|Have to follow instructions on the signs|
Maybe it is because I don’t have any videos or pictures that I myself took during the race. Or maybe it’s because it was such a grueling physical and mental challenge of a race, but I have been having a hard time coming up with what to write to recap my experience running the Ultra Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). I never had a true goal time for this race like I usually do with some others. Obviously, finishing is a good goal as the race normally has a 65% finishing rate of those that start. But it is helpful to have some idea of time so that you either don’t go too fast and burn out well before the finish or go too slow and wonder how much faster you could have gone if you put more effort into it. It may help to give a short description of the race.
UTMB is a 168 Kilometer (104.4 mile) race that runs counterclockwise beginning in Chamonix, France and circles 168 kilometers around the tallest mountain in Europe – Mont-Blanc (15,781 feet) by going through the Alps in France, Italy, Switzerland, and then finishing back in Chamonix. The race (according to the tracking) gains 32,000 feet and loses the same during the course of the run. The altitude ranges from 2,700 feet above sea level to 8,300 feet. The terrain ranges from asphalt in some parts going through small towns to ridiculous technical rocky alpine trails, but is mostly run on trails. The climbs and descents are very steep and usually technical (rocky, rooty, etc). The race begins at 5:30PM and runners get 46 hours to complete the course. The winner will usually finish in around 20 hours and 20 minutes nowadays. Obviously, with a 5:30PM start, anything over 27-28 hours will force you to put your headlamp on again and run during a second night. For the vast majority of runners, this is the reality. To give you an idea, I finished 309th overall out of 1,578 that ended up finishing. It took me 35:23:48 to finish the race so I finished a little before 5AM on my second night of running. In fact, only 57 runners finished before 8:30PM on Saturday! An interesting breakdown of the finishers: Nearly 35.7% of the finishers this year did so in the last 3 hours of the race. Another 35.6% finished between 38 and 43 hours, averaging about 100 runners each hour. So about 71% of all the runners that finished the race, did so in OVER 38 hours! You are required to carry a certain amount of specific gear because we are running over mountain passes and if bad weather or an emergency situation occurred, it is easy to die if you don’t have the proper emergency equipment (warm waterproof clothing, emergency blanket, stock of food and water, etc.). You can see the mandatory gear list here. http://www.ultratrailmb.com/page/143/Equipment_advices.html
So because I had never done something this difficult, I wasn’t sure exactly how “fast” (or slow) I could be expected to finish the race. My fun rule of thumb for races I do is to take what the winners finish in (if they are elite runners – not small town races that elites never race at) and multiply that by 1.5. Then sometimes I’ll add extra time if I am out of my element, high altitude or a course I know is much harder for the everyday person. I figure that out by looking up race reports people write or looking at some people’s times and comparing it to other races that I have done. My research here led me to believe that I should be able to finish in under 36 hours. For this race, that is averaging a 20:41 minute mile including any stops along the way. Speaking of stops along the way, a strategy that it seems many Europeans took with this race was to sleep. There are three aid stations on the course that have extra cots set up to allow runners to get some rest. There are certain rules set up for that but I don’t know the specifics. You could also rest at a medical aid stop as long as no one needed the cot for treatment. Or, you could do what I saw others runners do which is to just sleep on the grass or on a large boulder on the side of the trail! Basically, it’s a strategy because taking that 1, 2, 3 or more hour break may allow you to move better later in the race. If you take a 3 hour nap at 2AM on Sunday morning, you may feel completely refreshed and be able to run fast during the day once the sun rises. And you certainly can run faster when you have daylight, rather than just a headlamp lighting your way up and down very technical mountain terrain. But my own strategy is always to keep moving forward. I know that once the sun comes up I can usually run well. So if I sleep, I’ll just be further back before I can run well again. Or, maybe I’ll finish the race before the sun comes up and being done quicker without sleep is better than being done slower with sleep in my opinion.
The race has been notorious lately for having bad weather. In 2010, the race was stopped midway through then restarted the next morning because of dangerous conditions. In 2011 the race was delayed by 5 hours because of very harsh rain, snow, and wind. In 2012 the race was shortened to 100K because of extremely dangerous snow conditions on many of the mountains. 2013 had perfect weather. I was looking at the weather forecast from multiple meteorological sources the week leading up to the race. It started out saying rain Friday through Sunday. Then on Tuesday, it rained heavily for about 12 hours or more but the forecast for the race turned to just rain Friday and no rain Saturday. It basically stayed that way up until race day and the organizers were comfortable with those forecasts and planned to run the race with no changes.
