Saturday, September 9, 2017

9/9/17: 2017 UTMB Race Report

The Buildup
Where to begin?  I got into ultramarathons 10 years ago, and way back then UTMB captured my heart and my imagination.  About 4 years ago I started working backwards from what it would take to toe the line.  3 years ago I ran a humbling 36 mile race in the Swiss Alps.  My Trail Verbier 111km finish 2 years ago started the collection of qualifying points and gave me the confidence that toeing the start line wasn’t insane.  I ran an 80 mile race in the German forest and a 50 mile race in the French mountains to get the rest of my points.  I entered the lottery late last year and was very lucky to have my name drawn.  Game on!

All year I trained for UTMB with relentless focus.  With the benefit of hindsight I can say that my training was spot on and walked the fine line of pushing to the limit without overtraining / getting injured.  January through March was all about building the base.  I ran solid mileage with some but not a crazy amount of vertical.  I ran a pretty awful marathon in February and a very good trail 50K in March.

In April it was game time.  I kicked off with a sub 8 hour Bull Run 50 and started racking up mileage and vertical.  I won the OSS CIA 50 in June and then headed off to Chamonix / Zermatt for the month of July.  I had a solid run at the Trail Verbier 61km and had a blast running up and down mountains all month.  At the start of August I ran a fast 25 miler in the Shenandoahs, my first 100 mile training week in a long time, and a 37 mile run in the Shenandoahs with 10K+ vertical.  I slowly dialed it back while tapering and came into Chamonix fired up and in top form.

The weather took a turn for the worse right as the race started.  Temperatures were going to plummet with lot of rain and some snow up on the high passes.  I was worried they would shorten the race, but in the end they only made a few minor modifications and shifted the start back by 30 minutes for some inexplicable reason.  Now I just had to worry about not freezing to death up in the Alps at night.  No problem.

Jen flew in early Friday morning, and it was great to have some company.  We had some lunch and chilled in our local coffee shop from the previous trip.  Finally I got all geared up for the race.  Jen joked how all the Europeans had their fancy gear and spandex, while I was wearing what she called my “hobo suit” (Incredibles reference).  Hey, if it was comfy, not going to chafe, and going to keep me from freezing that was good by me.  Style points not required.

To add to that, the race numbers are seeded based on your rankings from previous races, so your # roughly predicts your finish.  My number probably would have been around 800-900 or so out of the 2500 starters, but somehow they weren’t able to match my results, so I got # 2925, which is essentially dead last. So there I was with my hobo suit and # 2925.  Well at least I like being an underdog.

The starting line was an unimaginable spectacle, and I lined up about an hour before the race while Jen went a little ways down the course to see me off.  I was over 1,000 people back from the start, and it was totally nuts!  2,500 people are crushed into the starting corrals.  Music is pumping, people are hanging out of their balconies cheering, and there are huge screens showing all of the elite runners getting announced as they enter the elite corral.  This year was the most competitive trail ultra ever assembled, and there were 164 elite runners in the field.

Being totally honest, it really sucked to stand around waiting for so long.  It is a long time to wait, it was getting cold, and you are just crushed in. I was also insanely nervous and just wanted to get started!  I tried wrapping my mind around what I was about to do and couldn’t really do it, but somehow I knew that I would find my way back to the finish line.

Now enough of the boring stuff and on to the race!

Maps the course were all over town 

Me sporting my hobo suit and fearsome # 2925 

Representing VHTRC by the start line! 

Lined up DEEP into the field and amazed by the spectacle 

Waaayyy too much pre-race hype before running 106 miles, but still fun 

Thick crowds lining the streets of Chamonix 

10+ deep waiting for runners to come through

Start to Chapieux (0 – 50K)
After the gun went off, I had to walk for quite a while as the thick crowd very slowly spread out.  The streets of Chamonix were packed with people Tour de France style.   It was hard not to run into spectators lining the street / trail and spilling over into the course. The first 5 miles to Les Houches is on relatively flat, wide trails.  I was waaayyyy too deep in the field for the pace I wanted to run and struggled to pass people and get myself clear.  I started clicking off sub 9s and got to Les Houches in 47 minutes, just a bit over schedule.  They didn’t post ranking here, but I think I was well over 700th here.  The atmosphere was again amazing, and we turned up to start the 2,500 foot climb up Delevret.

I had heard so much about the crowds and ambience at UTMB, but I have to say I was still floored, and it exceeded my wildest expectations.  Not only were the towns overflowing with people cheering, but people were also lining the trail up and down the mountain.  You’d see families with kids who had hiked 2,000 feet up a mountain simply to cheer for us (“Allez!  Allez!  Bravo! Bravo!”). Simply amazing.

