Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thanks, 2009, for all the great times

Greetings and happy 2010!
Thank you Laurie for this photo above!

After a long pause, I (this is Becky) think it is time to share some brief highlights of our life in Switzerland in 2009. Better late than never, right?!

It was quite a busy year, with my new job and both of us working 110%+, all the while balancing it with all our activities and interests and getting together with friends, plus continuing to learn German and more about the Swiss life and things going on around us... As always, we feel very fortunate to have these opportunities, so we are constantly trying to make the most of them!

As they say, "A picture tells a thousand words", so I guess I don't need to add many more than that - I will let the pictures tell the story of the year. Here we go...

The year started off with some nice fresh snow, perfect for skiing and backcountry touring, especially with blue skies to go with it...

We were fortunate to have been given VIP tickets to the World Cup Ski Races in Adelboden - our first experience watching ski racing in person. Being in the VIP section meant we had front-row seats! And the weather was wunderschön...
The tickets were a Christmas gift from our friend Martina's parents, whom we call sMuP (it's a German thing) - Danke schön!
We had such a fun time, we decided to check out the races the next week at Lauberhorn in Wengen, this time with the Alphorns. Other fans seemed convinced we were Swiss - at least until we started talking :)
In Wengen I almost got run over by a parade of traditional Swiss cow bell players as I took their photo...
There were a lot of good snowstorms in early 2009, followed by sunny days on the weekend - a perfect combination, so we made the most of it nearly every weekend with skiing either at resorts or backcountry...

There was even enough fresh snow for Jeff to get his snowboard out and remember how to "surf" the powder.....dude...
And can't forget the après-ski - warm Jaegertee and that lively Austrian music, ja ja ja....
During après-ski can be a great time to come up with new ideas for future adventures (!) So we decided that on the next full moon night, we would ski up a nearby mountain in the moonlight. When that night came, it felt like an especially crazy idea to me, since it was snowing quite hard as we got started. But it was great fun, and we had fresh powder all to ourselves on the way down, and didn't even need our headlamps since the moonlight was so bright reflecting off the snow.
Thanks, Dave, for lugging your tripod all the way up the mountain just for this picture - We appreciate it!
In general we tend to do a lot of "uphill skiing" - It's quite a good workout...
...plus you have the added advantage of staying warm even in the cold weather, from all the exertion. After this climb, Jeff celebrated at the top with a short Alphorn concert.
On Easter weekend we skied to the top of the Wildstrubel.... Lots of good places to hide Easter eggs up there under all the snow....
SMuP and family treated us like family too with everything including a traditional Easter brunch...
Later in April we did a different kind of race called the Oetzi Alpin Marathon, made up of mountain biking (uphill), then trail running (more uphill, to the snowline), and then skiing up to the finish. I did it as a relay with Team Abenteuer (adventure) gals Kate and Kat, while Jeff did the whole thing... It was unusual to see the racers wearing shorts along with their ski boots!
Soon after, I travelled back to the U.S. to visit friends and family, and our little dog Brandy who was sick and not doing very well. She was 16 years old so we were afraid this would be the last time I would see her... although she seemed quite energetic while I was there with her. So we took her on a short hike on a beautiful spring day (she is just about to sit down in this picture, really!)
Turns out she really was near the end while I was there - Just a few weeks after I left, she was too sick to go on. It was very hard to say goodbye. But I am happy that we had 16 happy years together, filled with lots of smiles...
We miss you, Brandy, but I'm sure you are enjoying running off your endless energy in doggie heaven now.

When I got back to Switzerland it was already May, which means..... Cycling season!! We kicked off a summer of epic hill-seeking with a ride in nearby Liechtenstein (probably the only place in the world with even better roads for cycling than Switzerland)...
Then Jeff's parents came out to visit and we made a side-trip to beautiful Venice...
Then it was time to start up the Thursday Night Ride again, with all the usual suspects...
Thank you, Howard, for the picture above!

