My time in Trail Running Mecca – UTMB, Chamonix

I am not religious at all, but if I had to choose the most spiritual thing in my life, it would be trail running. So it is only fitting that, in order to celebrate my devotion and connect with my fellow devotees from around the world, I made a pilgrimage to trail running Mecca – otherwise known as Chamonix – for the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc week of events. I had signed up for the OCC, the shortest of the 5 races, and planned to be there for entire week of events. Despite getting pretty badly inured and incurring my first DNF (“Did Not Finish”) my trip was more awe inspiring, more humbling and had such a significant impact on me that I want to give it the post it deserves. Getting to witness Tim Tollefson’s third place finish at UTMB alone made the trip worth while, and everything else was just icing on the cake.  This will be long, but I am breaking it up into sections so those people who are interested in the nitty gritty of my race or my perspective on spectating the UTMB can scroll to those sections. Otherwise, to quote Offspring  “go on and indulge yourself, lean back and just enjoy the melodies”.

Why UTMB

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, the photos don’t do it justice

Trail running hadn’t even really occurred to me before I moved to California. I knew I always seemed to enjoy runs that went through nature, but I was far too intimated by the prospect of a new sport and so never really looked into it. That all changed about 5 years ago when I moved to California. I honestly don’t even remember what inspired me to sign up for a local St. Patrick’s day trail race, but when I looked up the route and went out for a training run – my first trail run in California – I didn’t make it more than about 800 meters before I had to walk because the course instantly went uphill. My husband and I cranked it out and struggled our way to a roughly 5 mile out and back run, but we got our asses seriously handed to us. I won’t say I instantly loved it: I didn’t. I hated feeling so weak and got pissed at how much uphill there was. But being the stubborn ass I am, being so winded after 5 miles made my angry and so I was determined to get better at it.  I didn’t end up running the race but I did keep running on those local trails and even ran a few other short, local races. The thought of really having a go at trail running never crossed my mind and the thought of running an ultra marathon was so far fetched it wasn’t even a whisper of an idea. Then one day, a friend invited me to go to Sports Basement for some film screening and to meet the athletes the film was about. I had nothing better to do so I figured why not? The friend was Patrick O’Leary, the film was “Curiosity” and the athletes were Rory Bosio and Tim Olsen.

The scenery, the camaraderie, the atmosphere, the physical and mental strength and the badassery depicted by those athletes in that video sparked something in me that was impossible to ignore. Paddy and I looked at each other and both had the same kind of crazy, excited look in our eyes of someone who has found the thing they have been looking for. It couldn’t have been 2 weeks later that we both signed up for our first Ultra: the Tahoe Rim Trail 55k. Fast-forward a year and a half and I found myself on a plane to participate in a 33 mile race with 11,000 feet of climbing as an “elite”. My body hasn’t been cooperating and I knew I was going in under trained due to injury and would by no means, actually deliver an elite performance, but I wanted to do this race no matter how long it took me to finish. It didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t experience the welcome of the crowds in Chamonix and the joy of crossing that finish line.

Arriving in Chamonix 

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The View From Our Living Room

Holy. Fucking. Shit. There is really no way to water down what went through my head when I woke up on Sunday Morning and looked out the living room window of our Air BnB. We had arrived the following evening under the cover of both darkness and fog and so the true nature of Mont Blanc was not revealed to us until we were still half asleep and in much need of coffee. It was my birthday and the rainy fog from the day before had cleared making it the perfect day for a frolic in the mountains. We decided to do a reverse preview of the last few miles of the course and headed out the door for what was supposed to be an easy 2 hour run. Well, we learned very quickly that easy pretty much doesn’t exist in Chamonix as we climbed about 1,000 feet in the first mile of trail and it only got steeper as we went up. Despite sitting for the entire day prior as we took 3 trains and 3 buses to get from the Mediterranean coast to Chamonix, my legs felt great and I powered my way up through the beautiful coniferous forests. I pulled away from Braden and was having fun navigating the numerous rocks and routes and even running a couple sections of the steep trail. The trails are pretty narrow and pretty busy and so I looked up when I heard some people coming down in order to not run into them and as I did so, my right foot grazed a rock and I went down. I didn’t think it would be bad fall since I was barely running up a trail with a roughly 35% grade, but my knee hit a rock and I must have put my arm out funny because I felt a pop and my arm went numb and I was unable to move it. Braden was a little ways behind me at that point so i just sat down and called out for him. As I went to grab my shoulder, I felt it pop back in and pain that was starting to take over my senses went away. We tested it out and it could rotate ok and I felt fine, so we continued the run. We got up to a nice viewing point and decided to turn around since every time I stopped, my shoulder started to hurt more. I had a lot of fun on the downhill and visualized myself bombing down on race day.

