Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
Slightly rippling in the corner of the apartment shower appeared to be a small cellophane wrapping, clear, with the word “soap” in red print on it. Curious. Must have been left from the previous user, but as I peered closer it disappeared. I stood back. It appeared again. Whoa…what? I blinked my exhausted eyes and shuffled into the room, sat on my bunk, counting the hours I had been on my feet plus awake…33 and…now what was that on the floor? I hadn’t seen that writing before – little messages hand written – one of them for Laurie, and the longer I looked the more there were, and there was that cellophane again. I rubbed my eyes, wondering if there was something with print stuck to my eyeball. The writing on the floor grew, and as I realized I was hallucinating, I wanted to watch and see how much it grew, but then decided it would be in my best interest to lay down and get some much needed sleep.
It all began two days before. I was up at 8 or so, and Amy and I went for coffee and pastries, then back to the room to eat more and prepare for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 100 (UTMB) which was to begin at 4:30 in the afternoon. Although our packs with the required gear (full rain gear, an extra layer of clothing, warm gloves and hat, survival blanket, extra calories, 50 ml of water, bandage, passport, cellphone, 2 working torches with spare batteries) had been checked at race registration the day before, we spent a good two hours fussing about where to put what. We both tried to rest and eat through the day and at 3:00 headed to the Alpina Hotel to gather with the other seeded runners. We mixed, mingled, and at 4:00 the large group made our way to the start line. The closer we got, the tighter the crowd. Most everyone was through when behind me Mike Wolfe stated “Wow, this is the easiest it has ever been to get through” and I came to an absolute impasse. I didn’t know I had it in me to shove and squeeze around the innocent spectators, but somehow I squirmed through. It took Mike still some time and he grinned sheepishly once he was finally through. So much fanfare in the starting corral, and behind us, 2000 runners, all clad in gear that would take them over the 105 miles over the next day or two. Music was blaring, the crowd was cheering, the race director was making many announcements and many invitations to get us dancing and clapping and hands up to the music – the excitement was contagious, the day was sunny and the mountain was glorious. We carried on for 15 or 20 minutes as the time clicked down.
At 4:30 the dam broke and we spilled into the narrow cobblestone street through the iconic village of Chamonix. I put my hands out to the side a bit to protect myself from the onslaught of runners and trekking poles. One trekking pole was dropped and I knew the owner had no chance of recovering that, nor the pair of sunglasses that shattered on the ground before me. Cow bells were rung, families, friends, lovers of sport, lined the road. I was fairly soon in the clear and running a good clip, but already Amy and Rory were out of my sight. Didn’t matter, we had hours and hours to run, and the first physical thing I noticed was how the pack sure felt heavy when I ran…I guess I should have TRAINED with it a LOT more times, versus TESTING it. The crowd didn’t thin too much all the way from when it became a bike path to the first town of Les Houches, about 5 miles in. Bryon Powell and Dave James were both there taking pictures and cheering us all on. I grabbed a drink of water from the aid station and continued through the town to the beginning of the first climb. Killian and Emily, both spectating after last weekend’s victory, were amongst the vocal support – it was good to see such champions be a part of the support side of competition.
As I began the first climb, I reviewed my plan and goals. Keep my heartrate below 165 on the climbs, and around 155 on the runnable sections, and recover the heartrate during the descents. It seemed reasonable to me, based on female times from past years, I could run this course in between 25 and 30 hours. I had used a split generator and randomly chose a few splits that were based on a 27 hour finishing time. Now into a serious climb, I stopped, removed my pack, pulled out my trekking poles, geared back up and continued to climb, now with more aid from my upper body. The surface we were on was mostly gravel on a ski road, which allowed room for the still quite thickly crowded runners. Occasionally a woman would pass, and while my awareness was raised, I reminded myself of the hours and miles ahead. Up and up, false summit after false summit, and finally we were on the top of Delevret at less than 2000 meters, and started the steep cruise down.
