UTMB Takeaway

After you’ve collected your finisher vest, thanked your crew that traveled 7000 plus miles, eaten a double hamburger and downed a Heineken, peeled off sweaty waterproof pants because thin capris left you raw in the wrong places and kissed your beautiful wife of exactly one year goodnight you can finally begin to comprehend just WTF happened over the last 40 or so hours.  But then you just fall asleep.

I ran The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 2007 after taking home my first cougar at Western States, the biggest accomplishment of my career up to that point.  WS left me depleted beyond initial measure and my back subsequently went out on me two weeks later leaving me off the trails for much of July and ill prepared for what was becoming the biggest ultra in the world.  After dropping out at Courmeyer, some 48 miles into the race, I vowed I would never run the race again without making it my priority for the summer or year for that matter.  As easy as it is to forget the pain post ultra marathon, I competed in this years event on the heels of a disastrous WS that left me more hobbled than any race in my ultra running life.

After bowing out at Cal 1 this year I made my way to a hotel room in Auburn after a 4 hour detour that  found me carried off the trail, sitting in the blazing sun trying to make contact with my crew, and riding on a luggage cart through the parking lot because I couldn’t bend my quads enough to get out of the car.  I then traveled to a hotel room in Napa where I would spend the next 3 days in bed trying to eat and drink but to no avail.  Once home I continued with the symptoms of the previous three days until one week later I would finally eat and hope to regain the 15 plus pounds I had lost. Why then would I think I could race the toughest 100ish mile race in the world?  Perhaps I needed to get back on the horse. I needed to go back to Chamonix to witness what has become the ultimate 100 miler in the world and I would do it even if it wasn’t the best thing for me, why, because I still love running the distance.

Race morning began at night, almost 10 pm.  Prepping for a 6 pm race is as unusual as it gets,  having to stave off adrenaline is not an easy task when you find yourself buzzing with the rest of Chamonix at 9 in the morning.  Now add 5 and a half additional hours and you can forget any semblance of order from which to start.  I was looking forward to an evening prologue, I thought it would give my foot a chance to warm up, as well as give my lungs an opportunity to expand, but as the rain began to pick up in intensity and alacrity the disadvantages began to weigh more than my race essentials.

The lobby of the Alpina Hotel at a half an hour from the gun was like an ultra-running  Cooperstown on induction day.   Pictures were taken, greetings thrown around and passed about while everyone muttered and mused on the conditions of the course and all their required gear.   As we made our way through the streets of Chamonix I began to feel more like we were being evacuated from a hurricane than a regal procession towards the starting line.  Albeit rough and disorienting, once we had scaled the barricade a calm set in as we packed ourselves tighter than clams to avoid the chilly air and the drench of rain.

With amazingly little fanfare we were off, some falling to the ground and others out of sight. I’m still bewildered with fact that after a mile of running sub seven minute pace I was probably in 100th position all while standing 4 deep from the start line.  The rain continued with an even pace that I tried to match as I was sure I would catch most of the leaders on the trail heading into St Gervais.  I did catch Scotty J on the first climb and we laughed at the feverish beginning  and our apparent mid-o- pack status.  We then descended a couple thousand feet in the pouring rain on a 12% grade of grass in the pitch dark,  less than my  forte.  We caught  Joe Grant dropping into town on a poorly lit, slick patch of jagged rocks where he eventually dumped his ankle and looked to be in a severe amount of pain.  He would later drop and I couldn’t help but empathize as only one with thoroughbred ankles could.

The next few miles are still sketchy, we crisscrossed trail and road while making our way to the torch lit narrows of Les Contamines.  I ran with Lizzy Hawker and Scott as Nick Clarke, Kab, and a number of other studs began to pass me on the climb to the Berton.  I began to fall apart a little on this section as I rustled with my pack, removed clothing, stopped to relieve myself and adjusted my shoes.  It seemed as if nothing was beginning well and on top of all that my foot was not coming along as I had hoped.  I tried to ease into a steady march on the climb but the inconsistency of the terrain;  grade, steps, rocks, whatever you want to call it made route finding a thing of experience.  On this section I turned around to watch the clouds part and gaze over the string of headlamps marking the trail back down the valley.