In July we were fortunate to get a spot to ride in the Maratona dles Dolomites - what a beautiful place...
It was great riding with our friends Chris and Heather, and celebrating afterward!
Thanks to you both for a great day, and for the pictures too!

The next weekend was my birthday - What better way to spend it than by riding my bike up beautiful hills with great friends?
We were very happy to have two very special friends Laurie and Roger out to stay with us for a whole week of fun-filled adventures, both on the bike and off. Laurie is amazing at taking pictures during these adventures, and never does anything without her camera (except maybe when she is eating chocolate like below!). It was this hike when the tradition of jumping at the tops of mountains started... Yahoo!
Thanks for this picture too Howard! It was a fun day we will never forget.

Laurie has a really great blog, and there she documented their visit with some incredible pictures and stories - Check it out: My Life on a Bike.

Later in the month we headed to Davos for Jeff to do the alpine marathon, while I did some biking and hiking on the numerous Wanderwegs...
On August 1st it is "Swiss National Day" in Switzerland, like July 4th in the U.S. I spent the day hiking with some friends - a very appropriate Swiss activity. Although the Swiss have many alternative options too - Notice in this picture below the cable car on the bottom left - It takes people to the top of the trail we were hiking, and then they can still hike around on the top.
Like every good Swiss mountain there is also a restaurant at the top. We participated fully in celebrating Swiss Day with some traditional Alpenmacaroni and Panaché (beer mixed with lemonade)...mmmm......
Good thing we work off all these calories with the hikes and bike rides! There were many more Thursday night rides...
...and some epic weekend rides too...

In August while Jeff was running around Mt Blanc (see previous posts for further details), I went on a run of my own from Chamonix (only about one millionth of the distance as his though!) with our friend Kate. She is not known for taking breaks but the weather was just so great we did have to take a jumping break...
The practice of jumping at the tops of mountains became quite contagious this year! When my cousin Tiffany and her husband Derek came to visit they got into the act as well...
And Jeff too... Who says Alphorns are just for music playing...
But we do take some calm moments to appreciate the nature and scenery as well...
Now back to jumping! When we went to the U.S. to visit family, they all got into it...
Well not my parents yet, but next time we will get them into it too! It was really great to see everybody. And we had some really nice autumn weather with sunny skies and changing leaves to enjoy while we were there.
Back to Europe, it was time to run my first marathon since 1999 - This time in Florence, Italy. A beautiful place to run through, and of course some great pre- and post-race food too!
Back in Switzerland, and time for skiing again... We kicked off the season with a nighttime uphill ski race called the Night Attack, with a few of our crazy comrades...
Then it was Christmastime already! We were fortunate for the opportunity to spend it with our "Swiss family" - Here they are celebrating the holiday in a traditional way - involving snow, skis, and going uphill, of course...
The Christmas tree is first put out on December 24th. That way it is fresh - which is good since REAL candles are placed on the tree and lighted. It is surprising to see the real flames on the candles balancing on the tree branches, but it is also very beautiful and peaceful.
We are very thankful to have had so many great times in 2009. Of course there was a lot of work and other responsibilities inbetween, but we are happy to have balanced it out with some fun adventures with great friends.

We wish you all a very happy 2010 - May it be filled with happiness and new adventures!
Becky and Jeff

Special thanks to the friends mentioned above who provided some of the photos!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Mind Trip: UTMB Race Report Part 3

I feel nauseous and my teeth are chattering uncontrollably. I fight the urge to whine about feeling utterly terrible, but this doesn’t stop me from complaining just a little about being cold. As a serial over-dresser in scenarios like this, I have most of my cold weather gear on already. It’s not dark yet and I’m not at high elevation – this concerns me. Kate tells me to breathe and to lengthen my stride. She and Mark walk beside me and force me to keep moving. I want to turn back for the warmth of the checkpoint, but Kate encourages me to move into a shuffle. It hurts like hell though. It doesn’t help matters that my stomach feels like I just inhaled a pizza in 3 minutes. “It’s worth it Jeff”, I tell myself. “You needed the nutrition to get through this last bit.” We shuffle along heading out of town. I’m still cold, but the shivering quietly fades and I start to feel decent. Kate continues to guide me through ignoring the pain and quickening my stride.

blurry shot of Kate helping me out of Champex - Kate says it's blurry because we're running so fast!

