Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc: Why 103 miles...because 100 miles won't get you around the mountain!


Time and time again I am reminded as to why I am drawn to trail running and ultra trail racing.


Courmayeur pre-view
 Photo c/o Topher Gaylord
UTMB-- Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc.  This race has been on my radar for a few years and because of the fan fare that follows this race it landed on my wish list of races to run.
What is the UTMB?  It is a 103 mile race that takes place in the Alps across France, Italy and Switzerland.  It boasts 30,000+ feet of climbing and it takes you ALL the way around Mont Blanc. The race accepts through lottery more that 2300 entrants and they are given 46.5 hours to complete the race.  Couple of added twists this race has that I had not experienced before...runners are not allowed pacers during the later stages of the race. The race is in open country, in mountainous terrain with weather conditions that can change very fast.  Due to this each runner has a list of required gear that is to be carried for the entire race (about 8-10 lbs worth). Lastly, and just because they can, the race starts at 6PM!
Feast at Maison Vieille, thanks Toph! 









I had a rough go of it at Western States this year.  Stomach issues during the heat of the day, stomach virus the week previous and a candle that I was burning from both ends had me wanting to call it a day at Michigan Bluff.  But, my steadfast crew along with the help of Jimmy Dean Freeman got me out of a chair and back on the course.   My sub 20 hour goal was back burner-ed and the finish line became my new goal.  I made it to that sometimes elusive line and not long after WS I began looking forward to UTMB.  I took the two following weeks off and with 5 weeks to hone my training I can say that I was truly excited for UTMB.  Excited and terrified that is.  I had yet to run a race with 30+K of climbing and I was unsure on what to do to prep for this.  So, for the next 5 weeks I slept in an altitude tent, trained with a 15lb weighted vest, used poles, carried my pack full of fluid and gear of which I had no need for and I repeatedly climbed buttes and mountains around Bend.  Training complete.
Chamonix, France at the Patagonia Chalet and home for the next 2 weeks!
We arrived in Chamonix, France (race start and finish) 2 weeks prior to the race with plans to preview some of the 10 notable climbs around Mont Blanc.  And while we did eventually preview 5 of the climbs, lack of luggage for the first 3 days delayed our running.  Seriously, I brought a carry on one would think that I would know to pack essential items in it...lesson learned!
Pre-race tour
Col du Bonhomme
We still got in some pretty amazing runs, opening my eyes and my heart to the TMB...I was and am in love with this amazing countryside.
Mountain music...cow bells!
Once in Chamonix my prep for UTMB did not stop.  While physically I was ready, the hay was metaphorically in the barn, my mental prep had just begun.  The power of positive thinking and attitude can create happiness and success.  I believe this, so began my prep.  I committed to myself, my husband and my friends that on race day I would only be expressing positive thoughts. Nope, no complaining, no whining no bitching to my crew or those around me.  To help secure this I would be dedicating the first climb of the race to my mother and the last climb to my brother.  The first taken from my world way to soon and the second who has been living in the shell of his former body and suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's).  They would be with me on all the steep climbs leading to majestic mountain tops as well as the rocky descents leading to the picturesque villages brimming with spectators and volunteers.  I was ready.
1st day--Flash-Sport Photo
I made my way to the start, fortunate to be in the elite corral at the front of the 2500+ runners.  It was 5:30PM, I had just topped my belly off with a Picky Bar adding to the pasta I had eaten at 2:30.  It was 80ish degrees and the forecast was looking excellent for the next few days.  I settled in with a group of familiar peeps from the US to wait for the start and then we were off.  Crazy good energy from the thousands of spectators lining the streets sent us on our way.  I was kinda waiting for the tidal wave of runners to overtake me and was happy when it did not happen.  We were running perhaps faster than one should for a 103 mile race in the alps but over the 10k distance of open road it allowed everyone to settle into place. And so it began.  As we spread out I found myself high fiving children and adults along the route, smiles exchanged with shouts of, "Aller Denise!!" filling the air.  Sharing the trail with a US runner, Jamil Curry and while tapping hands with some youngsters I said to him, it's like they are refilling my energy stores with each high five, the smaller the hand the bigger the boost!
My fella rocked the TDS...
because it's not always about me :)

