It's been almost 2 weeks since the conclusion of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)...and I already can't wait to go back. Arguably the most difficult in the world, UTMB was to be my first single stage 100-miler and one I did not take lightly. I arrived in Chamonix with a great deal of trepidation and anxiety, anticipation and nerves. All of these potentially self-defeating emotions melted away when I was reunited with old friends and swept into the carnival-like atmosphere of the buzzing village high in the French Alps.
UTMB is truly a spectacle and the pinnacle event worldwide for ultra-trailrunners. From the race village to the quaint cafes and coffeehouses of the picturesque town, Chamonix explodes for one week a year as 6,000 hardened athletes descend upon her. It isn't unlikely to look up from your morning croissant to see the top runners in the world strolling by with family or friends in tow, simply enjoying the same ambiance as you. It's all really quite amazing.
In the week leading-up to the Friday afternoon start, I spent most of my time organizing gear, studying maps, taking short course recces, and simply relaxing. Though it had no cooperated for several years, it looked like the weather would be absolutely perfect for our long haul around the omnipresent mountain.
As we meandered to the starting line amid the throng of runners and onlookers in the late afternoon sun, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community and excitement, but also anxious to get started on a new adventure and into some uncharted territory for me. As of then, I had never run over a full night and only rarely after sundown. Starting with only around 4 hours of daylight remaining, we would all soon be plunged into the darkness of the looming night.
Following a good bit of pageantry as the MC's worked the crowd up into a frenzy, we were soon off from the start and winding our way through the streets leading us out of Chamonix and into the relative unknown. I had recce'd the first leg to Les Houches and new it to be a fast rolling mix of open road and wide trail. The initial pace was breakneck, as most were trying to gain some separation from the field before entering the tighter terrain of the first climb to Delevret. Caught-up in the ambiance, I found myself swept along and pushing at a pace that was most likely far too fast. However, after 2 weeks of taper I was raring to get moving through the mountains once again.
The Delevret climb and descent into Saint-Gervais gave me my first, small taste of things to come: seemingly endless and winding upward climbs, followed by sharp, pounding descents. This would be a brutal pattern repeated over and over for the next day and a half, and exemplifies the essence of this race. If you aren't climbing, you're descending, and you simply pray that your legs and resolve will hold. Feeling good about conquering the first of the race's 10 summits but feeling that something was off, I entered the first of my 5 crew-assisted checkpoints.
It was evident shortly after exiting Les Contamines that something was definitely not right with my stomach. My initial plan had been to fuel with my normal routine, a mix of gels, light solids, electrolyte tabs and water. It's unclear whether the culprit was my fuel choices, the altitude, the nerves, or a combination of them all, but it was barely 40 km into the race and already I was experiencing significant stomach upset to the point of extreme discomfort. I pelted myself with several Immodium tablets and pressed on, hoping that it would subside. It didn't.
Shortly into the long climb to Croix du Bonhomme, I was enveloped in darkness. I found this to be actually a very calming environment. With only the light of my headlamp to guide me, I was able to focus on establishing my own pace and not the one of those around me. The field had substantially thinned, yet a string of lights was easily visible both ahead and behind as we pushed upwards into the night. Fighting now both stomach upset and nausea, I was forced to abandon my nutrition and take in only fresh water, as anything else seemed to only aggravate my condition. Taking-in some small sips of Coke at the well stocked checkpoints was all that I could manage in the way of calorie intake and I pushed onward, still maintaining my 12 hour goal of reaching Courmayeur, the effective midpoint of the race.
Kilometers 50-77 seem a blur. Mentally, I was having to wrap my head around the fact that things were not going well so early in the race. Yes, I was still moving, but without substantial intake I knew that this couldn't last. Temperature regulation also seemed a challenge. I found myself either pouring sweat on the uphill or being chilled by the alpine winds as I began descending. I ran through several different layering combinations before settling on my light midlayer sans jacket and a pair of thin liner gloves to protect my cold-prone hands. Cresting Arete du Mont Favre brought me out of my haze, as I knew that this heralded the huge descent into Courmayeur where my crew awaited. It would be good to see my friends again and, I hoped, would prove both a mental and physical boost.
Heating-up on the massive descent into Italy left me soaked and depleted, though I cruised into Courmayeur within minutes of my anticipated 12-hour arrival. Despite my physical issues, things seemed to be going relatively well, although how long I would be able to hold it together remained to be seen. After a quick shoe/sock change, some fresh batteries for my torch, and another failed attempt at downing some food, I was off yet again, the sunrise not far off. Seeing my crew of Lucy, Belinda, and Devrim at the stop was surely a boon to my psyche. Moving upwards towards the pre-dawn sky, I knew that the most difficult terrain lay ahead and that I had many more demons to slay on my journey back around. Thinking only of the parcel of track just ahead, I pressed on, uncertain of what was to come. The only certainty for me was that I was past the point of return and would do whatever it took to see the finish line. Run, walk, or crawl, I had resolved to either finish or be dragged off the mountain trying. Daybreak was coming.