I was passing people left and right, feeling strong and steady.  It was a relief to get a bit clear of the thick field of runners and be able to relax into more of a rhythm.  It was cloudy but with streaks of sunshine hitting the valley below as daylight faded. Just beautiful.  As we approached the top we went up into the clouds, and it got foggy and cold.  I hit Delevret at 8:14pm, about 4 minutes behind schedule but having moved up to 500th place.  We started the 3,000 foot steep descent down to Saint Gervais just as night set in.  I stowed my poles and busted out my flashlight, which is better in fog than the headlamp and would save the headlamp batteries. 

On the climb up Delevret.  Nice views in fading daylight. 

I was still too far back in the pack, and the pace down the mountain was too slow for me.  I wasn’t worried about time this early in the race, but I wanted to just run my pace and not have to throw on the brakes.  I passed a lot of people on the narrow trail while trying not to fall off the mountain.  Soon enough we could see the lights of Saint Gervais way below and last glow of light surrounding the mountains.  I was amazed that we could already hear the incredible roar coming up from the town.  We came off the trail and popped down into the most insane UTMB spectacle you could imagine.  The streets were lined 5 people deep with people going nuts for the runners, kids giving high fives, and people dressed like superheroes.

It was an incredible rush!  We came through the aid station, and I just grabbed some food to go without stopping.  I had arrived at Saint Gervais in 2.5 hours, 418th place, and five minutes slower than schedule.  My pacing was pretty good, but there had been a lot of hype and energy spent passing people since starting too far back.   The next 10km section was net uphill but pretty tame by UTMB standards.  Part of my plan going into the race was to use this section to just chill out, settle in, and not worry about pace / time.  I was also super excited to see Jen at the next aid station!

I had a great time on this section.  I was eating and hydrating well and bumped into a few Americans along the way.  The weather was quite nice on this stretch and was cool but not too cold.  I was still moving up places and was surprised at how fast Les Contamines came up.   I arrived at 3h49min, now ahead of schedule, and I somehow passed 96 runners on the last stretch without trying very hard and was now in 322nd.  It was another crazy party in the mountains, only this time Jen was there too!  I ate a bunch of food in the main aid station and then went to the assistance area to see Jen.  She hooked me up with ginger ale, chips, a few bites of pizza, and food for the road.  It was a great mental boost, and I told her I’d see here again in 17-20 hours at Champex-Lac!  Yes, that is a very long time ...

I took off running through Contamines with lots more high fives along the way.  The next section was also pretty mild, and I was just cruising along.  We started climbing up towards La Balme, and I bumped into a guy from Montana.  We shared a few miles, and it was nice to be able to chat with someone for a bit.  It had started raining earlier, but now temps were dropping and the rain was getting heavier as we came to La Balme.  I grabbed soup, Coke, and lots of food, and I decided to throw on my waterproof jacket. 

Man, I am glad that I did!  The weather quickly turned nasty.  We were now on the super steep part of the almost 6,000 foot ascent.  It was cold, very foggy, and freezing rain was coming down.  My hands were freezing, and I finally managed to get my waterproof gloves on after much fumbling around.  We crested the top of Col du Bonhomme at 8,200 feet and started our way down to Chapieux.  Bonhomme was a bit of a beast, so I had to take care of some things on the first part of the downhill.  For starters I tucked away the poles and got my hands warm again.  I refueled after the long climb and then with all systems go started to really run down the mountain.

I was amazed that after we crossed Bonhomme the weather got much clearer and better.  The fog had lifted, and I was treated to the amazing view of headlamps snaking thousands of feet up and down the mountain.  I was really enjoying the crisp, calm night and hauled ass into Champieux.  It was 1:27am, so a bit under 7 hours in at 50K+.  I had picked up another 120 places, 110 of which were on the big climb. There was a mandatory gear check here, and then I moved through the aid station like clockwork.  Soon I was back out into the night and ready to head up towards Col de la Seigne.

Chapieux to Courmayeur
We had a bit over 3,000 feet to climb up to Col de la Seigne.  I was clicking off the miles, passing people, and moving well.  In this stretch the stars started to come out, and you could see the silhouettes of the big peaks surrounding us.  It was an amazing night up in the mountains.  I felt good on all accounts, was relaxed and enjoying myself, and was having just an idyllic UTMB experience.

On this climb I realized that I had moved WAY up in the field.  As I climbed I realized some the people I was passing had race numbers were in the low hundreds, which I really hadn’t expected.  I still had a LONG way to go, but I felt like I was on a very sustainable pace so just kept on cranking and tried not to think about it too much.

The only trouble in paradise was my right hamstring on the climbs.  I had tweaked it while running my face off in the Alps in July, and it was bothering me as I pushed the pace on the uphills. I popped some Tylenol 8 hour (which I would do two more times) and just hoped it wouldn’t become a major issue later in the race.