I proceeded to pop my shoulder out 2 more times before the race, including once in my sleep 2 nights before, but I got some rock taping advice from my friend and chiropractor extraordinaire Hal Rosenberg. I don’t know if it was the fact that my Rock tape was American Flag themed or what, but I woke up race morning and my shoulder felt really good. My knee, however, was a different story. I didn’t even pay attention to it when I fell, but on the 2 shakeout runs before the race, it was painful with every step. It had just stopped hurting from the swelling from my last fall a couple of weeks ago and I think the trauma of two falls within a short period of time was taking its toll.I put 2 emergency advil in my pack for race day and taped up the knee hoping it would be ok. I didn’t think either injury would get worse with running even though I might be uncomfortable or even in pain for a lot of the run and so I decided to tow the starting line with every intention of giving it my all.

The Race

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Lucky enough to have my husband and parents with me at the start

Race morning started with a pretty unbelievable incident. Since it is a point-to-point race, runners load into commandeered city buses in Chamonix at early hours to get bused out to the start in Orsieres, Switzerland. For some unknown reason, our bus driver stopped at a bus stop a few minutes after leaving the city center to pick up a regular guy who was waiting at the bus stop. This regular guy happened to be shit-faced beyond reason – it was 5:15 in the morning after all – and could not comprehend the fact that the bus was in fact not going to his stop just up the road, but rather taking a bunch of runners to Switzerland. He simply did not have the capacity to understand that he had to get off the bus and it got violent.In the end, it took our bus driver and 3 large competitors to forcibly remove him from the bus. The bus driver got punched in the face and the whole scene seemed beyond belief when the guy got thrown out the back entrance of the bus and ran to the from entrance to get back on before the doors could be closed. We finally got rid of him and got on our way only to discover our bus driver had no fear of the super windy roads and apparently no understanding of motion sickness. I was right near the from and managed to control my nausea but at least one person further back spent most of the bus ride throwing up into a bag. Great way to start a very long day in the mountains.

The start are was fine. A cute little town with the start line in the main square. My only problem is that there weren’t enough bathrooms. I am anal about not having to pee when I start a race, but there were no bathrooms near the start and so I broke my cardinal rule, only to pay for it for what turned out to be the first half of my run.

Climb 1: Orsieres to Champex-Lac: 10 km

This was the most intense starting line I have ever experienced. Being in front with the elites was part of it, but there is just so much hype from the announcers that my heart rate was over 100 before I even started running. There were some fierce looking Euro ladies in the elite corral, but I told myself over and over to just run my own race. I can’t control them, I can only control me and I knew I was in less than ideal shape for a real podium contention race.  The start was fast and I let the eventual first and second place women go, but kept them in site. The town school kids were lining the streets and I high fived as many as possible on my way out. The first climb is pretty tame compared to what we got into later, but my legs felt like shit and were not responding. I felt like I had already run 30 miles by mile 2 and even my power hiking was suffering. This was not a good start. With every person and every woman who passed my in the first 10K, I got more and more frustrated. Despite trying to go out easy, my heart rate was in the 170s for the majority of the first 10k. Not good. It was already getting hot and so I made sure to drink and keep on my fueling schedule. I came through the first aid station with my only need being a bathroom, but I didn’t see one so I kept going despite being really uncomfortable.

