UTMB Race Report 2018 “Now I’m going to activate it” by Tommy Barlow

Posted on Posted in Race Recaps

 

In general I write race reports for three reasons: 1) As a personal running journal for memories 2) For the runner who wants beta on a course—I love reading race reports as part of my mental prep so I hope the reader finds what he/she is looking for 3) For anyone else who wants to dive deeper into the experience and explore the stories of ultrarunning.

For the sake of time I’ll break the contents of the report into sections that mostly follow the title of each section- that way you can skim the headings and dive into what you care about.

 

PREAMBLE & A LITTLE ABOUT UTMB

 

UTMB– where do I start!? I guess it should be THE start… when I finally got the notification of a successful draw in the lottery and knew that I would get the chance to run the largest and most competitive ultra marathon in the world located in the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland of all places! I’ll never forget that feeling of excitement mixed with “oh S#$%” as I stood in a jet-lagged haze on South Beach in Rush, Ireland when I learned of my good/bad fortune.

 

We had just decided on our new home during a house hunting trip as we planned to move our little family to the Emerald Isle for 2018 to open an EMEA HQ for my company Pluralsight. We were practically on Paris time, so I wasn’t up in the middle of the night like most of my American friends vying for a lucky draw. There I stood, second day in a new country literally at sea level staring across the Irish Sea and it quickly occurred to me that I might be in over my head for 3 very real reasons: 1) I no longer lived at altitude 2) my backyard was no longer the Wasatch Front- a perfect training playground for mountain running, in fact there wasn’t a mountain within a 1.5 hour drive 3) I knew that what I was committed to at work would afford me very limited training.

 

I re-read the email confirmation and recall laughing a little bit, telling myself under my breath “OK, this will be a fun experiment… can you train for and run one of the toughest mountain ultras at sea level and without mountains??”. For the next 3 months I honestly didn’t even think about UTMB with the move across the Atlantic and all the changes it meant for our family, so that’s how it began…less than optimal. Truth be told, if I hadn’t been successful this year I don’t know how long it would have taken me to re-earn the necessary points to even enter the lottery, so it was the best of times and the worst of times for a successful draw. My decision to abandon the Bear 100 in 2017 for my first ever DNF (also a work-related issue) would have left me having to find and complete two 100 milers worth 6 points each in Europe this year which would have been very challenging if not impossible.

This whole notion of earning points to enter a lottery might be out of context if you aren’t someone who follows the Ultra Marathon world, so let me give you a background on what it takes just to earn the right to START the UTMB. You see, one does not simply sign up for UTMB…..  but I can quickly break it down for you.

 

First, think about Boston Marathon because we all have someone we know who’s mentioned “Boston Qualifier”. That process is highly simplified compared to UTMB: you need to run a qualifying race in a qualifying time, and then you can join one of the over 30,000 people who run in Boston for 26.2 miles every year—straightforward at the least. UTMB is massively in demand, being the unofficial world championships of ultra where the top competition shows up from literally every corner of the world, however you really fit tens of thousands of people on the trail system, so  entrants are capped at just over 2,500 runners.

 

The way the race directors create a fair opportunity to run UTMB is by requiring a total of 15 points to be earned across a maximum of 3 races in a 2 year period—with the maximum number of points per race being 6 which is reserved for the toughest ultras in the world. This process makes every runner complete at least 3 ultra distance races with at least 2 of them being extremely difficult just to finish (6+6=12 points), and the third being moderately difficult (3 points= 15 total). If you are a male and win or podium in these races, you will likely earn an international trail rating high enough (effectively a world ranking system) that you bypass the lottery and with your three races have an automatic draw. If you are a female, simply because there are fewer runners, you may be able to bypass the lottery and earn elite status if in your races you are top 5 or thereabouts which might mean a win and a couple of top 10’s to bypass the lottery. The ITRA is the governing body that UTMB looks at when it comes to determining your status—if you’ve ran an ultra marathon, you likely have an ITRA ranking. To me, it’s more accurate than your Ultrasignup score which is what many US runners subscribe to.

 

The remaining hopeful runners who have earned the appropriate points but are not in the elite category go into the lottery draw with odds in the first year of selection being a little less than 50%. If you don’t get the draw but continue to validate with the appropriate number of points, your second year odds are slightly better than 70% (when I drew out), and if you don’t get it then you can continue to validate with points for yet a third year, at which point you will automatically be granted entrance to the race. Confusing enough?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The points breakdown for my entry ^^

 

Given that process and with only 2,500 slots, it’s a very similar experience to KONA Ironman world championships for all my triathlon friends. Every athlete had to validate their ability and earn the start, so the event itself becomes one of two experiences: For the top runners it’s their chance to race their peers and claim the championship spot (maybe 100 or so who have a shot) or race near the front hoping for a top 10, then for everyone else it’s a day to see what your body can do on the biggest stage and largely is a celebration of everything it took for you to get there. In most cases if you want to run UTMB it will take you 2-4 years— first you decide you want to run it, the next season you work to earn points, the following year you might be lucky enough to show up in Chamonix- otherwise keep finding races you can earn points at and keep trying—I promise it’s worth it!!