As we crested the pass, I once again rustled with my pack. Changed clothes and tried to ready my foot for the impossible decent into Les Champieux.  All that can be said for this section is to follow rock outcroppings ,alpine style, for a few miles and then watch as you fall off the table trying to make your way down a maze of rutted out run-off trail(s) .  It was like human plinko; this a way, uh ugh that way, over here, you go first, watch out, get back up, kamikaze on my right.  I hope you get the picture.  As I walked through the aid station and volunteers checked for my space blanket and phone I had lost numerous positions and my gusto.  My foot now achy with every step and the good news, an impending  4-5 miles on pavement.

I chatted with Scott Jaime on this section as I tried to even out my mind and body as well as to connect with something or someone familiar.  We reveled in the scenery and the running tradition in the Alps.  I then mustered my strength and decided I needed to get a move on.  I enjoyed the alpine terrain over the next few hours, the snow, and views of Mt Blanc. The Italian side offered the most expansive sights of the Massif, so many additional glaciers spilling off the side of the mountain like the sweat now running down my back.  The trail here became worn and easier to navigate, I found a little flow and slowly began to reel in the competition.  I made my way to Courmeyer following a strong and steady Mike Foote and found a cheerful yet bewildered Geoff Roes waiting it out at the aid station just above town.  We exchanged a look that reeked of sarcasm,  aimed primarily at the course and competition but underneath I couldn’t help but think of our parallel shortcomings this year.  I offered a quick, “you coming?” but I could tell it was going to be hard for him to push on.  The descent into Courmeyer is a couple thousand feet and about two miles if that.  Karl would call this Disneyland, I called it rappelling.  I think that’s the French word that describes it best.  Quad busting, you’ve got insanely steep non-switchback loose trail followed by erratic steppe height.  This was the last time I would feel  well  as I met back up with Dakota and we exchanged a quick word running to the streets, “you’re looking good.”  “Yeah, I’ve got a zip-lock bag around my cajones. “  The descent into Les Champieux coming off the soggy morning had started in motion a runner’s worst nightmare, the chaffe.  This episode was discretely aimed at my manhood.  I fumbled and fiddled with it all day and had just about given up before I went MacGuyver.

The aid station was a maze of runners and crew, not to mention just a maze.  I grabbed supplies and filled bottles but primarily looked for something to help with my support,  not the same kind of support you’re used to, they were great.  In the end I got word to my crew that on the next stop I would need a little more conventional taping to get me through.

I grabbed Scott’s attention and we headed out together.  From here we began our ascent to the refuge.  Dakota was a few steps in front of me on the climb as I had parted with Scott and his blown quads, oh the foreshadowing was as thick as American ultra runners piling up under the Mt Blanc glacier.  Vincent Del Barre, a former champion of the event, exited just as I arrived and spaced himself equally between Dakota and I.  The next 5k rolled along a shelf 3,000 feet above the valley floor and took us east, towards Switzerland.   A helicopter flew overhead and I imagined it taking footage of the frontrunners.  I now know it was following Lizzy, the lead group was over 3 hours away.

My race went into the quagmire a few moments later.  I kept reaffirming my 22-23 hour plan all day, 10 hours into Courmeyer wasn’t bad and with the luck I was having it had to turn around.  All that vanished on the climb to the Grand Col de Ferret.  The race was filled with immediate ups following immediate downs and vice a versa.  It was hard to tell which was better because they were all as equally steep.  I moved aside to make way for a swift moving Nick Pedatella and tried to keep him in my sights on the climb. I was fueling with gu’s, drink, coke, bread and bananas but my fitness had just given out.  I didn’t feel strong and the mountain was adding insult to injury.  At the pass I was greeted with no aid and a beautiful descent on what was the best trail on the course.  I had to walk.  My quads and my energy went out the door as I pulled on my anorak jacket to brace against the cold breeze whipping over the high mountains.  It took a while but a number of runners began to fly by on this energizing stretch; Jack Pila, Scott Jaime,  all of them including the non- English speaking competitors inquiring about my condition.  There is a common brotherhood that is shared even on foreign soils and with extreme competition and I felt quite moved to make mark of it.