Soon we’re actually running and passing loads of people who are still stuck in the moment of suffering that Kate is confidently pulling me out of. She offers some final guidance and words of support and we part at the end of the accompaniment zone. She's really saved me here - I feel like a different guy than the mess who shivered his way out of Champex only 10 minutes ago. I run off into the forest with this short episode of suffering behind me and finally start to think of what remains of the course.

I’m struggling with the math, but I seem to recall that when I ran this section of the course semi-fresh a few weeks ago, it took 9-10 hours. In comparison, when totally fresh I’ve run mountainous trail marathons in half that time. This final marathon covers some brutal terrain though – with several very steep and technical sections. With 24 hours of racing in my body, I have no idea how long it will take tonight. Will I have the performance of my life and magically cover the terrain in 8 hours or will this be a 16-hour sufferfest?

I push on driven by Kate’s advice to cover as much ground as possible before darkness arrives. My climbing legs come alive and I move through the early steep sections at a good pace. I deplore my energy drink now – absolutely can’t stand the taste. The energy gels are equally undesirable. The only food I can stomach comes from the bag with peanut butter sandwiches and a big brownie that Kate gave me in Champex. I stuff this bag in my jacket for easy access and graze as often as I can, always feeling like I’ll get busted by Kate at the next checkpoint if I have any food remaining in the bag. The only fluids I’m taking in now are water and Nuun, which not surprisingly was the only hydration product I could tolerate (and enjoy) through Marathon des Sables as well.

course map, the Champex to Chamonix section is at the top

There are three big climbs remaining: Bovine, Catogne and La Tête aux Vents. These are the most challenging climbs (in steepness and terrain) of the entire race and they’re all stacked at the end when the fatigue is at its greatest.

Nightfall flirts about for half an hour and finally moves in for good. I relent and take a moment to put my headlamp on – delaying this action until the last possible moment as if my act of defiance in ignoring darkness will somehow postpone it.

I laugh at how ludicrous the climb to Bovine is – rocky sections that require scrambling up using hand-holds and terrain so steep it forms a natural ladder, with giant step-ups on rocks and roots. It’s a ridiculous route for a run. I hate it. I love it.

On the descent to Trient, I’m again fighting to get my legs to move. The trail is very rough here – so full of rocks that for the first time in the race I’m super cautious about trying to run downhill in the dark. I think I hear cowbells – yes, definitely cowbells. The rhythm is odd though – not like the pleasant sound when bell-laden cows are grazing in the Swiss countryside -- more like fans ringing bells at a mountaintop finish, but too irregular. Is it a group of kids ringing oversized cowbells to cheer us on? I continue to pick my way carefully down the steep slope when suddenly my eyes meet a giant black cow with horns – directly in front of me covering the entire path! I leap off the trail before careening into this frightening beast that has emerged from the darkness just to absolutely horrify exhausted runners. We exchange stares – with me looking for an escape route and the cow likely wanting me to get than damn light out of its eyes!

I stare in disbelief as the cow tries to climb a steep section of rocks that I had so carefully just climbed down. Several other cows fill the trail, all intent on ascending the path us runner types are desperately trying to safely scramble down in the darkness. The lead cow grunts and slips back on the rocks before finally making an aggressive charge up the rocky slope. I’m not quite sure how to handle the cows and those horns – they’re really freaking me out. Why in the world are they out here unescorted and trying to make a midnight ascent of an insanely steep slope? Are they thinking essentially the same thing about us? Wouldn’t it suck to DNF this race because I was gored?

