I didn’t commit to running UTMB this year until two weeks before race day. During the second week of July my historically-troublesome right shin became a worry once again, and I was able to do very little true running for all of July and August. In early August, in hopes of keeping my Hardrock Qualifier chances alive, but wanting to buy myself a little more time, I had even signed up for the Bear 100 and given up on racing UTMB altogether. However, my shin unexpectedly experienced a turnaround a couple weeks before the race, which made the opportunity to head back to Chamonix too appealing to pass up. So, in some ways, it felt like a bit of a victory that I was even going on the trip and planning to toe the start line. After a solid week of training in the Chamonix Valley—including a summit of Mont Blanc itself as my last long effort 10 days before the race—I tapered the final seven days and eventually departed from in front of the church in Chamonix with 2500 others for a trip around the big mountain.
Pre-race, I repeatedly told myself (and, occasionally, others) that I was fit and prepared to compete for the win. I’m a competitive guy and racing 100mi through the Alps is a daunting task, so it would’ve been difficult for me to line up with any chinks in my confidence. Of course, cold objectivity would have outlined a different story. Sure, I’d been able to log plenty of steep, high-altitude vertical in Colorado’s Sawatch Range for the previous two months, but the longest continuous run that I managed since my effort at Lavaredo at the end of June was an hour on the creek path in Boulder only hours before I jumped on my flight to Europe. A bit too much proper running in Chamonix had re-tweaked my shin only one week before the race, and even though this had been rectified by the taper, it was proof that even with minimal actual running I was still just barely striking a very precarious balance between health and injury.
As such, there was no question that I needed to conduct a reprisal of the conservative start that I’d employed at last year’s UTMB. I jogged through the rain to Les Houches amongst the masses and top women before finally beginning to move up a bit on the first climb to Col de Voza above St. Gervais. The descent down the other side into town was a bit disheartening, which has become typical for me. It’s steep in an awkward way that always leaves my quads unexpectedly wobbly, and I’m still so far back in the field that I don’t feel at all part of the action amongst the contenders.
Even so, the supporting cheers in St. Gervais certainly felt as deafening as ever. And I’m using the word literally here. It is loud. If there is a spot in ultrarunning more charged with energy and emotion than St. Gervais during UTMB, I’d like to know.
The run up the valley to Les Contamines (30km) passed much the same as last year—trying not to push too hard, passing a couple runners here and there—except that this time it was pouring rain and getting dark (the race start was an hour later than last year). I arrived at this crew spot in 20-something place, ~13min off the lead, but feeling totally in control. Joe gave me my nighttime headlamps, stuffed my vest with gels, and sent me on my way.
Notre-Dame de la Gorge a couple of miles later is one of my favorite spots on the course. For me, it marks the beginning of climbing into the alpine, the terrain that allows me to catch up. However, everyone gets to experience the rowdy atmosphere marked by manic, Tour de France-style crowds lining the bottom of the steep climb and wild, leaping bonfire flames that light the way. UTMB is madness, but often in a really good way.
The rain intensified on the bottom half of this climb, and shortly before the La Balme refuge at treeline I caught and passed the American duo of Mike Foote and Jason Schlarb (who I didn’t recognize in the moment). Foote came with me and we chatted briefly before I was alone again, picking my way up the washed-out trails to the Col du Bonhomme. The fog was thick on the short traverse over to the Croix du Bonhomme and I spent a lot of time fiddling with my headlamps trying to give myself the best vision possible. Thankfully, we soon dropped out of the cloud on the descent to Les Chapieux and I was back in hunting mode.
In all the confusion of the mass start, rain, and night, I had no idea what place I was in or where any of the other Americans were other than Footie (and Hal, who I had passed before Contamines). So, after passing someone (maybe Sondre or Antolinos?) on the drop to Chapieux I was surprised when just above the refuge Brian Metzler informed me I was in 5th place and about 8 or 9min off the lead pack of Francois, Iker, Tofol, and Luis.
In Chapieux, there’s a quick obligatory material check, and then it’s ~30min on an uphill asphalt road to the base of the Col de la Seigne climb. I was fairly determined to catch the lead group on either this climb or the next (Mont Favre)—mostly because I had last year—and my effort up and over these two hills was probably just a little too hard as a result. I managed to cut my deficit to only 4min, but then on the drop into Courmayeur (77k and the sort of symbolic half-way point of the race) I had to make a pair of pit-stops, so the gap had grown back to 8min by time I reached the gymnasium in town.
I was still feeling good as I headed out of Courmayeur, and my spirits were boosted by the enthusiasm of Kim and Topher Gaylord and Nico Mermoud just as I left the road and stepped onto the trail—thanks guys! In an incredibly ironic bit of foreshadowing, I remember one of the last comments I made to Toph was that my stomach was still feeling great but that maybe by time I got to Arnuva I’d get a little Coke for the long climb up Grand Col Ferret. Oh, how that statement would soon be proven so incorrect.
