Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2015

It has been a week since I finished the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  My body is quickly recovering and the realization of my finish is slowly settling in.  Over the course of the past week I’ve wondered how to share my UTMB experience.  I probably won’t get this right in the first go, but will come back to update and correct this as necessary.

Life has quickly picked up where I left it about two weeks ago.  Work is busy as ever and being home compares very little with being in sunny Chamonix, France or coursing over a 170KM/105Mile 10,000 HM mountain trail.

Visual and physical images still fleet through my mind of running past jagged peaks and tumbling glaciers.  The feel of climbing, climbing, climbing and climbing some more, particularly up that fucking mountain near Bovine in the dark over jumbled boulders, tree roots and mountain streams haunts my thoughts during the day and enters my conscience each night.  The down, down, down of the seemingly never ending, narrow twisting trail to Trient, Vallorcine and ultimately Chamonix – no apparent ending.  I am condemned…

Just shy of 45 hours of heaven and hell.  Two full nights.  105 miles.  10,000 meters or 33,000 feet of elevation change.  More height gain and loss than Mount Everest from sea level.  2500 starters, 1632 finishers.  What an event!  This is my attempt to relay the experience…

I started running trail and ultras in 2008.  Much like my experience running marathons, I stumbled upon the ultra scene by accident.  Following my first 58KM ultra in 2008 I absolutely hated the experience, but much like my first marathon I found a pull to go further, to explore the edge of the possible, the edge of endurance.  Late in 2008 I came across the UTMB on the Internet and was intrigued…  Words like “Chamonix”, “Night Trail” and “Mont Blanc” fell like seed corn on the fertile ground of my ultra running fantasies.  In February 2009 I committed myself to pursuing the UTMB.  I started that year with my first Brocken-Challenge and a series of other ultras in order to train and assemble enough points to register for the 2010 event.  Five years later I’m grateful that the 2010 UTMB ended the way it did.  My attempts in 2013 and 2015 would show that I was woefully physically and mentally unprepared to take on this Olympic Class ultra endurance event.

My UTMB experience in 2013 left a chapter open; a page unturned.  2013 was a DNF that I could not come to terms with.  Had I withdrawn; had I quit; could I have gone on?  The years and comfort of being physically removed from the decision to quit nagged me.  No, those thoughts haunted me and would do so until I got across the finish line in Chamonix in 2015.  I entered the UTMB registration lottery for the 2014 event, but did not gain a spot.  On a fluke I entered again in December 2014 for a spot in 2015 and was honestly surprised when I gained a spot.  By early 2015 I was not excited about my confirmed registration; in fact I was nonchalant to the point of being worried that I would again DNF.  I did look back on my 2014 running year with some confidence as I had finished three separate hundred milers and a mix of other shorter ultras.  Given 2014’s training and racing successes I settled on a similar approach for 2015.  The Hexenstieg in April and back-to-back 100KMs in June/July were critical to my training plan.  Looking back over the months prior to August I could have definitely increased my up and down hill training, but the weekly and monthly long training runs I did were critical to my approach for getting ready for the UTMB.

The first weekend in August 2015 Simone and I traveled to Vallorcine to explore the area and hike the trail network back towards Trient and forwards to Chamonix.  I had not been beyond Champex Lac in 2013 and conducting this terrain walk was critical to my preparation.  Doing so was to pay huge dividends during the 2015 race.  While running the race I was able to rest on the fact that I knew where we were and that the end was in fact approaching.  A clear, personal mental advantage. 

The weeks following our wonderful weekend in Vallorcine leading up to the race were crazy.  I was unable to stay on track with my training plan and had to commit a considerable amount of time to work.  As a result I started my taper a week earlier than I had envisioned.  I was relieved when 24 August arrived and Simone and I headed to Chamonix.  This early arrival afforded us the opportunity to relax, enjoy Savoy and explore just a bit more.

