Tuesday, September 04, 2012

UTMB through the night

I was climbing in a cloud, as thick and featureless as the snow covering the ground. The light beam from my headlamp slammed into a blinding wall of fog, so I turned it off. Two thousand sets of footprints had cut a muddy track through the snow, and the black trench was the only thing distinguishing the sky from the mountain from the end of the universe. Hard wind pushed against my side as sleet stung my cheeks. When I stopped to fish a balaclava out of my backpack, my eyelashes froze. Pausing for even a second brought a deep chill to my core. I guessed the temperature was about 25 degrees, and a quick glance at my whistle/compass/thermometer confirmed that it was several degrees below freezing. It wasn't terribly cold for the veritable snow suit I was wearing, but fully saturated in rain and sweat as I was, it didn't take long before the sharp wind cut through my armor.

But no matter, I was warm as long as I was marching, and perfectly content to keep doing this. I didn't know how long I had been moving. I didn't know exactly how many miles I had marched. I didn't have a clue where I was. I couldn't even tell whether it was day or night, and had lost too much track of the time to be sure either way. I knew I was far from alone on the mountain, and yet the blindness of fog and silencing effect of the wind masked even my own existence. The chill cut deeper so I quickened my pace. I passed a man wrapped in his space blanket, jogging through the slush as his metallic cape flapped wildly in the wind. He had turned his headlamp off as well. When we briefly turned to face each other, I only saw a gray shadow pierced by the black of his eyes, as bottomless as the trench we were marching through. We pushed through a brief break in the fog, and for a few seconds I could look below and see what must have literally been hundreds of lights streaming up the mountain. It was all so surreal, so bizarre. Sometimes I fool myself into believing I'm unique in my weird desires to be out in uninhabitable and uninviting places such as this in the small morning hours, and yet here I was, just another blank face among thousands.

The night fog muddled my view, the chill numbed my emotions, and even with a growing number of miles behind me, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc had yet to take shape in my mind. In my view, all of life is a story, and I had spent months drafting an outline for the 2012 UTMB. I imagined the beautiful vistas I would see, the rocky trails I would climb, the gear I would use, the specific way in which my feet would hurt, and the number of times I'd likely break down bawling, both for frustration and beauty. I looked forward to all of it, until eight hours before the race began, when reality took my well-crafted outline and ripped it to shreds.

A wet winter storm had buried most of the high passes of the Trail du Mont Blanc in snow, and steady rain continued to fall at lower elevations. Trail conditions would be treacherously slippery either way, and with overnight lows forecasted down to five below and even ten below zero Celsius at high elevations, a sprained ankle could quickly turn deadly for the even remotely underprepared. The race organization didn't want to send 2,500 runners into those conditions, and I didn't blame them. But their alternative route was considerably less inspiring than the original course. Instead of circumnavigating Mont Blanc on high alpine trails, we would be circumnavigating the Chamonix Valley on muddy trails beneath a canopy of trees. Instead of a hundred miles, the revised route was just over a hundred kilometers, and rarely climbed above 2,000 meters. Instead of 46 hours, the timeline was cut to 26. There was still a lot of climbing on the new course — officially over 6,000 meters — and it was still sure to be a big challenge. But it wasn't what I signed up to do.

I appreciated that the UTMB organization still wanted to put on a race, but it wasn't my race. For several hours on Friday afternoon, I indulged in defiant dreams. I didn't need a sanctioned event, I declared to myself. I was prepared to handle the winter conditions, and I wanted to wait until the following morning and attempt to run the Trail du Mont Blanc on my own. But as reality set in, I realized that I wasn't actually prepared to run TMB completely self-supported, especially in these tough conditions, and I didn't even have enough time to do so even if I was. It was revised UTMB, or nothing. The experience wouldn't be the same, but there's something to be said about accepting setbacks and embracing change.

Beat was still racing the PTL and Martina had gone to Courmayeur race the CCC, so I walked to the starting line alone. I shouldered my way through the thickening crowd as I scanned the course notes, which I copied onto a ripped piece of paper in pencil. There were the names of the new checkpoints, their altitudes and cut-off times, and distances in kilometers. I'd neglected to draw the new elevation profile or even scrawled the overall climbing. I didn't record which checkpoints would have food or water. The French names of the places we'd travel to had already slipped from my memory like shoes on ice. We would run the first forty kilometers of the Trail du Mont Blanc, and after that, everything was a complete unknown.

