“The magic four-letter acronym has been in my head every single day since I first let its 10,000m of climb – and another 10,000m of descent – batter my quads like a stampede of really annoyed hippos last year. I’ll attempt the 104-mile mountain race around western Europe’s highest peak, the monstrous Mont Blanc” – Damian Hall
Since I did TDS in 2014, I had been dreaming to come back to the Alps to do UTMB. The Alps was always a magical place for me, and this summer I was lucky that I got the lottery to participate into UTMB and better yet, I was able to stay in the Alps for 2.5 weeks. As much as happy and giddy up I was, I was pretty nervous. With over 10 km elevation gain in 170 km distance, this race was beyond my imagination.
The Starting Line March
I arrived in Chamonix about 5 days before the race. I did some amazing hike and run around the Mont Blanc trails, but the last few days of tapering was killing me. Surrounded with gorges trail around the Alps was not helpful either. I was really anxious. All I did was eat, sleep and poop.
The race was started on August 26th at 6pm Paris time from the Church plaza in Chamonix, France. The race was a semi-autonomy kind of race, with only 1 drop bag at the halfway point, and the fully support aid station was about 8 to 20 km apart. The course ran around Mont Blanc and the Alps mountain range, so the race could have 4 seasons weather. With that said, we had to carry dozens of mandatory gears, 1 to 2 liters of water, and food supply. They made a gear check-point before we picked up the BIB and also along the course.
I was in the starting line with a group of bad ass runners; Michael Chu, Stephen England, Harald Zundel, and Pam Reed. When we got there the starting line was pack already, and we were probably in the middle section of the starting area. It was a bit crazy, we stood elbow to elbow, but yet some people still tried to squeeze in, to push forward beyond the others. I was wondering if that would make any big difference for mountain race like this.
When the official race anthem played, we started to give the best luck to one another. Although we barely moved and slowly walked across the infamous starting arch. We didn’t start running until we passed the edge of Chamonix downtown. For a few minutes, I ran with Stephen and Michael, it was mostly on the road before we got into the park by the legs. The temperature was pretty hot and humid. In only 3 km, my shirt was drench already.
At the Les Houches water station, before we went into the first climb of the course, I filled up my water bottle. I only had one bottle filled from the starting line to make my pack a little lighter, with hope to save my energy. Before I passed the gate that went to the cable car area, I saw Harald, far in front of me, taking out his poles, and I followed. Better to preserve early. I plan to hike and run easy into 3/4 of the race, tried to put my heart rate in the low gear, and feel comfortable all the time. Although I didn’t wear my heart rate nor GPS tracking to save my watch battery (I prefer to have altitude and time information vs tracking), I listened to my body and slowed down when I felt I put too much effort. The hike was not that long, we hike through the cable car where hiker start their trek to Mont Blanc and also we crossed the Mont Blanc train railway. After we passed a few small town, we went downhill. I might had run it a little too fast, but I tried my best not to work out my body too much.
When I arrived at the Saint Gervais, the first big aid station, I replenish my water and Tailwind. I also took out my headlamp. I tried not to linger at the aid station too long, so I exited the aid station as soon as I ready and ate while I was walking out.
The next hill would be the longest hike of the course, but it was a steady slop uphill which was not bad at all. I started to eat tiny bit of salami and bread, a little by a little, while I chewed out the hill one step after another. The trail itself was not that bad a hike, there was a few downhill for a breather. I was delaying to use my headlamp as much as I could, not only we still had street lights, but also I just didn’t like bright light. When the night come and the headlamp was on, it made my hike much easier, since I did not look around much and just focus on the hike. The temperature was still pretty warm and humid. My shirt was drench like I was getting out from a swimming pool and still sweating. I kept sipping my Tailwind and water here and there, took a pee once to check my dehydration level. Closer to the Les Contamines, we ran into the town which was more runable, so I started to jog it down through the town.
