Wednesday, September 05, 2012

UTMB into the day

In the same mile I made it my goal to "run faster," I met the full brunt of the M.U.D. (Most Unwelcome Difficulty.) I like my challenges to be challenging, to a level that for me is just a few notches below impossible. Even at a hundred kilometers, a mountain running event like UTMB is close enough to impossible for me that I need a fair amount of luck just to finish. I like this level of uncertainty. But it does mean there's plenty of frustration and angst whenever I meet inevitable setbacks, and the sticky, slippery substance coating the trail was about to send me way back.

In an eight-kilometer section beyond Les Contamines, there were two long, steep climbs, gaining a combined 4,100 feet in five miles. With nearly eleven hours on my feet, this part of the course would have been a tough challenge dry, but the trail had been consumed by the seventh level of M.U.D. For the first climb, it was like a horribly rendered mousse, with a slimy chocolate film coating a morass of sticky paste. With every footfall, I could never tell if my shoe was going to slip sideways or disappear beneath the film and stop me in my tracks. As the trail steepened, I started hoping my shoe would disappear into the muck; otherwise I slid farther backward than I'd climbed. The conga line of runners had predictably backed up, and because we didn't synchronize our slipping, I occasionally had to dodge a shoe as it swung dangerously close to my face. Some runners' entire backsides were slicked in mud; others had slime smeared across their faces. The whole scene was ridiculous enough to be a comical farce, a Laurel and Hardy skit about trail running. But it was six in the morning, my feet were soaked and sore, and I wasn't laughing.

On the second climb, the trampled mud was more shoe-sucking than slippery. I was grateful not to be falling all over myself anymore, despite the increased resistance that made me work at least twice as hard for every step. It occurred to be that only the back half of the pack had it this bad. I'd run trails in the Alps during rainstorms; they usually seem to drain well enough to provide hero-dirt traction. But send a couple thousand runners through while it's still raining, and there's no preventing churning up a shin-deep soup of chocolate milk and clay. I wanted out of the mud and out of the conga line, so I began aggressively passing other runners, until I dropped into an unseen trench and twisted my left knee painfully to the side. "Arrrrgh!" I cried out, loud enough that a man in front of me turned around and looked startled. I stepped off to the side of the trail to calm my throbbing knee. The initial pain was alarming, and I panicked with the conviction that I had sprained it or worse. Sitting in the grass, I rolled up my tights and scanned for injury. The joint looked slightly swollen, but it probably looked this way before I fell. There was nothing I could do about it anyway besides limp to Les Houches.

The top of the Bellevue ridge provided the best views of the race, and this temporarily brightened my mood. Snow-covered peaks stabbed into the clouds above a carpet of fog, and fireweed fields provided the slightest hit of color. My knee hurt but it had become apparent that it wasn't badly injured, and I crossed my fingers that the descent would be a nice dirt road that I could actually run to shake out my cramping calf muscles.

It wasn't. The backside of Bellevue brought the steepest, muddiest descent yet, punctured with knee-deep trenches and headwalls that the more timid among us had no choice but to crawl down backward. Some runners in front of me were extremely slow doing this; others behind me were even more impatient. They jostled for gaps in the group and even shoulder-slammed those who didn't move over fast enough. I watched one man leap over a woman who had fallen to her hands and knees at the bottom of a headwall. It was a terrifying free-for-all; our silly little Laurel and Hardy skit had morphed into extreme mud wrestling.

By the time I reached the paved road to Les Houches, I was shaken and upset. This morass of runners and mud was definitely not what I came to the Alps to experience. I knew the numbers going into the event, but I never conceptualized what that really meant for crowding. That fast runners get the space, and more than 1,500 of us were wedged within a few hours of the cut-offs, jostling for position for a full hundred kilometers. My left knee throbbed and I fantasized about joining the river trail and running the wide-open five miles back to Chamonix. "Hell," I thought. "I can get on a bus. Be asleep by noon." But all that time, I knew I wasn't really going to quit UTMB. After all, I did come to the Alps to face crushing challenges head-on. These weren't the challenges I'd been expecting, but in a way, that made them all the more meaningful.

