Friday, January 20, 2012

So I got into UTMB

This morning, I received an e-mail from Les Trailers du Mont-Blanc:

Bonjour Jill HOMER,
Le tirage au sort a été effectué et nous avons le plaisir de confirmer votre inscription à la course UTMB®! Vous devez maintenant finaliser votre inscription, à partir du 20/01/2012 et avant le 30/01/2012.

In my just-woke-up bleariness, I spent at least two minutes trying to decipher the French words that I've never known how to read. Not that I needed to. I knew what that exclamation point at the end of the first sentence meant. It meant the race lottery came out in my favor. Oh, crap.

So what is UTMB? It's a 166-kilometer foot race around a popular hiking trail that circumnavigates Mont Blanc, beginning and ending in Chamonix, France. The trail ascends and descends more than 9,400 meters (30,800 feet) — which, in the popular vernacular of describing a boggling amount of elevation gain, is a little higher than the ascent from sea level to the top of Mount Everest. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc takes place each year at the end of August, and is probably the largest ultra-distance trail-running race in the world. For the past three years the limit of 2,500 people have started the race. Typically about half that number finish.

So why the low finisher rate? Because the course is hard; I think harder than most newcomers who have painstakingly studied the elevation profiles would even expect. From the little that I've followed this race in the past two years (and it was cancelled because of bad weather in 2010), it seems the overwhelming reason for most of the drops is a tendency to go out too fast, and then physically blow up or mentally give up somewhere along the way. These trails are just steep, rugged, relentless, and mean, which are actually my favorite kind of trails — to hike.

The idea came to me last September as I was following Beat during the Tor des Geants, an even tougher trail around the Aosta Valley in Italy that is home to a 200-mile race with 80,000 feet of climbing. Even though he was visibly suffering each time I saw him, his eyes would brighten as he shared his latest stories of struggle and triumph. "You should run the TDG," he said to me. "You'd be good at a race like this."

I started to think he was right. Beautiful mountain routes that reward a slow but consistent pace over a long, sleepless period of time (i.e. "scenic slogs") actually are my kind of thing. The entire reason I developed an interest in personally participating in ultrarunning (yes, before I met Beat, but only just) is because I wanted to teach myself how to travel quickly over long distances in the mountains. So far trail running has proved to be a more difficult effort than I expected — I make too many clumsy missteps, struggle with the lack of breaks (i.e. "no coasting"), and I still haven't figured out what makes my feet hurt so much over longer distances. But I do know most of my issues arise from the act of running. When I hike, well, I feel like I can hike forever. Even up very steep hills. In fact, this is one of my favorite things to do.

I have just one strength on foot, and this strength is climbing steep terrain. I also have a huge weakness, and this is descending steep or technical terrain. However, I am gradually getting better at downhill running. The more I practice trail running, the more sure-footed and confident I become. I may not be capable of ripping down steep, rocky terrain yet, but I am already a whole lot faster than I used to be. Rugged mountain races actually play to my strengths more than flatter, faster courses. And because these types of races are difficult for everyone, the cut-off times are more generous. UTMB gives competitors 46 hours to finish. Although the fast guys can scorch the course in just over 20 hours, the overwhelming majority of finishers land in that 35- to 45-hour range. Which means a lot of these people are hiking, at least a lot of the time.

Not that I have any delusion that trying to finish the UTMB in 46 hours or less is going to be a Sunday stroll. I first tried to conceptualize this kind of effort in September during a "long" day hike on part of the UTMB course. I left Courmayeur and climbed to Col de Malatra, then hit up two more cols on my return. I arrived back in town a little less than ten hours after I started, with 26 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing on my GPS — just about the exact ratio of distance to climbing in the Tor des Geants. It had been a somewhat leisurely hike. I stopped and took pictures, and once laid in the grass and ate snacks. But I was tired afterward, and I contemplated the intimidating prospect of actually attempting that same hike eight times over, with very little rest — because that, essentially, was the Tor des Geants.

And the UTMB is essentially that, four times over. When I think about completing my three-col hike four times — running more steps when I had the capability to do so, and not carrying nearly as much weight (since I was training for Racing the Planet Nepal, I hiked with a full 25-pound pack that included three liters of water) — imagining it on those terms, it seems doable. Maybe. Well, at least it's worth trying. Registering for this race began as a joke but I'm glad my name was drawn in the lottery. Not only is it held in a spectacularly beautiful location, but the race itself is an elaborate, outlandishly difficult spectacle that is unlike anything I've ever attempted. This is exactly why I want to do it.

But for now, I have to keep my head in the nearer future, and the completely different but still intensely difficult endeavor of the Susitna 100. I'm planning my last long training run on Sunday, and this afternoon I set out for a training run for that — a simple eight-mile, 2,000-feet-of-climbing loop at my local open-space preserve, Rancho San Antonio. Usually this place is quite crowded with hikers, but the today there were just a handful of cars in the parking lot. It seems the heavy rain and cold wind deterred all but a few hardy trail runners. In the open, sideways rain blew with such force that I couldn't hold my face up, but the mud was deliciously tacky and allowed me to fly downhill. These fast speeds combined with UTMB stoke made me feel incredibly giddy. The other runners I encountered looked similarly stoked, splashing mud and flashing huge grins at me. As I climbed one steep hill, I passed a woman who was descending almost out of control, swinging her arms and shouting, "Is this storm great or what?" You see, people in the Bay Area don't see this kind of intense weather all that often. We were like children playing in weather we weren't allowed to play in, and this made us feel free.

"It's fantastic," I said. "I really love it." And this was true — about running in the rain, about running, period.

I think I'm in for a great adventure at UTMB.