We topped out Col de la Seigne and had our bibs scanned.  For some reason I had thought there would be an aid station, but there most definitely was not.  Not a big deal though, as I had plenty of food / fluids with me.  I’d worked into a pretty good system at this point: eat a bunch in the earlier part of the climbs, push hard up the last steep section, eat and regroup on the beginning of the descent, push hard to the next aid station.

I was having a blast and enjoying the night air and stars and then came upon an aid station.  I was a bit confused and asked to confirm which one it was.  Yep, it was Lac Combal at 40 miles in.  I couldn’t believe that I got there so fast! It was now 9:42 into the race, and I had picked up another 42 places on the climb up Seigne.  I plowed through the aid station and started up to Arret du Mont Favre, the last climb before Courmayeur.

This climb wasn’t nearly as big as the last two, though it was still steep for one section.  We came across the top and started the 4,000 foot descent to Courmayeur, one of the major aid stations on the course and almost halfway.  The first few miles were pretty mellow.  I kept on picking off runners and came upon a farmhouse aid station I didn’t know was going to be there.  Sweet!  They had coffee there and it … was … glorious.  We started bombing down a much steeper trail and soon saw the lights of Courmayeur glittering below.  I had expected to arrive in Courmayeur around or after dawn, but it was still pitch black.  Can’t say I was disappointed. 

I hammered down this 25%+ grade descent continuing to pass people and synced up with Yassine Diboun for the last stretch.  He’s a super speedster from Oregon, and we ran together the last stretch into Courmayeur and then yo-yoed for a while more until he went on to his impressive finish.  Super nice guy and fun talking with him.  As we came into town you could just start to see the silhouettes of the gigantic mountains around us, and I was mesmerized. 

I got to Courmayeur at mile 50 with over 14K climbing in 11:22, which is nuts.  I had planned a fastest possible split of 12h45min into Courmayeur and more than anything just wanted to get there feeling really good and solid.  I was almost 1.5 hours up on that split AND I felt amazing.  What a rush! Over the first half of the race I had steadily moved up the field and was now in 132nd.  But there was still a looong way to go, and I hoped I was running a well-executed race and not setting myself up for a massive blowup.

I had a drop bag here and spent some good time taking care of business.  Mostly I ate a ton of food and then restocked for the long stretch until I saw Jen at mile 77.  After 20 minutes or so I was back on course running through the streets up until the next climb.

Looked way cooler in person, but light of Courmayeur as we ran into town before dawn 

Courmayeur to Champex-Lac
It was early dawn as I set off on the steep climb to Refugio Bertone.  The very early morning light on Mont Blanc was something I will never forget.  This side of Mont Blanc looks completely different from the other side, and I definitely want to get back there some day.   As we pushed up the super steep climb, we could see the town below and the mountains coming into view around us as dawn approached. 

This stretch was rough, and I was started to feel very sleepy.  Usually I get tired during the wee hours of the night, so it was weird to be sleepy as the sun was coming up.  We crested the climb to panoramic views of the Mont Blanc massif.  They didn’t have coffee at Bertone, but I downed some tea and some food. 

The next 10km was another mellow stretch of trail above treeline through Val de Ferret with staggering views along the way.  I hadn’t been to the Italian side of Mont Blanc before and was most looking forward to this heralded section of trail.  Despite the rough weather through most of the race, the clouds broke here, and we had blue sky all along this section.  Despite physically not feeling good at this point, I felt very lucky. I used this as another section to slow down, regroup, and not worry about pace.  There are worse things than hiking along in the most beautiful place on this Earth while the sun comes up!

It was surprisingly cold on this stretch.  We were up above treeline, and the there was a lot of wind up here, so I layered up for this section.  I finally started to feel a bit better as the calories kicked in and pick up the pace.  I took 5 minutes for some solid refueling at Refugio Bonatti.  We then had a few more kilometers up on the ridge and then a short descent down to Arnouvaz.  My GI troubles started kicking in here, but more on that later.  I refueled and started up the big monster climb to Grand Col de Ferret.

Courmayeur down below on the steep climb up 

Views of the Mont Blanc range in the dawn light across the Val Ferret 

Not feeling so hot but loving the scene.  Also was very cold and windy up here! 

Looking back on the Val de Ferret as we climbed the Grand Col Ferret 

I wasn’t exactly feeling great at the start of the climb and faced the prospect of 2,500 steep feet up to the highest altitude pass of the race.  I tucked in behind another guy, popped in some tunes, and set to work grinding up the mountain.  It was tough going, but I kept on slogging away.  As we got higher up we were treated to amazing views across the valley, but we could also see the storm clouds we were heading towards.  Looked like it was about to get rough.

