Wednesday, August 31, 2011

UTMB Race Report

The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is an incredible event, beyond any scale I have witnessed at any other trail gathering, and well beyond that of most big city marathons. Rather than try to capture the atmosphere myself, I thought I'd snatch a couple of paragraphs from Adam Campbell who I thought caught the mood well in his recent blog post about his CCC (100k) second place finish.

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.

All week long, the town of Chamonix is abuzz with runners nervously and anxiously waiting around, strolling the cobble-stoned streets, their necks kinked up at the peaks and glaciers that loom over town, eating carb heavy foods, whispering rumours about the weather and course changes, debating who will win, wondering whether they have done enough training and if their bodies and minds are up to the task, comparing gear choices and buying the latest and lightest gear options available at every shop in town. As all the best mountain ultra runners from across 62 countries descended upon Chamonix for that last week in August, it became the hub of world mountain ultra running.

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.

Team PI Europe/USA

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.

Courmayeur Pit Stop

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.

Praz de Fort

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.


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.

Any suggestions?

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I dropped out of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc last night at Trient. The decision wasn't difficult as I couldn't walk, let alone run. Needless to say, I am disappointed. I pride myself on being able to grind all day long, but for some reason I just couldn't keep going last night.

I am still processing my feelings about the run, the race and the organization, but before I get to some of the major shortcomings of this race, I'd first like to say how impressed I am with the guys at the front of the pack yesterday. They are clearly in a different class right now and supported by far and away the best crews in the business. I really do not think there are enough superlatives in the English language to explain how impressive Kilian is in the mountains and for that matter as a person in general.

I'd also like to congratulate teammate Darcy Africa on her huge third-place finish, Mike Foote on his 11th, my young buddy Nick Pedatella for his 14-place finish, and to teammate Scott Jaime for grinding out yet another result. Oh, and not forgetting Mike Wolfe, who I passed on the way down to Martigny and who I was certain would drop, but who still managed to grind out a finish. You guys are awesome and I'm proud to call all of you friends.

Now with regards to the race - and I'm not trying to make excuses here - but I had no idea (not even an inkling) that the course had been changed until I was actually on the re-route (some 125 kilometers in). Coming out of Champex, I was mentally prepared for the 700 meter (2,300 foot) climb up Bovine. I had been climbing well all day and was enjoying the ascents way more than the descents. Nonetheless, I was counting the climbs down. Bovine was to be the second-to-last climb and mentally I had already finished the race coming out of Champex - there was no doubt in my mind as to whether or not I would finish, it was just a matter of working through the remaining hours and climbs.

And then, oddly, I started descending and descending some more all the while waiting for the turn up to Bovine pass. Two miles out of Champex I passed a very pissed off Mike Wolfe. He had learned from his crew at Champex that the race organizers had tacked on the extra distance, climb and descent, and he passed that information on to me. The decision had been made in the wee hours of the morning some twelve (12) hours earlier. According to a post-race interview with Kilian, the Salomon guys knew as the sun was coming up over Col de La Seigne. Why the race organization weren't telling people at Courmayeur is a mystery to me. At Trient, where I dropped, they told me that I had been sent a text informing me of the change! Really?

Strange as it may seem, I am not in the habit of checking my messages when racing.

So anyway, we descended the 3,500 feet down into some village outside of Martigny, climbed another, probably, 1,000 feet and then descended 500 more into the Martigny aid station. I hadn't had water in probably an hour and the sun was burning. I was prepared nutrition and water wise for a one-hour climb to a high, cool pass, not for a two-hour descent into a steamy valley. When they told me that I would have to climb a bonus 3,600 feet to get back on course I was beyond pissed off. I essentially checked out of the race there and then. Nonetheless I hoofed it up to the pass going back and forth in my mind as to what I should do. When I finally did make it up to the pass another 90 minutes later I had lost the mental fortitude to keep my legs from seizing up and the decision to drop was an easy one. What should have been an hour and a half to Trient ended up being closer to three and a half hours, yet I left Champex unaware of that.

