UTMB 2012Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2012
For the third year in a row, a weather system rolled into the Alps in time to disrupt the weekend of racing. First of the shorter races was the TDS 100k, held Thursday, followed by the CCC, starting Friday morning, and finally, the UTMB 100 Mile which was to start on Friday evening at 6:30. Friends Erika Lindland and John Catts started the TDS on Thursday with the plan of crewing Karl Hoagland and myself starting Friday evening in the UTMB. They had a great start, and then the weather rolled in and took its toll with a drop of 300 runners at one aid station. Erika and John persevered and found the energy to crew Karl and I in a few short hours from their finish.
Up until mid-morning Friday, the news from race headquarters was that the UTMB would go on as planned, despite the weather. But as the snow level dropped to 2000 meters, an update was delivered informing us that the race was being modified to stay below 2000 meters and shortened to 100k. Having no emotional investment in the race like I do with Western States, I was not particularly upset or disappointed. Sheesh, I was in the Alps! They could cancel the race and I would still have fun – drive to Italy, go skiing, keep eating cheese and croissants – it was hard to go wrong.
At 4:00 pm Karl, Amy Sproston and I drove into Chamonix to hang out in a hotel lobby with other athletes until the race start. It was chilly and damp, and I knew it would only become more so as the night went on, so I dressed in tights with rain pants, a smartwool shirt with Moeben sleeves and short sleeve shirt over that, and then a gortex jacket. I had water proof mittens on, and my headlamp and waist-lamp on. My ultraspire pack held my trekking poles, collapsable drinking cup, 6 gels, a few S!Caps and Alleve, an elastic bandage, my down sweater, mandatory waste disposal bags for used TP, and about 1 liter of water. At 6:30 we made our way to the start corral in the middle of Chamonix. The crowds were lining the streets both to see us off and to welcome the finishers of the CCC 100k race that had started in Courmayeur earlier that day. It took some shoving and oozing to actually make it to the start, but once inside the start area we had some breathing room, and I was able to look around and take it all in. There was loud music, walls of spectators, a jumbotron, and the mob of runners lined up behind had no discernible edges.
A little after 7:00, the race began. It was frenetic. The footing was a little tenuous with a ledge in the middle of the street, and at least one runner went down. It felt a bit sketchy and as I stumbled, someone grabbed my shoulders to hold me upright. I felt like I was sprinting – not the smartest way to start an ultra, but survival seemed high up on my list until we finally spread out enough to relax. We ran through the village and eventually onto a gravel path that was wide enough for 2-3 runners. The path was lined with spectators, all the way into the first village of Les Houches (Lays-oosh), where the density of fans and ringing of the bells distracted me from grabbing a drink from the refreshment zone. I was actually pretty warm under the raingear, but didn’t think it was worth undressing and packing everything. We passed through the village and headed up some steps leading to our first big ascent. I saw Killian Journet on the sidelines, encouraging runners with cries of “Allez! allez! allez!”
Now on the first serious ascent, I removed my gloves and mittens in order to take out a gel, and in the process ended up down one glove. I stopped, turned around and took a few steps back the way I came, but when I didn’t see the glove I decided it wasn’t worth it. I headed back up the climb, my trekking poles in use now, and ate the gel, then put on the mittens without the liner gloves. With my conservative start, I was finally getting nice and warmed up and started passing runners. It was a different feel from running where English is the native language. As much as I wanted to converse with runners, I was hesitant in that I wasn’t sure what language to try. I can pull of some niceties in French and Italian, but wasn’t feeling confident it would be even understood. So, in polite silence, I pushed onward.
