Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Trail Running Mecca at the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc


Feel the rain on your skin,
No one else can feel it for you, only you can let it in...
Drench your self in words unspoken
Life your life with arms wide open

- Natasha Bedingfield, Unwritten

Natasha’s timely lyrics lifted me into Chamonix, France, last Wednesday to take part in the 10th Annual Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc (UTMB), a race that is likely the closest thing ultrarunners have to their own Olympics. Over 2,700 coureurs (runners) from 35 countries would attempt this 168k/30,000’ vertical climb monster that circles through France, Italy, and Switzerland, with another 4,000 runners attempting distances from 112k (the TDS), 100k (the CCC), or the staggering 290k/70,000’ vertical 5+ day PTL. Although Mother Nature threw us a curve ball that required some course modifications, I can easily say this was one of my all-time grand adventures and a “bucket list” worthy event. C’est formidable!
(View of Chamonix from a parasail, photo courtesy of Keith Knipling)
(Trails with a view!)
Rain and snow had settled into the Chamonix valley by the time I arrived (without baggage, thank you United) so I wasn’t able to see much of the course prior to the race. In fact, we couldn’t see much of anything. The clouds settled low in the valley like a thick San Francisco fog, occasionally reaching enough density for rain or snow. Even if you were just jogging two blocks to get some lunch, you better bring layers. One thing for sure about UTMB – the right gear was going to be critical. My sorta-paid-attention-in-college-20-years-ago broken French was enough to get me into town, make a few friends, and soon eating enough cheese and croissants to make up for a year of good eating habits. But it’s sooooo good. Ah, c’est la vie!
(Slice of Brie under a heat lamp, anyone? Soooo goooood)
(A color wheel of goodies)
I caught up with Bryon Powell and some runners at an iRunFar mixer, and Meghan Hicks mentioned that just three days ago it had actually been too hot to go on long runs (and she had the tan to prove it!). Lots of elite runners at the shindig were ready to go regardless, including phenom Dakota Jones, Montana mountain goat Mike Foote (11th last year), Portland speedster Amy Sproston, Canadian-but-we-won't-hold-it-against-him Gary Robbins, Patagonia star Luke Nelson, ultra optimists Keith and Gary Kipling, super star Anna Frost and her Salomon compatriots, and more. I guess this is part of the adventure – be ready for anything!

(Me hanging with Mike Foote, who would go on to get 3rd place, photo courtesy of Bryon Powell)
(Enjoying trails on a sunny day, photo courtesy of Meghan Hicks)
(Views galore, photo courtesy of Meghan Hicks)
I swung by a Salomon event and was stunned at the number of people asking for autographs from their top runners. Even with uber-runner Kilian Jornet not in the running this year, the hero worship by this crowd was reaching near-Olympic levels. Trail running is VERY big in this area! It presents a glorious preview of what this sport could become.
(Anna Frost and the Salomon Team are busy with autographs)
The day before the race, I was still without luggage and feeling very Euro with my five o’clock shadow and parfume-au-naturel oozing from the clothes I hadn’t changed in three days. A text arrived saying it was snowing above 2,000 meters (many of the UTMB climbs exceed 3,000m), and four layers of clothes would now be required in our (already heavy) packs. I did not bring the gear for this magnitude of weather, but luckily Chamonix is mecca for alpinists with a credit card. I only had to venture a few blocks to upgrade everything I had, and took advantage of the opportunity to get a larger Salomon pack, a mid-weight Ice Breaker wool shirt, and some sturdy Black Diamond carbon poles. My luggage showed up just in time to get my gear checked in, and I nervously await the evening start on Friday.

