As the sun began to rise, the rugged peaks of the Italian side of the massif began to shine golden in the cool morning air. I had made the ascent out of Courmayeur and was now cruising along the only relatively rolling section of the course. As I passed through Refugio Bertone and later Refugio Bonatti, I could feel my energy returning with the breaking of day.
In good spirits and happy to have conquered the night, I rambled on through the single track that cut through the mountains. Though the field had substantially thinned, I had been joined by Alex, a Swiss competitor, which made for some nice conversation and a great mental break from the solitude of the night. We pressed on together towards the looming Grand Col Ferret, the race's highest point at 2537 meters. Switchback after switchback, we ascended together, using the rhythmic sound of our trekking poles clapping against the earth to guide our cadence.
After what seemed a lifetime, we could just make out the summit of Col Ferret. This had been one of the major obstacles I had identified in my pre-race planning, but after having passed the summit, it didn't appear to have posed much difficulty. It was only after beginning the subsequent descent into La Fouly that the magnitude of the climb and of my current condition came to bare. Sleep deprived and horribly undernourished, I began to battle feelings of sleepiness and leg instability. At points, I felt as if I would simply fall asleep while running. I had carried my iPod with me, but never seemed to have the energy to take it out and use it. I was perhaps 10 hours from my last decent intake of calories and I could feel that my blood sugar was shockingly low. Still, I pressed on with nothing but the finish line in my thoughts.
Passing La Fouly and completing the massive descent into Praz de Fort, I knew that I had one small and three large ascents remaining. It's difficult to judge the magnitude of a climb from simply looking at an illustrated course profile, but I had thought these final summits to appear rather tame in comparison to the overall race during my pre-race map recce. I was soon to be proved woefully incorrect.
Meeting back up with my crew at Champex-Lac was a mental boon for me. Though I was physically broken, seeing a familiar face and receiving a stiff pep talk from Lucy worked wonders. I faffed around in the aid tent for what seemed an eternity, trying to choke down food but realizing that this was a fools errand and settling rather for a bottle of Coke instead. I pressed on from Champex knowing that this would be the final time that I would see them before the finish. My inability to eat nullified the tremendous effort that they would have to put forth in order to catch me at the two remaining crew pits and we decided that it would be best if they focused on supporting the other runners in our team who could benefit more. 122 km in. 46 km to go.
The next 9 hours proved to be some of the most painful in my life. Each step seemed to send a shock of pain through my body. I'd stupidly chosen to wear uber-light shoes, as I had hoped that they would make me more agile on the massive descents. With little to no cushion, my knees and quads had absorbed most of the impact from the previous 24 hours and they were near the point of failure. To climb felt fine, but my body was being perpetually brutalized on each descent. Still, I knew that the race had come down to one thing: my will to finish. I pushed onward through a blur of rock, grass, and dirt, uncertain whether my legs would hold but confident that my resolve would.
Bovine. Catogne. At last, I had passed Vallorcine and was on my final ascent up Col des Montets and on to Tete aux Vents, gateway to the final descent into Chamonix. A second darkness had now descended on UTMB and I knew that all of my time goals had been abandoned somewhere on a mountain pass hours ago. In contrast to the rest of the course, this final climb ascended over rock with very little earth on which to stabilize my footing. Weary and sick, I found this to be the cruelest of jokes and the self-loathing began. What are you doing here? Why didn't you drop back in Courmayeur? Why aren't you running 5k's on the road instead of running mountains? You have no business whatsoever up here. The negativity washed over me like a wave and despite my efforts to evict it, the thoughts continued to rise until they seemed at a fever pitch within my head. Then...calm. I think. No. I was sure. I could just make out the lights of Chamonix in the valley below.
Rounding Tete aux Vents and beginning the rather tame descent into Chamonix, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of satisfaction and relief. I had never really doubted that I could make it, but it hadn't been a reality until then. As I traded the dirt track for the winding streets of Chamonix, I wondered if crossing the finish would seem the same as it had in my dreams. After passing through the corridor and being greeted by friends at the arch, I can tell you...to finish in real life was far better than any dream.
My UTMB '13 by the numbers:
- 168 km (104 miles)
- 9600 m of elevation gain (31,496 ft)
- 9600 m of descent
- 33:09:32 total elapsed time
- 233rd overall position
- 122nd age group position
- 9th U.S. finisher