 

TRAINING (or not)

 

There’s no way to sugar coat this one—my training was the worst it’s been since 2013. From 2014-2017 I did a good job of consistently spending time on feet, running several times a week, going through training blocks, and intentionally building fitness. You can check out my Instagram posts recently for the whole story, but the short version is that I progressed from Ironmans to ultras in those years from zero running background, and in 2016 ran the Grand Slam of Ultras, which was four 100 milers in an 11 week period. I felt like I was pretty fit.

 

In 2018 my priorities changed when I made the commitment to my company to move to Ireland and help establish our EMEA HQ by building a team from the ground up, hiring and training over 60 new employees. From January through March I ran a total of about 60 miles, and that was including three runs of around 15 miles each. In the beginning of April I ran a 50K that was supposed to be a “mountain race” for Irish standards, which meant 6K ft of total gain. I thought that would be the kickoff of my training, but with the growth of our business pulling me one way, and my family pulling me another with their own challenges adapting to a new lifestyle, running went by the wayside for the rest of the month.

 

In May, my wife and I flew out to Romania and ran a proper 50K in the Transylvania Ultra across the Carpathian Mountains. I LOVED this event and felt for the first time that I was getting something that would benefit me at UTMB. The weather was cold and wet, and I learned how much fun ultras can be when you dial it back a bit and just cruise through the miles at an easy pace. I knew I had to start embracing the slow miles because I wouldn’t be in any condition to push at UTMB.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Carpathian Mountains were AMAZING

Through June, July, and August I would go on to average about 25-30 miles per week and maybe 5,000 ft of gain if I was lucky. I did manage to locate one area in Northern Ireland in the Mourne Mountains where they host a Sky Running event. On these mossy and craggy ranges I could access terrain that was steep, wet, highly technical, and similar to what UTMB would be like. I also made it a habit to train with the 10 pounds of mandatory gear that UTMB requires so that on race day it would feel as “normal” as possible to be carrying that extra weight. I would scout out and tackle as many long sustained climbs and downhills as I could, maxing whatever gains I could scrap together on weekends. To get there required over 3 hours of driving round trip for 5-7 hours of running at a time, but it proved to be valuable hay in the barn, especially given that I often encountered adverse weather conditions for extended periods of time. Those mountains became a bit of an escape for me and I will always have fond memories of the time I spent there.

Mourne Mountains Northern Ireland

The final chapter and likely the BEST thing I did for training was a quick trip to Cortina in the Italian Dolomites. Kenzie and I had an amazing couple of days with almost 40 miles of running and 10K vertical gain on terrain nearly identical to that of UTMB. It was during the first long run that I started to feel like my body might just make it through UTMB because I was feeling way better than I would have expected given my fitness level. I also discovered something magical about Alpine villages… these littler water troughs that have fresh glacial water flowing out of them. I learned that when you’re tired and feeling beat, a quick dip of the head would snap you back out of the haze because of how cold and fresh the water felt. I would use these to my advantage in the future!

The Dolomites  Cortina, Italy Alps

By the time UTMB arrived, I had barely ran over 500 miles (races included) in a year where most people who took a serious training approach had run over 2,000 miles and gained hundreds of thousands of vertical feet. Throughout the year I think that being busy was a good distraction from the reality of how poorly I had prepared because while it was always in the back of my head, I didn’t ever get too down on myself for choosing other priorities. Perhaps naively I continued to convince myself that I’d find some way to survive. I think Kenzie did most of the worrying for me and served as a consistent reminder that I was not trending in the right direction with my increasing waistline and developing dadbod. Yea, not my year for training! Despite all that I lacked physically, I knew that my mind and willpower have always pulled me through the darkest moments so I never worried too much about being able to finish, but I truly didn’t know how to go about pacing myself with such an inconsistent approach.

 

Before most races I create a spreadsheet with detailed splits and have dozens of “athletes like me” to compare against but UTMB posed two challenges: 1) I didn’t know what “like me” even meant anymore as I hadn’t ran over 50 miles since 2016 in one go and 2) the sample size of athletes that I knew had done UTMB was smaller than I had anticipated. Taking the info that I did have for both of those factors, I created 2 time ranges for Kenzie to use for crewing: “early” meaning I was running faster than the best possible day I thought I would have so she should tell me to slow down and “late” meaning that I would likely be going really slow and having a hard day. Prior to moving to Ireland when I was running consistently I thought I would be able to complete the race in under 35 hours, so my ranges for rough splits were 34-39 hours with 36 being the most likely scenario for this year on a good day.

 

ARRIVAL IN CHAMONIX AND PRE RACE

 

My plan was to try and slow down my travel schedule 2 weeks before the race and get a really solid taper with focus on eating healthy and doing everything ‘by the books’. Plans don’t always work out, and I found myself flying across the Atlantic 2 times the week prior to UTMB for my job which also means really bad eating habits and feeling generally like garbage due to the time zone and jet lag. As soon as I landed back in Dublin, I had one day turnaround to gather my family and fly over to Chamonix on the Tuesday prior to the race start on Friday. To top it off I was feeling body aches, a fever, and my stomach was painful to the touch. It felt like the flu, but I didn’t want to even give it my mind space so I blocked it out the best I could.

