I would describe my mental approach to and through UTMB as a roller coaster of mind and body:
In January, a large respect for the challenge ahead of racing in a foreign country and admittance of fear for not understanding the terrain and unique challenges.
In February, a hope to race another U.S. 100 miler to take off any expectation for an optimal race in Europe. I race Sean O'Brien with a body that wasn't ready, and I couldn't finish the race after a sharp ankle sprain 10 miles in.
In March, an acceptance of UTMB being the sole goal, and realizing my opportunity before me. To be honest, the acceptance of it as my "A race" was due to lingering OTS issues and fatigue through the winter that kept me from being able to race well in early season Western States qualifiers. Eventually though my mind came around full circle to accepting the benefits of not over racing this year.
In April and May, a steady increase of my mileage and workouts in hopes of peaking in August. A string of consistent workouts and enjoyable runs let me start to believe OTS was disappearing.
In June, a tangible confidence in my abilities to race hard in August, with a certain and highly present joy.
In July, a soleus injury that shook my confidence and limited my mileage for weeks. Before the month ended, I completed the Speedgoat 50k, which was an accomplishment for my psyche and durability. It was at least an hour slower than it should've gone, but I wasn't bitter about it after spending weeks wondering how I was going to board a plane to Europe with a bum soleus.
In August, a couple of long test runs before heading over to Europe. My fitness was clearly not what it was in May, but the legs did move with determined consistency. I went to Europe and hiked with Katie, enjoying the experience as the days counted down to the race. Considering the injury and demands of the race, it took everything I had to finish the race.
Every race in the world has its fair share of hype, excitement, and general hysteria. UTMB though is a whole other imaginary world where runners are super stars. It features the French competitiveness that boarders on "do or die patriotism" that shows up in the theme music of the race: Vangelis - Conquest of Paradise. If you listen to it echoing through the streets of Chamonix, with 2500 runners amped up and ready to go, you get a distinct feeling of the sanctity and importance of your sole mission: to attack UTMB as hard and bravely as possible..
So, there's the best runners in all of France (which is already a very competitive and well organized mountain running country) going out as hard as they can, along with the Spaniards that have some of the best endurance talent in the world, the Scandinavians that have some of the strongest legs in the sport, the Italians that can run and chat extremely fast, the Germans and Swiss that work the hardest of anyone, the Argentinians that hit on my girlfriend, the fiercely proud Asians that walk with their chests puffed out and UTMB gear prominently adorned, and the Americans that don't want to take things too seriously, but secretly are going out a little hard because we're Americans and we're a big deal. If you brought only the feisty, athletic, proud and competitive people of all the first world nations to the UN, you would have the UTMB field.
|Go! Photo by Katie DeSplinter
As we took off through the streets of Chamonix, I felt like I was running with the bulls. I was trying to be mellow and low key all day, but the pre-race atmosphere was exhausting to endure before the gun went off. I put my legs in a low gear as we headed over the first climb to St. Gervais, but it seemed like everyone else was still rather energized from the start as they streamed past.
I felt a bit of hesitation in my legs as I made it to the first crew access point at Les Contamines at 31k (19 mi). I already had some hesitation about my race, as I hadn't made any mistakes eating and pacing myself for the first 3 hours, but I was feeling tired and overwhelmed by so much of the field surging past me as the sun had just set. Katie tried to cheer me up telling me how wrecked people looked in front of me, and I made a resolution to myself to force myself to always get up and go out of every aid station, and only allow a DNF with a backwards walk of shame. I was trying to keep my mind strong, and I thought it would work well until I left the aid station and saw 5 runners in the next mile walking backwards to drop at Les Contamines..
