It’s no big surprise that women are hugely under-represented in ultrarunning – I’ve seen estimates ranging from 30% in some of the shorter 50km ultras down to 8% or less for the bigger ultras like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). But stats aside, all you have to do is show up to the start line of any ultra and you can see it for yourself. You’ll immediately notice that the lineup snaking out of the men’s washroom goes for miles, while the female washroom lineup is virtually nonexistent (score!). But aside from this one obvious perk, having a low proportion of women in the sport sucks. It means less mentorship opportunities, less media attention (based on the fallacy that the women’s field just isn’t as competitive as the men’s), less sponsorship opportunities (because of less media), and less clothing and gear options (due to the small market size that makes it less profitable for many companies to produce women-specific products).
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!
There is a moment in every race when you finally let go. You let go of all of the fears you had going into it about fatigue and failure. You let go of keeping time and trying to maintain your position in the pack. You let go of expectations – yours and anyone else’s. You allow yourself to bask in the thrill of the present moment and realize that you have made it.
For me, the ‘letting go’ moment in UTMB came about six hours into the race as I was making the long ascent to la Croix du Bonhomme, which sits at over 2400 m. I had just left the checkpoint at Col de la Balme, which put a little smile on my face. Last year, I had past this exact point – freezing cold – during the shortened UTMB course last year when it was covered in snow and ice… This year, the scene was much more lively and cheerful as runners gathered around the fire, drank soup, and took a few last swigs of cola before heading onwards towards the peak.
It was dark, the sky was clear, and air was crisp but not cold. In other words, conditions were perfect. You could just barely see the silhouette of the mountain ahead under the stars. Whereas last year it was impossible to see even a few feet in front due to the blizzard, this year the path was marked out by a line of head torches snaking their way up the mountain. It was daunting seeing how far the head torch runway stretched up into the sky, but it also gave me this strange sense that we were all on this crazy journey together. The high-altitude silence was interrupted only by the clickety-clack of hiking poles tap dancing across the slate rock. Yup, it was during this climb that I let go and realized I had made it to UTMB. I put my trust in my training, quietly whispered some encouragement to my legs, and relaxed into my stride. Heck, I was going to be doing this for a while, I thought, so I might as well try to enjoy it…
*** Training ***
This race is simply insane. Sure, no surprise there – it is 168 km with 10,000 m of elevation and three countries crossed. But really, these numbers don’t even begin to describe how insane it is. I’ve done one 100 miler before (Vermont 100), which I completed in 18:38. This one took me almost 13 hours more, and yet it was probably my best race result so far. It involved tears, vomit, blood and bruises… pain killers, equipment changes, outfit changes, mid-run lubes…. Guts and glory and the whole nine yards. I can truly say it was the challenge of a lifetime – and I LOVED IT.
I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time before the race training on the course. Stuart and I based ourselves in Courmayeur, Italy at the beginning of August, which is situated at almost the halfway point in the race (78 km). I knew that hill training – and I mean serious hill training – would be the secret to success in this race, so Stuart and I spent most days tackling the climbs on either side of the valley. I did the section out of Courmayeur to Refugio Bertone (about an 800 m climb) three times, and the section between Courmayeur and Col Checrouit twice. We ran as far as Les Chapieux on the one side (50 km into the race) and Refugio Elena (partway up the climb to Col Ferret at about 98 km into the race) on the other. On our last major training weekend, we stayed at one of the refuges along the course in France, testing out our head torches during a night run.
Testing out sections of the trail really helped take away some of the fear and panic of those hills. It made me feel like I was more connected to the trail. I figured if I could do it once – albeit under much easier conditions – I could do it again during the race.
Training was going really well. Too well, in fact. I didn’t feel like I was overdoing it because I was simply having too much fun playing in the mountains. I wanted to run every day and for hours at a time… well, a few weeks before the race, it started to catch up with me. One afternoon in the gym while doing squats on the bosu ball, my left hamstring raised a painful white flag of surrender and gave up. UGH. I still had two weeks to recover before the race so I didn’t panic… but as the days went by, I have to admit, I was worried.