With so many runners, seemingly focused on footing and speed control, there was little conversation. I definitely am more skilled at downhill running than I am fast at going up, and I found myself passing many runners. If I were really going to make a 27 hour-ish finish, then I would be around 2:40 into the run by the end of the descent into the town of Saint Gervais. Getting closer, I could hear the town below, and on one of the many switchbacks I turned an ankle. Not unusual, but it did make me hop a bit, and think about Dylan Bowman, unable to run because of spraining his before the race. Luckily I shook it off, hit the pavement into town, enjoying the crowded scene.
In the tented aid station I drank some coke, a little soup, put some cheese and salami in a baggie, just in case, and ambled out, again to the wild cheers of spectators. My split was under 2:40, and I was so pleased, as I felt I had been running conservatively. Now on the road to Les Contamines, I decided I should “beet” up with some BeetElite. I mixed the powder while I ran, drank it down, and had a nice time cruising the gradual uphill of some single track, some double wide, and still pretty congested field. There were definitely some women who had great strength on the climbs, so there was a fair bit of back and forth on this section. Not feeling comfortable with how it felt using my poles, I decided to pack them away and hike hard without them. I turned my headlamp on as dusk had turned to dark, and hoped that with less visible cue I would relax a little easier about my competition. Finally hitting Les Contamines, I checked my time against the splits, and was still right on for 27 hours. Mind you, I was only 18 miles into the race, but there was a percent decline in output factored in to the final result, so all was good.
At the base of the next big climb at Notre Dame de la Gorge, I heard someone shout out my name – it was Donn Zea from California coming out to represent Western States in an official capacity – and it was nice he was able to pick me out in the dark. Spirits lifted a bit, and soon I was power hiking up the old Roman road for the beginning of the second big climb – first to La Balme, at about the same altitude as the first climb, then further on up to 2500 m to Croix du Bonhomme. Whew. It was now a little chilly, and at this checkpoint one of the guards told me to put my “pantalones” on. Huh? I told him I was fine, but he said everyone had to put their extra leg layers on. If I had expected this I wouldn’t have argued, and I didn’t argue much. Actually it gave me a little bit of rest as I had to take my shoes off to put my wind pants on, and decided it would be nice to put my windbreaker on as well. It turned out to be a good decision, as it was now the middle of the night and chilly. Now descending for awhile, I asked my legs to relax and get into the downhill groove. They responded with weakness, and my light was less than satisfactory – I felt like such a rookie at this point – first not practicing with the loaded pack, then not practicing enough with the poles, and now having the light of what seemed like a glowstick – aye-yi-yi. I caught up to a runner with a brighter light and looked ahead at the beam it was giving. That helped a lot until I kicked a rock and my calf nearly seized up. I regained my balance and composure, but he had gapped me enough that I was back to picking my way along the narrow cut out switchback trail of the grassy slope. Another runner came from behind, just as I tumbled all the way to the ground, both calves cramping fiercely. I assured him I was okay, and just lay there on my back waiting for calm to take over. Gingerly, I stood, walked, then jogged, and thought perhaps now having the poles would be a good idea. I didn’t retrieve them yet, and soon arrived at the next aid station in Les Chapieux. One of the kind volunteers helped me add my concoction of Vitargo and Gu brew to water, and motioned for me to relax, made a motion of a big climb before Courmayeur. Not really knowing the course, I then believed it was a climb away from there. I only had one more split memorized and that was to be at Courmayeur at 3:15 in the morning. That seemed doable, but this climb we were on now was taking it’s toll – I was hiking reasonably well, but my god, these climbs went on forever. It was a beautiful night, the stars a seeming extension of the head lamps above me. I was hiking in every way imaginable, hands on knees, hands on hips, pumping arms, all the while thinking how under-prepared I was for this grade that would present itself over and unforgivably over again.
