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.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Brochure Didn’t Lie: UTMB Race Report Part 2

Courmayeur to Champex
Distance covered upon Champex Arrival: 123km (76 miles)
Elevation gained: +6,899 meters (+22,634 feet)

My time in Courmayeur refuels my body and mind. In the warm sunshine awakening this Italian alpine village, I try not to think about the fact that I have 20+ hours of running to go. Sure, the thought enters my mind, but it simply doesn’t compute. I’m still coming to grips with running the 14 hours I just finished, which is my longest run ever. Another sunset and sunrise while still running is just so mind-boggling that it makes me dizzy to even give it a moment’s thought.

Head in full spin, I head off into the streets of Courmayeur toward a climb that I know to be surprisingly tough. Steep, forested climbs are always so much more challenging for me than their high alpine counterparts that soar high above tree line. It’s amazing how much energy stunning mountain views provide on a climb – energy that must be mustered internally when you’re stuck in the trees working through an endless procession of switchbacks.

To my pleasant surprise, I feel fairly good on this climb – certainly stronger than my climb into Italy in the dark pre-dawn hours of the early morning today. I push my way up through numerous rocky switchbacks and finally top out on a breathtakingly scenic section of the course. A flat, grassy area appears to my left and tries to seduce me to be unfaithful to my race plan. Oh, how strong the urge is to lie down in the grass, feel the sun on my face, and take a nap!

I resist this sultry temptation and shuffle onward. After 15 hours on my feet, it’s now taking more effort to get my legs moving into full-on running mode when on the flats and descents. I’m on high ridge that offers dreamy trail running – dreamy as in awesome singletrack, fields of wildflowers, and endless views of the Mont Blanc massive.

Far to the south, you can see the pass from where we entered Italy at sunrise and to the north, the pass we’ll soon climb to enter Switzerland. The surrounding jagged peaks and massive glaciers epitomize how I’d always imagined the Alps in the days before I was lucky enough to have them as a playground. I’m in heaven on this part of the course. Lifted by majestic scenery, my legs come alive again -- running suddenly seems secondary and my mind dances high in the peaks above.

Quite high on life mixed with a heavy dose of endorphins, I make a quick descent into Arnuva. This is the last place I’ll see Becky until I’ve run through the Swiss section of the course and re-entered France – probably 10 or more hours from now. I’m quite happy to see my smiling wife. She has a great selection of food and drink for me, so I have a quick mini-lunch. I know I can’t linger at this checkpoint though. This doesn’t change the temptation – just a little more food, a little more conversation, perhaps a tiny nap. I fight these urges, say bye to Becky, and then set off for the Grand Col Ferret – the high pass that marks the Italian-Swiss border.

a short break in Arnuva

looking up to the Grand Col Ferret

Halfway to the pass I make a quick medical stop to self-treat a blister before it turns into a big problem. I lose nearly 10-minutes here, but with my coach’s guidance in mind, I figure it’s far better than losing a few hours or having to abandon the race later. I continue on and feel really good about my pace up to the pass.

At the top, it’s very cold with high winds blasting across the border. I desperately need water now – I left Arnuva with a full load of water and drink mix, but I consumed it all on the climb and need a refill for the long descent. The checkpoint at the pass is tiny and appears to only have an emergency shelter tent. Several runners enter for warmth, but the last thing I want is a false respite from the weather – I want to get down the pass quickly, where I know I’ll find warmth in the valley floor! I skip the break and subsequently the water re-supply. I proceed to hammer the descent into Switzerland, running strong fueled by the great views as well as fond memories of running this section hard a few months ago. My feet are light and somehow fall exactly where needed to support a quick descent to warmth and easier terrain. I re-pass the dozens of runners who had passed me on the climb during my blister repair break.

I buzz through the very tiny village of Le Peule, disappointed to still not find an aid station with water, but with a good enough pace going that I don’t want to stop for a water search. I run hard all the way into La Fouly (10KM from the pass). I’m driven by Becky telling me in Arnuva that my friends online had been commenting on my position and movement up in the field. While I really don’t care much about my overall position, I want to run this section to La Fouly hard as a tribute to those who are following along and sending in notes of support. (In hindsight I probably ran this section much too hard, but at the time it was hugely motivational to lay down a blistering pace as a tribute to my friends!)

Still behind on my planned caloric intake and now dehydrated after a hard hour of running with no water from the pass, I take some extra time in La Fouly to rehydrate, refill my bottle and camelback, and eat. I shift from cookies and cakes to sausage and chocolate – odd, but it is the one combination I can tolerate and it helps get calories back into my depleted system.

The afternoon sun in La Fouly makes another effort at seduction: “Just take a small nap Jeff. You can doze right here on this bench and no one will know.” I fight this recurring urge to sleep and once again win – but just barely.

The La Fouly to Champex section is the one I’ve been dreading. It’s 21KM, rolling along a valley and then climbing to reach Champex. Doing math in my head, I realize now that I’ll be hard-pressed to finish in under 40 hours. That would be 6 hours before the cut-off, but not as close to the 30 hours as I’d envisioned as a target in the days leading up to the race. I told myself last night that it would be my last full night of running through the darkness, thinking I’d only have a few hours in the dark Saturday night – now it looks like I’ll have a full night out and will likely finish the race in the early morning light of Sunday.

It takes a long time to transition back to running coming out of La Fouly – and this is over relatively easy terrain. It’s after 4PM now – I’ve been out for 22 hours and my legs are starting to protest. I give all my efforts to force a slow shuffle and I’m surprised at how hard it is to make this shuffle work. I alternate between walking and very slow shuffle running. This is extremely frustrating – I should be able to cover 21 rolling kilometers in less than 2 hours, but my legs just won’t move. I stick with the repeated attempts at running and finally after 45 minutes my legs loosen and I’m running again. Right as I’m finally getting control of my legs, I feel myself getting seriously sleepy for the first time in the race. I wonder if it would be possible to doze just a little bit while continuing to run. I pass lots of runners on a singletrack section through the forest. I’m very happy that my legs have loosened up, so I push the pace a little. My legs are cooperating now, but I’m getting more and more sleepy as time passes.

