The Trail Verbier Extreme Alpine was an epic and unforgettable experience. There are two sides to running in the Alps. You are in the most beautiful place imaginable and the views are breathtaking. But the price you pay is enduring the most brutal terrain to earn that scenery. This paradox calls to me and drew me to the Trail Verbier.
This was the toughest race I have run by a wide margin. It was also the most enjoyable in many ways. There were several very dark moments, and I am honestly very surprised that I finished this race. It still feels surreal.
Before going on, I need to thank Jen. In addition to the time training for this race, Jen graciously let me take 2 days out of our vacation in Chamonix for this race and was stranded with Liam by herself. For this I am eternally grateful. Thanks, babe!
Apparently the already brutal course wasn't quite tough enough, so they added another huge climb and descent to the course. This put it at 68 miles with a staggering 27,600 feet of climbing, 27,600 feet of descending, and lots of high altitude running above 8,000 and 9,000 feet.
So how do you train for a race like this when you live in Washington, DC? You don't. And you don't sign up for it. You shake you head and chuckle softly, saying "well that would have been crazy idea." Sadly I seem to have very little instinct for self preservation.
Much of the course consists of five huge climbs and six huge descents. Basically you start at a town, climb about 5K feet, descend 5K feet to the next town, and repeat.
We got to Chamonix on Tuesday and had some time before the race. Despite exercising great restraint and not running / hiking too much in this mountain playground, I managed to catch a cold. I was feeling better but still not 100% when I woke up at 1:45am on Saturday morning to drive to the race. You know you are doing something wrong when you are starting your day and people are still out at bars. I probably should have joined them for a drink and gone back to bed.
From the moment I got to Verbier it was a comedy of errors. I parked 10 minutes from the start line and spent about 15 minutes getting the last of my huge amount of gear ready. I planned much more for this race than Sardona last year. After facing the reality of 7+ hours without an aid station and then to find an aid station largely consisting of sausage, cheese, and a drink called "sirup", I was prepared to be much more self reliant. I carried way more food with me and also had a well stocked drop bag waiting for me at Bourg St. Pierre (mile 48).
I merrily trotted on my way in the night and realized I forgot something. I can't remember what it was but when I went back saw I had also forgotten my trekking poles. Woops. I hustled to the start with 15 minutes to spare. Not a lot of time, but enough. I looked down and in a moment of panic saw I didn't have my race #. That was also in the car ... not good. I dropped my things and quickly ran off.
Then I then realized my car keys were in my pack that I had left at the start. Dear lord Will, get yourself together. Car keys now in hand I have 12 minutes until the race start to get to the car, get back, get my race number on, get my drop bag to the right spot, and ideally go to the bathroom. This is of course impossible. I briefly considered this a sign from god and dropping from the race. Then I figured this surely must mean everything that could go wrong already has so it will be smoothly sailing from here. Right?
I sprinted to the car, grabbed the race #, and sprinted back. I frantically got my number on while they played the Final Countdown and ticked off the last few seconds. Then the race was underway and I wasn't even in the starting coral! I ran around trying to find where the drop bags go and found a kind soul willing to drop it off at the bus. I am already out of breath and have run an extra mile before even starting the race. Nice work, Will. A bunch of Europeans looked at me quizically when I finally ran across the start line with everyone already out of sight. Before the race I thought about how I needed to make sure I didn't get caught up in starting too fast with the front of the pack. Mission accomplished. A bit after 4am I was finally on my way.
Start to Saleina (0-25 miles)
I caught up to the back of the pack while trying to wrestle my gear into order. I felt like i was getting the "please don't die in our mountains look" I had become so used to at Sardona last year. After running through Verbier we had a nice 1,000 foot climb for a warmup. Then it was 3,300 feet down through steep forest trails, and I tried my absolute best to preserve my quads for the rest of race.
We popped out of the forest and had a nice mellow stretch to the lowest point of the course at Sembrancher (2,300 feet). The approaching dawn was starting to create a glow around the mountains. The crescent moon was setting, and it was a peaceful time in the mountains. I hit Sembrancher at about 1:45 and quickly moved on to start climbing Le Catogne.
Le Catogne was an impressive 6,500 foot straight climb at a 20%+ grade. Not a bad way to start your day. I stayed conservative but was passing a lot of people and feeling good. After 4,000 feet of steady, steep climbing through the woods we popped out above treeline and could see the summit. After more steep climbing we traversed to the ridge and the climbed the spine of the mountain. Helicopters were buzzing overhead filming the race, and the views of the surrounding mountains were incredible in the morning light.
I hit the summit around 8:35am, pleased with my split for this section. I paused to enjoy the views, regroup, and get some solid food down. The descent off Le Catogne was madness. You fall off the cliff and plummet 4,000 feet in about 2.5 miles with much of it over 40% grade. I was ready for the technical aspect of this after Sardona last year, but there is just no way to save your quads on this kind of descent. It is pure survival.
