Sometimes everything has to go wrong before it can go right. In the upside down world of ultramarathons, pre-race disasters can lead to solid race performances and conversely the most prepared competitors can fall on their faces. Had I kept this reverse logic in mind in the 24 hours leading up to my TDS race, perhaps it would have given me more confidence about what was to come…
I woke up the morning before the start of TDS wearing a monkey onesie suit with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot beside the bed and a pounding headache. It was the way I might have expected to wake up the night after a race, not the night before. However, as my baggage was held back in Tel Aviv, I had arrived in Geneva without any of my race gear, prompting a giant headache. All I had on me was a duty free bottle of Veuve Cliquot and my credit cards. And a monkey onesie for pajamas, but that will make a bit more sense later.
It is every runner’s worst nightmare to show up at a race without any gear. As I have written myself in running articles, “if you’re traveling for a race, bring all of your essential gear with you on the plane.” Travelling for Neurotic Runners 101. However, when you travel through Tel Aviv, there are strict security requirements and passengers are often limited in what they can bring as carry on.
I was exhausted and fed up. I was not in the mood to run around like a chicken (monkey?) with its head cut off, trying to replace all of my gear just so I could exhaust myself further by running over mountains. I was just using it as a training race for Tor des Geants anyway – I must admit, it did cross my mind to just scrap the whole thing and spend my weekend chilling out.
As it turns out, chilling out is not something I do well. Thanks to the generous support of the trail running community in Chamonix, Like the Wind magazine and The North Face, within 8 hours of waking up dressed as a monkey, I was entirely kitted out in non-monkey clothes and ready for the race. Well, I looked the part, but my brain was still somewhere back in Gaza. My head was simply not in the game and I knew that was a dangerous way to start out on a race.
The next morning, I hopped on the bus to Courmayeur at 4am and huddled up with the other runners in the sports hall as we waited for our 6am start. I curled up in the fetal position on the cold concrete floor to try to get some sleep, but funnily enough, I was unable to rest with dozens of other stinky runner feet encircling my head. I felt lonely, nauseous and grumpy. (Note to future runners: bring some cardboard boxes to sleep on).
As I lined up at the start with the other 1600 (or 1800?) runners, I didn’t feel that nervous buzz that I normally do. I had that heading-to-work-on-a-Monday-morning feeling instead.
Within 5 minutes of starting the race, I was already falling apart, victim to my newly-purchased and untested borrowed gear. The front pockets on my Salomon pack were too shallow to hold my soft flasks of water, which meant that they were jiggling around and popping out on the ground every couple of hundred meters. There I was, running through the streets of Courmayeur, clutching the flasks against my chest like out-of-control silicone implants. I looked and felt ridiculous. With the aid of a few safety pins stolen off of my race bib I tried to macgyver a solution on the fly, which seemed to tame them down.
With my tailwind-filled set of boobs under control, I concentrated on powering my way up the first hill, which was a 1300m climb up along the same general route as UTMB. Having done this trail in training in 2013, I didn’t worry about missing the scenery. I just put my head down and got to work. I soon discovered that not only was my head not in the game, but neither was the rest of my body. I had to close one eye at a time as I was quite dizzy and I did a mini-barf after the first hour (ew). I started the self-negotiations in my head about dropping out even before I’d reached the first pass (Arete du Mont-Favre).
I gained a bit of confidence on the descent into Lac Combal. Normally I am able to gain places on the climbs, but I am overtaken on the downhills as I granny-step my way along. Perhaps it has been my training in the Alps recently on my escapes from Gaza, but I seem to have picked up speed. I breezed past a dozen or so other runners and zoomed through the checkpoint. I knew the weather was going to be hot, but I wasn’t too concerned about my hydration at this point as we had already had two water points within the first 15km. Awesome!