 

Luckily the travel went well and we found ourselves in an excellent Air BNB condo which I had booked a few weeks after drawing out for UTMB. It was less than ¼ mile from the start/finish line and gave me more time to lay around with my feet up instead of worrying about logistics. One concern I had about UTMB was the start time being 6 PM, meaning that I would surely spend two full nights of running ( stumbling ) and sleep deprivation would likely factor in to the difficulty of this race. I had read that military personnel had undergone studies which showed positive effects of “banking” extra hours of sleep ahead of an event where they would go long stretches without sleep. I intentionally added around 2 extra hours of sleep for the days leading up to UTMB- aided by melatonin which seemed to do the trick by allowing me to sleep longer without feeling cloudy or groggy.

All Checked In!

My wife and kids made plans to see the many sights around the Chamonix valley whilst I was in “chill” mode, making all the mental and physical preparations I could, including final gear selection which is half the battle at UTMB. I think that I did an excellent job of avoiding a lot of time on feet that is easy to get dragged into because of the atmosphere at UTMB with everything going on. If you aren’t familiar with the other races, UTMB is a world summit for trail running and features races of various distances all week long, so there is almost always action at the start/finish line throughout the week. There is also a race expo with every gear manufacturer you can think of, so it’s basically like a candy shop for trail runners, and if you aren’t careful you’ll get sucked into walking around for hours. If you’re the type that gets awestruck by the “professionals” or superstars of the trail running world you can get caught up in that too. I literally ran into every elite runner I can think of while I was there and found them all to be friendly and supportive, and really a lot like the rest of us—just a little faster ; )

Spring Energy shakeout run w/Sally….. Cody Reed was studying the art of the pony tail

I limited my prerace activities to finding a better pole solution (Compressport had a nice little belt that held the poles really snug), meeting a few people I’ve gotten to know through running to wish them luck, and getting as much rest as I could. Friday proved to be the longest day of my life—it seemed that 6 O’clock would never come as I patiently tried on every version of my gear possible while staring at the ever-changing forecast of rain and thunderstorms. We also got an alert that the race was now requiring our winter gear kit, which meant more weight in the pack—hooray! At 4:45 PM I kissed my wife and kids and headed out the door in full rain gear, planning to stand around in the rain until the 6 PM gun fired and sent us off into the event that had been on my mind for over 2 years.

 

When I arrived near the start I was somewhat surprised to settle into a position pretty close to the front as other runners were standing under the protection of umbrellas and awnings trying to keep dry as long as possible. I was second guessing myself a bit because standing around for over an hour didn’t feel like a great idea, but the crowds quickly filled in behind me by 5 o’clock and from there on the energy started to build as I looked around and thought about what it took for each one of us to arrive at that moment in time. The announcers are constantly amping up the crowd, music is playing, and everyone is putting on their game face for the battle that is about to go down.

At about 5:30 the elites started showing up—I must say that getting the preferred room at the front of the start line without having to stand around like the rest of us had to feel pretty good for them on a wet day like this! I heard them announce Walmsley, Kilian, and even a great runner who lived in Utah for a time, Dominick Layfield, whom I’ve always admired. I pulled off my rain gear, packed it away, said a prayer asking for the ability to run and not be weary, and soon enough the final countdown was upon us while the famous anthem of the UTMB, the “Conquest of Paradise” was played by a live band. That song would play through my head a million times over the next 106 (110?) miles, occasionally becoming a mashup in my brain with “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse as I took on one of the most epic mountain adventures of my life. I’ll never hear that song again without flashbacks of the many moments on the UTMB.

 

THE RACE

 

Running under the archway and heading through the cobblestone streets of Chamonix amidst a sea of runners and spectators is an outer worldly experience. I thought that nothing could match the emotion of the start at Western States 100, but I was overcome as I started my UTMB journey with gratitude and pure inspiration. I can’t adequately describe it with words, but there is something unique and powerful that exists when you have that many humans collected around one single cause, in an attempt to journey into the vast and wild natural surroundings of the Alps. The valley and people feel intensely small in contrast to the prominence of the peaks that dominate the landscape, yet there we were on a quest to run over them, powered by our legs minds and hearts.

 

As we headed out of the valley and into the hills the pace was decently smooth, as I had seeded myself around 600 or so runners from the front of a field of over 2,500. Sure there was a bit of chaos at the start which was remarkably similar to the swim start of an Ironman where you accept that you’ll catch and elbow or have someone on your back, but within a quarter of a mile we were moving better than I had expected and I didn’t find congo lines or roadblocks to be an issue. I was intentional about not making any passes, especially since I told myself that a finish in the top 30% (800 or so) would have been an acceptable outcome as I couldn’t expect better.