I had the foresight to realize it would soon be too cold for me to stop, eat, or do much of anything.  So I sat down and ate some food before the next big push.  This was a very good idea, as we were soon up in sleet, snow, and high wind.  It was absolutely freezing and all around miserable conditions.  There was nothing to be done but keep moving, get over the pass, and get back down to lower altitude as soon as possible. 

We got over the Col and passed the 100km point with almost 6,000 feet descending coming up.  I hit this point 16h19min into the race and despite the rougher patches since Courmayeur was ahead of splits for this section.  I also continued the theme of passing lots of people on the ups. I felt pretty terrible though and tried to work my way down to La Fouly as best I could.  It was slower going than I would have liked, and I figured my split here would be pretty rough.  I did enjoy reliving some memories from Trail Verbier , and La Fouly is always a beautiful town.  The weather also broke a bit as we descended and gave us some nice views coming into Switzerland.  We finally came down to the aid station, and I was shocked to have run a faster than planned split on the last section.  I guess I’m not the only one feeling like garbage coming down from Grand Col Ferret!

I’d been moving very fast the whole race and was way ahead of schedule.  I was not feeling so hot and still had nearly 40 miles to go.  It was time to be smart and make sure I had what it took to finish the race.  I was still feeling super sleepy and just couldn’t shake the drowsiness.  I had planned on sleeping towards the end of the race on night # 2, so while this was much earlier than I would have expected to rest, I figured my body was trying to tell me what I needed so why not?

I resolved to lay down in La Fouly and set my alarm for 15 minutes. Then I’d take as much time as needed to eat and get back out only when I felt ready.  I got to the tent and immediately went all the way to the back, took off my pack to use as a pillow, laid down, and closed my eyes.  As I was dozing off, a woman at the aid station told me I had to keep my feet off the bench.  Seriously?!  Crazy Swiss people.

I popped up after 13 minutes before the alarm went off and think I managed to sleep for 4-5 minutes.  I was feeling better and set to work on some serious eating.  Cookies, fruit, soup, ginger bread, chocolate, you name it.  I felt like a new man and after 25 minutes there it was back on!  I couldn’t believe how much better I felt.  It was unequivocally the right call, and I started moving fast.  I ran 9-10 minute miles for the 5 miles down to Praz de Fort.  Unfortunately the stomach problems resurfaced, and I had to make two pit stops here.  I’m guessing the problem was that the soup had beef in it, which I don’t eat.  I had to make relatively frequent pit stops for the rest of the race, but it was more of an annoyance than anything else and didn’t slow me down too much.  The bigger problem was that the soup was a major source of calories / salt, and I was running out of Euro aid station food I could eat!

I was an animal on the climb up to Champex-Lac.  I repassed almost everyone who came in after me during my long stop at La Fouly.  I charged into the aid station fired up, telling Jen “I’m back!”  It was awesome to see Jen again, and she was the best with taking care of everything I needed and getting me all sorted out.  It had been steadily raining coming up to Champex, Pac, but the skies  opened up while I was in aid and it POURED.  Not a bad time to be inside eating lots of food. I changed out my top layer of clothes to try to dry out a bit.

Soon it was time to get back at it.  We had about 30 miles left and 3 massive climbs / descents waiting for us.  It still seemed like a very far way to go …

 Some very lost cows as Jen drove to Champex-Lac

Not so full aid station at Champex-Lac 

Wet and rainy at this point in the race 

Feeling good and ready to get back out there!

Jen hanging out by the lake! 

Champex-Lac to Trient
I had made it to Champex in under 20 hours.  I still had legs and was moving well.  I knew I was having the race of a lifetime.  All throughout the race (and especially as the race progressed) I kept thinking how the stars had aligned and this as good as it got.  I made sure to enjoy it and remember that as I went, soaking in the experience.

It was a few easier miles going around the lake and then to the start of Bovine, the first of the three big mountain passes at the end of the race that inspire fear in the heart of any mountain ultrarunner.  I had run the other two in training and knew they were both monsters.  I hoped this one would be easier, but it was pretty damn tough.  Before we started the climb I again wasn’t feeling so hot so stopped to eat some PB&J.  A runner came by and asked if I was doing ok.  Yup, just figured it was a nice time for a sandwich.  It helped though, and I hauled ass up the super steep trail, again passing a bunch of people.  I was amazed at how strong my climbing was this late in the race. 

Climb up Bovine.  Fresh snow higher up on the mountain from the recent storms. 

The climb just kept going, and it started to get super muddy as we went up, which would be a theme for the rest of the race.  We hit the peak, and I paused for a moment to regroup before the long downhill.  Unfortunately I realized at this point that my downhill legs were shot, and I had over 9,000 feet of descending left.  Well, it’s UTMB and it isn’t supposed to be easy. 

