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!


Turboturtle/winegoddess dree said...

you bugger...part 3!!!!!!!!!!

chocolate girl said...

my little mind cannot comprehend doing this!!! You're amazing!