When I arrived at the Les Contamines, I felt a bit off, not sure what, not fatigue, sore or cramp, I was just did not feel great. I washed my face on head on the water fountain, then refilled my bottles. Although, I accidentally drank that weird sport drink, I thought it was water. That sport drink was awful, it tasted like a car battery water.
I Can’t Go, I Will Go
I met Stephen over there, we did small talk, but I tried not to spend too much time in the aid station, so I moved on to exit the aid station. I started to jog through the town while it was still runable, before we went into the tree line again. Not far away, we get off from the trail, there were a traffic jam, and we had to hike next of the long line of traffic jam. I was not enjoying this that much, since the heat from the cars and their mufflers were adding on the temperature. I was still feeling off, so I was slow down my pace a little bit. Really taking it easy.
We passed some camping ground, and I smelled food or grill, so I decided to take a tiny bit of salami again. Then we got into a park that looked like a summer camp, but it was hard to see, where the course was pretty runable and I jogged again. By the time we exited the park, the trail started to get steeper and rockier. Surprisingly there were a good amount of crowds cheering us here. Someone made a huge bonfire at the corner of the sharp turn. Also there were a bunch of people hiking down the hill too. It was a good surprise to have a moral support unexpectedly.
About a mile away before the La Balme aid station, Stephen passed me and asked me how was I doing? I said, I was kinda in surviving mode. I mentioned that I felt a bit off. Actually, a few minutes before Stephen came, I was throwing up inside my mouth, out of nowhere. Maybe he saw me did not look good or something. He cheered me up and continued with the race.
When I got into the La Balme, I grabbed a hot bowl of chicken broth, since the temperature was getting a bit cooler. Less then in a minute, I felt my stomach turned upside down. So I ran right away behind the tent and threw up. So I decided just to drink a cup of coke, and planned to eat later on the hike when my stomach got better. But again, I threw up right away. So plan B, I gonna took a quick nap so settle down my body. I went to the medic tent and asked them if I could take a 5 mins break. I tried to explain to them what was the issue, but the language barrier became the issue. My big mistake before the nap was, I did not change my wet clothes, so I woke up with a shiver. So I changed my shirt into long sleeves and also I put my wind-shell (not the gore-tex one), and slowly head back to the trail. I started to hike with my normal pace as soon as I could to get my body warm. Although, I felt so weak since I had not eaten anything since I threw up. I started to eat the salami and chocolate pieces in tiny bits. Again I threw them out on the trail side. I was panicking at this point, this was a very bad news. I knew I had my legs and body still not tired at all, but I could not put any fuel in my body, and I did not know what to do. Immediately, what came to my brain was to contact my coach. Not only she had a vast knowledge of any patches for trail running issues, but also she would be the best person in the world that knew my fitness better than anyone, better than myself. So I gambled, I texted her and explaining situation. Fortunately, she answered right away and put away my panic mode. Long story short, we had been texting back and fort about an hour try to figure out to make sure I would able to keep continue in the race. We tried from just salt tablet, Tailwind, and pure honey gel, but I still threw out till nothing left in my stomach, until that bitter flavor thing came out. So our final goal was just to get to the next aid station, sip slowly coke and soup, and sleep. And I would restart my race from there. So the whole 10 km to the next big aid station, with 5 km ascent to top the mountain, I was only sipping water. I think after a couple of hours after I left La Balme, I finally stopped vomiting. It took me 3 hours just to ascend that 5 km hike. I had to stop every 5 minutes, almost fell asleep on the rock so many times, because I was beyond depleted, I had no energy. So many times I was that close to press HELP button on the UTMB apps, for rescue. The only thing that entertained me was the snake of headlamp below and beyond me, I could not see the end of the tail, even after more than a thousand runners passed me. But I was not sure what drove me to keep going. Every stop, I felt I can’t go, questioning myself if this is it, is this the end, but at the same time my body still wanted to move. It seemed my muscle memory just took over my body to put my foot further forward, higher steps, just kept move on. I remember, close to the top of the mountain, my finger were cramped out. I could not make my fingers straight, the index finger locked down to my poles. So weird, or fortunately, it happened one hand after another continuously, not at the same time. So I just ignored it and kept moving. Also, luckily, the weather was perfect too, not too cold, but not warm anymore. I got a little cold wind here and there that enough to make me uncomfortable to prevent me from siting too long.