Suddenly I’m airborne. I thrust my left hand to the ground just before impact and take the brunt of the fall on my hand and left leg. I roll a couple times and lie for a moment on the side of the trail hoping that nothing is broken. My hand and leg are bleeding and starting to throb with pain, but nothing feels like serious damage. All the runners I passed in the section where my legs came back to life now pass me. They ask in French if I need help. I tell them I’m fine, although I really don’t know if I’m fine. What I do know is that I’m frustrated – I’m frustrated about falling, frustrated that it took so long for my legs to wake up after the last checkpoint, and frustrated at this stupid 21KM section that isn’t high in the mountains where I’m the happiest. I want this section over and done with – I want to be in Champex NOW!

I limp for 10 minutes or so -- my lower left leg hurts, but I think it will be ok. I’m disappointed to be passed by others whom I passed before the fall. I try to clean out my hand wound on the go, but decide it’s too much trouble. I’ll deal with it in Champex.

It’s at this moment that I recall the often brutal directness of the UTMB race guide – with statements such as: DON’T FORGET: IT’S HARD!

The guide goes on to state:

The regulations are specific in all imaginable dimensions: mountain ultra-trails are difficult races. You must be fully aware of the difficulties of the event before leaving, to be autonomous, to know how to manage difficult climatic conditions, not to cry if you fall, and to understand that this is not the role of the organization to treat muscular pain, digestive problems and other aches. One could say that this is ‘adventure’.

So, the brochure said it would be hard. That’s the point – it’s supposed to be an epic challenge, an adventure, a ridiculous test of human endurance. With this in mind, I decide not to cry about my fall and that I must simply forget about it. My attitude improves and the pain goes away. I somehow manage to run and climb the rest of the way into Champex at a decent clip. On the outskirts of the village, I see my crew of Kate and Mark. They escort me into the checkpoint, offering encouraging words the whole way. I’m so happy to see them – friends at a time like this are priceless. Kate immediately takes charge of her inaugural crewing experience with the confidence and skill of a seasoned professional. At this stage of the race, this is exactly what I need and she knew it more than I did.

The Champex checkpoint is a major one, second only to the halfway stop at Courmayeur, but much more critical to one’s success in this race. Champex is the breaking point of the course – the checkpoint where many runners exit the race or succumb to fatigue, sleep for several hours, and then make a desperate race for the 46-hour cut-off for an official finish. I’ve figured all along if I could just make Champex, I’d be able to tough it through the final 43 mountainous kilometers to the finish. I never put much thought into how I would feel in Champex – 24 hours into the race – or what I’d need to do in Champex to 1) make it out of the checkpoint and 2) refuel for the last 8-12+ hours of the race. Fortunately for me, Kate thought about all of this in advance.

She instructs me to get a plate of pasta, hands me a bag of other food items she brought, and makes me eat. Aside from small bowls of bouillon, this is the first warm food I’ve eaten in well over 24 hours. While I’m eating, she tends to my gear, treats an annoying blister, reminds me to continue eating when my mind starts to drift, and constantly fills my mind with motivational and positive thoughts. She tells me that she’s loaning me her energy for the next section of the course. She also tells me that it’s important I keep moving quickly to make as much progress as possible before darkness arrives. I’m in great spirits, but definitely in a fog at this moment. From eating to changing into warm layers, I’m moving in slow motion. Without Kate prompting me to take actions, I think I'd sit here for an hour just contemplating putting my shoes back on or how to pack away my blister kit.

In the 100-mile races in North America, it’s common to have a pacer after the halfway point. This isn’t allowed at UTMB though. The only time you can have anyone join you is in a designated area before and after the major checkpoints. At Champex, the accompaniment zone was surprisingly several kilometers long. This allowed Kate to escort me out of the village back onto the trails. I exit the checkpoint after 7PM. The cool evening air is a shock and with blood shifted to my stomach, my body reacts by shaking and bring on waves of nausea. My teeth chatter and my legs feel really stiff. I want to turn around and walk back to the warmth of the checkpoint – perhaps some hot tea or bouillon will help me get through this. Maybe another 30 minutes at the checkpoint will help turn things around and better set me up for the long night ahead.

To be continued ...

Stay tuned for the final chapter “The Mind Trip” – it’s on the way real soon!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Parade: UTMB 2009 Race Report Part 1

Chamonix to Courmayeur
Distance: 0-78KM / 0-48 miles
Elevation: +4200 meters / +13,800 feet

In the hours leading up to the 6:30pm start of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), I find myself in an uncommon state of pre-race anxiety. After countless sacrifices and over 250 hours of training the past 4 months with UTMB as my main goal, this week has brought out what feels link a chink in my armor. My body just hasn’t felt right: stomach problems, cold symptoms, an underlying fatigue, etc. Logic tells me that this is all driven by my body’s response to a break in the heavy training cycle and to the stress of putting it all on the line for a race so epic that my mind fails to comprehend the undertaking. Logic doesn’t always win though, so I’m constantly thinking: “What if this gets worse? What if I’m sick during the race? What if the sickness results in a failure to finish?” I’m also constantly kicking these thoughts out because I know better. Nonetheless, they continue to return – to haunt me in these waning moments before the race starts.