Dusk was turning to dark, and the runners lights were coming on, one by one. The sky was dark with fog and clouds as well. Up, up, up into the clouds and trees, and suddenly we were passing by a home in the high country, complete with a family on the side lines, ringing cowbells and cheering the runners on. The headlamps ahead of me were higher and higher. I was glad I had run Speedgoat 50k the month before, so I had the experience of climbing and hiking seemingly endless climbs. This first climb to Le Deleveret was a mere introduction to what the remainder of the run would be. We climbed from 3000 ft to about 5000 it, then headed back down, down, down, into the village of Saint Gervais, where I knew my crew, John Catts, would be waiting. I ran into the long, tented aid station in the middle of the village. It was crazy busy with runners and volunteers. I honed in on the tables labeled “Salty” as opposed to “Sweet” and grabbed a couple of big hunks of quality cheese, and some crackers. Salami and bread were other options, but I worked on getting the cheese down, drank some coffee and noodle soup, and looked for John. He waved me down in the adjoining tent, where each runner was allowed only one crew member. I wasn’t in need of much, but ate one boiled egg, grabbed a couple of gels, and asked if he knew how many women were ahead of me – he hadn’t really paid attention since there were so many runners, and frankly, I shouldn’t have been worried about it at that point – then headed out into the dark again.
Back up into the country side, we had a relatively easy run to Les Contamines. I was having some pain in a hip flexor as well as a bit of a side ache. I fumbled around in my pack and gloves and finally procured an S!Cap and an Aleve. I really don’t like taking pain killers, ever, and especially in races, but I really need the flexor to chill out. Getting that task out of the way, I kept the same effort, winding in and of runners on the mostly single track path. It was cold, wet, rainy and muddy. Amy, Karl and I had made some predictions as to how many times we would fall during the race – and we weren’t going to count butt slides in the reportedly muddy sloped sections. I predicted one – and I did hit it about that time – a nice flat, but muddy section. Two runners behind me tried to help me up, and asked if I was okay. I was mostly embarrassed and definitely not hurt. Definitely muddy. By the time I got to the aid station, I had my plan – get rid of the muddy water proof mittens and put on the dry gloves in my bag. I was now working hard enough that cheese and crackers were not going to be consumed. I drank some coke, some coffee, and some soup, then made my way to John. He took my muddy gloves – I asked if he would wrap them in a towel so they would be dry when I saw him again at this very aid station after our next big loop. The dry gloves felt good.
The next climb was one Amy and I had seen a glimpse of – an old Roman road. It was incredible to think we were on this very ancient yet man made road – big slick rock on a very long climb – that had survived centuries of use. And I wondered about the slave labor it took to create this enormous pathway through the mountains. The climb was long, and eventually we hit the snow. My hands were wet now from the mild precipitation, and they were rapidly getting very cold. I told myself that I could deal with it, but eventually they began to sting. Yes, the requirement for waterproof gloves was definitely a good idea. I finally pulled them off my fingers, trying to scrunch my fingers together for warmth, letting runners go around me in the eerie snow-lit darkness, and trying to manage my trekking poles with miniature hands I fumbled forward. Finally, I pulled the gloves off completely, and pulled my Moeben sleeves over my hands and found some level of comfort.
Snow depth reached 3 or 4 inches, so footing was really not much of a problem. As we lowered in elevation though, the snow gave way to rain and slick grass and mud. My waist lamp was not as effective as earlier, and my footing became more and more tentative in the mud and fog. I was using my hand held light more and more, which helped me get through a bouldery, technical, slow section. I was passed by a female runner, but I otherwise held my position. Finally we emerged at a Le Signal – a station with official personnel, but not aid. Then the trail widened to road, the downhill came at us hard, and I flew. Not sure how many runners I passed, but I was glad to be feeling strong – even the occasional uphill I was able to run. Approaching Les Contamines for the return trip, I focused on what I needed from John. Definitely needed my mittens back, and with my light going dim in the hand held, I needed to change batteries. As I ran into the tent, I grabbed some coke, some coffee, and some soup, then found John, where he had my gloves ready, and quickly changed my batteries in my hand held, and gave me the beta on the next section of the race – “a really long climb, and one that isn’t so long. I’ll see you at Les Houches” – and I was on my way again.