The first aid station came sooner than I expected but there was no reason to stop because I still had about 3 pounds of fluids in my hydration pack and flasks (I had way too much on me) and the cool wet temps meant I had hardly began to drink. After the first climb we hit a downhill section that was too perfect for me to not get my groove on. I had just come across one of the toughest runners I know, Majo Srnik and wanted to hang with him but I knew he would crush me on the climbs so I told him we would play yo-yo all day. I leaned forward, let go a little and ended up passing about 50 people in pretty short order, noticeably bugging some of them because the trails were a little tight at times but I had to take what the course was giving me in terms of “free miles” and I have always been an efficient and fast downhiller so I ran to my strengths, ignoring the curses in many a foreign tongue. Looking back at Strava I ran one mile in this section in 6:04, but it “felt fine” as we runners often think. (we are wrong)

I may have gotten carried away because by the time I hit the bottom of that downhill and glided through Saint Gervais where I got a massive lift from all the spectators cheering us on (including a high five from my Romanian friend Teo Vermesan) I started to feel a little bit of nausea. Flashes of my Wasatch 100 puke-o-rama played through my head and I begged the running gods to not make me suffer through another race like that where I was so sick for so long. I slowed down some and after a little reset moment of a half puke in my mouth, I found myself a little over 19 miles and 4K ft of climbing into the day at Les Contamines and the first crew access point. Kenzie was there telling me that I was running ahead of my “early” schedule and needed to slow down, to which I quickly agreed. I noticed that while many runners were wearing jackets and trying to keep warm, I had a light shirt on and was already feeling a little hot, so I was dunking my head in the aforementioned troughs to cool off. My body felt a little feverish and my stomach continued to cringe, so I decided to ditch my newly purchased pole belt/ pouch from Compressport because I felt that given my flu-like symptoms earlier in the week the extra pressure on my gut was maybe causing some of the nausea. In fairness I will try it again in the future because I like the design, but on this day my body wasn’t having it.

Already dipping the head to cool off

Kendall Wimmer had told me that the course was similar to the type of trail running we are used to in Utah for the first 20 miles, so “runnable” then it gets real after that. I was at least warned about what I should expect for the next 87 miles and over 28,000 ft of ascent, but I would easily say that nobody is truly prepared for it if you’ve never done it. The section from Saint Gervais for example is more or less uphill the whole way for 14 miles, then comes a downhill of over 3 miles, after which you rinse and repeat extended miles of climbs and long descents over and over—almost going up something just for the sake of running back down it. There really isn’t anything flat at UTMB until you hit the roads in town at the finish. One thought that still stands out is just how steep the ascents and descents are as the course wears on. I still can’t decide if the uphill or downhill sections took more of a toll on the body, but they are both pretty brutal.

Leaving Contamines for me was probably the low point of my day knowing that I wasn’t feeling great early in a race and all hell was about to break loose with what was ahead…. and I wouldn’t see my wife until the next crew point at mile 49 which could take as long as 11 hours to reach … and I would have to do it all alone without a pacer (first 100 mile race I’ve done where they don’t allow pacers)….. through the night. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be there, forced a smile, put my head down and leaned into the hills with persistence as my mantra. I was determined to take a more steady and consistent approach with no thoughts on time or pace—just one step in front of the next until the end.

At this point it was dark out, and the game became wondering just how high above you the headlights could go. There are continuous false summits, and you only know you aren’t done climbing when the clouds break long enough for you to see the lights rising nearly straight above your head. There aren’t many switchbacks in these mountains, you just climb straight UP! In some ways I love night running and although I was worried about the 6 PM start, in hindsight I think it ended up being a good thing for me because I’ve never felt very sleepy during 100 milers and I tend to get into a flow when I can only see the trails and next steps I need to take, not the miles that may be ahead of me that I might be able to see in the light.

 

I don’t have many memories from the next 30 miles of the race. I had originally estimated that I would probably reach Courmayeur and my wife at around 9-10 AM and looked forward to seeing my first of what I thought would be two sunrises, so I kinda drifted off a bit in deep thought. There were times when we would reach a summit at a checkpoint and I would think how cool it was that volunteers had hiked up there to spend the night looking after us. I also remember that during the sections that I presume were the Ville Des Glaciers and the climb to Col de la Seigne I could see the outline of what I knew were glaciers and cliffs because of the moonlight bouncing off them and the sounds of water rushing under them. I’m really wanting to go back to this section and run it in the light just to experience the views.

The rain continued on and off, but I was never cold and probably only had my rain shell on for a total of an hour of the entire race despite what by most accounts was reported as bad weather. Maybe living in Ireland helped me prepare in some ways better than others because I thought the weather was perfect. My mid layer, gloves, warm hat, rain pants, and winter kit only came along for the ride at UTMB and never left my pack. I was wet but working consistently enough that I was looking to cool off more than warm up and I’m really glad we didn’t have a hot year because that would have been more challenging for me.