Summiting Col de la Seigne, a checkpoint only, I asked one of the volunteers if they would hand me my poles off my pack. He very kindly obliged, asked me how I was feeling, and I chuckled and responded “I’m tired!” and ambled off. Grateful to be working with gravity rather than against it, I soon realized that my legs were pretty fatigued even for the downhill, and I wasn’t even halfway through this race. Hope, in my mind, always springs eternal, and I was sure once the night was over, I would be a new woman, ready to start cranking down. At the end of this descent, we were NOT in Courmayeur, but in La Combal, Italy. Feeling certain that Courmayeur was just down the road and it was already 4 am, I thought that just an hour off wouldn’t be too bad. I moved up a place or two amongst the women, as I trotted down the road, and was surprised to be directed up some single track again. As if I had bricks on my back, I was crawling again, and soon resigned my thoughts to the fact that there was indeed another climb. I lost the places to the women I had gained before we summited, and the downhill into Courmayeur (finally!) was filled with tiny switchbacks and cut through trails, dust in the air making my already lame lighting less effective. I re-passed a woman I was annoyed about because she seemed so hunched over and ancient, yet kept passing me on the hills, only to find her ahead of me on the streets of Courmayeur, having taking a cut through trail.
Yay! Finally Courmayeur! Our drop bags were supremely organized and those of us without crew were motioned upstairs into a gymnasium. I was momentarily appalled that we were made to go up stairs – really? We have to run up more mountains and you want us to go up a flight of stairs? Then I realized it was the easiest climb I had done all day, and laughed at myself. I finally looked at my watch – it was 5:30. Wow. I was no where near 3:15. No point in dwelling, and at least that meant sunrise was just around the corner.
Runners in the gym were eating pasta and soup, sitting at cafeteria tables. Two women I had been near most of the night were there, and I ate soup, drank coke, filled my bottles and left. The crowd, even in the wee hours of the morning was just as animated as the previous. I began running, missed a turn and was in the middle of a parking lot with no where to go. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out, and thankfully that was the only place I got lost the entire event. I made my way up the long paved road out of the village in the stillness of the night, accompanied only by fellow runners. At some point we were on steep single track again, and I was looking over my shoulder numerous times waiting for the women to catch me again. Dawn broke, I turned off my light, and the reality of the steepness was doubly apparent. Sometimes I carried my poles under my arm, sometimes I lightly used them, but mostly I cursed myself for not seriously studying all the little things that go on at UTMB. Practice with a full pack. Practice with the poles until you’re strong enough to use them for 30 hours. Do multiple hour training days, back to back, with lots and lots of vert. Practice and tinker and find lights that actually light up the path 5-10 feet in front instead of just down at your feet. At least my nutrition seemed to be working. Wheeee.
Grand Col Ferret was looming ahead, reportedly the hardest climb of all. I was full of resolve and still hoped for a 28 hour finish, which would probably still be in the day light. We reached a summit, then ran relatively flat, so I wondered where this great climb was to be. Then into Arnuva, which was downhill – I was pretty confused and thought that maybe in my delirium, we had done the big climb, but then I saw a sign that it would be coming up. I had learned along the way that I was in12th place for females, and I thought that was the perfect place to be when hoping for a top 10 finish. My strength is in my endurance, and at this point, that was the ONLY thing I could bank on. I had no power, no speed, no resilience in my downhill running.
Running through a fairly open yet narrow valley, I saw ahead the trail that would lead me up to the Col, a beautiful grassy mountainside, with runners dotting the way to the first summit I could see. A Swiss flag was mounted on a nob at the base of the climb, so I had made it to the third country at least. A fit man, possibly in his 60’s, with a Swiss flag on his number passed me going up, and I thought about all the fit Europeans I was seeing. These folks are bad ass, not because they set out to be, but because of where and how they grow up. Everything out here seemed like second nature to them, and I felt like a soft American, in over my head, with only my stubbornness and optimism going for me. Nearing a summit, a young runner clad in red spandex lay on his back, staring up at the sky. I asked if he was okay, and he replied “I’m just very tired”. I continued on up and in a short while he was back pacing himself behind me, struggling with the altitude. His number bore the name Dominic, and he hailed from Austria. Despite my fatigue, I was in such awe of the landscape, the sunshine, the runners, I was in heaven.
Finally cresting, for real, I began the descent, and omigod my legs were dead. This descent is the longest one – 18 km – so I had plenty of time for them to respond, right? I gingerly made my way, sometimes letting go to gravity, but never feeling smooth. In the distance, cowbells were ringing, and I soon approached the children ringing them – from a family sitting in chairs near their home/refuge – just out to cheer the runners on. Smiles from the family raised my spirit and I cruised along on down to La Fouley.