As anyone who has raced an endurance event knows, especially one as demanding as a mountain 100-miler, there is a very strong connection between the performance of the mind and the performance of the body. A huge part of being successful in completing these events is an understanding of what lies in front of you. Your mind prepares your body, and your body delivers an output that is sustainable for the mileage and elevation change that remains. If the mind is checked out, the body follows. The unannounced Martigny re-route was just too big of a curveball for me and I lost my mental edge. Had race officials told me that morning in Courmayeur I could have made the necessary mental preparations and I am almost certain that I would have finished.

I am sure that my ramblings here sound like excuses, and I guess they are, but they are at least honest - if maybe a bit raw. I lost the mental battle and my race was over. The race organization did a very poor job in communicating information to runners.

It's funny the juxtaposition between the immense amount of organization that goes into ensuring that there are helicopters and endless video cameras on course to cover the UTMB event and yet they cannot get even the simplest of messages out to runners on course. I come away from this experience with a very mixed bag of emotions. The event is impressive, sure, but behind the grandeur they seem to have lost sight of the very basic elements of putting on a successful race. I could go on, but I won't.

I think if I ever do get to lap Mont Blanc, it will be alone with my kids and wife. We will decide what we want to carry. We will pick a start time and a route. And then we will stick to it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Fever pitch over here in Chamonix. Check-in: done; drug test: passed; logistics: just about figured out. Time to run!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fortnight Ending August 14

Mon - 8.5 miles (1,800') easy with Ryan. Falls - Spring Creek - Stout - Sawmill - Loggers - Carey Springs - Towers - Herrington - Spring Creek - Soderberg.

Tues - 5 miles track. 2.5 mile w-u, then 1,000 open, followed by 6 x 200: 3:16, 31 (low), 32 (high), 33 (high), 33 (low), 33 (mid), 31 (high). Mile c-d. 200s are so far out of my comfort zone right now, these were almost comical. Good to get the turnover in, I guess.

Weds - 0 miles. Travel day to Geneva.

Thurs - 9 (ish) miles (2,200'). Ran along the river from Zinal with Dakota and Scott to a stout climb above the Zinal Valley, which offered majestic views of the Zinal Glacier and the big local peaks: Dent Blanche, Bossu, Pointe Zinal, Weisshorn (4,506m, 4th highest peak in Europe) and other awesomeness. Descended with Scott to the base of the glacier, then back.

Friday - 4 miles (1,500'). Climbed to the 3k-to-go point of the Sierre-Zinal course and back down.

Saturday - 4 miles (500') easy. Ran alongside the river.

Sunday - 20 miles (7,200'). Sierre-Zinal race.

Total: 51 miles (13,000')

Mon - Off

Tues - Off

Weds - 4 miles (700') hiking. A test hike up toward La Flegere after tweaking my knee at Sierre-Zinal. Felt pretty good so decided that Thursday I would resume with some light running.

Thurs - 11 miles easy with Scott. Out and back from Chamonix to Les Houches on lightly rolling double track. Knee felt good, so gave myself the green light for some vertical exploring.

Fri - 10 miles (2,000'). Up to Refugio Elisabetta near Col de La Seigne and then back to Courmayeur with a stop off for lunch at Jacko's refugio just above Courmayeur. Huge pasta/grilled veggie feed followed by a gut wrenching 2,500'/2 mile drop into town. Fun group including Topher and Kim Gaylord (and relatives), Scott J & Scott J, Krissy M, Roch & Cat Horton. Awesome, awesome views of the valley, passes and peaks from the Arete Mont Favre.

Sat - 10 miles (6,000'). Met up with Kilian, Dakota and two others at Les Houches for a run up Mont Blanc from the valley floor. At least that was their plan, I turned at 6k' climbing (9k' elevation), thinking the full 12.5k' up and down might be a bit much a week out from the race. More awesome views of the Chamonix Valley from my turnaround point. Legs felt like bricks.