 

For GPS I wore my Garmin 935 and put it in ultratrac mode which supposedly gives you over 30 hours of battery life. I was skeptical, so I had an extra charger in my crew bags but even with the HR wrist sensor actively displaying it was still more than 70% charged at 12 hours into the race. I know this because while I wasn’t watching much about time or distance, I had cut the day into 3 sections of 12 hours for what I thought would be a good race—first 12 hours is France to Italy, second 12 hours is Italy to Switzerland, last 12 is Switzerland back to France. Easy enough, right!? So point being, I was looking for the Italian border at around 6 AM but I actually got there at about 4:30 AM. I knew I still had a lot of work to do to get to Courmayeur but when I got to Arete Du Mont Favre (which I think means I hate Brett Favre – Go BEARS) at just before 6 AM and it was all downhill from there into the town, I got a little overzealous again….. and started running fast downhill. In fact, from the French/Italian border at one of the high points of the course down to the valley at Courmayeur which is one of the lower points, I passed the following number of runners at each checkpoint: 42, 35, 31, 29, 57… and never gave up any spots.

 

Looking back, I’m lucky I got away without ruining my day on that long and steep downhill into the valley. It seemed to flow forever and ended with a punishing section of switch backs down what felt like a 50% grade. Another UTMB veteran runner from the UK was with me and told me that it was the worst descent of the course, so despite the pain I told myself that the worst was done. It wasn’t without paying a toll because I was notably fatigued when I got to the crew point where Kenzie was waiting for me. It was really nice to see her after so many miles and honestly I wasn’t even sure she would be there because this year there were a lot of logistical issues due to a washed out bridge that was causing delays that they feared would affect crew timing and access. I had mentally prepared to reach that point later in the morning, possibly without seeing Kenzie, and feeling pretty beat up. My reality was much better than expected in all cases.

 

“I’ll take one of those”

Coming into the race I read a lot of reports about long lines for pasta and bathrooms, but for me the aid station at Courmayeur was easy to move in and out of as I was now in 377th position with about 2,200 runners still behind me. It kinda felt like a good swim in an Ironman because you hit the transition area and still saw a TON of drop bags. I was able to have a lot of space on a big table to eat some rice and soup (more on nutrition later), change out my wet socks, and my soaked shirt to a dry one. I had been experiencing foot pain which turned out to be the same issue I had at about 50 miles in Western States where my crease on the pad of my foot split open due to being wet (called a maceration). Luckily the split was in subdermal layers and hadn’t ripped all the way through, and on the Italian side the trails dried up. That combined with dry socks made the pain just a minor distraction compared to everything else I was thinking about the rest of the race.  I also saw Majo again and our Instagram friend Fanny from France was there too supporting her husband who was running near me the whole day. This is also the first time I recall seeing a young dude in his 20’s with a blue Suunto watch cheering me on—he was deliberate to make eye contact and tell me I can do this, so I know he was cheering me on for sure. What I don’t know to this day is if he was real or not because I swear I saw him at every checkpoint from here on until the last one. Somehow he was always there, always making eye contact and telling me to keep it up! Did anyone else see him?? Kenzie thinks I imagined him.

Majo Srnik– One of the toughest mountain athletes I know

Leaving the aid station and heading out for the next section was the first time that I started feeling like I had regained control of my race. I wasn’t chasing anything, nausea was almost nonexistent, I was mentally pretty solid, and I wasn’t feeling any real pain. I literally felt better than I did at mile 19. As I thought about the race reports I had read, most all of them talked about the torturous finish and three deathly climbs, so once again I tried to meter my effort. It didn’t take a lot to do so, because as soon as we started climbing I realized that the ascent OUT of that valley was as steep and punishing as the descent into it. Tip for future runners—the villages are great places to refuel (stick your head in a trough of freezing water) but you almost get to the point where you fear the aid stations because you know how bad it hurts coming and going. On that next climb I started to feel a little tired, especially watching how quickly Majo was moving ahead of me, so I took a seat on my butt and started a ceremony that would become my magical formula for a quick reset and energy boost.

I always struggle to take in calories after mile 50, so for me it’s usually a matter of what I can shove in my mouth, chew up, and wash down quickly. In this case I had grabbed a cereal bar that looked like a homemade Chewy Granola with chocolate, but I think it was more rice based than granola. I chewed it up, pulled out my trusty flask of Monster  Zero sugar free energy drink that I carried with me in my pack as a lifeline, and had this weird and almost funny announcer voice enter my mind that said “now I’m going to activate it!!”… and I took three big gulps of energy drink in with maybe 70 calories of cereal bar. The chocolate in Europe is just plain better than the US, and this thing tasted incredible. It was so good that I reached into my vest for another small piece that was hiding in a pocket but I fumbled it to the dirt trail below. Dejected, I quickly grabbed it, dusted it off, and was about to finish it off when another runner walking by gave me a weird look—and I splurted out “you gotta save the chocolate bro”…. to which he had a good laugh (even if he didn’t speak English, he knew it was funny).