So as I descended into La Fouly I turned on my phone and made a few texts;

To my crew:  You’re gonna want to head out and catch the finish, I’m going to be awhile. “ to which they replied, “No way, we’re here for you.”

To my wife whom by SMS alerts I realized was only a couple hours behind me:  “my day is done but I’m going to keep walking, you’ll be running to fast for me to go with you, see you soon.”

Darcy Africa passed me on this stretch on her way to a podium finish and exclaimed, “This race is unbelievable, I had no idea.”  It resonated with me, I had not seen the course from herein and as I left my crew in La Fouly it became my mantra.

I have nothing else to do, gonna get around this mountain.

Typically my crew gets it easy, hand/refill waterbottles and gu.  Ok, so probably not as easy as I make it sound, but when the s&$t hits the fan you realize just how much your crew is responsible for.  I cleaned up at each aid station, was motivated, waited on hand and foot, cheered on,  might I add pampered.  So to Nichol, Jana, David, Matt, J.P., Melinda,  I am truly indebted.   Oh and I haven’t even begun to describe the next 20 hours!

Suffice it to say, and to quote my good friend Catherine Mataize, “I’m gonna tell Roch this is Telluride to the finish.”  If that saying could ever be inadequate it would be at UTMB.  From Champex to Vallorcine the course mimics the largest saw blade in the world.  Up and down, up and down, up and up and down.  My stride was strong at times and defeated at others.  The climbs went seemingly well but the steep descents were a slow stumble.  I could feel the year’s miles and I wasn’t so sure I was going to get out of this alive.  I kept thinking of sleep,  I had now been awake for over 30 hours and there was no end for my mind.  I was resigned to count the climbs by hours, what was normal was now UTMB abnormal and with my hallucinogenic brain trying to average out time I was doomed to fail.

It’s times like these that call for one to question the valor in continuing on at all costs.  I have been commended by some for finishing no matter what, but I don’t see what I did as any different than the scores of folks that made it to the starting line and gave it their best shot.  My best shot lasted to Arnuva, from there I could’ve done permanent damage although today, writing this, I feel like I’ll bounce back quick.  I read a letter to the editor in Rolling Stone recently chastising Katie Perry for not living up to the morals the article seemed to reveal in her.  The writer questioned, essentially, why she couldn’t use her publicity to promote the good and not “I kissed a girl and I liked it.”

Here’s the deal though, she wouldn’t be the artist we all know and the one most of America probably likes if she didn’t sing about those things.  Singing about something else would’ve left her in Nashville waiting tables wishing her parents had made her a mouseketeer.  OK, perhaps hyperbole but it’s cloudy when we’re talking about how much it takes to run something like Mt Blanc in 20 hours.  Ill never know how much everyone individually put out or in on race day or even in training, but I know that when the brain gives up on a 100 miler it can be worse than your body.

Brian Metzler of Running Times interviewed me before the race and asked, “Is that the goal, just to go around Mt Blanc?”  I started my answer with a definitive nnnn, but then I had to rethink.  Yes, the answer was yes and although I thought I could do a lot better.

We’re the last miles and multiple hours some of the toughest I’ve ever run, of course.  My body was destroyed and I kept moving forward, it taught me a lot about myself.  I had to earn this one or at least that’s what I kept repeating under cursed breath.  Sometimes the races come too easy and you find yourself wondering just how quickly it all turned out.  Some you push through but never for 38 hours or at least not up to this point.  I ran Hardrock in 31.5 in ’05 and the iditasport in 29.5 in ’01 (I even slept for 4 hours there) but I have not found myself anywhere near UTMB ’11.