There was an aid station a little ways down where I stopped for more PB&J.  That perked me up a bit, and I started descending a bit better.  We hit a mountain pass that I knew well from our previous travels, which meant we had a little over 1,000 feet to descend into Trient.  The crowds got thick again here.  I was fired up by the cheers (“Venga! Venga!”) and bombed down towards town.  I slipped in the mud and wrenched my shoulder, but that didn’t slow me down.  The crowds were awesome coming into Trient, and I got lots of “USA” cheers coming in.  I was pumped to arrive at 5:54pm (23:20 into the race), again massively ahead of schedule.  The aid station announced me when I came in and made a big deal of my arrival.  The race of my life continued.  In my race plan, I had hoped to hit 16 minute miles coming into Courmayeur and then manage the slowdown from there.  Here I was at mile 87, and I was still under 16 minute mile pace for the whole race (including stops).  Who would have thought?

The plan was to really regroup here.  I tried laying down to maybe even take a short snooze, but I was too fired up despite being exhausted.  Jen got me well fed yet again and had awesome words of encouragement.  She reminded me that I had done all of the rest of the course before, which was a huge mental boost.  The plan had always been to get to Trient in one piece, and then the finish is in the bag.  Sure, there were almost 20 miles and 2 mountain passes left to go but those are just details, details …

I was tired in all possible meanings of the word at this point but ready to get back out and tackle the brutal climb up to Catogne.

Pretty town of Trient 

Just about how I felt at this point.  So we really have 18 miles to go with 6K+ climbing and descending? 

Putting on a happy face for Jen 

Trient to Vallorcine
I knew this was going to be tough.  You climb 3,000 feet up from Trient, most of which comes in the first 2 miles at 25%+ grade.  I made steady progress up, picking off runners as I went.  The skies cleared a bit for a very nice view of the surrounding mountains and glaciers.  It was rough going, but I pulled and hauled myself up to the farmhouse and the end of the steepest section.  I continued to be surprised at how strong my uphill legs still were this late in the game; clearly the training had paid off.  I took a brief pause to regroup and then speedhiked the next section above treeline. 

The downhill was rough, and my quads were totally cooked.  I still wasn’t totally sure how I was going to manage two big remaining descents.  I relied on my poles and tried to stay in a decent cadence of slow running mixed with fast walking.  Funny enough the steep muddy sections were actually the easiest.  I could kind of just ski down these and take pressure off my quads, and actually repassed some people on these stretches. 

The steep dirt road section down was super painful, and then we popped into the trees for the last 800 feet or so of steep descending.  I turned on the headlamp here, amazed I gotten this far before night came.  We came out into town with a bit of daylight still left, and I made my way over to the aid station, arriving at 8:38pm.

Jen was waiting for me and had brought pizza!  It went down surprisingly well.  I had some coffee and finished my last PB&J.  I needed a ton of food to keep the fire burning, but my stomach was also protesting against most of the food on offer.  I didn’t dare eat the soup and was just tired of bars, crackers, etc.  Bananas were also going down ok, so I ate some and took some for the road. 

Now on the next section they made a course change.  We would still climb to Col des Montets but then would head “straight to Flegere” rather than up to Tete aux Vents, which takes you about 600 feet higher than Flegere.  So I figured this would save us the 600 feet of vertical and make this last stretch a bit easier.  Jen confirmed this with the aid station as well.  Little did I know what was actually coming …

But now it was time to get going.  Vallorcine to the finish.  The hallowed ground of UTMB.  It was hard to believe I was at that point, and I couldn’t wait to finish.

Completely worked over at this point 

But pizza went down well! 

Vallorcine to Finish
The first 2.5 miles is a gradual uphill to Col des Montets.  I powerhiked this section in ~16 minute miles and was feeling very good about things.  I synced up with a Russian guy at this point, and we worked together almost all of the way to the finish. 

We hit Col des Montets but then ran way past it to join up with the new trail to Flegere.  The detour here was longer than I expected, but I wasn’t too worried.  Finally we turned right and hit the steep uphill.  Mentally I knew this was the last uphill, which made it doable despite being so, so hard.  I was giving this race everything I had and was completely spent at this point.  Everything was on the brink of failure.  My climbing legs were finally falling apart.  I was low on calories and getting weaker.  My stomach still wasn’t good, and I made yet another pitstop.  And I was having breathing problems and couldn’t keep my pulse in check.  I seemed to have gotten some congestion in my lungs, perhaps just maybe from being out in the cold, wet weather for 27 or so hours!