Wednesday morning Simone and I went for a light run towards La Houches.  On the way out of town I ran past a guy that looked a lot like Scott Jurek.  I did a double take and asked Simone to wait for me for a minute.  Hell, that was Scott Jurek!  I doubled back and chatted with him briefly.  He was as personable as he is portrayed in many of the books and articles I’ve read about him.  He immediately focuses away from himself and onto you.  Very nice meeting him and confirming this frame of reference.  That afternoon, thinking that we would get out ahead of the crowd Simone and I walked over to the Chamonix Sport Center to check in to the race.  Much like 2013 we waited in line for an hour to go through check in and inspection of my racing gear.  We ran into Oliver and Andrea while waiting in line.  It was great to see a friendly face and share a bit of mutual trepidation about the race.  With the pain of race check in behind us Simone and I continued our vacation enjoying the sights, sounds, and culinary delights of the High Savoy.

Friday came more quickly than I had anticipated.  My head and thoughts on the UTMB were not where I thought they should have been.  In fact, I was worried that I was being too cavalier about the event.  Simone and I got a nice hike in, in the morning and I spent the remainder of the day chilling and organizing my kit.  We dropped off my drop bag about 1600 and then relaxed on the lawn in front of the Sports Center with several hundred other trailers until about 1700 when I could take the waiting no longer.  From the lawn we moved to the start chute which proved to be an hour of crushed misery waiting on the ground and standing around like cattle.  At 1730 or so the UTMB announcers began to introduce the elite runners and attempted to fire up the crowd.  I was surprised at just how hollow this all seemed.  My take – spare it or try a different approach.  I was bored out of my mind only wanting to start and not at all interested in who the elites were.  From my vantage point we couldn’t see them anyway.  Big whoop!

FINALLY… The waning minutes of 1700 had arrived and we are at the count down to start.  1800 and we are off bordered by thousands of spectators, yelling, screaming and urging us on.  The UTMB start is something phenomenal – the energy of the crowd is enough to carry you out of town.  I was, however worried.  Because of the crowd in the starting chute Simone and I had parted ways almost an hour previously – would I see her again as we head out of town?  I positioned myself on the far left of the race mob in an attempt to at least see some of the extensive crowd that lined the streets.  No sign of Simone.  Chamonix rapidly came to an end and we head out of town.  Suddenly from my right front I heard Simone yell, “Pudi!”.  There she is!  I doubled back and we exchanged a final kiss before I ran off into the evening.  Pure joy!

Headed out of town towards La Houches my pace was way too fast.  My pack didn’t feel right and I was sweating my ass off.  This was not good!  The race mob pushed me forward.  There was no stopping this pace without sacrificing my position and my ability to influence the amount of time I have against the time barrier at St. Gervais.  So many concerns; way too early in this race.  My monkey mind was back with a vengeance and I worked to shut it down…  At least by St. Gervais.

The 13KM between La Houches and St. Gervais brought back so many memories from previous attempts at the UTMB.  It sucked in 2010 and 2011 and was pure bliss in 2013.  While running here I met up with Jin Cau who I had not seen in more than a year.  Jin is an old pro at the UTMB.  While chatting he mentioned that there is one key to successfully running the UTMB and that is “patience”.  I immediately thought of Emerson’s view to this, “Adopt the pace of nature her secret is patience.”  Jin, not certain if you’re reading this, but thanks for sharing this bit of wisdom.  I carried it with me and employed it on a number of occasions over the course of this year’s UTMB.  After successfully completing the “teaser” of a terrain feature between La Houches and St. Gervais I was able to roll into the aid station at St. Gervais with about 65 minute’s buffer before the cut off barrier.

After grabbing a bite to eat (sausage, cheese, bread and soup) I rolled out of St. Gervais feeling very solid.  My head was in the right place and I felt strong after the aggressive start we had made.  Headed to Les Contamines the running field was still crowded, but not as jam packed as the first 21KM.  The village of Les Contamines and the spirit of the spectators highlight the impact of this course on the local region.  I got into Les Contamines with a 73 minute buffer before the cutoff.  Rolling in, it seemed that the entire village was out on the town.  In the middle of town they had set up a fest-like aid station.  Bon Scott and AC/DC were pelting out “Whole Lotta Rosie” to the point where you could not carry on a conversation without yelling.  It does not get much better than this!  Les Contamines ROCKED!  From here we headed out for the 19KM climb through La Balme to one of my favorite points on the course, Croix du Bonhomme.  Croix du Bonhomme is the first serious climb of the course.  Our trip over the Croix this evening was surreal with a moon that was almost full.  The moonlight was so bright that you almost did not need a headlamp; and you could not make out the stars.  Instead of the stars you could look back down below and see thousands of trailers’ headlamps stretching back at least four or five kilometers.  Breathtaking!