There was good reason to be nervous, the course not withstanding.  A broken toe derailed my summer training, and just as soon as it healed, my neighbor’s semi-crazy Great Dane attacked me and tore into my left hip. That bitch! (ha, ha) Luckily bad karma tends to flow in three’s, so I just assumed the lost luggage closed that door for good. I was just going to have to be careful to pace myself well, be very realistic about finish times, and take a few extra days off to recover.
(Race morning was looking a little grey)
On Friday (race day) morning, we got the text that it was still snowing at 2,000 meters and the original course would have to be abandoned to forgo the three 3,000m+ peaks. The start was pushed to 7pm, and a new course of at least 100km/20,000’ of climbing would be published soon. I gave myself five minutes of pity party with a tasty glass of local Sancerre, then set my mind to the task at hand. I wasn’t the only one going with the flow – in an impressive display of flexibility, less than 20 of the original runners bowed out of the new course. It was on!
(Racers fill the square, photo courtesy of Maindruphoto.com)
(Thousands fill the start line, as the clouds give us a break)
(And we're off! Photo courtesy of Bryon Powell)
The start line was a mad house, with spectators filling every window and rooftop while thousands lined up in the square. Everyone was geared up and thankful that we had a slight reprieve from the rain for the big start. As the elites came up front and the group countdown was completed, we were off and running! Well, off and walking actually…turns out it would take 10-15 minutes just to get the masses onto the crowd-filled streets. Perhaps starting in 1800th place wasn’t the best idea, but I sure met a lot of interesting people! Brits, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Australian, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, South African, Canadian, Brazilian…mountain people from all over the world. It was fun just to listen to all the chatter.

(This guy started the race by slamming a beer...nice!)
(The UK's Digby Ellis-Brecknell enjoys taking a moment to cheer with the fans)
(Making new friends as we hit the road)
(The streets are filled with runners and loud cheering)
(Ahhh...found some trails!)
As we found our way onto some wide trails, it was clear this was a BIG RACE. We were ten people wide on the trail, and could easily take up more than one lane of traffic as we made our way to Le Delevret (mile 8). I did my best to move up in the crowd, but found that many people here run the way they drive, taking every inch of passing space. Best to just kick back and enjoy! I did run into a few familiar faces – Bob Weinhold from Pennsylvania here celebrating his 15th wedding anniversary with his wife Kimberly, CA’s Bill Geist in his first UTMB, no-stranger-to-snow-racing Jill Homer, Stanford alum friends Eric Edelson, Gavin Woody, and Kermit Cook, Bay Area ultrarunners Nattu Narraj and Karen Bonnett back for their second UTMB, and more. Even in this global sample of runners from all over the world, our friends were everywhere.
(And on your left, a 1,000 year old church)
(Staying hydrated)

(Bob Weinhold chatting with Joe Carrera in the early miles)
Night and rain both settled in as we charged up and down the hill to Saint Gervais (mile 13). It’s such a strange feeling to begin the race at night, but it didn’t seem to reduce the support crowds at all. There were dozens of locals at every corner yelling “Allez! Allez!”, and chanting the theme to the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army was particularly popular. They were great! The runners, on the other hand, got very quiet. I’m not sure if it was intense focus, language barriers or what, but when you run the UTMB, you here little more than footsteps and the clicking of poles. I still did my best to be social, asking how to say worlds in French like slush (“neige fondante”), mud (“boue”), and I don’t give a fuck (“je m’en fou”). So classy. ;-)
(Cruising through town before night falls)
Saint Gervais (mile 13) was a party in motion, and I got through it quickly to head to Les Contamines (mile 18). Both aid stations had yummy local fare, including cheese, sausage, baguette bread, hot tea and soup, and a wide array of cookies, crackers, and dried fruit. It seemed strange to see big chunks of brie at the aid station, but it sure tasted good! I pulled off the course to swap out my soaked short sleeve shirt and wind breaker jacket for the heavy armor – the IceBreaker long sleeve and my Columbia Triple Trail II Jacket – in preparation for our first climb into the snow. I instantly felt warmer, and used the vents in the jacket to dial in the right temperature.

(Gearing up for the cold and wet, photo courtesy of Maindruphoto.com)
(The headlights go on and the snow starts to fall)
(I never thought I would say it, but thank god for rain pants)
La Balme (mile 21) already had a few inches of snow on the ground and more on the way when we arrived. The combo of the poles and Hoka One-One’s were great for getting through the sludge quickly, and I was able to pick up about 50 places before we got to the top and navigated some treacherous single track along the ridge. The organizers definitely made the right call to not hit the big peaks – if these rocks were frozen, it would be near impossible to get through this without losing a runner off the side of the hill. One runner we passed had lost his wool hat, and his race was basically over. I saw another warming his hand in hot water at an aid station after losing a glove. Margin for error on clothing was near zero. That definitely explains why I ran into so many product designers from The North Face, Salomon, and Patagonia during the week – it’s a good place to see their products tested to extremes.

