Culture Wars

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Every sport has its own set of rules and traditions. Some are formally written down. Others simply passed on as a sort of etiquette, refined over the years.

Take Golf for example. We’ll leave aside that it’s technically a game and not a sport. Much like tiddlywinks. Though clearly less physically demanding.

Golfers, seemingly without fail, wear those ugly Argyle patterned jumpers. To the best of my knowledge there’s no written rule that says you must dress in this silly way. It’s just what people do it fit in. Traditions passed on over hundreds of years, without anyone stopping to think how comical they look.

Surrounded by other players doing the same, the absurd attire becomes sane. A badge of identity. It presumably takes an outsider to point this out.   You might have guessed: I’m an outsider.

***

Which brings me to another absurdity: the world of extreme endurance sports.  For this, I’m very much on the inside.

Whilst the Ironman Triathlon might be pushing 30, the sport of ultra-running is still relatively new, at least in Europe.

You might think this wouldn’t leave enough time for strange traditions to develop. Though we’re not doing anything as daft as Argyle, endurance sports do have their own oddities and ways of behaving.

***

The strange thing though is that two of the biggest endurance sports – Ironman and Ultra-Running – which are similar in so many ways, actually attract very different people. And there’s surprisingly little crossover in participants. Each have their own set of rules.

Nowhere is this difference more evident than when you’re waiting nervously before the start.

At the Ironman, as the athletes prepare their £4000 bikes in the transition zone, you’ll hear a lot of brash talk and boasting personalities. Amongst the shaved legs (this is to Ironman what the Argle is to Golf) you can practically smell the testosterone.  Casual boasting is the done thing.

Some few thousand feet higher, at the start line of the Ultra-Trail, it’s a very different feeling. Brash boasting is definitely out. There is no one-upmanship to be had on the cost and sophistication of your bike.  It’s just you and the mountains.

At the start it’s the done thing to look miserable and terrified. And perhaps slightly tearful. To talk down your chances rather than talk them up. There’s no written rule that says this. It’s just what everyone does.

***

I’d run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc on three separate occasions, and spent the last five summers in Chamonix for one run or another, but skipped last year to run in Leadville.

Coming back to Chamonix after a year out – and on the back of an Ironman just two months earlier – I’d somehow lost track of the unwritten rules.

As the 2300 runners gathered in the Place Du Triangle De L’amitié for the UTMB, I’d forgotten the fear I’d had in previous years. Forgotten that with a 50% dropout rate, for most of us the race was going to end in pain, misery and failure.

Yet somehow I felt bullish and confident. I wasn’t hollering this at the top of my voice. But I was breaking the rules.

Well you know what they say comes before a fall…

***

The heavens opened just before the start at 6pm.  And it rained all night. Great torrents of rain came through my Goretex jacket. Like someone had stuck a hose down both the sleeves.

The nausea started about 2am. Great waves of nausea. I managed to hold-off being sick at Les Chapieux aid station and after nibbling on a bit of food jogged pitifully on.

Cold, wet and holding back the vomit, my mind kept wandering back to the fluffy white bed that was waiting for me back at the hotel.

Why really was I bothering with this race? I had nothing left to prove, I’d run it three times already. Through the rain and snow. Through a stress fracture and horrible knee injury. I’d done it already. Why not call it a day? It was the first time I’d seriously considered quitting a race.

Just before dawn I trundled unhappily into the aid station at Lac Combal, only 64km in, where upon taking up the foetal position I was immediately sick. Two doctors came over and tried to entice me into the medical tent. They had caught me at my lowest ebb.

Strangely it was probably their offer of help that drove me on. Through my heaves and retching I told them to leave me alone. They were really quite persistent. Again I told them to bugger off.

I knew that if I went into the warm embrace of the medical tent I wouldn’t leave. I think I was about to tell them to ‘fuck off’ but instead was just sick again. They stayed, hovering over me.

So I finally had something to prove. I pulled myself up from a pile of my own filth and despair and told them, with a smile, that I’d had a bit much to drink last night.

Sometimes a bit of bravado and a bit of brash is what’s needed.

The dawn slowly broke. My stomach settled. The crippling visions of a white fluffy duvet slowly subsided and the rest of the race became much easier. Through the second day and through the second night I began to enjoy myself.

My confidence had been well founded. I finished in a little over 40 hours 30 minutes.

Through all four times I’ve run the race, I’ve learned one thing: It doesn’t always get worse. And sometimes you need a bit of bullshit to get you through.

But you need to know the rules before you can break them.

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