I pulled out every trick in the book to get my hamstring back in the game. Physiotherapy in Italy and France, dry needling in Switzerland, deep tissue massage, osteopaths, chiropractors… I even had some doctor in Courmayeur inject a concoction of ‘herbs’ under my skin. But alas, come race day, I was still wincing as I took each step towards the start line. All I could hope was that it would loosen up and get with the programme as the race progressed!
(See below for information on the BEST place to go in Chamonix for treatment! Physiotherapists, osteopaths, and massage therapists)
*** The Race Start ***
It is almost worth coming to Chamonix just to see the start line of UTMB. Unlike most 100 milers, UTMB begins late in the afternoon when the town is in full swing. People are hanging out of hotel windows waving flags of all nationalities, cheering from behind the barriers lining the streets, and singing along to the music playing over the loudspeaker. But as the clock to race time counts down, the mood becomes a bit more solemn as the reality of the race starts to sink in.
Natalia, Stuart and I were together in the crowd, probably feeling exactly the same as the 2466 other competitors: nervous, excited, and a little bit sick to our stomachs! We knew that usually only about 65% would make it to the finish within the 46 hour time limit… would that be us?
Seconds before the start, Natalia squeezed my hand and I mentally wished her strength as I squeezed it back. We had stood in that exact same spot the year before when our hopes of completing the full UTMB course were crushed by the weather… This year will be better, I thought. Stuart gave me a last kiss of good luck and a ruffle of my black hair peeking out of my bandana. I just wanted to bring him with me on the course, just like we had done in training… but we had decided to each race our own race, so we settled for mutual promises that we would be there waiting at the finish line for the other. The journey over the next 100 miles would be our own.
4:30. It was time to go. Allez allez allez!!!!
*** The UTMB Race ***
The beginning pace is ridiculous. I can’t blame people as it is tough not to get caught up in the excitement, but when you see the crowd going out at a 10k pace for a 100 mile race, you want to just throw your poles up in the air and scream. Stuart and I actually ran together for the first 5 km or so, dodging our way in and around the other runners. We quickly worked our way through the runners until we hit the first climb at about the 8 km mark up towards Le Delevret.
As I continued to overtake runners on the hill, I could feel the benefits of my training start to kick in. My hamstring was bugging me, but generally I felt alright. Much to my surprise, I even overtook people on the downhill into Saint Gervais at the 20 km mark. Everything was looking good.
Unfortunately, on the next climb, I really started to feel ill. I had some stomach problems before the race and had popped some immodium to keep everything at bay… but after Saint Gervais I really started to feel nauseous. We were at the lowest point in the course (800 m), so I knew it wasn’t the altitude. Could it have been that sushi I had last night? I started to feel really discouraged until I looked up at about 23 km and saw Stuart. Stuart! After a quick hug on the course, we discovered that we were both feeling quite ‘off’. Oh dear. I started dry heaving almost immediately, which set Stuart off retching into the bushes. Yikes. I continued on with Stuart closely behind me – or so I thought. It was a pretty lonely moment when I discovered we had separated again and I was on my own. Strength, Stuart, keep at it.
Shortly thereafter, I started to feel a strange sensation on the back of my calves. It was a cooling sensation, and while it was pleasant, I knew something was off. I tried not to worry about it though, especially as I discovered that my water supply was completely empty. Damn it! Luckily, I only had a few more kilometers to go until the aid station at Les Contamines (31 km).
I ran into Les Contamines at 9:10 pm, just after dark, and ran straight to the water station to fill up my bladder. That’s when I discovered that I had sprung a leak and the nice ‘cooling’ sensation I had felt on my calves earlier was actually my water supply dripping down onto my legs. Shit, shit, SHIT!!!! I ran over to the aid tent in a panic, where my friends Lucy and Belinda were stationed. Having a solid water supply is vitally important for a race like this, particularly when the aid stations are hours apart (with mountains in between). My bag was broken, my warm clothes for the night were soaked, and I was in a complete panic.