I pack and re-pack my backpack a dozen times, worrying that it’s much too heavy. I can’t find anything to jettison though – all the mandatory gear is there: headlamp, extra batteries, waterproof shell, whistle, and emergency blanket. The other items seem necessary too: gloves, food, long-sleeve layer, phone. My biggest fear gear-wise: getting too cold high on a windy pass in the middle of the night. I can’t toss out more clothes and I can’t find any other items to leave behind, so my pack will weigh what it weighs and I’ll have to deal with it.

After time moved so slowly all day, it’s moving quickly now and I must hurry off to hand over my Courmayeur drop-bag. Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the items in my drop-bag, food and clothing, will be very useful for the second half of the course.

I make one last check online where messages of support are still coming in – I don’t want to let my friends down -- these messages of support are so powerful and will give me much fuel late in the race. I post a final message on Twitter -- “heading to the start now -- it's time to chase a dream! Thanks all for your rockin' support!” – and exit the hotel with both an intense focus and a fear like I’m heading off on a war march.

Chamonix is in party mode, full of festive energy that's stacked uneasily on an undercurrent of tension. Spectators and music fill the streets, smiles and cheers abound, and ultra runners silently freak out. While the friends, family, and tourists are cheering and dancing in the streets, you can see a special look on the runner’s faces. We’re at the precipice of a challenge that few, including ourselves, can comprehend. We're battling with anxiety, with self-doubt, with countless mental checklists. Will we be strong enough? Can we control our bodies and minds? Are we blind to the danger and risk we’ll be tackling in the mountains? Will we exit the course under our own power by crossing the finish line in Chamonix or will we exit via a helicopter rescue? Will all of our intensive training lead to the self-fulfillment and joy we desire or will we fail and struggle with regret for a year until we can attempt this again?

My crew, wife Becky and friend Kate, manage to locate me in the moments before the start. We trade hugs and they do their best to keep me calm and charged with positive energy. I drift away to the start line, where my mind had already drifted an hour ago. The race announcer asks all runners to close their eyes for a few minutes. The race theme, Conquest of Paradise, loudly fills the streets of Chamonix during these moments.

(If you really want to get a sense for the moment, click the audio link above, close your eyes, and imagine yourself there -- ready to embark on this epic journey, full of both excitement and fear. Imagine seeing the majestic Mont Blanc and a spectacular glacier flowing down the mountainside into this charming Alpine village. Feel the warm sunshine on your face and see yourself staring down a challenge that you've put your heart and soul into, but don't know for certain if you're up to it. Soak in life, soak in the sounds, and then re-enter the rest of the story with a taste of what it was like to live in this moment.)

I stand facing Mont Blanc with my eyes closed. The emotion of it all grabs my soul. Surrounded by 2400 like-minded ultrarunners and thousands of supporters in stunning mountain scenery with heroic music piped in during the closing minutes before starting this epic race -- it is too much. Tears stream down my face. I feel so alive, so happy, so fulfilled.

Announcers are carrying on in French and English and thousands of people are cheering. Suddenly, there’s a countdown from 10 and we are off and running through Chamonix. I choke back tears during these opening moments of the race. The streets are packed 5-deep with cheering fans. I’ve never experienced anything like this – it’s the crazy atmosphere of the Tour de France, except this time I’m inside the barriers with my comrades and we’re the ones receiving the cheers. The UTMB start is energized with such a spectacular surrounding mountain landscape and such a huge crowd, it’s just hard to beat. It’s surreal. I’ll never forget this incredible energy.

The buzz of the Chamonix start begins to fade. Now it’s time to run. I pass hundreds of people and realize that I’ve seeded myself too far back. On the small climbs heading to Les Houches, it gets a little frustrating as the trail is often narrow and many long conga lines form that seem to constrict progress. I try to balance my desire to get moving and pass people with the need for self-control to prevent going out too strong. “Am I running too slow? Too fast? Am I strong? Am I weak? Remember to drink. Remember to eat.”

We reach the first big climb and I settle in to my climbing routine – using my trekking poles to rhythmically punch my way up the mountain. Fellow runners surround me as far as I can see in both directions. It feels too close at times as people are on my heels. “Am I going to slowly? Why don’t they just pass me?”

Toward the top of the first climb, the glaciated summit of Mont Blanc, glowing a soft pink from the evening sun, unveils herself through the clouds. It’s so breathtaking that I stop for a moment to soak it in. I think to myself “This is why I’m here, pushing
myself in the mountains – to experience a view so magical that it awakens my soul”. A huge smile opens my heart and I push on to the top.

Darkness arrives as I start the long descent into St. Gervais. I make a quick stop to put on the headlamp that will guide me through the darkness for the next 9 hours. I’m feeling great running this descent, but I have this nagging weak sensation and no appetite. My energy drink (which was my planned main calorie source) tastes awful to me. It’s too warm and while I had no problems with it in training, in a race setting it’s just not working. I must stay on top of this, as little problems can become very big problems quickly in an ultra marathon.

I’m feeling strong on the descent, passing many people. Just as I think my eyes are adjusting to the darkness and body is adjusting to running a fast descent instead of speed-hiking a climb, I’m airborne. My right shoe has clipped a rock and I’m now off-balance and headed over the edge of the trail into the thick forest. I manage to awkwardly plant my left foot and then I grab the runner in front of me with both hands on his backpack, trying to brace my fall while not taking him out at the same time. I feel terrible that my lapse of attention has inconvenienced this guy, but it was either grab him to slow the fall or go over the edge into the forest. After several off-balance strides with me hanging on this guy’s back steering both of us with my hands on his backpack, we come to a stop – still upright. I have no idea how this didn’t turn into a multi-runner pile-up! I apologize to him in a bizarre mix of French, English, and German and with a much-elevated heart rate, continue on the descent, albeit a bit slower and more focused. That was a close one and could have ended my race in the earliest of hours.