So now for the recap. Evening race starts are still weird. I tried to stay up a little later, closer to midnight or later so that hopefully I could get at least 9-10 hours of sleep and be less tired during the race. I got about 9 hours of somewhat restful sleep. After breakfast of scrambled eggs and a fresh baguette, I walked around here and there but not too much. I looked over the weather forecast again and decided I didn’t need as much very cold weather gear for the first night but packed it in my half-way drop bag in case I thought I may want it for the second night. I put all my gear into separate ziplock baggies and shoved them in my race pack. I stayed in a house with Aleks and 6 other runners (3 ran a 119K version of the race a few days earlier and 4 of us were running UTMB). We all were ready to head to the start at around 4:45PM. However, I had a feeling I didn’t pack my thin running tights and when I was 50 feet outside the house, I checked my pack to make sure and they weren’t there (and they were required gear which means if they did a random check for it, I could be disqualified from the race for not having it). Turns out I left them on a chair outside drying from being washed the day before. Disaster #1 averted. I catch up to the group and we walk to the bag drop-off for the halfway point in Courmayeur. I take out my small video camera to get the first of many videos when I notice the battery about to die so I hand the camera off to Aleks because I don't have to carry around that dead weight. Then we take a few still photos and head to the start. Chamonix is a small little ski-town and it’s amazing how they can pack the 2,500 runners and spectators there. When we see how far back the line of runners went, we’re shocked. There is no way we can position ourselves correctly for this race. It’s too packed. Keila Merino, one of our housemates and an incredible runner (way, way faster and better runner than I am) sees a small street we can go down to cut into the line of runners instead of lining up in the back. Unfortunately, when we get there, a metal fence about 4.5 feet high is set up. However, we are able to successfully jump over it although Keila did fall. Well it turns out we jumped the fence and were lined up right behind the pros!!! While Keila can hang with them (or at least right behind them) Sky (another amazing runner) and I went back a little behind a tape barrier because we know we didn’t belong that close. I think the other runners appreciated that. With 15 minutes to go before the start, the rain begins. At first, it’s a light drizzle but then it starts coming down hard. Now everyone is getting out their rain jackets. Perfect. . . Soon enough they start counting down each minute before they start playing the UTMB theme song, “Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis. Then they do the 10 second countdown (in French obviously) and we’re off.
|Sky and me walking towards the start|
|Eric (who finished the TDS) pointing at Keila and Juerg|
|Housemates running UTMB (Sky, Keila, Me, Juerg)|
|Aleks' video of the start|
The first 5 miles of the race is essentially flat and on asphalt or very easy wide open trail with a couple small hills to run or walk up. The rain keeps coming down and getting harder. I’m running fast, between 7-8:30 minute miles. In fact, even though we had a 3,000 foot climb and then equal descent on extremely muddy and slippery trail, I was averaging a 12:40 minute/mile pace through the first 13 miles. Sure that doesn’t sound fast but that is a 22 hour finish for this race (good enough for top-10)! The rain alternates from downpour, to light drizzle. Somewhere along the way, I think around mile 7-8 I felt a very slight pain just below my knee. It was more a dull pain than anything but just noticing anything bad, no matter how minimal it is at this early point in the race is never a good sign. Sometimes they work themselves out soon enough and there’s nothing I can do about it now so I just continue on, hoping for the best. I take my rain jacket on and off about 3 times as the rain alternatives from heavy shower to light drizzle. When I get to the first aid station, I just go right through it since I have plenty of water in my pack. Once we get to the first real climb, I take out my Trekking Poles. I don’t put them away until after the race is over. The first climb takes us up Le Delevret, around a 2,500 foot climb and a longer descent. The trail was full of water, mud, and was so slippery that if I didn’t have my poles, I don’t know how I would have made it to the top. Then on the way down, the poles saved me from completely wiping out multiple times because the slippery mud and grass trails were everywhere. There was no avoiding it. In fact, there were a few times where I went slightly off trail because the mud was so deep or slippery that it was safer to go in the taller grass on the side that wasn’t completely worn out by the runners in front of me. I saw many runners fall on this section. Eventually, we get down and it’s time to put the headlamp on.