Belinda sprung into action (despite having completed TDS just a day before!) and dumped out two 500 ml coke bottles for me to use. It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do until the next aided checkpoint at Courmayeur about 50 km away. My biggest concern was that I would now only be able to carry 1L of water instead of 1.5L, and that instead of being able to continuously sip I would have to stop to open up the bottles… but there wasn’t really any time to sulk. Time to move on. I traded out my soaking Patagonia nano jacket for a warm and dry north face jacket that I had left with Belinda, made sure my head torch was on, and set out on the climb towards la Croix du Bonhomme….
Little did I know that although I thought I was having difficulties, Stuart was in much worse shape. While my nausea seemed to subside, Stuart’s just got worse. Over the next 35 km, he forged ahead as best he could, but his stomach just wouldn’t let him. To make matters worse, the medical team gave him an anti-nausea pill that his mom is allergic too (and probably he is allergic to it as well). UGH. After 65 km, Stuart finally pulled out.
Thankfully, I got to see him right when he got off the shuttle transfer to Courmayeur. It was about 5:45 in the morning and I had just changed into some dry clothes from my drop bag and prepared for the upcoming day of running through Italy. The night running through the French Alps had gone well and I had jumped up over 500 positions since the start… but there was still a long way to go. I hugged and kissed Stuart before leaving, wishing so badly I could take away his illness and disappointment. It just wasn’t fair – we had done the same training and eaten the same pre-race meal. He should have been out there with me.
The sunrise on the Mont Blanc range as I climbed up to Refugio Bertone was spectacular. The peaks of the mountains were alight with pink snow as the sun slowly crept its way down the valley. Although I had done this hill many times before in training, I had over 80 km on my legs now and felt like I was barely moving… Come on, Steph, you know this trail. Allez allez allez!
The runners had spread out a far bit by this point, which was a blessing. I hated being out there without Stuart, so I just tried to pretend he was right there in front of me, leading the way just like in training.
When I got to the base of the climb to the Grand Col Ferret, which marks the border between Italy and Switzerland, I was entering into unknown territory as I had never gone further than this point in training. I started to get pretty excited though when I realized that this was kind of the final frontier – the final country to run through on the grand tour around Mont Blanc. Switzerland, here I come! I blew up past 30 people on this section, picking them off one by one on the climb, finishing just 15 minutes off of the fastest expected time. I may not have done well on all sections of the course, but I can say for certainty that I killed the climb to Col Ferret… and it felt awesome. I had 100 km in my legs and 6300 m of elevation gain behind me. It was the first time I let my mind start to believe that I could actually finish this damn race.
On the race profile, it looks like there is a nice long 20 km descent from Col Ferret down to the valley 1500 m below… I believe the elite runners call this section “totally runnable” and easy. Well, sure, it may be downhill, but it definitely wasn’t as easy as it looks. The downhill sections are actually harder on the legs than the uphill parts, and 20 km of it can be pretty rough on the knees.
When I came through into Champex-Lac at 124 km, I was greeted by Stuart and his family, as well as Lucy. Thank goodness. My stomach was still feeling off and I was having a hard time eating the food at the aid stations. I was trying to down the soup and maybe the odd bit of cheese, but it just wasn’t tasting right. I begged Stuart for ‘real food’ at the next check point (pizza! Burgers! Anything!) and started to tear up a bit over my bruised knees (yes, I had had a bad fall….again). But as soon as I started to get a bit whiny over how on earth I was supposed to run another 45 km, Lucy shut me up pretty quickly. “Well, hon, that’s exactly what you’re going to do”. Lucy is a no-nonsense kind of girl, having summited the majority of the seven summits by now, and just the kind of person you want to have around when you need a good kick in the pants. Alright then, 45 km it is!
The last three hills of the course were evil. Seriously, seriously, evil. The climb out of Champex-Lac was the steepest in the race I reckon – or at least it felt like it. I could not believe they were putting us through this. The steeper the hill became, the harder I pushed… and the less I was able to eat. By the time I got into Trient (140 km) at 5:30 pm, I wasn’t doing so well.