(Nick Yardley gets some soup and demonstrates the full attire, photo courtesy of Bryon Powell)
We circled back through Les Contamines (mile 31), which marked the halfway point on the modified course. I looked at my watch and it had taken nearly nine hours to get here. Yikes! I was only three hours ahead of the cut-off time, and we still had to get through five more climbs. I cranked up the tunes (Fitz and the Tantrums, Alex Clare, Maroon 5, and Bob Marley) and powered through the next section as quickly as I could. Visibility was still 10-20’ at best, but I found that putting a little faith in your downhill (and Hokas) could make up a lot of time. There was some risk to stepping off the side of the trail, which I did a couple of times, but usually you could use the headlights in front of you to navigate through the fog.
(Aid stations were busy places!)
The surge up to Bellevue (mile 40) was incredibly steep, and I was lucky enough to find myself with a dozen strong climbers to snake our way up through the roads and single track to the snowy peak. In fact, nearly everyone racing today had amazing climbing skills – they could power up these 2000m peaks without taking a single break, all at a near anaerobic pace. It was impressive! You could definitely pick out the runners who had grown up with the Alps.

(Heading down the mud, photo courtesy of Jill Homer)
The descent from Bellevue was two miles of the craziest mud I have ever experienced. It was thick enough that when I did my first of many ass plants, the 3-6” of thick and slimy mud ensured my bum never hit solid ground. The local runners got through it quickly with a telemark-like stride, while the rest of us just flailed and cursed our way to the bottom. I had mud EVERYWHERE – on my face, in my hair, in my gloves, all over my camera…oh Good Lord. The volunteers at Les Houches (mile 43) got me cleaned up quickly, and with some hot tea and marmalade bread for breakfast, we turned off our headlamps and headed back up the Chamonix valley.
(Morning breaks as we traverse Chamonix valley)
(Traversing the terra-not-so-firma)
Bob Weingold caught up to me again on the long road climb up Merlet (mile 51), and we were already laughing off the crazy mud section. It’s so funny that the same section of trail that caused us me swear I would never return quickly (je m'en fou!) becomes the centerpiece of the story. The clouds were clearing enough to get a few views in, and it indeed was beautiful country. One advantage to being mid- to back-of the pack!

(Oliver, a German ultrarunner, is stoked to be heading out of Argentiere)
(Cruising over Chamonix, photo courtesy of Jill Homer)
(Nattu Narraj and Karen Bonnett bringing it home, photo courtesy of Bryon Powell)
We could hear the finish line cheering at full volume as we passed up Chamonix in the hills above, making our way to Les Tienes (mile 53) and a brutal climb before Argentiere (mile 57). This was the only time I had to take a full-stop rest, no thanks to always looking up and seeing more dot-sized runners way up on the hill. But we got through it, and I kept enough energy to sail through the last few aid stations and finish in 18:59 for 686th place. I felt good at the finish, and somehow picked up ~1100 places along the crazy course. Bob had finished just a few seconds ahead of me, and we made plans for beers once we got a quick shower in.
(Coming into town...)
(...where the crowds give a warm welcome)
(Poles in one hand, camera in the other! Photo courtesy of Maindruphoto.com)
(The finish! Funny how the church is framed, with the finish banner where the cross would go...higher power, indeed!)
(Bob finished seconds ahead of me, and we immediately spoke of beer)
(Whoops...guess I should have wiped my feet before entering the hotel)
Could I have finished the full 168k? Probably so, although it would easily have taken me twice as long with all those high altitude peaks. I was glad the race organizers kept our safety first. The post-race damage wasn’t too bad – a few new chafing spots on my waistline from the rain pants, a couple of doomed toenails, and quads that went on strike and refused to cooperate soon after the finish. I got in a quick nap and shower after the race, then returned to the finish to cheer on UTMB runners and PTL finishers who would be coming in all night long.
(PTL finishers ending their multi-day journey)
(This PTL duo celebrates their finish with champagne...)
(...and like a good partner, offers it first to his teammate)
The day after the race brought sunshine and smiles for the awards ceremony, where Salomon’s Francois d’Haene (10:32:36) won overall, and The North Face’s Lizzy Hawker (12:32:13) won her 5th title. Seven countries were represented in the Top 10, proving again this is a world-class race. Team USA represented well with Mike Foote getting 3rd (11:19:00), Rory Bosio as the 4th Woman (13:43), Amy Sproston in 8th (14:13), Meghan Arboghast in 12th (15:14), and course-record-holder Krissy Moehl in 14th (15:25). Check out iRunFar’s coverage for more about the top contenders and the blow-by-blow on the elite race.
(The crowd cheers a stage full of volunteers)
(Lizzy Hawker, Francesca Canepa, Emma Roca, Rory Bosio, and Katia Fori make the Top 5 Women)
(Francois d'Haene, Jonas Buud, Mike Foote, Carlos Sa, Csaba Nemeth, Jean-Yves Rey, Francois Faivre, Arnaud Lejeune, Sebastien Buffard, and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki are the Top 10)
My last 24 hours in Chamonix were an amazing unstructured folly of meeting locals, congratulating fellow runners, sharing a meal or two with Bob and Kimberly Weinhold, playing strange board games with Spanish kids, imbibing in local food and drinks, strolling the stores, petting the many dogs, and soaking up the sun. I think Chamonix may be as close to mountain running heaven as it gets, especially on UTMB weekend, and I felt a great kinship with the people here. It is truly a special place, and welcomes runners and families alike.