Sun - 9 miles (2,700'). With Adam Campbell and Radio Joe G FM up Mont Vert to the Mer de Glace Glacier, with an awesome cruise back down. Legs felt way better today than yesterday.

Total: 44 miles (11,400')

It has been a fantastic trip to Switzerland/France/Italy so far. The mountains and valleys have definitely not disappointed, while the food and general ambiance has been equally as great. I feel like a very lucky boy right now and I owe my wife dearly.

The running, to be honest, has not been that great. Sierre-Zinal was a pretty big disappointment, and my continued lack of pep since then has been annoying. Until today, I have been pretty gloomy about my chances at UTMB. However, I got out for a good run with Joe and Adam this morning and felt a little more like my usual self, so that has perked my confidence a bit. US runners have started to file in, so there has been a definite buzz the last couple of days, which has also helped get my mind into race mode. I'm not expecting great things for Friday/Saturday, but I am at least back to thinking that I can fight for a top-10 spot, which - all things considered - is a result I would definitely be happy with.

Not much left to do now. My parents arrive tomorrow and my brother and nephews a few days later, so I'll just do some light jogging and catch up with the family before getting ready for one last bout of extended suffering before I close it down for the season.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Sierre-Zinal was a unique and highly enjoyable experience. The extended weekend that is. The race itself was a big old sufferfest, but fun and eye opening nonetheless.

In the days leading up to the race we had been staying in Zinal at the top of the valley (Val d'Anniviers) and so on the morning of the race we were bussed down for the 9am start near Sierre in the Rhone Valley. It was noticeably warmer in Sierre. The bus got us there well over an hour early, so the North American contingent set up camp in the shade and hung around. After a light jog with half an hour to go, it was time to strip down and file over to the start. I assumed a position six or seven rows back, safe in the knowledge that I belonged no closer to the start line on this particular day.

I knew that I had an immediate and almost guaranteed hour of suffering ahead, so I was unusually nervous as the seconds ticked down. Pablo shot the gun and we were off. Shoulders, elbows, a tight turn or two, a couple of trips and finally I found some space to open my stride. A huge lead pack was ahead, with a solitary Glenn Randall in his now customary early-race position: way off the front.

On the opening half mile section of road climbing, I was pacing with the lead two or three women and by the turn onto the trail I would guess that I was running in a position in the mid-20s. And then boom, we were on the steeps and gaining vertical quickly. A mile in and there were still a ton of guys around me. Dakota and Scott were a few meters ahead in a crowd of guys and looking back there were tens of guys waiting to pounce. This was pretty intense, and it hurt.

I don't think I've ever experienced the kind of jostling that I did during Sierre-Zinal. Normally in US trail races, position is established early and there tends to be very little back and forth. At Sierre-Zinal, if you take your foot off the gas for an instant in those early miles hordes of runners go streaming by.

About a half hour into the run, I was gaining familiarity with my partners in pain. There was the guy in the black unitarde who insisted on running absolutely everything. He would get passed by us hikers on the ridiculously steep stuff, and then would pass back ever so slowly on the just plain steep stuff before being buried on the mellower stuff. There was the burly dude in the Spanish colors who was as powerful a hiker as I think I've ever seen, but again a terrible shallower hill runner. There was the old-man Colombian who chugged along in his one and only short-step gear for the whole climb - steady - but looked like he might have been quite a runner back in the day.

I went by Scott about halfway up the climb and locked my sites on Dakota's white and orange singlet. We were moving at pretty much exactly the same (slow) pace. I would try everything to speed up the rate at which I was covering ground. I tried periods where I would run everything regardless of grade, but the minimal increase in speed was not worth the massive uptick in effort; I copied guys around me by dropping into the ugly looking Euro hike: hands on knees, pushing off with each stroke, but didn't like the way that constricted my air flow; so mostly I just focused on big strides, strong push-offs and an angled (rather than bent) forward lean. I felt like a complete novice. And I was.