Just before Les Houches, I savored my last peanut butter cup. Food had been one of the areas I thought I could trim some weight, given the aid stations along the course, but even then I brought what I was thought was a generous 2,000 calories of sugary energy. Still, cold weather makes me hungry, and I plowed through my food with uncharacteristic voracity. The aid stations themselves were too crowded to be useful. The food tables were blocked rows deep and it usually took five minutes or more just to get a cup of soup, so I rarely bothered with much else. The result was, at mile 45, my food was all but gone; I had one more serving of Nutella and two small cereal bars. Now that I'd have to rely on aid station food, I found Les Houches decidedly lacking. I was able to grab a few cut-up granola bars, some cubes of cheese, and slices of bread, which I stuffed into a Ziplock bag. My course notes, now rendered almost illegible by the night's soaking, indicated it was fourteen kilometers to the next aid station. Of course I didn't write whether it was stocked with food or not. But I had peanut butter cup energy surging through my blood, and I figured I had consumed plenty of reserves for a longer haul.

The course climbed and dropped steeply for two hours; I munched on most of my aid station food and started to feel rumbles in my stomach. When my always-reliable GPS indicated I'd traveled 53 miles, I reached a small aid station that was practically in the town of Chamonix. They had water but only a few small bowls of sweet bread as food. I didn't want to be greedy so I ate two tiny pieces and continued up the trail. The edge of my notepaper was torn and I could no longer decipher the last of my course notes, but I did remember there was one more aid station and this race was supposed to be 104 kilometers, so that meant about ten more miles total. "Bah, that's nothing," I thought, and continued jogging happily along the drying trail.

Wisps of sunlight broke through the clouds, and my mood had swung entirely around to a peaceful, content rhythm. My feet hurt, probably from skin maceration caused by being soaked for so many hours; my knee was sore and I was definitely hungry. But all things considered, I felt pretty darn good. We passed a sign for Argentiere and a bridge across the river. I thought we would cross it and enter the home stretch — six more rolling miles back to town. Instead, a crowd of cheering spectators directed me to the left, when the trail launched up a veritable wall.

It wasn't just a diversion. In a matter of minutes, I had climbed high enough that I could see the whole valley, and the steep trail showed no sign of veering back down the mountain. I glanced at my GPS. 59.4 miles. "GPS has never let me down like this before," I thought. "But it's without a doubt a lot more than four miles to the finish." I devoured my Nutella because at this point, I had no concept of rationing. After 1,500 vertical feet of trudging, I saw a course marshal standing on a rock. "English?" I asked. He nodded. "Is the aid station up there?" He just shrugged. But I was desperate, so I persisted. "Are we going to La Flegere?" I said loudly, adopting that annoying American assumption that volume will result in understanding. "Is the aid station at the top? Or control? Is the control at the top?"

"Is about twenty more minutes to top," he said. "Then about five more kilometers to Argentiere, where you can have water and eat food." Then he smiled. "This is the good way."

Five more kilometers? GPS might have made a few miscalculations, but this course was undoubtedly well over a hundred kilometers. If my memory was correct and there were six miles after the last checkpoint, it was actually going to be closer to 112. But what could I do? "UTMB was supposed to be a lot harder," I reminded myself. "You're getting off easy anyway. Don't complain."

After the "top," the trail started along a rolling traverse that steeply lost and then regained elevation.  I was glad I had hoarded two liters of water in Les Houches; being out of food when energy reserves are completely depleted is one thing, but running out of water late in a race really sucks. Still, I quickly felt more and more bonky, becoming dizzy whenever the trail trended upward, and unable to run at all, even downhill. I felt icky, but I was still surprised by the carnage I passed along those five kilometers into Argentiere: runners sitting down in the middle of the singletrack; runners reclining on rocks; runners hunched over their trekking poles, wretching; a runner laying on the grass, wrapped in a space blanket while another fed him a gel; and still another wrapped in a blanket surrounded by rescue personnel. Although that last one was probably injured, it seemed like many of the others, like me, had likely misjudged the distance between resupply points.

