Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - August 28-30, 2015

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races.  I am very pleased to have finished the 2015 UTMB, billed as the premier 100 mile trail race in the world.  With 30,000 feet of ascent and 30,000 feet of descent spread across 25 major climbs and descents,  and 100+ miles of running spread across 3 countries in the Alps, I believe it.  I am happy with the final result, but I feel like I have left unfinished business.

I've never had serious stomach issues while racing.  I've been very proud to say in the past that I have an iron stomach that has served me well as I have watched close friends waylaid through hours of discomfort and wave upon wave of vomiting.  I can eat pretty much anything and everything provided at aid stations.  As a result, I've never had to put too much thought into food and drink choices when planning my race nutrition - just calorie count.  If it looked good, I ate it or drank it, and that has always worked.  Looking back now, I made two very poor choices in the hours leading up to this race.  One, I drank lots of Coke Zero instead of my normal cup of coffee and plenty of Gatorade.  Two, I had Sandra mix my Tailwind at full strength after I had been diluting it by 50% while training all summer.  I don't think my stomach was prepared for the intensity of full strength, already bloated from too much soda.  The two combined to create a gut bomb that heavily influenced my race.

Heeding Michelle Matys' advice, Sandra and I arrived at the starting corral two hours before race time.  I worked very hard to stay calm amidst the ever increasing hoopla and the grandeur of the surrounding Alps, sitting there quietly drinking my soda, and chatting with Andrew from Great Britain who was giving me course tips.  I had placed myself in the corral somewhere around 300 runners back out of 2300 starters.  Michelle had warned me Europeans tend to start the race fast.  I spent the first five miles of low rolling hills holding back and enjoying the strong crowd support that continued well out of Chamonix. I noticed here very early on my stomach was uncomfortable and I was sweating profusely, even with temperatures in the mid 80's.  


Next came a four mile, 2,400 ft climb up Le Delevret.  I could tell within 5 minutes something was very wrong.  I was breathing too hard, panting even, with my heart rate going through the roof on a climb that I should have handled easily after 6 weeks of training in Utah. Sweat was pouring off me at an alarming rate.  I was more than a little concerned that my training had been all for naught and I was ill prepared.  I was increasingly agitated as so many others charged up the hill past me.  Finally I reached the peak and I focused on the 2,500 foot plummet down the other side, soon to be distracted by the sharp pains in my abdomen.  By mile 13 at Saint Gervais, I could tell I was dehydrated and low on sugar.  I spent the next six miles unable to eat or drink due to abdominal discomfort.  I continued to be passed left and right, and my state of mind deteriorated rapidly.  This CAN'T be happening!  I worked too hard this year to be ready.  9 weeks of miserable dieting to lose 24 lbs., 6 weeks away from home to train (not saying Utah wasn't a blast, but that length of time away took a toll on the whole family), months of planning, all to waste?


I saw Sandra for the first time at Les Contamines, mile 19.5.  I was washed out, bonked twice over and vacillating between tears and panic over my poor race start.  By now it was dark, the air cooling, so Sandra helped me change into warm clothes.  I spent well over 30 minutes in the aid station trying to recover and didn't know until much later how close my race came to ending right here.  Sandra told me later, just after I left the aid station, they called 10 minutes to cut off.  Soon after les Contamines, I was roughly 2,200nd out of 2,300 runners as I gave up at least another 100 spots mostly walking, unable to get the mass in my stomach to go away.  As the trail passed through a park, I even sat on a bench, hung my head, and decided whether to continue.  Then, finally, the ship was righted.


At mile 22.5 (I remember the spot very well), out of nowhere, I was overcome with projectile vomiting - all fluids and no solids, with the taste predominantly of Tailwind and Coke.  I quickly tried to resume trotting, making it all of ten feet before spraying the bushes again.  There it was!  The pressure was gone, relief was instant. I felt completely normal within seconds, and moments later, I was running.  Within a half mile, the trail turned upwards for the biggest climb of the race, 4,000+ feet to Croix du bonhomme.  I realized quickly I was climbing well again.  The bloating in my stomach must have put pressure on my lungs and heart making it difficult to breath and causing the other issues.  This for me became the real start of MY Ultra Trail Mont Blanc.


Elated, I pushed the accelerator to the floor and went flat out, charging up the mountain.  I pounded my hiking poles into the ground with vigor, focusing not on the trail but on the runners immediately ahead of me and how long I was going to allow myself before passing them.  All the anger at my poor start was channeled into passing everyone in sight.  Soon the trail narrowed to something wider than single track but not enough to make passing easy.  I had to be patient through long stretches of deep, narrow channels awaiting my next chance to pass.  Frequently, my impatience got the better of me and I took numerous chances, dancing precariously along the edges of bluffs, anxious to pick up the pace.  

