It is not a pristine mountain experience, but rather, it's a spectacle of the sport of mountain ultra running. I happen to like this aspect of the race. For a sport that is often niche and very grassroots and an activity that I spent a vast majority of my time doing alone, almost everything about the race is an over-the top, at times kitschy, experience. A true celebratory event.
Once the races kick off on Monday, the town is awash in the cacophony of the crackly voice of the race announcer and overly dramatic canned music blaring over the main square and a nervous energy permeates the crowds. The streets are lined with sponsor laden barricades, and big screen TVs, spread across town, play moments of the race on repeat, or show live splits of races underway, as crowds gather around, mesmerised by the self-induced suffering that is happening on the trails and peaks around them.
So there is a lot of anticipation as the week builds toward the big Friday races, with the CCC starting in the morning from Courmayeur on the other side of the mountain and UTMB in the evening from Chamonix. As Adam indicates, there was a lot of gear-related talk (water proof gloves were a particularly fond topic of conversation), some last minute scrambling to shave grams, in addition to media stuff, so things were kept pretty busy as we moved toward Friday.
As race day neared and I began to get a little more thoughtful about the race, I found that I was in a pretty neutral emotional state about it, not really wanting to give it too much mental energy. I wanted to run well, sure, but was really not too nervous or anxious about anything. Physically I felt okay. A sore right ankle and achilles tendon, but nothing too far out of the ordinary. I wasn't expecting or hoping for any particular goal, so paid no attention to splits from previous years. I thought a sub-24 hour run and top-ten finish would be more than satisfying, and I had every intention of easing into the race slowly. After learning of the delayed start and shortened course due to the fast and heavy storm coming over the Col du Bonhomme I tried to grab an afternoon nap. Mostly I just lay in bed with the shutters closed, but I may have snagged 20 minutes' sleep.
The wait for the 11:30 start was a long one, but once we got there we were finally in the moment.
It is awesome to look around in the rain and see so many friends and amazingly talented athletes. As cheeseball as the production is, I am really getting into the mood as we await the countdown. Broad grins, lots of hugs and just a bit of shivering. It feels like we're heading off on an adventure.
The start isn't as fast and mad as I was expecting, but there must be 40 to 50 people who get out in front of me, striding early with the energy from the crowds. I slot in with Nerea Martinez, the eventual second place woman, for much of the run to Les Houches, also yo-yoing with Tyoushi Kaburaki, the metronome-like veteran from Japan. I pick up a few places on the way up the first climb from Les Houches in the still steady rain and now patchy fog. I exchange places with Hal and Jez on this section, although I go solo on the long, slippery and foggy descent into St. Gervais.
Up to this point, and despite the rain, I haven't been feeling particularly cold, so I am managing just fine with a light jacket, light gloves and a hat. Thing about waterproof gloves is that they stay wet if water gets in them. Anyway, I hustle through St Gervais after a quick first glance at French aid station fare and a couple shots of coke. According to a guy reading off race positions coming out of the aid station, I am in 23rd or so.
Running out of town, I hook up with a Scottish (I think) Salomon runner and Jez. Seems like decent company for the pouring rain we are all dealing with. By Les Contamines, we catch up to Scott Jurek and he fills me in with a few of the goings on up front, and also the unfortunate news that Joe has twisted his ankle and will likely have to drop. At Les Contamines I spend a couple of minutes unloading grit from my shoes and reloading on gels and Power to Go trail mix with the help of my brother, Matt.
Heading up the valley from Les Contamines, we pass through some small villages and I pass Lizzy Hawker, the lead female, in addition to Hal and some others in the dark of night on a steep doubletrack section of the climb. We hit the small village of La Balme, fuel up, and then begin the serious climbing up the narrowing and increasingly craggy valley towards the Col Du Bonhomme. I pass by Kaburaki as the crag starts and fall in behind the Scots runner, with Scotty J a few strokes behind. We ascend quickly in this order over a skiff of snow to the top of the long 5,600' ascent that began in St. Gervais. At the pass I am with Scott and Karburaki and we run somewhat cautiously in Indian file all the way into Les Chapieux, some 3,300' below.