Some children ran out to greet and run with their father into the aid station. Once inside, a man with American accent commented “hey, another American!” His name was Chris Wolfe, and I teased him about having a good ultra last name. He denied any relation to Mike Wolfe, but I said he might as well claim him – who would really know? We ran together from there for a good 3 miles, through the next village, past farms, pastures, and spectators. We talked about how the steepness here was much more than we had anticipated and that our legs were shot, but apparently mine more than his as he pulled away when we starting our next ascent. This was a relatively short climb into possibly the most enticing village – Champex-Lac. It was a gorgeous lake village, the sun was shining, spectators lined the streets, played in the water, drank beer and wine. I teased one of my comrades “You know, we have 46 hours to get a finish. We could stay here for hours, drinking beer, swimming.” He agreed, and yet we kept the forward motion. He was from Grenada, Spain, running his first UTMB, and we ran together until we had a decent downhill. I actually was able to let gravity work me down, and my friend fell behind for awhile. In the forest I was surprised by a group of spectators that once again included Donn Zea – a quick encouraging hug from him was so appreciated – and he allowed me time to describe how woefully unprepared I was.
Now we were into the next climb, er, mountain number seven. Obviously they were mountains. Climbs are what we have in Western States and Waldo. Mountains are what we have in Hardrock and UTMB. And I was no mountain climber. So many lessons in such a short time span that at the same time seemed a lifetime. No amount of high altitude tenting and beet juice can replace training on specific terrain. I could have (and have) told anyone that. Hmmm – practice what you preach? Walk the walk? So humbling, but at least I stopped feeling like I would cry at every switch back, and just felt resolve and a little humor. I was generally with the same men (my pod) that I had been with for awhile. They would walk by me on the climbs, and I would catch them at aid stations and leave before them, and we would repeat this dance over and over again. Most were clad in tight Salomon gear, which they wore rather nicely I might add. I kept thinking about Andy Jones-Wilkins in his attempt to don the same attire in some sort of glute supporting fashion, and, shall I say, that he failed epically. And so we went, up and up and up. I would let the men by, until on this climb, one of them said “no, no, I like this pace! I will stay with you. I need to stay slow.” I believe he was from Germany, and he and I kept grinding on. Then I heard a female voice behind. I was getting passed, by a nice young Canadian. She was reluctant to pass, but she was in far better shape, and thus I was in yet a lower position. A volunteer came running down the trail, and we asked how far to the summit. “I think about 300 meters!” Ah, great! Pull, pull, pull, and what seemed like 3000 meters, we finally leveled out. Bells were ringing, and I could see a refuge ahead. And there was Dominic laying by the trailside again. “Tired?” He affirmed my question. “You’re almost there!” thinking the bells were volunteers at the refuge, but I was mistaken – the bells were on the cows, and the refuge was uninhabited. My German friend and I ran awhile where the terrain flattened, and he mentioned he though we could “finish this thing before dark!” That was encouraging. I asked what time it got dark – he thought we didn’t turn lights on until 9:30 the night before. I thought back to that night and found it odd I hardly remembered that I had run through it. All I felt was compelled to keep running/hiking/moving until I reached Chamonix. We soon caught back up to my USA compadre Chris with another group, for a bit more climbing (really?) and then hit some downhill signal track. They all invited me to go first and I yelled “let’s go legs!” to their amusement. Chris ran with me awhile and then declared his legs were done. I was able to cruise for awhile and in the lowering sun light, I heard such a cacophony of cowbells I had to stop and look around. About a half a mile away I could see a large white moving mass of sheep, fluid, as if one large organism, flowing down the mountain side. I was strangely running on my own – really the first time in awhile I had been so far from anyone. I came to the aid station at Trient, welcomed again by enthusiastic volunteers and spectators.