Downtown Chamonix hummed with white noise as thousands of racers and spectators wedged shoulder-to-shoulder along a narrow street. I had expected a huge spectacle at the start of the race, but the scale still startled me. After all, this was just a trail run that started at 7 p.m. in a small mountain town in France — and yet crowd reminded me of the time I spent New Year's Eve 1999 on the Las Vegas Strip. A sea of runners clad in brightly colored microfibers waved and jumped in place as row upon row of spectators cheered and snapped a thousand flash photos. A barrage of French words screamed through the loudspeakers as videos of runners in rugged mountain settings played on a large screen. It was actually pretty humorous, this Olympic-like celebration. But as I scanned the crowd, all I could see were the faces of strangers. It struck me that no one I loved was anywhere near this place, and I felt a surge of loneliness. Amid the culture shock of the starting line spectacle and my disappointment about the new course, a tear managed to escape from the game face I'd been struggling to form. "This isn't me," I thought. "This isn't me at all."

A few minutes after 7 p.m., a countdown appeared on the screen, and I could only guess that the race was just about to launch. I was positioned near the back of the pack, and it took me a full five minutes just to creep past the starting line. From there was another ten minutes of slowly walking out of town before the crowd broke up enough to run. I was still trying to put my heart back into the endeavor, and didn't feel motivated to sprint out of the gate. I jogged along with a woman who had a pronounced limp and a man wearing a knitted Rastafarian cap. According to the race organization, 2,485 runners lined up to start the event. I figured only about eleven or twelve of those were still behind me.

Five miles passed in about an hour, and I arrived in the town of Les Houches just as the gray shade of evening was descending into a darker shade of dusk.  Crowds still lined the streets and an aid station was giving out cups of water, so I stopped to savor a few sips and drink in a shift in my perspective. Amid the hour of running along the river, endorphins had returned to my system and renewed my excitement for the long night in front of me. "This is nothing more than what I make of it," I thought. "It's only going to suck if I let myself believe that."

After Les Houches, the trail launched skyward into a swirling sleet storm. I passed dozens of runners who had stopped to pull on extra layers. I was wearing only a thin rain jacket over my T-shirt, wind tights, and a fleece hat — but this early in the race with plenty of energy to burn, these layers were more than warm enough. I knew that as the night deepened, the steady precipitation would soak through my clothing, sleep deprivation and hurty feet would slow me down, and my calorie reserves would be depleted. Staying warm would require more external assistance, which is why I had a fleece jacket, balaclava, winter mittens, spare socks, and rain pants packed away in my backpack.

We dropped down to Saint Gervais on muddy singletrack, trampled to shoe-sucking oblivion by the two thousand runners in front of me. I was still far enough toward the back of the pack that everyone was mostly patient and courteous as we waited in an endless conga line to get through the steeper sections of slippery trail. I still fell on my butt twice and once just decided to keep sliding because it was easier than getting up, until I nearly slammed into another woman trying to pull her leg out of a shin-deep mudhole. Down in town, it was well after 10 p.m. and the crowds were still riotous. The aid station was its own convention, with booths of sponsors hawking gear and separate stations for sparkling water and still water. Discomfort trickled back into my system. Up on the sleet-soaked mountain, I felt more in my element than I did down here.

We ran up a long valley to another town, Les Contamines, where little old French ladies stood in a group ringing cowbells and volunteers served salty soup and Coca Cola. It was here that the night began to lose definition for me. The weather was becoming progressively colder and wetter, and I felt sleepy and, admittedly, a little bit bored. It was dark and foggy, and there was nothing to see. The ongoing line of runners marched in silence, maybe because we all assumed no one around us spoke the same language.

I thought about pushing harder, but there was no room to do so. I would either have to aggressively fight my way through the crowds, or assume the position I had landed in. Somewhere along this section, we climbed above snowline, and the frigid wind renewed my sense of intrigue. We ran along a high ridge and passed a ski hut where the race organization had set up a medical station. Dozens of runners were huddled inside, but I felt great. For the first time all night, the high fog began to lift. I could see a stream of lights in a valley far below. I thought it was a highway, but as I snaked down the mountain myself, I realized the lights were runners on the trail.

We looped back to Les Contamines, where the bored sleepiness predictably returned. According to my GPS, we had run 35 miles and climbed 10,000 feet so far. Ten and a half hours had passed, and it was nearly morning. It had rained or snowed consistently through the night, but it seemed like the precipitation might be tapering. I hadn't yet seen, well, anything ... and it seemed strange that the UTMB was now half over. My legs felt too strong for UTMB to be half over. I think I had been running this race as though it were a hundred all along ... part of me couldn't let go of that storyline. Daytime was coming and I vowed to push myself harder. What did I have to lose?

... to be continued.


  1. I'm sorry the race didn't turn out to be the adventure you wanted (or did it? I guess I'll have to stay tuned for part deux!), but you've managed to turn it into a gripping read nonetheless.

  2. Love the photo of the Fireweed. I'm so sorry the weather did not cooperate for a full race. And yes, the atmosphere at these events can really seem like a big party. I am looking forward to part 2, and hope that the fog lifts even more so we can see some of those beautiful peaks all around. We visited Chamonix for the first time in July and I confess we had ideal weather for all of Saturday. It was breath-taking.


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