The UT4M Masters is one of the 12 races which takes place in Grenoble (UT4M) The Masters 100km (5500m) is actually more like 95km with over 6000m of ascent and takes in two mountain ranges – The Belledonne and Chartreuse. The race starts just outside Grenoble in Uriage Park and ends in the centre of Grenoble. Although I completed Lavaredo and OCC last year I still feel a bit out of my depth when I turn up to mountain races, this one was no exception.
Let’s start with the day before when we drove around in Vinnie sussing out where the race started and where we could park for the night. It all seemed pretty straight forward and we’d found a campsite not too far away. So of course then it was pizza time. Now on any other day I’m always hungry and could probably devour a pizza at any given moment. However, the day before a race my stomach is always in knots and eating is a bit of a chore! Despite that, I munched down on some pizza and made sure I kept myself well hydrated. It had been absolutely boiling hot in Grenoble so I feared it might be a suffer fest for me on race day… I really struggle in the heat!
Then it was time to start faffing with kit… although the weather had been roasting, we had been warned it would be cooler on race day (thank god!) and in fact there was a risk of snow fall above 2000m so there was a very long mandatory kit list. Once the kit had been selected, we were off to Race HQ for bib collection and kit check. Now anyone who had done a mountain ultra will know, kit checks are serious (and quite rightly so)! No number will be issued unless you have the correct kit. After waiting in line clutching my belongings, my kit passed the checks and I felt like there was no going back now.
I’m very lucky to be supported by Beta Outdoor Sports who provide me with the most fantastic kit including the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, Ultimate Direction Waterproof Women’s Ultra Jacket V2, Ultimate Direction Waterproof Women’s Ultra Pant V2 and Injinji Toe Socks. All absolute essentials when running long in the mountains.
In addition to this I wore my favourite Lululemon skort (the power of the skort!), Montane Snap zip t-shirt, Salomon Impact Sports Bra, La Sportiva Akasha trainers and of course my trusty Suunto Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire.
After a bit more faffing, it was time for some sleep. The alarm was set for 4am…. oh how I love these early starts!!!!
I woke at about 3.30am after an average nights sleep. My first thought was coffee, I need coffee. Trying to do things quietly so not to wake Ryan and Bernard didn’t go so well… In fact I failed miserably!!! When I’m awake EVERYONE is awake! Oops! Necked a coffee, forced down some breakfast, got dressed, made several pre-race visits to the loo and it was time to make the short drive to the start! It was 4.30am, Ryan was alert and on fine form (he’s one of those annoying morning people), Bernard was still snoring in bed and I was a bag of nerves! We arrived at Uriage Park with loads of time to spare so I made a few more trips to the loo. Ryan gave me a pep talk, told me not to faff about in the checkpoints, confirmed which checkpoints he would see me at and sent me on my way. I wedged myself into the starting area, probably in the middle-ish of the field. It was poles and compression as far as the eye could see!!
We had our race briefing (in French) at 5.45am and were off at 6am on the dot! It was a strange start as we looped around the start area. It was like doing a lap of honour at the wrong end of the race! In any case I lapped up the cheers and applause with lots of smiles and high 5’s! I expected Ryan would have gone straight back to bed but to my surprise he was there just before we set off into the darkness of the first big climb. He told me I was 8th lady… it just went in one ear and out the other.
Having spent hours looking at the race profile, I knew the first part of this race was mainly uphill and would probably mean lots of hiking, however I was pleasantly surprised by how many runnable sections there were. The trails were beautiful, a real good mixture in terms of terrain but on the whole not too technical which suited me perfectly. I hiked / ran uphill well, and didn’t seem to have too many people pass me. I kept a good consistent pace on the flatter sections, however, as always it felt like everyone in the race passed me on the downhill!
As we climbed higher the temperature dropped, everyone around me was wrapped up like it was the middle of winter. I felt ok for a while but as the wind picked up I thought it would be sensible to put on my jacket and actually ended up needing gloves too! I was in my element… the weather conditions were perfect for a ginge! I did feel for the poor volunteers though, they looked freezing.