When I passed the peak, Ref. Croix Bonhomme, I suddenly got a surge of motivation to start moving again. Now that I had downhill, my goal was just to get down to the aid station as fast as I could, or as my body allowed me. Probably my body was starting to eat itself, my stomach was in pain, but I was just focus my mind on the trail. I could not afford to fall, twisted ankles or what not. But this 3 miles long switch back was really long. I think I felt it that way because I could see the town/village like 30 minutes ago, but it seemed that it was not getting closer. So I kept telling myself to keep moving 5 minutes more, next to the next switch back, or just grinned my teeth.
Death F***ing Last
At the Les Chapieux aid station, I threw away my food stash from the last aid station, since I was planning to replenish it. Then I went through all the plan, I grabbed a new supply into my stash. The only food that I would/felt to stomach were biscuits and chocolate bars (off course). I refilled my bottles, I sat down and grabbed a cup of soup and a cup of coke, actually a volunteer was kind enough to grab them for me. I sipped the soup and then coke slowly. I didn’t want to drink them too fast or too much, and upset my stomach again. Then I directly went to the medic tent. I tried to explain to them about my vomiting issue and needed to take a break to calm down my stomach. But non of the medic volunteers in the tent could speak English, fortunately there was a French runner who could translate it to them. So I went to a nap and I asked them to wake me up in 20 minutes. The volunteer, with a sign language, gave me a medicine for stomach.
I felt I just close my eyes when another volunteer woke me up. He asked me if I wanted to continue, and if I do, I needed to get going now. So I grabbed my stuffs and made sure I had everything. By the time I shuffled myself out to the road that goes to the trail, I saw they started to packing up the aid station. I said to myself, I am a DFL, I better get it together. I felt much better, actually felt kinda fresh like I was in the starting line. So I remembered what coach said, to reset my fuel plan slowly but a must do. I started to get back to my original pace plan. Immediately I passed runners, it was a flat trail after all. It was surprising how many people were sleeping on the trail tho.
When I got to the bottom of the hill, I could see the snake of the light. The next hike probably about 10 km short. So my calculation, it would be 2-2.5 hike, which it would be sometime after sunrise. I was really unhappy with my situation right now, I was way behind my plan, still needed to catch up with put back fuel into my body, plus I was probably 3 hours (at least) behind my original schedule. And also, I knew I would be chasing a cut off time, which I had never experienced before. But I needed to block everything out an just live in the moment. Not thinking about the past, what come next, I just focused on the present.
The first hike was an easy hike on the dirt road for a good 3 km ish. After I got over the peak, the trail gradually become more rocky and rugged, also steeper as it had bigger rocks over the trail. This would have been my playground and my kind of trail, as this what we have in North East of US. But I got stick behind other runners who walked too carefully on the rocks. After more than plenty bottlenecks, I became impatience and I started to pass people from the side trail or more rugged rock on the side.
After I passed the checkpoint, Col De La Seigne, there was a little opening area underneath the peak. The view over there was just stunning. I just stood on the ridge that a little above the clouds with peaks on the background where the sun peaking from behind. On the left side of the trail, was the other side of Mont Blanc. It was so rocky compare my memory from 2 years ago, which had more glacier on it. Anyway, I took a break there for 5 minutes or so, taking off my shell and headlamp, also soaking in the magical view for a few seconds more. Then I was back in the mission again, made a dent as much as I could from my cut off time barrier.