Movement over the course from Croix du Bonhomme through Les Chapieux, Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal was largely uneventful.  Uniquely we followed a course I was not familiar with around Col des Pyramides Calcaires.  In the past we have rapidly progressed down from Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal.  In 2015 we were forced to move about 500m down and then course back up the Col des Pyramides Calcaires over large talus and scree fields.  I would like to hike back into this area as it marks the frontier between France and Italy and there are remains of field fortifications, obstacles and beaten down concertina wire.  I don’t know if these fortifications were French or Italian and if they were established during the First World War or during the Fascist period in Italy.  It was surreal hiking through this area.  I rolled into Lac Combal with almost a two hour buffer before the cut off.  I took a few minutes to re-supply my water and to eat (sausage, cheese, bread and soup).

From Lac Combal we moved up our fifth climb to Arrete du Mont-Favre.  Moving up this mountain the sun’s rays were finally able to reach us bringing a little life into our legs and spirits.  After summiting at Arrete du Mont-Favre we began our “fast” decent down towards Courmayeur.  The winding trail here coursed through a pine forest.  I had the horrible memories from 2013 about this section of trail as the air was permeated with moon dust like powder from the beat down the trail took.  This year the trail surface was moister and remained excellent to run on. 

Almost two hours ahead of the barrier I felt great rolling into Courmayeur.  As I approached town I mentally searched for the feeling of despair I experienced in 2013; thankfully they were not to be found this year.  I picked up my drop bag and decided to enjoy a somewhat longer break.  I moved into the Sport Center and upon entering was struck by the heat and stink in the main hall.  The aid station and all of its resources were overwhelmed with trailers, their supporters and volunteers.  There was no seating and lines for everything.  I pushed my way through to a far corner and secured a chair from someone that was leaving.  Working through my aid station priorities I dumped trash, re-supplied from my drop bag, stood in line for the restroom and took off my shoes and socks.  The line for food in Courmayeur was occupied by at least seventy-five people.  No chow from there.  Instead I ate two cliff bars and downed two liquid baby food meals I had in my drop bag.  This meal was probably about 700 calories!  As I was getting ready to leave Oliver surprised me by sitting down right next to me.  Oliver is a much stronger runner than I and I thought that he would have been at least a couple of hours ahead of me.  He indicated that he was having a hard time with the down hills.  His motivation was spot on with him saying that he would stay in the race until the race pulled him off of the course.  I wished Oliver all the best and headed out of the Sport Center after about a forty-five minute break.  Time to recapture some of that lost buffer!

The climb (800m over a very short distance) out of Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone was the opposite experience of the pine forest headed into Courmayeur.  It was hot with very little wind moving through the low hanging trees.  I watched four trailers turn around and head back to Courmayeur to quit.  Watching this happen is a mental kick in the Jimmy!  Working to turn away from that mental let down I focused on getting by butt up this climb and to Berone.  Finally!  Bertone was pleasant; the sun was shining and I felt pretty darn good.  After a short break to refill my water bottles I headed forward to Refuge Bonatti.  This portion of the course is relatively flat and a good time to regain strength and make up time on your barrier buffer.  Following Bonatti there is a short, sharp piece of downhill that at the time I could have done without, but having been here in 2013 I knew that it took us into Arnuva.  Arnuva is a significant aid station as it is the last prior to assaulting the highest summit of the course at Grand Col Ferret.  I arrived at Arnuva with an hour and ten minute buffer before the barrier.  I re-supplied water and had to do some foot maintenance as hot spots were developing on both of my feet.  After removing my shoes and socks I found that I had no blisters, but had a strange rather large hot spot developing on both heels.  I applied moleskin to each and took off.