Stuart had run around trying to find me food, but was seriously limited by what was available in the area. After taking one look at the tabouleh salad and grated carrot mix, I turned back to the food table provided by the race organizers. Chicken soup, cola and cheese again. ARG. I thought if I could just get it down then I’d be fine…. I was wrong. About two minutes after I had the soup, I started getting a weird feeling in my stomach. I ran over to Stuart, who was behind the spectator barrier, and said I think I’m going to throw up just before letting out a disgusting burp and retching noise. Seeing the looks of disgust on everyone else’s faces, Stuart quickly ushered me outside before I gave them a real show.
Sure enough, right when I got outside the tent, I bent over on the road and threw everything up. Dear god, I felt awful. I cried to Stuart that I simply did not want to go on… but he and I both knew that I would. I wiped off my mouth, strapped my poles back on and turned down the trail…
…and then immediately tripped over myself and fell down the hill. This was my l-o-w point. I had the taste of fresh vomit in my mouth, blood on my knees, dirt in my hair, and one of my poles pressing up against a rather unfortunate part of my body. How the hell am I going to run over another two mountains? How the hell am I going to get this done? I felt like throwing in the towel right then and there. This is bullshit. But then I remembered Stuart telling me that my usual pattern is to become sad, then angry, and then determined, and once I reach the determined stage, there isn’t anything that will stop me.
Alright then, determined it is!!! I got up, checked my knees, and began the 700 m climb to Catogne. A Spanish runner behind me asked estas bien? I replied that I had just vomited and thrown myself down the hill, and he replied back eh, no problem! Only two more hills! Gotta love his perspective.
I couldn’t get anything into my stomach on that climb. I tried putting a gel in my mouth and immediately gagged. All I could think about was getting over the top and down the other side into Vallorcine, where Stuart would be waiting with an anti-nausea pill…. Well, I must have pushed myself faster than I thought because when I rolled into the checkpoint at Vallorcine just under two and a half hours later, Stuart was nowhere to be seen. If this had happened any earlier in the course, I would have sat down on the ground and curled up in the fetal position, rocking myself slowly into insanity. But it was okay – I was one mountain from the finish. I could take it.
A lovely volunteer woman helped fill up my bottles and got my head torch out of my bag in preparation for the second nightfall. She encouraged me to eat even though I felt sick, and in an effort to please I tried to eat just a few powerbar shots. As soon as I put them in my mouth I knew it was a mistake – I felt my face go white as a wave of nausea took over, and this poor woman immediately put out her hand and ordered me to spit it out. I don’t know who she is, but she deserves a medal! The kindness she showed me was overwhelming and brought tears to my eyes. Okay, food wasn’t on the cards, but I could drink the energy drinks and that would be enough to get me through the last 20 km. Or at least it had to be.
I left the checkpoint swallowing down the disappointment of missing Stuart, but excited to get to the finish to be reunited again. And then, he magically materialized in front of me, just like he had at the 25 km mark. Stuart and his brother, realizing they had missed me at the checkpoint, had gotten dropped off 3 km down the trail and were running like the wind to reach me. So awesome. A few hugs and an anti-nausea pill and I was on my way again. Allez allez allez!!!
The last hill is the most evil of all evil hills. Future UTMBers, beware. The climb is ROUGH. Steep, rocky, and unrelenting. When you are at your most tired. Then once you finally reach the top at 2100m, you have to stumble over ankle-twisting rocks and boulders for a few good kilometres before reaching La Tete aux Vents. A few more kilometres – which looks deceivingly short on the race profile – to La Flegere, and then 7km of debilitating switchbacks on trail to the finish.
By this point, I was experiencing a mixture of extreme pain, exhaustion, and utter elation at the possibility of finishing. I had almost done it. I had almost done it!!! As I descended down the trail, the enormity of the race started to hit me. Dark patches of vomit left behind by the runners ahead stained the path, which were easy to discern from the spider legs of urine trickling down the trail. My knees were screaming, my stomach was upside down, and my forehead was bruised from the weight of my head torch. Everything felt backwards, from my internal organs to my outside gear. But I was still moving, and I was almost to the finish.