|Up the first climb in the rain|
|Near the start of the second climb|
The next section is a steady climb where it is possible to run but a fast hike is better for me since it’s still uphill so why waste unnecessary energy to gain not much speed. Then we soon hit the real mountain trail that will take us up to the peak of Croix Bonhomme. This section was when I realized just how hard this race would be. It was still raining at the 31K mark but was starting to lessen. I took off my rain jacket at the aid station, got some hot noodle soup and readied myself for a climb that was just insane. In about 8 miles we climb 4,600 feet, with half of it coming in the last 3 miles. The entire climb, I would keep looking up and see headlamps way up in the distance snaking back and forth the switchbacks up the mountain. I always thought that the furthest I could see was the top. But as I would climb, I would see headlamps further up and away. I would also look behind me to see just how far up I was and the huge line of runners and their headlamps illuminating the way. In my preparation for the race, I had planned for long climbs. I basically told myself that each climb will take 2-3 hours and to just keep moving and don’t worry about it. The climbs will eventually end. This climb lasted 3 hours and we were climbing over some serious rocky territory. In some ways, I’m glad I couldn’t see what it looked like around us in the dark. I don't know if it was getting higher in elevation (above 8,000 feet) or the nearly three hours of climbing, but I was starting to get tired towards the end of the climb. Thankfully, the end of the climb eventually came. The downhill was tricky as well but I was feeling less tired and made it into the next aid station. Right before we go into the aid station they had an inspection point where they checked every runner for their waterproof jacket with a hood and for a cell-phone. That was the only inspection point I saw on the course. Right after that, I passed a Petzl battery change station and figured I might as well get some new batteries into my headlamp as it will mean I will not have to worry about running low in an emergency of my own if it happened later on. After that, I head into the tent, grabbed some food and more hot soup and then listened to some guy say that this course is harder than Hardrock 100. To me, Hardrock 100, a race in Colorado that has a similar elevation profile of this race and a lot of technical running, but takes place at an average altitude of around 11,000 feet I think, sounds much more difficult.
The next section was loooong. It was 15K (9.3 miles) between aid stations that had food/water. It started on a long uphill road section at first before we got into a steeper trail climb. I didn’t recall from the elevation profile that it was supposed to be a long climb but it’s when I realized again that every climb here is long. Even the short ones are as long as some of the longest climbs on other trail races I’ve done. At the top of this climb, I see some sort of booth and realize that this is where we are scanned at Col de la Selgne and enter Italy. The downhill was somewhat runnable but changing from rocky to not rocky and sometimes there were multiple tracks to run on but they would mysteriously end and you’d have to go to the other track next to it which was usually a little higher or lower than the track you're currently on. Some parts were slippery and because it is during the night, it’s just hard to know what’s coming up. Finally, I make it to the next aid station. I grab some more soup and these cut up bars that remind me of Rice Kripsy Treats. They seem to be some rice cereal held together by some type of sugary substance. One bar has chocolate while the other has apricot. They are delicious and I eat them at every aid station I see them. They also had single serving apple sauce which was very refreshing. I decide that this is a good spot to take my 5-hour energy drink. I only use this during a race when I’m feeling tired during an overnight section. It works for me probably because I only use it 2-3 times a year.
This next section had a short gravel section to run before it starts a climb and while running ahead, I catch up to Sky. We chat and she tells me Keila decided to drop out at that aid station we just left. Her knee was hurting her before the race from doing 3 hard 100-mile races in about 6 weeks, with the last one that she did hurting the knee badly only two weeks earlier. And she had one more 100-miler to do the week after UTMB. It’s called the Grand Slam of Ultra Running by doing those four events and she puts UTMB in it as well. Her main focus was finishing the Slam so if she felt trying to finish UTMB would prevent that, she would drop out. I’m amazed that not only did she start, but that she made it to 64K (nearly 40 miles). She’s one tough runner. She would have continued but she would not have been able to drop out until she reached the 77K mark because there is no transportation out from the other aid stations in between, unless you want to pay for a helicopter rescue! So Sky and I chat as we run and then hike uphill. By the time we reach the next aid station, the sun is ever so slowly making its way up the horizon. Sky has to use the restroom so I go on ahead to a 2.5 mile downhill section that loses something like 2,800 feet. This part is so steep and is filled with switchback after switchback. The course has some obvious cuts before some of the switchbacks turn and I decide to take a few of them. I’m glad I took the downhills at “Running with the Devil” hard in preparation for this race because it paid off. I never felt that my quads were hurting or soon to be hurting. I wouldn’t say I took these downhills fast though, so that’s partly a reason my legs felt ok too. Finally, at the bottom I reached Courmayeur where my drop-bag is. I can finally change my muddy socks and see how bad my feet are.
