Sunday, August 19, 2012

Packing up

This weekend has been a frenzy of packing, shopping, and re-packing. We leave for Switzerland on Tuesday, so I need to have everything ready to go before then. Beat hoisted my UTMB pack and proclaimed, "There's way too much stuff in there. You need to get rid of some of that."

"I can't," I protested. "That's just the required gear. I don't even have any food in there yet, and except for some meds and batteries, it's all obligatory." I'm not yet willing to rely entirely on fontina cheese and dried meats for the duration of a hundred-mile foot race, so I will be packing my own supply of gummy candies. This backpack is heavy. I try to put it in perspective, remind myself of my Susitna sled, of all the water I carried on my back during the Stagecoach 400, but that doesn't make me feel much better. The backpack is my first tangible dose of truth — this thing is about to get real.

So what is UTMB? It occurred to me that I've never really explained this whole endeavor. UTMB stands for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and it's a 166-kilometer foot race on a route that begins in Chamonix, France, and circumnavigates the highest mountain in the Alps, the 4,808-meter (15,774-foot) Mont Blanc. The Trail du Mont Blanc travels through France, Switzerland, and Italy, ascending and descending a series of cols (passes) and ridge traverses for a total of 9,500 meters (31,168 feet) of climbing. The raw numbers rival the Hardrock 100 and UTMB is regarded as one of the toughest ~100-mile-distance foot races out there.

It's also undoubtedly the largest race of this distance, drawing a limit of 2,000 runners. It's a big crowd. I have little knowledge about who's lining up for the 2012 race. I do know an overwhelming majority of them are European men. In 2011, out of about 2,000 starters, 1,133 finished. Of those 1,133 finishers, only 72 were women. The first man, trail-running legend Kilian Jornet, finished in 20 hours and 36 minutes. The first woman, Elisabeth Hawker, finished in 25 hours and 2 minutes. A sub-36-hour finish would have landed a man in the top 175, and a woman in the top ten. Nearly 700 of the finishers needed more than 40 hours to return to Chamonix. Forty-seven of the 72 women had 40-plus-hour finishes. Everyone in the race is given 46 hours to complete the distance. Those who fall behind the pace are stopped by checkpoint cut-offs.

Yes, numbers show that this is a prohibitively difficult race. So how did I get involved in this? It started about a year ago, when I timed out at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, because of slowness caused by disruptive foot pain. I decried the TRT100 for being too "runnable" and declared that a hiker like myself might actually fare better in a tough mountain hundred where solid climbing ability paired with persistence can make up for less-than-stellar running skills. Plus, I love the idea of a long-distance endurance hike, which is why I've had so much enthusiasm and relative success in the foot division of the Susitna 100. I didn't choose UTMB because it's one of the "hardest" races, I chose it because it matches both my desires (long trip through beautiful mountains) and my abilities (endurance, persistence, and climbing.) But it's still a really, really hard race.

Today I did my last run up Black Mountain before we leave for Europe. Black Mountain has become a go-to training route — the trail is a five-mile, 3,000-foot climb of variable steepness that requires some walking even at max effort, followed by a fun five-mile descent. For my birthday, Beat bought me a new pair of Hoka Mafate shoes that I'm loving, as well as a pair of Salomon calf sleeves to help support my weak shins and also so I will fit in with the Euro runners. I'm in taper mode right now and feeling strong, so I logged a good time for the ten-mile run today: 2:00:01 with stops. It was fairly effortless (no hard pushing because of taper mode and also self-preservation on the descent), so I was feeling a bit smug at the bottom. "Ha, Black Mountain was easy today. It's basically a tenth of UTMB. I just need to add a lot more technical terrain, at higher elevations, over two nights, with potentially awful weather, times ten." Yeah, that shut my smugness up real quick.

Panic will resume soon enough. But I genuinely am excited for all of it. I'm excited to travel a hundred miles through three different countries on my own two feet, to gaze up at the stunning profile of Mont Blanc, to try to decipher French at aid stations, to experience the grandeur of the Alps and the energy of 2,000 racers. Friends have asked me why I would even want to participate in a mountain event with so many people, but to me, that's all part of the experience — the crowds, the glaciers, the cheese and dried meat, the unbelievable vistas, the soaring highs and emotional breakdowns, and the crushing, crushing foot pain.

Everyone who attempts these hundred-mile foot races has their own reasons. I've described my motivation as a desire "to paint the canvas of my memories with bold red brush strokes." If this were purely about the beauty of the Alps, I would backpack the route over eight days like a normal person. And if it were purely about ego, honestly, I would probably be attempting something decidedly more suited to my actual talents. The UTMB project is about paring down all the complicated facets of myself to a stark minimum, to silence the excess noise and embrace the bare thoughts and emotions that remain. To be alone in a crowd of 2,000. To feel the energy of 2,000 people when I feel alone. To fight for every hour and surrender my ego to the beauty. As Florence and the Machine sings: "Leave all your loving and your longing behind; you can't carry it with you if you want to survive." ("Dog Days" is becoming my UTMB training theme song.)

But that's still a week and a half away. For now I'm just trying to quell panic and maybe get in one last pre-UTMB bike ride on my birthday, which is today (Monday.)