We arrive in St. Gervais to a Hero’s Welcome. This little French village is packed with enthusiastic fans. The streets are barricaded with special chutes for us. Kids are lining the barriers with their arms outstretched for hand slaps. I slap every hand I can find, super-charged by the energy of this atmosphere, which feels more like a rock concert than a race.

At the checkpoint, I eat a couple hundred calories and refill my bottles. I run out of St. Gervais into the darkness feeling energized and strong. Hours pass quickly – I run the flat sections and descents and walk the climbs as we roll our way to the Col du Bonhomme. Shouts of ‘Bon Courage’ or simply “Courage” – especially on the lonely sections of the trail, always shoot chills up my spine. I’m shocked by the people who are out in the middle of the night to offer a friendly “Bon Courage” to every runner who passes by. I offer a heartfelt “merci” to each and every supporter. On the final ascent to Col du Bonhomme, the fog rolls in and winds pick up. I fall into a trancelike state as I watch the circle of my headlamp bounce up and down and side to side as I shove one pole after the other into the mountainside on an endless march upward. I don’t feel fast and I’m getting passed by many people in the final kilometers of the climb. This is disheartening. My energy drink still tastes awful and I’m getting behind on calories because of it. “Why am I not stronger? Am I getting weaker?” Heavy fog and high winds lead to surreal moments where visibility is near zero and all I can see is the next step or two in front. The thick fog plays tricks with the headlamp beam – it can really freak you out if you try too hard to make sense of your surroundings. I try to just let go of my mind’s desire to make sense out of anything and instead just put one foot in front of the other.

I’m cold now and prior to reaching the pass, where the winds will certainly be more intense, I stop to put on the rest of my clothes, including hat and gloves. It’s midnight now. I try to comprehend that I’ll be running for at least another 24 hours, but I just can’t get my mind around that thought. Thoughts of quitting enter my mind. “Why am I doing this? Is this really fun?” Whenever these thoughts appear, I think of it as a game with the little devil on my shoulder randomly appearing to talk me into taking the easy way out, into giving up my dream. I laugh at the little devil and push onward. (The little devil goes away, but visits often throughout the race.)

After cresting the Croix du Bonhomme, I run hard into Les Chapieux, surprised at how well I remember this descent after running it only once a few weeks ago. The fog dissipates the further down the mountain I go. I pass all the people who passed me on the climb and experience a trail runner’s bliss of flying down a mountain while picking the landing spot for each foot only micro-seconds before my shoe meets the earth. I’m not bothered by the darkness or fatigue – it’s clear that endorphins are driving me through this section. At the checkpoint in Les Chapieux, I make an important change in my hydration system by swapping the energy drink mix for the bottle on my shoulder strap and moving my Nuun mix into the larger hydration bladder in my pack. I’m so far behind on calories at this point that I need a different approach else I’ll blow this race with a nutritional failure and that’s just unacceptable. Hopefully this change will pay off.

Prior to leaving Les Chapieux, I take stock of everything: Feet are good – no hot spots, no pains anywhere. Mind is good too. I’m happy, coherent, and surprisingly not sleepy. I set off into the darkness again, on the march up to Col de la Seigne. A few weeks ago I ran this section at night into an approaching storm. I was borderline hypothermic that night once I reached the safety of the hut an hour from the pass. Tonight, the wind is ripping, but I’m not as cold and I’m better hydrated. I must take care of myself – it’s dark and now a bit lonely out here. A series of small errors could lead to disaster. "Stay focused and in control Jeff", I tell myself. Once above 2000 meters, the fog rolls in again, severely limiting visibility. I throw in my ear buds and listen to some Romantic era classical music – triumphant, powerful, and emotional music from Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Bruckner. This music drives me higher and higher up to the Italian border. I feel good topping out at the pass and stare at my watch stunned at how quickly the past 3 hours have passed. I’ve now completely lost my sense of time -- I'm nearly 11 hours into the race. My hydration and calorie consumption is going much better since the change in Les Chapieux, but my sense of time has clearly (and fortunately) vanished at this point. I run hard into Italy, happy that I recall this descent so well and can manage to run fast down a mountain in the darkness.

After a quick stop at the Lac Combal checkpoint, I set off for the final climb before Courmayeur. I am charged to see the sky lighten. I’ve been thinking for a couple hours now that if I can just make sunrise, I’ll be home free. The awe-inspiring jagged peaks of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massive come into view. I stare at them for energy – the more their shapes come to life in the morning light, the higher my energy level rises. I stop to take a photo before beginning the descent to Courmayeur – it’s just too beautiful to pass up. I’m so happy to see the light and the beauty of the mountains at dawn.
I run very hard into Courmayeur, stripping layers as the sun warms my body. I’m surprised by the energy in my legs after 14 hours on the go. I’m excited about reaching Courmayeur, where my wife awaits. Seeing her will be a huge boost. This stop will also allow me to change into better clothes for what will likely be a warm day and take on some fuel to make up for under-consuming for the past 14 hours.

I enter the Courmayeur checkpoint not really concerned about my position in the race, but guessing that I am probably in the bottom third. While I’ve run all the descents fairly fast, I am struggling on all the climbs to go the pace I want to go. In training I was climbing much faster – I just can’t make it happen in the race though. Whenever I try to push harder, I get so nauseas that I feel like sustaining that pace could put me at risk of not finishing the race. I know I can finish, but it will have to be at a pace slower than I had envisioned. With these thoughts in my mind, I’m shocked when Becky tells me that I’m in the top third of the field. She mentions that I’ve been moving up in the field as I go through each checkpoint and that my friends are posting replies to her online updates in recognition of this. This is a HUGE boost to my spirits – more that my friends are watching and cheering me on based on my position in the race than about my own care for position. My position in the field does make me feel that maybe I’m not struggling as much on the climbs as my mind is telling me.