The 1st climb of the race I had not previewed but I knew what to do.  I took my poles out of my pack and with thoughts of my mom I began to climb.  While not familiar with the 1st descent, the words of Topher rang in my head, warning of length of this descent (2nd longest of the race) and to take it easy...loads of racing ahead.  At about mi 18 and just before the 2nd climb I would see Ken, this was the first crew spot, it was about 10pm.  I stopped long enough to change my socks and eat a few calories.
The technical terrain had me regret starting the day in my thin Patagonia wool socks and while I had hoped to change into the thicker pair, sadly I had not pack them in my bag of goodies.  And so I changed into what was available with Ken making plans to go back to the Chalet to retrieve the thicker pair for later, should I need them. (Fellow crew we had meet at Gorge Waterfalls 100k this year offered her socks, small world!)
With a kiss I was off, leaving that aid station in company with the friendly bearded face of another US runner, Sean Meissner. The 2nd climb was up the Col du Bonhomme, I had seen this climb and was looking forward to passing familiar points (even in the dark).   As promised I saw Topher at the start of the climb, he joined step with me, offering up supportive words and advice from his treasure trove of experience.  Topher was hugely instrumental in UTMB becoming the race that it is today.
1st night, love the bonfires!
FlashSport Photo

Night time pasta feed!
Photo c/o Ken S.
Did I mention an almost full moon??? Dropping down into Les Chapieux the moon was full in the sky. Running along a road leading up to the 3rd and 4th climbs I found myself shutting off my headlamp and running by the light of the moon.  Moments like these are truly lifepoints!  Up the next two climbs I went.  The air was getting chilly, made more so by the howling winds.  As  I climbed, squinting my eyes from the wind, I started to feel tired.  I thought for a moment, perhaps, just perhaps I would need a nap once over this climb.  I credit the thought of a nap to Ken, who had raced the TDS on Wednesday and who during a very low point in the race for him...took a nap.  Lucky for me, once over the climb, thoughts of napping were gone from my mind.   Instead I was energized by the familiarity of Lac Combal (toured this section with Topher) along with the following climb that would take me up and over Arete du Mont-Favre and down into Courmayeur where I would see Ken again.  Mile 47.  As I made my way up the climb, the skyline began to brighten with the rising sun.  I had made it safely through the night intact both physically and mentally.
2nd Day; Flash-Sport Photo
Courmayeur found me with a bowl of pasta and some coconut water, yum.  I was getting hungry and my gut was solid.  My race fueling was working well.  I had started out with Honey Stingers and only just started swapping to GU, taking advantage of coke, soup and sweet bread at the aid stations.  Cheese, salami and chocolate were also offered but I could not bring myself to sampling any.  Another kiss and away I went excited for the daylight and the trails ahead, so far so good.
Flash-Sport Photo
This next section took me by surprise.  I had previewed it but due to the weather, I did not get to experience the beauty of it.  By far my favorite section, Courmayeur up over Refuge Bertone and across to Arnuza.  The breathtaking scenery made me forget all else. I had the permagrin of someone who was punchy drunk by the views, adding fatigue to the equation and I was feeling pretty dang happy, if a bit goofy!
Climbing up and over Grand col Ferret on my way to La Fouly I could see the familiar bouncing ponytail of a friend up ahead and had hopes of sharing the trail with her.  Sadly La Fouly would be the stopping point for her and she would become one of the 600+ runners who would not make it to the finish line.
2nd Day; Photo c/o Davide Verthuy