At first, marching up the hill to the Bertone Refuge was a pleasure. I was all alone, enjoying the still, clear night and the spectacular view of town’s lights receding quickly below me. Gradually, though, my stomach began to rebel at the thought of a gel, and by the time I made it to the aid station, I was full-on nauseous. As such, I quickly filled my flask with Coke there and continued on my way. For a while, I could sip on the Coke, but things only got worse with my stomach, and even though the trail here is a gently rolling contour over to the Bonatti Refuge, I wasn’t running nearly as much as I would had I managed to get more sugar into my bloodstream.
Somewhere in here I began to have distinct flashbacks to Leadville 2010 when I passed out on the summit of Sugarloaf Pass at mile 81 with hypoglycemia and hypothermia. Doing so all alone in the middle of the night here in Italy was a decidedly unsavory prospect, so my new goal became to just make it to Bonatti without losing consciousness. My physical abilities continued to be exceedingly weak.
When I finally staggered into the Refuge, though, the single bowl of soup (saltwater, essentially) I managed to drink and the info that Iker wasn’t looking too good and that I could probably catch him jazzed me up and for the few minutes out of the aid station I moved with some renewed pep. Alas, the physical realities of my (non-) calorie situation quickly set back in, and it was back to the same dizzy struggle to make it the few mostly-downhill kilometers over to the Arnuva aid at 95K.
The thought of heading up Grand Col Ferret—the highest, longest climb on the course—without fuel was terrifying, so I made sure to stay in the Arnuva aid a long time. This meant that I drank two bowls of soup (these even had a couple noodles in them) and re-filled my flask with Coke before heading back out and up into the night.
Getting my body up to Col Ferret was a nightmare, an act of sheer will. The usual term “bonking” doesn’t really begin to describe how tapped out I felt. I simply needed calories. But the nausea continued. Miraculously, right before the top of the hill, I passed Luis Hernando in a cloud of fog, moving myself into 4th place. The officials who scanned my number told me that the leading group was just ahead (this was wrong…the truth was that they were ~30min ahead); passing Luis gave me a meager but woefully short-lived boost of energy (he was even more defeated than myself and would drop at La Fouly) and within minutes I settled back into a depleted downhill wobble. I was amazed that no one had passed me yet.
Although I’m sure things were even worse for those further back in the pack, any energy afforded by the rising sun on the descent into Fouly (108k) was more than negated by the almost comically slick and sloppy nature of the downhill singletrack. Somehow, I managed to only go down a couple of times. I was desperate to get to Fouly as I knew my body needed some kind of sustenance to keep going (anything bland sounded vaguely doable), but my nausea was rendering any of the gels or Coke I had non-consumable.
When I finally reached the aid in Fouly, the lack of food was clearly affecting my brain, as I ran right through the aid tent and back onto the streets of town before realizing that I would have to stop if I wanted to find something to eat. So, I ran the extra block back to the tent and through the maze of chutes to sit down and try to eat something. This time I took a seat and dissolved some crackers in the thin broth in order to get some kind of calories. Just as I was leaving, Fabien Antolinos arrived; I was so weak and listless that my usually raging competitive fires were barely poked.
Once I left town and got back on the trail, the soup and crackers hit my stomach and waves of nausea forced me to a walk. Fabien passed me shortly thereafter. He was barely moving himself, but he dropped me pretty quickly. I would gamely intersperse a few strides of pathetic shuffling (see photo), only to feel like throwing up until finally I did just that. There wasn’t much to throw up—I’d barely been eating anything for the past six hours or so—and the oft-referred to “restart button” of puking seemed to have not been punched; I still felt horrendous. And then Schlarb came trotting by, looking pretty rough but still running. Not too much later the trail trended back downhill and I began shuffling again and actually re-passed a now-walking Antolinos. It was pretty hilarious just what a slow-motion game the 4-6th place “racing” amongst him, myself and Schlarb had apparently become.
The 1500′ bop up to Champex-Lac—a lifesaver of a crew checkpoint at 122k—was more of the same for me, and when I got there I was determined to stay as long as it took to get some food down. This ended up being 20min. I drank a bowl of soup and crackers slurry, sipped some coke, and felt rescued by some lovely person’s procurement of a bag of potato chips. I knew that competing in the usual sense was pretty much off the table, but the bits of food and my crew’s enthusiasm (many thanks, Joe and Jools) had lifted my spirits and I was determined as ever to finish this damn thing. So I trotted out of town, even as I slipped to 6th place, with Sondre Amdahl’s arrival. No surprise considering my slothly pace.
Unfortunately, the ingestion of calories induced another rebellion of my stomach out on the trails (which I successfully slotted in between the many groups of trekkers on this portion of the TMB out to enjoy an otherwise idyllic Saturday morning) and I was left feeling weak as an infant, pathetically oozing my way up the Bovine climb under merciful cover of a cloud of mist. Somehow, against all odds, I worked myself back to within 100 yards or so of Sondre near the summit, but that was shortlived and my descent down the other side to Col de Forclaz and Trient saw my demeanor change from frustration to one of confused delirium. By time I made it to Trient (139k) I was dizzy and barely coherent. My caloric resources were completely tapped. It’d just been too many hours of exertion without getting any glucose in the bloodstream.