I emerged from the trail on the road and saw Stuart and his brother waiting patiently for me to follow me into Chamonix. How far is it? How far are we? It was all I could think about. I had 14 minutes left to finish before midnight and I was determined to do so. The whole race Stuart had asked me if I wanted to know how well I was doing and I declined… I never want to psych myself out of a good position if I can manage to get one. But knowing that I was less than a kilometer from the finish, I finally asked him. You’re 11th female and 163rd overall. I couldn’t believe it. 163rd overall? Out of almost 2500 runners? How could that be possible?!
The sounds of Chamonix town grew louder as I approached the finish line. I was going to make it!!! I don’t know what happened, but my body finally started to relax and my legs pumped forward with an ease I hadn’t felt in the entire 31.5 hours prior. I felt like I was flying to the finish. There was Belinda, my dear friend who was hysterically waving her arms and cheering for me as I headed into the last bend. And then Tess, the organizer of the Grand2Grand race that Stuart and I ran last year. I was going to make it!
Crossing the finish line was indescribable. So I won’t even try. All I can say is that it made the pain of the training and the race worth it a million times over.
I have never pushed myself as hard as I did in UTMB. Without a doubt. Once I hobbled back to the apartment after the race, I blacked out in the elevator up to the apartment and again on the toilet. Poor Stuart, who was still retching from whatever illness he had picked up, was on full care duty – undressing and dressing me, carrying me to and from the bathroom, feeding me, stroking my head, and drying my tears. Yes, I was ecstatic to finish, but my body felt more broken than I thought possible. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t turn over onto my side, sit up, or move a single body part without assistance. Still worth it though 🙂
This year, I accomplished one of my life dreams. I finished UTMB.
Out of 2469 starters, 223 were female (just 9%). 1689 (68%) finished, of whom 140 were female. I finished 9th in my age group and 11th female (163rd overall).
*** Reflections on the Race ***
This has been a rather long blog post, but I hope it helps anyone who is thinking about doing the race. Or at least provides you a bit of insight into the insanity that is UTMB. In order to provide you with a bit more perspective, I have asked my chalet-mates and fellow racers to provide some of their thoughts as well on racing UTMB, TDS, and crewing. Thanks for reading along if you have gotten to this point… and thanks for following along with the blog. I love getting feedback, so please feel free to comment!!
(1) Favourite part of the course?
Natalia Watkins (45:34): two parts will particularly remain with me for a very long time. The first was climbing up to the Arete Du Mont Favre as dawn was breaking to reach the top for sunrise and the second was seeing all of your faces as I crossed the finishing line – truly worth the effort of the previous two days. It never ceases to amaze me how the pain, so recently felt, just evaporates at that point.
Matt Moroz (43:27): I loved the final 7k. Me and Joel (Meredith) had run that already and so I had it all ready in my mind. I also popped 2 cocodamol 20 minutes beforehand so had a blast on this final section, overtaking 85 people as I went.
Joel Meredith (33:09): I really liked the section between Refugio Bertone and Grand Col de Ferret. We were above the treeline for most of it, and I was passing through this in the hours leading-up to daybreak. The rolling track broke the monotony of either climbing or descending.
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race: 32:27): Without question those last few hundred metres running through Chamonix. I really wasn’t enjoying myself for most of the course. I was whining like a baby, questioning why I put myself through this torture. Then I ran into Chamonix with the sun shining and people cheering, and I felt like a rockstar!! It is so emotional. All the pain and suffering of the last 32 (32?!?!) hours melted away, and suddenly the race felt like the most incredible experience ever.
(2) Most dreaded part of the course?
Natalia Watkins: I didn’t have one place that was particularly dreaded – I was nervous about the endless descents and I think that was with good reason!
Matt Moroz: The climb up to Catogne was pretty hairy. I was tripping out and getting hypnotized by the runner in front’s headlamp. After almost falling asleep several times, mid-step, while a big drop to the right beckoned, I was scared out of this malaise and ran as hard as I could to wake up.
Joel Meredith: Before the race, I was dreading the early climb to Croix du Bonhomme. Basically an 18km climb, I knew that my legs would be pretty trashed after that and I didn’t know how I would respond. In retrospect, it wasn’t terrible, as I was hitting this fresh. The climb up the backside of Tete aux Vents was immeasurably worse.