Had I studied the race profile more carefully, I would have stocked up properly on fluids at Lac Combal. Little did I know but the next water station was 21 km away at Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, with two climbs in between. I made it to Alpetta, where I saw a bunch of people waiting up ahead. Hurrah! I drank the remainder of my water and sped along
to the crowd, only to discover that it was in fact not a checkpoint. My disappointment and creeping dread at my mistake dissipated as soon as I heard someone calling my name and waving. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing my crew, Lucy, until Bourg Saint Maurice at 51km – who could it be? Amazingly, it was elite ultrarunner and Montrail athlete Amy Sproston from the US. Also known as my new bestie / platonic running crush. Amy was out supporting one of her friends and noticed me coming through. As a soon-to-be-officially-announced Free to Run ambassador, Amy and I had caught up for a beer the night before the race and she turned out to be one of the nicest, most humble runners I have ever met. I got an immediate burst of energy after seeing Amy and decided I needed to snap out of my funk and get going. Wouldn’t want to disappoint my new bestie, after all.
My energy lasted all of 10 minutes before my water shortage got the better of me. Along one flat section near a large pond, I turned to one of the french runners and whimpered. He pointed up the next hill towards the checkpoint at Saint-Bernard with a smile – seeing the climb ahead, I responded with a frown. I don’t need to describe how I felt – you can get everything you need to know from this picture.
I descended into Bourg Saint Maurice moving well but uninspired. Lucy, in true form, was waiting for me in a skeleton onesie. I had asked her to dress in a onesie while crewing as I thought that she would come as a cute fuzzy animal, offering me comfort and warmth. But no, Lucy chose a skeleton instead, which is
much more representative of her no-love-until-the-finish-line style. And that is why she is the best.
A quick change of clothes into one of my new North Face tops and I was on my way again, facing a climb from 816m up to over 2500m in the heat of the day. People started dropping like flies. Having learned my lesson early on in the race about hydration, I stocked up with a full 2.5 L of water, well above the mandatory 1L capacity required by the race directors. I drank it all before I got to the next checkpoint. I might have been tempted to stop on that climb if it wasn’t for the eye candy that kept me powering on. Yes, I said it, eye candy.
You see, I’ve discovered the phenomenon of ‘troggles’. It is the trail running equivalent of beer goggles. When you have beer goggles, you may find women or men more attractive than they actually are due to your state of dehydration and delirium. Same thing happens when you are out on the trail during a hot and humid ultra. Suddenly, as I was suffering during this never-ending climb, I looked in front and behind me and realized I was sandwiched between sweaty, spandex-clad Gucci models. Oh why hello…. I have to admit, my mind wandered. At one point, we came across a garden hose with a spray nozzle on the end, which one of the local residents had left out for us. Hands down, best moment of the race. I think I let four or five men go ahead of me while I just stood there and watched them hose themselves down. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I was a total troggle-wearing creep…. but it worked. There was no way I was going to drop out or slow down with my troggles on.
I started really appreciating the scenery during this stage of the race (I mean the nature, not just the men). I hadn’t been too impressed during the first 50km and was beginning to think I had become a mountain snob. Everyone had told me that TDS was the most beautiful of all of the UTMB races, but that didn’t really come out at the start. The 30 km section between Fort de la Platte and Col du Joly was stunning and well worth it, albeit tough. Lots of ups and downs and some very technical roped sections, requiring an equal mix of stamina and fancy footwork. Admittedly, I had to take a few sitting breaks on some of these climbs to bring my heart rate down, but I was certainly not the only one. I knew I was continuing to move up in the pack, so I tried to just relax and enjoy being outside in the mountains again. I finally felt like I was getting into my groove.
At la Gitte, a handsome frenchman sidled up to me at the water fountain and informed me that we had a 700 m climb ahead. I looked through my troggles at his dark eyes and smouldering gaze, and replied with a faint ‘bien sur?’ before shuffling off.
