Thursday, September 26, 2013

UTMB 2013

So here it is…  Finally a report on my attempt at the 2013 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).  My apologies to any of you faithful readers that have perhaps looked forward to this post.  As you may imagine, things have been a bit busy since the last weekend in August 2013.

DID NOT FINISH (DNF)…  Those three words characterize the results of my efforts in the 2013 UTMB this year.  Those three words mean many things to those that pursue the sport of marathoning and ultra-marathoning.  In most cases you put your head down and walk away in shame.  They echo failure, defeat and in some cases down right depression.  I’m not buying into the negative connotations and have set my sights on crashing back into the spectacularly wonderful event that the UTMB is as quickly as possible.  But, I’m jumping way ahead…

The UTMB is a single stage mountain ultramarathon that takes place in the Alps, across France, Italy and Switzerland.  The course distance is 166KM or a little over 100 miles with a total elevation gain of 10,000 meters or 32,808 feet.  It is widely regarded as the most difficult foot race in Europe.  In order to take part runners must qualify on a points scale determined by the UTMB organizing staff and become lucky enough to be drawn in the registration lottery to take part.  The running field is limited to 2300 registered runners.  The North Face, the commercial sponsor, and the organizers typically add an additional 200 to 300 professional and VIP runners to this field taking the total running field to 2500.

The UTMB follows a loop course around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and the European Union. The course traverses what I consider a dreamscape of high Alpine mountain trails through the Haute-Savoie Département in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France, northwestern Italy and southwestern Switzerland.  To read into my description that this is simply a hiking trail loop around Mont Blanc you might be misled to believe that you are running through a valley around “The White Lady”.  Easy day!  Right?  WRONG!  UTMB runners climb and descend ten mountain summits that each average 2185 meters or 7168 feet while traveling over improved, unimproved and technical trail.  The highest and seventh summit, Grand Col Ferret is at 2537 meters or 8323 feet.  These are the Alps and they aren’t playing around!

Given the size and logistics of the UTMB, The North Face and its organizers put on a very good show.  That said the UTMB is a commercial, high visibility, super hyped event.  It is about marketing, sales and air time.  This atmosphere and focus is another summit I face when I consider the UTMB.  If you can get over this and embrace the beauty of the Haute-Savoie and the camaraderie of the trail, the UTMB is a spectacular event and opportunity.

This initial report will describe for you the event and the environment.  I will hold off on sharing the lessons learned and my way ahead with the UTMB for another post or two..

Leading into the UTMB we scheduled six days of leave and arrived in Chamonix on 28 August.  We made our hotel accommodations immediately following my confirmation that I had a race slot with the Hôtel Hermitage in Chamonix.  Selection of the Hermitage was perfect as it’s a lovely hotel with easy parking and within minutes of the center of Chamonix.  The weather in Chamonix was uniquely spectacular this year with blue skies, sunshine and mild temperatures.  We spent Wednesday and Thursday relaxing, exploring Chamonix and enjoying the weather.

I checked into race headquarters Thursday morning.  Unlike past years there was a long line going into in-process the race.  We wound up waiting over an hour to finally get in.  The upside of this wait was a very well organized check-in process where in the past check-in and inspection of your kit was helter-skelter.  This was actually a positive trade off as compared to previous years.  We had planned to purchase a bus ticket so that Simone could visit with me at the half-way point in Courmayeur.  At check-in the line was simply too long with the same holding true on Friday morning.  Honestly the price of race transportation was simply outrageous.  It was organized at a flat rate of 26 Euro per person.  This rate would allow a traveler to visit one or all of the accessible check points.  This is super if you have guests or supporters that want to visit each site, but ridiculous if you only want to visit one.  The Organizers had offered the opportunity to pre-order/pre-pay for transportation via their web site prior to the race.  I’m still uncertain of the merit of doing so.  Those that had done so were still required to check-in with the transportation coordinator and pick up their tickets – an hour wait at best.

Thursday evening we had dinner with a running acquaintance, Geert Ceuppens.  It was great to break bread with him; get caught up and blow some nervous steam off about the race.  Geert had a fantastic race finishing in 36:43!