The assault on Grand Col Ferret reflects the highest climb of the UTMB course.  The push from Arnuva to the summit consists of about seven kilometers, but reflects an elevation change of almost 900 meters.  The climb up was demanding and although at this time of the early evening it was not too hot I almost ran out of water.  Grand Col Ferret is where I literally crushed my 2013 race.  That year I hiked up largely using my toes and in doing so wasted my shins.  This year I forced myself to remain flat footed going up.  The summit was almost a surprise.  Once there I restocked on water and headed out for the 1100 meter decent down to La Fouly.

The passage from the summit of Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly, although down hill is no walk in the park.  Wanting to recapture some buffer time I hiked and ran much of this stretch.  The later half of this section was the first time I witnessed runners asleep on the side of the trail.  The push to La Fouly is a grind.  The aid station arrives when you transition from trail to hard ball road.  At the hard ball you are directed onto its course and move into the town of La Fouly.  In 2013 I arrived here in a miserable state with the rain just starting.  In 2015 it was dusk and mild.  I moved into town and arrived at the aid station almost an hour and a half before the cut off time.  I took a short eighteen minute break to restock on water and to eat.  I had a couple of bowls of soup, some fruit and more sausage, cheese and bread.  Given the heat of the aid station tent and crush of runners heading back out was miserably cold.  Push!  Next stop…  Champex-Lac.

The course segment between La Fouly and Champex-Lac is fourteen kilometers.  The UTMB profile chart shows the course of the race moving down from about 1800 meters to 1000 meters and back up to 1500 meters.  It took me right at four hours to transit this suck fest of trail, forest, farm and country lanes.  To make matters somewhat more difficult I carried the weight of my 2013 UTMB decision which was made at this point through this section.  Fortunately, until we actually started climbing again, much of this section is a blacked out portion for me.  I was probably sleep-hiking.  In Praz de Fort I was treated to a delicious cup of coffee by a family that had set up a stand in their front yard.  Heaven!  Going back up to Champex-Lac I looked for and passed the picnic bench where I had made my 2013 decision.    There were paths through the forest here that as I passed through them this year I realized that I had not only dreamed of this place I had actually been here before.  This knowledge gave me strength to continue the climb up to Champex-Lac and although the aid station seemed as if it would never arrive, suddenly it appeared, right in front of me.  I had arrived with almost a three hour buffer before the cut off.  Fantastic!  Time for a break, something to eat and lots of caffeine.

Like 2013 the aid station at Champex-Lac was jammed packed with people eating, drinking, sleeping and suffering.  Champex-Lac is the place where the highest percentages of runners drop from the UTMB.  My focus was to re-stock my supplies, eat, drink coffee and get out.  I had a bowl of soup, some Coke and bread and noticed that they were serving pasta with meat sauce – had to have some of that.  I approached the volunteers serving this meal from heaven and was served a bowl.  One of the volunteers asked me if I’d like cheese on my pasta and I told them of course.  My thoughts, “This is going to be delicious!  Now to grab another Coke and to quickly eat.”  While grabbing a Coke I noticed a horrible smell, but blamed it on myself thinking that it was my body odor.  I went and sat down with this delicious plate of pasta just under my chin and prepared to dig in.  Gawd!  What an awful smell.  What the hell is that?  The only way I stink like that is if I’ve soiled myself.  No way!  As it turns out, that delicious cheese that the volunteer so graciously applied to my pasta was not Parmesan, but “Frumunda”.  (Never heard of Frumunda?  Say it out loud and you’ll recognize it.)  I almost threw up it stank and tasted so badly.  None of that for me.  I downed my Coke, threw the pasta away and left the aid station.  Off into the unknown…

Heading out of town I met up with Girish an Indian runner that is a professor of Human Resources at the Catholic University in Seoul, Korea.  Fortunately, he liked to talk and liked to run so he was able to help keep me awake as we worked our way into the depth of the second night.  We chatted for some time until I had to take a bio break.  After my short break the trail took us back up to the place that after reading in so many reports I dreaded, Bovine.  This part of the course is the real “gut check” as the trail here if it can be characterized as a trail is extremely difficult to negotiate.  The course moves over foot grabbing roots; is strewn with knee-high stones, talus and scree and includes hip high walls that must be negotiated over.  These obstacles are further enhanced by the six to seven hundred meters in elevation change that characterize this climb.  As you progress up the mountain to La Giete conditions only get worse with multiple stream crossings that must be jumped and climbed across as well as table sized rocks that are at times covered with water or moss. 

