Tuesday, 16 September 2014

UTMB 2014 - What an adventure!

As I have mentioned earlier, it has been a dream of mine for a couple of years now to one day run in the UTMB. To actually be standing on the start line of what I regard as the biggest and best ultramarathon race in the world was so special.

An Athlete signing event with my Compressport teammates.
L-R Nuria Picas, Seb Chaigneau, Julien Chorier, Fernanda Maciel, Zigor Iturrieta & Me. Photo: Compressport

The atmosphere on the line was absolutely electric and everything I had imagined it would be and more. In true UTMB style the clouds gathered together and the rain started to fall thick and fast. Looking around it was quite comical seeing literally hundreds of people simultaneously take off their packs and get their waterproof rain jackets out. Whilst all of this was going on I kept reminding myself of how hectic the start was going to be and how important it was for me to control my ego early on and settle into the race at my pace.

Crazy times at the start line. Over 2300 runners charging through the streets of Chamonix. Photo: Xtof Aubonnet

The first 8km or so through to Les Houches was full on. People lined the streets of Chamonix and as we made our way out of town the cheering and support from hundreds of people didn't ease. The first climb up and over to Les Contamines was good, I settled into a good rhythm and got the job done. Being the first climb of the day it was always going to be easy over-doing it, but I kept reminding myself how far I still had to run. Remembering that I had over 140km to go after this climb made it pretty easy to take things comfortably. The grassy descent was tough, it was here that I watched several runners I had been cruising along with take off down the grassy banks. It was terrain that I had never run on before and saying I felt uncomfortable on it is an understatement.

Coming into Les Contamines was like running into a concert. Despite the heavy rain there were people lining the streets 2-3 rows deep in places. Les Contamines was also the first point I got to see Liz who was a welcome sight in the ever deteriorating weather. She gave me coffee and some more Tailwind to get me through to the next crew access point in Courmayeur.

I felt really good from Les Contamines and was hiking strong up to Croix du Bonhomme (2443m) and through to Col Chécrouit. I bumped into a Danish runner and we hiked and ran together for a large chunk of the climb. Turns out he's spent time in both New Zealand and Australia over the years, it was great conversation that ensured time passed quickly.

The relatively steep and switchback style descent into Courmayeur didn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped. Things just didn't quite feel right. That said, it was really nice looking down towards the town and seeing all the lights and the glow in the valley. Once I hit the valley floor things resumed to normal and I ran into the Courmayeur aid station feeling great. Once again I didn't hang around for long, just grabbing the necessities before heading off again.

Courmayeur Aid station, I've got how far to go? Photo: Ian Campbell, irunfar.

The climb up to Refuge Bertone was short and steep and then there was some more runnable or what should have been more runnable terrain through to Arnuva. It was around 85km that I lost concentration a little and didn't quite lift my foot high enough when running on some technical trail. I banged my foot pretty hard on a rock and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I got myself up slowly with my whole foot throbbing and sharp pains coming from my outside 3 toes. The first step I took I nearly fell over again as the pain was so bad. I gathered myself for a few minutes before I started walking along the trail towards Arnuva and the start of the tough Grand col Ferret climb.

The tough climb up Grand col Ferret turned out to be the biggest march I've done all year. Foot sore and ego destroyed, I slowly dragged what felt like a broken body up and over the monster climb. By this stage I'd nearly been running the longest amount of time I have ever run before and I was definitely feeling pretty sleepy. Running through the night is a really fun experience but I'm still learning ways to keep alert and focussed as the new day emerges.

Little did I know that my race was about to take a turn for the worse on the descent from Grand col Ferret. Without going into too much detail, I've now learnt how bad chaffing can get and how painful it is trying to run when this is going on. It seems so ridiculous that it wasn't my legs or even my bashed up foot that was halting my progress in the mountains. Along this descent I was caught by eventual 3rd place female Nathalie Mauclair. I set myself a goal of doing whatever I needed to do to hang on to her and keep moving. I figured even hanging with her for a few minutes was better than going at my own pathetic pace which had to be a positive.

It hurt, I mean it really hurt. I was forced to almost completely change my running stride and gait in hope of finding a jog/shuffle/hike technique that enabled me to keep moving forward. It must have been around La Fouly (107km) that I almost fell down a muddy descent and pulled away from Nathalie. I felt completely out of control sliding down the muddy slope but I was moving the fastest I had in many hours so I wasn't asking questions about my methods. After what seemed like a lifetime I stumbled my way into the Champex-Lac aid station. It was so good to see Liz again after what had been quite an eventful few hours in the mountains.