At Les Chapieux, I check in with Linus from the Euro PI crew and get encouragement from Scott Jamie's wife Nicole. There is a big fire burning at the aid station, so I assume it's pretty cold. I don't really feel it however, as my internal furnace is burning well. After a quick bag check, where they make sure I have a phone, I head out on my way.
On the in-between-graded road out of Chapieux toward Col della Seigne, the Jurker and I assume a pretty strong pace, leaving Kaburaki behind and catching runners in front. Apparently we are running in 16th and 17th and we both seem to feel pretty good about things. Scott takes off on me a bit as we begin the steep two track stuff up to the singletrack that will snake us quickly to the top.
I watch and listen-in a bit as Scott strikes up a conversation with an English speaker in front, but I can't make out who it is. As I go by I realize it's Geoff, which is a major bummer. We chat briefly and then continue with the head-down grunt. Geoff wishes me well. I go by Scott and a couple of others by the top of the pass - a solid but not brutal 3,300' climb - and see that Kaburaki is sitting a few hundred meters behind. Day breaks as we approach the pass and pour into Italy. The hues from the early light on the huge glaciated faces surrounding us are incredible.
While my legs haven't fired that well through the damp and cold of the night, the fact that I've made it through feeling like I'm still on course for a finish is a huge boost. Previously, I had been going back and forth in my mind about how much I really wanted to do this, how much I wanted to get it done. The three hours of heavy rain was a tough way to begin the race, especially beginning at 11:30 at night, but once committed there is nothing to do but accept your fate and move forward. You fight the doubts off, tuck them away and get on with it, running at all opportunities and never dawdling.
Having passed a couple of guys right near the summit, I decide to float the early descent in an attempt to earn some running space behind. I want to run the scenic section to Courmayeur around the Arete Du Mont Favre at a comfortable and unhurried pace.
I drop the 1,600 feet to Lac Combal at a good clip, see Kim Gaylord at the aid and then drop quickly into a strong hike gear for the remount to the stunning Arete du Mont Favre, where the aid station tent looks like it's ready to set sail. The view down Val Feret is gorgeous in the early light, but the running distance it represents is more than a little intimidating.
Shot from both ends coming into Courmayeur.
Cruiser, cruiser to Col Checrouit and then easy on the bomber, but tight descent into Courmayeur, where I arrive in a reported 11th or 12th place. My brother has all my gear laid out on a bench as I arrive, and we go to work on the night-to-day transition. Shoes and socks off, new ones on; jacket, hat, gloves and manpris off; race bib reattached; cap and sunglasses on; gel and Power 2 Go resupplied; and I'm off.
I decide to run most of the way out of Courmayeur up the steep roads leading to the Bertonne trailhead. And then I drop back to the powerhike. It feels slow. I pass a few hikers and then catch sight of a racer near the top. We come into the summit aid station together, and also leave together. We then proceed to yo-yo at what feels like an up-tempo 'I want to drop you' pace. Back and forth for a few miles. He puts time on me on the downhill rollers and I proceed to make it back with interest as we roll upward. This continues for five miles out to the next aid at the Refugio Bonatti, after which my companion assumes a spot a few hundred meters behind. Right before Bonatti, we pass an ailing Salomon runner, which I figure puts me in tenth place. I am happy to be running in the top ten halfway into the race, while also still feeling decent.
The choppers are whizzing around by this point, steaming up and down the valley getting what looks to be some awesome footage. I get to Arnuva in quick order, enjoying the buffed out sidehill trail and the short, sharp drop down to the valley floor. The Grand Col Feret awaits, so I load up with some bread, three 'goblets' of coke, and some dried meats.
The 2,500' punch up the Grand Col to the course's high point is steep, but I still feel like there is some conviction to my hiking. I am, as Darcy likes to say, hiking with purpose. Looking down, I see Kaburaki about 20 minutes back. The metronome just keeps ticking. At the top, I take some time to banter with the hardy medical and timing volunteers, taking in the breathtaking views. My clumsy French has been terrible the whole trip, but up here on Grand Col Feret I find the fluency and clarity I once enjoyed. I learn that the guy in ninth isn't looking so good and that others are not far ahead. I start wondering if I can score a top-five finish.