I want to stay and enjoy Becky’s warm smile and support forever, but I have to motivate myself to give up the comfort of this checkpoint and get moving. I change socks and shoes and ditch the tights for shorts. I find a note I left for myself in my drop-bag – it tells me to hug my wife, to smile and stay positive, and to remember that “Life is short, make the 2nd half of the race an experience you’ll never forget and never regret”. I take care of the first two of my self-given tasks and not once have to force myself to smile. As for the 3rd, I simply hope for the best as I set out for Champex.

Thanks for reading and please stay tuned for Part 2 "The brochure didn’t lie" - Courmayeur to Champex

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Power of Visualization


During a track session this week, I was just about to start my 3rd mile repeat and felt the need for an extra push. I was really having to work on the first two repeats to get my legs spinning the first 800 meters, so I was looking for that little bit of extra motivation to bring home the last mile with a good time. I was right on 6:33s the first 2 miles, which for me is pretty darn quick. I wanted to go sub-6:30 on the last one. As I readied myself for the start, I drew on some visualization experiences from Marathon des Sables that made a huge difference in that race. I've included some quick excerpts at the bottom of this message if you'd like to get a taste and perhaps consider some ideas that may help you some day.

Back to the track and remembering this experience in Morocco, I visualized friends from all walks of my life lining up beside me. Friends from Colorado, Atlanta, Seattle, Zurich, and the Twitterverse/FB-osphere took their places and then surrounded me in a peleton as I started what I had hoped would be a fast 1600 meters.

Through the first 2 laps I sat comfortably in this virtual pack -- visualizing faces, visualizing cheers and words of support. For 800 meters I didn't feel like I was running. I literally felt pushed -- pushed by this imaginary force. I'm not talking a figurative push here -- physically I felt stronger, faster, and less tired than I should have at the pace I was running. My stride felt lighter and I didn't notice the lactic acid that was certainly building up. Different people rotated to the front -- blocking the wind and cutting a path through the track.

At the start of the final 800, I visualized that some friends were dropping off -- their job finished. I ran harder now for them -- for their efforts to help me. Lap 3 brought a small group to the front. They fought the wind with all their might -- I fought just to stay on. I visualized hearing words of encouragement shouted from each one -- seeing actual faces in my mind. "I've got your back! I'm on your side! Stay on my wheel!".

I hit lap 4 -- my face showing pain and my lungs bursting. I visualized my best friend, my lieutenant, my Hincapie, take the lead. Everyone else was off at this point. He charged that last 400 meters just like Hincapie's lead-out for Cavendish in this year's Tour de France. I chased to hold on not for me -- but for his sacrifice. We laid it all on the line -- working as a team for a final push around the track. On the final turn he pulled off allowing me to slingshot past. Sweat stung my eyes -- the pain was now too much to ignore. I raced for the finish though -- running hard more for my helpers than for any other reason.

I crossed the finish line like 8 massive Rolls-Royce jet engine were strapped to my back and stuck at full throttle. My heart rate was nearly at 200 BPM and my vision was in a fog. My legs finally slowed down, the jet engines vanished, and I snapped out of my visualization to realize that I was all alone -- on a track outside of Zurich -- on a sunny morning with no one else in sight. My watch read 6 minutes, 8 seconds. I dropped nearly 30 seconds off my mile pace just through the power of visualization and the power of having some awesome friends from around the world whose energy and support I can tap into as an enormously powerful source of fuel and motivation.

Visualization is an awesome tool for the endurance athlete -- for anyone really. Give it a try and please let me know how it works for you!

In closing, here are a couple of visualization excerpts from my MDS posts:

My knee is hurting again and I'm slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength -- I need support. I begin a series of visualizations -- not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister --my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss -- they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to "stay tough, boy - stay tough". My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I'm filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.

and (from the following stage) ...

As I enter the final 11K, I feel utterly exhausted and still mentally tapped-out from the long stage. The strength of my grandmothers has powered me through most of today's stage. During this last stretch, the winds pickup -- headwinds. I need help - I need support. Suddenly I begin to envision my cyclist friends from the U.S. appear across the desert. They are riding in two large packs, coming from both sides. They swoop in front and beside me, forming a peleton to shield me from the wind. They take turns pulling and each drops back to ride right in front of me -- offering an encouraging word along the way. I see their faces and hear them shout "stay on my wheel Jeff, stay on my wheel!". They are working hard and taking this very seriously - sacrificing themselves to take the wind for me. All kitted out in cycling gear, they are putting in a maximum effort to pull me through the most challenging of moments. I can see them suffering -- riding at their limits and working as a team to aid me at what's nearly my breaking point. The strength I feel from this visualization is surreal. Whenever my mind starts to wander and starts to think about the pain, the lack of a visible finish line in the distance, the headwind, the heat, the hills -- I refocus on my peleton of friends and my energy level surges. An hour passes and the finish line finally comes into view. The peleton quietly peels off to the side and disappears into the desert, leaving me to finish alone.

Happy outdoor play!


Saturday, August 8, 2009

UTMB Course Preview Weekend

UTMB has been my focus race for the past 6 months and with it just over a month away, it suddenly entered the realm of possibility that I could actually journey over to Chamonix by train and run the course in advance. I received encouragement for this option from my coach and one of my great mountain running friends so I took an extra day off from work and enjoyed an easy 5-hour train ride through Switzerland and across the border into France.

