BBC broadcaster Sophie Raworth on running the OCC

·5-min read
Photo credit: Franck Oddoux
Photo credit: Franck Oddoux

High up on a narrow mountain path, a couple of miles above a Swiss valley, I decide to overtake one of the runners in front of me. And I fall. The tuft of grass I put my foot on gives way. I land on one knee. My other leg disappears over the edge. Straight down. There are gasps from the snaking trail of runners behind me. I scramble to my feet. My knee is smarting. There’s blood. I don’t really dare look. Instead, I push on - or rather I am pushed on by the long line of runners behind me, all trying to get to the top of the mountain.

We’ve been on our feet for at least seven hours already. And we’re only halfway through this Alpine race. We had set off from a village in Switzerland early that morning at the start of the OCC, a 35-mile ultra run across the Alps, up and over three mountains into France, with almost 12,000 feet of climbing. The OCC takes its name from the route we are running – from Orsieres via Champex-Lac into Chamonix. It is one of the shortest races in the UTMB’s world famous, week-long festival of trail running. The main event is the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc - a 106-mile journey around Europe’s highest mountain that involves more than 30,000 feet of climbing. That was way too much for me. Though right now I’m beginning to think this ‘shorter’ version might be beyond me too.

It is not easy to train for a mountain marathon when you live in London. Plus, my preparation for this race has been far from ideal. I have been working six days a week at the BBC after taking on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show in January, on top of my usual news bulletin duties. My normal long Sunday runs were replaced by live interviews with politicians. By the time I was off air at 10am, the idea of pulling on my trainers for a three-hour hilly run up Box Hill was too much. But I ploughed on, training when I could, running to and from work most days. I spent August on the Isle of Wight, trailing up and down the coastal paths trying to get some proper elevation into my runs. The furthest I ran was 24 miles right across the island from Bembridge to Freshwater Bay. But I still only clocked up around 3,000 feet of climbing, just a quarter of what I am about to do in the Alps.

So as I stand on the start line with around 1,600 runners (less than a third of them are women and hardly any of them over 50), I am feeling very underprepared. I have hardly even looked at the route. That turns out to be a good thing. If I had known what was in store, I may have found an excuse to stay at sea level. The first few miles are runnable, but I take it easy. I have been in the Alps for less than 24 hours – no time at all for my body to get used to the altitude. Bright blue skies frame snow-covered peaks. Glaciers tumble down from the mountain tops above us. This is the first time I have seen these mountains in summer, and they are spectacular. The heat is rising, almost 30C today. After 5km, the climbing begins and we slow to a steady march. Even the elites have to walk some of the steepest paths. Almost everyone has running poles. Hardly anyone speaks. The air is thinning. I start breathing hard. My heart rate is climbing fast. It’s hitting my 5km race levels and I am only walking. I try not to panic but those first few miles are nerve-wracking. I have no idea how I am going to cope with this race, this terrain, the altitude.

Photo credit: Gabriele Facciotti
Photo credit: Gabriele Facciotti

We pass through small hamlets, cheered on by locals ringing huge Alpine cow bells. We snake up through the trees along narrow zig-zagging paths, strewn with rocks and tree roots – plenty of trip hazards. The valley drops away quickly below us. ‘Shouldn’t you be reading the news?’, asks a British hiker squeezing past us on the path going the other way. ‘It would be a lot easier than this!’ I gasp and keep climbing. The views are spectacular, unreal almost. Though it’s not easy to take it all in when you have to concentrate so hard on your feet. The altitude starts to get me on the steepest path up from the hamlet of Trient to Col de Balme, the border between Switzerland and France, more than 2,000 metres above sea level. It’s almost six miles of climbing and scrambling up paths, at one point so close to a drop that we are told to hold on to a chain to keep us from falling. That’s when I start to get dizzy. My legs tingle. A man stops and is quietly sick behind me. But there’s no way out. No help until the next aid station a couple of miles away. So we press on.

Photo credit: Gabriele Facciotti
Photo credit: Gabriele Facciotti

I lose track of time. It gets dusky on our final climb out of Argentieres. If the climbs are tough, the descents become brutal. Hours of running downhill, constant pounding and my quads are now agony. The final descent through a forest into Chamonix seems interminable. It is dark by now; my head torch is on. And then suddenly we burst out onto tarmac under streetlights and into a carnival atmosphere and a roaring crowd. Big screens beam live footage of the UTMB races. Cafés are packed with people applauding. I run hard despite the pain. A final corner and it is there. The famous UTMB arch and the finish line. I feel sheer relief as I cross it after 11 hours and 54 minutes on the move. There is no medal for our efforts. Nothing to hang on the rack at home. Instead, a baby blue fleece ‘finishers’ gilet that I slip on as I am handed a beer. It has never tasted so good.

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