YABRR: UTMB 2020/2022 Edition
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
AKA: What a long, strange trip it's been
Big thanks to Shellene for making sure I actually went to this race. Thanks to John and Marcy for hosting me in France, it was nice to spent time catching up and then having John crew for me as he waited for Marcy to catch me. Huge thanks to all my friends for the positive vibes both during the race and over the past years; if you really want the full list of names pull up all my previous race reports - it still won't come close though.
As normal, all the important stuff is above the line, here comes 110 miles of fluff.
You know how you look forward to something long enough, that when reality hits the expectations lead to disappointment. I have been looking forward to UTMB since 2016, when I first starting choosing races to gather points for the lottery, managed to get in in 2020 due to the "lottery loser" clause (that they no longer have, but I won't go into my thoughts on where UTMB is going here), only to have the race cancelled. So, finally after 6 years I found myself totally hyped up in Chamonix. Can any reality even come close to that level of anticipation? The short answer is "yes!" at least for me.
Did I have the race I wanted, nope, I was hoping to finish in the dark (36 hour range). I think that I might have been able to do that in 2020, even with all the little things that went wrong this year, but I'm older, slower and wasn't in as good of shape this year due to injuries. Was I happy with my results, you bet. Am I going to beat George RR Martin for word count, not sure but I just might try.
UTMB week - not including the race:
Y'all know me, and you know that I don't care for big races with lots of hype, but I made an exception for UTMB, and it is an exceptional race. I got into Chamonix Sunday, found the AirBnB that Marcy and John had set up, dropped my bags and went for a walk to shake out my legs. I spent Monday getting a little running in, scouting the finish into Chamonix, and then hit the expo once it opened. Tried on some different shoes, discovered that the NNormal shoes were a little too narrow for my tastes, liked the Altra Mont Blanc a lot but decided to not buy them since they are zero-drop and I'm not. Tuesday was tourist-Tuesday on the mountain, and then walked part of the start to catch the TDS leader coming into Les Houches.
Wednesday was fun, ran the Compressport Morning run with 400 other runners (I've been to a lot of races with less runners than that), including all their pro-runners, then added in some climbing running the wrong way on the TDS course. Now the fun part really begins, trying to get an already confused body to sleep later in the day (spoiler: it didn't work) since the Compressport run started at 8AM and UTMB starts at 6PM. I'll sleep when I'm dead. Thursday was packet pickup and random gear check. I got to Chamonix early and walked up the finish descent, this allowed me to get a whole bunch of photos of the speed-demons (OCC racers) as the headed to the finish and then head to packet pickup. I didn't get pulled for a gear check, so it took me 15 minutes to get my packet and vest tagged. I was legit. Stayed up as late as I could Thursday night, and woke up at 8AM Friday - it's going to be a long day. I think I managed a nap around noon, and at 3PM we caught the bus into Chamonix. Time to get real!
Photos during OCC, Sheila Avilés, Núria Gil, Dani Moreno, Allie McLaughlin
Manuel Merillas, Antonio Martínez, Robbie Simpson
UTMB the start
Standing in the starting area, trying to get my head into the game was tough. Part of me was very nervous; yes, I've done some hard races but I also knew that my training was nowhere near where it should have been "Don't be upset with the results you didn't get with work you didn't do!"; and part of me was excited beyond belief. I finally crawled under an overhang and just sat, focusing on my breathing and tuning everything out for about 15 minutes. That put me in the back of the coral at the start, as the announcers hyped up the crowd and the runners, then came the clap sequence and finally "the" music. Hearing "Conquest of Paradise" start brought it all home, I was here and it was about to get real. About 1/2 way through the crowd started to surge and we were off. I managed to make it to the start line in about 2 minutes and then began a jog/walk with everyone around me. The crowd was loud, everyone was having a good time and I was concerned about making the first time cut due to how slow we were moving. Once we left the town we picked up the pace to the first little climb and then it was back to the crowd. I pushed my way to the top with another runner, we got into a rhythm where one of us would hit a gap, push through and then move to keep the gap open for the other runner - who would then hit the next gap. He and I passed a ton (metric since we were in France) of runners that way, until we hit the climb into Les Houches. Here I cheated a little (not really, it's legit) and skipped the aid station line by hitting a water fountain that I had scoped out earlier. I only had to move a few spectator. Stopped and saluted a large American flag and then got serious about my running.