Plans called for running the full 103-mile course over 3 days. This is a very popular 9-11 day hiking circuit, so I knew I wouldn't be alone and shouldn't have too much of a problem finding a refuge to sleep in during my two nights out. Unlike the race, where I'll have access to support stops and at least one drop-bag at the half-way point, this dress rehearsal would require me to carry all the sports food and drink needed for 3 days, some extra clothing & survival gear, and basic stuff for staying in a hut, like a sleeping bag liner, ear plugs, and a tolerance for being super-close to lots of fellow stinky trail companions. The weight added up and my pack felt a bit more like a Marathon des Sables race pack than a UTMB pack. With no real worries but feeling a little bit bogged down, I set off from Chamonix at nearly mid-day on a Saturday -- destination, le Ville des Glacier, half way up the Col de la Seigne, which marks the French-Italian border and sits about 35 miles away from Chamonix.

Day 1 brought fantastic weather, stunning views of the Mont Blanc massive, and some unexpected gear and water-finding challenges. I managed to work through these challenges, actually replacing my backpack 3-hours in -- trading my old pack for sunscreen and a few gels, but certainly got behind on hydration and nutrition throughout the day. I paid for it later, but for most of the day the running was excellent and I was happy in my element.

I topped out on what I thought were the final climbs of the day (Col du Bonhomme and Croix du Bonhomme) and started my journey down the valley, where I expected to find the hut I had booked for the night. Soon the sun had set and I was still descending, now in full darkness. I popped on my headlamp, which will be mandatory at UTMB where I'll run through 1, perhaps 2 nights. The descent ended and I discovered that my downhill finish actually included quite a long slog up another valley to reach the hut. As I ran up that valley, the weather changed, bringing me a taste of the storms to come the following day. I reached the hut at 10:30PM wearing all my foul weather gear, but still shivering. I was near delirious and briefly considered just running through the night. Crossing a high pass in an approaching storm without a tent and already cold and dehydrated -- well, these thoughts finally penetrated my senses so I stopped at the hut and barged in at a very improper time for hut arrival. I begged the hut warden to find some food for me and desperately tried to rehydrate to stop the queasiness and shaking. With a bowl of soup in me, I tiptoed into a room full of sleeping hikers, found the last remaining bed, and proceeded to lie awake for 7 hours while 29 people snored, coughed, tossed, and turned their way to a decent night of sleep. I looked at the ceiling all night -- listened to the wind roar -- thought about everything, from 1,000 things to worry about to 1,000 things to be super happy about.

Right as I decided to crawl out of bed after sunrise, the storm started in full -- considering that Objective 1 of the day was to cross a 2500 meter pass, I opted to stay in bed for a bit, where I managed to sleep about an hour -- finally. I then set off for the pass, running until it got too steep and then speed hiking with trekking poles. The day was cold, drizzly, and often full-on rainy. I was running in all the clothing I brought, so I had few options to stop or slow down, else I'd get cold fast. This part of the course, aside from the mid-way visit to Courmayeur, felt remote and raw. Awesome glacier views, trails made for mountain running, and epic scenic beauty that really lifts your soul.

Day 2 was a very long day, so long that I ran out of daylight and lodging options before my planned stopover in Champex. I opted instead to stay in La Peule, a village of one building, which had thankfully just been turned into a mountain refuge. This great little stopover spot is just inside the Swiss border after the big climb over the Grand Col Ferret. I later realized that with my first night's stopover in France and second night in Switzerland, I had run through the Italian section of the route all in one day. Ciao, ciao Italia!

The super-friendly La Peule Swiss hut keeper took care of me with a late night Omelet and my choice of any of the 30 beds (I was the only guest that night). Physically, I was tired, but not wrecked. I managed nutrition and hydration a bit better on day 2, but remained colder than I would have liked. I set off on day 3 with a nearly 10km sprint to the nearest village with a bus station. The section between la Fouly and Champex (about 20km) is in a valley with no serious climbs, which makes it a good candidate to skip on this circuit. I opted to cut out this section to get me on the original route plan for the day and to make it to Chamonix before midnight. As the visibility was terrible (I was in a cloud nearly all day) and the rain continued, I felt ok skipping this valley in favor of my daylight time on the big climbs ahead. Soon I was running again, up the surprisingly steep routes up to Bovine and Catogne to the final climb up from Col du Montets. I began to think in terms of climbs and meters of elevation gain rather than in terms of distance or time. It was an odd sensation as a runner to think ("ok, 2 climbs to go: 800 meters, then 1200 meters -- with the descents, that'll be something like 4 hours" over a distance that would take less than 2 hours when not in the mountains).

The bad weather finally broke its stranglehold on the region during my last hour of running back in to Chamonix. I was ecstatic and suddenly sad about the end of this odyssey.

I ran a strong final hour, really shocked at how good the legs felt, but realizing that it was the mountain views that were powering me -- shutting off all signals of fatigue and pain. Mont Blanc came out of the clouds and welcomed me with open arms into Chamonix. The closer I got to town, the more clouds would lift from the surrounding peaks. A late evening sun lit up Mont Blanc right as I entered the streets of Chamonix. I was on fire -- so incredibly overjoyed. I sprinted my heart out like I was racing for first place in the real race. Tourists stepped aside as I ran at top speed through the streets of Chamonix, backpack swinging back and forth, smile beaming wide. I reached the center of town and suddenly stopped -- hands down on knees, bent over, tears in my eyes. I looked up at the awesome glaciers flowing nearly into town, looked at the final moments of sun on the top of Mont Blanc, and listened to the raging glacial river off to my side. At that moment, the numbers didn't matter -- the run was some distance, with some amount of climbing and descent, for some number of hours. All those 'somes' didn't really matter. What mattered was that feeling in Chamonix, that feeling on Col du Bonhomme, that feeling on Grand Col Ferret, that feeling on every climb, every scenic vista, every ridgeline -- that feeling of love for nature, for the mountains, for the glaciers and rivers -- that feeling that boils up inside you and calls you to these special places to savor life. Oh, how sweet it was -- how sweet it is!
More photos on Picasa here.