(Joe Carrara, Mike Wiegand, and Gary Knipling sport their finisher vests while sharing some beers with Kimberly Wiengold at the Poco Loco)
(I love this picture - a 60+ runner gets some support from his spouse as they enjoy a day in Chamonix; each fleck of blue is another finisher vest)
(Luke Nelson, who finished 31st, shows me what a real beard looks like)
I escaped early on my last day to catch the sunrise, and two Italian men dressed in alpine gear asked if I wanted to come watch them climb from L’Aguille de Midi towards Mont Blanc for breakfast. We took the tram up, hiked out through a snow tunnel, and I watched them casually traverse down a snow ridge that fell a mile on either side. Ah, the mountain people and their crazy ideas of fun!
(Heading out through the snow tunnel)
(Les Italiens making their way down the crest)
(Those two dots on the right ridge are them!)
My thanks to the UTMB organizers and the thousands of volunteers who helped make this such a great race, and to Topher and Kim Gaylord for all their pre-race tips. I have a whole new water mark for what makes a “tough ultra”, and what a trail running vacation can be. Thanks for inviting us to share your special slice of heaven!

- SD

Tips for first-time UTMB runners:
·      Fly into Geneva, and take the shared shuttle (like Mountain Drop-offs) from Geneva to Chamonix, so you can ask other runners for tips. Avoid United - SwissAir seems to be the most reliable.
·      Train with a full pack so you know what that is like. If your pack is bouncing around, try repacking it a few times in different ways. Once I loaded everything low in the pack around my waist, there was almost no movement.
·      Be sure to come early enough to try some of the climbs so you know what you’re in for. They are steep and relentless relative to what most of us train on. I used poles and was very happy with them.
·      The weather can change quickly here, so be sure to bring layers that give you many options, and know your susceptibility to cold at walking, hiking, and running speeds. In speaking with runners afterwards, there was a wide range of clothing usage. Luke Morgan, for example, never used gloves while I would have lost fingers for sure. Amy Sproston (8th) was fine with a long sleeve shirt for the whole race, while Meghan Arboghast (12th) had on full Gore-Tex shell and pants and was still cold.
·      If you can, take a full week so you can spend some time checking out trails and towns before or after the race. The Telegraph de Midi tram is a must, and the train tour, paragliding, and various hiking museums are a lot of fun.
·      Eat out – it’s amazing! My favorites were burgers at Poco Loco, panini’s at Extreme Café, sushi fusion at Munchie’s, and traditional French at La Caleche.

19 comments:

  1. I'm a big fan of your blog. You have a talent of making anything sound like fun :) Too bad I didn't get to meet you in Chamonix - maybe next year. Congrats on your awesome 18 and change finish!