One by one these horned cows have a go at the slope, so I slowly pick my way through the forest alongside the trail to bypass the midnight stampede and proceed to argue with my legs for nearly an hour to get them to move for a less painfully slow descent to the beginning of the next climb in Trient.

From Trient, I have two major climbs to go –- once I make Valorcine though (start of the last climb) I’m confident that I can finish on adrenaline. The climb back into France scares me. It’s another steep one. It’s very lonely on the long descent into Trient and seems to take forever. After what feels like (and may be) a few hours, I run into the charming village of Trient at a decent clip and suddenly find myself in the bright lights of the checkpoint. Looking around I see lots of people sleeping, resting, and just not moving. The energy here is weird – I don’t like it. I’m afraid that it will suck me in and I’ll never be able to leave. Nearly in a mild panic, I refill one water bottle, grab a handful of food, and bolt. On the way out of the checkpoint I start to doubt myself – thinking that I should take time for some warm soup and perhaps a nature stop, but the fear of getting stuck in Trient overwhelms my thoughts and I’m soon on the trail again starting the climb back to France.

Another lonely and difficult climb passes fairly quickly and I’m soon high on a ridge with stunning nighttime views into Switzerland. The lights of the valleys below and the heavens above play tricks with my mind, but I’m so engrossed in the majesty of it all that I lose track of time and purpose and simply follow along on the trail. A cold wind snaps me out of this trance. I stop mid-trail and pull my remaining layers out of my pack. I’m wearing all my clothes and still can’t get warm.

I’m greeted by a friendly, but sleepy ‘Bon soir. Ca va?’ upon my arrival at the very tiny checkpoint at Catogne. A fire burns in a ring beside the checkpoint – I stop for 20 seconds to warm my hands and quickly decide that I must flee the seduction of the warm fire.

Sleep deprivation finally makes its presence known as I spot what appears to be a dragon on the side of the trail. I don’t react in fear though, as my mind has immediately worked out that this isn’t a real dragon. Oh no, that would be crazy. This is merely an intricate painting of a dragon on a large rock – how odd that someone would paint such a large dragon on a rock in the middle of this Alpine wilderness. As I approach the painting, it vanishes revealing only the underlying rock. So, it was just a plain rock all along. What’s happening to my mind? This is the first of many hallucinations that will occur the next 6 hours.

The descent into Valorcine feels very lonely. I’m not sure where everyone is and often wonder if I’m still on course. The trail is a bit technical here, especially given the fatigue and darkness. I’m not able to work myself into a run and this really disappoints me. I’m in no mood to walk another descent, but my feet hurt every time I seemingly slam them into the ground.

I need to sleep. Ok, I will – I’ll sleep at Valorcine. I’m far enough ahead of the 46-hour time limit that I can sleep a few hours and leave for Chamonix at sunrise. I should call Becky now and tell her not to come to Valorcine. She can just sleep in and meet me in Chamonix at a decent mid-day time on Sunday. No problem – sleep awaits me soon in Valorcine.

I now enter a trail section that is covered by … what is this … oh, it’s bratwurst. There are hundreds of them – everywhere I step, I squash a bratwurst. I try to walk to the side of the trail to avoid them, but I can’t seem to escape the bratwurst layer that covers the forest. My eyes refocus and the bratwurst turn into pine cones. Oh, pine cones – so it’s not bratwurst. I should have known that, but my mind is intent on dancing away from reality.

I run out of the forest into Valorcine. I forgot to call Becky to update her on my sleep plans earlier – I’ll just talk with her here and decide then about sleeping. Maybe I should just try to continue. There are several bonfires burning just outside the checkpoint. I have no idea what time it is now – not sure I even know the difference between 11PM and 4AM. Becky and Kate are both waiting in Valorcine, along with another friend from Zurich (who makes a surprise middle of the night appearance). It’s 2:30AM.

I’m very happy to see them, yet I’m consumed with guilt for making them wait on me. Why couldn’t I run faster? Why did I make them wait until 2am for my arrival?

