Photo courtesy of Andrew King - D4 Productions

Friday, September 2, 2011

UTMB - 29.17 40th Place

Strap yourself in with a 6er because this is a long one.

Planning the night before with Euro PI crew

This year leading up to UTMB has been filled with mediocre results so I was frustratingly expecting the same kind of result. A result, nonetheless, but not to expect anything that would place me in the ranks of the elite immortals. But you know how it goes leading up to a race, getting excited, feeling good, and stretch goals are heightened. Thank goodness for my wife to bring me back down to reality. I had told her a couple months ago that I was going into UTMB to gain the experience of a lifetime and have no other expectations. When she heard me talking to others about time goals she said, "uh... remember NO expectations, have fun - right?"

And so the stage was set to enjoy the day and here is my journey through three countries, two nights, and one full day:

Chamonix to Le Contamines (0-31.1k)

As most of you already know the start was pushed back to 11:30 PM because of weather, which meant another 5 hours laying around. I didn't let it bother me because I could not do anything about it. Ironically it had been in the mid 90s all week and this was the only day to have temps hovering just above freezing. The Euro PI crew set up shop in a cafe next to the start so we had a warm, dry place to stay until minutes before the start. We made our way over to the corral that was designated for specific numbers, of which we all had. Thank goodness because the pack of runners behind us went around the corner out of sight. Roch Horton did not find his way to this corral and ended up an hour and 1/2 behind making his way through people.

Music was playing loud, announcers even louder (in French) - the atmosphere was electric. All I could do was smile and hug my fellow Americans around me to wish good luck. Killian was standing right next to me in a Salomon swim cap. Kidding I said "swimming too? what next rally car?" He didn't understand and I laughed. Salomon is everywhere in Europe and that was the genesis of my comment. Anyways, trios-deux-un-Allez!! And we were off! People sprinted off the line, people shoving, gaining position. Not more than 50 meters off the line a woman fell right in front of me, I tried to jump over her but caught her leg sticking up in the air and I fell, losing one of my handhelds. I looked up and herds of people were coming, in a panic I located my bottle, someone grabbed me by the armpits to help me up, and I was off and running again.

Running to Les Houches (Le Zoosch) I surveyed the damaged, nothing broken just a bunch of road rash on my leg, hip, and elbow. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise so that I would start slow. On the way to Les Houches is pretty flat (153m) and only 7.9k, mostly letting people pass me and wondering if I should put more clothes on. Once we leave Les Houches we hit the first climb of the day and reports of snow on top of that climb. I decide to keep just my arm warmers and vest over my shirt. I end up going through Les Houches in 59th place.

Comparing the climb from Les Houches to La Charme (800m) to the others seemed a bit small but that was the wrong way to think about it because it went on forever. I was climbing good, not as hard as SZ, but keeping the breathing under control while passing some people. At Le Delevret (14k), which is almost at the top, I was in 49th place in a time of 1.28. I was soaked to the bone and shivering. I should have put on the waterproof jacket earlier. The only thing I could do was to get down quickly but that was a problem because it was slick grass with wet snow on a steep incline that made for a disaster waiting to happen. I saw a bunch of footprints wiping out so I was careful and slow which made me colder. It was literally middle of the night and we were descending through these small villages along the hillside and people were out in droves with their cow bells yelling allez-allez-allez!

Finally down in Saint Gervais (21k) with a time of 2.10, a descent of nearly 1000 meters. Warmer now though. I stopped at the aid for at least 5 minutes, surveying the food so I could get a flavor for what I would see all day. I ate a bunch of bread, cookies, and some sort of sweet crackers.

Mouth full of food at Saint Gervais

Leaving Saint Gervais we follow le bon Nant' river valley for another 10k to Les Contamines, a little bit of climbing but generally flat so it's good running. Along the way Dakota Jones, yes THAT Dakota Jones, came up on me and we casually made our way into Les Contamines chatting about our adventures over the past 3 weeks. I must say it was quite the pleasure to have Dakota and Nick as my travel mates, we shared in some experiences that will forever be etched into our memory. Dakota entered this race tired. But part of our 3 weeks we had the mindset of doing it ALL. And Dakota epitomized that mindset; why not climb Mt Blanc with Killian less than a week before the race? It wasn't for me but Dakota said "shit yeah!" So taking it easy 31k into a brutal race was more than appropriate.