If I had to guess, I would say that I gave up 10 spots by the top of the climb. I almost immediately dropped the pack I was with as we transitioned into a period of smoother ridge running on a mix of buff trail and hardpack road. At the Chandolin aid station, I stopped for some much needed fluids, popped a gel and got back on track with the pack of three that I was now working with. Jean-Yves was apparently a local favorite as just about every spectator seemed to know his name, offer him a drink or crack a joke. Andrew Peace, a fellow Brit, was also in tow.

I would find out later at the evening after party that Andrew has held the course record (2:46) for the famous Three Peaks race in Britain since 1983. I told him in a drunken haze that I'd be there next year to take it down. Andy responded with a cold stare and a blunt northern: "no f***in' chance," followed by a wry grin.

Some twists, some turns, into and out of a few gullies and then there on the ridge was the famed Hotel Weisshorn. It looked far away and a good 800 feet above me. I knew it would be roughly 50 minutes from Weisshorn to the finish, so I did a quick watch check. If I could get there in 10 minutes, then I might have a shot at 2:50, but there was no way I was getting up there in 10 minutes. Twenty minutes seemed far more likely, and I now realized that the 3-hour mark would be my goal for the rest of the run. Regardless of place, a sub-3 hour run paid out 80 CHF ($110), which I figured would cover my train ride to Chamonix. That seemed worth fighting for. And then I felt my calf muscles begin to cramp and I was forced to ease off the gas.

I arrived at Weisshorn a thirsty and hurting unit. I stopped briefly to take on fluids and a gel, all the while cursing myself for forgetting to bring electrolyte caps. One more little uphill push and we were essentially on the downhill express to Zinal. A quick watch check: 2:08 low. Scott had informed me the day before that Anna Pichtrova's fastest ever time from Weisshorn to the finish was 50 minutes. That was the year she set the women's course record (2:55) and when she was in 2:31 marathon form. I had a little over 51 minutes to close it out. It was going to be touch and go.

The track from Weisshorn gets pretty rocky in places, so the flow gets chopped up. In addition, there are a ton of 'tourist' runners, who had started four hours earlier, to get around on this section. By and large they would get out of the way in time, but there were a couple of occasions where I was brought to a complete standstill.

Twenty minutes out, I took a dive and almost rolled off down the valley. I got up and promptly ran into a tree. Expletives.

I had seen the last three kilometers of the course a few days earlier and knew they would be majorly hurtful. The course drops 1,500 feet in 1.8 miles, and the first kilometer of that drop is not particularly steep. Just as I hit the turn for the last 3km, I felt major quivers of crampiness down in my calf muscles. I ignored them and blazed Euro style, cutting switchbacks like they didn't exist. I went down on my butt a couple of times, but that didn't really slow me down as my butt was essentially on the ground as I was running anyway. I surfed across the field where I'd inspected the line two days earlier and then began the mega-steep shoot to the finish.

Full-on calf cramps. Aghh. The game was up. There was no way three hours was happening now. I was forced to stop and stretch, hobble, stretch, jog. I crossed the finish line in 3:01 in pretty bad shape and then guzzled. Chatting with Kilian at the fluid station afterwards, I quickly learned that Marco had almost taken down Jonathan Wyatt's course record, but not quite, and that Kilian had had a tough race on 'heavy legs.' I found Dakota, and learned that he'd put seven minutes on me from the top of the climb, overtaking Max King along the way. I was suitably impressed.

The post-race festivities were a blast, and quite honestly the whole experience was a lesson in hospitality, generosity and incredible race management. I have to give a sincere thank you here to Pablo Vigil, who acted as the liaison between the US runners and race management in the months leading up to the race, to Alexadra Jodidio - the amazing and multi-talented athlete coordinator in Zinal - and to Jean-Luc Pont who has been directing Sierre-Zinal since its inception in the early 70s. You guys put on an amazing show.