I enter the checkpoint and walk to meet them in the large food tent. I’m in a great mood, but clearly in a fog. They tell me to take some soup and offer me extra warm clothes. It’s freezing cold at this checkpoint, so I’m really worried about the final climb above 2000 meters in the pre-dawn hours above treeline. I take all the warm layers they can offer and change into a dry base layer.

Kate and Becky staying warm in Valorcine

in great spirits

enjoying a bowl of soup before setting off into the darkness

Becky tells me it’ll likely take me at least 4 hours to make the last part of the course into Chamonix. Four more hours -- really? What is 4 hours though -- is that a long time or will it pass in a flash? Time no longer makes sense to me. I stock up on food, say my goodbyes and set off on the trail. My mood plummets upon exiting the checkpoint as I’m convinced that I have 8.5 km of gradual uphill before the big climb begins. I start to weave on the trail and nearly fall asleep several times. I strike up a conversation with the runner beside me – hoping that she speaks English and can make enough sense of my multi-lingual nonsensical introductory comment “fall asleep, ich bin … trés fatigue”. Turns out she’s Swiss and speaks perfect English (of course), so we chat for a bit, with me trying a little German – which in my state of mind probably translated to “I am a train with sleepy sausage dragons. Paper plate or toothpaste?”

I see Becky one last time at the Col des Montets and then set off on the final climb. It was only a few KM from Valorcine, not 8.5KM – thank goodness! With this positive outcome, I come alive again on the climb and manage to push the pace up an incredibly steep set of switchbacks. My legs are now moving, but my mind checks out by taking a magic carpet ride. I spot a mini-bus parked on a tiny ledge half way up the cliff face. How did it get here? Was it air-lifted in? Why? Why in the world would someone put a mini-bus here? I get closer and realize that it’s not real. It’s just a carving – yes, someone has carved a bus into the rock. What a tremendous effort someone made to carve this giant rock into a mini-bus! No, no. It’s not a carving, it’s a painting – no – not a painting, wait … it’s just a rock.

The trail narrows – I choose a line toward the edge because it looks smoother. I look off to my right – it’s a straight drop off the mountain. I should be concerned now. I’m imagining buses parked on a rock face – how is it that I’m staying on the trail? One wrong step … well, just stay awake and that won’t be a problem.

I catch up to a long line of runners – the lead guy is really struggling. He loses the route many times and seems to fall asleep and stumble often. I finally work my way past him. All these guys are French. I want to speak with them – to offer an encouraging word, but I let the language barrier get in the way. I regret this. I manage to utter a fairly language-independent “ok?” to several of the guys, but we’ve all resorted to faint grunts at this stage, so I’m not sure if I heard good grunts or bad ones in response. I pass the guys and push on alone toward the high point.

I notice a couple of stranded hikers off the trail and my heart races. They are crouched beside a rock using their backpacks as shelter from the cold and wind. I walk off trail toward them thinking that I can offer some water and my foil emergency blanket. I can also call for help. Surely someone in the race crew can get here to help them. As I get closer, I see that it’s just a rock that looks like people – and then, it’s just a rock, that looks nothing like people. I’m losing it.

I climb and climb with the stranded hiker scenario repeating itself at least a dozen times. On the bright side, I am thinking more about these poor (imaginary) hikers than about climbing, so time passes quickly. Little reflective markers outline the route. I follow a pattern of making a few steps up the rocky path, looking up until my light catches a sparkle of the reflective tape, adjusting course, and then making a few more steps.

At last, I reach the cairn that marks the high point of the final climb. It’s very dark now. The stars, my God, they’re stunning. I start the descent in a hurry – it’s a race after all, but suddenly force myself to come to a complete stop. I recall standing in this same spot 3 weeks ago during my 3-day reccy run of the course and feeling a sadness that my time in the mountains was drawing to an end. I feel the same sadness now. Standing on this spot, I take in my surroundings. This is why I’m here – it’s about the mountains and their immense majesty and power, not about the finish line. Off to my left I can see the faint outline of the jagged peaks comprising the Mont Blanc massif. The longer I gaze, the more detail I can see. A large glacier, a stunning mountain range, the Milky Way. In these pre-dawn moments high above Chamonix and with tears in my eyes, I experience a high point in my 35+ hours on the course so far.