|Nearing the last of the downhill into Courmayeur|
|In the town of Courmayeur|
The Courmayeur aid station is in a school. When I arrive, it’s filled with runners and their crews and there are very few spots that I see where I can sit on a chair or bench and take care of changing clothes and getting prepared for the next half of the race. I finally find a chair next to the wall at the far end. I sit down and begin unpacking my bag and getting things out of the drop bag. Then it’s time to take my shoes and socks off and see how bad things look. My feet are completely waterlogged and trenchfootish. I have a lot of dirt hard packed and stuck in between the creases that resulted from the waterlogging. I have some wetnaps and begin to clean my feet off. Then I spray on some anti-chafing new-skin before putting on new socks. My feet do feel much better. Then I change shirts, replace the batteries in my headlamp, put sunblock on my neck, face, and ears, then seemingly take forever figuring out what I want to take with me and what should go in my drop bag to be picked up after the race. Then I wander around trying to figure out where to go when a security guard tells me in Italian (and points) to go upstairs because I have no idea what he is saying. I enter through the doors to an enormous cafeteria. I grab a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and sit at a table eating and looking at one of the course guide books left on the table and focus on the elevation profile of things to come. I get myself a second helping of pasta after seeing the uphill stretch that is next! Then I fill my pack with water, grab some Pepsi to put in my water bottle which I took from my drop bag and headed out walking on the streets of Courmayeur before shortly heading uphill on streets that lead us to the trail. And up and up we go. I saw a trail sign that said Grand Col Ferret 8 hours. I knew this climb wasn’t to the Col Ferret and that this would be coming along later. The Grand Col Ferret is the highest point on the course and from the aid station on the bottom to the top, climbs about 2,700 feet in 2.7 miles. However, I’m far from that now. So I look at my watch and it says I’ve been running for 14 hours so as long as I get there in 8 hours or 22 hours of running, I’ll be happy, even though the estimate for hiking based on signposts is much, much slower than racing. But it was something for me to focus on to at least know I’m not going to be going even slower than hiking and who knows how long I would spend in aid stations up ahead. Once at the top, the next 12K was basically run along the ridge line, a sort of balcony across the mountain before a short (but really long because everything in this course isn’t short) drop into the aid station before climbing up the Grand Col Ferret.
Unfortunately, this relatively flat section was some of the most painful for me. From the mud and dirt in my shoe, or maybe it was that and something wrong with the socks I put on at Courmayeur, I developed some bad chafing across the top inside part of both feet. I also had some chafing and a blister on a couple toes of my left and right foot. Climbing uphill didn’t seem to bother it much but going downhill or running on flats I felt the pain and it was difficult to ignore. I decided I had to cave in at Arnuva, the aid station before going up to Grand Col Ferret. I asked a volunteer where the medic tent was so I could get treatment for my feet. She said first I must eat and drink and then I can go to the medic tent. Once in the tent, there were many people in there getting various treatments. Getting blisters pooped and feet taped up and physio done on cramped muscles or people just sleeping. I told them my predicament and asked if they could put some bandages over the chafing. They said they could not do that because they thought the bandage may crease while running and cause more blisters. Instead, they rubbed some cream onto the area and I said I wasn’t sure what was causing the chafing; whether it was some dirt in the shoe, or in the sock, or something else. So they put cream on the outside off the sock too. When I put my shoes back on my feet felt better. But I doubted that they would feel better for too long.
I stocked up on what I needed for the 14K section until the next refreshment stop and headed out for the climb up the Grand Col Ferret. One thing is for certain, this climb had fantastic views. I was climbing well and my feet weren’t bothering me. The climb took a while though that was expected. Close to 90 minutes for just 4.4K in distance. To put it in comparison, I can run a 5K in around 19 minutes. When I got to the top, I couldn’t believe it. I was expecting more to climb. It was a bit windy up there and the views were awesome. This is also the border crossing into Swiss territory from Italy. Woohoo! Entering another country! Now came the 10K of running down to the next aid station. This part should have been easy, as it wasn’t very technical and was in the daylight. But my feet were starting to bother me again. I stopped once to put some bandages on my toes. I stopped again to spray some Newskin on my feet. Then I just continued to slowly run down. I don’t remember why but I didn’t stop for long at the next aid station La Fouley. I was in, ate soup and more food, filled up my hydration systems and was out in about 8 minutes, making sure I had enough to get the 14K to the next aid station.
On this 14K journey, the first half or more was downhill which was really a pain for my feet but then it went uphill which I liked. However, I was feeling low on energy towards the end and was wondering where on Earth the aid station was. A few non-runners going the other direction told me different things. The first one told me that once I exit the woods and cross the road the aid station is right up ahead. Another told me I had 1 kilometer to go. After I pass the road, someone else says I have another 1K to go. As I get more frustrated I just keep moving, albeit slowly. Eventually I reach the aid station Lac Champex-Lac.
I took my time at this aid station. Even more than the official time of 30 minutes read. First, my feet were hurting a lot. Second, I was feeling low on energy. Third, I had to use the restroom. So first things first, I get some soup and some pasta. Then I eat some of those Rice Krispy like bars. Then I make my way to the restrooms. There’s one person on line for the three stalls. A couple of minutes later, I can go in but they are out of toilet paper! I have toilet paper in my pack, but my pack is back in the tent and the tent is somewhat chaotic. I have to walk around all the spectators in that area of the tent first before getting to my pack where I have my own toilet paper in case I have to go on the trail. I head back around the spectator area and now there are three people in line! Arrgh! I chat with the person in front of me and it is the announcer for this lively aid station who I spoke with as I entered. He was telling me I was doing a great job and at the time, I was in 391st place and since it was the first time running that race, it was good. So I tell him now that I see him in line for the restroom that I hope he has toilet paper because it was out of stock. He then tells me they just refilled the bathroom. Perfect!!! . . . So I waste 5-10 minutes waiting in line for a bathroom; although it was worth it because I did have to use it. When I finish (they had a real sink in this portable restroom trailer), I head back to my bag and look once more at the food options. I notice some type of dessert pastry. It has tiny blueberries on top of a light pastry dough and some eclair cream. I try one and it was like I just ate a piece of heaven. So I eat three more. I sure do love this Swiss aid station! So after eating a lot, I walk out but really need all my chafing issues taken care of. The medic area is about 200 feet away from the tent so I pop in there and thankfully, it was relatively empty. It was a small room in a small building. One participant was passed out on a cot. Another was getting his feet looked at. I needed some bandages on my neck and lower back because the bandaids I had on weren’t doing the trick any longer. I also wanted them to put a bandage on the top of my left foot because the chafing was getting worse. It took a while, but not that long before the wonderful medic did all of that. She even gave me some additional bandage to take with me in case I needed something else. I also changed the sock on that left foot in case it was something related to that.