Wondering how on earth I'm going to finish this race. Photo: Xtof Aubonnet

Liz reassuring me that I'll get there. Photo: Xtof Aubonnet

I took more time than usual here, making sure I had everything I needed and also trying to ensure I left the checkpoint feeling better than when I had come in. This proved to be quite difficult as I was feeling absolutely rubbish. It was here that I looked down at my elevation tat and just about fell over in shock at what I saw. From Champex-Lac there are basically three big climbs to the finish with the last one being the biggest of the three. I spoke with Liz and explained the situation. My current situation at that point made every "tough spot" in every other race I have done this year seem incomparable. I said to Liz that even if I could somehow drag myself up and over the first climb, I still had two massive climbs to go.

Whilst all of this was going on at the aid station I was trying to make sure that I was constantly holding onto something as I was feeling light headed and a little wobbly in the legs. I decided that the longer I hung around at the checkpoint, the longer it was going to take me to get to the finish line. Kissing Liz goodbye, I shuffled my way out of the checkpoint.

A painful 200m later I got my phone out and called Liz. I told her I didn't think I could go on. I'd never felt pain like this before but I didn't want to pull out of my first 100miler. Liz put things into perspective for me, reminding me that in every 100miler there are going to be lots of low points, but if I wanted to finish I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She explained how long it would realistically take me to finish at the pace I was going at and said that if that's what I wanted to do, then she'd be there waiting for me at the next checkpoint. This gave me the boost I needed to hung up, put my phone away and keep moving forward.

In summary, the final three climbs were really tough. Not much more than a clumsy shuffle was going on as I tried different methods of moving across tough terrain the fastest I could. By the time I got to these three climbs it had warmed up quite a lot so I also now had to ensure I carried enough fluid to get me through to the next aid station. Just before I got into the start of the first climb I was just about broken. I'd taken my pack off, laid down on some stupidly rocky and rough terrain and planned on having a sleep. Liz must have known something because as I was about to put my head down she sent me a really lovely text that provided me the motivation I needed to get myself off the ground and put one foot in front of another again.

The final climb proved to be a whole different beast. I'd done the final 17km of the course about 6 days earlier with my good friend Timo, but for whatever reason nothing seemed familiar at all. The final climb seemed to have a dozen false summits before finally reaching the top of Tête aux vents. From here I remembered it being pretty technical but downhill to La Flégère and then a mixture of tight singletrack and 4wd trail to Chamonix. I remember the traverse across to La Flégère to seemingly take a lifetime. Constant ups and downs and the technical terrain was playing havoc on my bashed up feet and toes. It's the first time in nearly 2 years I have had sore toes in any run regardless of the distance but the aftermath of UTMB ensures I will likely lose 7-8 toenails. I believe it is likely a combination of long downhill sections and also some really slippery terrain where I was probably clawing my toes in order to try and maintain traction.

I'd wanted to see a mountain goat the whole time in Chamonix, so seeing this guy near the top of Tête aux Vents gave me a real boost.

It wasn't until I reached the streets of Chamonix that I believed I was going to finish. I was out on my feet. Running the final few hundred metres being cheered on by hundreds of supporters was an absolutely incredible way to finish what was truly the toughest challenge I have ever faced both physically and mentally.

Seeing Liz at the finish line waiting for me just about brought me to tears, it had been an epic journey and I was so happy to finish. I am so thankful of her staying up for over 28 hours to support me and look after me when I wasn't able to make decisions for myself. I vividly remember saying over and over to Liz "I did it". For the last 13hrs or so I was really unsure of whether I had what it took to finish. I'm so glad I dug deep and although I didn't quite have the 100 mile debut I was hoping for I can look back happy knowing that I finished UTMB. I feel like it was both of us combined that helped me get to the finish, I definitely didn't feel alone out there on the trails.

A special moment with Liz at the finish line. Photo: Xtof Aubonnet

It was so great finally running under the finish arch. Photo: Xtof Aubonnet

Over the past two weeks since UTMB I have sat down at the computer several times and attempted to write this race report but I just hadn't had time to process the race and break it down into manageable size pieces. I still don't feel that I have found the words to express how difficult and challenging this race was. I knew going into the race that I had indeed chosen one heck of a race as my debut 100 miler but I really had no idea how tough it was actually going to be. Regardless of how much pain UTMB gave me, I will hopefully be back in 2015 for another crack with all of the experience I gained from this year's adventure.

Thanks to my amazing sponsors Hoka One One, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Ay-Up Lighting Systems, and RaceReady for enabling me to take part in this amazing race, I'm so thankful for the continued support.