Once in Les Contamines (31k and a time of 3.17 - 47th place), my Euro PI crew were there to meet me with a full change of dry clothes. I knew I'd be wet. Moritz, Lisa, and Sabine (thank you guys) helped me change out of clothes that were clinging and were tough to get off. I couldn't help much because my hands were frozen. I'd taken about 10 minutes to make the change so Dakota was off and I was hopeful that he could methodically enjoy his day. For me, I was feeling OK but pretty much par for the course for the year. Meh. I was bound and determined to not get caught up in racing but just let the race come to me. I was eating a ton of food through the aid stations and climbing exceptional well to this point so I couldn't ask for much more.

Les Contamines to Courmayeur (31.1 - 77.7k)

Enough of the flat running, leaving Les Contamines is a stout climb up to the Croix du Bonhomme (2486m) for a total 1286m of climbing. And if you were wondering, 1 meter equals 3.28 feet so in our American world that would 4218 feet. My climbing legs were great. Still keeping my breathing in check I was passing a bunch of people. I felt at this point I was finally hitting my stride. It was on this climb that I passed the Spanish woman (eventually 2nd) and she seemed to working really hard. Half way up the climb at La Balme I was in 47th still but by the time I reached the Croix (44k) I was in 39th place with a time of 5.33.

Now the big descent (950m) into Les Chapieux where I would see my official PI crew of Linus and my wife. I thought I was going down at a reasonable pace but people were flying past my as if Les Chapieux was the finish. It was dark, snowy, and technical. I'm not the best at descending but I felt like these people were taking unnecessary chances way too early. Thee trail was really multiple trails that had been formed so it was easy to pass. I didn't mind methodically picking my way down, knowing I would have many more to go so I should save the quads. Turns out most of those people who passed me were at Les Chapieux when I arrived, so I guess pick your poison. Now in 58th place and a time of 6.15 - 19 people passed me on the way down and it took me 40 minutes to go 6k. Feeling very good and relaxed. It was very refreshing to see Nicole and Linus. We changed out my clothes once again because now it was nearly twilight and the sun would get hot. Again I ate a bunch of food, gave my wife a kiss, and I was off up the road to Col de la Seigne climb (1050m).

I turned off my light no more than 2k out of the aid station and found Mike Foote running up on me. We had a nice little chat and he was off running - looking good I might add. I told him I didn't want to see him again like we did at WS100. I certainly did not as he was the top American in 11th position - very nice job Mike Foote! Very impressed! After Mike left I caught up with Hal Koerner who was dealing with some foot issues left over from WS. He didn't look like he was in too much of a bother but bummed he was still dealing with it. I was still hopeful for him as he took off running up the Col de la Seigne. Climbing seemed to be my strength on this day, as it usually is, so again I began to pass people that had passed me on the down. When we arrived at the top of the climb I was back in 40th position - you kinda get the picture? 7.54 into the race and I had only gone 60k by the Col de la Seigne but with nearly 4000m of climbing.

Now the sun is up as we descend into the valley that would eventually drop us into Courmayeur, Italy. It was cold up there so I got down as quickly as possible and the legs were responding on the downs better than they had all day. This was now part of the course I was familiar with (in previous days a group of us had done this section in the light.) You know how it's always longer when you don't know where you're going? Once you know the path, it seems to go by quicker. That was true in this instance. Before I knew it I was in Lac Combal in 37th with a time of 8.20 and knew I only had to go over Arete du Mont-Favre (named after Brett I'm sure) before getting into Courmayeur.

There was a film/camera crew following all the PI runners and they were amazing - thanks for all your hard work guys, can't wait to see the finished product! They had a bike with a GoPro camera facing back and they would follow along flatter sections, while another guy would run ahead and snap pictures, while yet a 3rd guy would take video from another angle. I think I may have surprised them at Lac Combal because they were running around like crazy trying to get things going. I laughed at the pandemonium but that was a good sign because I was feeling good and positive that the race was coming to me.