So I head on out of the aid station on a fast walking pace to make sure my food is digesting and all the bandages are ok. Lake Champex was beautiful and to my left. I really would have enjoyed dropping out and joining the spectators that were hanging out here in beautiful weather and scenery but by this point, I would have wasted so much time racing that I might as well finish the race, right?! I continue walking for about a mile while we enter the next trail and I notice my left pinky toe is really bothering me. It feels like a blister. So while I find room on a big rock on the side of the trail to take care of this, I decide it’s time to take care of everything I need from my pack right now. I have a huge blister on that toe. So I put a bandaid over it, hoping that takes care of it. I also put a bandaid on the toe next to it just in case since it didn't look great either. I take 3 electrolyte pills and one Tums. I take 2 Tylenol. I take out my iPod shuffle. I drink some Pepsi from my bottle, get my pack back on and start walking for a minute. I notice that the bandaid on my toe is working great, all the bandages from the aid station medic are working perfectly, and I am starting to get a boost from the food from the aid station. So I start running. The course turns to an uphill (which means probably 2 hours of climbing). I start hiking fast. The music is really giving me a mental and physical boost. The rush I’m getting is incredible. Nothing can stop me on this section. I’m passing a lot of people with fervor. The course gets more technical but that isn’t slowing me down. I’m loving it! We then head into this huge open farm on the side of the mountain with a ridiculous amount of cows. Some cows are blocking our trail and we have to go around them. Other cows are jumping on each other. I don’t want to get in the way or on the bad side of these beasts. I also look carefully where I’m running/hiking because where there are many cows, there are many cow pies! We finally start heading downhill. I’m wondering if I can get to the aid station before I will need my headlamp. I pass people and in some parts under the trees, it is a little dark but I don’t want to stop. There is a group of three people in front of me and they are moving at a decent pace. I could pass them but I use this time to control my effort. After maybe 10 minutes, they stop to all put their headlamps on but I keep going. About 5 minutes later, I stop to put on my headlamp. By the time I continue, they almost catch up to me. We head down some really big steps on the trail; big enough that I have to carefully step down because they are pretty big drops between each step. I have a few guys on my tail but when I ask, no one wants to pass. We finally get close to the bottom and have to pass over a massive bridge. It’s a little bouncy but pretty cool to go over. Then we get into town and have roughly one half mile on asphalt to the aid station in the city of Trient.
I tried not to stay too long at this aid station, but apparently I stayed 19 minutes. I think I was just trying to make sure I was fueled and good to go onto this next section. I just had two more climbs and descents to do and I would be done with the race. Just 28K (17.3 miles to go) and 6,000 feet of climbing and even more in descending. How long could that take?! That’s a question I didn’t want an answer for at that time. In fact, I was so tired of racing at this point. It's a little after 9PM at this aid station, so I finally use my phone and I e-mail Aleks and tell her, “I am so sick of this race. 2 more mountains to climb. 18 miles. Hopefully done before 6am“. She responds with a quick word and good luck. I ask where Sky is, hoping that she’s still on the course because it is possible I she passed me when I was in Courmayeur and I never caught up with her. Or she was behind me. Aleks said, “She left Champex-lac at 20:41. She stayed there for almost an hour. Did you nap? I saw that you were there for 30 mins “. No, I didn’t nap. That was me eating, waiting on bathroom lines, and getting my neck, back, and feet taped up in medical aid. After leaving the aid station, it soon turns into the trail and the steep climbing. I’m still doing well passing people on the climbs. This trail is steep and has many quick switchbacks. After a little over an hour, I get near the top and am feeling great about getting there in under two hours. The trail begins to slowly descend at a gradual grade. I turn my headlamp off a few times, stop and stare up at the amazing amount of stars in the clear sky. It was awesome. However, the downhill section then began a series of negative feedback which while not leading to me getting hurt, or DNFing the race, really slowed me down and was physically and mentally destabilizing. I was not out in the open. It was more in the woods but still downhill and then steep. The downhill section coming up looked ridiculous at night. At some point, we cross back into France, although I didn't think of that at all. There were tons of switchbacks but it seemed like there were these big flat rocks placed vertically on the trails and it made navigating this section so difficult. I also figured since it took me a little over an hour to get to the top, it should take me 40 minutes to get down or even less. This downhill seemed never ending. At some point I saw a trail sign that said, “Vallorcine – 2h00”, so 2 hours before reaching Vallorcine, the city with the next aid station. Well a trail sign that said 2 hours for slow hikers means maybe an hour or less for me running. But I was running downhill slow and I’d already be going downhill for at least 10 minutes so how could I still be so far away? This was a big mental blow. The course widened out at some points but only to show me wet, muddy, flooded areas. Then it started going steeply downhill again. Finally, I was able to see some city lights but they were way down below and far out. I just thought it would take another hour to get there. The process continued until we finally exit from the trail but I notice I’m still rather high up. We go around some abandoned building although I notice a big bag of fertilizer up there. Then there were some more switchbacks to get us down lower and I’m able to hear some cowbells being rung by hand (not from being on a cow) and some cheering. Then I get to a path that I can see finally leads me down to the town and aid station. They had some big fires going outside the aid station. After about the same amount of time to go down as it took to go up, even though the downhill distance was shorter and DOWNHILL, I’m exhausted but I go into the aid station in Vallorcine.