From there, the course back to a rocky ascent, but now, slowly but sure the temperature was getting warmer. The trail was still pretty much rocky, and bouldery in some part. Also we crossed a few sections that still had ice or snow, some were a little slippery. I kept passing people since they were too cautious. When I got into the peak, I did not stop and spend time like I did before on the previous peak. Even though I had been eating my food stash every 30-40 minutes, but I needed to get a better food than chocolate bars and biscuits. I needed to replenish my stash soon, especially when I started to get my stomach back, slowly. Also I was craving for coke somehow. The downhill was too much fun. It was a switch back, kinda a little steep with rocks, and some section was a dry dirt/pebbles (a little) technical downhill. My monkey was taking over me, I forgot my pain and suffers for almost a good hour. I was jumping, sliding, skipping people, and skimming the edge of the ridge for this 3-5 km long downhill. It was probably my best run and feeling from the whole race.
Snatching A Candy From A Toddler
When I got to the bottom of the hill, I recognized the aid station. It was the exact same aid station from TDS, Lac Combal aid station. I guessed I was in Italian territory now. I started to look around what to get, but it was pretty much the same, salami, cheese, bread, chicken noodle broth and chocolate bars. So I grab a cup of chicken noddle broth, chocolate bars, a cup of coke, and refilled my front bottles with water and Tailwind. I grabbed more chocolate bars into my stash too, how could I not.
It was late in the morning when I left the aid station, and I could feel the warmth of the sun again. The trail started on the jeep road for a while, pretty flat, nothing special, then we bent to the right, back to trail, up to the hill again. Oh by the way, I was accidentally put sparkling water into my front bottles, and I mixed one of them with Tailwind, and it turned out pretty good. It tasted like a Tailwind soda, so it was really refreshing. I just hoped I did not screw up any chemical reaction. The hike to Du Mont-Favre was not so bad at all, probably it was only 3 km ish short. Then the course became runable with a rolling hill. I actually slowed down a little bit in this section, a lot of walk and run combination. I was just trying to be a bit cautious with the heat so I won’t get another stomach upset. Also I drink a bit more I than my thirsty level. Not too much, but just a little sip here and there. When I got into the Col Checrouit, I just made a quick stop to fill my bottle and continued. It would be only less than 5 km to go to the Cormayeur aid station where I would have my drop bag. It started with an easy down hill, then we went down and run along or underneath the cable car. The trail was a steep dusty switch back trail. It was not technical, but it was a pretty long steep downhill. And it was hard to pick up a pace because the switch back was short, and also I did not want to slam onto a runner in front of me. Honestly, I was in a dark place in that moment. I was as moody as old grams or a cranky cat. I got upset for any single thing. In my brain, I complained on everything, uphill, downhill, too many dirt, dirt in my mouth, who put the rocks on the trail, why the rock not move away from my path, and on and on.
By the time I got into the Cormayeur town, I ran as fast as I could. Close to the aid station, I almost missed the turn. There was no marker just people yelling or directing to turn sharp right to a lawn. Then, on the pick up drop bag area, they made me wait for 5 minutes because there was miss-communicate between the bag handler and the front guy. I went in to the building and it looked like a war zone. People sitting and sleeping in many position like sardine. I had no clue where to go and no volunteer available nor directing. I moved around till I found a staircase since the only area in the building that was not crowded by people. And finally I found the dining hall. I texted my coach again and let her know that I survived, and I also told her that I was kinda in a dark place. She told me I needed to eat, eating chicken broth and chocolate for almost 12 hours would do the trick, I needed a real food on my stomach. She asked me to use my secret weapon, my ipod, I never listened music in any run except emergency, but now I would take anything to keep my wheel rolling. I took a whole plate of pasta and a little sauce, refilled my bottles and bladders, refilled my food stash from my drop bag, changed into fresh clothes and did some a baby wipes’ cat shower. Instantly I feel much better, plus, since I had not done that much running, I still had fresh legs. Well I was tired but not like shaky legs or cramping out, nor sore. I felt ready for the next half, I felt like my race just begun. I made sure I had everything, and I moved my buttocks to the exit gate. And here where the sh*t show came down. They told me I got cut off. I was confused since I made in on time, but they said the cut off was for check out, and they said they made an announcement, which unfortunately only in Italian. It was kinda crappy since this aid station coordinator spoke English fluently, but he only made announcement in Italian. I got cut off at 13.19 Paris time, which was 4 minutes late. I was so mad since I knew I could still make it to the next cut off, my legs felt good and I had plenty time to the next cutoff. I went out right away, I was afraid that I would be so angry that my rabies monkey mode would come out. That day, I headed back to Chamonix by bus, not with my own legs.