I did some rhythmic breathing and tried to get things in check.  I got a bit of food and fluids in me as well.  It seemed to work, and I was at least kind of under control.  My Russian friend and I passed a few people (it seems I was not the only person who was totally worked over), and I was starting to feel good about being more than halfway up to Flegere.  Then the trail turned down the mountain …
We descended for a bit.  Then a bit more.  It got steep, rocky, and technical, and we just kept descending.  What the hell was going on?  We were supposed to go straight to Flegere!  My mind could not process the fact we were undoing all of the climbing we had just done and would have to redo all of it to get to Flegere.  I could see the lights of town getting closer.  My mind was playing tricks on me and I thought maybe we would just skip Flegere and head right to Chamonix? 

We ran past some people, and I asked what the deal was.  They said we had to go a bit further down and would climb up to Flegere.  It should take 1h10min once we start climbing.  My heart dropped.  We had lost all of the 900 feet we climbed towards Flegere and had to redo it.  It was a crushing blow.  I was angry about not getting the right info and pretty defeated.  But then I snapped myself out of it.  I was going to finish UTMB.  We all had to run the same course.  This was the course we had to run so I was damn well going to do it. 

I pushed steadily up the climb, fighting against my legs, lungs, stomach, and everything else.  It got steeper as it went, and I desperately wanted to stop and take a break.  But this was the last climb, and I had a feeling that stopping wasn’t really going to help much at this point.  It was time to get this done.  After approximately forever, we finally came into Flegere.  Hallelujah, holy shit, where’s the Tylenol?

I had intentionally not been checking my watch but was actually quite pleased and surprised to see it was 11:28 when we came in (29 hours into the race).  While I would have loved to turn back around and bomb down to the finish, I was a mess.  They didn’t have a ton of food up there, but I ate whatever I could (peanuts mostly).  When I had enough calories to carry me 5 miles downhill, I headed out with my Russian friend. 

Quick side note that at one point I wondered if my Russian friend was actually real.  He seemed real enough, but I couldn't help but wonder if he was a hallucination at this point in the race.  Race results seem to indicate he was indeed real, so at least I hadn't totally lost it!

The first two miles were super steep, and my quads just couldn’t handle it.  I leaned on my trekking poles and made my way down as best as I could.  I told my friend to go ahead as it seemed he had more downhill legs than I did at that point.  I managed to pass one person here and think I was only passed by two others, so I’ll call that a victory in the state I was in.  As we came down I started to count every tenth of a mile and hundred feet of vertical.  It seems like you have come so far and are so close, but I was absolutely and completely drained, and I had to focus on hard on keeping myself moving to the end. I could see the town just below and couldn’t wait to pop out into the streets for the victory lap. 

Finally we were on the road with maybe 1.5 miles to go.  I picked up the pace as we approached.  I couldn’t believe I was about to finish UTMB.  I came towards the heart of town, and the crowds and cheering picked up.  I finally flipped from exhausted to elated.  I ran down the street with people pounding the signs that hung from the fences lining the course.  People were cheering, and I threw my arms up.

Then I came to Jen!  I gave her a quick kiss and then ran down the street, turned, and doubled back towards the finish.  Emotions were welling up, and it was so loud with people cheering and banging.  Jen jumped out and started running with me to the finish chute.  The announcers were yelling my name and home country, and then I crossed that finish line I had dreamed of for so long.  Jen ran over and gave me a big hug and kiss.  30 hours and 17 minutes; 138th finisher in a field with 2,500 starters and 164 elite runners. It was a perfect moment.

Jen waiting for me at the finish in style 

Kiss at the finish line caught on live UTMB footage! 

I dare you to find a happier guy on this planet 

So tired and so happy

The Aftermath
We got my super sweet finisher vest and let the friends and family know the outcome, though most were following along on live TV since it was 6pm back home.  I repeat: live TV.  Only at UTMB can people anywhere in the world watch you finish live!  It was super cool that my two boys were able to watch live with grandma and grandpa.

I was actually able to get some sleep that night, and we had an amazingly fun day in Chamonix on Sunday.  I really enjoyed joining the thick crowds to watch the finishers come in.  Emotions welled up every time I watched someone finish, and the finish line in itself is an experience to behold. 

I owe much thanks and a huge debt of gratitude to Jen.  This race took a lot of sacrifice, including the qualifying races and countless hours of training.  I can't thank Jen enough for supporting me throughout this multiyear endeavor.  I was also so thrilled that Jen came out to crew me.  It meant so much to share the experience with her.  Jen’s parents also get a huge thanks for watching the boys while we were in Europe. 

On the off chance any reading this wants to chat about training, gear, the course, etc., feel free message me on Facebook at Will Weidman.