Knowing that I have just one more climb to do, I try to settle myself down, make sure I get enough food, water and have some energy for this last climb. I thought I knew what the climb would be like because I hiked up to the final aid station with Aleks and Sky the Wednesday before the race. Although the hike we did from Vallorcine to La Flegere turned out to be the OCC (51K race course), we knew that we would just have to hike up a little higher and come down into the aid station according to the elevation profile. So in my head, it would be a similar hike, just a bit longer. No big deal. At the aid station, I take a 5-hour energy and try some coffee. Although unlike coffee already brewed at other aid stations, here they used instant Nescafe and the volunteer put about a tablespoon in a small cup and filled it 2/3rds with hot water. It was pretty disgusting but I still drank about half of it. Now it’s midnight. I think I have hopefully no more than 5 hours left of the race to do (~11 miles) but hopefully much less than 5. I have two bowls of soup and have bread to dip in the soup. I look around and everyone is exhausted. Before I get more exhausted myself, I e-mail Aleks again letting her know I’m at Vallorcine and then quickly head out before she has a chance to respond. I walk along the flat course which seemed familiar but not exactly the same as the hike Aleks, Sky, and I did on Wednesday. After about 15 minutes, I decide to put some gloves on because my hands were getting cold and I change the batteries in my headlamp to make sure I have good light for the final climb. As I’m doing it some random person comes walking up to me holding a scanner and scans my bib. This has happened a few times during the race where some person scans our race bib that isn’t at an official checkpoint. I don’t know why they do it. Maybe to make sure people aren’t cutting the course, though I’m not sure how that is possible with checkpoints at the top and bottom of mountain passes. So I continue on the gradual incline and then flat section near the main road. I’m then scanned again before I cross the road. As I’m crossing the road, I look up and see where the runners ahead of me are climbing. At this point, I curse and am knocked down a few steps mentally. The section they are having us climb was a section that Aleks and I hiked on Monday, but we came down this part. I knew pretty much what to expect and I wasn’t happy. It is a very steep section of switchbacks. Then it turns into rocky tundra terrain. No use complaining about it though so I just keep cursing and moving forward. I knew where we eventually had to go. At least I thought I did. Once we get to the top, which is the La Tete Aux Vents, the course profile shows us descending a little into the final aid station, La Flegere. So once we finally reach the La Tete Aux Vents, I see lights down below us to the left which I assume is the La Flegere chair lift and the aid station. What is that saying about “assuming” things? For whatever reason, we never head down that way. We keep continuing on forward. Down, up, straight on ridiculously technical (rocky) terrain. At night, and being up for 40 hours or so (racing for over 33 hours) it was incredibly difficult to navigate. And I had absolutely no idea how much further we had to go before reaching the aid station. I couldn’t see or hear anything that looked like it in the distance. I just kept seeing headlamps way out ahead. This was demoralizing. But what am I going to do? I’m on basically a balcony of a mountain. I did think that maybe I could put my warm clothes on, get out my survival blanket and take a nap until daylight? But I honestly just wanted to be done with this race and section. So we keep going. For about 2-3 miles of this section before the aid station, I was following a British person and I had no intentions of passing him. I could have but I was moving slower and slower and getting in worse shape so I just stuck with him as the company was good and we enjoyed complaining to each about how miserable this section was. Then we started heading down some difficult rocky terrain. At some points, because the rocks were slippery, we went down some using our butts instead of stepping or jumping down. A few people passed us the last mile here as we were being more cautious. Finally, I think I see the aid station. The problem is that I see it is a couple hundred feet higher than where we are! How did that happen when the profile looks like we should be descending into this aid station? Well, it is what it is. We climb the last few switchbacks into the aid station and I take a much needed seat. La Flegere. The final aid station. Only 8K (5 miles) more to go.