The Easy Day Was Only Yesterday
I came to UTMB with very well prepared and confident, so far, I had a blast year. The first time in years I could run as good as when I started running ultra 3 years ago, and finally, with injury free. Almost all of my race, I made a course PR, and some of them PR overall, despite most of those race was in a bad weather or condition. I had done my homework as well as I could. I had gathered my experience and memories from TDS, 2 years ago, so I had a good idea what the terrain would be. Especially the Alps’s signature, the very long switch back, and a very moody weather. I had trained with more complex overall fitness conditioning, how to race smartly, how to preserve and finish strong. So I knew that I was more ready than I had ever been, although, I kept myself not to over-confident.
I think I had played pretty much by the book. I slowed down my horses right from the beginning, I took the race in relaxing mode, but focus. I took time on the hike and downhill, and I was paying attention on my drinking too. The only thing that I wished I did not take was the salami, I should have known better that my stomach was not happy with them in TDS. Plus after 700 pair of hands touching that plate/bowl in that aid station, I was not sure how hygiene it would be for that kind of greasy food.
This unfortunate event was really shook my confidence on my race performance. Even until today I felt bitter about it, I felt bitter about UTMB. Maybe I was kinda put the blame on the organization, in the first few weeks, not being fair to the international runners who did not speak French or Italian. I wished they had volunteer and announcement who could speak English, or communicate better. I wished all of their newsletter and directions were not confusing.
But after a few weeks, after a million time replayed the race on my head, I found the circle was always pointing back to me. In this sports, I was always the one who responsible on my own race. Aid station, as the word says, was just for aiding. The volunteers were not paid to make sure my finish, they were there to help me not baby sitting me. I should have been more careful what I eat, or how much I should have drink on that warm weather. I should have read the regulation more carefully, which I found (after the race) that they said about cut off time for checking out, in complicated language since a straight translation from French to English (maybe). Yet it was no excuse, since I could have double check with them in the BIB pickup. Or maybe I was too confident that no way in the world I would be close to cut off time.
But on the bright side, I knew I had given my best fight, my best punches. I got knocked out, but I got back up and fight again. But unfortunately I did not play by the rule (I thought I did). Nevertheless I would not able to be as far as I was that day without so many supports from many people and organisation in the past year. Early this year, January, I barely was able to run, I had so many lingering injuries, even my right foot’s arch had dropped. But my coach Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness picked every pieces what left and rebuild me into a better shape, better than I ever had maybe. So I ought my gratitude to her and her team. Also I really appreciate the support from my all of my sponsors, who had been back me up the whole years, make sure I had whatever I needed to put my feet on the UTMB starting line. Orange Mud who had always supported me with many hydration packs for every different training and terrain. Tailwind that always infused me with calories on my training and runs everyday. Swiftwick socks who had protected me from any foot hazard, it was comfy yet very technical that keep my feet dry. TrailToes, I always call it the eight world’s wonder, it always protecting me from blister on my feet or anywhere else, in any kind of terrain or weather, I never changed socks in any long runs or races caused I never needed to. Also Gladsoles, my go to sandals after the race, that allows my feet breathe freely after or before the race, and also they looks bad ass.
I guessed till next time UTMB.