UTMB the race
Both before the start, and as we were heading out of Les Houches there was a helicopter overhead filming, that was really cool. Marcy actually got stopped by a rescue helicopter at one point, that was not nearly as cool but it appears the runner was okay, just couldn't walk out on his own. The good thing is, the race org requires that all races have repatriation insurance - just in case.
As I was running out of Les Houches, one of the runners called out in English "This man here is the reason you have good footwear, he is the original Speedgoat" (or something along those lines). I yelled back, "But I run in Salomons" and he responded "Traitor", at which point Karl responded to him "No, he just wears what works best for him", and then he started moving forward with an ease that I will never have.
In either Saint Gervais or Les Contamines Montjoie (not sure which), I heard a sound that brought joy to my heart, instead of cowbells (serious cowbells at that) or vuvuzelas it was bagpipes. I knew it was way too early for me to be hallucinating and I never had audible hallucinations anyway, so I looked for the pipes. There were a pair of pipers that I applauded as I went by.
Speaking of Hoka, they went all out with their installation at Notre Dame de la Gorge, it was surreal, as were the bagpipers I heard earlier. It was a nice little respite during the long (5,000' gain) climb. During the climb I pushed hard, since I knew I wanted as much time in the bank as possible and had a very good rhythm going. I did run into an issue that I haven't had to deal with in years, a nice bout of exercise induced asthma - which I only get when it's cold and dry. Hmmmm, overnight on Mont Blanc, during a drought :-( Got to the top and looked backwards to see the line of lights behind me. Wow. Time to bomb the downhill.
This was the first real test, since I had ankle issues at the start of the year. I had tested them at Cruel Jewel 50 (the reason I ran it, and ran part of it hard), but this was different. I was either going to get rich or die trying. Wait, no that's not it. Okay, I was either going to be able to run this hard, or plan for a very long race. I managed to hold a very good pace, passed a lot of runners and only slightly blew up my quads.
They had a gear check in Les Chapieux. They wanted to see my phone and rain jacket, but never made me take them out of my pack since they were visible. That was good, I accidentally showed her my rain pants (jacket was on the other side). For the most part I didn't use any of my mandatory gear the first night other than a light pair of gloves (and headlamps of course). So far so good, then the murders began.
The next section had a mix of scree, boulders and generally evil rocks. Everyone not named Kilian was going slow over this section, but on the climb and descent. Of all the training I had, I'd say the closest would be Ouachita Switchbacks, but the rock section there was flat, this wasn't. At one point I slipped and slid my right ankle into a rock, and let out an "ouch!". One of the runners I had been with earlier asked if I was okay, and then he slid into a different rock. At this point my ankle was bruised, and starting to swell a little bit, nothing to do but push onward into the sunrise.
Most of us know that the sunrise will help remotivate a runner, and it did that for me. Once I got to the next refuge I decided to take a very short (15 minute or less) trail nap with my feet elevated. I think that helped as much as the sunrise.
Pulled into Couremayer where I got my drop bag, used the time switching out stuff (all batteries, more Clif Bloks, new gloves) to charge my watch. I also got some hot food there, but it was warm and stuffy so I wanted to get out of there. That was a mistake, I should have done a sock change, my feet felt good but in the end I think the fresh socks would have helped keep me from blistering. As I was getting ready to go, John asked if I wanted him to take my drop bag. He commented post race that he wished he could have helped me more, while waiting for Marcy. The thing is, the fact that he was able to get my drop bag made it a lot easier post race, and that alone was incredible. Couremayer was one of the places where you could get hot food, and it was real food. There were a few places where you could get broth, or coffee, but there were no potatoes or Ramen that I saw. The cold food included meat, cheese and bread, as well as a good selection of salty/sweet snacks. By the end I was living on bread and dark chocolate, but would have killed for some mashed potatoes. They did have some wrapped snacks so I was able to replace my Clif Bloks in case they decided to pull a second gear check - they didn't.