I don't pick up anyone on the big descent into Switzerland to the small village of Feret but as I pull into town, a familiar French voice tells me to 'run like an animal.' It's Jean Yves, a local favorite at Sierre-Zinal who I ran with for a good section during that race in the Val d'Anniviers, on the other side of the Rhone Valley and a few more valleys off to the east. He says he's had enough and just like that I move up to ninth.
It's just a short bop over to La Fouly where my brother tries to fix me up a bit and informs me that the next guy is ten minutes or so ahead. I get a nice boost from seeing my parents, brother and nephews and then re-descend into the ultra vortex as I make my way out of town to run alongside the river.
I can sense that my legs are feeling pretty tired by this point, but I also know that the finish line is closer in front than the start line is behind. As tired as my legs feel, I still have good coordination (having yet to fall) and I can run at a good clip on both the rolling ups and rolling downs. A small climb up to Champex and then two more tough climbs over Bovine and Catogne and we're on the Chamonix Valley Express to the finish, I tell myself.
The running is good out of La Fouly, some of the easiest of the entire run in fact. Just a gentle roll down the valley, one short climb and then more descent into the chocolate box Swiss town of Praz de Fort from where I can see a few high rise tourist accommodations sitting on the edge of the high valley that Champex sits at the end of. The route up to Champex' high valley hideout looks decent enough. It will be a hiker for sure, but hiking seems like a nice option after the last 20km of uninterrupted running and 4,700 feet of descending from the top of the Grand Col Feret.
The hike up is steady, if not fast, and I opt not to run a few of the sections where I know I should be breaking out the shuffle. The atmosphere is lively in Champex and the big aid tent appears to be a free for all when compared to some of the militantly officiated aid stations from earlier on the course. No one seems to care that my brother, Linus (from Pearl) and my parents are all attending to me. The rules are pretty clear that only one person is supposed to interact with the runner. I express my concern, but Linus tells me they don't care. All the while, the jolly announcer banters on about nothing in particular. People are too damn cheerful, so I go about my business and then get the hell out of dodge.
Linus accompanies me around the paved lake trail. I desperately want to get out of town so I can continue my day of solitude. I'm excited about the climb up Bovine as I know it means I can hike without guilt. I can feel that my legs are still reeling a bit from the long descent from Grand Col Feret.
The route out of town veers left onto hardpack doubletrack and I look around guessing which drainage is going to be my route up Bovine. I know the left turn will come soon, so I feel a bit weird about the continued descent. Two miles later and I run into Mike Wolfe, just as we are getting ready to hang a right onto a ribbon of singletrack. He drops the bomb and explains that we have been rerouted ... to Martigny. I know exactly what that means because I traveled by way of Martigny when arriving in Chamonix. It means a huge descent followed by a huge climb. He tells me it's a 6k detour and an additional 4,000 feet of climbing and descending. My heart sinks.
The descent into the village we hit before Martigny is interminably steep and I am lightfooting at a ridiculously slow pace all the while grumbling and firing daggers. I can see a big vineyard all the way on the other side of the valley thousands of feet below. It looks so far off, and yet I know we'll be climbing back up it. The weather heats up as I descend into the valley and I feel just miserable. One flick of the switch and I go from being driven with a finish line in sight to being defeated with no end in sight. It's taking way too long to get to the bottom of the valley.
I finally get there and spill into town, desperately looking for somewhere to fill up my long-empty bottle. I find a fountain and whisper some words of thanks. I cross under a main road and finally the descent is over. A French runner - Patrick - appears from nowhere and overtakes me. I let him go as we begin to climb the switchbacked road servicing the vineyard. The purple grapes look good, kind of. I look back. Kaburaki, of course. We hit some singletrack and roll a ridge for a while. I'm confused, knowing that we haven't climbed even close to the advertized 4,000 feet; 2,000' tops.