Friday morning dawned again with blue skies.  We took it easy most of the day with a picnic lunch in the hotel garden.  After lunch I slipped away to organize my kit and thoughts.  We headed out to the drop bag drop off and race start area about an hour and half before the gun.  Doing so afforded me a spot mid-field in the starting chute.  I recommend not waiting to get to the starting area as it fills very quickly.

Following almost an hour of French motivational speeches and silly attempts at firing up the runners we started at 1630.  The start of the UTMB was crowded and characterized by throngs of spectators and my urgent requirement to pee.  (I had consumed almost a liter and a half of water sitting under the sun while waiting to go.)  I ran the first couple of kilometers focused on getting out of town and away from so many people.  In doing so I got to see Simone’s smiling face one last time at a café we had visited the day prior.  Finally, the crowds thinned and I was able to pull over in between two front yards and answer nature’s call.  YES!

The first eight kilometers out of Chamonix to Les Houches were crowded.  I was surrounded by excited French, Italian and Spanish runners.  Geert and I ran together and chatted a bit, but then became separated because of the crowd.  Upon arriving at Les Houches I grabbed a cup of water and kept moving in an effort to add time to my cut off buffer.  Our next objective, Le Délevret was our first taste of what awaited us “hill” wise.    I rocked down the backside of Le Délevret.  It felt great to be running, the weather was perfect and the ski slope.

Arriving into Saint-Gervais was fantastic!  It seemed as if the entire town was out on the streets with a lot of music playing and crowds of people screaming “Allez!  Allez!  Allez!”.  Saint-Gervais provided the first opportunity to grab something to eat.  I had some fruit, cheese, salami, a bowl of soup and restocked my water supplies.  Getting ready to head back out I checked the time and found that it had taken me about 2:50 to get into Saint-Gervais – tracking with my goal. 

Our next objective was Les Contamines at kilomenter 30.7.  The trek from Saint-Gervais to Les Contamines was a steady, sometimes tedious climb.  I got into Les Contamines feeling good with a nice hour and twenty minute buffer ahead of the cut off time.  To this point I had been sweating profusely and my shirt was soaked through.  When I arrived at the check point I was hot.  By the time I had, had a bowl of soup and was ready to head out into the night I was freezing.  I broke down and switched from a short sleeve to long sleeve shirt and gloves.  Back out on the trail it took about ten minutes to get warmed up again bringing back cold memories of the 2013 Hexenstieg.

From Les Contamines we maintained our upward climb to Notre Dame de la Gorge and Le Balme.  Headed back into this leg of the race brought back many memories of my 2011 attempt.  Le Balme was a welcome site as I needed to restock fluids and eat a bit.  At Le Balme I had gained an additional ten minutes on my buffer and was moving out with a nice hour and a half lead.  As I prepared my kit to leave Le Balme I thought about the next couple of stages with a bit of anxiety as the going is tough and somewhat technical.

The trek up to Croix du Bonhomme (2329m) was a winding, windy, cold trip.  As I progressed to the summit I was surprised to find that the ambient light had appeared to have intensified.  This illusion was brought on by the old snow patches we crossed working our way across the summit.  I was awestruck by the intensity of the night.  The moon had not yet risen and the night was velvet black.  I have not seen stars like I did on this night since I was a kid growing up in East Texas.  The experience was breathtaking and one that will remain with me for many years.  From Croix du Bonhomme we pressed down and onward to Les Chapiuex.  The passage to les Chapiuex was largely uneventful.  I was in my running “flow” and feeling very strong.  I pulled into les Chapiuex with almost a 2:15 hour buffer which was very motivational. 

The push up to Col de la Seigne was again windy and cold.  My motivation to get up and over was simply to get out of the weather and down the back side.  From Col de la Seigne I approached the check point at Lac Combal with trepidation as this was where Chris and I were pulled from the course in 2011 as we had exceeded the ever changing time buffer.  In 2013 I passed through Lac Combal with a 2:30 hour buffer and took about a twenty minute break to eat, drink and re-cock my kit before pushing on for Courmayeur.  