Feeling strong and like racing, my effort and pace were full of intention. The first climb was “only” 1500 feet. I hiked hard, ran when I could, and when I passed another woman, I tried to make it permanent. Cresting the peak, then running downhill, I hung a sharp left off the road, following something reflective. Barking dogs alerted me that something was awry – how could over 100 runners pass through here and not alert dogs until now? I then did what the race instructions directed – if you don’t see a trail marker every 100 meters, then turn around and go back. I turned around to see if anyone was following – and saw a bright head lamp coming my way. Well, I must be going the right way, right? I waited for the runner to catch up and asked “Is this the right way?” His response was “I was following you – I am not sure” – so we went a bit further past the farm house the road was associated with, and hit a dead end. We turned around, scampered back to the bigger road, and I tried to think of how to apologize in French, but could only say “I apologize” and he was not at all holding me responsible. I stumbled near the edge of the road, he righted me, and we went in silence, on the correct way, which was well marked and obvious. It didn’t cost me more than 3 or 4 minutes, and I could hardly believe I had turned off.
Shortly afterward, I reached the village of La Villette. My companion I had led astray asked me if we were at Les Houches. I had to give him the news that we were at least 10k away. The village was fairly asleep, as it was in the middle of the night, but there were a few hardy souls to encourage us along. Leaving this small settlement, I embarked on the next climb of this section. Single track near a grassy meadow, I was reduced to a hike again. Up and up, steeper and steeper, I kept my light looking for the next reflective mark. Very consistently, one would show up, right when I was beginning to question where I was. Now under a thick, wooded canopy, the steepness was crazy, and the ground rooty and rocky. We were spread out so much that I couldn’t see any lights ahead. I used my poles to pull myself up, and when I finally reached the peak at 6000 feet, I thought – “wow, this could take some time to recover from!” I gradually unwound my tight legs, lengthened my stride more and more, until finally I was cruising and feeling great. I caught up to the next male runner, and stayed behind as we the trail became narrow and muddy. Slipping and sliding and shoe-goo-ing down, I stayed close behind, following his steps for guidance. The trail widened into a swath of 8 feet long, and as he took the left side, I took the right, and eventually we made it to the single track, which was as muddy as the swath. I wondered about the 2000+ runners behind us and how they would fare on this slip-n-slide affair. I was sure Dr. Suess had some sort of rhyme to describe the goo we were running on.
“Gooble-de-goop on my shoopedy shoop
Made me slippedly slide on the sloopedly sloop”
Well, maybe not Suess, but I did have a couple of butt slides on the switch backs, and in the process I managed to pass two women. I made it to the bottom of the trail, and eventually on to the road that led us into Les Houches for the last time. When I got to John this time, I had chocolate milk on my mind. I was thirsty and hungry, but having just passed those women, I didn’t want to take much time. “Chocolate milk, please. I just passed 2 women, so I want to get going.” His reply was “Helen is standing right behind you, and Krissy just left six minutes ago.” I took about three big gulps of chocolate milk, and scooted out. “I’ll see you at the finish!”
