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.
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.
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|
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.