Laurie pursed her lips, sighed, and then with a look of resolve said “Lets sit you down and get you into some dry clothes”. I had just come into Les Contamines, about mile 20, soaked and cold from the rain and sweat, my eyes welled up with tears and had told her “I don’t think I can do this!” I knew her mind was working on helping me turn my race around, and if weren’t for her support and encouragement I think I would have stopped right then and there. But sitting in some shelter, putting on dry clothes, and just resting for a few minutes was enough to get me going again. Nearly out of the aid station, I realized I needed my headlamp as I was now using my trekking poles as a literal and figurative crutch; so using a handheld light was not reasonable. I went back to Laurie, and as she pulled it out of my pack she claimed that it had already been on. Great. The battery indicator was red, so we fumbled around with new batteries, putting them in backwards first, and finally I was back on my way. Craig was waiting just outside the aid station and hugged me tight as I said, “I have never wanted to quit anything so badly”. I knew that he knew but he just said “you have your poles now” and with that I set out to see if I could turn this race around.
I continued to pace myself by staying in a reasonable comfort level. In this particular race, it is really important for someone who trains in the Sierra but not in the European Alps. My legs had felt like junk pretty much since Western States as I recovered from my ankle injury, but I was banking on experience and sheer will power to get me through the 105 miles of Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. My typical response over the past 3 weeks to that question of “are you ready?” was that I was severely undertrained, but maybe that was a good thing.
Somewhat recovered and hopeful, I began the dark ascent up the old Roman Road to Col du Bohnomme – the saddle below the peak Croix du Bohnomme at 2500 meters. As the trail went higher, the trees disappeared, and the headlamps lit the switchbacks up to the stars. I continued to move slower and slower, with unresponsive legs. The trekking poles were most certainly aiding me, but nothing seemed to lift my spirits or give me any access to my mojo. Every step was a grind, lots of steps up rocky terrain; I stepped to the side to let more fit hikers/runners go by. The only person slower was the guy puking by the side of the trail. Eventually our train encountered a volunteer coming down, told us we had 15 minutes to the top. I had convinced myself that I couldn’t finish the race at this point, and at the top I eased into the downhill cadence, and soon realized that I was recovering from the climb.
I began the conversations with myself – all of the reasons to keep going – I would regret stopping, I have 46 hours to finish, nothing is injured, I can get points for my UTWT standings – but the most powerful single reason I came up with for continuing on was – I love to cross the finish line. Regardless of the time, place, and circumstance – that was the most important. With that realization I had new resolve. Plus down hill running revitalized my will.
We descended into Les Chapieux and I was feeling a bit better. I was mistaken about where we were in the race and thought I was about one climb closer to Courmayeur. There was a bit of flat running, then we started climbing again. And again on the climb, I was reduced to a barely moving shadow of myself, convinced I couldn’t keep going, but based on how I had recovered on the downhills, I ignored my whining and thought it would get better on the next descent. Plodding along up to Col de la Siegne I was again filled with doubt. Leaden legs and absolutely no resolve, I still managed to not entirely succumb psychologically. To my list of reasons to keep going, was the reminder that Boyfriend Mark was climbing much higher peaks in India at the moment, and that I should embrace this opportunity to hike and enjoy the mountains as a faux shared experience. After summiting, I eased into the downhill darkness, and felt somewhat better over the next few miles into Lac Combal in Italy. Realizing where I was now, I was a little more disheartened at how much slower I was from last year. I took my time at the aid station, noticing a few women there that I was leaving before.
Dawn was breaking, which was nice for visibility but a downer on the ego. Last year I was way ahead of this and further behind than I wanted to be. Ugh. And it was runnable, but I could only manage to jog for bits at a time. We hit the ascent to Arête du Mont-Favre, and now I was in the middle to the back of the pack of runners, and I was definitely in the way. Group after group passed me. Recognizing that in the next 60 miles lay 5 more ascents, with the final one being a steep, rocky, hands on the ground climb, followed by some bouldering-like-running before the final descent to Chamonix, I knew I was screwed. Even if I could stay ahead of the cut off times, it was not safe for me to be out there. The last thing I wanted was to be a liability to the race. It was over. My face crumpled up in embarrassing tears and I pulled my hood tight to hide behind. I felt like such an idiot, thinking I could pull off a monster of a race like this on minimal training. I hated mountain running at this point, swore them all off as I faced the first DNF in my ultra running career.
All around me I was surrounded by spectacular views of Mont Blanc and adjoining peaks and valleys. Runners were stopping to take selfies and group photos. I couldn’t even muster up the gumption to pull out my IPhone to join in. I was utterly and unequivocally exhausted. More than one runner asked me if I was okay while passing. I appreciated the concern, and was doing my best to keep going and not keep Laurie and Craig waiting any longer at Courmayeur than possible. I couldn’t even muster up a jog for the long descent. As I walked into the aid station they were waiting along the corral with the hundred or so other fans, and grabbed me in a family hug. Up until 15 minutes before I got there, Craig had been ready with the speech for why I should keep going, but when we saw me go from 500th place to well into the 1000th, he knew it was not going to be a good thing for me to continue on.
Oddly, I have no regrets on my DNF. What I learned is that my gut should not be ignored. I wasn’t excited about the race before hand. If it had been canceled I’m sure I would have been relieved (selfish, I know). And since the race I have been supplementing with iron, as I’m convinced my ferritin had dropped to levels not conducive for an endurance event. After 2+ weeks, I had my blood tested and am up to 50 (60+ is a good number for runners) and my running is going much better, I’m sleeping better, and my legs feel good again. And I’m hoping I get into Hard Rock for 2015. Got my mojo back!
Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc is a spectacular race and I would love to run it again, but only if I’m well trained for it. The volunteers and organization are incredible. The aid stations with all the cheese and meat and sweets and coffee and fruit – almost reason enough to sign up! In the aftermath were sweet moments – getting to witness Rory get her second consecutive win, and to see Scott Mills and Eric Skaden finish at 4:00 am, going to the big gathering hosted by John Catts, John Medinger and Karl Hoagland with what seemed like the whole of California Ultra running was a special event. We were all the walking wounded – either physically from finishing, or emotionally from not. It is a great family to belong to.
Special thanks to Craig and Laurie Thornley for their unrelenting support before, during and after the race, to UTMB race director Catherine Poletti, to sponsors Scott-Sports and Injinji Socks, all for making this life lesson possible.