Up and over Favre (500m) in 9 hours in 35th position. It was now all down to Courmayeur and I was buzzing along. I passed Topher Gaylord and it kind of took me by surprise at first, I didn't know it was him, but he wished me well as he was going through a tough spot at the time. And then further down about 2k from Courmayeur I ran upon a bald Geoff Roes (shaved his head pre-race). First I didn't recognize Topher and now Geoff. I wasn't delirious (yet) but as you all know Geoff was not his normal self. I was bummed because I believed going into the race that Geoff was the one that could win this thing with his talent. We all know when things aren't happening there is not much you can do to turn it around but wait your time - and time is the only thing we don't have as a luxury in a race.

I get into Courmayeur where my trusty PI crew is there waiting for me. There are lots of people about, cheering through the streets and even more at the aid station. Feeling good, it was what I needed to catapult me up to the next climb. Nicole and Linus were working seamlessly to get me out quick, yet another change in clothes for the hot day to come. Almost 80k, 10 hours, 31st place, and 4400m of climbing. Now the hard part comes...

Courmayeur to Champex Lac (77.7 - 123.7k)

Sometimes it's good to NOT know what's coming. Case in point is the climb out of Courmayeur - the Bertone. It's only 800m but in 5k - that is stout! I had done this in a training run and I was not looking forward to it. With fresh legs it took nearly a hour to get up so I was surprised it only took an hour ten during the race. And somewhere along the way I had passed two people, probably out of the aid station. Anyways I was worked over when I got to the top and so I sat down at the Bertone and had Coka for the first time. I needed it but I knew it was not a good sign so early in the race. The saving grace was that I knew for the next 7k it would be flat, so to speak. I was not running particularly fast when Nick Pedatella rolled up on me. I knew I would see him at some point because he is very steady and he just. keeps. going!

I let him pass and tried to hang on to his coat tails until I came around. I don't know if all the food I ate at Courmayeur was getting to me or the overall race, probably a combo, but I felt slow. By the time we got to Refuge Bonatti I was still right behind Pedatella. I stopped at the aid to regroup, more Coka, and talk with Dakota who was bonking and not happy. Nick took off and that was the last I would see of little Nick. A few dashes here and there through Arnuva but Nick was on a mission and I was more than happy to see him running so well. Nick P went on to finish 14th overall - amazing race Nick! You have been plugging away all year with great results and it was good to see you finish so strong. Congrats!

On through Arnuva with flattish stuff and now we were starting to see the carnage of the fast pace up front. You could tell some of these guys were up front at some point, they just looked the part, but now walking it in. Usually those types of things give me fuel but I was starting to come apart at the seams as well. I got to Arnuva in 13 hours and in 29th position. I had been passed by Nick but by moving up so many spots only told me that there was more carnage that I had not seen on the trails.

Leaving Arnuva is yet another climb of 800m in 5k. For the first time out of an aid station I had to sit on the side of the trail because I was dizzy. I just closed my eyes, ate some food, and drank some water. I did this 3 times during this short climb while a few people passed. I still knew there was a lot of ground to cover so I was not anxious sitting down, more hopeful that the dizziness would fade. Finally to the top and down the other side I came up on Hal Koerner, who is now limping. Short conversation and I had the feeling his day was done when he reached La Fouly. Not so. Hal went on to finish with Roch in 38 hours. I am truly impressed by this feat! It blows my mind that someone would suffer that long, knowing what's coming. Congrats Hal (and Roch) huge respect!

Down, down, down we go into La Fouly. I know the race (and dizziness) is starting to get to me because I am cursing where the course is taking me. I had thought it would drop right into La Fouly but as we got into the valley, we had a little surprise climb.... Almost as if to say, 'the trail is here so why not use it'. Even though we could have gone straight down the valley. (And don't get me wrong, I'm not bitching here to have a negative attitude, I'm just telling you what was going through my mind at the time). Finally at La Fouly with 110k down and somehow I am in 26th place with nearly 16 hours on my feet. Boy some people are dropping up front because I know some people passed me into La Fouly. At La Fouly, Mathius and Moritz take care of me (thank you guys) because I am dizzy and I need to lay down. Nicole and Linus went on to Champex Lac, which was fine for me.