Reflections on the course (for those considering UTMB): it's big, it's stunning, and it's seriously mountainous. There are few sections where you can get into a normal running rhythm for more than 30 minutes -- the course feels like it's either going straight up or straight down, with only a few transition bits thrown in. I highly recommend trekking poles -- real ones, not the super-light racing poles. 31K feet of climbing and descending is only runnable for the very elite and much of the time I found myself speed-hiking the climbs, using my trekking poles to power me along, set pace, put me in a rhythm, and keep me upright. I've done mountain marathons where you can run most of the ascent -- that's just not the case for the UTMB route. Lots of the steep climbs seemed in the 1 hour to 90-minute range, so it felt like cycling high passes -- just set a rhythm and stay on it until the top. I tossed the poles in my backpack for the descents and ran all of them but one steep, technical descent late in the course. If you run it outside of the race itself, bring water purification stuff, because it's rarely easy to find clean water as often as you need it. Final thought -- it's the Alps, so despite the season, bring sufficient warm/dry gear. Despite having gloves, hat, shell, two wool shirts, etc., I still got really cold and would have been in trouble had I been injured on the trail. Lesson learned!

Thanks for reading!


Friday, August 7, 2009

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc -- a journey starts

Like I was a starving and half-crazed fish in search of food after days of roaming an empty ocean only to find a juicy meal perched on a shiny, barbed piece of steel, my journey to prepare for and race the Marathon des Sables in 2008 hooked me on ultra running and has tugged me along ever since deeper into the amazing world of ultra running.

That journey into the unknown introduced me to a wonderful mix of camaraderie, self-drive, and awe-inspiring beauty that is at the heart of the ultra running culture. After each stage of MDS I would sit in the Berber tent with my mates, covered in dust and sweat with an aching body, listening to their tales of 50 and 100 mile running races thinking "I wish I could do that." I know -- a bit odd to be in the middle of a stage race in the desert, a significant ultra race in its own right, dreaming of running ultras in other parts of the world -- but that's how it is.

MDS was my first ultra -- and everyone around me seemed such the veteran ultrarunner. I felt privileged to join this community and honored that these vets would treat me like one of their own.

The long stage of MDS served as an awakening for my ultra running soul. I'll never forget the feeling of running alone near the front for that 50-mile stage, powered by the vastness, surreality, and intense heat of the desert and a mind that grabbed hold of the spirit of all the wonderful friends and family in my life to carry me to the finish line. This was my spirit walk, my walkabout, my journey into the land where the mind is freed and the feet move on their own -- where human flight seems possible and a natural high abounds. Sadly, that event eventually drew to and end, but the spirit drove onward and opened new doors.

After MDS, I worked through a period of post-race blues and then snapped out of it with a commitment to tackle as my first 100-miler the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). While there are lots of great 100-mile runs in the States that I'd love to go for, UTMB is just a few hours from our home in Switzerland and has a monster course appeal and stunning Alpine scenery that begs me to make the starting line in Chamonix for my first 100. UTMB covers a ridiculous 31K feet (9400 meters) of elevation gain over stunningly beautiful terrain in France, Switzerland, and Italy. I experience a mixture of excitement and fear just watching the Google Earth flyover!

The race is set to start in Chamonix at 6:30pm on August 28th and it has a 46-hour time limit.

Stay tuned to the blog for a glimpse of what it's like to train for UTMB and if all goes as planned, toe the starting line in Chamonix at the end of August.

Cheers from Zuri,

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mountain Marathoning in Lichtenstein

June 6, 2009 - Lichtenstein - LGT Alpin Marathon

1800M elevation gain and 42KM: Trail Running

The LGT Alpin Marathon is held on a beautiful and sometimes brutally challenging course in the tiny and scenic country of Lichtenstein. This wealthy nation is nestled between Switzerland and Austria and contains some stunning alpine terrain, breathtaking views, super nice people, and even a handful of interesting castles to catch the eye. This race takes the standard marathon distance of 42KM(26 miles) and sends most of it uphill. Only the first 10km is comfy and flat - the rest tackles the mountainous terrain that's home to the beauty of Lichtenstein.

We weren't so lucky with the weather gods this year as the race turned into a real soak-fest! The rain never seemed to stop and it got colder as we climbed and the day progressed. I feel for the people who didn't bring a shell or hat. Even with my shell and gloves on, I was soaked and shivering by the time I crossed the finish.

The race opened with a nice and easy flat 10K and then the first big climb (10km itself), which was sometimes runnable but often so steep that walking was in order for all but the elite. I ran the first 10k at an easy pace and just enjoyed the view of the Rhine. Once we started heading up the mountain, I ran until my heart rate was too high (in the 170s) and then switched to a power walk. The rain was at its heaviest at this point, so I just smiled at the appeal of running a marathon up hill in a cold rain and powered on, alternating beween running and walked. Before too long (well, about an hour of climbing), we crossed over a mountain and entered a quick and muddy descent down to Steg to close out the 1/2 marathon section. I love running fast down hills, so I opened it up on the descent, leaping over small stream crossings and smacking my shoes straight into and through endless goopy mud puddles. As I finished out a rippin' descent into Steg, I had it in my mind that the bulk of the climbing was in the bag by this point -- which I later learned is entirely the wrong thing to have in your mind when you reach the half way point in Steg!

The photo below shows the border in yellow. Austria is to the left, Switzerland to the right/bottom. Licthenstein lies in between (and is nearly covered by the race course!).