Right now, I am sitting here in Chamonix three days after the race nursing a bit of a dodgy knee. While it's frustrating to be missing running days in this gorgeous location, I think probably it's a blessing in disguise as Sierre-Zinal is a race that really puts some hurt on you, so recovery time is wise. I'm feeling like I'll be good to go by tomorrow, and so look forward to getting out and covering some of the massive Alpine relief that rises for miles around in every direction.

Kilian has invited us to go run up Mont Blanc with him on Saturday, but as tempting as that sounds, it just seems like a terrible idea. It's 12,000 feet up and, more importantly, 12,000' back down. Dakota is hotter on the idea than I am, but then he's also 16 years younger. Might just go part way and be the wise old man who turns early. But you never know, it's all so tempting right now.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Switzerland and some Sierre-Zinal Interviews

The last (and only) time I was in Switzerland was during my year abroad in France (many moons ago) as a third-year undergraduate student. And what a waste. We drove straight through without stopping, bee-lining it straight for Germany's Black Forest and the steins that awaited us there. This time around we're doing it up proper.

Scott Jaime and I flew out together on Wednesday, arriving to Geneva early Thursday morning. From the plane we had a stunning view of the Geneva valley with snow-capped Alpine peaks and the mighty Mont Blanc standing out in glorious Technicolor against the bluebird skies to the south. The two hour train ride east up the Rhone Valley was even more remarkable. I thought I had it good in Colorado, but wow, these here Alps are pretty spectacular. Jagged angles, burly ridges, huge glaciers, and dreamy amounts of vertical relief. Hog heaven.

And then we hit Sierre, transferred to a bus, and then another bus as we made our way up the tight and Colorado-esque Valais through immaculate Alpine Swiss villages to Zinal. And wow again. The skyline here is just phenomenal.

Before we had time to close our agape jaws we were being whisked off by our incredibly gracious hosts to a Raclette feast with a jazz ensemble, wine, cold cuts and oozing amounts of deliciously runny cheese from cows that had been feeding off the wildflowers 1,000 feet above us. And there was Young Money Dakota Jones putting away a glass of wine and his fair share of the local produce. That afternoon we were off up into the hills for an entirely too-long run, but what can you do when surrounded by such beauty. Another feeding and then we crashed hard for 13 hours.

Friday has been much the same - savoring views, running gorgeous and incredibly steep trails, eating delicious food and just generally having a wonderful time. I don't want to draw unnecessary comparisons between the US and Europe when it comes to putting on races, but let's just say that Scott, Dakota and I have been feeling astoundingly spoiled and incredibly thankful for the honest and gracious hospitality we have received here. Our Swiss hosts are from a different cut.

Anyway, in the two days that we've been here I've also been able to catch up with some of the other members of 'Equipe USA' on behalf of, including Max King, Joe Gray (coming), Glen Randall, Megan Lund, and Brandy Erholtz. Oh, and Ultra Boys Dakota Jones and Scott Jaime, in addition to a ditto with me.

We race tomorrow and then we'll drink and be merry, before we head south into France to assume residence in Chamonix in search of a couple more weeks of Alpine adventures.

One more thing. Here's a recent interview I did with the guys over at InsideTrail, a new site dedicated to trail racing.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Week Ending August 7

Mon - AM: 8.5 miles (800') easy. Valley. Bluesky to Arthurs and back.
PM: 4.5 miles (700') easy. Falls.

Tues - Noon: 4.5 miles (700') easy. Falls.
PM: 9 miles track w/ Jane's (ridiculously large) TNT group. 3.5 mile w-u, then 1,200 open (4:00), followed by 12x300 on :55 rest (100 jog): 56, 56, 56, 56, 56, 57, 56, 57, 57, 54, 53, 57. Second week back at the track and feeling down right slow.

Weds - 8.5 miles (800') easy. Valley. Bluesky to Arthurs and back.