Climb 2 + Descent: Champex-Lac to Trient: 17 km

“I really wish I had a penis” was my mantra for this section of the race. I had to pee pretty badly and saw several dudes just pull over and whip it out to pee. I should have done the same, but didn’t want to lose any more position and figured I would just go at the next aid station. Well, I think having to pee really took a toll on me because my legs still felt like lead. This is the first really brutal climb with sections of the trail having a 40% grade. I had pulled out my Black Diamond carbon z-poles pretty early an and never actually put them back in my pack. I found them to be really useful on the climbs but still got passed by tons of runners on this climb, including a man who had to be over 60. I was uncomfortable, I was hot, my legs did not want to participate and under any other circumstances I would have been miserable. I did think to myself several time that I did not know how I was going to finish this based on how my legs were feeling and that my only goal was to make it to eh next aid station.  The descent into Trient was a combination of nice rollers at the top and really steep and technical trails as we went back down through the forest. Trient was the first major aid station and also the first place my family was going to be. I saw Braden and told him how I was feeling and thankfully found a bathroom. I took in quite a lot of fluid at the aid station in the form of soup and coke and left with a little bit of a sloshy tummy. I wasn’t too worried because I knew I would climbing pretty soon and wouldn’t be able to run anyways. I had not been consuming as many gels as I should have been, but I switched to my roctane bottles and the liquid calories were much easier for me.

Climb 3 + Descent: Trient to Vallorcine – 11 KM

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Probably my favorite part of the race – amazing views and a relatively flat runnable section of trail

For the first mile or so out of the aid station I was trying to manage the nauseous feeling cased by the sloshy tummy and pushing it to try and make up some ground. We got to the climb pretty quickly and I pulled out the poles and settled into my forever pace. I put my head down and just powered through. Pretty soon I found myself passing people. My legs were feeling good and I wasn’t breathing too hard. I was hot, but I felt fine. I was taking in liquid and calories and gaining more energy every minute and with every runner I passed. I came across several runners who sat down on the side of the trail on the climb to have a snack. What? Really? Once we got above tree line we were rewarded with insane views of the Trient Glacier. I had to slow down a little so as to avoid tripping because I kept looking up and back at the glacier because it was so awe inspiring. I did not take any photos there, but finally did a little further up. At one point I heard what I thought was techno music on the distance and figured we must be coming to the water station at the top of the climb. Eventually I realized that the music I was hearing was in fact the symphony of giant bells worn by the Swiss cows and we were in fact running through a roaming herd of cattle. It was so cool I had to take a video:

Cresting the climb at Catogne I felt amazing. I took some water, cooled myself off by wetting y hat and buff and took off. I continued to pass people on the flat section up top because running felt great and lost of people were walking. I flew down the first part of the downhill and passed loads more people.My right knee hurt pretty badly every time I ran, but I was able to manage the pain and push through it. It definitely impacted my speed on the downhills but I was feeling so excited to fly into Vallorcine and see my family again, this time with a positive experience to report and even thought a top ten spot would be possible. The first unfortunate occurrence happened when I took my hat off to wet it in a stream as we crossed it and when putting it back on popped my recently dislocated shoulder out again. I was running along crying with pain and anger at myself because I figured that my right arm wouldn’t be useful with the poles for the final climb and I was so angry with myself for doing something so dumb. Thankfully it started to feel better pretty quickly and actually provided a welcome distraction from the pain in my knee. When I couldn’t let loose on the relatively smooth fire road portion of the downhill, I decided to take my emergency Advil. This is not something I did lightly, but  felt I was taking enough liquid that it would be safe and could provide some much needed pain relief.