Luckily I had my crew and then I had Roch.

I thought Roch and Carly would catch me somewhere on the inclines of Martegny but I alluded them.  Roch caught me in Valorcine and Carly left the course in Champex.  It was difficult to hear she was out of the race and I had the chance to catch up with her on the phone during the final stretch.  I assured her there were times when it’s not safe to go on and you have to do the right thing. Other instances call for your best judgment under the circumstances and even then we all know how hard it is to keep a lucid perspective about it all.  Good news is UTMB isn’t going anywhere.

Roch and I shuffled, at best, to keep spirits high.  We concluded that UTMB was the most beautiful hundred and he concurred my estimation that it was probably the hardest.  If you know Roch, he is no stranger to tough races. A 10 time finisher at HR as well as tens of other mountain 100’s.  We laughed at our unprepared quads and dismal energy output.  Such big strong experienced men, I don’t know about you Roch but that’s how I’ll remember myself , reduced to a stroll you might see in the museums of France and Italy.   But we did it, and you would’ve thought from our reception in Chamonix that we’d won the darn thing.  In the end, the feeling and the gathering of friends new and old made it worth the struggle.  The sweaty pack and waterproof pants under 80 degree heat never felt better.  The finish line too.

There were unbelievable performances a plenty at this years race.  I’ll remember this one for a while and have a better perspective for all those who strive to complete one of the biggest achievements in sports, I just never thought I would do it all in the same race.

37 thoughts on “UTMB Takeaway

  1. Hal, thanks for sharing your thoughts on how the race played out. What a grueling yet breathtaking setting you experienced. Sounds as if you were whittled and humbled to the core. No doubt, this will make you a stronger runner-both mentally and physically. Rest up and continue to enjoy the beauty and majesty of God’s creation.

  2. Great read Hal! Fantastic job gutting it out to the end. For us back of the back mortals it was a heroic effort on a brutal course! I sat here in Vancouver stretching out the damage from my first LT100 finish watching updates on the carnage at UTMB and was impressed to continue to see yr name check point by check point while other top guys seemed to crumble.
    Congratulations on a helluva job:)

    Ryan.

  3. Pingback: …a comical display of abject misery. | Trail Tripper

  4. “I have nothing else to do, gonna get around this mountain.” — I dig it. This is what intrigues me (and I assume, others as well) about endurance events/athletes, is that it’s not only about fitness, but about execution and decisions in all scenarios. Though the distance and performance alone are impressive, it is the voluntary vulnerability to an event like this that shows character. Thanks for sharing a bit of your experience with us. Recover well. Congrats to all UTMBers that had the guts to toe the line. Cheers!!!

  5. You write it in such as nice way !
    It is a real pleasure to read through all your account, and my wife next to me keeps asking me “why are you laughing ?”.
    “Nothing, i m just reading some UTMB accounts”.
    I am sure that to have make it to the end in such a poor shape will bring you nice memories and may be a feeling of revenge. Now, after such a cruel race, I guess your body and your quads will be happy to enjoy a few weeks of rest.
    Hope you will have the chance to run again around the Mont Blanc one day… but don’t forget to prepare your quads. And hope there will be no start delays, and that you will enjoy all the second half of the race without any head-lamp. Quite some nice views to enjoy out-there too !

  6. Hal. You really described that race beautifully. I admire your effort just to finish. For you to finish the race even though your aspirations of a high finish were over is very inspirational. Thanks for the report!