I realized how hard I had been working when I reached the top of the pass near 8,000 feet, with temperatures in the mid 30's and 20+ mile per hour winds blowing through, yet drenched in sweat and overheated.  But I did not let up on the 2,800 foot downhill to Les Chapieux that followed.  I threw my feet out in front of me, hopping over rocks, and darting around runners along narrow ledges with abandon.   By now, I had resigned myself to a restricted diet of what I was sure I could keep down without discomfort.  Up until about mile 80, that was water, Coke , and orange slices.  Tailwind was out of the question.  The mere thought of it made me nauseous.  Gels made me gag.  Energy bars got caught in my throat.  None of the food in the aid stations looked appealing besides oranges.  I focused heavily on water and salt intake knowing I had to be down 10-15 lbs. from the start of the race.  I went one stretch of over 9 hours without peeing.  The lack of calories and fluids over the first 25 hours of running took its toll later in the race.


UTMB is all about climbing and descending.  There are no flats. The third major climb was 2,800 feet up to Col de la Seigne.  I hope to go back here in the light someday, because in the dark it was spectacular.  The first couple of miles on gravel road at the bottom, I spent running everything less than 10 degrees in elevation change and speed-walking past other runners on the steeper stuff.  By now, I was in my normal running routine other than being in major calorie deficit.  I was now able to better appreciate the scenery around me.  The full moon was up and the light shone brightly off the snow pack and glacial ice of the surrounding heights.  Near the top, I looked back and saw a chain of hundreds of headlamps snaking their way up the trail.  I almost screamed in (premature) triumph knowing that over the prior two climbs, I had passed nearly every runner those twinkling lights represented.  I turned back down the trail,  recharged and looking to stay in the passing lane.


Soon dawn arrived and the lights rose on spectacular vistas.  For my money, the Italian side of Mont Blanc is even more amazing than the French (and that's saying something).  Thousands of feet above us, massive glaciers hundreds of feet thick, hung near the peaks melting in the summer sun creating waterfalls that cascaded thousands of feet down the mountain face and thundered across the valley to us miles away.  This was a frequent scene from numerous points along the race, I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite as majestic.  Through one stretch, a helicopter was following my little group, shooting video.  I  got fired up from the attention, jumped up on the edge of the trail, and took some rather silly risks to pass the slower runners in front of me, and run freely down the hill.  I can't say I was teetering along a cliff, but the slope was steep enough, I think if I had slipped, it would have been quite some time before I stopped rolling.


The final descent into Courmayeur was brutally steep and I came trotting in at mile 49 a little washed out. This was the next crewed aid station, and Sandra was awaiting me with everything I needed.  I was cognizant that by falling behind early and working so hard to pass so many runners, I had expended far too much energy without even reaching the halfway point. I took some extra time in the aid station again, getting down extra calories, including a small bowl of penne.  I changed into lighter clothes for the heat of the day, kissed Sandra goodbye until Switzerland, and was back on my way, focused on passing the runner immediately ahead of me.


Andrea Risi had told me I would never be alone in this race (2,300 runners is a lot for a trail race), and there would be very little talking; and I found both to be true.  I can't blame the language barrier, since 45% of the runners are French and they should not have an issue conversing.  But it was eerily quiet, even when running in a pack of 20, 30, or even 40 runners almost no one said a word.  The only sound was that of dozens of walking sticks scraping on rock and dirt; and the distant thunder of glacier-fed waterfalls.  I had headphones with me, but never put them on, content to listen to the running water, birdsong, and remain lost in my own thoughts.


The Swiss countryside was enchanting, and there was the frequent sound of cowbells as herds of cattle moved below us.  At one point, I saw a runner 50 yards ahead of us, waylaid by a cow on the narrow trail ahead of him.  He tried to shoo it away, but the cow did not wish to run downhill, as it was very steep.  Finally, the cow moved off the trail and 15 feet uphill and the runner passed on by.  The cow immediately looked to move back down the hill onto the trail, and I raced ahead to get by it.  The cow saw me, and stayed slightly uphill, but began running parallel to me, thinking to get ahead and then down.  I picked up the pace, and was soon laughing aloud as I raced Bessie down the trail, my hiking poles clicking rapidly, and her bell ringing wildly.  After outlasting her in the brief sprint, I was even more bemused to look back a minute later to see several runners standing in place as she now blocked the trail behind me.