And then we start descending and I catch back up to Patrick and pass, regaining my position in eighth. Salomon team manager Greg Vollet is attending to one of the guys from his stable of runners. I think it's the Scot that I was running with early in the race, but I'm not sure. He looks to be in a very bad place. I move up into seventh. And then we drop into an aid station and confusion reigns. I have absolutely no idea where I am, but vainly hope that it might be Trient. No such luck. I am told that we're in Martigny and that we'll be climbing 4,000 feet up to Col Forclaz to get to Trient and back on course. The news just about kills me. I quickly dismiss thoughts of stopping but take on board a very negative frame of mind, becoming one of those obnoxious ultrarunners that deserves to be put down.
Ugh!The road out of town is incredibly steep, and then it gets steeper and steeper and, well, you get the picture. We criss-cross the road that leads cars up to the col, passing through small villages, back yards, farmers' fields all on very steep trail. My pace has dropped to somewhere in the realm of pathetic, and when Kaburaki finally goes by me, I am completely emotionless. Patrick, too, is long gone. My legs are now killing me and I start thinking about how on earth I am going to get myself out of this predicament. Thoughts of dropping are now taken seriously and I have trouble fighting them off. I am in abject misery and I just want it to be over. I can barely move now and the pass still seems like it's an eternity away. This is easily the most miserable I have ever been during the course of an ultra.
Three hours after leaving Champex, I finally gain the pass and rejoin the course. It is now cold and I stop to sit down for a few minutes. I tell people that I am done and that I just need to get the hell out of there. Of course, they try to talk me out of it but there is nobody there that I know and am prepared to listen to. I start shivering uncontrollably and I know that I'm running out of time. I try to walk, but my legs refuse. They tell me it's just 600 feet and 3k down to Trient and that I can collect myself there. Some bloke tells me it takes him 10 minutes usually to run down to Trient. I laugh at how irrelevant this piece of information is to me. Three downhill kilometers right now might as well be a full blown mountain marathon. After another failed attempt to walk and more violent shivers, I plead with a volunteer to drive me down to Trient. I am defeated in every sense; mentally, physically and emotionally.
They take care of me in Trient, massaging my tight, torn-up quads. I shiver and shiver some more before the warm blankets raise my body temperature. My race bracelet is cut and my parents drive me back to Chamonix.
According to the new Highgear Axio HR watch that Scotty was wearing, the total climb was in the 35,000 foot range. And then according to a Garmin-clad runner I chatted to at the finish, the route ended up being about 180km long (111 miles). How accurate these readings are I don't know, but the elevation change sounds about right, and I have to say that the reroute felt way longer than the advertized 6km.
So, yeah, it was a tough race, but no tougher than other mountain 100s I have done. I would put it up there with Wasatch and Hardrock. A little tougher than Wasatch, but certainly no tougher than Hardrock.
However, as similar as the Hardrock and UTMB elevation profiles are, they are in fact very different races. Both races offer unique insight into their respective mountain environments and communities; however, at Hardrock you get the sense that you are running in and engaging with the natural environment whereas at UTMB it feels more like you are running over the land, while avoiding the harsher realities of the mountain. Being such a popular route, the UTMB trail is extraordinarily well defined and at no point feels particularly wild or remote. The mountains are simply too developed.
Nowhere are the differences between the two races more apparent than in the way they are directed. At Hardrock, the runner is made explicitly aware of the conditions they can expect to encounter and told to prepare accordingly, but not babied with gear requirements and overly strict rules and regulations. The relationship between organization and runner at Hardrock feels like that between two adults. At UTMB it feels more like a relationship between parent and child. Can I pack surgical gloves as my waterproof gloves? Will they find out, and if they do, will they care and will they punish me? To think that Dale would delay the start of Hardrock because of a storm is borderline preposterous.
I may not get into Hardrock next year because the field is limited to 140 runners, but I am okay with that. We need to keep our wilderness areas wild, and if that means strict caps for races in remote areas, then so be it. The Alps are stunning, no question, but as Dakota likes to say, they 'shit all over their mountains' over there, or certainly that was the case in the areas we visited. The access afforded by cable cars, train lines, roads and mega-trails comes at the severe detriment of the mountain wilderness experience.
I am sure I will be back to UTMB, given the opportunity. I mean how can I not feel like I have unfinished business there? And after all, it is such a grand celebration of our sport, but at the same time I feel that I would like to visit the grassroots flip side of European mountain ultrarunning before I go back to UTMB - maybe try to find something a little more organic.