Eating all of the food on the next day 

Beautiful weather arrived just after I finished

Mont Blanc sporting its fresh new coat of snow 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

7/09/17: Trail Verbier Traversee Race Report

During the Weidman family July Alps adventure, I was on the lookout for a difficult race that would be good training for UTMB but not use too much of my mental / physical energy before the big day.  I decided to head back to Trail Verbier for the shorter distance race.  The Traversee joins the course of the X-Alpine (which I ran in 2015) in La Fouly.  From there you have 38.5 miles and 13,500 feet of vertical in some of the most beautiful mountains in Switzerland.  I was excited to get back to these mountains and see a big chunk of the course that I did in the dark last time. 

I drove to Verbier and caught the shuttle over to La Fouly for the highly civilized 10am start.  It was a full on Euro race scene with almost 1,000 people.  The music was blaring at the start and helicopters were buzzing overhead.  I lined up towards the front, and we started up the 4,000 foot climb to Col Fenetre.

 Not a bad place to start running a race

Start line and some pretty awesome mountains / glaciers 

Big field with almost 900 people starting

Now we had a cold rolling through the family, and it hit me 2 days before the race.  I’d hoped I’d get a few good nights of sleep and be mostly over it, but I was seriously wrong.  I slept terribly both nights and felt awful on the race morning.  As I starting climbing, I had just no energy and felt totally wiped out.  Not a great way to start.

I stayed conservative and snapped some pictures as we ascended through these ridiculously beautiful mountains.  But as we got to higher altitude, the congestion in my head and ears become a big problem.  Energy levels plummeted, and I felt truly terrible.  This wasn’t the usual early race jitters, and I quickly started working through when I would drop from the race.

We crested Col Fenetre (awesome views abounded), and I continued feeling abysmal on the 1,000 foot decent.  Not a great sign.  After the short climb up to first aid station at Grand Saint Bernard, I planned to stop for a while and regroup.  Much to my chagrin that wasn’t really possible.  The aid station was packed given the size of the field, and there were no chairs or anywhere to regroup.  It was all I could do to get a refill of water / Coke, and then I somehow found myself on the climb back up to 9,000 feet and Col Saint Bernard.  Wait a minute guys, can’t I take a break? The plan was to get up this climb, run down 4,000 to Bourg St Pierre, and get the hell out of this race.

 Ascending into paradise

Looking back towards the start on the climb 

Some of the finest single track on earth 

This particular stretch of mountains is stunning.  I vividly remember this from 2015, and it did not disappoint this year! 

Look at all these fools climbing this mountain 

I remember in 2015 being disappointed by a rather unimpressive alpine lake on my left as we crested the Col.  This year I looked to my right and saw this staggering view.  Apparently I was so tired in 2015 I could not even manage to look right! 

Looking out over Italy after cresting Col Fenetre and crossing the border 

View on the climb up the Grand St Pierre 

Looking way better than I feel on the top of this climb 

I kept hoping people would pass me on the climb, but somehow I got locked in with a group and dragged up to the Col.  I figured the least I could do when we got there was stop for a minute and take a few pictures.  Despite feeling generally terrible, I was looking forward to the first part of this descent.  2 years ago I was still very slow on the super steep descents and was curious if I’d gotten any better.  Turn out I had!  I pass a few people, tucked in behind someone else, and didn’t get passed again for the rest of the steep section.

I got to the gradual part of the descent and started to do some soul searching.  Yes, I was sick.  Yes, I didn’t feel good. But I thought through a few things:

  •  I always feel worst in these races at high altitude passes and was exponentially worse at high altitude with the cold.  While there were two more high passes, they were both lower than the first two, so hopefully it wouldn’t be quite so bad.
  • I was still running a very solid pace even though my energy levels were in the gutter.  I could slow down a lot and still have a respectable finish, if not the time I was hoping for (12 hours).
  •  I love the Alps.  I love running in the Alps.  This was my shot while here to get in a long, epic run.

So stubbornness kicked in.  As Hamilton says, “I’m not throwing away my shot.”  I would have to swallow my pride, run slower than I wanted, and finish after dark.  But barring the worst, I’d somehow make it happen. 

I was fading as I finished the long descent into Bourg Saint Pierre and then the short, steep climb up to town.  We were at low altitude again and it was HOT.  I stopped in the town fountain to cool off and resolved to take my time in Bourg Saint Pierre to pull myself back together.

I arrived at BSP 4:10 into the race and set to work on Coke, Water, and Soup.  Oh, and Swiss chocolate.  By the way, I’ve never had chocolate as good I’ve had during this race.  Possibly because I am very tired and hungry, but I also think it is local chocolate that is outstanding.  I grabbed a mysterious cake that tasted like it had ginger in it and was awesome.  Then I tried to bum some Tylenol because my legs felt terrible, and I was worried I had a fever.  They sent me to the medical section who ultimately were unwilling to give my Tylenol without a better reason than “my legs hurt.”  Fine, you win Europeans.  Off I went.