The final 30 miles of the race feature 4 climbs of 2,500+ feet each that are just stupid hard that late in a race.  I can't begin to describe how hard these climbs were on jellied legs, with little energy left.  I was dizzy most of the time now, and had resorted to eating Swedish Fish during the climbs to keep my head (mostly) clear.  There were multiple, miles long stretches of climbing that was more rock scramble than run or hike.  Step after step was up 1-2 vertical feet at a time.  In places, I resorted to holding the poles in one hand, and using the other to pull myself up on the rocks.  I saw Sandra 3 times through the end, at Champex, Trient, and Vallorcine; each time, I was increasingly tired and cranky, but increasingly confident, I was going to get this done.   Each time, she fed me, refilled my camelbak, made sure I was warm enough, said the right things, and pushed me back out of the tent.  It is worth noting, Sandra was posting race updates on my Facebook account throughout the race and reading the feedback to me each time I saw her.  You cannot underestimate the positive energy I took from hearing from good friends 5,000 miles away.


By now, I had been running for well over 30 hours, and awake for over 40.  I never felt exceptionally sleep-related tired, and never visually hallucinated; but my mind played weird tricks on me.  On the final climb, I was convinced, I was climbing to save the valor of Utah.  Why, I have no idea.  But when two guys speaking French went by me, I got very angry at myself, I was somehow letting the USA down.  Dammit, I am an American! I am supposed to finish this hill first, and I would surge forward again.  Repeatedly, I told myself I was not thinking straight, there was nothing here but a hill to climb.  And then moments later, "Long Live Utah!"  


Finally I came into the last aid station at La Flegere.  I had a 2,700 foot descent into Chamonix to make in just under 5 miles.  Holy crap, I was here!  I am going to finish!  I left the aid station elated, ready to pound down the final stretch.  Only to find the trail was cruelly rocky, the footing tricky, and for me, nearly unrunnable on uncertain legs.  I slowed to a trot, and soon a fast walk; no longer caring how quickly I finished.  I gritted my teeth in anger as an occasional runner passed by, navigating the terrain far better than me.  My mind continued to play tricks on me, as I imagined the pattern of rocks represented the key to the puzzle of working with one of my clients.  ENOUGH!  It is time to go.  I started back into a trot, and then a run.  I had not come all this way to limp to the finish line.  Now I didn't give a shit if I fell, I ran with reckless abandon, dancing my way through the rocks.  I reined back in every runner who had passed me before flying by with everything I had.  With 2 miles to go, the switchbacks and rocks ended.  The descent was still steep, but with a comparitively smooth, mostly straight trail, I was able to completely let the clutch out.  My next mile was under 8 minutes, and I tried to press even harder.  The trail wound through back streets and finally dumped out on a path along the river.  Spectators were 2-3 deep through town and the cheering grew louder.  The sense of elation at this point was overwhelming.  My lungs burned, and I told myself to slow down before I fell.  There was no one ahead remaining to catch, and certainly, there sure as hell no one going to overtake me from behind.  But as I saw the central square approach, I pumped my arms harder and poured everything I had left into the final turns and through the finish.  


I crossed the finish line and collapsed into a chair immediately.  Sandra was by my side in seconds.  Victory!  I was hours away from my goal time, but this was a total victory.  I have been lucky enough to latch onto the greatest sport 8 years ago and have had tremendous fun along the way.  I've enjoyed some great races, some bad races, I've experienced tremendous highs and lows.  But here I had faced my worst adversity in a race yet, extraordinarily early on the course, and pushed through 90 more miles to post a respectable finish.  I have Good/Better/Best goals for every race.  Good in any hundred miler, especially this one, is to finish. Better is reflective of where I think my training and ability stack up against the course. For UTMB I thought that would be 35 hours.  Best is the goal if all the stars align, everything feels great, and I run lights out.  I came to Chamonix hoping to go sub 30.  38:44 is a far cry from 30, even 35 hours.  But for me, this was an overwhelming success.  I will treasure the comeback evident in the race tracker below for a long time.  I went from somewhere around 2,200nd ( out of 2,300 starters) at vomit time to 550th by the finish, passing runners every remaining Ieg.  I will take that.


As I said, this was the best of races and the worst of races.  I made some silly pre-race choices, for which I paid dearly.  I experienced one of my lowest racing moments at the nadir.  But I beat myself up enough out on the course over this.  It ended up being my best race ever.  I pushed through and finished 111 brutal miles (UTMB can call it 105 if they like, my GPS readings added up to 111, and I measured leg after leg longer than they represented) on the premier 100+ mile trail course in the world in phenomenally beautiful country.  This goes in the books as a W.  But also unfinished business.  I think I can challenge sub 30 here, and I want another shot.   The twins graduate high school next year and summer 2016 is largely spoken for.  But Sandra and I have already started planning the qualifiers for 2017.  I've got 756 days to prepare.  I will be ready.


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