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race): The 80km mark. Two years in a row I have pulled out of the race at this point. And two years in a row I have seen the same race sweepers here. To me, it was a huge mental barrier to get past this point and on to to the only part of the course I was unfamiliar with, without seeing my friendly sweeper friends.
(3) Gear used (hydration system, bag, shoes, clothes etc.)
Natalia Watkins: My perfect pack was Ultimate Direction’s Adventure Vest, Brooks ASR shoes, CW-X tights, injinjis, dirty girl gaiters, removable sleeves, and various short sleeved merino tops….with a North Face Leonidas jacket. Poles were Komperdell carbon and buffs plus a visor on my head. I wouldn’t change any of this for next time (really a next time?!) I couldn’t have survived my own thoughts for that long, so really appreciated having taken Belinda’s iPod at the last minute – making for surprise tunes to keep me cheery!
Matt Moroz: All gear could be improved except the Hokas and the awesome Black Diamond poles. I’d not change those two for anything.
Joel Meredith: I wore the Salomon S-LAB race outfit with Salomon Sense Ultras for the first half, then swapped for the lighter Salomon Sense’ at Courmayeur. I used the S-LAB 12 Set pack and Black Diamond Ultra Z-Poles. I needed far more shoe for this race and will make that change next time. My pack and poles worked great, but I think I would go with less pack and lighter required gear next time. Both worked well though. As for clothes, I would choose to not look like I had just raided a Salomon-sponsored runner’s closet next time…
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race): Salomon pack (XA-20….I got it free from a previous race, and it’s awesome!). Salomon X-Lab shoes. Two 750ml raidlight bottles. I love bottles over a bladder as they are easier to refill, I always know how much water I have left, and I can carry two different types of drink. I didn’t fix them to my pack very tightly though, so they bounced around a lot when I ran and kept whacking me in the face. I figured that this is what it must feel like to have big boobs! Thank goodness for my A-cup! I wore 2xU compression tights, and a salomon running top. Old, baggy nike sports bra (again, thank goodness for my A-cup!). Injinji socks (love them, plus they look hilarious!). Salomon gaiters – I think they are really useful, plus they make me look like a pro.
(4) What helped you during the race?
Natalia Watkins: Without doubt the greatest lift was having Lucy as crew – when it got tough, I asked her to tell me nothing more than what I had to face until I saw her again at the next CP, how many mountains, what distance and what elevation. It was the best motivator to know she was there at the next stop waiting for me. I even called her from Champex when I knew I had to stop and get some food down……I was so worried that she’d see me sitting and so had to call and explain myself and the plan!
Matt Moroz: The incredible abilities of firstly Belinda and Lucy (good cop/bad cop) and then Lucy on her own. They made stopping simply not an option. The simply worded text from Lucy explaining that finishing would be far easier than the grief I’d get if I pulled out put everything into context.
Joel Meredith: Honestly, I think that my biggest boosts came from the anticipation of seeing friends at the next crew-available checkpoint. I was struggling physically, so the mental push was all I was really counting-on. Lucy, Belinda, and Devrim were great and they really helped push me onward.
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race): All the amazing support from all my friends. Knowing that people were tracking me online, receiving text messages and boosting phone calls while I was out on the course, and seeing all my friends at the finish line. This is not a one person effort – it takes a team to finish this race, and I had an awesome team behind me – thank you guys!
(5) What would you do differently next time?
Natalia Watkins: Try and get there earlier to try and acclimatize better – I think the altitude may have had something to do with my nutrition plan collapsing so early in the race…..it wouldn’t have been an easy race even with calories but may have made for less hallucinations!
Matt Moroz: Next time I’d exchange zero hill work for 100% hill work for at least 6 months leading up to the race. If I got accepted again I’d probably just move to Switzerland immediately!!!
Joel Meredith: If I could pinpoint only one thing to do differently, it would be to try and eat more “normal” food during the race. Sandwiches, soup, potatoes, etc. I’m 100% that the gels and electrolyte solution I used was responsible for my stomach problems.
