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