Thurs - AM: 11.5 miles (3,600') hill ladder intervals with Slush, Shannon and Jeanne. Pete, Victoria and Crystal were also there doing their own version of the workout. Ahem. Beautiful, clear morning with Pikes visible from the top of Horsetooth.

So anyway, this workout hurts. From the intersection with Soderberg, the drill goes 3 x 1/4 mile (+185' each), 2 x 1/2 (+380'), 1 x 3/4 (+550'), 1 x 1 (+680'), finishing with a top out on Horsetooth Rock. Splits: (2:40, 2:44, 2:45); (5:44, 5:49); (8:59); (11:41 w/8:44 split to 3/4). Each and every interval was slower than when I did the exact same workout in late April, suggesting that I have either lost a step since then (likely as I was at the track or doing mile repeats for months before that), or that I am just generally beat up (most definitely the case). Given the double whammy of little to no speedwork in weeks and recovery from Speedgoat/Hardrock/WS, I guess I should be reasonably happy with the outcome.
PM: 6 miles easy. Social run at Pineridge with FCTR.

Fri - 8.5 miles (1,800'). Falls - Spring Creek - Stout - Sawmill - Loggers - Carey Springs - Towers - Herrington - Spring Creek - Soderberg.

Sat - 17.5 miles (4,000') with Justin. Soderberg - Horsetooth to just below summit - Westridge - secret trail - Towers - Mill Creek - Howard - Arthurs summit - Arthurs trail - Mill Creek Link - Valley/Bluesky - 38e - home. Ran with the recently arrived UTMB pack from UltrAspire on my back. Filled it with all the crap we'll be required to carry for the race and was hating life. Me and backpacks don't get along when running. Dreading hauling that thing around the Alps in three weeks time. What a royal pain in the arse. Dragged on the run - blamed it on the pack.

Sun - 6.5 miles (1,400') easy. Soderberg - Spring Creek - Herrington - Stout - Spring Creek - Falls.

Total: 85 miles (13,800')

Not quite sure what to make of this week. I set a goal at the beginning of the week of getting back up to 100 miles while also working in some quality sessions. A cram week, if you will. With UTMB a little less than three weeks away and Sierre-Zinal next weekend, and recovery surely still ongoing I was all over the map.

I had to grind at the track on Tuesday and came away feeling like I had no pop whatsoever, and then I had a pretty miserable hill workout on Thursday morning, followed by a horribly sluggish longer run on Saturday morning. After drinking too much at Alistair's birthday party later in the afternoon, I failed to get up Sunday morning, so the planned second long run of the weekend never happened and I had to settle for an hour later in the day in the small window I was able to negotiate. I almost bagged the run anyway, as I felt like I couldn't be bothered with it. I finally dragged my sorry arse out and ended up feeling as lively as I have all week. Certainly not fresh, but just a hint of pop in the legs which was good enough for just a smidgen of confidence.

Where this leaves me I have no idea. I feel like Sierre-Zinal is going to be a sub-optimal performance, but I'm just not sure quite how ugly it's going to be. If I can get under 2:50, I'll be over the moon, but I think a sub-3 hour run is a more honest appraisal of my current fitness. Of course those goals and numbers probably mean very little to anyone reading this blog, so as a point of reference the winning time is usually in the 2:33-2:37 range (CR: Jonathan Wyatt, 2:29; 2010 winner: Kilian Jornet, 2:37), so the sub-3 goal is not an especially lofty one. A 2:50 looks like it would place me in the 13-18 range overall based on previous results. I'd be happy with that. Oh, and as a further point of reference, the course climbs about 5,000 feet in the first 7-8 miles, rolls for 4-5 miles, pops up another 800 feet in a mile, maybe two, to Hotel Weisshorn and then drops 2,500 feet into Zinal over the last 4.5 miles. Not entirely sure what the footing is going to look like.