I came into Champex a bit before 10am, and my legs were shaking. I was really worried my quads were already gone at 16 miles in. After some fruit, Swiss chocolate, and Coke, I moved along. I figured a nice, long uphill would be great for regrouping and pulling myself back together. After a short mellow stretch I got kicked in the teeth by this monster climb.
It was steep, steep forest trail and then rock scrambling up the face of a cliff. We traversed a bit and then had another huge push up to the Orny Hut. I was going impossibly slowly and had to stop twice on the climb to sit down and pull my sorry self together. I have literally never had to do this on a climb. The only thing that gave me some comfort was that I was still passing lots of people.
We did have a great view of Catogne behind us and the Orny glacier coming into view in front of us. Orny is one of those places way in the middle of nowhere that you can't drive to. Seeing these remote landscapes is one things I Iove about these races.
On the down side I was little over 20 miles in now and was totally worked over. I slowly trudged up to 9,200 feet and the aid station. I felt destroyed and didn't think there was any way I could finish this race. I had initially been thinking of dropping at Bourg St Pierre and was now planning to drop at La Fouly, the next major aid station at only 48km in. I stopped at Orny for about 15 minutes to sit down, eat some food, and regroup.
As I descended I started to feel mildly better. I took it easy on the descent and listened to some music. The course bombed down the mountain with glaciers and waterfalls all around. It was stunning. I was starting to feel a bit better, and the lower altitude also helped.
Saleina to Bourg St Pierre (25-48 miles)
We bottomed out in Saleina at around 4,000 feet. The last 25 miles had totally crushed me, and the idea of 43 more was completely insane to me. But then I remembered my careful study of the course. I had plotted it out and realized that this first marathon stretch had by far the toughest terrain and the rest was still difficult but not as bad. This was the first of three key moments that saved my race and got me to the finish.
With renewed hope, I started up to La Fouly. The course finally let up, and it was a steady climb with a moderate grade up to Fouly. This was the kind of stuff I was trained for, and I could speed hike this grade all day. I clipped off 15 minute miles going up and was also able to get in some good calories / fluids and enjoy the scenery.
I came into La Fouly a new man. It had taken me 12h15min to run a mere 48km, but I was back to having a good time in the mountains. This little town was surrounded by towering peaks and amazing glaciers. I spent 15 minutes in the aid station and set off ready for the remaining 3,500 feet of climbing. I felt good for the first 2 hours and worked steadily up the mountain, passing lots of runners. As the sun was just starting to go down there was great lighting on the back side of the Mt Blanc range.
I ran into a nice guy from Australia on this stretch and really enjoyed being able to talk to someone in English. He was worried about the cutoffs at St Bernard and Bourg St Pierre and asked to confirm whether they were 9pm and midnight. I said I didn't know, but that got me really nervous. Those were roughly the times I had been shooting for. I was on track to be a bit ahead of those times, but it wasn't much room to spare. More on this later ...
As I got up to 8,000 feet I started breaking down again. I rested for a bit by a picturesque alpine lake and then trudged up to the Grand Col Fenetre at around 9,000 feet. We had a short but steep descent through snow and scree and then had to climb our way back to the St Bernard aid station.
I was again sure that I was going to drop from the race. My hands were blistered from using the trekking poles, my feet were a mess, my legs were shot, and I was exhausted. It was around 7:55pm, and this was the second of the three key moments. I really took the time I needed here to pull myself back together on Jen's good advice. I taped up my hands, got in some food, had a bunch of soup and Coke, and got my night gear ready. The words of support from family and friends was also awesome here.
At 8:20pm I was back on the trail. It was about 1,000 feet up to the Col, but I was actually enjoying the climb. At the top we had a 360 degree view of the fading sunlight reflecting off the mountains. The first 1,000 feet of the descent were steep and rocky, but then it was a mellow, long downhill to Bourg St Pierre. I was making good time again and enjoying the last light of the day. There were waterfalls all around me, and the cooling night air was really nice after a very hot day.
I also knew my drop bag was at Bourg St Pierre and with another good solid stop I was getting back in the mindset of finishing this beast. Sadly my GPS watch died on me on this stretch (I think I had it on the wrong setting). The watch Jen got me had been so incredibly helpful throughout the race, so I was bummed to have to continue without it. I also instantly missed a turn after it went out and spent about 15 minutes lost, which sucked and was not confidence inspiring for the night.
After a long last stretch I finally rolled into Bourg St Pierre around 11:25pm. Phew!
Bourg St Pierre to the Finish (48-Finish)
This was the last major aid station, so I again had to take the time to get it right. My new S-Lab shoes had been awesome so far, but my feet were now shredded and had a few blisters. I changed socks and changed into the old trusty Speedcross shoes, which felt great. I had packed a bunch of food in my drop bag. The grapes tasted simply amazing, and I stashed a bunch of food in my pack for the rest of the run.