The view from Col Est de la Gitte was gorgeous. I was mainly running on my own at this stage with enough space in front and behind to get into ‘lone wolf mode’. The sun started to set on the way to Col du Joly, turning the sky red and warm. I shut off my ipod – and my brain. Night fell and a blanket of quiet descended over us. I moved forwarded in the dark in silence, thinking of nothing and enjoying the void.
The descent to les Contamines was familiar from my previous training runs this year. I pushed forward, knowing that I would see Lucy again at the checkpoint. I knew I was top 15 women at this stage and I wanted to stay there. This was no longer just a training run. I wanted to push myself and see what I could do.
At les Contamines, I was starting to feel a bit nauseous and was having trouble eating. I shoved a piece of cold pizza in my mouth and ended up spitting it out in the garbage. Lucy was there to push me out of the checkpoint as quickly as possible – no time for whining or resting! Two more climbs, she said, and then just a downhill to the finish. Get back out there. The skeleton costume was gone, but deathly let-me-down-and-die attitude was still there. There was no time to let up.
I had been jockeying back and forth with another runner named Helen for hours, and I think I left her somewhere at the checkpoint. Somewhere on the climb up to Chalets du Truc, I passed another female runner, Perrine Scheiner. I could barely speak at this stage – I was completely focused on pushing myself up the hill, using whatever was left in my arms and legs. My left knee was screaming profanities, but I knew it would get me to the finish. I just needed to keep the nausea down. I could actually hear the blood pumping in my ears, which helped set the rhythm in my legs.
The last climb to Col de Tricot was tough, to say the least. I tried not to look up at the little lights disappearing up into the sky ahead, which indicated just how far I had to climb. The runners were fairly spaced out at this point, but I managed to catch up and pass a few more people. Breath in, breath out, don’t throw up. I reached the top just after midnight, 100 km and 7000 m into the race. It’s all downhill from here, I thought as I immediately started descending. The moon was out and I’m sure the view was great, but I had a race to finish and I was not in the mood to wait.
On the descent, I passed Tilly Heaton, an amazing runner who I know from my visits to Hong Kong, although I didn’t realize it at the time. The course turned uphill again and I cursed – it was only a 150m or so, but I had already told my quads they were done.
I ran towards the last checkpoint at Les Houches and was pleasantly surprised to see Lucy again. Alright, you have a mission to complete: only 8km left to go and you are 12th woman. Come on!! I smiled as I ran to the checkpoint and saw a few of the guys I had been running with earlier in the day. It’s my Canadian! said one handsome Frenchman as he flashed his pearly whites at me. I would have normally stayed to chat, but I had a mission to complete. I took off my troggles, shook my head and made my way out of the checkpoint. Plus, another runner had started dry heaving and I knew it was contagious….
Lucy ran a few hundred meters with me and warned me that she was wearing very expensive jeans, so I wasn’t allowed to vomit. As soon as she waved me goodbye, I bent over and started dry heaving like it was my job, clutching a selection of dry biscuits in my head. Come on, you can vomit at the finish!
A few guys caught me on the trail to Chamonix, but I didn’t care. I was done. When I reached the town at 3am, Lucy was there to tell me I was actually in 11th place. I let out a high pitched singsong noise as I crossed the finish line (embarrassingly caught only the webcam), 11th woman and 91st overall. I had done it!
It wasn’t a good start to the race, but it was a damn good finish. The next night I got out that bottle of Veuve with some dear friends and my ‘skeleton’ crew, and we partied the night away. I ended the trip the way I began: pounding headache (from the Veuve, not the stress) and wearing a monkey onesie, this time jumping off of Brevent with a cute instructor (no troggles required) and a paraglide attached to my back. Don’t ask.
I’m now just a few days away from the start of Tor des Geants* and unsure of whether I have really had enough time to recover. My left knee is still speaking to me, which is my biggest worry, but there is nothing to do now but get to the start line. Given the way TDS went, perhaps I should be hoping for some pre-race disasters to send me on my way…
*This post was written two weeks before Tor des Geants but not published until after the race. Stay tuned for my next race report!