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race): Hmmmmm, tricky one. It’s so difficult to say. Every race is so different, even when you go back and do the same course. Once you get to these kind of distances I find it hard to make race plans. Anything can happen, and you just have to be able to roll with it. I twisted my knee around the 50km mark. So maybe I should have brought more pain killers! I definitely had cravings for different foods during the race, so maybe next time I would bring a different food selection, or use a drop bag and stick food in there. But I think ultimately, I finished the race and achieved my goal, so I wouldn’t change a thing!
(6) Final thoughts/impressions?
Natalia Watkins: Somewhere along the way I remember telling myself that 100km is enough, but by the end I thought, well that was really tough, but done……and I could do it so much better next time!
Matt Moroz: The thought of ‘never again’ has evolved to ‘I must do UTMB again’. I figure it’ll be possible to knock huge wads of time off the PB. Kinda relieved that I have an enforced break from it in 2014 though… PTL and Tor des Geants will have to be done in the future too, mainly because they are now even scarier!!!
Joel Meredith: This was my first 100-miler and arguably the toughest 100-miler on the planet, so it was a total learning experience for me and I was chuffed to even finish. I’ll take everything I learned and apply it to future races. I think the greatest thing I saw was that after it’s all said and done, no one cares how fast you finished or what position you attained. It’s really about accepting and overcoming “The Challenge”. It was awesome to see even the final finishers being cheered across the line as if they were the winners, because in actuality they were. Everyone that crossed that finish line won. Regardless of how many times I told myself “never again”, I’ll be back and I can’t wait!
Belinda Holdsworth Wikstrom (TDS race): Do it! You will suffer, and it is very, very painful, but crossing that finish line is a feeling that will stay with you for a very, very long time. I am still smiling.
Impressions on Crewing for UTMB
Lucy Rivers Bulkeley: Crewing vs Running…is a massive mixture of emotions which i wasn’t expecting. Seeing you all on the start line, i wished i had my kit on and was joining you. That had turned to ‘thank god i’m not running’ when i saw you all at the half way checkpoint! At the later checkpoints, i felt responsible for getting you going as quickly as possible without being too much of a bully (i think it’s called tough love….!) especially as i knew how you would be feeling. As a runner you cherish the stops and interaction with a friendly face but from the crewing point of view, you are aware of the cut off times and trying to get as much liquid and food into the runner in the shortest space of the time before their body starts to seize up. Towards the end of the race, i felt physically sick when there was a possibility that one of the last cut off’s wouldn’t be met – i found the runner in me thinking of the 2 nights out on the course, in pain and shattered, about to go to waste. I’m afraid that i even starting walking out on to the course in the early hours of Sunday morning to make sure that my last ‘stead’ knew that time was tight! Finally seeing you cross the finish line was amazing. I think there was the odd tear shed behind the sunnies but i’m sure that was just over tiredness!!!!
Would i crew again? Absolutely but at a different race as i’m afraid that i’m going for the CCC/Matterhorn double in 2014!x
In the weeks leading up to the race, Stuart and I practically lived at La Clinique du Sport in Chamonix. Started by a UK physiotherapist, Neil Maclean-Martin, the clinic now offers a range of highly trained professionals all eager to get you back on the trail!!! Stuart and I ended up seeing almost everyone at least once: Adele (physiotherapist), Janie (physiotherapist), Carlton (osteopath) and of course Neil (didn’t have a chance to see Joy). Not only were they super accommodating about appointments (thank you Jackie!!), but they were able to order us hammer products at the last minute (perpetuem) and keep us calm about the race! They approached our injuries in a holistic fashion and worked as a team to figure out what was going on. We also really appreciated that Neil was a serious ultrarunner himself, having competed in UTMB last year and TDS this year. He really ‘got it’ made sure we were as ready as we could be for the race. I’m really going to miss La Clinique… please drop by if you are in Chamonix! (Oh, and did I mention, Killian goes there for treatment? No big deal).
Tel: +33 (0)4 50 18 05 08 – to book a sports physiotherapy appointment or massage
Address: 286 Avenue Cachat Géant, 74400, Chamonix