In Trient, there was another obligatory material check, and here I was levied a 15min penalty for only carrying one headlamp (the requirement is to always have two headlamps with spare batteries). My strategy for this mandatory equipment is simple: when I prepare my pack, I carry a ziplock with the items I don’t expect to use—my reflective space blanket, elastic bandage, mobile phone, whistle, and two Petzl E-lites (a trivial 27g each) with two spare batteries. This satisfies the requirement and I never have to worry about ever being non-compliant when I transition from day into night and vice versa (I use a Petzl Nao on my head and Petzl Tikka XP for running at night, so during the night I’m actually carrying FOUR headlamps).
However, when I presented my ziplock in Trient it held both spare batteries but only one Petzl E-lite, not two. My only explanation is that I must have lost the extra E-lite when re-packing my vest after the mandatory equipment check in Les Chapieux, where my mobile phone was one of the checked items. This meant that I had to open the ziplock containing my phone and headlamps, and it must’ve fallen out then. Twenty-seven grams is such a trivial amount of weight that I hope people realize that I would never risk non-compliance by voluntarily omitting the extra E-lite (there are plenty of other legal ways to cut 27g, such as carrying one less gel, for instance). In any case, I was so punted that the penalty ended up having no effect on my race (other than as a reminder to be more careful at checkpoints, so as not to fumble mandatory gear) as I ended up spending three and a half hours in the Trient aid station.
My time in Trient was a brand new experience for me in the ultra world. I was supremely empty and nauseous. Joe was extremely patient with me and after approximately an hour of effort I consumed three whole potato chips. Finally, he suggested I go lie down on a mat in the medical building. I did this. I napped fitfully for maybe an hour or so after which life continued to suck horribly; my stomach was no less upset. I never fully voiced it, but, I, of course, very much wanted to drop. Finally, Joe brought me a tablet of Immodium, which I took with some water, and 15min of napping later I was basically a new man. The Immodium had seemingly settled my stomach, and with this discomfort addressed I was able to think with a little more rationality and optimism. Fuck it, I’m gonna finish this thing. There is no way I’m dropping in the same aid station two years in a row.
I got up, and while a pair of medics worked on my wrecked feet (the rain and wet trails hadn’t done me—or anyone else—any favors), I began nibbling and eventually gobbling food. Potato chips and fig newtons were the main fuel, and after donning a fresh pair of socks and an extra plush pair of Fresh Foam Trail 980s, I was ready to get back at it after a three and a half hour pause. F’ing hell. I’d arrived at 11:30am with only 18mi to go, but now I just wanted to try and march it in before night fell. Let’s do it.
There’s not much more else worth telling, except that I learned a lot those last two hills. The climb up and over to Vallorcine was a manageable chunk once I turned my brain off and just executed, learning to truly stay in the moment. The stumble up Tete aux Vents/Flegere was hideous. There was a lot of cursing; that last hill is sadistic and makes anything else I’ve ever done in a race pale in comparison of difficulty.
The finish in Chamonix was insane. Being 8pm, six hours after Francois crossed the line, I expected my crew and maybe a small group of friends to greet me. Instead, I felt received by Chamonix as if I were the champion. It felt both massively undeserved and incredibly, touchingly supportive. I was moved. Thank you to everyone for all the support and well-wishing.
Finishing at far less than my best was totally worthwhile. When I ran Lavaredo earlier in the summer, I commented to a couple of friends that it was a great experience, but it didn’t involve any of the struggle or challenge that one looks for in a seasonal capstone race. So, professing to be seeking that kind of difficulty at UTMB, it would’ve felt pretty disingenuous on my part to just wilt and give up when the race actually delivered on said difficulty. Simply persevering was rewarding in and of itself, and I don’t think it was that I didn’t know that before, but that I’d never really given myself the chance to experience such perseverance while disentangled from the satisfaction of also having executed a top-level performance.
This was the first time I’ve ever had significant stomach issues in a race, and it has, of course, made me re-think my previously-reliable strategy of GUs and Coke for 100mi races. Going forward, I’m going to experiment in training with more “real food” starch-based fueling and will plan on utilizing those at aid stations, supplementing with far fewer gels while out on the trail. I’ve made a concerted effort this year to cut way back (but certainly not completely eliminate) the amount of processed wheat and sugar I eat in my daily life (race day at UTMB was the first time I’ve dipped into a jar of Nutella in months), and I’m curious if this possibly left me less well-equipped to deal with the onslaught of sugar that gels represent on race-day.
Beyond that, if I don’t get into Hardrock next year, I’ll most likely be returning to UTMB in 11 months’ time. Chamonix is too spectacular and the event is too electric to pass up the opportunity for another chunk of time in the shadow of the massif and another shot at the win.