I now had to make it 15 miles before the next bail point, as at Cabane Mille it was helivac only (no thank you).  So I started heading up the mountain and realized that I somehow actually felt good!  I passed a few people at the start of the climb.  Then I really started feeling good and started passing A LOT of people.  It was motivating, and I got some good words of encouragement in French.  It was full on beast mode.  In the 7.5 miles from Bourg St Pierre I passed 76 people, moving from 177th to 101st.  Once you do most of the climbing to Cabane Mille you then have the long stretch of PUDs (pointless up and downs, in the words of Keith Knipling).  You think you are there but then drop 500 feet only to climb 500 feet.  This goes on for miles.  I remembered 2 years ago when I was stumbling in the dark on this section and working hard not to fall off the mountain.  It certainly made this time feel easier, and I was glad to run a bunch of this section.

Views climbing towards Mille.  On the right you can see Catogne, which you climb early in the X-Alpine version.  I promise you it is much more fearsome than it looks here. 

The single track up to Mille circles around the right and then cuts up and across this picture towards the high point on the left.  You could see point climbing as we went up. 

Not so bad. It rained a bit around this time, but the cool was welcome and the views were still good. 

Looking back up the climb to Mille.  The town in the valley is Bourg St Pierre, where we climbed from. 

We started on the far right trail you can see in this picture and cut over and up the mountain. 

I got to Cabane Mille in 2 hours and 5 minutes and was fired up for the big descent to Lourtier.  After a mellow stretch there was a super steep descent through forest where I again got to prove my much improved descending skills and passed a bunch more people.  As I plowed down the 4,500 descent, I started doing the math.  With a really strong finish, I could probably squeak under 11 hours, which would be miraculous given my initial 12 hour goal. 

Top of Mille.  It's a bit far in the distance, but upper middle right is the top of Le Chaux and upper middle left is the finish in Verbier.  It was a bit of an imposing view of what you still had to accomplish (it was dark when I was here in 2015). 

But the margin was slim so I pushed hard on the descent.  My quads were getting pounded, but I made good time coming into Lourtier.  It was like an oven down there at 3,800 feet (by the way, we’re in a heat wave here with unusual, scorching temperatures).  I cooled off at another town fountain and regrouped at Lourtier before La Chaux.  The beast.  The thunderdome.  Over 4,000 feet of climbing in about 3.5 miles.  At the end of the race it is just a killer, but it is also part of what makes Trail Verbier the race it is.

The big effort of the long stretch from Bourg St Pierre to Lourtier caught up with me, and I was beat and feeling sick again.  It was very hot still, and the grade was punishing. But I kept a steady, determined pace up and continued to pass a lot of runners.  I finally popped out above treeline and realized the math for sub-11 was getting super tight.  I thought I could maybe do the 4 mile steep descent in 50 minutes but figured I’d need some room to spare to be safe.  I had also drained my bottles going up La Chaux and was dehydrated, so I figured I’d need to arrive at 8pm to finish sub-11.

View of the Grand Combin while dying on the climb up Le Chaux. 

This accurately captures how I felt on this big beast of a climb.  Stick a fork in me.

I pushed hard on the rolling section above treeline and the last part of the ascent to La Chaux.  I got there at 7:59, which was awesome.  I took time to get fueled up and started the descent at 8:04pm.  I walked for a minute stuffing more food in my face and then got down to business.  I kicked my legs back into gear to run fast on the flatter section.

Then we hit the steep descent through the trees.  My quads were fried, but I ran hard and kept making good time.  As each mile ticked off, sub 11 was looking good.  There is one last uphill and then it is all gravy from there with a last mellow descent.  We popped out into town for the last half mile.  Tons of people were out and it was a great scene.  Music was blaring, people were cheering, kids were high-fiving.  I sprinted in to finish in 10:53!

I was so pumped. To have felt so bad at the start, any finish would have been a victory.  But I somehow kicked it into gear, passed 100 people after Bourg St Pierre, and finished 76th out of 885 starters.  I think it just came down to my fitness being so good that even being way off my A-game I could still put up a solid run.  The run gave me lots of confidence going into UTMB, whereas dropping would have I’m sure left doubts in my mind even given the circumstances.  Both my uphill running and more importantly my downhill running are much improved.  My fitness and endurance are rock solid.

But that said, I still have a healthy and large amount of fear of UTMB.  39 miles in the Alps was still a tough run.  Over 2.5x the distance and another 20K of vertical will be a big beast.  So I’m on track but not underestimating it!