Then I have 12 days to get rested for UTMB. Right now, I am feeling like it's going to be a horror show, but in the back of my mind I'm holding out hope that I can pull off one more decent run before I head off into fall hibernation. Time will tell of course, but I just feel like it's been too long since I've undertaken any real training, and my fitness just feels kind of, well, meh. That and I am definitely a bit beaten down right now.

I think probably the best course of action over the next three weeks is to keep the volume really light and focus on a few quality turnover sessions to try and find a bit of a spark. A rested body will benefit me way more than an extra few ounces of fitness. It's a 100-miler so it's just jogging, right?

Inspired by 2010 Hardrock champ Jared Campbell this weekend:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Speedgoat 50k 2011

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I really don't think there's a 50k in the country that comes close to Karl's wicked Speedgoat in terms of outright brutality. But then I guess you'd expect no less from The Speedy Goat of the Mountains himself.

Consider the facts. The course ascends a total of 11,500 feet, which averages out to 740 ascending/descending feet per mile; there is a total of perhaps two miles of what one might describe as 'flat' running; the running occurs between the elevations of 8,000 feet and 11,000 feet; and finally the underfoot is a mix of skinny game trail, buff trail, off trail, talus trail, dirt service road, snowfield, and jeep trail that ranges from rocky, to washed out, to creek bed. Some have described the course as a little contrived given the obvious emphasis on vertical gain, but seriously, if you want a Hardrock'esque experience in a smaller package then there really is no better option.

This was my second go at Speedgoat after a less-than-stellar performance last year. As last year, Karl was offering $500 for the win, but this year he'd upped the odds by offering an additional $500 for a new course record. Given that I'd run within five minutes of the course record last year on a sub-par day, I figured that if I won I'd likely go under Kevin's 2010 time. So the stage was set for an awesome long weekend away with the family in beautiful Cottonwood Canyon, with the added bonus of possibly paying the August mortgage if I could run well.

From the off, it was Scott Jaime, myself, Joe Grant, Ben Lewis (husband of speedy Beth Lewis), and A.N. Other forming the lead pack on the 500 foot ascent/descent warm up. Almost immediately I felt like I was in for a long day. My breathing was labored, my legs felt heavy and the pace felt slower than last year when Luke Nelson was charging the early ups and Nico Mermoud the early downs.

And then we ground up to Hidden Peak. I was content to drop in behind Scott as I searched for rhythm, and while I never felt particularly good on the Hidden Peak climb, I was at least happy that my breathing had settled in. Joe and Ben were still in close proximity behind as we hit our first snow patches before the major snowfield in Little Cloud Bowl. Humping up a snowfield with Joe in close proximity brought back very familiar memories from just three weeks prior.

Little Cloud snowfield. Ants marching up to the right. All pics: Steve Pero.

At the summit aid, we were still grouped together as a foursome, but it was Joe who took the initiative on the descent to the saddle between Hidden Peak and Baldy. After running some pretty gnarly terrain with Joe last weekend, I was well aware of his levitation powers on technical descents. Indeed, the nastier it gets the higher he levitates, and there was some pretty nasty - although short-lived - stuff off the two summits. I was content to let Joe go, confident that I'd get him back on the climbs where his levitation skills are not quite as powerful.

A line of sight down Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Salt Lake Valley from Hidden Peak.

Down the washed-out jeep road to the ski-lift at 'Larry's Hole,' Joe continued to build his lead which was in the vicinity of two minutes by the time we hit the aid station. And then the mountain wanderer led us up the garden path and we all followed blindly.

A few hundred meters out of the aid station there was a two way split with markings in both directions. Unfortunately there was nobody in attendance to direct us on the right path. Even more unfortunately, none of us saw the flagging for the correct left-hand turn. So up we went in the direction of the Peruvian Tunnel. Twenty minutes and 500 feet of ascent/descent later, after having been shouted back down, we made the correct turn and went about the business of chasing down the runners that had passed by us as we were off previewing future running. All thoughts of a course record were now gone.