I let go of the moment and begin the descent. While I remain in great spirits, I now spiral into a weird state of dreaming while running. My mind is racing, hopping from one random thought to another – not just hopping though, it’s diving deep into these thoughts, so deep that I keep forgetting I’m running and keep waking myself up by tripping over rocks. Too many near misses – this is getting dangerous. Perhaps math will wake me up. I start with 7x7 – then move to more complicated multiplication in my head. I’m somehow nailing every calculation instantly. I’m amazed at myself for correctly calculating 17x13, 24x14, etc. without hesitation. I snap out of this dream state by laughing at the sudden recognition that I have no clue if my answers are really correct! I'm just saying answers immediately and congratulating myself on having the skills of a 12-year old math genius when I answer: 24x14 = plastic bottle cap.

Another block of time passes without me noticing and soon the sun rises for the second time of the race. I’m now beginning the final 7KM descent into Chamonix. The skies are clear and Mont Blanc is in full view – it’s hugely motivating and I have brief images of charging hard for the final 7K to the finish, but my legs just won’t go. When I try to run, my feet throb on every single impact. I try and try to move into a shuffle, but I can’t make it stick. The descent to the valley feels extremely long and I’m super nervous on the final single track section as a fall now could snap an ankle and require me to crawl to the finish or abandon the race with the finish in sight. I want the finish now. Don’t blow it Jeff.

Once I hit the streets of Chamonix, the pain vanishes. The view of Mont Blanc is so inspiring that it nullifies the intense pain my feet felt only moments ago. I run hard, like I’m sprinting for a 5K finish. A few hundred meters before the finish line I see my crew. They run beside me to celebrate this special moment. I’m overjoyed. A sprint finish is utterly useless in a race this long, but I can’t stop the adrenaline that’s surging through my system. I push hard for the finish line and as I’m passing a fellow runner in sight of the finish line, he turns to me and grabs my shoulder to offer a heartfelt congratulation. I’m dumbfounded. I was so caught up in sprinting for the finish that I wouldn’t have thought to share the moment with another finisher, whom I didn’t even recognize from the course, but just shared an epic journey with. I feel guilty for my selfishness and offer back to him some sincere and positive energy to share the happy moment together.
I cross the finish line and expect a huge emotional release, but it doesn’t happen. I’m so depleted, so emotionally spent that there’s simply nothing left to give. I left all my emotions on the course. Now, I’m just … finished with a run. It’s weird – I want to shout in joy – I want to cry – but nothing happens. I do smile though. I smile a lot. In hindsight my goodbye to the course happened in those pre-dawn moments at the top of the last climb, not at the finish line. This emotional farewell to the UTMB wasn’t the one I envisioned, but it’s oh, so appropriate.

In the end, it was a lot less about crossing the finish line in Chamonix than it was about the surreal journey. When I think back about the experience, my fondest memories are the moments that seemed the most dire at the time, the moments where I thought of quitting but pushed on, the moments when my crew was there for me, and those special moments of camaraderie with fellow runners and supporters along the way. These were the moments that transcended language, culture, and nationality -- moments you really have to cherish in life.

My sincere thanks for those who read this story and those who offered such wonderful support along the way. You’re the best, folks and you have my deepest respect! Huge thanks also to Becky and Kate for excellent crewing and sacrifice of sleep and to my coach Matt Hart, who helped me immensely in realizing my dream of finishing the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and dramatically improving my overall performance and fitness this year.

-- Jeff

Oh yeah, as for stats: I finished at 7:40 AM on Sunday in 363rd place after having a journey of a lifetime out on the course for 37 hours and 10 minutes. 2300 people started the race and over 800 weren't fortunate enough to reach the finish with the 46-hour cut-off.