From Steg (center-right in the photo below), it's a long, long climb (partly runnable with some rolling sections early on) toward the ski town of Malbun. This part of the course is very scenic (especially, I can imagine, when the weather is clear!). The views open up quite nicely as you wind your way around the mountain, into the forest, and then back out for the final upward march of this section. There are some very steep bits, especially the end push to the pass that overlooks Malbun (top of photo just left of center). 30km+ into the race -- this climb hurts and seems to never end. The higher we climbed, the less runnable parts I could find, so I resorted to as fast a hiking pace as I could muster. I really had to deep dig in this section to keep the pace going.

After topping out on the 2nd big climb of the day, the reward is a great view and the feeling that this is the home stretch -- you can see Malbun and soon even hear the Finish Line announcer. This is a cruel joke though. After descending to the edge of town (and I again ran the descent very hard as I raced to the joy, dryness, and warmth of the finish line), you climb back up again high above Malbun and take on a 5km tour of the town that packs a huge punch in tired legs that were expecting an easy push down (and only down!) to the Finish Line. Halfway through this tour, you drop back down toward Malbun and climb up again (toward the top of the Malbun ski lifts).

Finally the climbing ends and you have a rippin' descent to the Finish Line. Good SWAG at the finish (nice technical shirt plus a nice Swarovski wine bottle stopper). Even with my dry post-race clothes on, it took me half an hour to stop shivering. I saw people being treated for hypothermia -- which reinforces the need to take mountain weather seriously.

With the big day of rain, we made countless crossings of small streams and splashed through endless mud. It was a cold, wet, and dirty day of racing and a hell of a great day in the mountains!

I'm looking forward to next year's race, when the weather will hopefully cooperate! Next up, the Graubünden Marathon -- which I just noticed has nearly 900 additional meters of elevation gain over the LGT. Doh!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Making people smile: Running the Zürich Marathon with an Alphorn

Race Date: April 26, 2009
Road Marathon ... and Smile Day
A new Swiss tunnel has opened this year and it goes right under one of my favorite local mountains for biking and running, the Üetliberg. As a part of the tunnel opening ceremony, this year's Zurich Marathon started with a little underground jaunt. Once I heard about this I thought, hey -- I've never ran a marathon that starts with nearly 10KM of tunnel running, so why not give it a go? I signed up several months ago and at Becky's urging finally did a couple long runs to prep for the race. I've been in ski mode since November and aside from the Ötzi race have only been maintenance running since my last ultra toward the end of summer. The couple of long training runs I did for the Zurich Marathon went just fine -- which made me happy because it took several months for my ligament tear from an October running injury to heal. I've done lots of road marathons and really favor trail races now, so I decided that instead of running Zurich for a fast time, I'd run it to entertain people -- with a singular mission: make as many people smile as possible.

I also wanted to pay tribute to the Swiss for having such a wonderful country and allowing me the privilege of living in it. So, in Jeff-land, this all translated into me running the marathon while carrying a 3-meter long alphorn -- and not just running with it -- but playing mini-concerts for people along the way.

To make things interesting, I decided also run from home to the race start and another hour back home after the race -- for a nice 60km+ day of running. I arrived at the race start happy to be warmed up after an hour of running and bumped into an English mate, Mike, who was running the marathon dressed as the Pink Panther. Mike and I were apparently the only people stepping outside the box into creative/wacky-land as everyone else looked the part of serious runner. It's fun to shake things up. On the way to the race start I found a hill to play on and started what would be an endless series of mini-concerts. Every time the alphorn was spotted, people smiled and cheered -- awesome, it's working.

I fired up the crowd with mini concerts at the tunnel entrance and exits, in the tunnel, and for 4 1/2 hours along the race course. Highlights included passing the various musicians performing for the marathon (there's a great common brotherhood that works quite well only on the connection of music), playing a bit for a quartet of alphorn players performing for the race, and seeing the great reactions of the young and old when I would stop to play for them.

As for running with such an instrument, while it looks super heavy, it weighs only 1kg (2.2 pounds), so the weight wasn't much of a problem. Although, a few hours in and I could definitely feel it! My biggest concern was that I didn't hit anyone!

By the way, I've had this wonderful instrument for a year now and have run, biked, and hiked with it all over Switzerland. A carbon fiber alphorn is a great idea and is custom-made by a very interesting and entertaining gentleman in western (French-Speaking) Switzerland, (Roger Zanetti).My good friend Kate showed up on a bike to cheer and motivate me on a later section of the race, prompting a great observation from another friend's parent (who didn't know me): "I saw some poor chap running with an alphorn while some girl on a bike yelled at him." Ah, perfect -- that's about it -- her "yelling" was very helpful though, because whenever the crowds thinned out I would lose an audience to bring to smiles and my energy would begin to fade.

I had lots of conversations in Swiss German throughout the race -- well, semi-conversations, especially after I learned all the standard questions and practiced my responses in my broken Swiss dialect. People were always quite a bit shocked that I was 1) not Swiss 2) an American, and 3) can actually play the alphorn. They always smiled when we talked and that rocked.

It was a real joy on the finishing straight -- I stopped and played for the large crowd and then crossed the finish line with the alphorn high in the air (a celebration of Switzerland and this great mountain musical instrument, not me). A volunteer at the finish asked me to play for her before she'd give me water -- which I did of course -- and then I walked to cool down playing for people along the lake. One woman was insistent on paying me -- after refusing several times, I finally accepted the money when her gent suggested that it was to buy me a beer. Playing alphorn for a post-race beer -- well, ok.

After enjoying some post-race time with my friends, I got back on my feet and ran another hour home -- with the alphorn on my shoulder the whole time -- getting waves, honks, and smiles from passerbys. Yes, smiles -- it was free to give them and I got such warmth back in return. What a brilliant day!

p.s. Thanks for the photos Howard Brundrett (2nd, 6th, and last from the top)!