I was back into the night at 11:55pm and super fired up to get to the finish. On paper this climb looked like no problem. It was a mere 2,700 feet. Come on, Liam could do that! I figured it would take me about 2 hours. I put in the head phones and was climbing really well and in a good rhythm. As usual I was passing lots of people on the climb. I was nervous about the next descent and climb but figured this one was in the bag.
Oh William, how wrong you can be. We did a lot of the climbing quickly, but then there were just these steep little rollers that went on forever. My body also seemed to realize that I had been awake for 24 hours and around 1:30am I was getting crazy sleepy. In my impaired state I debated sleeping for a few minutes on the side of the trail, but that seemed like a bit of a bad idea in the middle of the night at 7,500 feet in the Alps. But you better believe I was going to sleep at the next aid station. Yes, sir. Maybe 10 minutes. Actually why not 20 minutes? That sounds good.
My mind was playing tricks on me, and I thought the lights in the valley below were actually the aid station. Finally we could now see the aid station but through some twisting of physics I seemed to continue moving forward yet not get any closer. After an eternity I stumbled in at 2:50am or so.
The night had started getting cold, and it was wonderfully warm in the tent thanks to a nice space heater. Sadly there didn't seem to be a great place to sleep. Then a bomb dropped on me. Someone was talking to the aid station official, and he said that the course officially closed at 8am. I had been monitoring splits closely and knew how much I had left, and I knew there was no chance I would make it by that time. I was utterly deflated.
I mechanically drank some soup and Coke and ate some food (food I brought with me as they literally had only raisins at this aid station). It was a devastating low point. It was hard to motivate myself to do anything and I finally got back out at 3:13am. I felt no reason to kill myself on the downhill and descended at a pitiful pace. I took some comfort knowing I gave it my all but was going to be timed out. There was nothing else I could have done, and I left nothing out there, but I was crushed to have come so far and now know I wasn't going to finish.
At 3:45am my brain slowly started to wake up: "Hey, didn't they change the course this year? I wonder if the cutoff was different last year? For the 1am starters they had 36 hour projected splits, which takes you to 1pm. Why would they do that if the cutoff is 8am." Then I realized I had a wonderful little device with me that could give me all the answers. I switched on cellular mode and looked up the race cutoff. It was 1pm! While this was great news in some ways, it is also SO hard to flip the switch back when you were planning on quitting.
But I was angry and fired up. I had come too far! I had been making pathetic progress over the last half hour but resolved to salvage this descent. After this we had a huge uphill but then just one last 2,300 foot downhill. I decided to push hard and completely waste my downhill legs and blow my quads to make up time here. I knew I would find a way to get the last descent done since it was the very end of the race.
Sunrise was coming soon, and I was a new man. This was going to happen. I had a new goal and resolved to try my best to finish under 30 hours. This didn't quite seem doable but was a good benchmark to shoot for.
I rolled into Lourtier just after 5:30am in the early dawn. I had indeed salvaged the last section after coming back from my darkest moment, big moment # 3 in getting to the finish. I fueled up here and was back out a bit before 5:45am for the last big push. My downhill legs were completely gone and I was exhausted, but at the same time it felt good to be approaching the end of this journey.
Le Chaux is a climb to strike fear into the heart of any ultrarunner. After almost 100K of running, you climb over 4,000 feet in about 3 miles. This is a 25% grade, and it actually flattens out at the top, so you are going steadily at 30-35% grade for over 3,000 feet of climbing. My projected split for this stretch was about four hours.
I went into beast mode on this climb with a fiery determination to get it done. The sun continued rising as we were climbing, providing huge views of the surrounding mountain ranges. You could actually see many of the points we were at throughout the last 24+ hours, which gave a sense of the scale and grandeur of this course. The fact that this was the second sunrise of the course was also a unique experience for me. The climb was astoundingly difficult, but I was stunned when I checked my watch at the top. 7:45am for a 2 hour split!
I probably spent too long at the next aid station given we only had 4.5 miles downhill to go. My legs were absolutely wrecked and downhills were by far the worst of all, but I steadily plodded down towards Verbier. The suddenly we were popping out of the forest into the town, and I put on a big last push to the finish. Everyone in the town was cheering, and it was really emotional for me. After so much doubt and such a long time out on the course, it is hard to describe the joy, relief, and sense of accomplishment with crossing the finish line.
I finished in 29h13min, 73rd out of 122 finishers. With the new course this year the finish rate dropped to under 30%! I don't think I have ever seen a finish rate so low in an ultra. Some of the best ultrarunners in the world who live and train in these mountains run this race, so I was honored and thrilled to be among the few finishers.
I have been deeply wanting to get the quintessential ultra experience in the Alps that I have read and heard so much about. Sardona didn't quite do it for me last year, but Trail Verbier delivered on everything I could have hoped for. The weather was perfect, the course was unimaginably beautiful, and I laid everything on the line to finish the hardest race I have ever done. I will never forget the experience.
Thanks again so much to Jen and to everyone who was texting me with encouragement all along the way. You're all the best! I'll also post a bunch of pictures soon. I took a lot!