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.