  7. Its funny. After I returned in July after running the UTMB over 3 days, lots of people asked me, “so, are you going to do the race?” For me, the answer was easy. “No.” My three days around the mountain were some of the most fun that I have ever had and they were still damn hard 3 days! I knew that I would much rather enjoy it rather leisurely and that’s what I’ll do again in the future. I’ve never done or been on the Hardrock course but that is a damn hard course… especially the first half. Congrats on toughing it out. That is no small feat. You can keep the PR between Oregon running store owners…. ;)

  8. Hal, kudos on hands-down the best race report I’ve read in at least a few years. Saying it’s inadequate to compare it to Telluride to the finish (which I did this July) says it all. I can’t imagine attempting let alone completing UTMB– though your imagery of “the largest saw blade in the world” and being “reduced to a stroll you might see in the museums” helps readers like us grasp the severity and extreme nature of the challenge. Reading about your struggle–and realizing that elite runners are every bit if not more vulnerable as us regular runners–only enhances our appreciation for your effort and accomplishment.
    Take care and thanks for writing this.
    p.s. please tell your wife I love the pic of her on UltraRunning Mag and the skirt she made out of race bibs.

  9. Chapeau bas… Or thumbs up! Being with Kilian all year round, we don’t realize anymore how much it takes to complete this race. Apparently, Hal, it took you all. I was there as well on the side of the WS last june, and I can say you’re the one who impessed me the most. You run like a prince!
    We just have a great admiration for you for all the things you have done to inspire others to run.
    Continue to write like that, this is beautiful. I’m sure your day around the big white mountain will come, I’m sure.
    All the best

    JYC
    VP, Marketing at Salomon USA

  10. “it taught me a lot about myself”

    “In the end, the feeling and the gathering of friends new and old made it worth the struggle”

    “We reveled in the scenery and the running tradition in the Alps” “the most beautiful hundred”

    Succinctly put Hal – these quotes, I believe, is what our sport is all about. You and your limits, friends, and the love for the great outdoors.

    Congratulations on your finish and redefining who you are every time you step on that start line.
    Talk soon
    scott jaime

  11. Probably the best count I’ve read. So many great thoughts & such brutal honesty :) thanks Hal :). I hope the recovery is easy as you deserve something easy to come out of that thing.

  12. I hope you realize for us, pure mortals, you had become that much more of a hero (I know, cleche word) now that you suffered vs kicking it in for a top-10 or whatnot. Kind of nice to see humanness in elites. Breaking down, and still going, when there is nothing to go after.. I mean I understand every and each runner’s decision to stop when they did, but it is awesome and hear-warming to have followed you not to.
    I also echo Sarah’s comment on Carly’s skirt:)

  13. Hal, I agree totally with Olga. Truthfully, nothing gains the respect of us mid and back-packers more than an elite entering our realm and death marching to finish the race (Matt C. at 1st Leadville and Anita Ortiz at this year’s WS are a couple of examples). I can’t help but think the perspective you have gained will make you an even better race director because you’ll be able to better relate to all levels of runners.

  14. Congratulations Hal! It really takes something special to push through, when everything unravels around you. Truly admirable.
    Maybe I’ll see you at Pine to Palm 2012, until then tip a cold one and enjoy the recovery.

  15. Hal, I too was at UTMB and due to my own ineptness, trashed quads, chest infection and pretty much every other ailment known to ultra running dropped at Courmayeur. I was fortunate enough to be there in Chamonix to watch as you jogged to the finish, so wanted to add a quick post here. I’ve never personally seen an elite runner who’s blown up push on to the finish in that way. I’m generally not of a cheesy disposition and prefer a slightly more humorous reflection on these events, but this set a massive example.

    To someone such as myself, not being athletically gifted, what you went through at UTMB was pretty much my usual ultra experience. I know there is a debate these days abouy how elites dropping is part and parcel of racing but to me, finishing and gaining the complete experience of the people, the beautful courses, the towns and cultures along the way and of course, the pain, are what these races are all about. Ultras are about the struggle and they are about finishing. Whether the struggle is maintaining 4 hour marathon pace for 16 hours at Western States or whether the struggle is blowing up and pushing through for a 38 hour finish at UTMB, by completing the race you justify the training and close off the long journey of not only the race, but the training required of anyone who makes the (bloody cold and wet!) start line of such an event. From what you write above, although disappointed, you’ll take this one away and store it as another experience from which to draw upon in future races, but most likely memories to draw upon, and stories to tell, as life goes on.