They had soup at this aid station but I didn’t want any. They did have hot tea. I had two cups. The food choices though were very poor here. Thankfully, they had those Rice Krispy Treat like bars. I ate three of them. Then I sat down and e-mailed Aleks, “Going to leave La Flegere now. Not sure how fast I will be. That last section absolutely destroyed me. I can't believe it was part of the race. Packing my stuff and leaving. Hope the terrain is quick”. So that’s what I did. At about 3:35AM on the second night of running, I got my stuff ready and headed out for the final 5 miles. I recall a runner asking a volunteer in the aid station how far to the finish and she points to the sign that says 8K to Chamonix and she says it should take under an hour. I laugh to myself saying I highly doubt I can do it in under. I’ll be happy in under two hours! So down I go. And just as expected, it’s incredibly easy and fast terrain. Like running on clouds. Well, maybe not. More gnarly terrain and switchbacks to navigate. I’m hurting in a lot of places now. Not muscular soreness. I think things are just being overused like my left shin bothering me, that spot under my right knee (patellar tendinitis) that I got at mile 7ish, my feet are hurting, the blisters and chafing are hurting. I’m heading down and down but I feel like I am not actually moving lower. The town seems so far away. And that may not even be Chamonix but a different one (Argentier?). The only way to get the pain to stop though is to keep pressing forward. Each step forward is one step closer to the finish. Soon I’m done with the switchbacks and seem to be running on a more wide open trail heading in one direction at a gradual decline. But I still don’t know how much more to go. My watch died not long ago and I had no more charge left in my charger. So I couldn’t tell how much further I had to go although it wouldn’t matter. I have to keep going forward. People have been passing me here and there. I don’t really care. I know I’m getting closer. Finally I see an underpass to go through. I hope this is what takes me out of the trail and onto the city streets. It does!!! But how far do I have to run before I get to the center and the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Just keep moving. There are very few spectators out but there are still some people. Whenever I pass them, they applaud and say good job or “Bravo”. I very slowly keep moving at a jog that is probably not much faster than a walk but it’s still faster so I’m not walking. Then I see Aleks! I have no idea what I said here. Probably something like “I can’t wait for this race to be over. How far away is the finish line?!” It wasn’t that far away but they really make us take the indirect way to get there. Aleks says the finish is near the “Super U” market that we have gone to so many times. But I can’t picture it in relation to where I am. So I just follow the course barriers and markings and she runs with me. She asks if I want her to run with me to the finish or get pictures of me finishing. I tell her to get some pictures. So she breaks off and takes a shortcut to the finish line. I remember being here at 5AM on Thursday awaiting one of our housemates, Harald Zundel to finish his race, the TDS (119K). There aren’t many spectators out cheering for runners as they are heading to the finish. There are still some though and even though they are probably there to cheer on their friends, it’s great to hear them cheer for me as I’m coming in to the finish. I wish I could tell you what was going through my head running down that final stretch into the finish line. I really have no idea. It was a huge range of emotions. Most of which was relief. Happiness that I’m done and do not have to go any further (except to pick up my drop bag and walk back to the house!). Joy that I finished a race that I really thought prior to running it, that I had as good a chance as anyone out there to DNF (Did Not Finish). Thrilled to be done in under 36 hours, something I kept in my head all race. Unhappy that I wasn’t able to run faster the last 8K. Not necessarily speed, but just so many things hurting. Annoyed that I had the chafing issues and wondered if I could have finished many hours faster. Just stunned at how tough that last climb was in the dark. Most of all, as mentioned earlier, so happy to be finished.