The Fall

About 2 minutes after taking the advil, as I was running along another nice flat section right before dropping into the 1200 foot descent in less than a mile, I went flying. Like superman style epic flying. My foot snagged a root and I went down. I got up and even though I was covered in dirt and my knees were bleeding I thought it was fine. I cursed at myself for falling on an already pissed of knee, but thought I had avoided any major injuries and kept running. I made it about 500 feet before I had to bend my right knee to avoid a big rock and felt the excruciating pain. Fuck. I tried again and the same thing happened. Fuck. Tears. With excessive use my my poles, lots of tears and swearing I managed to piece together a very unattractive run-hobble that got me down the mountain. Despite the pain when bending, the knee didn’t hurt with weight bearing and so I thought maybe I could walk the entire way to Chamonix. I wanted to cross that finish line more than any any race in my life and I knew I had enough time. The 1 km down was a roller coaster of knowing my race was over and breaking down in tears over it and telling myself i could do it and sucking it up. I must have looked like a schizophrenic the way I was talking to myself and switching so quickly between emotions. I will say that the support from the runners who started to pass me as I hobbled my way down (all the runners who I had just worked so hard to pass on the climb) was amazing. I got asked in several different languages if I was ok and one Spaniard told me it was just 1 km to Vallorcine which gave me the strength to power on and make it there on my own two feet.

The final descent into the aid station is a windy sheep path down a really steep hill in a field. Normally this would have been primo hill bombing territory but not this time. Based on the looks on the faces of the awesome townspeople who came out, I was a serious mess: covered in dirt and blood, run-hobbling, sniffling, crying, grimacing. I didn’t see my family as I dropped into town, so I stopped at the water station to try to wash off as much of the blood and dirt as possible: I didn’t want them to worry about me. I went straight to the medical tent and the medics started treating the scraped on my knees. I tried to tell them that I didn’t care about the blood, that I only cared about the swelling and pressure I was feeling in the right knee, but they didn’t really speak English and my French skills are more focused on ordering food and wine. I finally got someone who could examine it and communicate a little in English. Her face said it all and she cut straight to the point. She said there is blood in the muscle and it is “broken”. That continuing would make it very difficult to even walk fora long time after the race and she would not recommend continuing. I tried to keep my composure but didn’t do a very good job. I could have stayed in that tent crying for a while as I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed. I don’t cry very much; I’m not really a crier, but when I do, it all comes out. However, I didn’t want my family to worry and so I went out and gave them the neck cutting sign to signal that I was done and went to the official drop station. My tag was cut off my bag and the bar code cut from my bib and that was that.

The Aftermath

It is only through failure that we can really grow.

If everything came easy, it wouldn’t be as worth it.

You don’t always get what you give, sometimes you get what you get.

These are all true. I have never been so disappointed in my life, but I also have never been more fired up about anything either. Not achieving that OCC finish, and the sadness and disappointment I felt, and still feel, afterwards has provided me with a new level of understanding of just how much I really love this sport. Getting to witness the community and amazing connection we all have as ultra runners was truly amazing. Getting to witness the awe inspiring performances by both the UTMB front runners and the guys who finished in the middle of the night was one of the most motivating and emotional things I have seen.I didn’t get to run along the river towards the finish in my own race, so Braden and I tracked Fernando all day and all night to see when he would finish and got up at 4 am to go and see him in. As he passed us with about 1 km to go, we decided to run along side fo him. I adopted the ever attractive run-hobble and we kept him company along the final stretch. We dropped off about 300 meters before the finish to let him relish in his final crossing alone. It was so awesome.  Strangely I also have a new sense of calm. Even though I can’t wait to be healthy and able to run again, I am less antsy about being out of commission. I know I will run again and when I do it was be awesome. I know I will race again, and when I do it will be with a new perspective. I know I will back in Chamonix, and when I am, I will finish what I started.

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Walking the course I didn’t get to run out of Vallorcine

3 Thoughts

  1. Earlier this summer I read Lizzy Hawker’s book and will admit I did not know a it UTMB. Reading your post was another glimpse in to that run and area…and those pics, wow! I’m sorry that you DNF’d but thank you for sharing your experience. And great attitude!

    Like

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