The mix of caffeine, chocolate, and laughter instantly gave me wings (sorry Red Bull) and my climbing legs came back. It felt like the perfect cocktail to get energy into my bloodstream, and I went with it. Soon I was overtaking people who had passed me and I eventually caught up with Majo near the highest point of the course at Grand Col Ferret. We shared a good amount of time together talking about his previous experience with Kaci, Magda, and Amanda in 2017 at UTMB and how they were in snow at that point. This was the only time that I felt cold enough to pull the wind mitts over my Solomon fingerless gloves that I wore for the whole race to prevent blisters from poles or cuts from anticipated falls (which I somehow avoided falling all race long—score). I was still feeling pretty good and the only thing that was bothering me at that moment was a bit of chaffing in my drawers to which Majo offered me his Squirrel Nut Butter. At that point he said something funny about how we were now “real brothers” and we had a good laugh. Unfortunately the butter was a little bit frozen, so despite the kindness my hike remained a bit bow-legged. When we started the descent I could tell that Majo’s ankle (which was shattered just 9 months prior) was preventing him from moving well and he encouraged me to run on. Reluctantly I did, but not without taking a bit more inspiration from an incredibly resilient mountain athlete and even more respect than I already had for him.

From Grand Col Ferret the descent was foggy and wet, but it wasn’t windy or anything as crazy as previous years in terms of weather so my mood was pretty good and my legs were feeling solid enough to push past several runners. I hadn’t studied the course in great detail and for some reason expected about 3-4 miles of downhill followed by more climbing. After about 3 miles I hit a checkpoint and I was looking around for where the trail would lead to a climb, but the volunteers pointed me further down the mountain and said “La Fouly”.

 

I recalled someone early on saying they were saving their legs for the downhill into La Fouly, so I realized that this was that long descent they had mentioned….only I didn’t know that it was mostly downhill for about 20K. Luckily it was broken up by the stop at 10K in La Fouly, and as I came into town I had the most memorable experience of my entire race at UTMB and something I’ll never ever forget. At the end of the chute we were running into I saw my three kids and wife cheering for me, which was not a planned crew point so I couldn’t believe it was really them. Tears flowed immediately as I hugged each of my kids and thanked them for being there. I’m so happy Kenzie captured this on video as it’s the most important takeaway for me without question. Nothing is more valuable than family.

I continued down the trails towards Champex, and knew that after the descent there would be a steady climb that would be the warmup for the final three more difficult climbs. I reminded myself to stay consistent with my effort and had latched onto an Italian runner named Giuseppe, or “Super G” who happened to be living in the US and was one of the only runners who would even talk to me out there. We both commented on how different US races are compared to UTMB because everyone seemed so quiet and serious, where in the US I can’t think of a race that I didn’t come out of with at least 2-3 new friends. Seeing my kids at La Fouly and knowing they would be there at Champex was a big motivator for me—not only did I pass over 30 runners on the downhill, but that climb was one where I gained the most positions on the uphill, putting myself another 21 positions forward in the field and coming in at #271 (by the way, all these stats are in retrospect and pulling from the website—I had no idea where I was in terms of position or time for nearly the entire event).

Where tha party at?? Man, my fashion on the trails is MONEY

 

At the aid station I was feeling pretty good but my stomach was getting to that point where it didn’t agree with what I wanted to put into it. Almost immediately after taking in some soup and rice, I had my first full on puke of the race. It wasn’t one of those deep gut wrenchers, but more of a “nope don’t try that”. I was worried about anyone seeing me and starting to question my ability to keep going if I were to continue to puke because of what had happened to Dominic Layfield in his 2017 UTMB where the medical staff pulled him from the race. I did my best to look happy, eager, and to stop the shivers. I asked Kenzie to see if brining a pizza to the next crew point was possible because I felt that I needed something different and something that my body normally loves. It was an odd request, but I remembered hearing Howie Stern talk about his Hardrock this year and how much he loved getting a pizza from his crew, so it felt like a fair request ; )

Yep- I planted my head in these EVERY time!

Out of Champex I stopped shaking and feeling sick pretty quickly and was moving fairly well into the climb up to La Giete for the first bit, but I hit a HARD wall as soon as it got really steep. I remember feeling like I was going to black out and I immediately related it to having lost some calories with the puke at the aid station. I rummaged through my pack trying to see if there was something my gut would allow me to take in, and was greeted by another one of those amazing cereal bars with chocolate. I decided that the ritual was worth another go so I popped a squat, pulled out the Monster energy flask, chomped up the bar, and washed it down with three big gulps. While drinking in the caffeinated elixir, I repeated the narrative “now I’m going to activate it!!” and almost as soon as I got back to my feet the cloudiness disappeared and the power came back on throughout my body. The legs followed the mind and we pressed on up the climb. Bonk overcome!

The first climb was tough, but the descent once again seemed to almost take more out of me. I still moved well and made up placement but by the time I was reaching the bottom I had slowed to a walk for the last few hundred meters as I strolled passed two other runners who were talking to each other. I noticed that one of them had an American flag and he was speaking English. We had an exchange about how things were going and I asked him how the next climb was. I still don’t know if he was messing with me, but he told me that it was “tiny” and not a big deal. I asked how the following descent would be and he said it would be bad if the weather was bad. I was hoping that the climb would be tiny, but had read other reports that made it sound like anything BUT tiny! At any rate, I was at Trient and had a chance to recharge.