During the movement near Bovine  I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath, wait to negotiate yet another obstacle, or pause for the person in front of me to negotiate something.  Suddenly a woman (I think that it was a woman.  Yes, it was a striking Japanese woman with pitch black hair.) bounded past me dressed in a yellow karate outfit wearing a broad black belt.  What the hell!  My initial thought – “Where did she get the strength to move like that in this terrain and she’s got real balls wearing a karate outfit like that for the UTMB? Wow!  She looks a little ridiculous running around in the mountains of Bovine in a yellow karate outfit.  That yellow was a good safety call though...  Anyway, focus, breath and move over these damn rocks.”  I continued to move forward and doing something I had told myself not to do because it’s like looking at your watch when you’re waiting on something; I looked up to see how much further we had only to find that the mountain continued almost straight up.  Fuck!  The next set of headlamps was just over my head as if walking on the next floor up.  There are more people curled up on the side of the trail here – wasted and sleeping including Girish my friend from earlier.  I refused to allow myself to succumb to the temptation as I couldn’t face the fight with the cold that was bound to come following such a trail nap.

I didn’t really register summiting above Trient and the transition to following the maddening trails downhill.  I do recall passing the Japanese Karate woman again.  She was standing besides the trail cleaning her glasses.  I didn’t recall seeing here wearing glasses the first time I saw her.  She does have a black belt though and is wearing that insane yellow outfit.  Devo!  I’m loosing my mind and hallucinating like a son-of-a-bitch.

We passed through a café garden where two volunteers cheered us on.  They told us that this was not the aid station, but we didn’t have too far to go into the valley.  “Allez, Allez, Allez!”  Forgive me, but I’m not certain I can hear or speak those words at this time of day.  No stopping, I wanted to get down to Trient, get something to eat and continue moving forward.  As if it would never arrive I found myself finally standing in the aid station in Trient.  I made it in with a good two hour buffer before the barrier, but was droning hard.  It was here that I met up with Elaine A.  Thankfully her fiancée took charge of both of us; directed us through the aid station and back out onto the course.  Both of us were hurting on sleep and without Tom’s push would have likely stood around the aid station for much too long.

Elaine and I busted out towards Vallorcine.  I led the climbs and she led the downhills.  Super team work going into the finish of this race.  The hotspots I had identified back in Arnuva had calmed on my right foot, but had developed into a monster blister on my left.  The entire foot from mid-foot to my heal was one giant blister.  No issues going up hill, but down hill was a nightmare.  You don’t die from blisters, but they certainly can raid on your parade.  Focus!  I centered on chatting with Elaine about running and on seeing Simone in Vallorcine.

Above Vallorcine I encouraged Elaine to take off.  She was super strong on the downhills and by this time the sun was coming out and I just needed an opportunity to gut through getting down off of this mountain.  I was glad that Simone and I had hiked here earlier in August as I knew where we were and could judge how much more suck I needed to push through to get to the aid station.  Running slightly later than I had anticipated I arrived in Vallorcine at 0924 and was all smiles as Simone was there waving and cheering me on.  A visit like this is a two edged sword.  I wanted to spend some time with Simone, but needed to push onwards to finish this thing.  We spent a total of 22 minutes together and I was off again into the cold headed to Le Tete aux Vents (supposedly the last climb which turned out to be bullshit).