    From someone who trained hard and didn’t make the finish line who is now fielding many questions a day of ‘what went wrong’, believe me, by finishing in whatever fashion, you’ll be feeling better than 55% of the field. By finishing, in a way you do win as 100 miles is not a bad effort at any pace and by finishing in the way you did, you won over a lot of us tortoises. It’s funny, but I was more inspired by your race than by Killians 20 hours, it probably felt more real to me.

    Excellent work, massively impressed
    Nick

  16. Just awesome – great big hurty adventure, great insight, great read. Thanks Iron Balls. Huge run. Timewise/placewise, maybe not going to burn a hole in the record books. But sounds likely to stand the test of memory alongside any of your big podiums. Inspired running/walking/sucking it up.

  17. Really, really great report Hal. What I love is that after 108 ultras, after you’ve probably experienced just about everything, you revel in something new in your experience at UTMB. Memories that will no doubt last you a lifetime and maybe a spark that will burn for the next endeavor. True respect my friend, thanks for sharing this. Rest up, we have some blackberry bushes and concerts to run to, sans luggage carts.

  18. Hal,

    Found this post through a link Krissy Moehl provided on her blog. I sure do admire your courage, strength and mental fortitude to finish. Plenty of good and decent people give up on far easier ventures when faced with far less adversity. That in and of itself is inspiring. But what I find more interesting is how runners like yourself or Krissy Moehl are not in the business of excuse making for the race not going to plan. This is no doubt a major factor as to why you are among the best in your field. Thanks for the honest account of what happened on the mountain. Best of luck in 2012.

    David

  19. Hal…….way to go man. Really cool to see that you sucked it up and trudged around that thing. As a mid packer who loves the sport as much as anybody, it was an inspiring story. And you got got to hang out with Roch for while………and by the way, Roch has 10 HR finishes, not 5.

    Thanks for the report…..

    Billy Simpson
    Memphis

  20. Hal,

    Congrats on a great finish, really. I have a huge respect for you after seeing you coming off the Grand Col de Ferret. It was a long, long way to the finish line from there. I was dealing with foot issues all day and could have been there walking with you too but I guess luck was on my side that day… and night. I was prepared to walk for 46 hours if I had to as the views were just to magnificent to pass up. BTW, if I had know about your chaffing issues, I could have lent you my body glide which I was packing all day. Good luck for the rest of the year and see you on the trails somewhere,

    Jack

  21. As the run progressed and I realized that several top-notch runners had quit, I began looking for runners that were still out there – and your name came up! And I immediately became full of awe; He doesn´t care about time, he cares about finishing! Hal Koerner wants to complete – Respect!
    Congratulations on completing and being such an inspiring runner! Thank you!
    Martin Paldan / Photographer / Copenhagen, Denmark
    Here´s a my sample-gallery from the UTMB 2011 (just a few images, two of them of Mr. Hal Koerner):
    http://martinpaldan.dk/utmb/index.html

  22. echoing so many other comments, but here goes; an inspiring and honest report. THANK YOU for writing and sharing about your experience. You wrote in such a way as to kinda take us there…except we will never know what you truly experienced. But, that’s the beauty. Hope your recovery is going well and wish you many more grand experiences!

  23. Awesome finish, Hal. Not sure what it is about this race that makes it so tough, but it is. I had a similar plan, 22-23 hours in 2007, was 11 hrs into Courmeyer, but inevitably finished in over 30 hours with a big pile of Americanos.

  24. Wow Hal! That truly sounded life changing! I remember when I did my first Ultra (Canadian Death Race – the year you won) I was in such awe of your ability to fly through the coarse and yet it felt like death for me and I felt many of these same emotions that seem to have attacked you at UTMB. Thanks for finishing and giving me the inspiration to do the UTMB one day. Maybe I will see you in San Fran for the 50 miler.

  25. Sounds crazy fun! I think I’ll throw my hat in for next year. Except my goal will be 40 hours from the start. ;-)

    Can’t say enough about how cool it was that you stuck with it to the end. Humility and courage only get stronger when practiced.

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