Dizzy. Mortiz and Mathius attend to me

Down even further, we follow La Dranse de Ferret river and it is absolutely beautiful! It was some of the best running conditions all day with the grade, single track, and under the canopy of trees. I ended up running pretty good in this section, not fast, but continually moving. I am passed by a few people but we are passing other people as well. We get to Issert, a little village along the valley and that is where we start our climb up to Champex Lac. In Issert, and along the way through the other villages, there are families who have set up their own little aid stations with water, chocolate, and other things. The kids are genuinely happy to assist, I oblige some because they are so nice. It was enough to put a smile on my face even though I was starting to suffer.

Up to Champex Lac we go, even though only 450m, it is really tough. It's nearly 6 PM and I am yawning, thinking of what I have to do to get back to Chamonix. I kept thinking of what AJW said at American River this year, "in spite of everything that is going on in the world, all you have to do is run to get back to Chamonix (Auburn in his example) - that's it". Finally up at Champex Lac and wondering how I am in 27th position? Wow. Nicole and Linus with Catherine, attend to my needs, still eating pretty good and drinking really well. Lots of Coka. And as I'm getting ready to leave, someone says that we now have to go through Martigny..... What?!!? Can't be. Why?

Champex Lac to Chamonix (123.7 - 171k)

Since the entire race organization spoke French, it was pointless to ask them questions about what I saw on the white board leaving Champex Lac (Martigny replaces Bovine), which represents an additional 1000m and 6k. I was bewildered. Later the race organization stated one of the aid stations was blown down by the storm and they could not restore it so they sent out a text to all participants. Well, my phone rang as I was getting into La Fouly but I didn't think to answer it during a race... Again, there is not much I could do about it but go down to Martigny and follow everyone else. Nick, Dakota, and myself came up to Chamonix through Martigny from Sierre and I just remember how far down it was - damn! And it was that far down.

Linus explaining one of the reroutes

The trail we took cut straight down, instead of using the road which had a ton of switch backs. That was good and bad; good that it cut the distance but bad because it was straight down. I went down the best I could but my knees were killing me and it was at the bottom of this hill that I started to feel a little off balanced. I could no longer walk a straight line (evident by my path on the wide road at the bottom), and I was starting to see people. As we made one more climb (600m) over to Martigny, I could have sworn I saw Killian on the side of the trail in street clothes cheering people on.... I almost asked what his time was! I didn't though, I came to my senses and realizes I was losing it a bit. On the way to Martigny, I tried to take my mind off of things by gazing at the scenery which included an orchard of grapes - big juicy grapes that I wanted to pick and eat. mmm...

OK, here I am in Martigny after nearly 21 hours and I'm in 30th position. I was not looking forward to getting back up to Trient. I started calculating distance and realized it wasn't that far but with about 1000m to climb in such a short distance only meant one thing - straight the eff up! Good lord was I right! This hill just kept coming at me! I could still see the horizon at dusk so I could tell where I had to go. This climb put me over the top, literally and figuratively. I was having outer body experiences, I saw my crew several times in random places, and I was a little confused where I was and how far I had to go.

It was not good and I think my crew could see it in my eyes. I guess I had the 3 mile stare but at least I was responding and even joking a bit once in the Trient aid station.

Gettin a little crazy in here - Trient

I spent a good 20 mintues in Trient just trying to gather myself for the last climb of the race. I had been on the next section of trail a few times and knew exactly what to expect - 700m in just over 3k. I put every last bit of energy into that last climb, knowing that I was home free after that one. I put myself into a zombie state at this point, became nauseated for the first time, and sat down to relieve the dizziness. On top of the Catogne I had somehow picked up 3 spots and now in 30th position. I don't know how unless some people didn't leave Trient. It was freezing up on Catogne so I did my best impression of the green apple two step to get myself down. I must have sat down 4 more times to gather myself and the cold picked me to get me moving again.