So after a couple pictures at the finish line, I walk 10 feet to pick up my finishers prizes, a very nice Polartec vest, a UTMB pin and sticker. Wooohoo?! Then I go to the food table to get some post-race recovery food. They basically had similar things to what was at the aid stations. However, they had some recovery drink that I took and also cans of Heineken, which Aleks made me take for a picture (and studies show beer is a good recovery drink so long as you aren’t dehydrated). Then we go walk to bag-drop pickup. The town is spookily quiet. It’s about 5AM. I go in to get my bag and speak to the Frenchman inside about the race and where I’m from. He was telling me I have to do UTMF (Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji) in Japan next. I was telling him that at this moment, the only race I want to do is the one to my bed. After that, it was about a half-mile walk to the house. I took my shoes off outside and somehow made it up the stairs inside. I went to the bathroom to shower and when I took off all of my bandages, I was laughing at how bad everything looked. My feet were a mess. My left pinky toe had an enormous blister. The top of my feet were so scraped and chafed it hurt just looking at them. My back and neck looked bad and to top it off, my arms were sunburned because I forgot to sunblock them. But overall, after 35+ hours of running, I think I looked fine. I was awake and alive, so that’s a win. I was expecting the shower to be more painful than the race but after the initial sting, I was fine. It sure felt incredible to clean up. Then I brushed my teeth. OUCH!!!! 35 hours of eating gels, gummies, energy/snack bars, sweets, and 20 hours of Pepsi are probably not what many dentists would recommend before brushing. Some of my teeth were extremely sensitive and painful. I was pretty sure I had at least two cavities (fast forward a week and I went to the dentist and just had some enamel worn away a bit but no cavities, yet). Then I got dressed into some warm pajama clothes. Aleks brought me some baguette bread with Nutella and cheese (surprisingly good combination) and my icepack and I iced, ate. Then I stretched, and rolled and then I went to bed. It was probably around 6-6:30AM. My sleep was not so restful. Because my body was on fire from the race, most movements hurt and woke me up. Also, since I was so depleted on calories over the course of the race and my body still burning energy as if I’m running, I was hungry after 3 hours. So at about 9:30AM, I got out of bed. I hobbled downstairs to the kitchen to see Juerg and pretty much sat down at the kitchen table in a complete daze. I may have been in this state more or less for a week after the race. Still in disbelief that I did it and I think not sure what to do next. In some ways, I just need to fully soak in the accomplishment. Or focus on something else. Eric came up and Aleks came down and we were then tracking Sky, who was still on course. After breakfast, we went out to watch other runners come in while we waited for Sky. She probably still had another hour to make it so we split up. Juerg and Eric went to a café near the finish while Aleks stayed out cheering and I went inside the dining hall for the athletes to get my finishers banquet meal. It was much needed and a fantastic meal. I go back outside and relax on a makeshift concrete bench next to Aleks and cheer for all the runners coming by. After a while, Aleks sees Sky coming! So I call Juerg and Eric and let them know. Then I hobble / run along with Sky and Aleks and then split away to the finish and await her longer run around before she reaches the finish. After she crosses, gets some pictures and receives her finisher awards, we take some nice finishing pictures together.
|American Rory Bosio finishing in 23:23 and 14th place overall|
|Sky finishing UTMB|
I did not really catch up on sleep on the days following the race. I slept a good 8 hours on Sunday night but had to get up for the shuttle to the airport early enough. I didn't sleep on the plane because I was watching good movies. I got about 8 hours sleep into Tuesday but actually woke up well before my alarm and walked to work. That entire week though I felt pretty sluggish and a few people said I appeared “out of it”, in somewhat of a daze. I’m sure some of it was the overall mental and physical tiredness from the race. Some was probably attributable to finishing that race and just being in a state of strange happiness of accomplishment and disbelief. And finally, some may be just what do I do next? That Friday night following the race I went to bed at 9PM. Saturday, 9:30PM. I cheered on Keila Merino as she couldn’t sleep in like I was doing because she was tackling (and completed) the last leg of the Grand Slam up in the Wasatch Mountains. As for all the race pains, the chafing, the tendinitis in my right patella, etc. The blisters drained and the chafing went away quickly with the application of A&D ointment. My knee though has persisted. I ran Saturday in humid weather and I felt it a little during the run but more so after the run. So I took another week off. I tested running Friday, 2 weeks after the start of UTMB and it felt much better. I ran again Sunday just 6 miles mostly on the gravel bridal path and it felt ok. So now what? Well, I’m still in a state of disbelief. But I have some goals that I may want to give a go sooner rather than later. There is a 100-miler in October (Tesla Hertz 100) local to me (Long Island) that I may go for a Personal Best in, maybe sub-19 hours, although it’s 104 miles because it is 10x 10.4 mile loops. I also want to break 5 hours on the Knickerbocker 60K in Central Park. For me to enter into either of those races, will be a game-time decision based on the weather forecast. Looking into next year, I will enter the Western States and HardRock lotteries. If I get denied from both, I may run Massanutten 100 since I have guaranteed entry from being at the top of this year’s wait list, and completion would give me an entry into the 2016 Western States lottery and 2017 Hardrock lottery.
The UTMB trip was an unbelievable success. In the two weeks since the race I wonder if I could have gone faster if I didn't have the chafing issues. But the fact remains that when you sign up to run UTMB, the odds are the weather will be a major factor in your race. So yes, the 4.5 or so hours of rain to start the race impacted my performance. The trip to Chamonix was one I will never forget and the experience running UTMB will give me more strength to pull from in future races and great memories of perseverance to accomplish some silly race goals. But it certainly could have been worse. However, regardless of how my race turned out, I met and got to know some incredible people during the trip and had fun sharing the adventure with them.