After 21k and over 2000m of ascent we reached Croix de Chamrousse, the first big checkpoint. My plan was in and out as quickly as possible. I knew from past experience I always waste too much time faffing in checkpoints! This wasn’t quite as easy as anticipated. The French seem to love a good checkpoint, everyone has a nice sit down and scoffs loads of meat and cheese… all very civilised. I just wanted some water to top up my Tailwind!! After waiting patiently in line (very British, I know!) , watching everyone else push in the lovely volunteer chatted away to me in French whilst topping up my water bottles. He seemed quite concerned about the fact I hadn’t eaten and I tried to explain in my best french that my magic powder gave me everything I needed! Eventually out of the checkpoint and a few cheers from a lovely family I’d met at the campsite the day before. It then occurred to me I hadn’t seen Ryan. I was sure he’d said he would meet me here but assumed I had got ultra brain and forgotten! Turns out he and Bernard were waiting for 90 minutes in completely the wrong place!!!!
We then had a lovely section of downhill before the climb up to the highest point on the race – Grand Colon (2394m). The last section of this climb was a bit of a beast, very steep with lots loose rock. It was so worth it though, at the top we were in for a treat. We were above the clouds and the view was fantastic ! After a brief moment to admire the view and catch my breath, it was time for the longggg descent! After reaching nearly 2400m, we were working our way down to Saint Nazaire Les Eymes at 290m. All I’m going to say is ouch! There was a checkpoint in between this and what a lovely surprise to see Ryan and Bernard heading towards me. Bernard came bounding towards me as if he hadn’t seen me in months. Ryan was telling me that I’d been between 3rd and 4th position for the majority of the race. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t really noticed passing any other ladies and felt sure some had passed me but he was adamant. I still wasn’t sure to be honest. As I headed into the checkpoint Bernard was almost pulling Ryan’s arm off to follow me, much to everyone’s amusement!
I was pleased to arrive at Saint Nazaire Les Eymes (53k) quicker than I had expected. This was the main checkpoint where we had drop bags. It was also the finishing point for the UT4M Challenge runners. It was beyond busy. I walked in and couldn’t wait to get back out! I grabbed my drop bag which contained the rest of my Tailwind stash, which would see me to the end of the race. I quickly topped up my bottles and then wandered around trying to find the exit! Ryan and Bernard were waiting for me at the exit of the checkpoint, along with Marcus Scotney, who was taking part (and smashing) the UT4M Challenge. Ryan was VERY excited about my position in the race. I had been in 4th at this point but apparently there wasn’t much in it! Of course I wanted to do well and to be in a podium position would have been amazing but I couldn’t quite believe that would be possible. There was still a long way to go.
As I started the next big climb out of the checkpoint I had my first and only real bad patch in the race. Normally I can really push on the uphill but I felt like I had no power and a few guys who I’d been back and forth with all day passed me. They were all trying to push me on, which was lovely. I decided some music would help. As I picked my tunes from Spotify I noticed a text from Ryan telling me I had made up 27 places when leaving the last checkpoint and had only been 2 minutes behind 3rd lady which gave me a little boost. I tried to focus on the tunes and moving forward as quickly as possible. My tunes were awesome… I mean who doesn’t still love Clubland and Alex K remixes?! 6 days (On The Run) playing as loud as my iPhone would allow and I was finally feeling better. Even having a little sing along.. which I’m sure my fellow runners loved! At last we reached Habert de Chamechaude (1570m), it was here I saw Paula, who I now realised was the lady I had been back and forth with all day. She still look very sprightly and relaxed. I topped up my Tailwind and left quickly in 3rd place.
The next climb up to Chamechaude was tough, again lots of loose rock which kept falling down the trail as other runners passed above me. As I climbed I saw runners coming the other way, there were lots of ‘allez allez’ and ‘bonne courage’ but I was a bit confused and then the penny dropped… I had to come back down this way too! That would be interesting…
I was dreadful, I mean worse than dreadful, I let so many people pass me. They looked effortless and fearless. I took my time putting all my concentration into where I placed my feet and was desperately trying not to fall over. It was at this point Paula came flying past me, she made it look so easy! As she flew past, she gave me an encouraging ‘allez Emma’. At that point I accepted Paula was much quicker then me on the downhill and if I had any chance of a podium finish I needed to push hard on the uphill and flatter sections knowing that the race ended with a massive stretch of downhill. Having said that we were now on a 1000m downhill section into Le Sappy En Chartreuse. I was delighted to discover that it wasn’t all technical rocky downhill and I managed to get up to the dizzy heights of 10 minute miles! My dodgy knee was really starting to scream at this point but I ignored it and focussed on getting to the checkpoint where I knew Ryan and Bernard would be waiting. As I approached the checkpoint Ryan was waiting and jogged in with me. He was allowed into the checkpoint and was definitely rushing me. Shoving pre-made bottles of Tailwind in my pack and practically pushing me back out on to the trail. Then I realised why. Paula was still in the checkpoint. I needed to change into a long-sleeved top as it had become noticeably cooler. I changed quickly and left the checkpoint. Ryan told me there was one small climb left and then all downhill to the finish. I’m not sure if this was good news or bad news. Ryan had run on this part of the course and reassured me it was an ‘easy’ climb and no worse than anything in Hamsterley Forest (our local training ground in the UK). HE LIED!!!!!!