Leaving Trient with Linus, Georg, and Nicole helping

Finally in Vallorcine, where my crew is anxiously awaiting me. I must have looked worse than before because Linus was now my crutch and sat me down. The nurse came over and wanted to start working on me. Nicole begins to tell them that I am OK, she has seen me like this before and it all worked out. It's true and I was coherant but the nurse would not let me leave until she looked me over. She took some blood for blood/glucose (156) - good. Blood pressure 120/80 - good. I sat around for another 15 minutes when my PI teammate Darcy Africa came strolling in. She looked good and was on a mission, in 3rd position and looked to catch the Spanish woman. Darcy finished very strong in the 28.30 range - congrats Darcy! Soo good to see you run strong all day - well deserved. 26.19 I finally left Vallorcine and in 33rd position.

I gritted my teeth and kept telling myself this was it! "Run this bastard in" I kept telling myself. But it was not meant to be. I would run until I could barely stand and then walk like a drunk for a few minutes. Then repeat again and again. I finally get to Argentiere in 35th position and that is where the trail took a turn for the worse. The lady at the aid told me we had 6k to go and I was pumped. I ran out of there with a new zest in my legs. Just outside of Argentiere we started upwards on one of the worse trails I had seen all day. It was jagged with rocks of every size and shape, it seemed like there was nowhere to place your feet. I was left to walk all over again because I was not stable at all.

Up and down we went on the trail which seemed like an eternity. It was difficult to judge location because we were under the canopy of trees. Normally you could see Mt Blanc and the glaciers to gauge your placement in the valley. Finally we hit a path by the river and I thought we were home free... And then we went up again and I thought for sure I had gone wrong somewhere. I nearly turned around, back down the hill and retrace my steps to the path near the river. I was completely confused as to where I was. I finally made the decision to forge ahead and it turned out to be the right way.

Finally the bright lights of Chamonix and just after 4 AM. And who is there to greet me? None other than my trustworthy crew and family. My mom first greeted me on the outskirts of town and every time I see her I can tell she has worried. I can't look at her in the eyes because I get so emotional. Just after her is my son Jaxon. It has been a tradition since I began doing ultras 8 years ago that Jaxon finishes with me.

At 4 AM and Jaxon is by my side

I have never been through a second night of a race but now have a new found respect for it. Not only was I physically exhausted but mentally I was drained. This race stripped me to my core and then spit the core out. I won't say it's the hardest thing I've done but pretty darn close. And that brings me to my next point. I have been asked several times since the finish of UTMB of which is harder Hard Rock or UTMB? My answer is Hard Rock. And for no other reason than altitude. The climbs and drops may be bigger at UTMB but there is also more runnable terrain in between. People like to discount the altitude factor but it honestly takes more out of you than you think. Other people may disagree with my answer and that's OK, this is just my opinion and I'm happy to debate.

29 hours and 17 minutes after leaving Chamonix I came back after 39 other people. During that time my trustworthy crew met me at every possible checkpoint. That means they were up just as long as I was while driving around on the roads. I cannot thank them enough for their efforts. This finish is just as much theirs as it is mine. I will never forget this journey with the people I've met and the amazing scenery I've seen. This was a once in a lifetime experience by having my entire family at the race. To my wife and two sons - you guys mean the world to me. I am deeply indebted to you all for your sacrifices. To my euro PI crew - you guys quickly became my friends and I will never forgot what you did for me and my family. To Rae Jean - for tolerating me as I go through my range of emotions before and after the race. And also taking my two boys so my wife can devote her time to me. And to my parents - who are with me every step of the way. All I have to do is look up to the sky at night and know you are looking at the same stars as I am looking out for me. To my friends Nick and Dakota - it was quite a ride over those 3 weeks and I will always remember the times we shared. And to all my other friends along the way - I cherished all the times on the trail and time spent in town.

Finally back with the family at the finish

The crew who got this one guy through it (Paul is taking the photo)

Total Climbing on the day via the new HighGear Axio HR

The 3 week traveling trio
There is lots more tell so I will make another post once you digest this one. I also have a ton more pictures that I will post. Until then, enjoy every moment and live it like it's your last. When was the last time you did something for the first time?

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