One sad thing about the race was the fact that the region is actually in a drought, you couldn't tell that in towns, all the water troughs were flowing, but at times it felt as dusty as the night run at Northshore.
Above Photos by Maindru Photo
Left Couremayer and continued on through the day. By now I was feeling sleepy and made it into Champex-Lac just after sunset. John was there and I told him I was going to take a nap, if he didn't see me in 30 minutes to wake me up. He was surprised to see that I was just getting off the mattress right at 30 minutes (I've got a good internal clock), and I left Champex-Lac feeling refreshed, which was good, it was about time to climb and then descend into the abyss (actually Trient, but ...)
The climb out of Champex-Lac was tough, it was starting to get colder and windy, you could also hear the bells on the cows, goats, chupacabras off in the distance. Heading down into Trient is where things started to go wrong, somewhat humorously at times, but wrong nonetheless.
I had blisters on both feet, my right ankle was still a little swollen and my knees were sore from compensating. I was very slow on the downhill, especially the steps. Imagine my surprise when I caught a runner who was moving slower. She had sprained her ankle and couldn't figure out how to deal with the steps. I talked her through, as well as showed her, how I deal with it and then said when she got to town have the medics wrap her feet with her bandage. Up until that point she understood me completely, but she didn't understand what I was saying. Fortunately, another French runner who spoke better English (or was more awake) said "he means ban-dage". At which point she understood, and then all three of us just started laughing. I left her and shortly after that I saw a single trekking pole in front of an open tent, shook my head and then saw that it was a race marker in front of a boulder. I needed a little more sleep. Continuing my descent into Trient, my headlamp died (each battery was set for 6 hours, so this was expected). What wasn't expected was the fact that during the battery swap the connector broke, so I was now without my main light 3 hours to sunrise. Since I already had on a belt light (not my Kogolla RA) I kept heading into town, planning to get my spare out there. Made it into Trient, ate some food and took another nap.
Woke up feeling refreshed, put on my spare headlamp and headed back out into the night. Two more major climbs to go. I really don't remember much about the second climb of this series, nor the descent into Valorcine, but I covered the miles somehow, and got rewarded with a beautiful sunrise.
I left Valorcine feeling pretty good, all things considered and was able to at least trot for a bit, made it to the road crossing heading to the final climb, looked at the climb and shook my head. Unlike with the tent/boulder shaking my head did not help, the final big climb was a switchback trail on the face of the mountain. The entire segment was 1.5 miles with over 2,000 feet of gain (24% grade) and some of it was exposed. I don't do that type of heights well, but had no choice, up I went. To my amazement there were actually people slower than I was. Even more amazing, there were people who planned to go down that trail. Cleared the top and saw what was next, more rocks. I actually got a good photo of this section, I'm impressed with my little camera phone. I hobbled into Le Flege and knew what was left, in my original plan I intended to run this section, and had actually scouted it, but my body said "nope, you're walking" and that is what I did. I walked all the way down into town, where I met John again, crossed over the road bridge and then hit the final stretch towards the finish. John went ahead to get photos of me crossing the line, and I slowly increased my speed from a walk to an all out sprint (at least my body thought I was sprinting, the little old lady with the walker pacing me thought otherwise.
I crossed the line, and was done. I had pushed myself harder than I have ever done, in a more scenic place than I had ever visited and ran well outside my comfort zone. Did I do as well as I hoped, no. Did I do as well as I wanted, yup. I got my epic race!
Obviously this was a very international race, and while there were a lot of runners who spoke English, there were also plenty who did not. Sometimes the communication was down to a touch, a smile or a thumbs up, but most also understood "bravo" and that was said quite often. To all runners everywhere "Bravo!"
Marcy posted her write up, it can be found here