I finally arrived Fort du Saint Eynard, the sun was setting and the views over Grenoble were incredible. It seemed soooo far away. I knew it was going to be a very long descent, another 1000m+ of downhill. I hadn’t yet been overtaken by Paula and started to wonder if I could actually finish in a podium spot in a mountain ultra?! It was around 3k until the next checkpoint and the last point at which I’d see Ryan before the finish. It was here I needed to have a word with myself. Yes I was hurting, yes I was tired but so what, everyone feels that way at this stage of the race. With that thought in mind I started the descent and ran as fast as my little legs would take me.
I arrived at the checkpoint and quickly topped up one bottle to get me to the finish. Another pep talk from Ryan who looked quite irritated as I stood having a little chat in the checkpoint (oops) and I was on my way back towards the trail. Ryan told me to get a move on and ‘get this shit done’. I left before Paula arrived but knew I needed to keep moving at a good pace otherwise she would definitely catch me! The headtorch was back on by this point so it was head down and music on for the last 10k.
I didn’t see anyone else for ages! You can see headtorches from miles away and I didn’t see anything. I started to panic I’d gone the wrong way and kept going back on myself to make sure I was going the right way. In hindsight this was totally stupid, there was really no other way I could have gone! Stupid ultra brain! Just before I got to Bastille I noticed a headtorch behind me, closing the gap between us VERY quickly. Damn, she caught me. Oh well, I tried my best and 4th place was still better than I could have imagined pre-race! Except, as they got a little closer I could hear a little voice calling out to me ‘don’t worry Emma, it’s just me’… Kurt a lovely guy from Belgium who I’d seen / ran with a few times throughout the day. Kurt knew the course and told me what to expect until the end. I was thankful he had pre-warned me about the steps we encountered, there were bloody loads of them and they hurt ALOT! That had given me the final boost I needed. With 5km to go I was in 3rd place, I just needed to hold on a bit longer.
We finally stopped descending as I arrived into Grenoble. It is a huge and wonderful city and arriving at almost 10pm on a Saturday night meant lots of drunken support and cheers, which was amazing. I always find that as a female in ultra running, you get so much support from onlookers and this was on another level. Bars and restaurants erupted as I went past and the atmosphere was brilliant. I was so tired and desperate to stop running but how could I? There were so many people around and it was flat?! No excuses – I kept running, carefully following the yellow line which guided me to the finish and there it was the finishing arch, finally in sight. I’d been able to hear the noise from the finish area for about 10k but now I could actually see it. With one last glance behind me, I ran as fast as I could down the finishing stretch to finish in 16 hours and 5 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. There were lots of hugs and a few tears from me as I sat down smiling from ear to ear. I’d actually done it, finished in a podium position. Ecstatic doesn’t even come close.
THE STATS:- 527 STARTERS, 474 FINISHERS, 50 FEMALE FINISHERS, FINISHED 65TH OVERALL, 3RD FEMALE AND 2ND SENIOR FEMALE. Full results here.
Huge thanks as always to Ryan for supporting me and believing in me and of course the wonderful folks as Beta Outdoors Sports for their support.
I highly recommend this race, the organisation is exceptional and there were so many voluteers who couldn’t do enough for you. The course is beautiful and well marked. Grenoble is an amazing city to visit and you really can enjoy the best of both worlds – city fun and gorgeous mountain trails.! If anyone fancies giving it a go next year, give me a shout, I’m happy to tell you more about it 🙂