The trek forward to Courmayeur was a gut check.  I embraced the push up the next summit, the trip back down into Courmayeur simply sucked.  We traveled over a hiking path that is shared with the CCC.  The consistency of the trail was a powder dust that was enshrined by the low lying tree and undergrowth.  I don’t want to complain to “loudly” because I can only imagine what it would have been like had it been raining.  This leg would have been a soupy, pudding that would have sucked even more!  Trust me, I was thrilled to finally arrive at the base of the mountain to get back onto a hard ball country road to make my way to the sports center in Courmayeur.  I didn’t get rid of my dust buggers for at least another thirty-six hours.

I arrived at Courmayeur with almost a three hour buffer which was hard to believe after the suck fest back on the trail.  This check point/rest stop was phenomenally organized with a drop bag delivery system with runners routed into a break area to eat, shower, sleep and reorganize.  I took almost a full hour break and restocked my kit while I ate and guzzled a bottle of Mountain Dew.

The trek from Courmayeur to the Refuge at Bertone was largely uneventful.  I struggled early on with chills brought on by my stop in Courmayeur.  The world is a small place when you consider the people you occasionally run into.  On my way up to Bertone I ran into more than three groups of American retirees that were out hiking.  It was funny to chat with them and even nicer to speak with Texans.  I met a lady from Kilgore Texas of all places making her way up the mountain.  How in the world does that happen!?!  The stop at the Refuge at Bertone was beautiful, but largely uneventful.  I had a couple of cups of coffee and moved on.  

I characterize the leg between Refuge Bertone and the base of the Grand Col Ferret as a grind.  It was not much longer eight kilometers, but it was mental grind which slowly works you down in preparation for the assault onto the Grand Col Ferret, the highest summit of the course at 2537m.  Traveling up the Grand Col Ferret I was at a point where I was simply putting one foot in front of the other.  Head down and go…  It was a long trip up.  By the time I summited I had wished that I’d worn my jacket as a raw wind was honking over this bald mountain peak.  I didn’t stay on the summit for long pushing onwards towards the next objective of La Peule.

Looking back I recognize now that I spent myself on Grand Col Ferret.  While working my way up I relied heavily on my toes as I climbed instead of using my forefoot or entire foot.  This stress fried my shins and brought on the shin splints that would later see me drop at Champex-Lac.  Working towards La Peule and onward to La Fouley was another mental marathon.  This portion of the course is a long slow downhill slug fest.  My quads were exhausted and my shins were getting worse with each step forward. 

Although I had mentally broken the UTMB course down between check points and rest stops this six to eight kilometer leg was horrendous mentally and physically.  I exchanged text messages with Simone and told her that “the wheels were coming off” for me and that I was considering coming off of the course at the next opportunity.  Simone was exceptional, sticking with the party line of staying in the race and not sharing in my pity party.  It took some convincing that I was serious about my shin splints and that she should continue to have an ear to her phone in the event I came in. 

Right or wrong I made the decision to drop at La Fouley.  Right or wrong (I know you don’t decide to drop from a race while racing) I decided to pull out.  Trouble was I couldn’t drop at La Fouley – there was no means of getting back to Chamonix.  Super!  I now needed to push through another eight kilometers (uphill) to Praz de Fort.  Mentally I was prepared to do that and trudged on with many Frenchmen and Spaniards passing me and me passing a number of them as we trudged through the dark undergrowth of this climb.  Approaching Praz de Fort I was relieved to hear voices and see a fire going thinking that a parking lot and way out were right around the next switch back.  Rolling into the check point I was devastated to learn that I could not withdraw at this check point.  In order to do so I’d need to continue on to Champex-Lac, an additional six kilometers on up the mountain.  Sweet!

From Praz de Fort I found that I could climb relatively well, but going down even the smallest elevation required me to switch to a crab like walk; move forward sideways.  This was actually somewhat humorous at the time.  I repeatedly passed and was passed by a female German runner.  We exchanged greetings and condition reports.  She told me that she could not go up hill and I replied that I couldn’t go down.  We continued our passing ritual for the remainder of this leg into Champex-Lac.

At about 22:30 on Saturday night I rolled into Champex-Lac and the craziness that this stop included.  Set in a huge fest tent in the woods, this stop included elements of another race, the PTL.  The tent was nauseatingly hot and super chaotic.  I got something to eat and had a couple of cups of coffee.  I sat drinking coffee across the way from the “Drop” table.  As I sipped my coffee I looked into where I was and thought, “Shit…”