As I finally approached Argentiere, I swore I could see the valley spinning. It didn't matter that I was only six miles from the finish; I believed I wouldn't make it a block unless I took adequate time to attend to my bonk. For the first time in the race, I pushed into the resupply tent and fought through the crowds. I filled my bladder with what turned out to be carbonated mineral water, then went to work on a large plate of pound cake. It came from a generic looking box but had to be the best pound cake ever baked. Others shoved around me but I held my ground. I was learning the ways of UTMB.

Thanks for the finish-line photo, Martina
I spent another five minutes drinking a cup of noodle soup before I waddled like a fed pig into the sunlight. There was only the homestretch left but I wasn't terribly excited for the last six miles; I alternated walking and shuffling until I decided that I was bored and my legs felt fine, and ran the rest of the way in despite macerated hurty feet. My friend Martina met me about a mile from the finish and ran with me all the way back to Chamonix. The course routed through the center of town, which was lined with people several rows deep for a quarter mile. Children reached out to slap my dirt-caked hands and cheering spectators looked at my bib and called out, "Go Jill!" as though I were the first runner into the gate, not the 1,615th. Despite all of my angst about the crowding in UTMB, this finish-line spectacle was truly enjoyable.

My finishing time was 22 hours and 57 minutes. Could I have run that course faster? Yes, but probably not much. Could I have run longer? Without a doubt. I really do wish I had a chance at the full distance.

I'll write some post-race thoughts soon. I can't say I got everything I was hoping for out of UTMB, but it was a intriguing experience nonetheless. And I can't complain about a long run in the Alps. Even with the weather and that monstrous mud, it was a beautiful course. 


  1. That doesn't sound fun, especially the crowds. Not sure if I would enjoy that -- I think I'd be stressed the whole time if it doesn't spread out.

  2. I agree with Danni, but I would love to do it on a sunny day with nobody else around! Looks beautiful!

  3. Like you said it didn't seem like your kinda scene, but I'm glad you pushed through and did it, you rock!

  4. As I read the blog, for the first time, your experience didn't sound fun at all. Especially when you described the woman who fell and the guy jumped over her....That disgusted me. However, when you typed this line, I understood why you continued on when things got bad....because this part you wrote sounded wonderful.
    "Children reached out to slap my dirt-caked hands and cheering spectators looked at my bib and called out, "Go Jill!" as though I were the first runner into the gate, not the 1,615th. " sniff, sniff. :-)

  5. What an accomplishment in light of the situation, conditions and crowds of runners. My husband has run the Jungfrau Marathon twice and it's quite the crowd going up the pass, he tells me. Really slows the pace down and he was annoyed by those impatient ones who cut corners to get ahead. But all in all it was a beautiful experience, despite the log jams at certain spots -- at least that's what he remembers when it's all said and done. Thanks for taking us along by the retelling of it.

  6. Luv reading your blog. Usually I get psyched enough to go outside and push myself, this time was more psyched out. I'm not buying the 1615th place but even if you are close to that, you are on a pedestal in my mind. Ya know, I think I'll go for a nice slow walk in the mtns, pick some huckleberries...ahhhh.

  7. Ghastly! Glad you made it. Sounds tough and not the ideal way to see Europe!

  8. Yeah, there was a lot about this year's UTMB that I wouldn't characterize as "fun," but I valued the experience all the same. I'll type up some post-race thoughts soon.

    Roan — 1,615 was my actual finishing rank. Out of 2,485 starters. I was I think 109th of 172 women finishers. All along I expected be in the back third of the pack. UTMB is a world-class stage and I'm not exactly a world-class trail runner. As far as my performance goes, overall I'm happy with how it went. All I needed was that extra 30 miles and I totally would have picked my up into the top 1,000. ;-)

  9. I was out there with you. the whole experience was a double edge sward. The villages, spectators and other runners a plus, the altered course, the way they treated my family (crew) and the crowds a negative. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  10. I have Internet! I'm staying up too late! Yay for Jill and catching up with your stories!

    And Yo. From the PCT.
    You would love, love, love this 2,660 mile journey. It's hard. And badass. Just like you!

  11. I have Internet! I'm staying up too late! Yay for Jill and catching up with your stories!

    And Yo. From the PCT.
    You would love, love, love this 2,660 mile journey. It's hard. And badass. Just like you!


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