More importantly, Kenzie had managed to return to town and drop off the kids, order a pizza, then drive back to meet me at the aid station in Trient. She immediately won crew person of the year for 2018! The fact that I was able to eat a half a slice of pepperoni pizza was a real comfort because at this point it was clear I was behind on calories, getting nowhere near the 200 per hour I feel is the bare minimum. While I had no clue about the timing of things at this point, I did feel pretty good that I had made it to Trient without needing a headlamp and thought to myself that I might just be capable of pulling of a 35-ish hour UTMB which I would have felt great about. I saw my imaginary/real new friend with the blue Suunto again and he gave me a fist pump as I headed back out for the “tiny climb” to Catogne and the Swiss border.

Looking for pizza

Pizza, Rice Pudding, and Caffeine = Nutrition of Champions

“Tiny” must be relative, because this was a pretty steep and relentless grunt of an ascent if you ask me. The elevator of headlamps above me shot abruptly into the dark night sky. Again, I felt the energy levels dropping when the effort needed to increase so I dipped into the well of “now it’s time to activate it!” once again. Once again, it delivered. I marched on through what Strava recorded as steep as 47.5% grades and 1,200 ft in just one of the miles. I was truly grateful that the weather wasn’t worse because I could imagine how tricky footing would get under harsher conditions. The descent was similar to the last three—steep, technical, and punishing. I’ve never used poles on the downhill in any race, but they were life savers at UTMB to plant and absorb some of the beating. Soon enough I was through it and coming into the final crew point at Vallorcine which is about mile 94.

Caught again… dunking my head  PC: Clint Brown

From all the research I had done, it is still roughly 4.5 to 5 hours from Vallorcine to the finish for most runners. That was a bit intimidating to me because usually when you are at mile 94 you can smell the barn and are able to push through almost anything because at that point it might be 2 hours max. The thought of another 5 hours was something that intimidated me about this race when I was doing my race prep. Luckily for me, I was feeling good and mentally it wasn’t something that was a challenge because I honestly felt like I could have kept going for 12 more hours if that was needed. Kenzie gave me a slice of pizza to go in a baggie an I headed out for the final climb, which was re-routed a bit due to weather conditions. What I had been told is that the cumulative gain would be the same, but it wouldn’t be as steep. To me, this didn’t make sense as I would think that with less steep but the same gain we would need more mileage, but I wasn’t in the mood to do math!

 

I headed back out to the trail and quickly filed in with three or four guys that had been around me for the last 6 hours or so. We were all silent and committed to climbing these last few mountains en-route to our endgame in Chamonix. The first climb was steep but short. We got to the top and I couldn’t fathom that we were done so I asked the guy behind me if there was more climbing ahead because we were headed downhill and I knew we weren’t on the right side of the mountain yet. He didn’t understand me so we both just shrugged at each other and kept rolling. We worked through the next section, which I don’t even know how to explain other than it was totally clear that this was a re-route. There were massive 5 ft boulders, crazy sections of roots, and all kinds of gnarly terrain that I don’t think anyone was happy to move through at that stage. I started to pull away from the sole runner who was previously hanging on with me, and for the first time all day I found myself completely alone.

 

With the reroute I should have taken the time to orient myself on where it was taking us, but I didn’t and as a result I got really disoriented and started to question if I was on the right course at all. My mind started playing tricks on me, and I thought of how Dylan Bowman had taken a wrong turn and suddenly I was convinced that I had done the same. I decided to stop and listen for sounds, but couldn’t hear anything. After standing there for maybe 2 minutes I thought I could hear someone behind me. Sure enough a headlamp appeared so I trudged back on an up the trail.

 

Eventually I found myself feeling like we were working back in the right direction and the trail looked more like something that other runners were on. Soon I saw a ridgeline and lots of light ahead, climbing for what seemed to be way longer and higher than I thought we were going to need to go. For the first time in the race I got a little pissed and thought “that’s just stupid” when I knew exactly where that trail was taking us, but the pity party was short lived and I shuffled on up towards the top of La Flegere. I stopped one more time for a pizza and Monster edition of “now it’s time to activate it”, and when I was getting the pizza out of the little baggie I noticed another runner standing over me like a zombie and blankly staring at the pizza. He quietly mumbled something with his lips hardly moving and while I didn’t understand the language he spoke, the message was clear. He was astonished at how brilliant I was to bring pizza for that climb.

 

After what felt like half way to forever, we reached the final summit. There was a small tent with chairs inside where I sat down for a bit and had two ladies help me find my collapsible cup. Once I found it, I knocked down two shots of cold Coke and the ladies told me that I had better get going and finish this thing off. Looking at the map on the wall of the tent, there was 8K left and it was all downhill. It was one of those moments where you take pause and get really dialed into the present and your thought process almost takes over everything else which for me was….I am going to finish UTMB!