The climb up Croix du Bonhomme was long, dark, drawn out, and just what I was waiting for in the race. The early race fervor had taken it's toll on the field, and I started to slowly pass a runner every half-mile or so. The descent was another issue as I had some issues with my ankles and knees and had to be cognizant of the 75 miles ahead. After a quick gear check at Les Chapieux at 49k (30mi) I ended up linking up with Darcy Piceu and made a consistent and conversational push up the next climb to Col de Seigne. The moon lit up Ville des Glaciers, and we ran and hiked briskly into the breeze at the pass at 8,000 feet.
This would prove to be some of the most challenging terrain in the race, but a new addition for the year that sent runners up a talus field again to 8,000 feet and then down another one at 2 AM. If your friend asked you go run over this talus field at 2 AM on the Col des Pyramides Calcaires, you'd probably say no because it's absolutely beautiful and arduous terrain that should only be done during the day, but the race course wasn't negotiable.
I didn't anticipate the section being as technical as it was, and began to run out of water (the night was cool and dry). I bummed some water off the checkpoint at the pass and cautiously made my way down to Lac Combal at 64k (40 miles). I met up with Michele Graglia who was having chest pains at the aid station. He had been racing (quite well) in Europe leading up to the race and was primed to turn heads for reasons besides his usual reasons (underwear modeling). In characteristic annoying engineer fashion, I gave him contrasting advice to try to drink water to lower his blood pressure and continue on, but also to not do anything that would make his wife a widow, but to at least to try to make it down to Courmayeur, but not to go too far to be a liability.. I bid him adieu and continued on into pitch black valleys and passes, following a spread out train of headlights and spandex.
Once I final made it to Col Checrouit at 73k (45 mi), I began to learn about how descents would characteristically go on the course: I read the sign that said 4km/-880m to Courmayeur, which meant 2.5 mi/-2800 ft. That's -21%, so I figured it would be something fun, steep, and run-able. That would be the case if it was a consistent descent, but instead there was a gradual start and finish to the section. So, what really happened was the main descent of 1.5mi/-2300ft. If you followed my math, the steep part went from -21% to -29% which is something fierce at 5AM in the pitch black dark after 45 miles. It was a rush, and I had a blast charging down to Katie despite all the risk of blowing out my quads.
The basic jest of it all, is that the race works each year to do things in a more challenging way, that keeps runners on their toes (literally) and keeps the course in a constant state of increasingly diverse challenges. There's no way the course lets a good road runner flourish, or just great mountain runners dominate. The course wants runners that can hit the jets when the terrain opens up, and rein in their stride when it gets steep and technical.
I finally made it to Courmayeur just before the sun came out to illuminate the Aosta Valley, and happily worked with Katie to get my pack restocked and ready to go. I had some extra dead weight I was carrying for her, and I had some really special moments running into the aid station searching the crowd for her beaming eyes to greet me and tell me that our exhausting endeavor was just as worthwhile for her as it was to me.
|Legs up at Courmayeur to keep the blood fresh in the legs. Photo by KD
|Leaving Courmayeur, notice the sadness in my eyes. Photo by Gabi Schenkel
From Courmayeur to Champex-Lax, Miles 45-76
Leaving Courmayeur knowing I wouldn't see her for 30 miles wasn't easy. I felt like the trail's steep and inconsistent terrain has already taken a few pounds of muscles from me, but my combo of PowerBar Blasts and Protein Bars as well as aid station salami and Coke kept the legs in the game. I had no clue what my place was, but I did know that runners were still passing me. In reality, I was passing a few runners in every aid station due to drops or other reasons, but I was getting passed on the trail, so I was actually slowly moving up the field even though I thought the opposite.
I saw Sage coming down into the Refugio Bertone aid station to catch a ride on a helicopter. Racing means taking risks, and he had cut open his knee coming into Courmayeur. He left with stitches trying to save his race, but they wouldn't hold on the downhills and he had to make the long term decision to save his knees for more than just this one race. As one might expect, there was a bit of regret and relief in his face which was fitting in this land of heaven and hell.
