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