of all, happy that I found the strength to keep pushing even after I thought it couldn’t be done, something you have to convince yourself of in every race but most of all after a 2 year break from racing.