On I went, into Champex-Lac mi 75.  Along the way I found myself holding pace with a French runner, Emir.  I don't know French and his English was just as limited yet, we held company and enjoyed shared smiles brought on by our attempts to communicate.  At times he would hold up, preferring to wait for me rather than running on alone.  We separated after Champex-Lac crew/aid station as I needed blister attention before I could push on.  The hot spot had reared it's head and so off to the medical tent I went, getting what looked and felt like a cast placed on my big toe, post drainage.  At this point it was clear that I would be running back into the night again.  My fueling continued to be working well.  Outside of smelling like someone who had run 75 miles in the same cloths, sweating periodically off and on throughout the course of the day, the night, the following day, going into the night again...I was doing okay.  Mentally my race strategy was working well, not once had I expressed negative thoughts and for the first time in ALL of my 100 miles races (this being my 12th) negative thoughts were oddly absent.
Blister care and applesauce! Photo c/o Ken S
I left that aid station and a short time later was joined in company with a runner from Canada, Matt...finally, someone to chat with!! Onto climb #8 we went.  Ken would be at the Trient aid station mi 86.   Not spending much time in the aid station, I left Trient with once again my headlamp in place, not quite needing it but knowing I would be flipping it on soon.  Ken had shared that I was 13th or 14th female (I had hopes of breaking the top 10 for women) he said that the female runners in front of me were looking tired and slowing up and to keep pushing but I too was also feeling symptoms of fatigue.
While I was not experiencing negative thoughts, I was getting emotional.  Taking a spill on a soft part of the trail and finding myself in tears, no injury, just tears.  Thoughts of my mom had me crying as well as thoughts of my brother.  I had been up for 32+ hours, racing for 24 of those hours and I still had a good 7 hours ahead of me.  This does a number on any runner and I was no exception.  I found myself grateful to have my Canadian friend holding pace with me.  This was his first UTMB and while he had thoughts of sub 30 hours, he was ultimately looking for a finish.  And so, as my climbing became slower and my descending even slower, I was in good company.  We chatted and joked making our way up Catogne the 9th climb.  He agreed that this climb should be named the stair master climb, we even saw an Ibex, and the moon was full!  I passed a couple of female runners on the climbs up only to be re-passed on the descents.  I saw Ken one last time at mi 92 in Vallorcine, he told me to be strong, one last climb to go...he shared that he had been keeping my brother up to date on my race and that he was sending his love.  What more did I need.
Final miles in great company, thanks Matt! Flash-Sport photo
I traded spots a couple more times with Jen the speedy downhill runner from Australia (she offered to wait up and run in with me, amazing!!) and Nicole Studer what felt like an eternity later, Matthew and I finally dropped into Chamonix, touring our way through the streets of town before making it to that incredibly special sight...the finish line.

31:39:39; 14th Female; 146th overall. While my goal time/ place was not achieved,  I achieved so much more. Thank you to all my sponsors who support me in my passion for trail running.  I am so very fortunate and appreciative that I have the ability to be an ambassador for this amazing sport.

What went well:
Nutrition-- 
  • Pre-race--Pasta, Picky Bars
  • During--GU's, Honey Stingers, CarboPro, soup, coke, applesauce.  I started with the Honey Stingers until they became too sweet then changed to Chocolate GU, tolerated this until mi 95 where I may have vomited.
Gear:
  • Black Diamond Z Poles-- did I mention that I LOVE my poles, huge value add for me in using them.  Many of the climbs lead you up and then down super technical terrain.
  • Black Diamond Headlamp/ waist pack 
  • Ultraspire Zygos pack--fit everything perfectly, easy in/out access for my poles (20sec to store)
  • Julbo Access sunglasses with the Zebra lens
  • Patagonia Cap 1 sleeveless tank/ skirt during the day, adding rm warmers with mittens at night.
  • Nike Wildhorse shoes--felt good the entire time (socks were the issue).
  • Pre-view of some of the course!! As my first race with 30K of climbing, it set my mind at ease to see some of it.
What I would do different:
  • Thicker Patagonia wool socks.  I went with the thinner pair because of the heat.  Should have remembered I use the thick socks at Western States.
  • More technical downhill training.  My climbing was strong but lost loads of time in my slow descents.
  • Not sure what to do with the evening start to better prepare for it....open to suggestions.
  • Move to the Alps to train :)





















 






3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the inspiration. The views on the course look amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the inspiration. The views on the course look amazing.

    ReplyDelete
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