Next ahead was the climb to Merlet, which turned out to be a long paved section. With the idea that Krissy was perhaps close enough to catch, and that I had only just passed Helen, I was determined to work hard at keeping my position and perhaps gaining a few. The fog filled air coupled with a now fading head lamp were a bit troubling and ethereal as well. I hoped morning light would arrive before the next bit of single track, but such was not the case. The downhill was welcome, and thankfully a runner behind me had a bright enough light for me to fairly fly. Down, down, down, over technical terrain eventually into the soft morning light. Perfect timing with my fairly dead lights. I was somewhat certain that the major climbs were finally over. I caught up to a group of three French runners – who were actually walking – and given the relatively few women in the race, they did a double take when I passed by. As soon as the trail turned uphill again, they caught me quickly. We grouped up in our effort, despite my language insufficiencies, as the climb went up. And up, and up, and up. I was laughing about how much it kept climbing because it was pointless to complain or cry. This is what I do for fun! And as much as it climbed I knew it HAD to end. I began to think that it was a bit like labor – every time you think you’ve had the last contraction – here comes another one, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The guys I was running with seemed to share the sentiment, as we would take turns leading the climbs with cheerful resignation. A crest, some downhill, and then, no, what? Another climb? Seriously? And again. It had to end, but, like this report, one starts to wonder. I was at over 80k, and had thought I could finish in about two more hours, but clearly this was not the case. Given the change in course and distance, my off the cuff time goal was to break twice my Speedgoat 50k time of 8:03, so anything sub 16 hours would be, in my mind, respectable. I was over 12 and a half hours with a big hike in my way, and 20k to cover. With some semblance of determination, I kept after it with the attitude that I might still catch Krissy, or might yet be caught back by Helen. Another gel helped with energy, but I was out of water in my pack, and I had inadvertently left my collapsable cup at an aid station with John, so when I came to another aid station I apologized profusely to the captain about losing my cup, could I use a soup bowl? She dug underneath the table and procured a spare plastic cup, filled it with coke, and refilled for me when I downed it. I was at 85k on my Garmin, so figured that the last aid station was going to be less than 5k away. I took off, stupidly leaving the plastic cup, and not filling my hydration pack.
The course continued to roll up and down, over rocky terrain, with the sound of a river and a highway – sounds that teased one into hope that we must be done climbing. Suddenly I was facing a green “tenredpacks” pack – it was Krissy. As I came up behind, I called to her. She asked who it was, and upon reply she reached back and hugged me. A champion, always, her ability to be supportive to everyone, no matter how she is feeling, is one of the many things I admire about her. She made way for me to pass, and as the course finally hit some serious downhill, I cruised faster and faster, happy that my legs felt strong at this point. Finally running into Argentiere, the final aid station/village, I was very thirsty and hungry, and very much in a hurry. I didn’t want to give up my place, and since my Garmin read 95k, I assumed I only had 5k to go, thus drank a cup of water, two cups of coke, and scooted out as quickly as possible. I ran up to the side of another runner, and asked him how far to the finish. “Eleven kilometers.” Yikes. Well, the course description for the reroute was “approximately 100k”, so I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little concerned that my calorie intake was a bit short. Hoping for the best, I pushed on. We were supposed to be running downhill and flat to the finish, which of course included some ups. I caught up to a couple of men from Spain, and we ran together for awhile. “What place are you for the women?” I replied that I was third American, but had no idea who else was ahead. We stayed together for a few miles, and finally, with 5k to go, I ran out of gas. My focus was now to “don’t walk, don’t walk, don’t walk”. I slogged along, also being mindful that going faster would likely result in me collapsing to the ground. With 1k to go, I still couldn’t muster up a strong surge, I was so out of calories. Fans were milling about and became thicker the closer to the finish I got, and gradually I picked up the pace. With 50 meters to go, I heard John cheering me in. I crossed the finish in 15:14, pleased as punch to be under 16 hours, 3rd American, 12th female, and 1st in my age group.
The awards ceremony took place on Sunday, and those of us placing were instructed to assemble next to the stage. The stage was fairly active with overall place winners, recognition of various volunteers, and age group place winners. It wasn’t until I was up on stage to receive my beautiful and resonating cow bell that I realized how many people showed up – the town square was filled to the brim with supportive fans, and looking out across the sea of humanity I felt more adrenaline than I did for the race. It didn’t help calm me down to see myself bigger than life on the jumbotron. Yowza. I stood proudly next to the other women in my age group as we jointly rang our bells. It was a very memorable moment.
The weather was perfect for the remainder of my stay. I had such awesome support from John, his wife Shela Roebucks, and their dog Piper – both during the race and taking me, Amy, Karl, and Erika into their summer chalet, sharing good food and wine and downtime. I will go back next year and hope for the full course, but I’ll manage to have a food time regardless!
Thanks to Scott shoes, Garmin, Sunsweet, ultraspire, and the many volunteers and race organizers!