Just two more climbs! I can do it! My German friend had fallen off the back, but I was still living off his words of hope to finish before dark. Never mind that my 10k sections were taking more than 2 hours. We were promised that the last climb and last descent were runnable, I just needed to get to Vallorcine, and try to do the last climb before dark! Pretty spread out now, I was fairly solo for this climb. And it was just as hard as the last. Up and over, 10k away, and I was running with my Spanish friend again. I let gravity pull me into the aid station at Vallorcine, and was momentarily joined by Chris Wolfe again. I had under 20k to go, and had been at it for 28 hours. Surely with the given info of the easiest descent, I could run 12 miles in 2 hours. Right? It was getting dusky, and when I entered the aid station I asked the lovely French volunteer – “How far to the finish?” “Twenty kilometers – cinc heures.” My face fell. Five hours? He went on to describe in French and sign language the course that lay ahead. I barely heard him. Fine, I thought to myself. If it is going to take five hours, I am f-ing going to eat cheese. I absolutely took my time in this aid station. Ugh. Five more hours? Sigh. I finally left, head lamp in place, poles in hands, and started away on the grassy, flat section, and I hiked like it was Everest. Humph. It soon turned dark, and eventually I reached “the wall” – which in the daylight you can see and be intimidated by, but by the virtue of the dark, I was spared. My lights actually worked reasonably well here, due to the whiteness of the rock. A voice behind me said “so we meet again!” It was Dominic. We worked our way up the boulder face, making small talk – he’s a young desk jockey, mountaineer, who doesn’t really like running as much as hiking. He said he would stay with me, and so we worked together, passing a bloke who was sitting on a rock. I asked if he was okay – and he gave the usual response – “I’m just really tired” but he joined the two of us. Soon Dominic tired of my slowness, and I was now with my new German friend. We talked about life, family, running, work, while picking our way up the crazy climb. Each time I thought we had summited, he looked at his GPS and remarked we hadn’t gone high enough. The stars and the headlamps were hard to separate, but finally he pulled ahead to get to the top. One more check in, where I as told we had 11km to go. Waaaah. But go, I did. This is where I believed the runnable downhill would begin. But it was not to be. Boulders, dark, dead legs, and now pathetic lights, made for a slow picking my way along, following head lamps, and being passed by men who still had some balance and strength. Finally, at La Flegere, the last aid station, I was cold and hungry, but determined to power through, until I was offered soup. I succumbed, and decided to pull my jacket and gloves back on. Now only 8km to go, I was nearly ready to go, when another female entered the tent. I realized she was in my age group, but also that she didn’t see me. I tried to sneak out unnoticed, but she was on my tail so quickly I knew I had failed. We ran together on the short down hill before a slight short climb. She said something, and all I could say was “you are a really strong hiker!” and off she went.
A bright headlamp ahead of me was stopped on the now wide gravel road. I said I wanted his light, and he shone it ahead of me so I could see. He lamented that we couldn’t just cut down to Chamonix, whose lights were now glowing a few miles below. Such a welcoming sight! The end was there!
I jogged lightly down the hill until it became single track, rooty, rocky, dusty, and poor visibility. Down, turn, down, turn, down, and finally the trail widened again to gravel road. I debated checking my time, certain I was over 33 hours now, but when I saw 32:30 I was inspired to pick up the pace and try to break it. I began rolling along faster and faster, but fighting sleep and hunger. Every turn promised to be the last, and finally I hit pavement. The road felt good, smooth, fast, and I ran and ran. Looking at my time, I knew I had 10 minutes to get to the finish, but really no concept of where the finish was. Although it was after 1:00 a.m., there were spectators cheering me in. Finally, the finish line in sight, a big smile spread across my face, Amy cheering me in, I crossed it. 32:55.
I was given the finisher’s red vest, and Amy and I walked back to our apartment. I learned that she had dropped due to medical issues, but she was upbeat and helpful getting me back to our place. We ate some left over salad, and she went to sleep while I took my shower. It was then the hallucinations began, and as previously stated, felt it in my best interest to get some sleep.
Many races are the “hardest” races for different reasons. This one, because of my lack of training on specific terrain, and not taking such terrain seriously, not practicing enough with a pack full of the necessities, not training with good lights, was the hardest. One thing that inspires me in life are my failures. I don’t like to settle. I plan to attempt this one again. Despite my own failings, I had a wonderful experience in such beautiful mountains with so many runners who share my passion, with spectators and volunteers who understand my passion, and have their own passion for this amazing place. Heartfelt thanks again to Scott-Sports, Injinji, and Ian Torrence for getting me to the finish line with their support.