From a climbing perspective the course trail between Vallorcine and Col de Montets was relatively mild, but I froze my ass off the entire way as it path lies in a valley where the sun had not yet arrived.  At Col de Montets I took another short bio break in the fixed facility there before attacking the final major climb up to Le Tete aux Vents.  As I began this climb I began loosing touch with both my physical and mental capacities.  By this point in the race I had not eaten a full meal in two days and had been surviving on the limited food available in the aid stations, gels, energy bars and junk food.  This was not a good place to be mentally and physically – my tank was running on empty.  This was the only time I was really concerned with my well being and ability to move forward.  To fight through this I increased the number of gels and energy bars I was consuming and hoped for the best to get this thing wrapped up.  The course distance between Vallorcine and Chamonix was only 19KM, it would have been a pity to waste this all knowing the finish line was so damn close.

At the summit above Le Tete aux Vents the course was very similar to the rocky path near Bovine.  After summiting we coursed across this talus field to head back down and there below us lay Chamonix.  Way below us…  Shit!  “Are you kidding me!?!  We have got to go back up to Le Tete aux Vents?”  OK, I can do this, but then, we’re certainly headed down to Chamonix.  No, no, no!  Le Tete aux Vents comes and goes and we head back down, to head back up again.  Eat another gel!  Next stop, the aid station at La Flegere which lies atop a ski run.  Shit!  OK, I can do this, but then, we’re certainly headed down…  No, no, no!  The profile chart for the UTMB is somewhat misleading as the scale is way too large to actually see that you must course up and down to get down to Chamonix.  Eat another gel!

Traveling down a ski slope, from which we transitioned to a mountain service road, to finally transition to a serpentine forest trail, all headed down hill I came out of the haze I was in and recognized where we were.  Again, it paid dividends to run and hike this terrain with Simone before the race.  She and I had agreed to meet in this area at the gates of Chamonix.  My thoughts were that maybe she had come a bit further out – it would be great to see her.  Yes, that is her in the distance – I waved and smiled.  No, that’s not her, that woman probably thinks I’m an idiot.  I repeated this routine four times hoping to see Simone and then finally stopped waving and smiling at anyone.  Eat another gel!

There it was, the final left turn back onto hard ball in Chamonix.  From here it’s only a short jog into town and the finish line.  No!  This is not the final turn.  Yes, you’re in Chamonix, but they have somehow re-routed the course to take you weaving through town.  Anger!  No, let it go, you are in Chamonix.  I came around a corner and there in fact was Simone, dressed to run and carrying her water bottle.  Pure joy!  Pure overwhelming joy!  This was it…

We ran along the river that courses from the Sports Center into the heart of town and the finish line.  The atmosphere was insane.  There were thousands of people lining the street yelling and cheering us on as we approached the finish.  Time stood still.  I had, and actually continue to have trouble comprehending that this endeavor was over.  Simone and I crossed the finish line together.  Bliss!  Oliver and Andrea were there as well to welcome us in.  Amazing!  My thanks to them both!

The UTMB has been a journey for me which I have not yet completed.  A week later it is still too early to measure the depth of its impact on me.  The 2015 UTMB was the culmination of a multi-year journey for me.  Since 2009 there have been a number of central characters in this journey that made 2015 possible.  My apologies up front if I’ve overlooked someone, my blood sugar level remains low.  I’ll eat another gel.  I extend much gratitude to Bernie Conradt and Friedbert Isenmann:  Your focus and dedication to finishing this race inspired me to pursue the same.  Christine Lallier:  We’ve been running this thing together since 2010 – thanks for the inspiration and motivational push.  Lutz Kalitzsch:  A damn fine racing partner.  I drew from the experience of our previous events together and your stone cold approach to finishing.  Aschu Grantl:  You’re a sandbagger, but one hell of an inspiration.  Thanks for sharing the insight into our enemies.  And last, but certainly not least, Simone:  You made this all possible. 

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  As I pursued completion of the UTMB I contemplated this view on a number of occasions.  I’m finishing this report up on Sunday afternoon a week after the 2015 race.  A week ago I was not yet finished and could not have imagined doing this race again.  There is however, a desire growing in me…  The UTMB is an incredible emotional and physical adventure.  It may not be next year, or the year after, but I will be back again.  Insanity – it’s a very pleasant place to be.