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  2. Great write up, and great to here you where welcomed in this amazing part of the world.
    Quick correction - The TDS is 112km

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  3. Wow!! Thanks for sharing an insiders view of UTMB.

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  4. Even though I am not a trail runner (yet), I look forward to your inspiring blogs. Thank you for being consistently entertaining! I have now added the UTMB to my bucket list=)

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  5. Scott,
    Great blog...
    Have you seen this yet? The birth of the mountain adventure race! Krissy Meohl, who is also running there with you at Chamonix is in this movie!
    www.themountainrunners.com

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  6. Hi Scott, I really liked your write up. Refreshing to finally see an American recognize the huge difference between Euro style mountain running and US style - use of poles, heavy packs, really bad weather, relentless ascents, and, though you don't mention it complete lack of pacers.
    I was on the TDS a couple of days before but I didn't manage to finish due to the really bad weather. You should come back and try this race some time - it's even harder than the original UTMB course (I speak out of experience having finished the UTMB last year in less than perfect conditions).
    Congratulations on finishing - wear your blue vest with pride!!!!

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  7. This looks like an AMAZING race! Great recap! And I love the photos! I really enjoying reading your blog...keep it up!

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  8. Great post, Scott. Glad to see your luck turn around. Enjoy those post race beers. Well earned!

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  9. What a beautiful place - definitely want to make it there soon. It is always an awesome experience to get out of your own culture and experience something new. Congrats on the strong finish!

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  10. Hi, Bro! I'm very happy to read your experiences at UTMB 2012. For a guy someday will try the slot and to complete this race, it's nice to know about a non-pro race experience on the trail. It's easy to read about pro-performances, but a mid-pack like most of us not. Great tips, and superbe review, I thank you a lot. Maybe 2014, to be out of Brazil Soccer World Cup, and well-known brazilian soccer madness :-)

    All the best!

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  11. Nice work out there. It was a spectacle, wasn't it? We left too early on Sunday to really make the rounds around town, but it was fun to see a sea of blue vests at the finisher's ceremony.

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  12. Great post, Scott. I met you at Alice's just before you left, and I've been back to your blog a few times since. Shoot me an email if you have a chance: hallhoff@gmail.com

    Have you seen this neat video on Mike Foote: http://creakofboots.blogspot.com/2012/08/number-one-yurt-dwelling-ultrarunner-in.html

    Best,
    Hans Allhoff

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  13. Great race report Scott!
    Yes it was a special and not easy night out there on the trail.

    And in the States you really run in the sun and on day time to see the landscape? Guess I wanna try this one time ;-)

    Regards from Germany
    Oliver

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  14. Yeah, great report. Thanks Scott. I always follow the news on iRunFar but your report gives the mid-pack perspective (at least this time!) and gives a real flavor for the event, the landscape, and the people. UTMB has now officially moved from bucket list to "to-do" list. Thanks!

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  15. Great report, Scott (as always), and great attitude! I'd love to do this run someday. You make lost luggage and face plants in mud sound fun.

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  16. You're right! Trail running IS big in the Alps. I won't forget the really amped up (and really weird) atmosphere of the Grossglockner Berglauf in Austria. It felt like a cross between a major road marathon, a nationalist political rally, and a techno-rave.

    There was also an incredible amount of spandex.

    Thanks for the fun report!

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  17. Scott, glad you had a great experience over there, well, thanks to your usual positive spirit to make it great despite the many inconveniences. I've run the whole course 3 times, mostly solo; still not so excited about the crowd aspect... I should have an homeopathic taste of that at JFK in November, and we shall see. Anyway, thanks for this great summary of the 10th edition!

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  18. Sounds like an awesome adventure, beautiful scenery. thanks for the write up.

    Tom

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  19. Sounds like you had fun...stumbled across this after watching a half hour programme about the 2012 race on British Eurosport TV...they didn't appear to mention the revised distance of 104k(?), so I was a little taken aback at the winner's time of 10.32 for 166k! (x4 back-to-back sub 2:40 marathons up hill and down dale!) (NB Just checked and it seems the 100 mile road/track best is about 11.28.) When your knees can't take any more then why not check out the world of long distance cycling? (There's an association in the US for this I think.) Regards.

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