The terrain leveled out on the way to Refugio Bonatti, and I started to realize the full circle of terrain on the course. If I had been racing up front, I would have had to charge this flat section right after grinding up a steep climb, and then prepare myself for a quick descent before another long climb to 8,000 ft. I jogged along with a few other sleep deprived runners, and began to realize the hard work that put the leaders on the Grand Col Ferret (mi 63) at sunrise.
|Fernando charging up Gran Col Feret, me being stoic
|The view Katie missed out on at the top of the Gran Col Feret
|La Fouly was a great place to drop after the last section, but I had a special package to deliver
The Last 38 Miles
|Champex-Lac, notice the love growing Photo by Gabi Schenkel
The afternoon stayed warm and I had started to feel at home on the gentle trails that let me run and get into a good consistent grove. That abruptly ended at the Bovine climb which was something out of Rambo I. After 21 hours on the course, I accepted that this climb was necessary and good. The section was relentless but it petered out, and I began to pick up momentum again moving ahead of my fellow zombie competitors that had marched the climb with me. At Trient, with 29k (18mi) to go, I saw Jesse again for a moment on the in-n-out of the aid station. We had both dreamed of this moment for what felt like years over the course of the first 88 miles. To see him on his way to redemption in this impossible to believe moment was something special. Jesse is a simple guy that works hard without any fanfare, and he was more than deserving of this beautiful experience after being denied a finish at La Fouly last year.
|Trient is a great place to be before sunset! Photo by Gabi Schenkel
I saw Katie again at 7PM and took in my final supplies for the last 19km push to the finish. I would've been optimistic of an easy final climb, but Topher and Dylan reeled me back in with intel on the everlasting nature of the climb and the thoroughly punishing final descent. Without much more thought, I kissed Katie one last time and hiked off into dusk, prepared to do whatever it took to get the last 11 miles done before midnight.
|Leaving Vallorcine, heading up to the shelf in the background Photo by Gabi Schenkel
The Final Descent and Finish
I walked through the aid with confidence and calmness of my chances of finishing the last 5 miles in under an hour. I drank my broth and coke, and left accepting whatever the course would throw at me. A steep ski slope straight down to right hand turn onto a road covered in rocks to a sudden hard left into the trees onto a singletrack that felt like a glowing magic carpet. I knew what I would have done 10 miles ago: a conservative and calculated descent that focused on foot placement and security. I let go of the fear of not finishing, and I let my ankles relax and absorb the rocks and roots as my quads pressed down with gentle consistency, and my hips cruised along like a sailboat on a gentle day. I whooped and wailed as I made my way through La Floria which still had a few hardcore race fans cheering in the dark. The single track turned to rocky fire road, then to pavement, and finally to the lit streets of Chamonix. I ran along the roaring river that seemed to carry my spirit along, and into the town that was wide awake and ready to welcome me.
|Just 29 hours after I left and went around Mont Blanc.. I return.
104 miles, 29:39
|She said "YES" - Photo by Matt Trappe
Post Race Thoughts
The last time I was this grateful to finish a race was Hardrock, but this moment was different in a foreign country with the love of my life as my true partner and biggest supporter. I'm starting to accept the innate magic of exploring and running for the sake of the experience, and not solely defining the experience by competitive outcomes. I'll be back racing in a few months, pinning on a race bib and letting the legs explode with energy and reckless abandon for shorter and safer races, but I think I do have a substantial degree of gratitude for the magic of finishing a meaningful 100 mile race every year, regardless of the competitive results.
I'm really excited to enjoy the simplicity of training for my home town 100 miler, Angeles Crest, next August, and I think if I can keep track of my energy levels and the need for rest along the way, I can do something fast and meaningful with the perspective of how much pain I was in during UTMB. The tools I used mentally and physically to keep going are tangible and real. Until then, I'm slowly letting my body re-discover the joy of running with just a pair of shoes and shorts, and the weightlessness of the feeling of only running as far as I care to.