 

It was time to move, so I started the downhill and noticed two runners who had arrived to the tent about the same time as me but left a little sooner. They started to run pretty fast, and I was so used to saving my legs all day that my first reaction was “let them go, they’ll pay for it later”. Then I thought, “wait, there isn’t a later…and you’ve always told yourself that downhill is your strength”. After about 30 seconds of an internal mental game, I decided it was on and I needed to run into the finish. It was a slow creaking jog at first with choppy strides, but it built into a bit of a gallop as the legs kicked out longer, and after about a half mile I was moving better than I thought possible. The route dumped off a wide open ski run slope to a single track that had a lot of roots and rocks to run and hop/skip over. I had passed the first two runners I saw, then a third and fourth came into sight. The chase was on, and I was like a predator on the move overtaking them and sighting in three more. Things got really tricky with fog that made sections of tree covered technical single track almost impossible to run through with zero visibility but I just kept kicking the legs out. I had the thought of how stupid I would feel if I broke an ankle or just took a bad fall in the last couple miles but I trusted my body and it was giving me everything I asked of it. In one section the rocks became really prevalent and the grade steepened, so I planted one of my poles and it snapped in half. I had a little bit of a mental slip here because I stopped and started fiddling with it, trying to fix it. When I realized that I didn’t need it, I had the thought to toss it but the rules state that if you start with poles, you end with poles so I collapsed that one the rest of the way and took off again. Coming down the final descent I caught two more runners, then we hit the streets of Chamonix and I started seeing everything and recognized how close I was to the end of my journey.

 

Running on roads has always been a mental block for me. I feel slow, I get bored, and I’ve always told myself that I suck at flat stuff. I had the thought in my mind that it was fine if I relaxed and a few other runners who were better than me on the flats maybe caught or passed me, but in a split second I decided that there was no way I’d let a stupid excuse like that control how I wanted to finish my race. I pressed on the gas even harder and ran through the streets, passing 2 more before the pedestrian bridges. These things were just cruel mental traps to put in the final stretch of this race as runners had to ascent 2 flights of aluminum stairs to go over a road, then back down…twice! I bolted up the stairs two at a time and cruised down them in both cases. I made the final turn into town and passed one more runner before the last chute.

At 2:50 AM the streets of Chamonix were probably at their quietest of the entire week because the leaders had crossed earlier and most people were sleeping and getting ready to cheer on the runners in the coming morning for the final 13 hours. Despite the small crowds, I heard the only cheers that mattered to me when my kids and wife came into view. Joined by my family, I ran into the finish with a big smile and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and humility. I rolled onto my back and heard my wife tell me that I had finished the UTMB in under 33 hours. 32:52 was NEVER on my radar, but it happened and I couldn’t even believe it. #218 of 2,561 runners. 5th American Male. Happiest dad of 3 you’ve ever seen after being able to share that accomplishment with them.

 

GEAR/ NUTRITION

 

Shoes: Hoka Speedgoat 2- same pair entire race

Socks: Feetures Elite through wet weather- Drymax Trail Lite from Italy to finish

Shorts: Salamon S-Lab Exo tw Shorts

Manpris: Nike Pro Hypercool Compression Tights

Tape: Rock Tape

Shirt: Lululemon Metal Vent Tech Long Sleeve—random race shirt from Transylvania 50K

Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12L Set in Purple (took wife’s pack– smaller, had less bounce)

Poles: Black Diamond Aluminum Z Poles

Rain Gear: Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket– Regatta Outdoor trousers

Midlayer: Salomon S Lab Warm hooded jacket

 

Honey Stinger Ginsting Gels X 4

Honeystinger Orange Gels X 3

Spring Energy Gel X 1

Good To Go Bar X 1

Cereal bars X 4

Apple Sauce X 4

Rice + Chicken Broth X 7

Meuller Rice Pudding X 4

3 slices pizza

4 Monster Energy

10 ish cups of coke

(not enough calories)

TLDR/Quick Tips

 

UTMB is hard to get into, but sooooo worth it. There aren’t any mountains that compare to the Alps. I didn’t think the weather was that bad—my guess is that a lot of people probably went out too hard or had bad luck which is why the DNF rate was higher this year. The downhills hurt—and I’m a pretty good downhill runner so be prepared with strong legs and poles and hold back as much as you can. Get your hiking legs strong- it’s STEEP. All 100 milers are hard in their own way—because my stomach did better at UTMB it was actually one of the easier feeling days for me and I didn’t suffer nearly as much as I expected. Spend time/money finding lightweight mandatory gear- I could have saved 1.5-2 pounds easy if I had taken more time. They will check your gear during the race so you need it all. If it’s cold and rainy you probably only need 2 bottles/flasks all race between aids. Ultratrac mode works- I finished and still had 8% battery life without a recharge. Don’t worry too much about your placement at the start if you aren’t running to win it—you’ll settle into the right place sooner or later. You can run UTMB while living at sea level—altitude wasn’t an issue but get the legs strong. You can run UTMB on 500 miles training…not a good plan works as a minimum. Try the cereal bars. Dip your head in the water troughs. Give as many high fives as you can. If nobody will talk to you, come up with an imaginary friend that encourages you all day. Order a pizza. Activate it! I hope to race UTMB again and will shoot for sub 30 : )

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