We caught a couple of runners on the way up to the ridge above Mineral Basin and then on the creek-bed descent down to Pacific Mine we caught a few more. All the while Joe was in sight a few meters ahead - both of us seemingly content to cruise the descent rather than push to make up time. On the little uphill blip before the gently rolling mile out and back to the Pacific Mine aid I caught and went by Joe and a couple of other runners. The question now was how many were still ahead and by how much? I figured Nick Pedatella would have the lead, so waited patiently for the man in the green shirt to appear on his way back from the aid station.

Nick ran by a good while into the out and back, followed a minute or two later by a couple of other guys, so I figured the win was still possible with half the course and a ton of climbing left to cover. At the aid Roch Horton filled us in on the news from Karl: a grand to the winner regardless of time. Karl's stand-up decision to assume responsibility for the lack of a course marshal or signage at the earlier junction put some serious pep back in my legs.

And we were off to the races.

Joe and Ben were no more than a minute behind me, with Scott maybe a further two minutes back on them. I figured Nick had a five to six minute lead, but also imagined that the news of the doubled purse had mainlined a similar shot of adrenaline into his stride.

The hot, slow grind back up to the Mineral Basin ridge was as torturous as I remembered it from last year. I knew I was putting some time on Joe and Ben, but the longer view points and shoulder checks revealed that it wasn't a lot of time. I really didn't want this one to come down to a downhill race over the last five miles from Hidden Peak so I continued to push on the slow-motion climb up the rocky jeep road.

Back up to the ridge and it seemed like I had put a bit more time on the guys, but to my surprise Nick had apparently grown his lead to eight or nine minutes, according to a couple of estimates from people on course and the aid station volunteers at Larry's Hole.

And then the climb up to Peruvian Tunnel. This was one of the major re-routes, and the one that we had erroneously previewed earlier. Nick was in sight a few hundred feet above on the exceptionally steep hillside. There was no way to tell what it equaled in minutes. As I gained the trail leading up to the tunnel, he was again out of sight. Joe was still in pursuit behind - maybe four minutes back. Up to the tunnel and Nick was still a reported eight minutes ahead. Really? Wow. Clearly he had a thousand-dollar spark in those legs. I had the Peruvian Ridge left to make it back or it was time to throw in the towel.

The Peruvian Ridge, for me, is easily the most scenic part of the Speedgoat course. The knife-edge ridge offers an amazing and unobscured view of the Hidden Peak summit almost 1,000 feet above. However, with 10k of vert already in the legs, the beauty of the surroundings was somewhat lost and quite honestly the sight of the peak so far off in the distance was more than a little demoralizing. But there was the silhouette of Nick on the ridge. That looked more like a four-minute lead than an eight-minute one. Shoulder check. And there's Joe. Fuel.

Peruvian Ridge

I pushed the ridge as hard as I could, running more than I did last year. I knew I was catching Nick, all the while worried that Joe was catching me. By the summit, Nick was just two minutes up with five miles of descent to race. I got some coke and set off on the 3,200 foot drop.

I could see Nick on the traverse to Little Cloud and from the way he was moving I could tell that he was a hurting unit. I knew then that I was going to win the race. I finally passed him at the top of the glissade, where I jumped on my ass and slid and then ran and then shoe skied and then slid again. I took a peek back up Little Cloud when I was firmly on dirt and could see that I'd already put a good chunk of time on Nick. The rest of the trip down was a steady cruise with frequent shoulder checks to make sure the lead was still secure. Karl thrust ten C-Notes into my palm as I crossed the line and just two minutes later Nick crossed with Joe ten seconds behind him.

Despite the slow-motion nature of the race, it was actually quite exciting with someone to chase in front and a constant push from behind. Sitting here now, it seems like it was a lot of fun, but really it was a big old grind fest. The harder the work though, the sweeter the reward.

Thanks to the Speedgoat crew for an awesome day at the races, and congrats to all finishers. This one is no gimme.